Learning Apocalyptic Realism

Cameron McAllister
Stuart McAllister
Friday, June 18th 2021

Failure can and often does engender discernment, and the painful lesson usually comes courtesy of a collision with boundaries. For the most part, we crash into boundaries when we don’t recognize them or try to defy them.

Our musicals may extol the virtues of defying gravity, but most of us learn firsthand that this is a fool’s errand. It’s the reason our son’s pediatrician noted the cuts and bruises on his legs with approval: “That’s what I like to see. It means he’s learning.” Learning from falling and failing, that is.

Discipline in the early years works in much the same way. When “no” becomes your child’s mantra, a crash course with boundaries has been charted. Through countless tantrums and Band-Aids, these boundaries become firmly established, and the child learns to navigate the physical and moral space of your home and, eventually, the world. Stated in the most elemental terms, what my wife and I want for our children as they grow into maturity is the ability to make wise decisions—to say both “this” and “not this.” We want deep insight and discrimination.

In a word, we want discernment. We want our kids to transmit the light of Christ like a well-cut diamond, with the full recognition that those jeweler’s cuts are rarely painless. In many ways the teenage years simply reprise the toddler phase with a higher level of sophistication: Your toddler will yell “no” or melt in your arms, but your teenager will tell you a compelling story as they justify their infractions. Few of us are novelists, but most of us are gifted storytellers when it helps us get what we want.

Since teenagers aren’t machines, they don’t come with owner’s manuals. There’s no life hack for mastering an adolescent. Techniques, strategies, and methodologies all have their place in human affairs, but attempting to solve the problem that is your kid has more in common with B. F. Skinner’s “social conditioning” projects than it does with Christianity. I can’t offer you seven easy steps to fix your child, but I can draw from the wisdom of my parents when they navigated—endured is more like it—my teenage years.

In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith argues that the church needs “a contemporary apocalyptic—a language and a genre that sees through the spin and unveils for us the religious and idolatrous character of the contemporary institutions that constitute our own milieu.” He doesn’t mean that pastors need to try their hand at writing dystopian fiction. To see the world through apocalyptic lenses doesn’t yield smoldering visions of decimated cities and roving bands of ragged survivors.

Rather, it reveals the spiritual realities behind the curtain. Consider Richard Bauckham’s description of the spiritual dynamic of the book of Revelation:

Revelation provides a set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impresses on its readers a different vision of the world: how it looks from the heaven to which John is caught up in chapter 4. The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be.

The Theology of the Book of Revelation, p. 17.

In this sense, the quantified self is an apocalyptic figure because it discloses the nature of so much contemporary idolatry—namely, our tendency to turn technology and convenience into a graven image.

In response to Smith’s challenge for a contemporary apocalyptic, I offer the category of apocalyptic realism, which is a sensibility that takes its cues from Revelation by recognizing both the impermanence of our world as well as its deep-seated spiritual underpinnings. Like Solomon in Ecclesiastes, like Paul in Athens, like John on the island of Patmos, the apocalyptic realist views the world from an eternal perspective.

An apocalyptic realist will marvel at the splendor of the natural world while also noting its transitory nature. Apocalyptic realists know that flowers bloom in both meadows and cemeteries, and that the sun rises gloriously over churches and cancer clinics alike. Apocalyptic realists also recognize that there’s no such thing as pure secularity—no neutral, a-religious, nonpartisan sphere where we can pursue the common good with zero ideological interference. The apocalyptic realist agrees with David Foster Wallace that “in the day-to-day trenches of adulthood, there’s no such thing as atheism.” For all our talk of Benedict Options and cultural crises, most of us simply operate as though all is well and that the current arrangement is just the way it is. So we resign ourselves. In the words of Walker Percy—an apocalyptic realist par excellence—“Beware of people who think that everything is okay.”

Though he didn’t use the phrase, my dad helped to foster apocalyptic realism in our household. He taught us to see how human culture looks from heaven, and he did this by subtly parting the curtain and revealing the hidden idols of our age. I remember watching a sitcom as a family and Dad calmly pointing out that it was presenting us with a world devoid of all serious moral consequences. Dishonesty, infidelity, sexual abuse, wanton promiscuity and objectification, vicious gossip, and even murder—all were trivialized and emptied of any true moral significance. As Dad said, in good apocalyptic realist fashion, “This is just socially acceptable nihilism.”

Believe it or not, these observations arose organically at the moment. Dad wasn’t reading from a script or sniffing out a teaching moment, and he certainly wasn’t one of those annoying sages who just can’t resist demonstrating their spiritual superiority by trashing all of your favorite shows. He liked the shows and laughed with us. But he also wanted us to see that Walker Percy is right; everything is not okay. My dad helped us distinguish between the kingdom of heaven and Babylon.

One fateful morning my Dad asked me why I called myself a Christian. Part of the reason the question landed with such force is that Dad had imparted to me an eternal perspective, one that remains irrevocable. Once I saw the world through apocalyptic lenses, I couldn’t unsee the vision. Dad’s question did more than expose my hypocrisy. It exposed the idols of my heart. Like so many so-called Christians, I offered lip service to the gospel, but the shape of my life betrayed the same practical atheism that surrounded me. I believed that this world was all that mattered, and I believed I could save myself through my achievements. I may have put all my eggs in the death metal basket instead of an Ivy League education, but my basic aspirations matched all those seeking salvation on human terms.

We get saved and quickly return to life as usual. This is the reason many so-called Christian households operate as though God is a distant reality that only has a bearing on their existence on Sundays, holidays, and when they’re at a point of crisis or close to death. It’s the reason Dad’s question about why I called myself a Christian infuriated me. I might as well have responded, “What’s that got to do with anything?” For me, at the time the answer was “nothing.” What’s the answer for you?

Maturity requires a successful encounter with failure. That is, failure leading to discernment. My parents weren’t content with lip service. That’s why Dad ambushed me with that question. They were aiming to present me mature in Christ.

This article is an excerpt from Faith That Lasts by Stuart McAllister and Cameron McAllister. Copyright (c) 2020 by Stuart McAllister and Cameron McAllister. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL., and is used here with permission.

Friday, June 18th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology