Apocalypses and Other Great Disappointments

photoGiles – ‘It’s the end of the world.’
Buffy, Willow and Xander – ‘Again?’

 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ‘Doomed’ (Season 4, Episode 11)

 

Trigger warning: this post is going to be about religion (sort of). The fine details will be about history, politics, and popular culture, but I’ve been asked to reflect back on something I experienced in July of this year, and that’s what I’m going to do. If you want to save yourselves and click on by, I won’t blame you.

Those allergic to metaphor and academic mumbo-jumbo may also want to brace themselves. Here we go.

This week marks a few milestones. Today is the date that Marty McFly arrives in 2015 to hoverboards, endless sequels, and people wearing sports clothes out in public in the 1989 film Back to the Future II. An event that will obviously receive much less publicity is the 171st anniversary of the Great Disappointment, an apocalyptic prediction by a Christian man named William Miller, who claimed that the world would end on 22 October, 1844.

Needless to say, it did not.

William Miller (1782 - 1849). He had trustworthy sideburns.
William Miller (1782 – 1849). He had trustworthy sideburns.

In the aftermath of this failed apocalypse, however, came a very real disaster: in addition to having their hopes shattered, many nineteenth-century Millerites had given away all their possessions in anticipation of the second coming of Jesus (a shared belief in Christianity), and while the apocalypse may not literally have come for them on 22 October, it certainly must have seemed like the world had ended. Some were understandably angry, even violent. Some searched for possible explanations for the miscalculation, and some left their faith behind altogether.

Fast-forward 171 years, and the Millerites have not only survived, they have grown in number. Of the various Protestant, Adventist denominations to come out of the Great Disappointment, the largest by far is the Seventh-day Adventist Church. At over 18 million members, and with adherents in more than 200 countries, it is (according to Wikipedia) the twelfth-largest religious body in the world, and the sixth-largest highly international religious body. In a way that eerily mirrors trends across the globe, the Adventist church is overwhelmingly multicultural, and increasingly fundamentalist.

So. Now you have some context.

Back in July, delegates of the Seventh-day Adventist Church voted not to allow each of its 13 world divisions to make provisions for women to be ordained — 1,381 delegates against, 977 for. Practically speaking, this meant that nothing changed. The Adventist church is governed by a bottom-up system, meaning that if local unions and churches wish to ordain women, policy allows them to do so. There are already many female pastors working in the Adventist church — in China, in fact, the majority of Adventist pastors are female.

The hashtag (and image) that trended on Twitter following the GC vote.
The hashtag (and image) that trended on Twitter following the GC vote.

The tone behind this decision, however, and behind many other decisions at the 2015 General Conference of Adventists in San Antonio, has created a rift in the Adventist church. Some (mostly from the North American division) are calling it the new Great Disappointment. I was in the conference hall when the moment(s) of disappointment happened, and I can definitely confirm that the atmosphere was brutal. Some (again, mostly from the North American division) have rather melodramatically declared that the General Conference is dead to them, and that we should mourn it. In a more nuanced move, this second collective, known as RIP GC, has called for a reflection on the themes of disappointment, faith, and moral authority. This syncroblog event coincides with the week of the Great Disappointment 171 years ago, and for those involved it represents a similar struggle to move forward. They are trying to deal with a belief system (and an organisation) that is fundamental to their identities and very dear to their hearts, but from which they feel increasingly alienated.

I have a complicated relationship with this particular religious organisation. On the one hand, I recognise and respect the need for organised religion. Western society is increasingly post-Christian, but religion is very much alive and well in the world, and I firmly reject the notion that religion is something developed societies ‘grow out of’. Things are more complicated than that. On the other hand, I find the increasingly fundamentalist nature of many religions, Adventism in particular, to be extremely off-putting. I was raised by two Adventists who were both children of missionaries, and I can navigate the ins and outs of Adventist culture like a pro. Like many academics, however, I find religion difficult to reconcile with my worldview. I certainly wouldn’t want to exclude it from my collection of paradigms, but accessing it is as much an intellectual and imaginative exercise as it is an emotional or spiritual one.

Adventism, the religion that gave the world the haystack. You're welcome. (Image via barelyadventist.com)
Adventism, the religion that gave the world the haystack. You’re welcome. (Image via barelyadventist.com)

So the ‘Great Disappointment’ of 2015 affected me a bit differently than it has others. My understanding of my relationship with religion is already very separate from my identity as a member (baptised at 13) of an 18-million-strong world church. I have also lived (and churched) in six different countries and three different continents — many more if you count single visits. I know that, while Adventist may be uniform in many ways, it is incredibly diverse in others. When confronted with the divisive spirit at the 2015 GC, I honestly wasn’t very surprised, and therefore not very disappointed.

Why should a governing body be fair or representative? In what world or environment is that the case, inside or outside of churches? We live in the age of broken systems: capitalism, democracy, police systems and school systems. Is this outlook cynical? Probably. But it points to an interesting problem.

mushroom-cloud-6214 (1)

For me the Great Disappointment is representative of a bigger issue, not just with Adventism, but with religion, politics, ideology, and life in general. I find the idea that we only have two options in a situation of great disappointment and disillusionment to be supremely frustrating. Most responses suggest that we must either cut our losses and run, or solider on and suffer. For most of us, though, neither option is really viable. OK, in theory certain privileged individuals may be able to cut all ties to civilisation, move to the middle of nowhere, and become entirely self-sufficient, but for most of us there is no way to escape the system. We are stuck here.

new_york_apocalypse_ruins_building_25376_1080x1920In a very real sense, then, we live in a post-apocalyptic world. Not in the sense that the world has literally ended but, as James Berger puts it in After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse, modernity is ‘preoccupied by a sense of crisis, viewing as imminent, perhaps even longing for, some conclusive catastrophy’ (Berger, 1999, xiii). Only now, after two world wars and the seemingly continual collapse of our social and economic systems, that longing for apocalypse is accompanied by the very real sense that the catastrophe has already happened. While we stand around anticipating an ultimate end, we are in fact standing amidst the ruins of a thousand tiny apocalypses.

We now recognise that apocalypses happen to everyone, and to every organised system, at some point. The problem is not with specific religions or governing bodies, per se. The problem is that all governing bodies, all ideologies, and all systems (especially idealistic or utopian ones) contain the seeds of their own destruction. Does this mean we should give up on them altogether? I’m in favour of looking at the question from another perspective.

In an academic article on the Occupy movement, Steven D. Brown summarises a 1980 book called The Parasite, by French philosopher Michel Serres. Brown, paraphrasing Serres, explores the idea that systems need these tiny apocalypses, these moments of disruption, in order to go on existing (and trust me, the double summary is necessary here):

A closed system at equilibrium knows no time, or rather it knows only the endless, ceaseless time of the return to steady state. Living systems, by contrast, operate quite far from equilibrium states, oscillating between numerous existing and emergent norms. What we call history begins with differentiation, divergence. (Brown, 91)

 

In other words, all systems change, one way or another, and there is no way around it. As impersonal as it sounds, one way or another someone is going to be disappointed, and divergent viewpoints will clash. As counterintuitive as it may feel, for Serres (who is concerned with systems of power and inequality) the solution to this problem is not ultimately in toppling the dominant power structures. Revolution will not save us, just as apocalypse cannot: both have happened before, and will happen again. Applying his analysis of Serres to the example of the Occupy movement, Brown concludes with the following:

 

The Occupy movement are deemed as ‘hypocrites’ because they refuse to offer a single political position on economy and society. Yet they are wise to do so. Stations and positions are not sources of power, they are what are parasitized to produce power. She or he who makes a blank space, an enclosure, is simply issuing an invitation to the parasite. Change and transformation comes from disequilibrium, redirecting flows, not stopping and defending them. (Brown, 97)

 

Basically, what Brown is saying here it that fighting stations and positions is counterproductive. The best-case scenario in this situation is that new stations and positions are created, which in turn will need to be fought against. The only thing that can’t be fought is the disruptive force of parasites: those who won’t play along with the system, but who also won’t leave the system.

A mouse stealing cheese is just one of the metaphors Serres uses to illustrate what he means with parisitism.
A mouse stealing cheese is just one of the metaphors Serres uses to illustrate what he means with parisitism.

Where I am I going with this rather abstract digression, and how does it relate to the Great Disappointment? Don’t worry, I’m getting there, slowly but surely. The way I see it, we shouldn’t have to make a decision about whether to abandon the Adventist church or to remain. That’s not the kind of decision that we, living in the twenty-first century, can even make any more. We’re in it, for better or for worse.

Maybe it’s time to stop living in anticipation of the apocalypse, and start living after the apocalypse. Maybe it’s time to take apocalypse in stride — popular culture certainly has. For many of us, apocalypse (and other disappointment) has become rather passé. Maybe instead of trying to avert the next disaster, we need to scavenge what we can from the ruins and use it, not to take down the system, but to camp out in the middle of it and wait. We need to eke out a blank space, not to argue or to offer solutions, but to say ‘We have survived the old world, we are still here, and we are waiting — just waiting together — for the new one to arrive’.

3b

There and Back Again: Or, What I Learned About Pop Culture at the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio

aq_g9sTVAnd we’re back! After a long and much-needed holiday in the USA, I’m in Cardiff and working on my thesis again.

My post this week is going to be a long one, and it’s going to contain a strange mix of topics (religion, politics, and popular culture), so consider yourself forewarned. Those of you who follow me on Twitter (or know me in real life) may have been wondering what on earth was going on at the beginning of July. You probably saw a lot of posts like this one, relating to points of order:

You may also have seen lots of photos of me either raising a voting card, or standing at microphones holding massive wads of paper, like so:

From 1-12 July I was in San Antonio, at the 2015 General Conference (GC) session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Over 30,000 people were in attendance, and on days when everyone was in the Alamodome venue, things got pretty impressive:

Every five years members and official delegates from the Adventist church all over the world get together to discuss and vote on necessary, if often very boring, topics. This year, those topics ranged from minor changes to policy documents all the way up to whether divisions (large, and largely administrative leadership bodies within the church) had the right to independently decide whether to recognise its female pastors as being ‘ordained’. This last topic was arguably the most controversial of the entire GC, and the final vote was split almost evenly between Africa and South America (who represented most of the 59% against), and North America, Europe, and Asia (who represented most of the 41% for).

For most of you reading this post, the whole idea of a church policy conference probably sounds crazy, and a million miles distant from your own day-to-day life. I’m with you there. Working in academia — or just in Northern Europe, where we’re all embedded in our own little social bubbles — it’s easy to forget that other people have fundamentally different ways of looking at things. Not just in the realm of structuralism versus post-structuralism, or ‘pro-Marmite’ versus ‘anti-Marmite’, but right down to the way they essentially define things like equal representation, civil rights, and freedom of speech.

Not only is it difficult to make decisions together on an abstract level with so many cultures and ways of reading, but you first have to worry about how you’re going to make those decisions on a practical level. During the GC session, for example, one division fundamentally objected to an anonymous vote, arguing that it leads to manipulation and double-dealing, while another refused to vote unless they could do so anonymously, for the exact same reason. Things got tricky very quickly. How can you begin to work together (or even alongside each other) under such circumstances? When you disagree on such basic things, can you ever hope to agree on civil rights issues? And can you achieve some kind of meaningful dialogue that still remains respectful? I certainly don’t think we were successful at either of those things in San Antonio.

Despite having grown up all over the world, I found it a difficult atmosphere to adjust to. The collision of religion and multicultural politics made my head spin — so what on earth was I doing there? Although for most of my life I’ve happily worked and studied in environments that are decidedly post-Christian, I was raised in the Adventist church. Like many people my age I’m not very active in a specific church any more — primarily for reasons of introversion, but also for its general lack of a focus on civil rights. I still identify with the culture, though, and I feel that church can fulfill an important role in society, and in people’s lives.

There are more than 18 million Adventists worldwide, and while some of them are definitely a little crazier than others, ultimately that craziness is what endears me. I like being around slightly crazy things and people; generally I feel it makes my life more interesting, and more enjoyable. So when the Dutch church asked me (a Dutch/American) to represent them at the GC my interest was piqued, and I eventually accepted. I came prepared, attended every single business session, and did my best to help balance the severe under-representation of women and young people among the delegates.

In the end it was a losing battle, and I came away from the GC feeling exhausted and alienated, with a lot of frustrations. Despite failing to personally identify with a large portion of what went on in San Antonio, however, I did meet many lovely (and keenly intelligent) people from all over the world. Through social media, I was also able to connect with others in a way I had never quite experienced before. As we all tried to cope together, and to reconcile other peoples’ images of Adventism with our own, something happened: where religion couldn’t unite us, popular culture did. We found each other slowly on Twitter, through the official hashtag #GCSA15, the millennial rallying cry #MyChurchToo, and the tongue-in-cheek self identification as a #badventist:

What started as simple conversations about #AdventistGaming and what video games we were playing (or just an excited ‘You like comics too?!’) quickly became something more than that. Popular culture became a way to engage with the dis-empowering and overwhelming metanarrative that dominated the San Antonio GC, underwriting it with reminders that there were other, equally big stories out there that we could relate to, and that we could apply to the situation. At the start of one day we knew was going to be a particularly emotional one, we turned to Star Wars:

 

Commenting on a particular agenda point, point of order, or on the conference in general became an opportunity to redefine the spectacle of it all in more familiar terms:

We even used teen dystopias to show our support for each other against overwhelming odds:

It just goes to show you (or at least, it showed me), that for something like a religion to really work, you need to connect with other people on more than just one level. For us that was popular culture – for others it may be something completely different. I’m still picking through the many things we referenced during those two long weeks, but I’ll always remember how it felt to find meaning and a voice through that common ground. The hashtag #GCSA15 may be retired now, but we won’t forget about the experiences it enabled in a hurry (and neither will our fingers):

For the moment I’m still glad it’s over, but who knows — maybe you’ll see me at #GCINDY20 in Indianapolis. At the very least, you’ll have my support (and my sad pop culture jokes) on Twitter.