Just had my first post-apocalyptic dream/nightmare last night. It was a doozy.
Well, not my first.
To be more specific, my first post-apocalyptic dream since the great toilet-roll-run/coronavirus on again/off again pandemic of 2020.
My dream was, of course, well informed by the run on almost all things sanitary in the past few weeks in our shopping centres. And there was a good dose of binge-worthy streaming series thrown in there too, especially The Walking Dead.
In fact, in my dream, there were brainless people in tattered clothes wandering around with empty eyes, smelling to high heaven, armed with rolls of toilet paper.
Or maybe that was the news I was watching. After all, reality and fiction are all blurring into one, aren’t they?
Whatever it was, I somehow found myself driving around my home city of Perth in a car with people I didn’t know (where was my family?), and the streets were pretty much empty, save for a few random crazies trying to get into the car (probably also normal in other cities around the world).
The only hint of normal in my dream, curiously enough, were the Japanese tourists still buying stuffed koalas and boomerangs in the souvenir shop in the centre of the city. Life goes on eh?
What a couple of weeks it has been. Or hasn’t been. It feels like we’re waiting for something to happen. Or not happen. Our climate emergency has been put on the back-burner for the moment, the gas turned down low, with mass participation events no longer the soup du jour.
Though at the more extreme end of things, perhaps those who are convinced a rapidly shrinking population is the only solution to our planet’s woes should put their money where their mouth is and get out there for bulk number protests sans hand sanitiser, and see if they can hasten that glorious apocalyptic moment.
Mass events are all being cancelled. All of the major world marathons are being rubbed out. Mind you, that could be because the porta-porties no longer have any toilet paper. And if you’ve ever run a marathon or ten, you’ll know how post-apocalyptic those last ten kilometres can be.
The closest fictional series I can link all of these recent events to is the magnificent The Leftovers, a truly stunning and heart-wrenching series in which two per cent of the world’s population suddenly disappears, (think crazy Rapture stuff). Meanwhile the rest of the world is trying to get on as normal, but with that nagging feeling that things are no longer normal, and can never be normal again.
Not because of the two percent that disappeared. But because of the 98 percent that didn’t. The problem was that nothing changed enough. Not enough to usher in a fresh beginning.
Two percent isn’t enough to destroy civilisation. But it is enough to destroy civilisation’s confidence. It’s enough to destroy a proud modernity’s self-assurance whilst leaving all of the hardware intact. It’s enough to banish the banality of Madison Avenue’s hopes and dreams, but not enough to replace it with a new vision of human flourishing.
And in that no-man’s-land, everything that had stayed hidden came to the surface, all the tensions and despairs, all the hatreds and fears. Sure people tried to get on with buying white-goods and going on holidays, but everything changed because everyone changed, even if only by two percent.
The disappearance event throws up all sorts of religious mania, and taps deep into the dark wells (and there is an actual dark well in the last series) of rational and irrational fears. And there any number of fictional Gretas popping up in towns and cities, scolding everyone for bringing it – whatever it was – upon themselves. Two per cent of the world’s population. A pandemic indeed.
Yet I’m writing all of this as life goes on seemingly normal for me. Only two percent of life has changed. I’m sitting in bed in a conference site on the beautiful windswept coast of Tasmania, having flown here on a plane in which only one person, the person sitting next to me as it happens, was wearing a mask. Less than two per cent of the plane.
And I’m sitting here in Tasmania not far from Port Arthur where a truly apocalyptic event, known as the Port Arthur massacre, occurred 24 years ago next month.
My wife and I heard about it sitting on a beach in the coastal resort of Broome here in our home state of Western Australia while on our honeymoon. We listened in shock, watched in despair. Normal life – well the beginnings of a new one for us – and apocalyptic events, at one and the same time. Two percent changed.
Thirty five people were slaughtered by a single gunman, and eighteen others injured. That terrible event ushered in a new era of gun control in Australia and things have never been the same, thankfully, since.
I’m spending time with a great little church here in Tassie, who are exploring with me the way to develop and foster deep, rich Christian community in a sustainable way. How to be a group that loves and serves each other and the world, even as the busyness of work, the worries and cares of this age, grab at their ankles like so many post-apocalyptic zombies.
I can tell them how NOT to do it, that’s for sure. If anyone wants a take-away point from all that has been revealed in the past month or so around church community abuse scandals it’s this: no shimmering vision of Christian community is worth slaughtering any number of God’s sheep for. They get that. They’re in no danger of doing that.
They could do well to follow the example of the early church in the Roman Empire as a plague swept through the cities, killing much more than two percent. As the pagans fled the cities in panic, their gods and idols powerless to stop the plague, the Christians stayed behind and tended the sick and lonely and dying.
And they did so because something had been revealed to them – that the risen Jesus had given them a hope beyond the grave. The love he had for them was more powerful than any plague, especially the plague of spiritual death.
When the plague ended and the pagans crept back to the cities, the reputation of the Christians went through the roof. The apocalyptic event had exposed the false gods as no gods at all.
Apocalypse simply means to reveal something hidden. And that’s both good and bad revelation. The abuse scandal that engulfed my former church community in the UK was apocalyptic. This coronavirus toilet-paper run was apocalyptic too.
Both events revealed something about people that would not otherwise have been revealed. That needed to be revealed. Both events are mini-apocalypses. They are the exposures that give us the chance to redress ourselves, to repent, to change, before the big capital “A” Apocalypse arrives. When that occurs the time for repentance and change is gone.
It’s in God’s kindness that things are exposed in mini-apocalyptic form. We get to see what we are like in all its gory detail. Mini apocalypses are like vaccines. We receive immunity – the chance to avoid a fatal dose so to speak – by going through the inoculation process.
These things expose you. Expose us. That’s why the most interesting characters – and the deadliest – in The Walking Dead are not the zombies, but the humans. Human nature is revealed for what it is truly like when all of the niceties are stripped away. When the toilet paper is removed from the shelves. Whatever that toilet paper is for you. Think of your road rage as a mini-apocalypse. It reveals you, shows you what you are truly like.
Or that drunken social media comment retracted the next day with a mea culpa and excuse all rolled into one: “I wasn’t myself, it was the booze speaking“.
Actually no, that’s not true. Don’t kid yourself. You were more yourself with that crazy comment than you have ever been. The booze simply gave you a clear run at it, an apocalyptic cocktail or aperitif if you will, to what will truly be revealed about you in the final Apocalypse.
And that’s a reminder that it’s the virus already in us, the virus of our own sinful rebellion against The God Who Reveals All, that most infects us. That’s the true pandemic that has resulted in a mortality rate of exactly 100 per cent. And it reveals itself in so many insidious little ways. Never mind coronavirus, we’re dying the death of a thousand self-inflicted cuts.
So my daughter texts me from a train in Perth, with me four thousand kilometres away in Hobart, Tasmania. She’s sitting heading to theological college and in her carriage, a man in his fifties nearby is quietly, and sneakily, filming the young girl sitting next to him on his phone. And my daughter is horrified and scared. What should she do? What can she do? She feels powerless. She is powerless.
The deadly virus has spread, this man is infected. Yet what he is doing, supposedly in secret, will one day be revealed to all, and most shockingly, to the Judge of all who will be powerful to do something about it.
His true post-apocalyptic nightmare will begin right there.