why cataclysm and doom may not be so bad after all

Over the weekend, I finished reading J G Ballard’s novel, The Drought (which Natalie blogged about back HERE). I loved it. He’s like a late twentieth century Joseph Conrad — if that means anything to you.

The edition I was reading had a short essay by Ballard on the topic of ‘Cataclysms and Dooms’ appended to it. Get a load of the way he asks himself this probing question:

As an author who has produced a substantial number of cataclysmic stories, I take for granted that the planet the writer destroys with such tireless ingenuity is in fact an image of the writer himself. But are these deluges and droughts, whirlwinds and glaciations no more than over-extended metaphors of some kind of suicidal self-hate?

This suspicion is writ even larger for Christians. Not only are the books of Daniel and Revelation bursting with images of cataclysm and doom. But a solid case can be made for seeing the whole of Jesus’ ministry as well as Paul’s writings in apocalyptic terms. Nietzsche saw this more clearly than we sometimes do — and accused Christianity of expressing a savage hatred of life as a result. (In a paper recently delivered at the Moore College School of Theology, Michael Jensen sketched a response to this critique in view of Paul’s ethics in 1 Corinthians. I had the privilege of reading the paper in draft. You can read George’s summary HERE.)

But Ballard’s answer to his own question is worth pondering: ‘I believe that the catastrophe story, whoever may tell it, represents a constructive and positive act by the imagination rather than a negative one, an attempt to confront a patently meaningless universe by challenging it at its own game.’

I wonder if there’s a hint here about how Christians might best grab hold of our apocalyptic texts. Rather than proposing some transhistorical, spiritual meaning for history (as, for example, most utopian narratives of progress do), might we need to see biblical apocalyptic as challenging our meaningless universe at its own game? That is, might we need to see it not as pointing away from history but as pointing towards a particular moment within it as its decisive invasion by God’s future?

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2 comments

  1. Ballard is my favourite author. His short stories kept me going through the meaningless days when I was working at a bakery. I havn’t read the drought though.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with apocalypticism. Nihilists are scared of it because it agrees with them, the world history is pretty much meaningless. But apocalyptic goes further to posit an invasive meaning.
    Neiither message is very popular in the suburbs.

    Do you think Ballards own experience of living in a cataclysmic event affects his writing? He is someone who knows a life outside the normal bounds of society.

    1. Hi Mike. From what I can tell, a shorter version of The Drought was published as The Burning World a year beforehand — you may have read that. I’ve only just begun dipping my toes in the water when it comes to Ballard but I would hardly be surprised if his wartime experiences left their stamp on his disturbingly prescient writing…

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