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Apocalyptic Ecstasy

There has been a veritable deluge of books and articles full of dire predictions and apocalyptic warnings.
Matt Wray

Issue #15, September 1994

For me, the Apocalypse is a memory. It has already happened. I live in its shadow. Yet most of the stuff I read these days about apocalypse culture tends to focus on Apocalypse as metaphor for the present. There has been a veritable deluge of books and articles full of dire predictions and apocalyptic warnings. Theorists on the left and right rant about the end of history, the crises of modernism, the rapturous triumph of liberal democracy, the decline of Western civilization, the new decadence under late twentieth century capitalism, and so on. It's interesting to me that for all the differences among these theorists, there is one striking similarity. Nearly all point to the mid-seventies, especially 1973-1978, as the beginning of the end. This is interesting to me because these are same exact years I've been secretly remembering all my life.

In writing this article, I've begun to try to make sense of this coincidence. As I struggle to understand the seventies via the historical arguments put forth by cultural theorists, I am simultaneously trying to make sense of my own stories and experiences of those years. I'm trying to understand how these very public and secular discussions of the social, cultural, and economic apocalypse(s) of the early seventies connect with my experiences and my private memories of a very religious, mythic and still mysterious Apocalypse.

I'll never forget the feeling — waking up to an empty house that chilly April morning when I was 10. I knew, as I opened my eyes that something was wrong. It was too quiet and much too cold — none of the usual Sunday morning sounds, no rising heat from the central wood stove. My clock read 7:05 am. I looked across the room to my brother's bed and saw that it was empty, his sheets and blankets lay twisted and coiled at the foot of his bed like an empty shroud. Strange — Luke always slept later than I did. Something was quite wrong. Still groggy from sleep, I crawled out of bed and crossed the room, dragging my sheets and blankets, wrapping myself in them to warm myself in the chilly air. I lay my hand on his mattress, feeling the shallow depression his body left. It was cold.

I waddled across the hall to Marks room and slowly pushed open his door. Calling out his name in a whisper, I peered into his room. Another empty bed, unmade. Mark always made his bed. A panicky rush hit me in the gut. 'Mom!' I called out. 'Where are you?' The silence made me shudder. Drawing the sheets more tightly around me, I stumbled down the stairs to my mother's room. Her door was ajar, her unmade bed cold and empty. This could only mean one thing.

I crumpled to the floor and began to cry. Jesus had come and taken my family away. He had come, like a thief, and taken them home. The Rapture had occurred while I slept. This meant that I was not among the Chosen. I felt the crushing weight of my sins, the shame of having abandoned Jesus and knew that He had rightfully abandoned me. I shivered and whimpered lifting my head, I stared up into the long mirror which hung on my mother's door. My reflection there startled me — I, Matthew, whose name means Gift of God, small boy dressed in white, alone and crying, ready to go but left behind. I turned and looked out the window and there, across the street, in the church parking lot, sat our car. And the cars of others in our church. In my confusion, it took a few seconds to register.

Then I remembered — it was Easter Sunday. I was to have awakened early to go to the sunrise service. To greet other believers with smiles and say 'He is risen. He is risen.' My mother must have been unable to wake me and I slept through it all. I drew my little body up, blew my snotty nose into the sheets and went upstairs to dress. Bundled up against the sub freezing cold, I crossed the street to the church where I found my family sipping coffee and hot cocoa and munching on doughnuts. I found my mother, wrapped myself in her arms, and began to cry like a little child. I didn't stop, not even when I heard one of the deacons say that I was too old to cry like that. Choking on my words, I told her only that I'd had a bad dream. I didn't, I couldn't tell her what I had really feared — that my family had been taken up and I alone left behind. I couldn't tell her that because it would be a sign that I lacked faith, that I had profound doubts and fears about whether or not I was truly saved. These were signs I was not willing to give.

It was 1973 and the Holy Spirit had begun to move strongly in my church. A number of charismatic born agains had arrived at the sleepy little church where my father had been a minister. These young people, newly converted by the Jesus Movement (that late sixties/early seventies influx of hippies into mainstream Christianity), turned things upside down. 1973 was precisely the year that our new pastor became increasingly convinced that the signs of the Apocalypse were all around us. He preached that God w as commanding us to prepare ourselves for His imminent return. There were healings, prophecies, people were slain in the Spirit, more and more people began to speak in tongues. Many of the older, more conservative members of the congregation left, but they were quickly replaced by a seemingly endless flow of young families Our numbers grew steadily-35, 50, 80, 100! We nearly outgrew our place of worship, an old converted barn attached to an old, rehabbed farmhouse. Who were all these young people and what was so compelling for them about our pastor's message? I didn't know — I was just happy that they were finding Jesus.

A prophecy came forth one Sunday in our church that really startled me. Jesus was coming back soon — very soon. The church prophet declared that my brothers and I would not finish college before the dreaded events so vividly described by the Apostle John in the book of Revelations would come to pass. This prophecy had a profound effect on me and my brothers, Mark and Luke. That's not enough time, I thought! That's less than a decade away! My Easter morning waking nightmare convinced me that I wasn't ready to go. My older brother Mark really took it to heart — although he graduated from high school at the top of his class and all of his teachers expected and encouraged him to go to college, he decided he wouldn't go. 'What's the point,' he told me, 'I'd never be able to finish my degree.'

A few weeks months later our Pastor interrupted the service to pass out maps. Strange maps they were, crudely drawn, mimeographed sketches of the church property, with dotted lines to mark the pathways in the trees down by the river and solid lines to mark the fences and stone walls of the property boundaries. Little crosses were scattered about at random, all over the map. These, he told us, were Bible maps. Shortly after the apocalyptic prophecy came forth, the Spirit had commanded him to began setting aside part of each weekly offering to buy Bibles. He took the money down to the religious supply store in Manchester and bought as many King James Version Holy Bibles as the congregation's tithes would allow. He had fifty brand new Bibles. He went on to explain that, just as the Spirit had instructed him, he carefully wrapped the bibles in plastic bags. At night, he had carried these Bibles out and buried them all over the surrounding church property. These buried bibles, he sermonized, served two purposes for us in these End Times. One, they would act as a spiritual protective fence, protecting us from the Satanic forces of the Antichrist and the Beast. Two, when the Beast came to power, when religions were outlawed, and when the Bibles were destroyed, we'd still have Bibles! All we'd have to do is follow these bible maps he'd prepared and we'd have freshly unearthed bibles to read and meditate upon. For without the word, the people would perish. Amen.

That night I had a dream. I dreamed that I saw Pastor Jack, dressed in black, dragging a heavy sack through the woods by the church. He carried a large policeman's flashlight and on his back, an army shovel and a knapsack. He'd stop by a tree or a large stone and begin to dig. A shallow pit for each bible, I thought. I watched him from a distance as he reached into bulky sack and pulled out the plastic wrapped bundles. Cradling them in his hands, he placed them gently into the holes. He buried them, shoving the dirt over them, patting down the earth with his bare hands. Carefully, he withdrew a clipboard from his pack and marked his master map under the white light of the heavy flashlight. At one such hole, I drew closer to him. I could hear him speaking quietly in tongues, a whispered mantra. His hands were shaking from what I couldn't tell — exertion, the Holy Spirit? And then I noticed his fingernails. They were torn and bloody. This shocked me, that his hands were bloodied. Had he torn them in the rough earth? Again, I couldn't tell. I watched as he pulled another bundle from the sack. This one had come unwrapped and he set it down in the freshly turned soil. There, under the harsh glare of the flashlight, I saw something that terrified me. For there, carefully wrapped in the translucent plastic, was a small, lifeless baby. Pastor Jack was burying babies, not bibles. I screamed myself awake.

At that time in my life, as a ten year old boy, I made sense of these events by believing that, whatever may happen, God was my protector and that His Will was being done. I understood my nightmares to be a form of spiritual warfare, manifestations of Satan's struggle to regain my soul. But now, twenty years later, I no longer believe in God. I ask myself how, in the absence of a meaning-making theological world view and culture, how can I make sense of this history, my own stories, memories, and nightmares. How can I make peace with them?

Thus far, the most helpful theories have been those with a decidedly materialist perspective. With a materialist perspective, one can isolate certain events of the early seventies which gave rise to the end of one historical period and the emergence of a new one. The advent of new information technologies, the rapid globalization of the economy, and the emergence of new modes of production and work organization — these events of the late 1960s and early 1970s were the hallmarks of a new mode of capital accumulation. The cultural critic and geographer David Harvey lays out this argument in his book _The Condition of Postmodernity_. He carefully traces and documents the movement from Fordist to post-Fordist economies. This movement was brought on by the recurring crisis within capitalism itself, a cyclical process whereby excess capital must create and find new markets, new territories, new investment strategies, even new modes of production in order to maintain its value. This is a process of creative destruction, since in its relentless, path breaking searches, capital leaves a wake of destroyed markets, economies, environments, and, I would add, workers. It is clear then that this movement (which Harvey dates from 1972) involved serious cultural upheavals. Upheavals, he demonstrates, which can be read in almost every sphere of life.

I like this argument because it helps me to understand some of what I lived through in the years 1973-1978. These were apocalyptic years not just for me, but for all the millions upon millions of people around the world who are dominated by capitalism. In what follows I offer a materialist reading of these apocalyptic events, yet I remain unsatisfied. It sounds too simple, too reductive. I am trying to be clear about the complexity of this period of my life, about this part of my history. A materialist perspective thus offers a true but partial account of this period of my life. It does not adequately address the relationship of material events to consciousness. For these reasons, while I would insist that part of the apocalyptic drama our church played out was in part a reaction to worsening economic conditions and while I strive to read through my own stories to see the changing structures of class domination at work, I don't believe I can reduce these experiences or my memories of them to mere reflexes of economic conditions. They weren't and aren't mere reflexes. We didn't passively sit back and suffer the consequences; we exercised a great deal of social and cultural agency. We fostered a new sense of community, one geared towards economic self-sufficiency and realized through strategies of mutual aid. We did not ultimately see ourselves as victims, but as victors.

Yet the material conditions were in fact quite brutal. The rapid and massive displacements of capital and jobs during these years was a matter of immense human pain and suffering for those who existed on the lower levels of the economic structure. So it was that in one year, 1973, my church, a small church in a rural New Hampshire factory town of 2000 people, was economically devastated. Indeed, as 1974 came to a close, the economic situation worsened. The local light bulb factory, the towns only real industry and biggest employer, was downsizing and restructuring its production process. Many of the men and women were recently out of work and had more babies on the way. My family went on welfare that year, something that was deeply shaming given our New England ethic of self-reliance. We were pitched into an unexpected and unprepared for poverty.

As I indicated before, the economic displacements we experienced fostered a broad and growing sense of crisis, yet that sense of crisis was not articulated as a concern for economic survival. Rather it was voiced as a concern for the survival of The Church, the faithful few. From a materialist perspective, I can see that our sense of crisis, precipitated by the economic displacements of a shifting capitalist economy, was in turn displaced from the material to the spiritual realm. This makes a great deal of sense given the religious ideology which ruled our community. As is the case with displacements and shifts in capital, this displacement to the spiritual realm was both destructive and creative. Our old church community was destroyed, as was the stability of my family (my parents separated in 1973 and divorced two years later). In place of these, a new church and a new extended family emerged, bringing with them a new sense of community and collective identity. This new church/family was very poor, having few economic resources, little education, and not much experience in organizing, yet we undertook many new projects. We converted the church basement into an emergency services/fallout shelter. We set up a day care center with voluntary labor. We created community gardens on the church property, so church members could grow their own food. We put together and published a listing of all church members and the talents, skills, and equipment that each was willing to barter in exchange for labor, building materials, whatever. Out of this list grew a sort of tribulation survival guide, complete with instructions on how to protect one's family and friends from the authorities. The bible maps hung by magnets on the frig, the basement apocalypse shelters were stuffed with five years worth of dry goods and survival gear. We tried everything we could to move away from dependence upon the World. Self-sufficiency became the key. Need upon need was met and money was seldom exchanged.

So, in this way, the threat and promise of the Apocalypse drove us to experiment with utopia. It is clear to me now that we were in large part seeking to free ourselves from the oppressiveness of shifting capitalist structures. Barter and gift exchange were central practices for creating and maintaining our sense of community. This emphasis on gifts was true not only of the material realm, but of our understanding of the spiritual realm as well. The Holy Spirit set the example by freely bestowing gifts to each member of the church. These gifts were so special to the life and vitality of our community. The fantasy of free riches, so unlike earthly treasures, was being realized in our church. To some were given the gift of healing, to others prophecy, to others word of knowledge, and to others, the gift of tongues. We understood that these spiritual gifts were given to us to grow the church and to edify the Holy Spirit. In this way, they were a sort of spiritual capital. However, unlike material capital, these gifts freely circulated among the church members: men and women, young and old, the poorest and not-so-poor-all received and shared these spiritual gifts. As I interpret it, we created a sort of spiritual capital which compensated for our lack of material capital. We rejected the economic structures which had proven to be so unstable and oppressive and replaced them with set of strategies and practices designed to enable the entire community to survive.

My nightmares continued. I lived in fear of the Beast. Horrible dreams of trials and tribulations, tests of faith so frighteningly real that I often woke up and vomited. My mother began to worry, as night after night I ran into her bedroom to tell her the demons were keeping me up again. These nightmares continued and intensified until the following summer of 1975. Along with several other church members, our family attended Fishnet '75, a large annual gathering of charismatic Christians on an old farm in Pennsylvania. There was Christian rock music, teachers, healers, and inspirational speakers. It was there that I received the Baptism in the Holy Spirit and my Gift. One of the elder men in our church, gifted with the Word of Knowledge (the Spirit-given ability to know things about the private lives/sins of others), said that the Spirit was calling me to be baptized. I was afraid, but more afraid of what would happen if I refused. I felt him place his hands firmly on my head, as he began praying, speaking in tongues. As he prayed, I felt strange heat shooting through my body, a humming energy traveling up and down my spine, my body seeming to vibrate under his touch. He asked me if I felt anything special and I said yes, indeed I had. Lifting his hands, he said, 'Praise Jesus, now we wait for the gift.' I smiled weakly and nodded, not really understanding what was going on.

Later that night, as I huddled against the frost in my sleeping bag, I began to feel the warmth once again, spreading through my body like a glowy heat. My teeth began to chatter and my body began to shudder and shiver. I have never felt anything like this before, I thought. I felt overwhelmingly happy and excited. I knew that the Spirit was moving through me, but I was afraid to open my mouth. Minutes passed as my little body shuddered and shivered in ecstasy, as I struggled to keep still and stay silent. Finally, I began to whisper through my clenched teeth. Strangely beautiful syllables came pouring out of me. I felt as I believed, that I was worshipping god in a pure, sanctified tongue, singing his praises with some pre-Adamic language. As I spoke, my body seemed to drop away. This was my first transcendent moment, besides, perhaps, my own physical birth. I may have whispered in these tongues for only five or ten minutes, but when they ceased, I felt totally renewed and cleansed. This, I decided was rapturous rebirth. I knew I was ready for the Rapture now. My nightmares soon came to an end. True, I still suffered from nightly terrors, but as I woke from them, I found myself already speaking in tongues, murmuring to God in the dark, casting out the demons and warding off the fears. Tongues made me feel safe and powerful. Never before had I received a gift which made me feel so special, so loved, so strong. I was eleven years old.

Over the next four years, from 1976 to 1980, the millennial fever in our church began to wane. Our doomsday pastor moved on, and the church split into splinter groups called cells or house churches. The gifts of the Spirit began to die out, and few talked of the impending time of troubles anymore. I graduated from high school and went on to college, having received a full scholarship to go to the local state school. Once in college, I began to experiment with new ideas and new belief systems. I needed powerful myths to replace the ones I was losing and Enlightenment Rationality, the cursed enemy of fundamentalist belief, began to draw me in. At twenty, I turned away from church and family. I began to understand that I had to now convert to the world, yet I found it extremely difficult to let go of my theistic beliefs, my habits of knowing. In 1984 I walked away from my scholarship, dropped out of college, and started kicking around in the trades, like my buddies from high school were doing. With few friends or family to support my intellectual and spiritual explorations, I went into deep depression and had several breakdowns. I spent much of my time feeling slightly insane. Nothing made sense to me anymore. It was as though I had been given a new lease on a life I no longer wanted. I remember the despair I felt at that point in my life, thinking that the church prophet was right. A ten year old prophecy was being fulfilled. There I was, only two years into college and my world was coming to its End. I was devastated. I hadn't ever imagined the Apocalypse would be such a personal event.

A year later some friends turned me on to a bunch of radical Christian scholars living in the mountains in Oregon and I went to study with them. They introduced me to Marx and the Frankfurt School. I found these thinkers difficult since, not surprisingly, I had never really considered materialism before. These writings had a profound effect upon me. My Christian ideals and theistic beliefs began to fall apart. My answers no longer fit my questions — my doubts quickly outgrew my faith. Yet I refused to accept any new beliefs. Because of my belief experience with Christian myths, I was deeply suspicious of any theory which held out the promise of total understanding. I seemed to be saying Thanks, I'll pass, no more transcendent moments for me! Yet I craved and actively pursued these moments of rapture. Sometimes I found them in elaborate theoretical constructs like Critical Theory, sometimes in my increasingly frequent drug experiments, sometimes in sex. Yet I felt really stuck. I couldn't figure out which I desired/feared more — the threat of Apocalypse or the promise of Utopia. Both seemed equally enticing, equally dangerous. Confused as I was at that time, I had at least begun to understand that while one world was ending for me another was beginning. The ambivalence is still with me, though now in a much attenuated form. My need to continue to work out the tensions generated by these ambiguities is precisely what has drawn me to experiment with groups like the Bad Subjects Collective. In many ways, Bad Subjects remind me of my church/family. They too give freely of their time and energy; they too are conducting a utopian experiment; they too wish for an end to earthly oppression. Unlike my Christian family, the Bad Subjects are resolutely materialist.

In my mind's eye, I see myself unearthing those dead and buried babies, the stillborn futures of my life and the lives of my brothers and sisters. I am determined to somehow free us all from the nightmare.

Matt Wray, a graduate student in Social and Cultural Studies at UC Berkeley, recently completed his MA thesis on critical pedagogy. He is currently seeking an interdisciplinary Ph.D program where he can continue his studies of representations of white trash in American culture. He sometimes wishes he could still speak in tongues. He can be reached at

Copyright © 1994 by Matt Wray. All rights reserved.