Thursday 16 December 2010

The Witness: a short story

The Revelation took place on a Sunday, the evening of February 28, 1983. The sky was bright and clear that Sabbath night – almost supernaturally clear, as one TV weatherman remarked the following day, with scarcely a cloud in sight anywhere across the vast unbounded skies of the fifty states of America.

The conditions could hardly have been better for divine revelation. The Moral Majority was gaining momentum under the leadership of Jerry Falwell, a Republican was in the White House, the Southern Baptist Convention had passed a groundbreaking resolution on the vocation of women as homemakers, James Dobson had published Dare to Discipline, the godless philosopher Ayn Rand had died, the AIDS epidemic was judging the evil of homosexuals, and the Middle East was bracing itself to fulfil biblical prophecy on the plains of Armageddon. In spite of these obvious fruits of righteousness, however, there were also many signs of wickedness in the earth. In fact, by February 1983 the stench of the ungodly had reached up to heaven; the recent release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller was, to those with ears to hear, a proof that the end was definitely at hand.

For many years now the evangelical lobby – galvanised by the alarming rise of secular humanism, evolutionism, atheism and condom distribution, and by the decline of prayer in schools and ladies' baking groups – had carried out a tireless campaign for a decisive public manifestation of the power of the Almighty. At first the Lord of Hosts stood by his time-honoured policy of mysterious concealment, encouraging his church to take responsibility for his existence by means of apologetic arguments and the publication of small illustrated gospel tracts. But the Christian Right used its growing power and influence to continue the theological lobby until, wearied by their cries, their prophetic protests and their Saturday morning prayer breakfasts, the Rock of Ages resigned himself to the exhausting prospect of one last display of his eternally blessed divine effulgence. This would be the Revelation to end all revelations, the full and final unveiling of the secret hidden since the foundation of the world; a Revelation to shut the mouths of the ungodly and silence the relentless clamour of evangelical prayer meetings. The church had demanded a sign: they would get more than they had bargained for. The eyes of all the nation would be dazzled; once more the hearts of men would be lost in wonder, love and praise.

And so it was that, at 10.32 pm Eastern Time, the Ancient of Days rent the heavens, rolled up the sky like a scroll, pausing a moment for dramatic effect while the archangel sounded three pure notes on her heavenly trombone, and then bathed the entire American landscape in the pure unreflected light of eternal refulgence. It was a radiance to blacken the sun and blind the watching stars. It was, in a word, an irrefutable demonstration of the existence and power of Him Who Made Heaven and Earth.

There was only one problem. Nobody knows for certain whether it was due to an embarrassing oversight in heaven's event management, or to the cunning machinations of the Prince of Darkness, or to some deeper motive hidden within the divine counsel itself. Whatever the reason, it so happened that February 28, 1983, the Night of Nights and the turning point of the ages, was also the date of the long-anticipated television finale of M*A*S*H. The epic three-hour episode was broadcast at 7.30 pm across the United States; it was the most watched broadcast of American television history. State and federal police statistics show that no crimes were committed on that night; nor for that matter would any criminals have been apprehended, since the police, too, had taken up their positions around television sets at every police station in the country. Nine months later, on November 28, maternity wards throughout the nation’s hospitals fell eerily silent; it is said that not a single child was born that day, since none were conceived nine months earlier. As though no one had made love on the night of February 28; as though even the basic bodily drives had been circumvented by the M*A*S*H finale.

On that divinely appointed night, the country’s population had gathered one and all around their television sets, breathless with anticipation to see if Hawkeye would recover from his mental breakdown, to see if BJ would get his longed-for discharge, to see if Colonel Potter would get the tank removed safely from the camp latrines, to see if Father Mulcahy would recover from his shocking accident, to see if Max Klinger would marry Soon-Lee and help her find her parents, to see if Charles Emerson Winchester III would get the job in Boston and if Margaret Houlihan would return to America or take up a position abroad; in short, to see the end of the Korean War – an event the whole world had been dreading now for eleven consecutive television seasons.

So it was that, at the exact moment that the glory of the Celestial Potentate filled the skies, viewers in California were tuning into the opening theme song, while in New York the credits had just begun to roll. Some later claimed to have seen a curious flash outside, though they thought nothing of it at the time. Others heard the sound of the archangel’s trump, though it was assumed to be part of the show’s dramatic background music. (In Colorado Springs, the trombone split the sky during the poignant scene where Major Winchester conducts the captured Chinese musicians in a performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A; the three heavenly notes neatly and harmonically punctuated the lyrical melody of the second movement, leaving all but the most diligent students of classical music unaware that this was an inauthentic interpolation and not the work of Mozart.)

That is how it came about that the Revelation of the Most High and Holy One, which split the skies in a blinding flash from Long Beach to Long Island, remained unnoticed by all but a few astonished witnesses, small clusters of the homeless in San Diego, Boston, New York, Miami – persons who had, for whatever reason, been unable to find refuge near a television set that night and so found themselves wandering the streets, dolefully pondering the fate of Hawkeye and BJ, and gazing pensively at the sky at 10.32 pm Eastern Time, the precise moment at which the Revelation of divine majesty pierced heaven and earth.

It was these dazzled vagabonds who, the next day and every day thereafter, roamed the condemned cities of America, spreading the news of what they had seen and heard. They were the sole witnesses of eternal glory, the ones who had seen the dawning of a new aeon, who understood that all the world’s calendars had returned to zero on the night of February 28, that nothing would ever be the same from that time on. From stairwells and street corners and subway stations they proclaimed their solemn tidings and called for the world’s repentance and conversion to the One whose splendour filled the heavens. But they were ignored or derided by the public, lampooned by church leaders and theologians, hounded and persecuted by the police.

They made few converts, except among the delinquent, the homeless, the displaced. They were lonely witnesses, though from time to time they would congregate under cover of darkness at bus shelters and soup kitchens to cultivate their prophetic gifts and plan their strategies for the evangelisation of planet earth. They grew their hair long and dressed in old rags. They were rumoured to feast on locusts and bourbon. They called themselves the Eyes of the World.

Before long certain false teachings sprang up from within their ranks. According to some, the Revelation had in fact been only the beginning, soon to be succeeded by an even more irresistible display of heaven's supreme omnipotence. According to others, the universe had been obliterated on the Night of Nights, and the witnesses were now charged with preaching to the souls in prison, shadowy figures of the underworld who wandered the cities of the damned, eating and drinking and working and marrying, believing themselves to inhabit the land of the living though they dwelt among the dead, even their joys being the torments of the grave. Others propounded the doctrine that the Revelation had not been a public display at all, rather a secret which could be seen by none except the eyes of those few elect witnesses, guardians who must now protect the mysteries of their cult from all outsiders. Still others did not hesitate to conclude that Captain Hawkeye was the Antichrist, and declared that this Satanic personality had been locked in mortal struggle against the Almighty since the dawn of time, a colossal combat of darkness and light that would drag on, in bitter harmony, through all eternal ages.

Such theological aberrations were suppressed, and the witnesses continued to spread their teaching, preserving the sacred memory of the glorious Revelation. Even to this day, they are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; they are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed. They are condemned as mad, accused of disturbing the peace, charged with public drunkenness and loitering and harassment. But these charges against us are false, and our witness is faithful and true. We are the Eyes of the World. Among those who walk in darkness we have seen a great light.

Statement signed by: Ben J. Miles
Address: c/o Harrison Avenue Homeless Shelter, Boston
Date of statement: 16 December 2010
Officer in charge: Daniel C. Stanton, Harrison Ave Police Station


Jason Goroncy said...

And that's just how it is. You couldn't make this stuff up ;-)

Another simply brilliant Friday reflection. Thanks Ben.

John Hartley said...

The mark of a truly authentic author is that s/he writes of "the last trombone" rather than "the last trumpet"! The rest of the story served as a worthy frame for this eschatological gem. Well done indeed!

Daniel Imburgia said...

yes Ben, brilliant and thanks. However, not everyone was enthralled with either “Mash” or Jesus part deux. Now It may have been just a coincidence but on that very same day and time Northern and Southern Presbyterians reunited! “Just 45 miles from Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, clergy and lay delegates from the Charleston, S.C., area assembled in the small, red-carpeted sanctuary of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Walterboro. The issue under consideration there and at similar gatherings across the South: whether to end the Presbyterians' own North-South schism, which dates from the Civil War. After an hour of genteel debate, the Walterboro meeting voted for reunion, 42 to 41.” The way I heard it they were dead-locked in a tie all day, till around 10:30 the actual second coming of Jesus inspired the one abstaining member to cast his vote in favor of unity. True, they still meet in separate churches, but technically, on paper, they are now one body, PTL! (somehow I expected more...still...).


Highanddry said...

Ben, I thought this was excellent.

Well written and tapping into something quite profound and disturbing.

The only problem I have with it is that I fear much of the pathos for me as I read the last paragraph, comes from being one of those inside watching M.A.S.H. Like Augustine, I feel I have come late to loving Christ and find a kind of recalcitrant imposter syndrome as a person who loves Christ from the centre and not the margins.

Great Christmas reflection.

Paul Tyson said...

Thanks Ben. This post and ‘the street preacher’ post are wonderfully dialectically paired. But let me explain what I mean by ‘dialectic’ here. I am not thinking of Hegelian dialectics where thesis and anti-thesis are both transcended by a synthesis of surpassing unifying reason. Rather I am thinking of dialect in a Kierkegaardian way, where thesis and anti-thesis remain un synthesized (and unsynthesizable!), but are the paradoxical means of God’s revelation. That is, it remains true that sin hungry street evangelism is profoundly offensive to both good theology and human empathy; and yet the gospel is profoundly offensive and manipulative uneducated mis-fit wacky evangelists with personality disorders and all manner inner psychological baggage may be – in some very disturbing manner – true to the real offence of the gospel. Both thesis and anti-thesis remain true and false, and cannot be harmonized but the paradox is the stone that causes us to stumble and is the site of God’s word coming to us in its ever unexpected and – for the rich and powerful such as us – unwelcome way.

Anonymous said...

Cool idea, but it needs blood and gore. Some intestines need to be spilt. It sounds like a prequel to the main act in a "StarshipSofa" Sci-Fi podcast...I was enjoying the direction, but waiting to meet one of the Cult more personally.

Otherwise, I'm still trying to divine the meaning. Is it a more empathetic look at the street-bound rather than an actual condemnation of whacky eschatology? Last week's post condemned the supercilious street-preacher, that way due to indulging some quirk in his character? But this week seems to defend those just can't help it, who have burnt out from the sheer horror of the modern world, almost as if they have together witnessed something divine that drove them mad by comparison?

Hmmm, what do others think?

besideourselves said...

Since you asked what we think eclipsenow, here's my take...

I'm not at all sure that the street preacher was "condemned". I read the author as exploring his own sense of condemnation in the face of the accusation and it's refrain "are you a sinner, have you been born again?". His sins, like mine, remain perversely sacrosanct: "heavy, precious and inexplicable".

That right there explains the isolation of the habitual sinner from the message of the prophet. Perhaps there is always the fear that in 'emptying our pockets' we'll somehow lose our identity.

The mild vilification of the street preacher I read as a literary device, necessary to obtain the correct tension inherent in the message; that is, the message of condemnation isolates both speaker and audience ... something which the prophets knew too well and may itself may be the echo of a rejected God's anguished isolation.

As to this weeks yarn; it's obviously not sympathetic to wacky eschatologies, but I read the main point of the allegory as promoting the use of "locusts and bourbon" for the Eucharist. I proposal I would heartily endorse as I already have the requisite long hair and ragged attire.

And yes, it's obviously only the flashes of the divine which keep us comparatively, eagerly and thankfully mad....

Mad compared to the pathologically insane that is.

Ben Myers said...

I read the main point of the allegory as promoting the use of "locusts and bourbon" for the Eucharist — thank you, I'm very happy to stand by that interpretation!

Kevin Hargaden said...

It is saying something to say that this is my favourite faith-theology entry of all but I am willing to say it. :)

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