Apocalypse

One of the great teachers in my life is Andre Lacocque. He was my academic advisor throughout my graduate school career. He is now 94 years old and continues to write and teach. When I was a student, however, he was in his late forties and early fifties and deeply engaged in the second book he wrote about the Book of Daniel. He came to Chicago after earning a PhD in Jewish Literature and a ThD in Old Testament and teaching in Brussels. We invested half a year in the study of the beginning of the book of Genesis once. It amused me when his 2006 book about Genesis came out. It is called “The Trial of Innocence: Adam, Eve, and the Yahwist.” What amused me is that it focuses on the second creation story reported in Genesis, starting in Chapter two. When I took his course on the Book of Genesis back in the 1970’s, we didn’t get that far. As we worked our way through the first story, translating word for word from Hebrew, we moved slowly and went into each concept in depth, studying the historical context, reading associated texts, and examining each possible way a word could be translated. A half a year just didn’t give us time to get to the rest of the book.

That is the kind of scholar Andre is. He goes for depth. His books are masterpieces. His scholarship is precise and thorough.

Another semester I studied Jewish apocalyptic literature with him. We explored the dynamics of people under pressure, who believe that their way of life is under threat. When facing the loss of their culture, their language, their religion, their children and life itself, people tell different stories and perceive the world differently than those who are the oppressors. It was in this class that he opened up the word apocalypse for me.

I’m not a Greek scholar. I struggle to decode he letters of the language. I survived my seminary education in part by focusing on Hebrew. But Andre is fluent in so many languages. He is published in English, French and Flemish. He is an accomplished Hebrew scholar and is fluent in both ancient and modern Greek. In class he would dive into a translation problem and we never knew for sure which language he would be speaking when he emerged. One day in a small seminar with only four or five students we were working on understanding a concept and he started to diagram on the chalkboard. Soon he was writing in Flemish, a language that none of us students understood at all. We had to remind him that this was and American school and we didn’t speak European languages. He laughed and said to us (in English) that he’d try to stick closer to Latin in the future.

So our class was often filled with unpacking the meaning behind words. Much of what we receive is shaped by the language we speak and the culture in which we live. We don’t always see the world in the ways that others have seen it. We started by seeking to more fully understand the meaning of Apocalypse. We tend to think of apocalypse as a cataclysmic event. We talk of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and imagine the end of the world, the end of history as we know it. In Greek, however, the word has a different meaning. It isn’t about the end at all. The actual meaning is “an uncovering.”

Andre taught us that the work of the church, and of a pastor, is often apocalyptic. We uncover the stories that underlie our faith. We tell the ancient stories that have been hidden - covered by layers of language, of meaning, of interpretation. Our job is to uncover the truth that lies beneath. When you start to uncover the stories of our people, you discover that there is much that has been hidden.

It seems to me that we are living in apocalyptic times - not in the sense that the end is in sight or that we are living at the close of history, but rather in times when some things that have lain beneath the surface are being revealed. Some of what is being uncovered isn’t very pretty. From the very founding of our nation there has been intense racism. In the early days of our history this was expressed in the buying and selling of human beings. The practice of slavery was a brutal and cruel part of our story. The racism was also expressed in the mistreatment of indigenous people as European settlers spread across this continent. The way I learned about these things in school, however, was that they were our past - our history. The Civil War had ended slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation has changed our story. There had been injustices perpetrated against the tribes, but that was something that was in the past.

The 2016 election, however, unleashed a whole new round of public figures making racially charged statements. Racism that had been hidden by social constraints began to appear in public. The Unite the Right rally was a gathering of white supremacists and neo-Nazi participants who marched through the parks and streets of Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017, carrying Nazi flags and torches and displaying all kinds of symbols of anti-Muslim and antiseptic groups. As the son of a man who fought in World War II, I never thought I would see such a thing in my own time in my own country, but here it was. It was impossible to ignore. What was worse was that our President offered support to the marchers and appeared to condone their behavior. It was an apocalypse. An ugly part of the American story was uncovered and revealed.

What is uncovered, however, is not all ugly and dangerous. The apocalypse also holds the potential to uncover the incredible wisdom and insight of the founders of this nation. Their attempt to form “a more perfect union” brought out some of the best of human nature. People who were willing to put their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” on the line for principles and ideas are also a part of our story.

Indeed we live in apocalyptic times. But this is not the end. Sometimes you have to get to the bottom of a story to find its true meaning. That can take time and patience. At 94, my teacher still has lessons for me to learn.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!