May 16, 2005
Jason Boyett on the End of the World(Filed under: Interviews)
The end of the world is seriously nigh. Or so people have been saying for thousands of years. Author Jason Boyett takes a swipe at all that prophetic nay-saying and teaches people a thing or two about the end times in his latest book, Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse (read the review). Jason was kind enough to submit to an e-mail interview, which gives you an in-depth look at poking fun at the apocalypse, as well as reveals what we all wanted to know: Jason's favorite Buffy episode.
Why the Apocalypse? What on earth—or beyond the earth—possessed you to write a guide to the end of the world?
I want to become rich and famous as an author. And, these days, in order to become a rich and famous author, you either need to write a book with "Purpose-Driven" in the title or you need to write about the End Times. I chose the latter.
Actually there were a number of factors involved. Number one, I'm interested in the places where pop spirituality and pop culture overlap, and the Apocalypse fits nicely within that circle (the movie Armageddon, the Left Behind books, the glut of related info on the web). Number two, I wanted to write a religious book that would appeal to the snarky Urban Outfitters demographic. Number three, I wanted to write a humor book that had sort of an educational takeaway. And number four, there's so much ridiculousness in the evangelical subculture concerning things like the Second Coming, the book of Revelation, and the Antichrist, that the cynical hipster in me wanted to tweak those noses.
What did you learn from the process?
Well, I learned a bunch of stuff about the Apocalypse, for one thing. The research was killer on this one, so I can honestly say I got seriously schooled during the writing process—Christian history, eschatology, theology, you name it. The major thing I learned was this: I now know enough about the book of Revelation and biblical end-times prophecy to say without a doubt that I absolutely have no idea what's going on there. Seriously. If all these people who are smarter and better educated and more theologically nuanced than I am still can't agree what Revelation is trying to say—or what Jesus is trying to say in the Olivet Discourse—then who am I to declare it's one way or another? It's completely humbling. I know a lot of historical details. I know the metaphorical characters and crazy events described in the book of Revelation. But interpretation-wise, I'm clueless.
Why is the end of all humanity so darn interesting?
Was it the comedian Steven Wright who once talked about his birth certificate having an expiration date, so he knew when he was gonna die? I think all of us, way back in some psychological corner of our brains, wish that were true. We want to know when our time will be up. There's definitely some of that mindset in the people who obsess over the end of the world, especially the folks who are into setting dates and doomsaying and so on. If we can give ourselves a timeline, it helps bring current life into focus, right? Sort of like when a doctor tells you you have six months to live—and you immediately start booking that cruise to Hawaii or trip to Disneyworld or African safari so you can experience those things. (I guess that's a pretty positive example. On the negative side, you can get so caught up in what tomorrow will bring that you're no good to anybody today.)
And there are a great deal of faithful people who just get tired of living in a fallen world. Dealing with sin, depression, disease, heartache, poor self-image, stress, all that stuff. They honestly hope and pray for Jesus to come back and remove them from this world, to take them to a better place. We're interested in it because it gives us hope. We see a tiny light at the end of the tunnel, and every generation thinks theirs is the one where that light will get a whole lot bigger. Of course, every generation so far has been wrong, but who am I to quibble?
What eschatological system do you align yourself with?
I tried to be pretty even-handed in the book—which meant making fun of all the systems—so I don't actually come out and pick a side. If you were to pin me down and make me choose, though, I would admit that I lean toward Preterism. That's the idea that most of the prophetic stuff in Revelation (and in Jesus's statements on the Mount of Olives in Matthew 24, Mark 13, etc.) was fulfilled in the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD during the Roman-Jewish war. The Antichrist was Nero. It was a judgment of Christ on the Jews who rejected him, and that war, according to historical sources like Josephus, was the very definition of apocalyptic. Rivers of blood, bodies lining the streets, fire and brimstone.
Preterism seems to require the least bit of interpretive gymnastics when reading the Bible, in my opinion. But honestly, I don't know. There are some major holes in Preterist theory, too, particularly when it comes to figuring out when Revelation was written.
So I'm pretty much a weasel. I don't align myself with any team. I just stand on the sideline and make fun of the players.
How does the new Pope score on antichrist potential? Anything worth sending fanatics scurrying?
Actually, any pope will score pretty high on the Antichrist plausibility scale, and according to kooks on the Internet, Benedict could easily be a player in the apocalyptic drama. Fanatics started scurrying the moment he was declared. There's a 12th century Catholic prophecy—probably a hoax, by the way—by an Irish archbishop named St. Malachy who could supposedly see into the future. And Malachy had a vision of the final 112 popes. The next-to-last one before the Final Judgment is referred to as "the Glory of the Olive." So, obviously, it's Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, right? (The logic goes like this: the choice of the name "Benedict" is an allusion to the Order of Saint Benedict, which has a branch called the Olivetans.) And he's already talked about stuff like reconciliation and harmony and other "olive branch" types of principles. Plus, Ratzinger was born on May 18, 1920—the same day as a solar eclipse. Clearly, this man is a harbinger of doom.
How do you justify writing about the end of the world with such flippant humor?
That's been Exhibit A in most of my hate mail and bad reviews—that I don't take Scripture seriously enough—and I would have been an idiot to not expect that sort of response. Any time you start to make hamburger of someone's sacred cows, they're going to be offended and get defensive. And when those offended, defensive people are Christians, they'll probably start questioning your salvation. (Let's all sing together: "They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love...") But they're failing to see that, for the most part, I'm not being flippant with Scripture, but rather with people's arrogant, I'm-right-you're-wrong interpretations of Scripture. And there's a difference.
Any time you get very, very serious about something—whether it's a religious belief or a specific way of reading the Bible—you tend to get tunnel vision. You miss the big picture. By popping those balloons with humor, I think you can bring it back to that big picture, which I think is that the main idea of Revelation is the victory of the Kingdom of God over evil. God wins. Everything turns out for the good.
So, yeah, I am pretty flippant in the book. I treat a serious subject with sarcasm and whimsy, and a lot of people don't get the joke. (Though, it should be said, the book was written for a younger generation for whom irony and Daily Show-style humor are common currency. My main audience, I think, does get it.) But the people who get so righteously upset about the book are probably the folks who need to read it anyway. They're so wrapped up in their timelines and theories that they can't see the ridiculousness of the extremes they're going to, and the harm they're causing.
I like what the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: "Humor is a prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer." So the Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse is, in essence, a prayer book. Riiiiiiight.
What's your all-time favorite apocalypse-related story?
In 1809, this fortune-teller in England claimed she had a magic chicken that could lay eggs on which prophetic sayings mysteriously appeared. People got all excited about it, especially when one of the eggs allegedly claimed that Jesus was about to return. So all these people started gathering at the fortune-teller's house and paying money to see the Chicken of Doom, but one person happened to peek behind the curtain too early at one showing and saw the lady shoving a pre-written, "prophetic" egg up the chicken's, uh, egg-laying region. And, at that point, the whole fuss kinda died down.
Chickens are notoriously unreliable at prophetic utterances.
How do you write such funny stuff? You drive your wife nuts, don't you?
I was cursed at birth by a mystical band of gypsies who gave me the ability to string words together in ways that make people laugh. Yes, it drives my wife nuts. It's also annoying at times to myself, because I'm pretty much only funny when I write. I'm much more low-key in person, and people are always disappointed that I'm not Robin Williams or something. But Robin Williams is waaaaay too hairy for my wife, so I'm okay in that regard.
What's your favorite Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode?
Well, obviously you're aware I am/was a Buffy fan. While I loved the very special musical episode for the sheer silliness of it, the "Hush" episode in Buffy's first year of college is one of the coolest hours of television I've ever watched. There's about a 20-minute sequence in the middle of the show in which the entire town of Sunnydale has been rendered speechless by bad magic, and so the Scooby gang is forced to communicate via pantomime and badly drawn sketches and eraser board. And that silent sequence was just outright hilarious. I consider it series creator Joss Whedon's best writing ever—and he didn't even use any words. No question that episode is my favorite.
What's next on your plate?
People seem to like the combination of religion, history, and humor in the Apocalypse book, so my publisher and I are discussing some follow-up ideas. In the meantime, I'm still writing a pop culture column for Relevant magazine and, well, counting down the days to the Rapture. Which, according to my calculations, will probably be on a Thursday. But I'm not saying when.
Posted by kevin at May 16, 2005 5:42 PM
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