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Southern Cultures 10.1 (2004) 56-60

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Float Fishing in the Ring of Fire

Hal Crowther

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Figure 1
"I'm with the British writer Zadie Smith, who writes, 'The Book of Revelation is the last stop on the nutso express.'" Long's The Vision of the Sixth Angel, c. 1961-65, oil on canvas, from the Collection of Bob Gibson. Courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art.

It's not well known that I was once an actual salaried art critic, for a very large newspaper—for a very short run. But I'm here today, I'm sure, due to my reputation as a theologian. I have to confess that as a lapsed Unitarian I fall at the opposite end of the theological spectrum from the Reverend McKendree Long. In fact, I guess the only thing we had in common was our taste in women. I, and most of you, I imagine, would be among the lost souls he sent hurtling into the Lake of Fire in their bathing suits or less. Members of my family have even been guilty of the heresy known as Universalism, the bland and beautiful belief that everyone is saved whether they like it or not—"the final harmony of all souls with God"—and that even if you ended up in hell somehow it was only temporary, it just meant that you and God needed to get a few things straight between you. I [End Page 56] myself once wrote, in an art review actually, "I've never been able to follow the notion of god's plan much beyond the boundaries of the human ego."

I suppose I'd be a secular humanist, except I'm not so high on humans at this point. But I'm profoundly uncomfortable with some of the images in these paintings—of Christ with a sword or a bloody sickle, of god orchestrating colossal slaughters, mass extinctions of human and animal life toward what end we're not really sure except to confirm to individuals like McKendree Long that they were right all along, that god is as hard and uncompromising and unforgiving as the face they see in the mirror every morning. As for me, when it comes to scripture, I'm with the British writer Zadie Smith, who writes in the really interesting novel White Teeth, "The Book of Revelation is the last stop on the nutso express."

No one knows much about this man John, who wrote the Book of Revelation on the island of Patmos sometime around 100 A.D. Very few scholars still believe that he was John the disciple of Christ. All we know is that he had a lurid and spectacular imagination—like McKendree Long—and that every period of Christian history has produced new and increasingly bizarre interpretations of his prophecy. If I were a biblical scholar I'd make a study of the vegetation on the isle of Patmos to see if Patmos grows anything recognizably hallucinogenic. But in present time John's nutso express is carrying more passengers than ever, including American fundamentalists who are rooting for a world war in the Middle East because it suits their timetable for Armageddon. A man named Dale Pollett came to Hillsborough, North Carolina, where I live, just last month with a video-illustrated lecture series, "The Time of the Beast," including a lecture revealing "nine ways to identify the Antichrist—a crystal clear revelation of who the Antichrist is." Passengers on the express also include the Reverend Pat Robertson of Virginia Beach—an educated, gentleman evangelist like McKendree Long—whose book The End of the Age prophesied that Christ would return in the year 2000—Oops!—in a spaceship, a jeweled cube measuring 1400 miles on each side. Rev. Robertson also ran for president in 1988 and won more delegates at the Republican Convention than anyone except George Bush and Bob Dole.

If I could step entirely out of character for a moment and talk politics: you can see here how critically important it...