Tuesday 27 December 2011

Standing in the afterglow of Rapture with the words the Rapture left

On her terrific second album Virtue, Emmy the Great deals with the break-up from her fiancé, who found Jesus and went overseas to become a missionary. She investigated Christianity, but ultimately realised she could not follow him on his path. In 'Paper Forest', she likens his departure to 'standing in the afterglow of Rapture with the words the Rapture left', while in 'Trellick Tower' she sees herself as a 'relic [Latin relictum, "left behind"] and you're so so high':
You propel yourself into the arms of God
And Christ and all the angels
Now you're high above the people
Who you used to call your equals...
You left me as a witness
Who can tidy up your business...
There's bitterness, confusion and longing in those songs, but they're tightly controlled poems too. It's no accident that Emma-Lee Moss uses the imagery of ascension and Rapture here. Her former lover removed himself and, when she found she didn't believe as he did, well: there's your cherubim and flaming sword. In declaring himself committed to a holy purpose, he claimed she - and everything they'd built up together and valued - was unholy. By ascending he'd counted his entire former world but dung.

That hurts. I don't think Christians usually appreciate how painful our conversion can be for others. 'Come out of her, my people', we hear, and we may even believe others' distress is evidence of their unredeemed nature. We've changed, in ways our loved ones could never foresee: we're open about the fact that we've died, after all. We've got a whole new set of priorities, and we disown everything that used to matter to us, the world they were a part of. What's more, our relationships with others suddenly seem conditional on a set of beliefs they find baffling, even repugnant.

When Emma-Lee Moss's fiancé became a Christian, he moved out of their shared house and broke off their engagement. That would make anyone feel not just rejected, but dirty: as if he thought she wasn't good enough to be with him. When she says that this shock was 'an odd and nasty thing I wanted out of my life', I believe her.

I have no answer to this, but the Rapture metaphor haunted me and caused me to think. Those who believe in the Rapture long for the final separation of Christians from non-Christians, much like Emmy's fiancé thought that breaking off his engagement was the godly thing to do. Among end-times believers, the Rapture isn't just an eschatological tenet: it is an event soon to be expected, to be longed and prayed for, dominating their lives. They can't wait for the moment when they'll be whisked away, leaving everyone else behind in the winepress of the wrath of God.

This parallel accounts, I think, for the similarity between Emmy's lyrics and a work like Therefore Repent! by the Canadian anarchist Jim Munroe, which deals with the experience of being left behind in a decaying post-Rapture America in a way that affirms the intrinsic worth of these people's stories. The radical turn of the Rapture-ready away from the world, on the other hand, denies human life on this earth any place other than scenery to be swept away by the coming deluge.

Such an anti-human ideology may be based on social despair, but ultimately an explanation that reduces accepting Jesus as 'your personal lord and saviour' to disaffection with society is simplistic. A key aspect of religious conversion (for me as for anyone else) is that it's unexpected and irreducible: that, while grounded in our own historical, real, material lives, it nevertheless transcends them, becoming fundamentally, almost by definition inexplicable.

This messianic convergence between the now and the not-yet is the basis for the great tension in the Christian life explored by St Augustine. In his fusion of history and theology, he traces 'the rise, the development and the destined ends of the two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, the cities which we find... interwoven, as it were, in this present transitory world, and mingled with one another' (City of God X, 1). Unlike earthly kingdoms, '[t]he safety of the City of God... can be possessed... only with faith and through faith' (XXII, 6).

Interwoven though they are, we mustn't confuse the two. Our country or even 'western civilisation' is not the City of God, no matter what its imagined 'Christian foundation'. Likewise, it won't do to pretend we're not still living in this world by fleeing into separatism or eschatological fantasy, or to feign fanatical certainty while secretly knowing we still see through a glass, darkly.

The incarnation - God choosing to become flesh and dwell among us - is the clearest indication that our lives are not merely the waiting room before heaven, a present-day purgatory: that, rather, God believes in life before death, as the old Christian Aid slogan has it. Until God wipes away all tears from their eyes, Christians are a part of this world, and we're called to be salt and light: to live with our neighbours, and draw out our lives to them.

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