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Issue Date:  April 22, 2005

Is this how the world will end?


For some years, there have been “Christian” athletes and “Christian” rock bands and TV shows with “Christian” themes like “Touched By An Angel.” Now NBC says it is sticking its neck out and producing “Revelations,” a series where a Christian -- a Catholic Sister of Mercy -- fearlessly analyzes a world crisis and relentlessly pursues it according to her Christian convictions.

Sr. Josepha Montafiore (Natascha McElhone) has been able to decipher the automatic scribbles of a little girl who has been hit by lightning and is thus in a “persistent vegetative state.” Putting her clues together, based on a close reading of the Apocalypse, also known as the Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, she has clear evidence on when Judgment Day will hit us, when the Messiah will return and when the world will end.

As I write, NBC has allowed critics to see only the first of the scheduled six hours, which will air Wednesday at 9 p.m. EST, starting April 13. Network officials say the others have not even been filmed, and the sixth not even written. Having seen the first and read the synopses of five, I can’t imagine willingly missing the others -- provided I have prepared my classes and marked all my quizzes and papers for Thursday morning.

But I think it’s important to have a clear idea of what we’re getting into.

In the March 20 New York Times, the executive producer, Gavin Polone, is quoted as saying that the creators and NBC wanted to do a television show that “expressed itself as Christian.” “We’re very clear about that here. The words ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘Christ’ are used three times a minute.” Mr. Polone says he has been inspired by the success of Mel Gibson to see how the insular atmosphere of the entertainment industry has cut them off from what the real American marketplace desires.

Let’s roll that film again.

Sr. Jo has just been to Mexico, where along with thousands of pilgrims she has seen a cross projected on a mountain. She pursues Harvard professor Richard Massey (Bill Pullman), an astrophysicist, to help her decipher the sketches of this little comatose girl, whom the Sisters of Mercy have kidnapped and taken to their retreat house to prevent her organs, since she is brain dead, from being harvested for the benefit of mankind. Massey tells her bluntly that he “doesn’t do religion.” Mother Superior, by the way, informs Massey with some pride that the Vatican is “threatened” by the sisters because they claim that Jesus is “not in heaven” but here.

Why does a sophisticated rationalist like a Harvard professor listen to this for a minute? Because his 12-year-old daughter has been murdered by a satanic cultist in Chile. In fact Massey and the murderer Isaiah Haden flew back to the United States on the same plane and have a face-to-face meeting in the Wilton, Mass., prison. On the plane, the atheist Massey has a vision of his daughter pleading to get into heaven. It seems that the daughter is channeling herself, including childhood drawings only Dad would recognize, into the comatose lightning victim with coded messages about the end of the world. Something like this would give any atheist Harvard scientist pause.

Meanwhile, a ferryboat has sunk in a storm and only a beautiful infant boy has survived.

Pretty exciting. Right?

But what has it to do with the Book of Revelation?

First of all, Revelation, written not by John the Evangelist but perhaps by someone using his name around 80 A.D., is a form of apocalyptic literature, a highly poetic and symbolic tract drawing on literary forms from Greek and Latin mythology, other contemporary pagan sources and the Old Testament, especially the prophets and the Book of Daniel. Apocalyptic literature was composed to deal indirectly with the crises of its immediate readers: here, the persecution of Christians under Nero.

Thus, terms like “whore” and “fornication” refer to economic and political corruption in the Roman Empire, and “Babylon” refers to Rome. Its picture of the triumph of a Messiah riding a white horse into battle against Satan inspires first-century Christians facing possible death to hold on.

It has nothing to do with predicting the date of the end of the world.

In an essay in the Collegeville Bible Commentary, Pheme Perkins compares Revelation to “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back.” The films depict a “future in which most of the universe has been subjected to evil forces.” In the old Westerns the line between good evil was clear, but in our highly technological society, technology seems to have so overwhelmed the spirit that good and evil identities are smudged and the future of humanity is up for grabs. In both the Book of Revelation and sci-fi films, the good, represented by a small, persecuted group of humans, yearns for the Messiah to return -- most likely in the way he came the last time. Maybe as a little boy.

Pseudo-religious movies, novels and sci-fi TV series catch our attention because they seem to address the root anxieties of living in 2005: from 9/11, to the urban teenager who steals your car, to the rural teenager who gets an assault rifle and wipes out his classmates, to those red, orange, pink and purple alerts that tell you to be afraid but not what to fear.

If you saw and liked “The Exorcist” and its sequels, “The Matrix” and its sequels, the “OZ” episodes with the Satanist convict who is reincarnated here, Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Godfather III,” with its peek into corrupt Vatican bureaucracy, “The Omen,” which was written by David Seltzer, who wrote the new NBC show; and especially The DaVinci Code, you’ll enjoy “Revelations.”

If you are convinced that Terri Schiavo was the victim of the enemies of Christianity, of those who don’t want us to know that Jesus is coming soon to judge the hell out of us if we don’t shape up, you’ll love “Revelations.” Even if you have the feeling you have seen and heard all this before.

Film critic Richard Corliss, writing about Martin Scorsese’s controversial film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” observed that it “may not be a Christian movie, but it sure is Catholic.” The iconography of that movie comes from the “luxuriant Catholicism of the Mediterranean peasant.” The reverse is true of “Revelations.” It has all the superstitious “Catholic” trappings Hollywood loves to play with -- devils, miraculous babies, nuns who still wear old habits in 2005, Fatima-Medjugorje visions and, of course, Vatican villains. But nothing of real Catholic life.

Meanwhile, the NBC publicity blurb quotes someone in Hollywood who says “Revelations” is “the best apocalyptic series ever made for television.”

I can’t argue with that.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth teaches at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 22, 2005

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