Book Review

Zwischen Fiktionalität und Kritik: Die Aktualität apokalyptischer Motive als Herausforderung theologischer Hermeneutik

(Between Fictionalizing and Criticism: the Topicality of Apocalyptic Motives as a Challenge to Theological Hermeneutics)
Freiburg e.a.: Herder 2005

by Joachim Valentin

Reviewed by Freek L. Bakker
Utrecht University, The Netherlands

Zwischen Fiktionalität und Kritik: Die Aktualität apokalyptischer Motive als Herausforderung theologischer Hermeneutik

(Between Fictionalizing and Criticism: the Topicality of Apocalyptic Motives as a Challenge to Theological Hermeneutics)

Reviewed by Freek L. Bakker
Utrecht University, The Netherlands

[1] Apocalyptic plays a prominent role in Christianity as well as in cinema. Nonetheless only a few theologians deal with film, the majority of them Roman Catholic. Last year one of those Roman Catholic theologians, Joachim Valentin (b. 1965), published a book containing an interesting analysis of both apocalyptic and film. The book also discusses the role played by apocalyptic in what he calls the Endzeitskirchen (churches which make apocalyptic expectations central to their ecclesial doctrines). These include the Mormons, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the New Apostolic Church.

[2] His book starts with a description of the role of apocalyptic in the Bible and early Christianity. Subsequently he presents an analytical overview of apocalyptic in the course of church history. In his analysis he comes to two remarkable conclusions. The first one is that apocalyptic is always dealing with images. And his second observation is that while apocalyptic has faded to the background in the mainline churches during the 20th century, it receives a decisive position in the Endzeitskirchen. In the meantime adherence to the mainline churches is diminishing, whereas the Endzeitskirchen are increasing. In the same period the attention paid to apocalyptic in films was extra-ordinary, so that Valentin wonders whether the mainline churches are not shooting themselves in the foot by attaching increasingly less importance to apocalyptic.

[3] In the second part of his study Valentin explores the pictorial nature of apocalypticism. Since images always cause problems in theological debate, Valentin searches for new models outside the field of theology. During his research he explores the theories of the literary scholars Wolfgang Iser and Frank Kermode. Iser in particular pays much attention to the process of identification of the reader with what he is reading. In other words, Iser does not analyze actual readings of a text, but proceeds from an ideal 'implied reader'. Based on the thoughts of these two scholars Valentin develops a new analytic model. In this model he begins with approaching the Biblical texts on the base of historical-critical analysis and exegesis, but then he distinguishes between myth, fiction and logos. The idea of fiction is central in this model. Fiction is a creative process oriented on images, in which an imaginary disclosure of the world takes place with the help of the available symbolic and narrative material. In the end this fiction in one way or another is frozen ideologically into a myth. According to Valentin the same is the case with dogma; therefore dogma is a kind of synonym for myth. Logos is critical reflection on both – fiction and myth – as means of human understanding (p. 144-145). The end of the story integrates everything, certainly in apocalyptic literature.

[4] Valentin presents an analysis of the Revelation of John. This analysis develops into a critical reflection but with respect for the pictorial nature of the representations. It does not pretend to reconstruct the depictions, but simultaneously counters misuse by leading them from the 'Es' (it) to the 'Ich' (I). What the reader is reading, must become something of himself by identification with the author of the Revelation. In this way fiction remains part reality while reality remains part of fiction.

[5] Furthermore Valentin asserts that the mainline churches will benefit from new reflection on the apocalyptic contents of their theologies in order to reshape them as much as possible in the form of fiction, of a disclosure of the world – oriented on images – based on the available symbolic and narrative material. The so-called Endzeitskirchen change these visions into dogmas that have to be taken literally, but are only able to maintain these dogmas by excluding critics and intellectuals. The building blocks of a theology with attention to apocalyptic to be built by the mainline churches are the apocalyptic passages in the Bible as well as elements derived from the success films produced in Hollywood, as these make much use of the Christian pictorial tradition.

[6] Hereafter Valentin comes to an analysis of the most important apocalyptic films of the last thirty years.He discusses, inter alia, Stalker (1979) and Offret (The Sacrifice, 1986) of Andrej Tarkovky and The Last of England (1988) and The Garden (1990) of Derek Jarman and a number of American films including Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995) and Armageddon (M. Bay, 1998). One of the characteristics of all these films is that the apocalyptic events occur within time. This is different from the Bible. With Tarkovsky evil is something in the present, it has to do with the course of events in the world and it is expected that the protagonist intervenes to improve the situation. In the American films evil comes from outside, whereas the situation in the United States – always in a very idealistic delineation – represents the good. In these films it is neither God nor Jesus but the US that intervenes and provides deliverance, though often by a person or a group of American citizens prepared to sacrifice their own lives.

[7] Valentin's book offers more than can be related in a book review. It is a pity that he does not analyze the Terminator films, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger figures. Furthermore he does not pay attention to the fact that in one of the American films, The Book of Life (Hal Hartley, 1998) it is a Buddhist woman who finds the right way. Does this mean that according to the filmmaker Buddhism offers a better reply to the sometimes apocalyptic challenges of today than Christian belief? A last point of critique is that the book does not have an index.

[8] The book is certainly to be recommended both for Valentin's analysis and for the point he makes: the need to pay more attention to apocalyptic and film in church and theology.              


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