Remediating the apocalypse

Bush's Prophetic Mission

Bush's unwavering belief in both his mission and its terms of engagement are drawn from his sense of divine mandate. He has made it clear to a number of friends that he had a sense that God was calling him to be president for a reason. After his second inauguration as governor of Texas he rang television evangelist James Robinson and said: “I feel like God wants me to run for President. I can't explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen... I know it won't be easy on me or my family, but God wants me to do it.” (Harris 2003)

While there is a long tradition in American politics, which believes in the “manifest destiny” (Stephanson 1995) of the United States as a nation especially chosen by God, Bush's sense of mandate seems disturbingly personal.

This sense of divine mandate was strengthened after September 11. On the afternoon of his post 9/11 address to Congress Bush gathered together a group of religious leaders at the White House to brief them on what he was going to say and to ask them to give comfort to their flock and be ready to answer questions.

Gerald Kieschnick, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, addressed the group with some solemnity: “Mr. President, I have just come from the World Trade Centre site in lower Manhattan. I stood where you stood. I saw what you saw. I smelled what you smelled. You not only have a civil calling, but a divine calling. … You are not just a civil servant; you are a servant of God called for such a time like this."

"I accept the responsibility," Bush said, nodding. (Carnes 2001)

In a much quoted section of Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack Bush is asked whether he consulted his father about his plans for war in Iraq.

"You know he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to," Bush said. (Washington Post 17/4/04)

Such appeal to a “higher father” leaves the younger Bush with a great deal of certainty. He also told Woodward that he had “no doubt” over his decision to go to war in Iraq.

Bush's ongoing actions and rhetoric have led some to speculate that he may be consciously playing out a Christian end-time scenario in which he believes himself to be playing a critical role. The Middle East, especially Jerusalem and the ancient city of Babylon, in what is now Iraq, play a key role in the eschatological scenarios of Christian Armageddon.

Bruce Lincoln who teaches a seminar on the theology of George W. Bush at the University of Chicago Divinity School, recently told the Village Voice that he finds very little that's explicitly apocalyptic in Bush's public speeches. Lincoln instead links Bush's Christianity to the missionising impulse of Acts of the Apostles, the biblical book that Bush first studied after his conversion in the mid 80s. “It's expansionist-it's religious imperialism, if you will. And I think that remains his primary orientation,” Lincoln said. He continues:

[For Bush] the U.S. is the new Israel as God's most favoured nation, and those responsible for the state of America in the world also enjoy special favour….Foremost among the signs of grace-if I read him correctly-are the cardinal American virtues of courage, on the one hand, and compassion, on the other….Wherever the U.S. happens to advance something that he can call 'freedom,' he thinks he's serving God's will, and he proclaims he's serving God's will. (Perlstein 2004)

While this is an interesting distinction it is merely splitting theological hairs because all early Christianity was in effect apocalyptic. The missionising impulse in the Acts of the Apostle is driven by a sense of the imminence of the sudden apocalyptic return of Jesus. This is clear in the story of the ascension of Jesus into heaven narrated at the start of Acts.

So when the disciples had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Sama'ria and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:6-11)

This passage makes clear that for the early Christians there was a vital connection between, the restoration of Israel, their expansionary evangelical mandate and the sudden second coming of Jesus at a time fixed by God's authority. This early Christian nexus of beliefs is also critical to the world-view of many of today's fundamentalist Christian groups. If this same symbolic logic is not informing Bush directly it is certainly guiding many of the groups who seem to have a powerful influence on White House policy.

This set of symbols, sketched in summary in passages like the one from Acts, is expanded dramatically in the final book of the bible known as the Apocalypse or the Book of Revelation. While I outline in this project some of the implications of a literal view of this type of theology, a mythopoeic interpretation, as advocated by more liberal scholars, is also instructive.

Bush's rhetorical strategies may be seen as similar attempts to persuade through the mobilisation of evocative, symbolically charged language. Just as the author of Revelation drew on the apocalyptic mythologies of his day, so Bush draws on the biblical resources of Western culture.

In his definition of the war on terror as a fight between good and evil, in his definition of himself as a destined leader and in his marking of the post September 11 world as a special/new time, he is creating a “symbolic universe” that draws heavily on the “plausibility structure” established in the Christian tradition.

This web project is an evolving space exploring contemporary manifestations of the apocalyptic in current affairs and popular culture. It is being developed in association with my Ph.D. research and is both a research method and a presentation of that research. In exploring the apocalyptic I am particularly interested in mapping a series of multimodal mythic clusters that are evolving through a process of remediation which I identify as a key cultural logic for an age in which electracy is the new literacy of nomadic subjects. This hypertextual presentation foregrounds affiliational logic and although I hope the project accumulates meaning it does not seek to present a single, formal, linear argument. I have presented some of these ideas in more traditional academic formats in other places. Although the navigational choices are the user's own these tips may be useful. Feedback is very welcome.

Marcus O'Donnell 2005-2006