I WISH I could be confident that this book would find its way into the hands (and minds) of the millions who have gobbled up the Left Behind series, The Late Great Planet Earth, and all the other volumes that have led so many self-described Christians to contemplate with equanimity the imminent bloody slaughter and eternal damnation of whole populations of their fellow creatures. But...like free ice cream Fridays or open-to-all polkas on the White House lawn, bestsellerdom for Left Behind and Loving It is delightful to fantasize about but unlikely to happen. More's the pity.
Mark Davis's book is smart but accessible to the ordinary reader, its scholarship deep but lightly carried. And yes, it is, as its subtitle announces, cheeky--but not gratuitously snarky. For instance, Davis's chapter on the eschatological chapters in Matthew and Luke is called "Victorious Secret," evoking the famous naughty lingerie emporium and catalogue. Cheeky, to be sure. It begins by juxtaposing Davis's accidental internet discovery of a "Society of Christian Nudists" with the familiar image of the "raptured" leaving behind a neatly-folded pile of clothes. But then Davis steers this into a not-at-all-cheeky reminder that, at least according to Matthew, what separates the saved from the damned is that the saved clothed the naked (and fed the hungry, visited prisoners, nursed the sick) and the damned did not. That is, the Son of Man coming in clouds does not ask anyone, "OK, did you accept me in your heart as your personal savior? Yes? For real? All right, you're in." The Son of Man wants to know what you did for the least advantaged of your fellow creatures. That's the victorious secret.
Davis quickly (the book is under 120 pages) tours the Book of Daniel, the relevant chapters in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and of course the Book of Revelation, emphasizing that the writings have an original historical context that we need to keep in mind, and that poetic texts (such as the second half of Daniel and large swathes of Revelation) were never meant to be read literally. He illustrates the problem with "homotextuality" (cheeky! he means treating scripture as if it were all the same kind of text) by presenting three texts on Lincoln's death: the autopsy report, grisly and clinical; a letter by one of the attending doctors, describing his emotions at the loss of the great leader; and a passage from Whitman's magnificent elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." All are about the same event; their perspectives, though, and their use of language and their scope vary tremendously.
Daniel certainly matters for us today, Davis argues, but not because we should be looking around to speculate over what contemporary phenomenon we can identify as an "abomination of desolation," but rather because he responded to his own historical moment in so powerfully visionary a way that we can draw courage and hope from his vision. What mighty empire today, brothers and sisters, has feet of clay? They all do. They all always do, from Daniel's day unto our own. That's why we should still be reading Daniel.
I very much liked the chapter on Revelation, where Davis counterposes the Jesus of the gospels to "Ahnold," having some good serious fun with the Left-Behinders' apparent relish for the idea that when Jesus comes again he will not be a weedy semitic carpenter full of enigmatic utterances, easily humiliated by a squad of centurions, but instead will be buff, nordic, and packing some awesome weaponry.