The people in Waiting for Armageddon believe the end of the world is coming soon. They believe it will involve waist-high rivers of blood, atomic bombs delivered by Jesus Christ himself, and a battle for the fate of the universe fought on horseback in Israel with every single army in the world. Many of them even believe that US foreign policy should actively try to bring about the Armageddon described in the Book of Revelations through war in the Middle East and fomenting tension between Israel and the Muslim world. And there are more than 30 million of them in the United States.
Yet the most surprising aspect of the new documentary by directors Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, and Franco Sacchi might be the fairness and respect it shows its subjects: members of America’s evangelical Christian community who believe that the Bible provides a literal (and gruesome) description of the end of the world.
Given the filmmakers’ liberal credentials — which include Southern Comfort, a documentary about a dying transvestite’s search for love — that seems like no small feat. After all, if your subjects believed that one day soon, all true Christians would suddenly vanish from the Earth in an event known as the Rapture, leaving behind only the unrighteous, you know you’d be tempted to throw in a joke about how totally rude it would be of former evangelical preacher Ted Haggard to vanish into thin air on the male prostitute he hired mid-coitus. I mean, for example’s sake.
Not that the subjects don’t provide some choice quotes. One evangelical says of the Tribulation — when all nonbelievers will suffer in ways worse than Jesus in a Mel Gibson film before eventually being exterminated — “It’ll be fun!” Another draws a comparison between contemporary white males in the US and Holocaust-era European Jews, since today’s feminists and multiculturalists are, he argues, pretty much equal to the Nazis of years gone by. But the directors aren’t trying to make a blooper reel; any foot entering mouth is illuminating, not incriminating, and there’s nothing on the scale of, say, evangelical Pat Robertson claiming that Haiti’s earthquake was punishment from God for that country having signed a “pact with the Devil.” In fact, one gets the sense that evangelicals who believe in Armageddon would like this film and its clear and fair representation of their beliefs. The directors refrain from editorial commentary and let their subjects speak for themselves as clearly as they possibly can. Although I appreciate documentaries that reaffirm my worldview as much as the next guy (especially if that involves belittling those who disagree with me for laughs), the directors have made the right choice here.
Toward the film’s end, in a welcome break from discussions about which battle will occur at what site in Israel or just how brutally God will destroy and torture those who don’t believe in Him, we’re shown a lecture on something even more fundamental to the evangelical faith: the threat that postmodernity poses to the idea of absolute truth. With a PowerPoint presentation behind him that looks straight out of an Introduction to Comparative Literature class (Jean Baudrillard name-dropping included), a speaker explains French philosopher/literary critic Jacques Derrida’s idea of textual relativity, which is, simply, that there can never be one authoritative interpretation of any text. If we believe that, he says, then true is false and false is true. Anything can mean anything. It’s a completely unacceptable prospect for someone who believes that the absolute, literal truth exists in written form.
Yet, despite how antithetical the concept of absolute truth is to the multiculturalism and artistic playfulness that define the best parts of modernity, you have to hand it to evangelicals for paying attention to Baudrillard and Derrida. After all, I can’t imagine that literary theorists devote much time to thinking about the popular Left Behind series of action novels about the end times. This film, in part, helps to right that imbalance. And what better rebuttal to an ideology based on the concept of one absolute truth than fairly and respectfully representing the ideas of those we disagree with?