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NewCityNet Apocalypse Now

By Keith O'Brien

JANUARY 12, 1998:  Darkness comes slowly over the city, falling like damp wool on the blank-faced commuters staggering past DePaul University's Lincoln Park campus. The wind blows cold thoughts of a winter yet to come. A train rumbles in the distance. Purple sky bleeds to black. As the long arms of darkness embrace the remnants of light lingering outside the window, a man with a white beard and round glasses says, very calmly, that the end is near. The end of the millennium, that is.

His name is Dr. Charles Strain, a professor of religious studies at DePaul, and he is not alone in his knowledge that the millennium is approaching with increasing speed. In fact, you don't have to be a doctor of anything to know that 2000 and all the attendant apocalyptic hype is nigh.

It is already 1998, only two years until 2000. Two years until the 20th century disappears into the pages of history books and we tiptoe across a cosmic threshold into a new time that, in its strongest interpretations, gives reason for apocalyptic thoughts. According to Professor Strain, we aren't alone in our growing interest in 2000. He says a millennial vein with an apocalyptic bent runs through the very heart of American culture. Always has, he says. And perhaps, it always will.

Strain, in conjunction with the DePaul Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program and the DePaul Art Gallery, will explore this idea with a speaker series and accompanying art exhibit both titled, "Apocalypse Now and Then: Art and the End of Time."

"American culture, in part, has always been a millennial culture," Strain says, sitting in his thoughtfully cluttered office at DePaul in Lincoln Park. "In my classes I say look at the back of the one dollar bill. It says, 'Novus Ordo Seclorum,' or 'New Order for the Ages.' A lot of people -- the founders of the country, Puritans, Jefferson, Franklin -- had very millennial ideas."

By millennial ideas, Strain means a tendency to paint the world in terms of good and evil, right and wrong. Religious historians like Strain -- and speakers in the lecture series such as Paul Boyer of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Michael Barkun of Syracuse University -- point out again and again the proclivity of human beings to classify complex issues into apocalyptic terms of right and wrong.

In American history alone, the examples of such apocalyptic struggles are plentiful. From the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement a century later to the ecological and environmental movement of today, Strain sees a tendency to segregate reality into stark contrasts of right and wrong. What he finds even more interesting is the more recent tendency of people unaffected by religious fundamentalism and extremist beliefs to accept this apocalyptic vision.

"One thing that strikes me is the way that these apocalypse theories have begun to permeate ordinary popular culture," he says. "It's part of TV shows like the X-Files, current Hollywood films and various forms of literature like science fiction."

The lecture series and art exhibit will explore the presence of apocalyptic perspectives in art, both modern and classical. At the DePaul Art Gallery, recent work -- such as Chicago painter Sarah Figlio's dark rendering of a haunting black tornado set against an evil green background -- will appear beside German painter Albrecht Durer's "Four Horsemen," a vivid interpretation of the New Testament's book of Revelation, created in the late 1400s. Both pieces tackle the idea of that which we cannot control, an idea that consumes apocalyptic thoughts. Louise Lincoln, the director of the university's gallery, says that the exhibit will bring centuries of art together under one common, yet very powerful theme.

"First, there's all this interest in the millennium now, how we're two years away, ticking toward the year 2000. Or we're interested in it because of the environmental holocaust or poisoning or whatever," she explains. "But it's a much different perspective to say, 'Oh, yeah. We're doing essentially what people did in the 13th century or 14th century who were worried about with Black Death.' We're trying to make sense of things out of our control."

Strain is riding a wave of popularity because the approach of the millennium has captured the public imagination. But for Strain, who says that he is curious but not obsessed about the way Americans view the apocalypse and the millennium, the idea of the apocalypse isn't going to simply go away once New Year's Day 2000 comes and goes. The idea of the apocalypse is here to stay.

"There's a lot of evidence that things go wrong, often terribly wrong," he explains. "There's war, the spread of disease, natural catastrophes. There's a lot of evidence that that happens all the time. But is apocalyptic rhetoric the way to think about it? I'd say no."

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