From the Editor: Imagining the Televised Apocalypse: Carnivále and The Courage to Be

Jamie L. Manson

When one rides the New York City subway, one expects to see lots of ads written in a variety of languages. Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Korean are all part of the usual fare. But a sign in Latin would make even the most intentionally oblivious New Yorker do a double take.

Omnium Finis Imminent were the only words on this ad, dangling above a stark black field, illumined only by an ominous red glow. Above the field swarmed black silhouettes of large, unfriendly birds. The image gave no indication as to what it advertised. At the time I was in research mode preparing to piece together a prospectus for this current issue of Reflections. Was I having editorial hallucinations? That wouldn’t be a first.

Not a little anxious, I left the platform at Continental Avenue in Queens and boarded the E train, whose terminal stop is, for those in the know, the World Trade Center.

As the weeks went by, the foreboding signs mushroomed, appearing in stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I’m sure they were even in the Bronx, though I admit I never checked. Finally, a new sign appeared. The grim black field with the mysterious red glow remained unchanged, but this time the message was in English: “The End Is Near.” Two actors were also pictured (one seemingly dressed as a nun). And then, at the very bottom of the poster was written the final revelation: “Coming to NBC this May.”

The meaning of these cryptic posters was far more chilling than any apocalyptic horrors that I’d previously imagined: network television was taking on the book of Revelation.

I am singling out “network” television intentionally. I freely admit that I am a premium cable snob. Even the finest network drama series could not lure me away from unlimited access to HBO series such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and the apocalyptic drama Carnivále. I discovered this last series while I was bedridden, plagued by a seemingly endless series of lung problems (my own private apocalypse). Carnivále’s trailer advertised a drama filled with theological and apocalyptic conflicts: “The end times are upon us!” a voiceover warned. I was further intrigued when I noticed that one of YDS’s more famous alums, Ralph Waite ’56B.D., was in the cast. With the future of Reflections ever in my sight, I began to view the series from episode one. Three days (and three nights of colorfully odd dreams) later, I finished all twelve episodes of the first season. Carnivále was a very welcome gale of fresh air, even for my ailing pulmonary system.

It’s probably unfair to compare NBC’s six-part series Revelations with the twenty-eight episodes that make up two seasons of HBO’s Carnivále. The network series, laden with commercial advertising, did not have the luxury of time to build a long narrative arc or develop well-drawn characters. However, there is one point on which both series can be judged: their ability to imagine the apocalypse.

Revelations is, from the very outset, an intellectual and creative embarrassment. Weakly written and researched, it is clearly little more than an attempt by NBC, reeling from the loss of Friends and Frasier, to tap into a market created by the literary and cinematic wonders of The DaVinci Code, the Left Behind series, and The Passion of the Christ. Add to this the market created around the terror attacks of four years ago, a war of biblical proportions being fought in biblical lands, and a plague-like tsunami disaster during Christmas week, and NBC seemed assured of a ratings victory. Though it held its own against an epic episode of American Idol (a plague in its own right, but that’s for another article…), viewership cooled off considerably as the series progressed.

And thank God for that. It is a hopeful sign when, even in this cultural veil of tears, half-baked, campy, pseudo-religious dramas are unable to lure any audience, be it intellectual, fundamentalist, or secular-but-curious.

I could spill pages of ink critiquing the series’ protagonist nun, played with the gentleness and compassion of a vampire by Natascha McElhone, her sexual tension with the skeptical scholar played as best as possible by Bill Pullman, and their struggles with effeminate cardinals in the Vatican offices. But it is the limited understanding of apocalyptic drama, so literal in its conception, that most weakens Revelations. The series’ preoccupation with fantastic images and ideas, such as a Latin-speaking brain-dead child, an omnipresent cult of Satanists, and a institutionalized virgin mother, serve to avoid the profoundly realistic meanings of uncertainty, terror, vulnerability, justice, and paradox embedded in the notion of apocalypse.

Though the series is plagued by mortifyingly bad writing, production design, and acting, it is in the depiction of Satan that Revelations makes its most dreadful error. Even Jerry Jenkins, the culture’s leading purveyor of End Times schlock, recognized the blunder in his critique posted on the chilling website (pay a visit on an empty stomach). Jenkins muses, “One of the more egregious goofs, in my opinion, is the portrayal of what I assume we are to believe is the antichrist. Scripture may be complicated on a lot of issues, but it is clear that Antichrist will be so attractive and persuasive and beautiful that everyone without Christ will believe not only that he is one of the good guys, but that he is likely God incarnate…. In Revelations, this character is such a villain from the beginning that no one would be fooled by him.”

It is precisely in unmasking the seductive nature of evil and the religious charisma of the Anti-christ that Carnivále achieves its greatest success. The HBO series, set in the dustbowl region of the United States during the Depression, follows two seemingly separate narratives. One follows the story of a preternaturally gifted young man, Ben Hawkins, who is picked up by a traveling carnival/freak show as a hired hand (known as a “roustie”) after the death of his mother. The second storyline focuses on a charismatic Methodist minister and evangelist, Brother Justin Crowe, who quickly rises to great spiritual power with his ability to galvanize followers through his radio program “Church of the Air.” Both men, it turns out, are descendants of a long line of avatars. The minister is destined to be the “usher of destruction,” and the young roustie is meant to intercept him. The real conflict, however, lies in the fact that each man is convinced that he is doing the work of God.

The first season dramatizes each man’s growing awareness that he will play a critical role in an undefined, apocalyptic battle in the near future. Ben’s consciousness increases as he performs multiple healings while the carnival traverses the southwest. One of the most theologically exciting aspects of this character is that he is depicted healing people not only physically, but spiritually as well. While he performs the bodily healings of the lame and the dying, the character is at his most exhilarating when he heals a woman of her incapacitating grief over the loss of her baby, or of a man’s perverse avarice in pimping his mentally handicapped daughter.

Even more brilliantly written is the character of Brother Justin, the Methodist minister/usher of destruction (how does one begin to reflect on the ironies of such an identity?) played with exceptional insight and intelligence by Clancy Brown. This is no accident. In my interview with Brown, it became immediately apparent that his own depth and love of learning has allowed him a profound grasp on the nature of his character as well as the nature of evil.

Brown explains, “Justin believes that he is working for God. But he doesn’t necessarily believe that God is all benevolence and light. Somebody has to do the dirty work of identifying the sinners. Justin exerts his spiritual power by physically taking people back into the past to their worst moments of sin and promising them forgiveness.” Justin’s spiritual seductiveness reaches its peak when hundreds of thousands begin to tune into his radio programs each week. He becomes so powerful among the migrant workers, left impoverished  by the  ravages of the dustbowl, that he opens up a camp for17,000 of them, providing food, shelter, clothing, and medicine.

In time, however, Justin uses their devotion to score votes for conservative politicians. In a eerie reflection of our current political situation, he begins to hold rallies called “A Sermon on the Mount for a New America,” to support his candidates over against the “socialists and degenerates” currently in office. (In a great act of hubris, Justin admits that he sees his Sermon as building upon the meager foundations laid by Jesus.) Justin sees these political ties as intrinsic to his ministry, saying with a great twist of irony, “The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country.”

Like Ben Hawkins, Justin’s powers to transform are not limited to the material. He also has exceptional emotional power over his followers. In one seen, a close admirer and former carny named Sophie, played with depth and richness by Clea Duvall, confesses that before meeting Justin she was empty and had nothing, “but with him I have something to hold on to.” Justin consoles Sophie’s feeling of estrangement and emotional exile by asking her to join his “family.” “I want you never to be alone or afraid,” he whispers, offering her the intimacy for which she has always longed.

In perhaps the show’s most exciting stroke of theological insight, the series intentionally links the apocalyptic battle between Ben and Justin with some of the twentieth century’s greatest crimes against humanity. This is due in large part the theologically imaginative and nuanced understanding of apocalypse by the show’s creator, Daniel Knauf.

Though Knauf did not intentionally create the series to resonate with the current religious and political climate, this self-described intellectual dilettante and omnivore of books was very conscious of twentieth century history while drawing his characters and storyline. “There are different kinds of apocalypses,” Knauf said in an interview with me in April. “We’re telling the story of a certain kind of apocalypse. It is about the reality of the twentieth century, not necessarily about the end of the whole world.” Woven within Ben and Justin’s impending battle are subplots about growth of the KKK, the rise of Nazism, and the creation of the atomic bomb.

For Knauf these were all evidence of the demonic brewing in the world and each horror led to a kind of apocalyptic battle. The detonation of the bomb also had severe theological consequences:  “For me that moment in history marked the end of innocence and the end of a world in which faith and uncertainty still played a vital role.” His insight is right on target. When humans assume the power of gods, the power and importance of mystery, so essential to faith, is also lost.

This is one of multiple ways in which Carnivále speaks to the true terror of all revelatory battles between good and evil. Amid these overarching cosmic battles, many smaller apocalypses are taking place in the lives of the show’s characters, particularly the carnys, who bear interesting resemblances to some of the characters in the gospels.

Samson, a dwarf who hustles carnival spectators, but also has unshakable faith in the carnival’s pilgrimage toward the apocalypse, carries some striking similarities to Zacchaeus. Ruthie, a sultry snake charmer who is visited by the dead, fits the bill as a Mary Magdalene character (an interesting rendering of the Magdalene of the gospels, and the “adulteress” Magdalene found in the tradition) and handmaiden of Christ. Aching feelings of emptiness and isolation plague Rita Sue, a strip-show dancer, while the agonies of gambling addiction eat away at her husband, Felix.

But rather than relativize the characters of the New Testament, as Revelations and Left Behind does, Knauf preserves the literary acumen of the gospel writers by immersing his characters in moral ambiguities, crises of understanding, and spiritual conflicts.

Because the main story is set inside of a freak-show, Carnivále never shies away from the ugliness, brutalities, and ironies of life. But, much like the gospel narratives, these harsh realities are always complemented by great moments of insight, redemption, and transcendence. Knauf reflects, “These stories are about people, not ideas. Everyone is vulnerable and looking for succor. Our audience connects with these characters at very human levels. Deep inside we’re all freaks and aliens. We’re all lonely.”

It is precisely the courageous willingness of the entire cast and crew of Carnivále to embrace and question all that is riddled with doubt, vulnerability, and estrangement that allows the series to offer so much theological perceptivity.  In his masterful and timeless series of Terry Lectures offered at Yale and published in 1952 as The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich writes: “The anxiety of fate and death produces nonpathological strivings for security…. The anxiety which he [sic] is not able to take upon himself produces images having no basis in reality, but it recedes in the face of things which should be feared. That is, one avoids particular dangers, although they are hardly real, and suppresses the awareness of having to die although this is an ever-present reality.”1

As I leafed through the Left Behind volumes and viewed Revelations in preparation for this issue of Reflections, among all of the feelings and thoughts that struck me (and there were many) I was most surprised by the profound fear of death, lack of intimacy, and avoidance of reality that was being communicated, albeit inadvertently, in these narratives. It must be remarkably comforting to believe that one may never face physical death and its accompanying suffering, but will be taken up suddenly and without warning in a rapture. How intimately fulfilling it must feel to have a personal Lord and Savior of one’s own making, a Jesus who conveniently edits out all of his challenges to act mercifully, compassionately, and, most of all, humbly. How easy it must be to maintain an unshakeable, uncompromising set of beliefs, immune to all instances of moral ambiguity, fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.

As I listen to Tillich, I wonder how much of these current products of our culture are actually representations of the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness that all human beings, even the most faithful, must inevitably face from time to time. He writes,

Existential anxiety drives the person toward the creation of certitude in systems of meaning, which are supported by tradition and authority. In spite of the element of doubt which is implied in man’s [sic] finite spirituality, and in spite of the threat of meaninglessness implied in man’s estrangement, anxiety is reduced by these ways of producing and preserving certitude. Neurotic anxiety builds a narrow castle of certitude which can be defended and is defended with the utmost tenacity. Man’s power of asking is prevented from becoming actual in this sphere, and if there is a danger of its becoming actualized by questions asked from the outside, he reacts with a fanatical rejection. However the castle of undoubted certitude is not built on the rock of reality.2

Comforting though it may be for some that moral certitude is ceaselessly available, biblical truths are accessible through the cracking of arcane codes, and that the reality of God is clear and graspable, such ideas are simply not grounded in reality. For those who truly embrace their limitedness, the limitless challenges of life in this world, and the ultimate mysteriousness of God, faith will always be complex, demanding, and arduous. It will always require extraordinary courage. Isn’t this precisely what Jesus and the scriptures, particularly the book of Revelation, teach us?

It is a tragedy that NBC and the Left Behind religious merchandisers have wasted so many resources offering such a limited view of the apocalypse. Their subject, how does one authentically understand the eschaton, is a critically important one, especially during these most uncertain and often terrorizing times. They’ve simply missed the point that eschatology isn’t authentic until, to borrow a phrase from a spiritual mentor, we’ve embraced the growing death within us of our lives. By promoting a theologically limited frame of expectation, they are requiring that we avoid our own personal eschaton. By insisting that the eschaton is merely an event thrust upon us, rather than an ongoing event in which we are active participants, a core part of our authentic Christian hope and mission is lost. By consuming themselves with fantastic images of a bloodthirsty Jesus and fanatical levels of judgment and intolerance, they stealthily avoid the deeply hopeful Christian responsibility to bring about the Kindgom of God in the present. Such a distortion of an authentically eschatological hope signals the Antichrist, in the truest sense of the word, in our own era.

Anyone who has looked at the gospels in Greek knows that when Jesus announces that the Kindgom of God is at hand, he demands not simply repentance, but metanoia. To prepare for the Kindgom, Jesus challenges us to a radical reawakening and transformation of mind and heart. When my discussion with Dan Knauf drew to a close, I asked him why he decided to set his series in a carnival, which seems like a place of avoidance, rather than revelation. His response was illuminating. “When you’re at a carnival, your senses are sharpened. You hear the sounds, see the scenes and the lights, smell the smells. You are awakened from your sleep.”

How much deeper and realistic would our conception of revelation be if, every now and then, we visited a metaphorical carnival, to enlighten our ever-dulling senses, embrace our oddities and ambiguities, and expand our imaginations, theological and otherwise, in new and revelatory ways.


1. Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1952), 74.

2. Ibid., 76.

Jamie L. Manson (‘02M.Div.) is the editor of Reflections and director of publications at Yale Divinity School. For the past three years she has also taught courses in sexual ethics and the gospels at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut. A resident of New York City, she is an active participant at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Greenwich Village.