Book Review: Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances by Catherine Keller

[1] Don’t Look Up, a much-discussed movie that came out on Netflix in December 2021, posits a comet heading towards the Earth that will wipe out life on the planet. The comet is intended to represent the coming catastrophe of climate change, and the movie satirizes the denialism, greed, and disinterest paralyzing the discussion and capacity to respond in the United States. The title refers to a denialist slogan chanted in the movie, urging people to ignore looking at and facing the fiery apocalyptic event that is obviously coming towards the planet.

[2] Is the apocalypse truly upon us? As the planet warms, pandemics persist, and the realities of violence, greed, and systemic injustice continually manifest themselves, it feels more and more plausible to entertain this question. Catherine Keller, in her book Facing Apocalypse, does just that.

[3] Keller is a leading voice in contemporary progressive theology, and has been engaging the rhetoric of apocalypse for quite some time in a variety of works, advocating for a “counter-apocalyptic theology.” In these previous works, she has pointed out the double-sided approach to religious apocalyptic rhetoric. On the one hand, the “end is near” approach often associated with a fascination with the rapture has too often legitimated dismissing concerns about matters of ecological concern, injustice, and poverty; the argument being that if the end is upon us we have no need to care for the world around us because it will not be here much longer. Conversely, many progressive and liberation theologies have appealed to the coming reign of God as a motivating force in the work of liberation and towards justice in the present. On this side of the apocalyptic coin the argument is that the coming reigning of God is filled with justice and right relationships, and we can begin participating in that reality now through our work towards liberation.

[4] While not equating the value of the two approaches (or diminishing the important social movements spurred by liberative theological visions), both can be seen to share a sense of an end to history that motivates contemporary decisions. In this sense, the two can fall into mirroring one another. In those earlier works, Keller used the concept of counter-apocalypse to speak of a radical openness of possibility that resists the “end of history” binary. In Facing Apocalypse, this concern for the possible remains, but Keller also recognizes the quickly-narrowing window for action as the peril to the planet intensifies. Thus, as the recognizable effects of climate change increase and tipping points begin to pass by, she has returned to the topic wondering whether we must grapple with the apocalyptic after all.

[5] This book is aimed at a broader audience than most of her books. It is framed as a meditation on the book of Revelation, dividing its twenty-two chapters into seven figurations of apocalypse. These seven visions form the core seven chapters of Facing Apocalypse. The book of Revelation, however, forms the background of the meditation rather than its focus.

[6] Keller’s goal with this book is to reach a broader range of people, religious and non-religious, than her usual academic audience. As is typical of a Keller book, however, it brings a wide range of discourses together into vivid prose. A key trope in this book is that of “dreamreading.” In Revelation, John of Patmos takes the tactic of writing about a dream as a means of symbolically speaking into his contemporary situation. For Keller, dreamreading is a way of transposing those insights into contemporary engagement with current concerns. It is a way of speaking of unrealized possibility, which takes on an ephemeral or dreamlike quality as it approximates the real but remains separated from it as a hope of what still might be.

[7] Two key points guide this approach to dreamreading. First, “prophesy” is not prediction. Second, “apocalypse” does not refer to the end of time. To take the first, prophesy speaks of analyzing the situation in which it is uttered and seeks to discern divine activity. Thus, dreamreading John’s prophetic dream into the current context does not mean digging into what he intended to say in order to find predictions of our current times or a definitive set of signs for an end-time yet to come. Rather, identifying original intentions of the writing is valuable in that it may help to discern continuing tendencies within human society that remain at play in our times for our own prophetic discernment. As Keller puts it, John “does seem to have been discerning a disturbing tendency for oppressive interhuman systems to spoil the extra-human integrity of the planet.” (146) Stemming from this understanding of the prophetic task, “apocalypse” speaks not of the end-times, but rather, refers to an unveiling or revealing; it is to open what is otherwise shut. (xvi) That is, the prophetic dream may unveil destructive human tendencies normally hidden from our ways of seeing, and so Keller’s contemporary apocalyptic dreamreading may also identify the continuation of those tendencies today. Perhaps it may even offer a glimmer of possibility. This messianic hope is one of disclosing the opening of radical new possibilities for the world, not the closure of its history.

[8] Within this framework of dreamreading, a central theme of Keller’s meditation is the call to “mind the Apocalypse.” That is, she is calling for an approach that does not fall into the familiar binary of apocalyptic rhetoric. Rather, minding the apocalypse entails recognizing the patterns it unveils and engaging with those tendencies.

[9] First and foremost, she sees such a minding as involving mourning. She contends, “The ability to respond depends upon our capacity to feel response. And responding in care or in well-being, in comfort or joy, depends upon the openness also to negative emotion, to our own grief and that of others.” (54) Ethical responsibility within the world stems from the work of mourning for the lost possibilities of what it could have been. Recognizing one’s grief over what has been lost opens the way for a driving compassion towards what might still be. Such apocalyptic mindfulness does not solve our problems, she notes, but rather recognizing the grief and loss allows a healing movement beyond grief-bound paralysis into action.

[10] At the same time, minding the apocalypse involves guarding against mirroring the destructive patterns that it unveils. In the enormity of our moment, righteous anger is indeed called for, so long as it is borne of compassionate love formed and sharpened through the work of mourning to release resentments that might otherwise harden into mirrored rhetoric and action of hatred. It would seem that justice-seeking must be moored in mourning in order to be saturated in compassionate love rather than a self-righteous vengeance yielding destructive mirroring. (95)  Keller notes, “Precisely because of its pluralist and planetary proclivities, the progressive spectrum is more vulnerable than the right to contradictions between its ever-apocalyptic priorities.” (161). The hope, Keller holds, is for the messianic promise of righteousness that is to come to be continually held forth even while minding its potential shadow side of mirroring destructive attitudes and actions.

[11] Keller finds a space for hope in the potential for communal connection. “The issue,” she muses, “is what we do, how we live, together. And somehow, sometimes, the Spirit dwells divinely in our togetherness – making it possible.” (196). Rather than an overly grandiose hope, Keller’s pneumatological turn lifts up the seemingly mundane work of coalition-building. Rather than seeking a purity of ideal, she calls for finding ways to act together. Indeed, a practical ethical action that emerges from her meditations is the planting of trees, especially in tree-barren urban areas. (180) Reforesting the earth and improving soil quality are immediate and concrete actions that can have a substantial impact and can be engaged in by people with a range of ideological backgrounds. It is a theological act of community in which, Keller suggests, the Spirit may dwell.

[12] Given the radical forces of destruction unveiled in the dreamreading, this turn to everyday actions may seem an insufficient response to some readers. For my part, I would say that the enormity of the situation so easily leads to paralyzing despair that the reminder to begin with lament for what could have been but has been lost and then to turn to literally getting our hands dirty by putting trees into soil is a way to break through that paralysis. Beyond that, the glimmer of hope feels more realistic than triumphal proclamations; the book is rightfully titled as a call to look up and face the apocalypse rather than a hubristic plan to overcome it or an assurance that in God all will turn out well enough somehow. This is not to downplay the urgency of the moment, but rather to recognize its direness without giving up on the hope of the emergence of new possibilities.

[13] Familiarity with the book of Revelation is not required for reading Facing Apocalypse. Keller gives a synopsis of key sections before offering her dreamreading of it. One concern with this approach, however, is the way that problematic sections of the biblical text may slide by some readers. Keller is certainly aware of violent and misogynistic imagery employed by John, and points to them along the way. Yet her theological speaking into the present is sufficiently compelling that her noting the problematic texts may easily fade into the background, especially by readers unfamiliar with the content of Revelation. The concern is that her skillful dreamreading could easily leave some readers to take from this book a feeling that Revelation is best understood as a contemporary liberative text, glossing over the problematic aspects of the apocalyptic dream John of Patmos recounts. This is primarily a concern if one is using this text with the broader audience she intends to reach; for instance, if I were using this with a congregational book group I would likely supplement the reading with a bit more context using current scholarship on the book of Revelation.

[14] The methodology of dreamreading is where key concerns may lie. What constitutes a good dreamreading of an apocalyptic text, let alone transposing it to our current context? Keller’s reading is insightful, illuminating, and theologically powerful, to be sure. At the same time, I can imagine the method of dreamreading being used much as any other apocalyptic rhetoric: in deeply ambiguous and perhaps problematic ways. This is not a criticism of Keller’s writing or method, but rather a reminder to mind such dreamreading and keep it accountable to its own messianic hopes, much as Keller argues for engaging the apocalyptic more generally.

[15] Facing Apocalypse is quite readable, as it is intended for a relatively broad audience. That said, it has working behind it a wide range of disciplines and theories. It may be challenging reading for those not familiar with the strands being braided together. Keller does give explanations along the way, however, and the reading is well worth the work it requires for the insights it brings. I highly recommend this book for readers who want to “look up” and have a sophisticated theological conversation about how to make sense of the apocalyptic moment with which we are faced.


Eric Trozzo

Eric Trozzo is an ordained pastor with the ELCA who has most recently served with ELCA Global Mission as a missionary professor at Sabah Theological Seminary in Malaysia and is an Honorary Research Associate with Australian Lutheran College, University of Divinity.