Best known for his Children of the Last Days series of novels dramatizing the decline of Western civilization as a “New Totalitarianism” looms, Canadian artist-author Michael D. O’Brien tends to tells tense tales that sprawl and whirl. By contrast, his reflections on the “revealing” as “unveiling” that curl into etymology of the title word of this short book compress his thoughts into a far smaller span. Those curious about O’Brien’s calm, measured but unsettling take on today’s humanity compromised by a soft dictatorship—so pleasant that we do not realize the extent or the rapidity of our submission to technological ubiquity and psychological conformity—may find guidance in Apocalypse: Warning, Hope & Consolation befitting themes of its triple subtitle.

Like his angular, sparely composed Eastern Orthodox-inspired art, O’Brien in this reflective collection of pieces delineates the moral contortions and spiritual supplications that may accompany humankind’s reactions to coming threat. His preface cautions: “It is neither a dry exegesis of the final book of sacred Scripture nor an inflammatory tract for incitement of radical dread. It is short on theories, shorter on predictions, and long on ponderings.” Many set aside misgivings about ethical relativism or dismiss admonitions in biblical verse about the necessity for reform. O’Brien finds we either relegate scripture to a symbolic past or postpone its revelation indefinitely. However, as his Children narratives elaborate, impending doom may creep in, under the guise of humanist amelioration and political consolidation of a security-state’s surveillance of actions with its accompanying demand for a self-censorship of thoughts.

He cites thinkers from the past century who’ve anticipated his own cautionary tales. Scholars Joseph Ratzinger/ Pope Benedict XVI, Josef Pieper, Christopher Dawson and Étienne Gilson join fantasists G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Aldous Huxley in one warning.
Our indifferent enslavement under the guise of business-as-usual may portend the amassed manifestation of end times we don’t realize await, subtly and for all that the more sinister. “It will be accomplished by increasing the voltage of state power combined with a gradual decrease of civil rights, the lifting of burdensome responsibilities from our shoulders combined with the increase of pleasurable rewards, the growth of a power class of ‘knowers,’ who enshrine a multi-faceted neo-gnosticism in organs of institutional governance.” Meanwhile the limited exercise of one’s intellect, weakened by “corrupt education, by media indoctrination, and by a generalized loss of the meaning and value of the human person” may consolidate our “soft” new world order.

That is, rather than a Stalinist or Maoist regime, a technocracy’s computerization, enumeration, and classification of humans through data and tracking of movements may bring about what, as Ratzinger speculated, the triumph of a collective will imposes, not by despots but bureaucrats.

All the same, O’Brien dismisses any facile application of a linear template of a road to ruin, as if superimposed upon an eschatological vision. What’s more pressing remains our everyday temptation, to succumb to the “ineffective religion of niceness.” The default setting to the “lesser evil” as a solution to any predicament or election portends a strategy to retreat into a principled tactical campaign. Artists, in the widest definition of those within this creative profession, must resist parroting or promoting “political or social-revolutionary ideologies.” O’Brien turns to Pieper (censored under Nazism) who knew well the sly shift in collective consciousness towards morality made a weapon as materialism. Violence need not be carried out as physical or in public, O’Brien concurs, to generate the conditions for genocide. He maps out how utilitarianism may lead to acceptance of the reduction of the “herd” under reassuring rationales, which already threaten the youngest and oldest among us. “We tell lies to ourselves,” while apostasizing from truth and faith, O’Brien observes. A global, electronically conducted “brave new religion” awaits.

To counter capitulation, Michael O’Brien reminds readers that, contrary to North American expectations, not all can be fixed by a can-do pragmatism. He concludes by musing about themes that resonate today, over a year after this was first published. Many, he estimates, will experience “dreadful isolation” and a sense of “unholy abandonment.” False claims of security will entice, and where to place trust will become a conundrum. Many may fail this ultimate test.

He departs these pages, however, with a reminder neither to fall into denial or alarmism. He juxtaposes these knee-jerk reactions with the durable consolations from thousands of years ago. He appends biblical readings as the final word, having wrapped up Apocalypse with evocations of its paeans to courage and its expressions of enduring wisdom rather than fear.

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