I always feared seeing my hometown turn into Armageddon, and five years ago, sure enough, that’s just what happened. As a small child, I would sit in the pews of my church and imagine, as our pastor flipped through one apocalyptic scenario after another in his prophecy charts, what our town—Biloxi, Mississippi, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico—would look like after the seals of the Book of Revelation had been opened, after all hell broke loose on the world as we knew it.
When I’d mention such things, the Southern Baptist adults around me would try to comfort me with the details of our then-trendy 1970s pop-dispensationalist eschatology: “Don’t worry about that, honey; the Rapture of the church will have happened by then, and you won’t be here to see it.”
That really didn’t comfort me, though, as much as they thought it would. Yes, my raptured soul would be safely sequestered in heaven, while tsunamis and locusts and horse-riding specters ravaged our hometown, but it would still be gone, washed away in a flow of blood and debris. I would be exiled from it. And home would be taken away from me—forever.
I knew I wasn’t supposed to think that way. This world is not our home, you know. We are citizens of heaven, resident aliens here for a vapor. But, still, the idea of my little beachfront community buried beneath the collapse of unbelieving civilization was hard to take, so I tried not to think about it, focusing instead on the scenarios the preachers actually talked about: the sudden evaporation of New York or Washington or Hollywood or Rome, all those Babylons that, we were told, were exalting themselves against God, and corrupting our values with prayerless schoolrooms and primetime soap operas and heavy metal music and nuns (though with a half-Catholic family, I never believed that last part).
I outgrew the dispensationalism (while holding onto the gospel underneath it all), but I still lived to see my hometown face an apocalypse. And rather than watching it all helplessly from a cloud in heaven, I had to watch it all, even more helplessly, on CNN.
Divided by Camille
When I was growing up, hurricanes were like fall revival meetings: cyclical as the seasons themselves, lots of buzz beforehand, but rarely amounting to much at all. A few hurricanes hit, tearing up the yard, uprooting our climbing trees, and leaving us without power or water for weeks at a time. It was kind of an adventure. My little brother would literally jump around the yard in excited anticipation. Some adventurous rakes would always plan hurricane parties on the beach—while the older people shook their heads in disapproval.
Every time a hurricane came through, though, the generation before us would start chattering about “Camille,” the big, devastating hurricane that wiped out the Coast in 1969, two years before I was born. Our parents and grandparents divided history into “before Camille” and “after Camille.” To us, Camille was as distant as the Great Depression. One explained why my grandmother canned so much food every year in her storage shed, and the other explained why she cried whenever the weatherman announced a hurricane watch.
I expected a normal, run-of-the-mill hurricane when my parents told me, in August of 2005, that another one was forecast. “Dad, why don’t y’all come up here with us, during the storm,” I offered, though I knew in advance what his response would be. “Only wimps and Yankees evacuate,” he said (which is an adequate answer, perhaps, for why my ancestors lost the Civil War).
What I didn’t know was that the most horrible natural disaster in American history was building strength somewhere out there in the Gulf. And my hometown was her prey.
Most of the news reports focused on the levees breaking in New Orleans, and rightly so, since the engineering failure that devastated that great and indispensable American city—and the political, social, cultural, and economic aftermath—is an ongoing national crisis. But Katrina didn’t hit New Orleans—she merely released her apocalyptic horsemen out into the Crescent City. She hit the coastline of Mississippi, just over the Louisiana border, and afterwards, nothing would ever be the same.
For a week I didn’t know if my parents and grandmother and other relatives were alive or dead. I watched the images on television, pacing the floors as I saw landmark after landmark wiped off the map. The mausoleums in some of the graveyards are said to have opened, with coffins and bodies floating down the streets.
But the round-the-clock cable networks didn’t prepare me for seeing my post-Katrina hometown with my eyes for the first time. My boyhood prophecy charts prepared me more.
After the National Guard allowed traffic into the disaster area, I drove down Highway 90, along the Gulf, with my wife. I pulled the car over to cry, and to vomit. Houses of family and friends: gone. Churches I’d heard and preached the gospel in: gone. Most of the landmarks of my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood: gone. And thousands of my fellow Coastians (and New Orleanians): devastated. The strewn brick and rotting fish and jagged trees all lay there in the coastal sun like a decomposing corpse.
Some people said it looked like Hiroshima after the bombing. My thought instead, conditioned by my fundamentalist background, was that it looked like Babylon after the fall of the Beast. It was like the end of the world I used to worry about, just a couple miles down the road from there. And, in some ways, it was.
Katrina reminded me that my home church was right about the apocalypse, even if wrong about the details. Scripture continually speaks of the Day of the Lord—that time in history when all the established order is shaken like ripe figs from the tree (Nahum 3:12) by the judgment of Yahweh. And it speaks of glimpses of that Day of the Lord coming repeatedly through history, as nations war against nations and earthquakes and signs in the heavens rattle the dwellers of earth. These are, Jesus tells us, “but the beginning of the birth pains” (Matt. 24:8).
The use of apocalyptic language for the destruction of Katrina is tricky, complicated by all the craziness that accompanies any disaster these days. Of course, the hired-gun prophecy experts on Christian television were on hand to embarrass the church, as usual, with pronouncements that this was God’s judgment for some sin of the people there (usually the casino industry on the Coast or, more typically, the hedonism, sexual and otherwise, of New Orleans). And it wasn’t just the right-wing fringe. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., sounded like a mirror image of Pat Robertson when he suggested that the governor of Mississippi’s opposition to a global climate-change treaty had something to do with the disaster. Such is, of course, nonsense.
The Christian gospel refuses to flatten out the little apocalypses of history into the same kind of “sheep and goats” clarity as the final Apocalypse. Jesus refuses to blame the falling of the tower at Siloam on the personal sin of those suffering there. But Jesus doesn’t avoid talking about ultimate Apocalypse either. He rejects a personal sin-disaster correlation but then says: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4–5).
The apocalypses we experience now—whether in Katrina-struck America or earthquake-devastated Haiti or tsunami-ravaged Asia—remind us that this present order isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. The CNN meteorologists can explain the hurricane only in terms of barometric pressure and water temperatures. We know, however, that at its root this natural disaster isn’t natural at all. It is creation crying out, “Adam, where are you?”
The Psalmist reminds us that God originally put all things under the feet of Adam (Psalm 8:6). But the writer of Hebrews reminds us that we do not yet see all things under the feet of humanity (Heb. 2:8), although we do see a crucified and resurrected Jesus (Heb. 2:9). Whereas Jonah the sinner could only still the storm by throwing himself into its midst, Jesus exercises dominion over the winds and the waves with his voice. Mark testifies that the boat’s occupants remarked: “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41).
The Apostle Paul likewise reminds us that the creation itself groans under the reign of sin and death, waiting for its rightful rulers to assume their thrones in the resurrection (Rom. 8:20–23). The storms and the waves are one more reminder that the “already” has not yet been replaced by the “not yet.”
The Scripture says that in our fallenness we intuitively want to deny even the possibility of ultimate apocalyptic judgment—whether in reference to the first watery apocalypse or the fire to come next time. In these last days, the Apostle Peter tells us, scoffers will say: “Where is the promise of his coming?” Unbelief will always point, he says, to the fact that “all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:3–4). That’s why Jesus says the final cosmic Katrina will come as “in the days of Noah”—unexpectedly in the midst of feasting and working and marrying and giving in marriage (Matt. 24:36–55).
The tragedy of a groaning cosmos right now isn’t because God is a capricious king. It’s because he is allowing these chaotic upheavals to warn us that the order we so want to hold onto isn’t stable, that the ruler of this world is judged—and his kingdom will ultimately be shaken and replaced. Because we know the end is coming, the Spirit prompts us to learn to groan along with the cosmos (Rom. 8:22–23).
Perhaps the right kind of biblical apocalypticism was proclaimed less in our prophecy charts than in our baptisteries. As Baptist Christians we believed (and I still do) that baptism is immersion. But too often we seemed to forget that this immersion was a sign of judgment, and of the sureness of death. Our baptism proclaims that we are drowned beneath the watery curse of death, buried with Christ, but also raised with him (Rom. 6:3–6). As the tribe of Noah is brought safely through the waters and into a new creation, “baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you” (1 Peter 3:20).
The people of my hometown have seen, in a sense, a “baptism” of their entire world, beneath the waters of a violent sea. They—and I—will probably never hear the parable of the house built on the rock the same way again. And they—and I—will probably find something all the more sobering about the warning that Jesus will baptize this universe next not with cleansing water, but with purifying fire (2 Peter 3:7).
Loss of Home
But Katrina also reminded me what was wrong with the Evangelical apocalypticism of my boyhood.
We always seemed to love “home” too much to really believe it. The culture around us revolted against Southern Evangelical eschatology with songs like Hank Williams Junior’s “If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Dixie (I Don’t Want to Go).” We’d respond by singing of “Sweet Beulah Land,” that we were “kind of homesick for a country, to which I’ve never been before.” But the heaven we spoke of, and sang about, and imagined, looked an awful lot like Dixie, too. We were rooted people, despite all our prophecy charts and gospel songs.
The grief I experienced after Katrina was nothing like that of those who had stayed—including most of my family—relocated to FEMA trailers, their homes a pile of rubble, their jobs “raptured” away with the fleeing businesses. My pain was more psychic. Some would say it was the loss of nostalgia. I’d see it more as the loss of home.
The worst part of my post-Katrina visit wasn’t the wreckage. The worst part, for me, was that, driving down the most familiar piece of ground for me on this earth, I didn’t know where I was.
Biloxi was always where I could return to, if only for a few days, and find things always the same. Sure, things would change in a micro-evolutionary way: a new pier built over here, a new dollar store on the corner over there.
But the beachfront mansion Beauvoir would always be there, right where Confederate president Jefferson Davis had built it. Right there would be the magnolia trees my brothers and I climbed through, pretending to be pirates. Right there would be the Winn-Dixie grocery store where I’d worked my way though high school. Right there, the mall where I first saw the bashful young girl who would later be my wife. Right there, the seafood restaurant overlooking the beach where we’d had our first date. And right there, at the end of that pier, the spot where I first realized I wanted to ask her to marry me.
It’s all gone now. And it’s not coming back.
Loss of the Past
Not knowing where I was, on Highway 90, gave me a jarring sense of a loss of the past. I feel it still. Five years later, most everything that can be reconstructed has been. There are shiny new high schools and malls. But you can’t rebuild a beachfront antebellum house or a hundred-year-old church. Instead, Biloxi is now dotted with (even more) casinos, (even more) Waffle Houses, and (even more) Wal-Marts and Best Buys.
I understand now what Elizabeth Spencer wrote, in another day, in her memoir Landscape of the Heart:
If I could have one part of the world back the way it used to be, I would not choose Dresden before the firebombing, Rome before Nero, or London before the Blitz. I would not resurrect Babylon, Carthage, or San Francisco. Let the Leaning Tower lean and the Hanging Gardens hang. I want the Mississippi Gulf Coast back the way it was before Hurricane Camille, that wicked killer which struck in August 1969.
Now Southerners are a nostalgic people, and this shows up in our literature, from Thomas Wolfe to William Faulkner to Eudora Welty to Anne Rice. Mississippi writer Willie Morris writes about an Ole Miss student who, after encountering a cosmopolitan, Eastern prep school graduate at a party at Harvard, remarked: “For the first time in my life, I understood that not all Americans are from somewhere.”
But, it seems to me, this isn’t just a Southern thing or a small-town Midwestern thing. Rootedness is an essential aspect of human flourishing. It reminds us that we are creatures; we are from somewhere.
A Rooted Messiah
As fallen image-bearers, we’re all drawn toward the primal sin of the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). We want either to idolize our roots—to make them ultimate (see, for instance, the satanic power of the Aryan myth of the Nazis or the racial supremacist views of the Ku Klux Klan or the Black Panther Party)—or to transcend our rootedness, to see ourselves as gods who aren’t fashioned from any particular piece of ground.
In his novel Andy Catlett, Wendell Berry writes of the young Kentuckian who wishes to get away from his upbringing, to create his own identity, and to be as “ancestorless” as the first man. But the first man wasn’t “ancestorless.” He was, the Bible says, the “son of God” (Luke 3:38). And he wasn’t from nowhere. He was molded from the mud and given a home in a specifically noted place, in the east and defined around the rivers Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates (Gen. 3:10–14).
When God in Christ Jesus recapitulates the human story—and thereby redeems the world—he does so with a “rooted” Messiah. Yes, the Son of God transcends human time and space. He was with the Father and the Spirit in love and glory “before the world was” (John 17:5). But in his Incarnation, Jesus identifies himself with a tribe, with a genealogy, with a hometown—even one that isn’t thrilled about his preaching (Luke 4:24). He, Scripture tells us, “went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’” (Matt. 2:23).
Some of Jesus’ contemporaries rejected him because of this rootedness: “But we know where this man comes from, and when the Christ appears, no one will know where he comes from” (John 7:27). They were quite mistaken. It is “the Beast” who is from nowhere, “rising out of the sea” (Rev. 13:1), representing humanity in its origins-denying self-exaltation (Rev. 13:18). Our Lord Jesus, on the other hand, is from “the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations” (Is. 9:1). We know where this Man comes from.
Perhaps if we were less embarrassed by our rootedness, we might see something glorious in it despite all the ways we have perverted it (and Mississippians, as we know, have seen how love of roots can be drawn into the spirit of anti-Christ).
It seems to me that the Christian Platonism of C. S. Lewis is more resonant with biblical eschatology than the Christian apocalypticism of C. I. Scofield. Lewis would have been derided by the old dispensationalists as rejecting a “literal” view of the end—one without an earthly millennial kingdom or a “future for Israel.” But Lewis was no cosmopolitan. Yes, he craved heaven, for the great “northernness” he could see in the vast sky above him, but he tied that craving to a longing experienced first in nostalgia—for the changing seasons, for the stories of childhood, for the experience of home.
In the last of his Narnia books, Lewis shows us his vision of the end. It is not an escape from creation or a flight from the past. It is instead a more “real” Narnia, of which the older Narnia was but a shadow. Life in this present Narnia comes to a close, but it isn’t “over.” It is a preparation for life in a new Narnia, in which the longings of home come to fruition, ever expanding into eternity.
Redeemed & Restored
Five years after Katrina, my hometown has changed. There seems to be a roughness there I never knew before. The confluence of coastal Cajuns, old southern families, and Vietnamese immigrants, with Deep South manners and the rhythms of Mississippi, made for a certain kind of sweetness. The co-existence of Roman Catholic Lenten fish fries and Southern Baptist revival meetings furthered a sense of “mere Christianity,” even as it often showed just how nominal and shallow both could be. The Coast seems more rugged now, more grown-up in the most tragic sense. The Coast (and with it, New Orleans) seems more like William Faulkner than John Kennedy Toole these days. It’s my favorite place on earth, but there’s a deep brokenness there.
As I am editing this article—written months before—my hometown is bracing for another wave of crisis. An oil rig catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, the greatest environmental disaster in American history, means an enormous blob of crude petroleum gushing from the ocean’s floor now threatens to cover the beaches and marshes of the Gulf Coast, smothering the sea-life and birds and possibly making extinct the fishing, seafood, and tourism industries that have created and sustained not just the economy but the culture itself. As I write these words, I have no idea how badly this will turn out, but it feels much worse than Katrina—a slow-motion Katrina with no eye of the storm.
The people of my hometown have seen a little apocalypse. They’re not the first, and they won’t be the last. But five years later, we should all remember that “natural disasters,” ultimately, are neither natural nor disastrous.
My hometown isn’t there anymore. But then again, it never really was. The hope after Katrina is not for civil defense and architectural rebuilding. It is for that little stretch of pine-dotted coastland, and with it the entire created universe, to be redeemed and restored in Christ. There will come a day when the curse is reversed, and the Gulf Coast, along with the entire cosmos, fully reflects the glory of a resurrected Messiah. And John sees in his vision that, on that day, “the sea was no more” (Rev. 21:1). He also sees that, in the Holy City, “nothing unclean will ever enter it” (Rev. 21:27).
Jesus of Nazareth can bring down Babylons, yes, and Jerusalems too. But Jesus can also drive evil spirits into the sea. He can turn back the sea itself with a clearing of his throat. And even as he teaches us that those who follow him must leave “houses and lands” (Mark 10:28–29), he promises us that we’ll receive “a hundredfold” of such in him.
One day, we will all see the rubble of all of our places and people, our principalities and our power. And we’ll grieve, as we should, for the past worlds that have birthed us. But then, the gospel tells us, we’ll see a new city, coming down out of heaven to resurrect a universe in which the wrathful sea has finally been turned back.
“What is that?” one of us might ask.