Can This Really Be the End?


O, Mama, can this really be the end?

To be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues again.

Bob Dylan


Ok. I’ll confess it right up front – I’m a Dylan fan. It shows my age and generation. My children have had to learn to put up with his voice, but more than that, to put up with a parent who seems to find lines from Dylan songs that fit almost anything – at least anything significant. It must be ok. One of my daughters took me to my first Dylan concert as a gift. And I took my youngest to her first Dylan concert as a gift to her. There’s nothing liked shared pleasures with your children!

I read a review recently of Dylan: The Essential Interviews. In it, the reviewer says of Dylan: “…he started off singing about the end of the world, and he ended up adopting the theological beliefs that made sense of his musical prophesying.” The comment made me realize much of what I enjoyed about Dylan. His sense of the “end of things” (it is indeed a frequent theme in his lyrics) inevitably gives meaning to the songs themselves. Because, in the end – it is only in the end that anything has meaning.

Back at the fall of the Soviet Union, the historian, Francis Fukuyama, spoke about “the End of History.” Such would have been possible (one supposes) if the end of the Soviet Union had meant an end that carried meaning. But, as it is, the end has not been much of anything.

I used to ponder (in my college years) what the end of the Soviet Union might mean. I was reading a lot of Solzhenitsyn at the time – not to mention a heavy diet of 19th century Russian writers. I was able to imagine an end that would mean the beginning of a new spiritual rebirth for the whole of the West. But I probably had higher hopes in the spiritual resources of Russia, and seriously underestimated the power of our own vapid commercialism.

The great battle in the West today is not about democracy (though we are told democracy is what it’s all about), but about the end of history. For democracy, and the freedom it presumes, has no meaning unless it has an end in mind. Freedom is useless if it is not freedom for something.

I went shopping this afternoon (or, more accurately, I accompanied my wife and daughter as they went shopping). I had a lot of extra time on my hands – time to stand outside and think. I don’t smoke anymore so thinking is about all that’s left to me. Looking at the newly constructed vast commercial enterprise that has recently been driving our shopping malls out of business (it is a massive commercial development on the West end of Knoxville – I suppose it has clones all over the country but it is a wonder to behold), I could not help but ask, “Why?” What are we shopping for? For what end? And Dylan came echoing into my head, “Can this really be the end?”

For us to survive as a culture for any serious length of time it will be necessary for us to be able to answer the question: For what end? Militant Islam has an answer to the question and not the answer we would choose. But no answer is not the answer.

Christianity is inherently eschatological – it is precisely about the end of things and about a very specific end. The meaning of Orthodox worship is found in the fact that we believe ourselves to be standing in the very end of all things as we celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Even the Second Coming is referred to in the past tense. The End has come and Christ is victorious and as His people, Baptized into His death and resurrection, that End is our hope and our own victory.

But democracy and freedom for the sake of commercial enterprise are not the same thing and they will consistently prove insufficient for us as a nation and as a people. One of the stores we visited this afternoon was inexplicably decorated with crosses. Jewelry – crosses with clocks in them – crosses that were just pieces of wall art. One splatter of crosses had words scattered among them. One of the words, “Indulge,” stood out. If the cross has become one more bit of art to indulge, then the End will never come. We’ll be stuck inside of Mobile for ever so long, with only the Memphis blues. We will be stuck in one place wishing we were somewhere else while the End of history never comes to redeem the time in which we live. Can this really be the end? 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





5 responses to “Can This Really Be the End?”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The photo is from Picadilly Circus, London. The Punk Rockers pictured in the shot are selling photo ops to tourists for 1 pound each. Enterprising. End of civilization?

  2. Mike L Avatar

    Fr Stephen:

    The question “To what end?” has been a central, if not the central question of mine since I was, oh, twelve years old or so. Once that became so, I could never again be content with the lifestyle of material and sensual gratification. I’ve slowly come to learn that that makes me incomprehensible to most of the people I deal with. When they meet me, they assume that what I want in life is more and better stuff, more and better sex. When told what I’m really interested in, their eyes cloud over—always in puzzlement, sometimes in fear.

    Now do you understand why I’d love to settle down into a monastery?


  3. Fr. Stephen Avatar
    Fr. Stephen


    I think the question can grow more serious with the years (that is with age). In my younger years career questions, even career questions within the Church, easily substituted for the larger question of “to what end?” Before I left Anglicanism I had buried better than 100 people in my last parish – which certainly helped raise the question somewhat. I followed that with 2 years as a Hospice Chaplain, with, on average, 3 deaths a week. “To what end?” is, of course, a question loudly posed by death – which is, at least, some kind of end.

    I have a brother-in-law who, after becoming Orthodox, sighed in relief and said, “This is the last Church I’ll ever have to join.” Indeed. This Church stands at the End of all things, and from that place is able to speak as she does. Every failing of Orthodoxy in history has been a moment when the Church tried to live at some time other than the End of All Things. Monks should live at the End of All Things – eschatological signs to us and to the world, bearing witness that there is something more, something else, Someone Who will judge the living and the dead, Who alone will give life meaning. When monks live for any other reason they cease to be of much importance.

  4. Matthew Francis Avatar

    Thanks for this, Father.

    “The iron hand it ain’t no match for the iron rod,
    The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God.
    For all those who have eyes and all those who have ears
    It is only He who can reduce me to tears.”

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have to say that one of the things I dislike most about our commercial architecture, is that there is nowhere natural to human congregating. Malls tried to do this, but ended up only as crowded sidewalks with ceilings.

    When in England this summer, and I was actually in numerous small villages, I could have cried for joy. I had more impromptu conversations with strangers – mind you – strangers! – than I can recall happening here in years. I certainly never went through a pub without a conversation or two. And though there was plenty of commerciality about the smaller towns, there was still so much of the village.

    Western civilization is sad by itself in its present state, but we never quite built its infrastructure here in America. Thus our houses, our roads, our cities and towns frequently cannot answer the question: to what end?

    Perhaps it’s only a phase and we’ll do it differently in the future.

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