Omega myths and rituals are intended to guide our thinking about the ultimate ends of life - the life of individuals and of communities, but also on the grand scale of the existence of the cosmos itself. They direct us to consider where the trajectories of life are aimed. Popular culture is brimming with experimentation surrounding our death customs, stories of apocalyptic crisis, tableaus of paradise, and rumors about the dead. These are all fruitful materials to reflect on in the effort to discover what eschatological beliefs and hopes our culture is carrying inside itself.
Traditional apocalypses hold that things will get worse before they get better; that a dramatic upheaval will surely occur, but that God will finally overcome the forces of evil and set a renewed creation in place. Some secular doomsday scenarios are bleak, having abandoned any trust in divine providence. In these apocalypses, the world will come to a final and miserable end. Others retain the old trust that good will ultimately triumph, and use the apocalyptic formula to warn us away from the destructive trajectories we are traveling and to recommend alternative ones. But the thrust of the old apocalyptic form remains - it is a genre of revelation and judgment, designed to expose the reigning forces of good and evil and to scare its listeners away from their ruinous ways, to inspire them through fear of the narrated outcomes to find more responsible ways to live.
The utopian landscapes that many of us watch on the screen or hang on our walls are visualizations of ideal omega worlds. In them, we picture hyperreal mixtures of nature, architecture and community where we can imagine our souls might find rest, places to which our struggling in life seems to have been striving all along. These tableaus often represent ideals of beauty, simplicity, innocence, purity, wisdom, power or transcendence. For this reason, they can serve as icons, thin boundaries between the sacred and profane, that transport viewers to a reality beyond their immediate surroundings. This can function as a means of escapism, or it can take on an eschatological dynamism that prompts one to adjust one's life in ways that conform more nearly to the vision displayed in the image.
Stories about ghosts tarrying among the living give us a forum to think about the value of a communal fidelity that defies even the barrier of death. Furthermore, stories of the living-dead allow us to contemplate the resolution that seems to be demanded at the end of a life. There is guilt to be purged and a desperate hope to be nourished that the crafting of our lives might not be so rudely interrupted, that it might be allowed to continue, sobered by the wisdom that will be imparted by our own deaths. And, finally, speculating about the self-awareness, pastimes, and even the dark humor of the dead offers relief to the loneliness that comes of feeling that mortal minds are the single layer of consciousness that goes on in the world. Through such artistic wondering about the afterlife, the already dead are permitted to tutor the living about how to die and how to conduct our lives until we do.
Most of these eschatological experiments in popular culture suggest a happier realm to come, but they also prompt us, each in its own way, to clarify what matters to us in the present, and to consider what ways of life might be better than others. This is a welcome use of popular culture.
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