The secular apocalyptic

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In Chapter 7 some attention was given to how effective science fiction can be, particularly in its apocalyptic mode, for isolating the sin de jure and imagining its consequences if left unchecked. Thus, in A Canticle for Leibowitz, the craving for absolute security was seen to lead, ironically, to the devastation of the planet, which then ejects the human race as the consequence for this craving. This genre of the apocalyptic has become common in popular culture since the advent of the atomic bomb. Confronting the real possibility that unreliable humanity has it within its powers to destroy what we believed was a resilient planet has provoked much reflection in science fiction on the fragility of our way of life and on the death instinct that hunkers deep in our scientific manipulations of natural processes.

Etymologically, apokalyptein means, simply, to reveal or disclose. But it acquired a more technical meaning as a distinctive subgenre of prophetic literature found in the Bible, exemplified by the books of Daniel and the Revelation (Apocalyse) to John, when these writings began to flourish around 200 bce. Its distinguishing elements include the prediction of a time of upheaval in nature and history (wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues), a glimpse of the powers behind reality (both good and evil) which come out of hiding to engage in final combat, and divine judgment on human life. This last feature has given this genre of doom a redemptive arc - at least for some. The combined features of the biblical apocalyptic motif have subsequently shaped the imagination of the West whenever thought has turned to the ultimate destiny of the world.

As it has resituated itself in popular culture, the apocalyptic has held onto the doom elements but has sometimes loosened its grip on the hope for a redemptive outcome. As Daniel Wojcik has noted in his assessment of the "secular apocalyptic," especially as it has developed since the end of World War II: "Instead of faith in a redemptive new realm to be established after the present world is annihilated, secular doomsday visions are usually characterized by a sense of pessimism, absurdity, and nihilism."7 Wojcik finds the apocalyptic surfacing in such diverse places as cold war military preparations, beat poetry, monographs of doom by social scientists and environmentalists, cosmic disaster novels and movies, doomsday humor, and survivalist and punk subcultures. In all of these artifacts, a story is being told about the world falling to pieces, but in the absence of divine benevolence and purpose, the pieces won't be put together again.

As a testament to this, consider again the film FightClub, which is a sort of apocalyptic critique of the twistedness of apocalyptic hope. As events unfold, we find that Tyler, the anarchist alter ego of the insomniac Jack, has a vision for a redeemed world that will emerge after his army of demolitionists have blown up every corporate headquarters and reduced the global economy to chaos:

In the world I see, we're stalking elk in the grand canyon around the ruins around Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the vines around the Sears Tower. And when you look down you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty carpool lane of some abandoned superhighway.

For Tyler, Eden will rise from the rubble of cities that have been cleansed of the poison of corporate logos, global markets and consumer incompetence. It will be a paradise of hunters and gatherers, undoing the emasculation that the last several centuries of scientific and economic progress have wrought. It is clear that the film isn't endorsing this fresh start; Palahniuk is at least as uneasy with the anarchists and their survivalist, buckskin vision as he is with corporate branding of every aspect of our lives. He uses the apocalyptic to critique both the commodification of our culture and the apocalyptic solution to it.

Nevertheless, the hope that cataclysm will be followed by a more auspicious fresh start persists in some applications of the secular apocalyptic. Religion3 has asserted itself here, as well. In the 1996 summer blockbuster, Independence Day, as cities are incinerated by laser beams fired by space aliens who have come to colonize the earth, the nations of the world, recognizing their shared humanity in the face of this extraterrestrial threat, finally overcome their differences. Apocalypse shocks the human race to its senses and a new sense of human solidarity against a common foe awakens. Moreover, the heroes in the story are a politician, a warrior, and an environmentalist. Politics, the military, and science - three institutions that are often blamed for apocalypse - are here cast in the role of redeemers. The sublimated anxiety in this story is probably our own predatory exploitation of the planet and its poorer citizens. To discover that institutions already exist to end this unjust exploitation - if only the right individuals were in charge of them - comes off as deeply reassuring.

Blockbuster apocalyptic movies are often plotted around our most pressing fears about how the world will end and what will trigger it - aliens (extraterrestrial and terrestrial), insects, genetic engineering, synthesized microbes, cyborgs, rogue militaries, religious fundamentalists, anarchists, ideologues, indifferent nature (volcanoes, earthquakes, comets), vengeful nature (viruses, greenhouse gasses, infertility). The recent surge of movies about killer viruses (Twelve Monkeys, Outbreak, 28 Days Later) reflects real anxieties surrounding the advance of biotechnologies. But it is uncommon for any of these catastrophes to have the last word. There are always heroes and usually some surviving remnant to carry on, sobered by the catastrophic losses.

There are two things that the secular apocalyptic is particularly good at revealing with respect to the theological content of popular culture. First, it displays the powers that are, at the moment, believed to be in control of our lives. These are both good and evil powers, because the apocalyptic is, essentially, a high noon confrontation between good and evil. The forces of evil are the villains who bring about the disaster; the forces of good are the heroes whose actions ensure that a remnant will survive. As a way of discerning the moral temper of the moment, it is worth observing how our institutions line up into these two columns, or what elements and inclinations within our institutions can be so divided. And this leads to the second thing that the secular apocalyptic reveals: it highlights the particular human failings (sins) that have set these events in motion and the human merits that have made the remnant worthy of being spared. In the end, these accounts of judgment on the ways of human life force us to reflect on how we conduct our lives, and this is a driving purpose of the apocalyptic. Like the ending of any narrative, the anticipated end of history has the power to refigure the meaning of all the discordant happenings that have occurred in time;8 in the case of apocalyptic narratives, the ending has the power to orient and grade various previous actions relative to a goodness that, as it turns out, was straining to be realized all along.

J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings epic is a spectacular example of the apocalyptic. The good power is found in Iluvatar, the deity who created the harmonious cosmos and sustains it with a light but steady providential hand. That the forces of evil have become so powerful in the third age of Middle-earth, the age in which the story is set, is a consequence of Iluvatar's desire to grant free will to all creatures and allow them to shoulder responsibility for the world they inhabit, with only rare and subtle acts of divine intervention. The kingdom of Middle-earth is a segment of a vaster cosmos, a complex segment, but one that mirrors the harmony of the whole cosmos. Its institutions are reflections of our own, and are represented by the heroic figures that rise to prominence in the mounting struggle against evil: Frodo, Gandalf, Elrond, Gimli, Legolas, Aragorn, and Treebeard stand for domestic life, religion, science, technology, military, politics, and the benighted forces of nature that groan to be liberated from the degradation under which they suffer. These institutions are portrayed as interdependent and powerful when they willingly collaborate, each with an indispensable role to play in the contest with evil. But the same institutions are recruited to do the work of the wizard, Sauron, who represents the power of evil in this apocalypse. Sauron's evil is lodged in his desire for absolute power, which is maintained through a reign of fear, suspicion and hatred. Keeping the inhabitants of Middle-earth off-balance with fear and hatred unravels the order of Iluvatar's cosmos and devolves into chaos - and chaos is the only thing Sauron has it within his power to create and rule with his perverse sovereignty.

The virtues of those in Middle-earth who align themselves with goodness include steadfastness, self-sacrifice, kindness, mercy, courage, temperance, loyalty, prudence, and distaste for worldly power; the vices that characterize those under the thrall of evil are possessiveness, zeal for destruction, and the drive to dominate others. These are the traits that are pitted against each other in this roiling apocalypse, and they are the dispositions of righteousness and wickedness that are judged through the final outcome.9

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