Taking stock of the secular apocalyptic mindset.

By J.J. Helland

 

As I was watching the recent made-for-TV-movie, Category 7: The End of The World, a film about a devastating storm that threatens to destroy the planet, I thought of Pat Robertson.

Robertson recently caused a stir after publicly musing that natural disasters like hurricane Katrina and the recent earthquake in Southeast Asia could be evidence that the end of the world is drawing near. “These things are starting to hit with amazing regularity,” he said, “…what was called the blessed hope of the Bible is that one day Jesus Christ would come back again, start a whole new era, that this world order that we know it would change into something that would be wonderful that we’d call the millennium. And before that good time comes there will be some difficult days and there will be likened to what a woman goes through in labor just before she brings forth a child.”

Robertson and similar-minded evangelicals are inclined to infuse an end-times theology in their life outlook and culture (e.g. the Left Behind anthology). Whether or not the world is really ending may be beside the point; many people of faith appear to find some kind of meaning in their application of Christian eschatology to the real world. What kind of meaning then do people who hew closer to a secular perspective receive from engaging apocalyptic films, television shows and books? What are some of the commonalities and differences both outlooks share?

Unfortunately, questions like these don’t get asked enough in the media, and in the off chance they do get discussed, the discourse tends to focus only on religious culture’s preoccupation with the end of the world. Take, for example, a recent article in The New York Times, “Doomsday: The Latest Word if Not The Last,” likely inspired by Robertson’s recent conjecture regarding the fate of the world. The article tallies a number of failed doomsday predictions and discusses the emerging prominence of dispensationalism — a “literalistic approach to biblical prophecy” that has gained more notoriety as evangelicals have entered the public debate.

And the article presents a doomsday narrative as one seemingly exclusive to that of Christian conservatives, and those of religious belief. “Fascination with the end of days is seemingly everywhere, in popular television ministries (like Pat Robertson’s), on best-seller lists (the Left Behind series) and even on bumper stickers (‘In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned’). What could be behind this fascination? Many church leaders and theologians, including evangelicals, give little effort to trying to interpret natural disasters and other events that might portend the end of history. The preoccupation these days stems mainly from the outsized influence of a specific, literalistic approach to biblical prophecy called dispensationalism, which only came to occupy a dominant place in American evangelicalism relatively recently.”

Indeed fascination with the “end of days” does seem to be everywhere, but is it really just confined to religious culture? The article neglects to address the idea that the popularity of the apocalyptic isn’t simply the result of an expanding influence of a particular brand of theology; it is a theme that has deep historical roots and cuts across myriad lines in our culture — as our obsessions with impending nuclear destruction, contagious flu pathogens or diabolical technology run amok seem to indicate.

 

But why are secular apocalypse narratives more acceptable in popular culture and why do they fail to draw the same public scrutiny that Pat Robertson’s doomsday musings engender? It seems like many typical Hollywood films that deal with apocalyptic themes employ similar narrative structures to that of evangelical end-times theology; a savior-type figure emerges from the turmoil in order to vanquish evil so that good overcomes.

Couldn’t a person of faith then look toward secular culture and point to the popularity of apocalyptic films like The Road Warrior, Dr. Strangelove or The Terminator and come to a similar conclusion that the other side is morbidly obsessed with death and mayhem? Both perspectives, at least on some elemental level, seem to express an anxiety about an ominous future and betray a profound human curiosity regarding overwhelming chaotic and destructive forces that we can’t control.

Some might posit that an obvious difference between the two camps is that the dramatic movies more secular-minded people enjoy are purely for entertainment, where as people like Robertson actually believe in this stuff. But at what point do fascinations with the end of the world become superior, inferior or equal in relation to other apocalyptic fascinations? Just as an ardent environmentalist sincerely believes that rampant pollution or global warming could at anytime trigger catastrophic worldly destruction (the very plot of a recent film), an evangelical might think that hurricane Katrina might be the first sign of the rapture. But to think that the main demarcation that separates these two beliefs is rooted in the likelihood of whether or not either event will happen might be missing the larger point. Perhaps the lesson here is that human beings bear a similar innate speculative quality that focuses on our collective future, but the way in which that quality manifests itself depends entirely on whether or not the practitioner charts him or herself on a religious or secular grid.

A skeptic might add that at least the assertions of an environmentalist can at least be quantified, either proving or refuting the claim, whereas end-of-the-world declarations by people of faith — because of the nature of faith — cannot be subjected to any scientific test. The corollary being that because end-times religious theology can’t pass scientific muster, it inspires mockery where it ultimately can’t compete in the same league culturally as its secular counterparts. But if this the standard by which many in the secular world dismiss Pat Robertson’s dubious reflections on the end of the world, how does this then explain the existence of all those secular fantasies which, no matter how slick the film production is, could never even remotely happen?

I’m not suggesting that the media completely ignore Robertson’s comments, but taking into account secular culture’s fascination with the end of the world might temper or place into a larger context a theme that resonates with non-believers too. And until more in the media acknowledge that it isn’t just evangelicals, but many other constituencies in our society who incorporate apocalypse narratives into their cultural discourses, we won’t understand why we all seemingly think the world is about to end.

J.J. Helland is a writer living in New York City.