It’s the End of the World as We Know It.

The end of the world is at hand!  Again.  Harold Camping’s predictions for the end of the world were wrong back in May, but October 21st is now the official new date.  Brother Camping , having done some recalculation recently told his followers this:

“Thus we can be sure that the whole world, with the exception of those who are presently saved (the elect), are under the judgment of God, and will be annihilated together with the whole physical world on October 21, 2011, on the last day of the present five months period. On that day the true believers will be raptured. We must remember that only God knows who His elect are that He saved prior to May 21.”

While it is a relief to know that only God knows who the elect are (don’t tell this to Michelle Bachmann, of course), it also troubles me that I haven’t stocked up on holy water, prayer beads and bullets.  On the other hand, holy water and prayer beads are the trappings of religious convictions outside Brother Camping’s classification of “true Christians” so what the hell does it matter.  There should only be 30 – 40 people being raptured anyway.

At the risk of simply rehashing the obvious, what I find more interesting than Camping’s math and interpretive skills is the fascination we have with apocalyptic symbolism.  And to be fair, it is not a fascination limited to religious zealots.  Popular culture is currently awash with apocalyptic imagery and narratives, appearing in every medium, from books, films, television, videos, comics, computer to video games.  Apocalyptic narrative has grown into entire sub-genres, including science fiction, techno-thrillers, horror, fantasy and even porn.

This fascination with our impending doom and the survival/elevation of an elect group seems to be associated with a fundamental shift back towards traditional ideals and beliefs.  Amongst the evangelical there is a clear association with the belief in the special role and destiny of the U.S. associated with the long-standing civil religion underpinning American civilization. Amongst those less religiously inclined, there is an association with inherent flaws of humanity and the need for a purifying process.  And for those leaning toward the Zombie Apocalypse, its tied to a sense of masculinity, demonstration of self worth and the superiority of the individual over collective engagement.  In every case, it is tied to a representation of the return to a simpler sense of self and society.

Of course, this type of politico-apocalyptic thinking has had major political effects, both through key figures; for those not old enough to remember, Ronald Reagan said in 1970, “everything is in place for the battle of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ.” Powerful stuff. And worth noting that this sort of belief has influenced everything from environmental policy to American policy in the Middle East to the financial industry.  But what I find in some ways more interesting is what it’s meant for business.

The huge popularity of apocalyptic prophecy support a thriving industry in books, film, television and the Internet.  Just look to the success of the Left Behind series (both the novels and the films).  But it is not just the religious right – consider the success of things like World War Z, I Am Legend,  etc. The appetite for all things exploring the demise of human existence is powerful.  And it is big bucks. The demand for material exploring the possibilities of the Apocalypse supports many similar companies, bookshops and internet sites, supplying books, videos, CDs, games, clothing, calendars, greeting cards and other products. Armageddon Books, for example, promotes itself as the “world’s largest Bible prophecy bookstore featuring books, videos, and charts on Armageddon, Antichrist, 666, Rapture, and Revelation” (armageddon.com).  Why it would actually matter to those being raptured is, to my mind, somewhat paradoxical when you consider the final outcome of their conviction, but that is perhaps beside the point.  What is interesting is that with the end slated for the end of the week, as has happened in so many weeks over the last 50 years, is that our obsessions speak to deeper needs and fears.

Pop culture has participated in a fundamental shift within the apocalyptic imagination from a faith in human self-determination to a conviction of human sinfulness and weakness. This shift has eclipsed the progressivist Postmillennialism movement of the last 19th century (yes, Baptists were in many ways cutting edge liberals when they began their movement) and seen the ascendance of ultra-conservative, ultra-reactionary Premillennialism. On the Secular side, it entailed a shift from utopianism to dystopianism – there is no hope for humanity, only a return, at best, to a savage existence.  Notions of progress, reason and science lead not towards a better day, but towards a darkly pessimistic state of existence  defined in terms of social disintegration, violence, war and ultimate catastrophe.  The good news is that it is helping drive the economy.  Of course, none of this will matter come Friday.

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