The Apocalyptic Imagination and Popular Culture

Article excerpt

Mervyn F. Bendle Ph.D.

Senior Lecturer in History and Communications

School of Humanities, James Cook University

Abstract

Popular culture is awash with images and narratives of the apocalypse in various forms. These range from war and acts of terrorism involving "Weapons of Mass Destruction," to religious, science-fiction, horror and fantasy representations of the "End Times," depicted in a wide range of media including novels, comics, film, television and video games. They include also "biblically based" presentations, notably the Left Behind series of 12 best-selling novels based on a fundamentalist application of millennialist teachings to the contemporary world. This paper argues that this contemporary fascination is associated with a shift back towards traditional beliefs about the special role and destiny of the U.S. associated with the long-standing civil religion underpinning American civilization with its historical associations with millennialist ideas. It foreshadows further research on the extent to which these shifts are related to public attitudes and government policy on the War on Terror and other vital areas of national concern where religion and popular culture intersect.

Introduction

[1] Popular culture is currently awash with apocalyptic imagery and narratives, appearing in every medium, from books, films, television, videos, comics, computer to video games; and in many sub-genres, including science fiction, techno-thrillers, horror and fantasy. Moreover, this interest has deep roots in actual behaviour and religious beliefs. As a recent article about the current American enthusiasm for apocalyptic literature reports:

A TIME/CNN poll finds that more than one-third of Americans say they are paying more attention now to how the news may relate to the end of the world, and have talked about what the Bible has to say on the subject. Fully 59% say they believe the events in [the Book of] Revelation are going to come true, and nearly one-quarter think the Bible predicted the Sept. 11 attack (Gibbs 2002, 40).

[2] This fascination is associated with a fundamental shift back towards traditional ideals and beliefs about the special role and destiny of the U.S. associated with the long-standing civil religion underpinning American civilization. For centuries, this civil religion has offered an "apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or - revealed through the experience of the American People" (Bellah 1991). This paper explores this "cultural rearmament," which was underway before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but has intensified since, and now informs the current "War on Terror."

[3] Apocalypses are one of the oldest narrative forms, and they have informed some of the most imaginative and terrifying imagery in cultural history. Apocalypses provide detailed prophetic accounts of the end of the world, revelations of the end times, narratives that unveil how the final destiny of the world will be decided in a climactic battle between good and evil–in the Christian tradition, between God and the forces of the Antichrist. These narratives have their roots deep in the history of western and adjacent civilizations. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have highly developed eschatologies, i.e., doctrines of the end times. For Christians, the primary resource for the apocalyptic imagination is the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation. This and other texts have given rise to a set of extremely influential conceptions that are related together within various apocalyptic narratives, religious and secular, all playing major religious and cultural roles (Cohn 1995).

[4] As this paper will show, the twentieth century saw a crucial shift within the apocalyptic tradition, from what might be called a Promethean to an Augustinian view of human nature and history, i. …