Existential Threats: American Apocalyptic Beliefs in the Technological Era

Existential Threats: American Apocalyptic Beliefs in the Technological Era

Existential Threats: American Apocalyptic Beliefs in the Technological Era

Existential Threats: American Apocalyptic Beliefs in the Technological Era

Synopsis

Americans have long been enthralled by visions of the apocalypse. Will the world end through nuclear war, environmental degradation, and declining biodiversity? Or, perhaps, through the second coming of Christ, rapture of the faithful, and arrival of the Antichrist--a set of beliefs known as dispensationalist premillennialism? These seemingly competing apocalyptic fantasies are not as dissimilar as we might think. In fact, Lisa Vox argues, although these secular and religious visions of the end of the world developed independently, they have converged to create the landscape of our current apocalyptic imagination.

In Existential Threats, Vox assembles a wide range of media--science fiction movies, biblical tractates, rapture fiction--to develop a critical history of the apocalyptic imagination from the late 1800s to the present. Apocalypticism was once solely a religious ideology, Vox contends, which has secularized in response to increasing technological and political threats to American safety. Vox reads texts ranging from Christianity Today articles on ecology and the atomic bomb to Dr. Strangelove, and from Mary Shelley's The Last Man to the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, demonstrating along the way that conservative evangelicals have not been as resistant to science as popularly believed and that scientists and science writers have unwittingly reproduced evangelical eschatological themes and scenarios in their own works. Existential Threats argues that American apocalypticism reflects and propagates our ongoing debates over the authority of science, the place of religion, uses of technology, and America's evolving role in global politics.

Excerpt

I grew up during the Reagan era in a Southern Baptist stronghold— the suburbs of Memphis— where dispensationalist premillennialism bathed my childhood in apocalyptic anxiety. I worried about being “left behind” long before Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins wrote their series of novels under that title. in college and graduate school at the turn of the millennium, I discovered the extent to which nonevangelicals found it difficult to take such ideas seriously, which surprised me because I knew so many people for whom those ideas constituted a compelling reality. But my surprise was also because the dispensationalist concepts of the Rapture, societal decline, and an Antichrist never seemed that far afield from American culture to me, either as a child living in that milieu or as an adult working in the academy. I became interested in explaining the power of conservative evangelical beliefs about the end-times and understanding how they came to be. This book is the result. Existential Threats explores how dispensationalist premillennialism emerged alongside a scientific understanding of the end of the world during the late nineteenth century and how these two allegedly competing visions of the world have dominated American cultural conversations about the future since 1945.

During my 1980s childhood, fearing a nuclear war with the Soviets and worrying about the rise of the Antichrist didn’t seem contradictory, though the adult purveyors of those two visions viewed each other with disdain. When we look at the history and development of the two worldviews, their similarities outshine their differences. Apocalyptic writers and commentators have acknowledged the similarities between dispensational premillennialism and scientific apocalypticism at times, but by the new millennium, proponents of each saw the other as knowingly dealing in false ideas.

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