The New Apocalyptic: Modern American Apocalyptic Fiction and Its Ancient and Modern Cousins

Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The New Apocalyptic: Modern American Apocalyptic Fiction and Its Ancient and Modern Cousins


Wesley J. Bergen, Wichita State University

This paper compares and contrasts modern American Christian apocalyptic fiction with two related genres, early Christian and modern secular apocalyptic literature. Starting with a description of early Christian apocalyptic literature, it compares these to the content, form, and function of the Left Behind series. While the Left Behind series may not typify modern Christian apocalyptic fiction, its popularity places it firmly in the realm of pop culture.

[1] The Jewish and Christian communities from around the turn of the Common Era produced numerous apocalyptic writings. These writings have undergone a significant amount of scholarly analysis, which continues to this day. Modern American Christians also produce apocalyptic writings, in addition to films, music and other media. These, too, have been analyzed by scholars.

[2] This paper offers a brief comparison between these the ancient and contemporary apocalypses. While neither early Christian/Jewish nor modern Christian apocalyptic writings are monolithic in form or content, they do contain sufficient generic similarities to allow for some general statements to be made about differences in content, form, and function. These differences will be studied for their ability to tell us something about modern Christians who produce and consume these writings, as well as the way modern American Christian apocalyptic fiction interacts with ancient Christian and modern secular apocalyptic thought. [1]

[3] This study of modern American apocalyptic writing will largely be confined to the Left Behind series. While these books cannot be said to be representative of the genre, their enormous popularity clearly places them in the realm of pop culture. Despite the almost universal negative judgment of the critics, the Left Behind books have sold tens of millions of copies. Much of the rest of Christian apocalyptic writing remains on the fringes of culture, despite the popularity of non-Christian apocalyptic media.

[4] One of the difficulties in studying and comparing various apocalyptic media is the larger question of the definition of apocalyptic. This is compounded when attempting to make comparisons across cultures and millennia.

[5] In 1979, the Apocalypse Group of the Society of Biblical Literature produced the following description of the genre of apocalypse, relating specifically to ancient apocalyptic writings: "Apocalypse is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an other worldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world" (Collins 1979, 9)

[6] In a later attempt to expand the definition, David Hellholm lists thirty-three characteristics of apocalyptic writing that he calls semes. A seme is the "minimal distinctive unit (of the content substance)" of a particular genre (Hellholm 1986, 22 n 15). He places these semes into the categories of content, form and function (1986, 22-23).

[7] Hellholm recognized that no piece of early Christian/Jewish apocalyptic literature contained all thirty-three semes (1986, 24). The question is not whether a particular piece of literature is or is not apocalyptic, but rather how many of the semes any particular writing contains. So it should not come as a surprise to us that modern Christian writings usually categorized as apocalyptic do not include some of these characteristics. Rather, we can learn more about modern Christian thought by studying which semes are present and which are absent. These will say much about how modern apocalypses may function in the production and/or maintenance of a particular worldview within modern American culture.

[8] The rest of this study will analyze the Left Behind books, using Hellholm's semes, using his general categories as a way to organize the study. …

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