The End of the World as We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America

By Barkun, Michael | Western Folklore, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

The End of the World as We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America


Barkun, Michael, Western Folklore


The End of the World As We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America. By Daniel Wojcik. (New York: New York University Press, 1997. Pp. ix + 2 8 1, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $30.00 cloth)

As the year 2000 approaches, the American millenarian climate becomes increasingly turbulent. Indeed, we seem on the verge of surpassing even the heated apocalyptic decades that preceded the Civil War, when movements like Millerism, Fourierism, and the Shakers temporarily transformed the social and religious climate of the eastern United States. The differences between the 1830s and'40s, on the one hand, and our own time, on the other, stem from two factors: First, we have at our disposal a vastly swifter and more varied array of communications media through which groups of all types can spread their messages. Second, those messages come not only in conventional religious forms but in a bewildering variety of other shapes. The apocalypses of the late twentieth century range from those of religious fundamentalism, to secular visions of destruction and transformation, to the unclassifiable syncretic visions of New Religious Movements and occultists.

Confronted with this bewildering array of millenarian belief systems, Daniel Wojcik has attempted what few before him have sought to do: to encompass the whole of contemporary American apocalyptic ferment, in both its religious and non-religious forms, and, as a folklorist, to do so with a sensitivity to the implications for popular culture. Thus, in addition to a compact but lucid exposition of the Protestant fundamentalist literature, with particular attention to the prolific Hal Lindsey, Wojcik surveys a range of apocalyptic beliefs that are all too often neglected: the Catholic apocalypticism linked to Marian apparitions; the secular apocalypses associated with scenarios of nuclear war; and the increasingly frequent apocalyptic references to extraterrestrials in the burgeoning UFO subculture. The result is a vivid portrait of American apocalyptic expectations at the threshold of the new millennium. Although many readers will profit from the fullness and range of Wojcik's descriptions, The End of the World As We Know It is not merely a descriptive work. In two critical respects, the author makes fundamental contributions to our understanding of this unprecedentedly apocalyptic era. First, he makes persuasive connections between the literature of apocalypse and its manifestations in popular culture and folklore. Although much of this literature is intended for mass audiences, and resides either in paperback racks or in religious bookstores, it filters down through an array of additional popularizing media: supermarket tabloids, motion pictures, and television programs, for example. …

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