How to Survive the Apocalypse
August 15, 2016
"The world is going to hell." So begins How to Survive the Apocalypse, written by political theorist Robert Joustra and English professor/media critic Alissa Wilkinson. In fact, the authors are not predicting the imminent end of world per se, but describing a trend toward dystopian stories in popular entertainment during the past decade. As the authors see it, humankind's earlier stories and sagas did not simply end with the catastrophic demise of the human race. Instead, previous generations would see cataclysms and crises as heralding the dawn of a new and better age for humanity, generally through divine intervention. This story line may sound familiar, since forms the framework for the Bible's major apocalyptic books, Daniel and Revelation, as well as many other Christian apocalyptic imaginings throughout history.Why, then, the authors ask, have our stories taken a turn toward pessimism, even despair, about humanity's future? How did we move from stories that express hope for our corporate salvation to stories that expect our collective doom? The authors' answer is, in short, modernity. They argue that the new anxieties, fears, and challenges that confront modern, secular Western culture have spurred us to concoct these portraits of how many dreadful ways humanity could bring about its own demise. To demonstrate this, the book provides a detailed analysis of a dozen or so examples of recent TV shows and films, offering a Christian perspective on these dystopian portrayals of worlds either on the brink of collapse, or already in their death throes. The crumbling "worlds" these stories depict may be individual lives (as in Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and House of Cards) or global scenarios (as in The Walking Dead, Her, and The Hunger Games), projected earthly realities (The Walking Dead) or entirely imaginary realms (Game of Thrones). Coming back to that key word "modern," it stands at the center of the authors' critique of these stories--and their search for a way through the mess to a more hopeful vision of the future. They draw tools for their analysis largely from the field of political theory, Joustra's specialty, and from the works of philosopher Charles Taylor, best known for weighty tomes such as The Secular Age, that incisively diagnose the ailments of the modern world. Readers unfamiliar with these resources need not panic; the authors excerpt and filter their source material to present it at a level that will repay conscientious readers, often with help from James K.A. Smith's summary of Taylor's work, How (Not) to Be Secular). When Taylor describes our culture as "secular" and "modern," he uses these terms in a sense far more complex than popular usage generally conveys. Specifically, he means that we live in the post-Enlightenment world--a world in which the individual human mind is deemed as the almighty standard of all knowledge. Nothing is sacred; nothing is revealed. Tradition has no inherent authority. That's because the thinkers of the Enlightenment understood the human realm as a closed system; what the human mind can perceive, observe, and analyze becomes the measure of what is real. As a result of this human-centered way of thinking, you'll find the word "self" appearing often in Joustra's and Wilkinson's critiques of popular culture, in phrases such as "self-authentication," "self-definition," and "self-fulfillment." Often, this focus on the self appears in the company of the likes of "subjectivism," as in the might-makes-right power dynamics of Game of Thrones, or "flattened moral horizons," as in cases of the anti-heroes Don Draper and Walter White of Mad Men and Breaking Bad respectively. For many readers, these terms may ring more of "postmodernism" than "modernism." Isn't it "postmodernism" that sees everything as relative, defined only in relation to the self? Don't be fooled; postmodernism, however novel it likes to think itself, is really only modernism dressed up in hipster clothes. The new breed of cynical relativists that populates our "postmodern" age has only arrived where they are by pushing modernity to its (il)logical extreme. Because when we truly measure everything against our own limited minds, the world becomes very small indeed. We eventually realize that all we ever can really know is ourselves, and the whole project of modernism implodes. So it's no wonder, according to the authors, that we often find characters in these dystopian dramas acting primarily in their own interests and seeking their own self-actualization. After all, the self has become the new standard, the new center. That's what many of our dystopian stories display, the authors argue: protagonists who focus so intently on their own self-actualization that they lose their bearings in relation to anything else that matters to them. Don Draper of Mad Men and Walter White of Breaking Bad, for example, both establish themselves as very successful men in some sense--one a heartless advertising executive and the other a ruthless drug lord. But because they have lost sight of any goal outside of their own cravings for power and its attendant privilege, their efforts at becoming "themselves" end in self-destruction. Indeed, as Christians, we know all too well where our efforts to "follow our hearts" toward our own selfish desires will land us: in a whirlwind of anarchy and depravity at least as disgusting as anything that George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones creator) can fantasize. In some sense, then, these dystopian stories serve as a new kind of apocalypse scripted by our culture, which sees the current order of things as plummeting toward "a destruction of our own making, with no hope for renewal" (61). On the other hand, the authors argue, modernity isn't all bad, and needn't lead us to complete despair for our future as a species. The authors take an optimistic tack on this possibility, overall, which may explain why they can stand to watch multiple seasons of House of Cards and The Walking Dead. Because they see two faces of modernity, they are able to mine these worst-case scenarios for insights about our culture and affirm some positive ways forward. Sometimes their suggestions draw upon helpful remnants of the "old world" that can shore up our disintegrating culture, such as the concept of standards outside of ourselves that can balance our social mandate for self-fulfillment and self-definition. This shows up in their analysis of Her, in which a man seeking his own identity finds growing fulfillment in his relationship with an artificially intelligent, female-voiced operating system--which, ironically, eventually dumps him when she decides that he no longer fulfills her needs for self-actualization. The authors use this plot to illustrate the way in which modern society charges us with the onerous and circular task of having to continually invent ourselves even as we strive to find ourselves. Ultimately, though, seeking our own satisfaction alone may lead us to a dead end, and perhaps, as in the case of the protagonist of the film, drive us back into messy, complicated and more satisfying relationships with actual human beings. At other times, the authors point out the social bonds and institutions that have survived our (post)modern suspicion of traditional institutions and that we can still use to structure our life together. In The Hunger Games, for example, they note that all of the powerful institutions in the story fail to build a better society, no matter their intentions, from the corrupt empire that begins the series to the revolutionaries that that challenge it. What sustains the protagonists throughout their struggle, though, and what remains for them in the aftermath of the series, are the loyal, loving bonds of friends and family. Even Millennials can get on board with supporting institutions like that--and certainly Christians can. In the end, there's something sweet and hopeful about the authors' response to our modern sagas of self-destruction, but also an air of naivety that worries me. Yes, it's certainly our responsibility, as they propose, for Christians to support "faithful institutions" in a spirit of "faithful compromise" modeled on the prophet Daniel living in Babylon. This strikes me as fitting nicely with Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson's view that the Bible portrays the faithful community as helping to maintain God's created order, which otherwise veers toward chaos (Creation and the Persistence of Evil, 204). On the other hand, the authors often react to these dystopian tales with more faith in our ability to redeem the earthly social and political spheres than I personally embrace. More than once, they respond to some dire fictional scenario or state of affairs by essentially saying, "Well, thank goodness, in real life, it's not actually as bad as all that." In many of these cases, I found myself responding, "Actually, it is as bad as all that, and probably worse." That seems a much more biblical tack to take because, after all, total depravity is total--tainting every aspect of human life and culture. Yes, all Christians have a divine mandate to make faithful choices wherever life finds them, but as Marilyn McCord Adams puts it, the sin in human lives and human systems is not simply a matter of people making "poor choices." Instead, we are dealing with "horrendous evils," something that so far outstrips puny human agency that we cannot hope to tame it or control it, much less to defeat it (Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God). The authors' response "Let's work together to make the world a better place!" rings suspiciously for me of Enlightenment hopes that have already spectacularly crashed and burned--otherwise, we'd have no need for all these dystopias. That's where the Gospel comes in, as I see it; it comes as a power from outside ourselves, interrupting human history and plans. As Christians, we point toward a hope that's far more radical than simply remaining hopeful and acting faithfully. We point toward a new world that God has promised, beyond the nightmares we've created, beyond the dystopias. We point toward our resurrection hope that if we accept Christ's vindication and transformation of us, we have no right to declare our own doom. Because our greatest hope in the midst of this failing world and its institutions is that nothing we can do will save it; only the action of God in Christ, intervening for a second time, can fully redeem and transform this broken creation. So, we wait in hope for a real Apocalypse--the culmination of the Gospel.
Rachel M. Billings holds a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Harvard University and works as a full-time household manager. She enjoys experimenting in the kitchen while listening to audiobooks, and occasionally musters enough brain to think deep thoughts about life, the universe, and the Trinity.