The Eschaton. The End of Days. It seems to be everywhere lately. There are television shows, movies, books and seemingly constant news articles about various ways in which society as we know it might be brought, abruptly, to a problematic conclusion.
There are viruses, plagues, earthquakes, aliens, and, pretty much everywhere you look, zombies! Zombies! ZOMBIES! From the Walking Dead to World War Z(ed)- they are among us and just waiting to rise and make life even more miserable.
I wrote here about societal anomie and how it leads to expressions of anxiety that include apocalyptic stories. The apocalyptic tradition has provided some of the best, and most enduring myths. They endure, in part, because periods of great collective social anxiety tend to be cyclical. As the stresses return again and again, the idea that there is something better (or at least different) that will redeem us while punishing those responsible for the stress- albeit after a period of complete lousiness- is quite attractive.
Some definition of terms:
Apocalypticism is one of the major literary trends in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, often representative of the uncertainty of the of the sociopolitical environment of the time. As is the case with other hermeneutical categories found in the historical and literary studies of Judaism and Christianity (gnosticism is another such category- we’ll explore that one later), the designation ‘apocalyptic’ is often too-freely or non-specifically applied.
The myths of all cultures reflect the issues and beliefs of the times specific to each composition. The apocalyptic tradition developed as a response to the perceived disparity between expectations and the reality of the societal situation faced by the Jews of antiquity.
Apocalypticism can be defined as “a type of religious thinking characterized by the notion that through an act of divine intervention, the present evil world is about to be destroyed and replaced with a new and better world in which (a) god’s justice prevails. Apocalyptic schemes usually involve a moment of judgement, in which persons are called upon to answer for the evil of the world and are either acquitted to salvation in the new world or convicted to suffer divine punishment or destruction” (J.S. Kloppenborg, Q-Thomas Reader, 1990).
Dealing with the such realities as exile and diaspora, apocalypticism as a literary expression and theological speculation developed according to societal and religions necessity. It was used variably as legitimation for political and religious propaganda, and to fulfill a socially perceived need for justice, transforming from a vision of messianic prosperity to one focusing on expectations not being met.
As a nascent religious movement, Christianity arose during a time of upheaval caused by foreign (Roman) domination of Palestine. The issue of this dominance was relevant to the people involved in the Jesus movement and the authors of the writings that would eventually form the New Testament (along with the many contemporaneous non-canonical myths and writings). Problems associated with justice and right order plagued the early Christian inheritors of the apocalyptic tradition as it had inspired their authorial predecessors.
Obviously, the current definition of apocalyptic has expanded to include all manner of potential cataclysms- either originating in this world (in evil laboratories or through nature rebelling against the repeated abuses to which it has been exposed at the hands of humanity) or from somewhere beyond (the myriad alien invasions from outer space or the reappearance of Lovecraftian creatures from the centre of the earth).
Regardless, these stories reflect the continuum of a mythological tradition that arises in response to significant disconnects between social expectations and the reality of the day. Even when presented with tongue-in-cheek humour- think This is the End– now in theatres, or the upcoming, much anticipated (I really would like Simon Pegg to be my best friend) The World’s End.
In a social reality which, in one week (sigh), sees ever-increasing evidence of political corruption and the mishandling and violation of public trust at ALL levels of government and regardless of particular ideological affiliation, it really is no wonder that we are revisiting the mythological themes behind the apocalyptic vision. When those we have elected to look out for the best interests of all citizens are not delivering the expected level of justice, frustration levels are made manifest in many ways.
Apocalyptic angst- as it appears in popular culture and literature- is a prevalent contemporary use of mythology that clearly demonstrates the truism ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’ We express our anger and dissatisfaction with the status quo through our various creative outlets.
The ideological forecast for the summer seems to be rife with apocalyptic thinking. It will be interesting to see if such murmurs of discontent garner results in the larger societal context. They will certainly provide entertainment and something to think- and blog- about.