Thursday, May 26, 2011

More Apocalypse Now

Just 24 hours after posting my article on our modern obsession with apocalyptic narratives and religious visions of doomsday, the doorbell rang and I was greeted by a smiling Jehovah's Witness in a suit and tie. He wanted to let me know about an upcoming convention in the area, and gave me a flyer with the details. The flyer's content -- about the coming apocalypse and the promise of redemption for the lucky few -- could not have been more perfectly attuned to what I wrote even if I had written the copy for it myself.

"Violence, immorality, and global warming," the flyer asks, "along with oil spills and other environmental disasters -- all these problems have led concerned people to ask, WILL HUMANS RUIN THIS EARTH?" It invites me to attend a three-day convention, where a talk will be given that "will show how this planet will soon be transformed into a paradise and how you and your family can qualify to live there."

This particular vision of apocalypse and redemption is based on a dream recorded in the Book of Daniel (2:31-45), interpreted as a prophesy that details the successive rise and fall of multiple empires: the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the British, and the Americans. The dream itself has to do with a statue whose toes are made of iron mixed with clay, and a huge rock that smashes the statue to pieces and establishes God's Kingdom on earth, which will last forever and ever.

The apocalyptic narrative put forth by Jehovah's Witnesses may differ slightly in its content and sources from the narrative put forward by Harold Camping and the Rapturists. But the message is essentially the same, and it perfectly demonstrates what I wrote in my previous article. It plays directly upon people's awareness that there are real and serious problems in the world: violence, global warming, environmental pollution, "immorality," and so on (I won't open the Pandora's Box of what constitutes "immorality," but there it is). It plucks at the strings of people's fears that all of this is building towards some kind of imminent turning point, a day of reckoning and dramatic change. For those who are inclined towards interpreting contemporary events in the light of ancient Biblical prophecy, those fears are easily diverted into a consoling vision of how to turn the threat of apocalypse into an opportunity for you and your family!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Apocalypse Now

Last week the American public was treated to an amazing amount of hype about the so-called "Rapture" predicted by a self-styled evangelical prophet named Harold Camping.

I come from an evangelical background (I bear the scars of a Southern Baptist childhood), so Rapture fever is nothing new to me. But I was astounded at the level of hype and media coverage garnered by Camping and his followers. As a prophet, Camping may have been quite mistaken; but as a marketer, he demonstrated a certain genius. There were at least 27,000 articles published on the topic; Camping and his followers spent an estimated $100 million on billboard advertisements promoting the coming apocalypse. On Facebook and Twitter and on late-night shows last week, Saturday's scheduled Rapture was the subject of seemingly endless commentary and derisive satire. While some of this satire was quite funny and richly deserved, in the end it was depressing to see that our public discourse could be so completely hijacked by a story that really merited discussion only in psychiatric journals, as a case study of religious mania.

It was also sad to see how shamelessly religious believers' fears were exploited for profit. On eBay, one man last week was selling, for $99, a fail-safe message delivery service ensuring that those lucky enough to be taken up could have their goodbye letters post-Rapturously delivered to loved ones who were left behind. Another service was offered to insure ongoing care for beloved pets forsaken by those pet owners who were expecting to be levitated into the sky and escorted directly to Heaven.

As some have noted, the amount of hype and discussion generated by last week's Rapture bubble is probably miniscule compared to that which has already been building for several years in anticipation of the apocalypse predicted by the ancient Mayan calendar for December 21, 2012. If, like me, you quickly tired of the Rapture bubble, just wait: there is still a year and a half to build up a proper media frenzy about the Mayan doomsday. It has already been the subject of a major Hollywood film with a $200 million budget -- twice what Camping spent to promote his brand of apocalypse.

The ascendancy of apocalyptic narratives in popular culture belies deeper forces at work within the American mind. Apocalyptic narratives are the clothing in which we dress up our fears of the future, our dread of change and loss, our basic fear of death. If our need for such narratives is growing, it indicates a corresponding amplification of fearful mind. Behind our fear, and fueling the narrative, is the collective awareness that we are playing a game that is nearing its inevitable end. The way we live today is not sustainable, and people sense that the repercussions are building towards a day of reckoning. That awareness -- which isn't necessarily mistaken -- is easily hijacked by apocalyptic narratives of any kind.

It would be much better if we could begin to face our fears -- and their causes -- directly, rather than projecting them into mythological narratives of apocalypse. We are right to sense that our modern human life is out of balance, and that we are nearing a tipping point. We may also be right to sense that a moment of truth is approaching, and that facing the truth may not be easy or comfortable. But when we divert this awareness into apocalyptic narratives derived from ancient prophecies, we only distract ourselves from our real problems.