How to Survive the Apocalypse, Robert Joustra & Alissa Wilkinson. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2016.
Summary: Explores the fascination of the apocalyptic in contemporary film, television, and gaming through the lens of Charles Taylor’s work on secularism and the self.
“The world is going to hell.
Just turn on the television–no, not the news. Flip over to the prestige dramas and sci-fi epics and political dramas. Look at how we entertain ourselves. Undead hordes are stalking and devouring, alien invasions are crippling and enslaving, politicians ignore governance in favor of sex and power, and sentient robots wreak terrible revenge upon us” (p. 1).
With these words, the authors explore the contemporary fascination with apocalyptic that runs through dystopian fiction, film, television, and gaming. Like Andy Crouch, who wrote the Foreward to this book, I have spent far less time than these writers (almost none at all, truthfully) with the media they explore in this work, although I am aware of the contemporary fascination with this. I picked it up because I was interested in why the fascination.
For the authors, the work of Charles Taylor, and particularly The Secular Age shape their analysis of contemporary apocalyptic. They note that there has always been apocalyptic literature, but that the character of that literature exposes the character of the age and the concerns that age arouses in us. For them, Taylor’s understanding of how secularity has shaped the self makes sense of the themes of the apocalyptic in our own age. We see it in our quest as “buffered selves” for authenticity; how we are shaped, in the midst of of an impersonal order, through relations with others; and how any kind of hope for survival of the apocalypse involves addressing the “malaises of modernity”: radical individualism, instrumentalism, in which our lives are incorporated into the efficient functioning of society, and the infinity of personal choices that leads to a paralysis that can end up in the surrender of freedom to tyranny.
These themes are surveyed through a tour of apocalyptic film and television. Beginning with Battlestar Galactica, the authors explore the efforts of characters (and Cylons) to self-define and self-actualize. We discover in works as disparate as The Hunger Games and Her (a series involving romantic relationship with an operating system) how authenticity and self-definition can occur only in relational and social contexts.
We consider the dark side of the quest for authenticity when the “horizon of choice” turns to power in series like House of Cards, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. In each, we see that the anti-hero’s quest for significance through power is a delusion that ends up rendering the anti-hero powerless. We see these themes writ large in the political order of Westeros in Game of Thrones. Joustra and Wilkinson conclude, “It is the pathological forms of authenticity, anthropocentrism, and instrumentalism that will feel winter’s coldest chill. That an apocalypse is coming is proof that hidden meaning remains to be unveiled…” (p. 135).
To survive “the apocalypse” we must confront the realities behind The Night of the Living Dead” and World War Z, that exposes the reality that there is no such think as “naked self-interest.” Given the pluralism of our society, there are a multitude of a “self-interests” for people and institutions, some pathological, and some because they are rooted in an understanding of who we are, what people are for, and where we are going, are better.
Apocalypses are about “the end.” But they also point us to “ends” beyond the end, to ways of living that anticipate what is beyond apocalypse, whether in the end we avoid it or not. The danger is nostalgia, an attempt to turn back the clock. Yet the secular age, with its radical pluralism is upon us. Better than retreats into nostalgia or personal “sheltering in place” is a posture of seeking to be architects who seek contribute to social institutions for better, seeking to shape rather than merely being shaped. The writers propose that this is always a “proximate” effort. Seeking the prosperity of Babylon will not bring in the New Jerusalem. It is always at best pursuing common cause with constructive disagreement.
It was this last that I especially appreciated. Instead of naive idealism, stark, power-hungry realism, or a disaffected retreat, the authors point us, and particularly Christians who care about society, toward a posture of being salt in society, preserving and perhaps enhancing, and in the process, enabling us to survive with our souls should apocalypse come. The authors, unpacking Taylor’s massive work and connecting it to popular media, serve us well in helping us understand our present times, the end that apocalypse represents, and the ends we might pursue as we allow the possible future to shape our present.