This is my review of a fun, fascinating, and provocative book– that marries pop culture, religion (in a broad sense), and political economy: Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson's How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics… Joustra and Wilkinson (JW) combine current events, culture, psychology and religion to draw some striking inferences about politics and society.
Back when I thought it'd be easy to publish books, I wanted to do a book on Christianity and culture, especially through movies. I've always enjoyed movies quite a bit– although with kids, we don't watch nearly as many films (and provocative films) as we used to! I've always been interested in Joseph and Daniel's biblical careers. (Thus, our choice of names for boys 3 and 4.) And Paul's preaching has always struck me in this regard– I Cor 9:22's all things to all people so that by all possible means, we might save some.
JW start by noting the popularity of apocalyptic in current pop culture. “Today, apocalypse sells like mad. Not just the threat of it, but its reality. And especially, its aftermath.” (1) At one level, its popularity seems akin to #FWP– First World Problems. But apocalyptic is as old as mankind: “As long as we humans have been telling the story of our beginning, we've also been telling the story of our end.” (2) (FWIW, this is a theme I hope to explore with my research in the future, based on excellent books by Landes and others.)
What's up? Their thesis in a nutshell: Apocalyptic “is not really just about the end of the world”, but “the dismantling of perceived realities…it renews as it destroys…it brings an epiphany…“ As such, “apocalyptic literature has always said a great deal more about who we are now…It reveals more than predicts.” (2) It's not so much about the future and “the end of the world” as the present and the potential “end of our world” and where we think the future might go (60). This can't last; we're near the end of something; what's next?
One key difference in modern apocalyptic: we clearly are more capable of explicitly bringing about our own destruction (3). Along the same lines, we realize that progress and technological advance have proven to be mythic in their impact (35). Sure, Jewish and Christian apocalyptic– prominent purveyors of the genre– have connected sinfulness to destruction of various sorts. But modern potential for destruction is both more direct and more obvious.
JW describe this as a particularly modern problem: “Most people in the West can easily choose to live primarily for their own flourishing, rather than something beyond it.” (12) Moreover, we are among the first who can choose what to believe; even if we believe, we see ourselves as having a choice whether to believe or not. “This is quite a change…putting the human person at the center of the universe as the creator of meaning.” (5) For the pre-modern, “disbelief was remarkably difficult…an act of radical, terrifying, defiant autonomy in the face of powerful, invisible, and penetrating forces…And it one brave individual did break rank…the response was often violent and decisive” since they saw it as blasphemy, but worse, dangerous.
All of this sounds deeply troubling– and potentially could be– but JW are careful to caution that “every age has its own peculiar pathologies” (5) and that all of this can be for good for for ill. JW connect this theme and draw inferences about their applications through their reading of Charles Taylor's book, The Malaise of Modernity.
JW lay out their understanding of what's changed a la Taylor in chapter 2. Taylor refers to various (potential) “pathologies”: fragmented individualism that can lead to narcissism; efficiency– narrowly conceived and weighted too highly; “freedom” misdefined and misunderstood (a la Galatians 5:1,13). To JW (more than to Taylor), all of these are steeped in pros and cons. Combined, they present big opportunities for trouble, but not necessarily.
In any case, all of it points to a penchant for unrooted dystopia. As they quote William Adama in Battlestar Galactica (the subject of chapter 4), “We did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question [of] why? Why are we as a people worth saving?” (31) Generally, JW are (far) more optimistic than Taylor. In any case, I appreciate the careful cost-benefit reading and analysis of the contemporary tea leaves.
JW work to define eschatology, millennialism, and apocalyptic (36-38a). They provide a history of apocalyptic (40ff) and argue that the classical version reached its historical apex from 1000-1515 AD– from the turn of the millennium until the debut of “modern eschatology” in 1516. (I'm a little surprised that they don't give more weight to Jewish and Christian versions in the centuries around the time of Christ. But I suppose the argument would be that J and C carried relatively little influence in those early days.)
The modern age was ushered in by Thomas More's book, Utopia (49). In this section, JW also reference Norman Cohn and Richard Landes' excellent book (41). (They cite Landes' theory about Amenhotep III and call it “an interesting and controversial case”!) JW describe the famous Revolutions in this context (51) and note the birth of “dystopia” with John Stuart Mill (54).
From Chapter 4 onward, JW turn to particular examples and applications/analysis. Once JW get to these examples, I'm at least a bit hamstrung in that I'm not familiar with most of their examples. I have passing knowledge of most of their examples, but only a thorough knowledge of the Hunger Games trilogy. Still, even within my ignorance, I found their discussion fascinating. If you have thorough or working knowledge of more shows/movies, you should find it that even more interesting and valuable.
Ch. 4 covers Battlestar Galactica in light of individualism. It explores the series' connection to Mormonism, including debates between characters about monotheism vs. polytheism.
Ch. 5 discusses the “anti-heroes” in Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and House of Cards. JW argue that the anti-hero is apocalyptic or even dystopian (78-83). And they connect these three shows to Machiavelli's The Prince and T.S. Eliot's Hollow Man (opening and closing the chapter with the latter).
In Ch. 6, JW analyze the movie “Her” and the idea of “being alone together” (98). I just talked about this at length in a forthcoming publication in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. We are all the same and yet, different– and related to that: there is inherent value in the human person, both separately and in community (99-103). Despite many valid concerns about reduced capacity and desire for community (see: Putnam's Bowling Alone)– and contrary to the pessimism of many contemporary social observers– JW embrace the counter-claim that intimate relationships are still quite possible and likely these days (116-117).
In this chapter, JW also discuss the “politics of recognition” at length (108-114)– and the implications for perceived value, the practice of “tolerance” (in its various contemporary forms), and the difficulty of unity (when this is not done well). Back in the day, when you were born into a particular context, there was little need to defend/justify “who you were”. But today, we must prove ourselves to each other– precisely because we and our roles are seen as unique. Or more precisely, “whatever was unique about you…didn't supersede or override your socially acknowledged role” (108).
This also explains the passionate political desire (need?)– in discourse and law– to be explicitly legitimized by other individuals and by institutions. “I need the law and my government to recognize me not just as a citizen but also as a unique citizen with a particular, valid way of being– my gender identity, my ethnic identity, my religion, my political beliefs, my sexual orientation, my profession– that is on par with everyone else's way of being. The stakes are high. The politics of equal recognition are central and stressful.” (111)
Defense of this new approach to value and dignity is correct at some level, but ultimately, too simplistic: “On what basis does that equal value exist?” Neither choices nor unchosen context can, in themselves, determine that value. Neither can “mere difference“. Instead, “we are all equal not because we are different, but because there are valuable things that we all have as humans” (113).
Ch. 7 features “Game of Thrones” and wrestles with the contemporary popularity of subjectivism and moral relativity. These lead to certain tendencies– but they are not deterministic (121-122). JW describe Game of Thrones as apocalyptic (123-125, 130a)– and see contemporary mores as an extension of Marx to Neitzsche (126-127). It's not merely religion that is an opiate, but all social and political conventions.
JW express concerns, but argue that these tendencies are not necessarily bad (129-135), drawing a line between “more subjective” and “subjectivism”. And there are benefits: “We are not more attentive to these background images– these “worldviews”– and their plurality, their strengths and weaknesses, as a result of subjectivity than we have ever been...Subjective does not mean the same thing as arbitrary or whimsical.” (134-135)
In Ch. 8, JW argue that our popular zombie stories are both personal and political (138)– but ultimately, more about what happens to society than to individuals. (For a terrific movie about personal, Christ-like sacrifice in the context of a zombie apocalypse, see I Am Legend– what has been called the coolest Christian movie ever.)
JW review and applaud Max Brooks' novel (and the subsequent film), World War Z (140, 141). Where “Walking Dead” is about personal and group politics at a local level, World War Z deals with the world. “Brooks' novel is a study in social systems: their elasticity, their survivability, and how their logic can push toward both greater promise– and peril.” (141) For both stories, JW observe that one would think it'd be about personal survival, what seems to be the ultimate goal. Instead, for many, they sacrifice “not only security and power but their very lives for something they deem greater.” (142) Along the way, Walking Dead illustrates that “all groups are not created equal, and all groups are not judged merely on the merits of delivering the goods of common security.” (146)
In this chapter, JW also wrestle with the problem of “groupthink” (148): when there is more “likability” (of whatever sort), “decision-making will follow a pattern of reinforcing those relationships rather than challenging faulty premises or logic”. One sees this in all sorts of things, from the perennial temptations of science vs. the ideals of Science; these days, the popularity of the “wasted vote” myth; and various social norms that come to dominate and then fade. In all of this, Thomas Kuhn's classic book reminds us of the difficulty of evaluating the dominant paradigm from within that paradigm– and thus, the rigidity of systems and “truths” in response to evidence.
Ch. 9's discussion of Scandal largely sets the table for a protracted discussion in Ch. 10 on The Hunger Games (HG). JW use HG to illustrate “why it is so important for distrustful, disconnected Millennials to dig in and do the hard work of institution-building”. (165) The world of Panem represents a sobering threat to authenticity– outside forces use surveillance and force to prevent the pursuit of one's true self. Citizens are tools– instrumentalism and tyranny. And then there's the insidious tyranny of the hedonistic circus in the capital city: “distracted by the entertainment…numbed to the true injustices…a biting critique of entertainment culture.” (168) They invoke Weber's “iron cage” and note it's only a cage “when people are truly, radically individualistic and atomized…why part of the Capitol's strategy is to pit districts against one another…also why it is such a threat…when citizens unite around a common idea.” (169)
JW warn Millennials to be careful of fearing institutions or merely responding to them with cynicism. They also ask what all of us should do in such circumstances– and how this points us toward a greater society, even when things are not nearly so rough: in a word, institutions are limited and often corrupt, and so we need to invest in our own institutions and exercise influence in our spheres: “to not blindly trust institutions again, but to be willing to invest in them.” (177). HG “is quietly aware of this when it places all hope for any goodness in committed, loving, sacrificial relationships between people.” (175)
In Ch. 11, JW conclude by taking Daniel as the apocalyptic hero/archetype/model/example for ideal engagement with the culture. (My forthcoming JIS article relates here again– in particular, my discussion of Richard John Neuhaus' American Babylon.) They cite Peter Leithart's excellent book, Between Babel and Beast, summing it up as don't abandon the city, but don't expect it to be the New Jerusalem.
If you're into contemporary culture– and particularly into these shows and this genre– JW is a must-read. Check it out!