The Apocalypse Is Everywhere: A Popular History of America’s Favorite Nightmare

The Apocalypse Is Everywhere (book cover)(ABC-CLIO/Praeger: 2010).

[Here are a few excerpts. For more, see Google Books. Available from ABC-CLIO as a hard cover or ebook.]

Preface [excerpts]

Apocalypse. The mere word conjures images of plague and ghastly death. Most Americans today understand it to mean total annihilation, or a final clash between good and evil. But that is only part of the story that John tells in the Book of Revelation, often called the Apocalypse. In this book, we’ll explore its continuing manifestations in popular culture and delve into the background.

…We will consider the Book of Revelation in the context of its place in history, in terms of other beliefs about the ultimate fate of humans as well as in the apocalyptic lineage of which it is considered the most elaborate and dramatic Christian illustration.

…John’s book shows both extremes in vivid colors: Heaven and hell. Periodically, it has been challenged as not belonging legitimately in the Bible, but Revelation has survived in both the Catholic and Protestant canons. Along with Christianity and European culture, it traveled to America and has been with us ever since in more ways than we may realize. The biblical Apocalypse has been passed down like a psychological gene through the millennia and continues to find expression in often surprising places.

…The word apocalypse comes from the Greek word meaning “to uncover” or “disclose.” and it has taken an international journey through Latin, French, and Middle English. This original sense of apocalypse is the one in which David Dark, author of Everyday Apocalypse, is interested. In his beautiful book-length meditation on the spiritual sense of the word, Dark explores hidden meanings revealed. To flesh out his interpretation, he takes his readers through books, movies, and other expressions of contemporary popular culture. An English teacher at Nashville’s Christ Presbyterian Academy at the time he wrote his book, Dark seeks to guide his audience into a parallel, abstract, and always-present realm that can illuminate everyday life. He brings to his readers deeper meanings in the Book of Revelation and Old Testament apocalypses. In a way, he offers his own modernized apocalypse.

…A critical turning point occurred as the European medieval period blended into the Renaissance. In 1516, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus questioned whether the Book of Revelation should actually be included in the Bible. He wisely did not press his case far enough to be persecuted. The Church retained its Apocalypse, and chiliastic notions continued to propagate. But what if Erasmus had won his argument? How would our worldview today be different? An exploration of this question, in showing some of the reasons for which certain concepts develop while others are suppressed, also exposes the complex and almost fortuitous roots of cultural outlooks and expectations.

The apocalyptic tradition proliferated and thrived. Our goal here is not to identify all instances in which evidence of this can be spotted. That would take an encyclopedic effort far beyond the scope of this work. Rather, here we follow its tracks while offering illustrative examples.

This book is organized into three parts. The first launches into contemporary manifestations of the tradition, encompassing recent presidential rhetoric, television programs, and writing. The second contextualizes the Book of Revelation, which represents only one of many concepts in ancient history about the nature of the cosmos and humans’ place in it. Here, the lens is widened to encompass a larger frame; then it’s narrowed again to pinpoint our area of interest in the landscape of global, cultural history. The final section returns us to the present day, highlighting more ways in which the Apocalypse has been sewn into our cultural tapestry.

1. Apocalyptic Warnings: From TV to the White House [excerpt from beginning]

This is the story of an idea’s journey through time, of how it expanded and why it spread into our popular culture. Religion, mostly Christianity, features prominently in the lives of more than 50 percent of Americans according to the Pew Forum. But it is not only they who have been affected by the visions and echoes of apocalyptic concepts that are woven into the fabric of U.S. culture. In this book we trace those threads—their origins and the many places we can see them today.

Some are less obvious than others, as in the environmental movement, for example. And many artists twist notions of doomsday into comic effect. We shall aim the apocalyptic lens at various angles, without attempting to focus on every manifestation of a given genre. Rather, here we single out representative examples, starting with one of the most blatant, popular-cultural expressions: televangelism.

Evangelical Christians—Protestants who focus on the four Gospels of the New Testament—believe that Jesus Christ must be accepted personally as the only possible savior of human souls and value preaching over the ceremonies of Catholicism. They are directly relevant to our apocalyptic focus because most in the United States—59 percent, says the Pew survey—interpret the Bible in a literal, word-for-word sense. This means they read the Book of Revelation as a sort of newspaper of the future….

19. Apocalyptic Fun in Your Own Backyard [excerpt from end]

Here we have reached a suitable resting place to conclude a book of this nature. Examples of apocalyptic influences in popular culture abound, and interested readers can surely cite numerous others. Regardless of our personal feelings about religion in general and Christianity in particular, this strand in American culture is deeply embedded and runs throughout our history. It will not likely fade anytime soon.

But when we notice reflections here and there of the Book of Revelation, we may see not only cataclysms, but also a vision of our human condition. We can, like David Dark and many other thinkers, see the book in a way that inspires us rather than speculates about the end of time, should such a phenomenon ever occur.

As creatures with an awareness of our own existence and an ever-questioning consciousness, pondering the cosmos and our own mortality fills us with wonderment as well as dread. The nature of the universe baffles us, and the heaven-hell paradigm is only one of numerous explanations that have been offered over the millennia. Even if the author of Revelation believed Judgment Day to be an imminent event, we can see in his book not a literal, earth-shattering conclusion and new beginning, but a portrait of our own complex minds.

Without knowing what happens to these minds after we die, we can focus on transcendent possibilities that we cannot see but that we can sense. In doing so, we may envision more clearly the ever-renewing potential of our own inner connections with the eternal, whatever its nature may be.