They love the smell of napalm in the morning

Good, if shallow, piece in The Washington Post this weekend about a Washington and Lee University course on apocalypticism. Reporter Susan Kenzie is present on the last day of class, which Professor Eduardo Velasquez closes out with the memorable line “Leave.”

Because it was the last class of university for many students, there are a few unintentionally hilarious taking-stock-of-it-all anecdotes. Here’s what passes for staring into the abyss for the many of the kids these days:

Michael Lee, 22, who will graduate from the small Lexington college Thursday . . . knows his immediate future: a job as a health care lobbyist in Washington. “After that, it’s a great unknown.”

and

“The end of the world for me,” [said senior Tallie Jamison], “is graduation. That’s what it is for most of us. It’s really scary. It’s coming. The clock is ticking. But we don’t really know what comes after that.”

[A job, kids, paying off college loans? -- ed.]

As reporter Kenzie notes, “the idea of the apocalypse has taken hold in strange ways in this post-millennial, post-Cold War, post-Sept. 11 world.” Professor Velasquez, for his part, isn’t an especially sectarian apocalypticist, but he does take the subject matter of his course seriously:

“I can’t tell you about floating up someplace, or a rapture, but it does seem to me that we are at the end of something, that we are a civilization that has exhausted itself.”

Apocalypticism taps into deep currents of what National Post regular Colby Cosh has described as “the pervasive collective feeling (present in all human ages) that the world has gone wrong” and offers an answer to this problem.

The solution is, hold fast to the faith and wait for deliverance by a higher power. The prof rightly tells Kenzie that the end of the world in the apocalyptic context is the beginning of something else. What comes after depends on whether one had faith in that deliverer all along.

Kenzie does a good job of observing the scene — and God bless her for those anecdotes — but I wish she had asked more questions. To wit:

1) Historically, the Apocalypse has tended to be more popular with persecuted religious sects that with sects that have it relatively good. Why is it so popular with many American Christians today?

2) When popular culture adopts apocalyptic themes, does it tend to swallow them whole or is it a lot more selective in its use?

3) Are apocalyptic themes in fact more prevalent today? Have there been any attempts to quantify this?

And so forth. The thing about journalism is, class is never out of session.

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  • Karl

    I think the answer to your first question is that many American christians (especially evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants), do perceive themselves as persecuted. They see themselves and their beliefs as directly under assault by moral and cultural “relativism,” “liberal” senators and a “liberal” judiciary, terrorists, etc. Despite the fact that evangelicals have achieved some level of political ascendency, it doesn’t mean that they perceive it as such. This is a phenomenon that one can find throughout Christian history: English Protestants living under Edward VI, the king during the English Reformation most inclined to promote the religious reforms they wanted, nevertheless described themselves as a “small, persecuted flock of Christ.” They said this while, more or less, controlling the national church and the government.

  • ECJ

    I may be making an incorrect assumption, but it seems that the “Apocalypse” is being equated with Premillienial Dispensationalism (i.e. Tim LaHaye and “Left Behind”). Certainly this concept of the Last Day is popular among Evangelicals today. But if the “Apocalyse” is simply a reference to Eschatology, then it has been around since the beginning of the Church. All Christians expect the return of the Lord Jesus on the Last Day.

    Premillinial Dispensationalism is currently popular in Amnerica for several reasons:

    1) The mainline Protestant denominations which taught the historic Amillienial view of the Last Days wandered off into Liberalism. So the more exegetically rigorous view of the Book of Revelations which they provided was impeached through ‘Guilt by Association.’ A lot of American Protestants have been sold the idea that Dispensationalism is the only conclusion that can be reached if one uses an Historical-Grammatical hermaneutic.

    2) Americans love to think of themselves as citizens of a Chosen nation. We aren’t, but Dispensationalism can be made to feed that desire. You just have to listen to people start talking about how symbolic references to an Eagle are really references to the United States.

    3) People in general really, Really, REALLY love to think they have access to secret inside information. Go into a Christian Bookstore and look at the shelves marked “Prophesy.” You’ll see books about how the War in Iraq is the sign of the beginning of the End Times.

    It should however be said though that Post-Millenialism was much more popular in the 19th century when Christendom was everywhere ascendent. So there might be a cultural connection to which school of thought predominates.

    By the way, it would be so nice if the media actually these terms. It would be so nice if they understood the fact that Tim LaHaye doesn’t speak for the Christian Church, and that the eschatology he preaches has a pedigree of about 100 years.

    ECJ

  • webwalker

    You mean book of “Revelation”, right?

    “exegetically rigorous”, my tail.

    RMW

  • Tom R

    > “When popular culture adopts apocalyptic themes, does it tend to swallow them whole or is it a lot more selective in its use?”

    Indeed. Consider “The Omen”, “Left Behind”, “end of Days” and “Revelations”. None of them touches on the true horror that we feel (or should feel) on reading Revelation 13 ff — that ‘the whole world” worships the Beast and accepts his mark. David Selzer and Arnold Schw’egger turn it into “Kill the reborn Antichrist before he manages to spawn, and send him back to the pit… but only for another few hundred years”. LaHaye turn it into “Tribulation Force playing Taylor to the Antichrist’s General Urko, complete with tanks and jeeps. They miss that fear that Tolkien hints at if Sauron regains the Ring (‘darkness will cover the world, until the world ends”) and that Chesterton hints at in “The Curse of the Golden Cross”: “… What would it have been like, if the destroyer had been up in the daylight and had owned all the earth and commanded all the armies and the crowds? How if he had been able to stop all the earths or smoke me out of my hole, or kill me the moment I put my nose out in the daylight? What was it like to deal with murder on that scale? …”

  • Mark

    To RMW:

    Apocalypse is the Greek word for revelation.

  • Eduardo Velasquez

    TO YOUR QUESTIONS JEREMY, IN BOLD:

    1) Historically, the Apocalypse has tended to be more popular with persecuted religious sects that with sects that have it relatively good. Why is it so popular with many American Christians today?

    2) When popular culture adopts apocalyptic themes, does it tend to swallow them whole or is it a lot more selective in its use?

    3) Are apocalyptic themes in fact more prevalent today? Have there been any attempts to quantify this?

    I am a student of these matters. I lack the expertise required to provide a comprehensive introduction to the theme, and to your related questions. But there is something to consider in this regard. The spring term at WLU is designed as an experiment, an opportunity to step outside the bounds on the regular curriculum. And so the first consideration here is the nature of the course, and the term. From there I would then look at the syllabi of other courses I teach. They go together. In the six weeks at our disposal, it is true that the course is structured in a way that leaves some of the important work to the side, including texts. But again see the whole in light of the part.

    This said, Glenn Shuck’s book was helpful, we covered some of the ground referred to in your blog. Each generation contends with change, and its own apocalypse. There is a heightened sensitivity to change in our time, partly because of what passed as Y2K, partly the haunting presence of 9/11, partly science, partly the proliferation of charismatic religion.

    On the appropriation of the Apocalypse. Hard to find a serious and wholesale appropriation in the artifacts examined. But I did not go to culture for that. I simply sought to uncover how end of the world themes — religious, Christian, non-Christian, and secular — operate in various cultural artifacts. My approach is Socratic, not because I compare myself to the man. Rather, I take seriously the importance of starting with opinion, taking those opinions seriously, understanding however that they point beyond themselves. Students in my spring term course are taking their 2nd, 3rd, 4th course with me. This comprehensive view might provide more confidence in the spring term enterprise.

    I do not begin my inquiry with righteous indignation. There is a blog on the Ashbrook website that responds to my effort in this spirit. He knows more than I ever will. Tempering my passions, I discover much that is worthy in pop culture, much that speaks to deep yearnings, some of them poorly expressed or exercised, but many of them honest and connected to on-going human aspirations. My turn to culutre brings students in contact with those yearnings, but in a setting that allows to consider those yearnings, asking whether they can be satisfied before the altar of pop culture. For the most part, the answer to the last question is “no.”


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