Apocalyptic visions, care of secular prophets

Remember that odd news-you-can-use meditation feature that ran the other day in The Los Angeles Times, the one that didn’t seem to realize there was a religion angle to the story?

Now the Times of the left coast is back with a similar story about a trend in popular culture. It’s a great hook for a story, because the media trend is very obvious and the subject is also very religious.

It appears that the Times team knows that. Sort of.

So what’s the trend? We’re talking about entertainment about the end of the world, judgment day (see the attached icon), apocalypse, that kind of thing. It’s everywhere on television right now, backed with another round of movies punching the same buttons. Here’s the top of the story:

Armageddon is about to get unprecedented amounts of TV airtime. In the coming months, network and cable channels will use doomsday as a hook to draw viewers to end-times-themed reality competitions, action thrillers, comic-book adaptations and docu-dramas.

Blame the Mayans, or mangled interpretations of their hieroglyphics, for the reenergized fascination with the apocalypse, which some 15% of the global population believes could come on Dec. 21, according to a recent Reuters poll.

Or chalk it up to human nature, which can’t seem to get enough of cataclysmic entertainment, even against the backdrop of serious real-world economic problems, political instability and news reports of asteroids, avian flu and cannibalistic assaults.

Now, here’s a question for the journalists in our audience: When you think about finding experts to interview on this kind of topic, where do think about hunting these voices?

In this case, the story includes two topics that must be covered: The apocalyptic visions that ARE in these entertainment products and the ones that ARE NOT. In other words, you need to take both halves of the equation seriously.

Thus, I would assume you need a minimum of two voices or two KINDS of voices for sure. You need someone who speaks fluent pop culture and you need someone who is familiar with the content of the end-times doctrines of the major religions in the culture (think church history, theology professors, etc.) that you are writing about. I had assumed that this culture was the viewers, as in America, as opposed to the creators, which would be Hollywood.

Guess which half of the equation the Times team nails?

“We used to go to church to hear stories about catastrophic ends of the world,” said Stephen O’Leary, a USC communication professor and expert on Armageddon and apocalyptic sects. “Now we turn on the TV or go to the movies. People have been telling these stories for thousands of years, but what we have today are updated versions of angels and demons, good and evil, and powers from the sky.”

Totally true and totally valid. This is half the equation.

But if you are taking the religious content seriously, this is not enough. No way.

The story marches off into a long, news-you-can-use litany of the various shows that illustrate this trend, from “The Walking Dead” to the new “Revolution,” from that J.J. Abrams guy. There are many, many other options to choose from.

When these shows talk about the end of all things, or the threat of the apocalypse, what is the religious content of these visions? I agree that this is, in a way, a kind of church lite. But what is left, in terms of content, and what is missing? Is there any judging in these judgment days?

Sorry, the Times of the left coast is not the place to look for answers that take religion seriously. That other voice never shows up. In the end, we are left with Mr. Secular USC again, tasked with the job of telling us what this all means:

USC’s O’Leary said he is not surprised by the current wave of interest in the apocalypse, with its religious, cultural and political threads, just as end-times discussions were all the rage around 2000.

“It does reflect cultural anxieties, and every few years the stock of people selling doomsday goes up,” he said. “Then the bubble bursts. The hard-core will still be building their bunkers and stockpiling precious metals and getting ready for when the world falls apart. And Hollywood will go onto next big thing.”

You see, the story is about a fascinating religious subject — but there is no need to talk to people who know the details of the issues involved. The religion half of the equation doesn’t really matter. Move along.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • dalea

    First off, this is a report about trends in a very major local industry. Reading it, I want to let my beard grow wild and go register with Central Casting.

    One topic left out of the story is Peak Oil, which seems to be better understood here than in the East. A population familiar with Peak Oil and what it means is one that can see a clear vision of what happens when everything falls apart. Peak Oil is a secular and scientificly explained apocolypse.

    Plus we have natural disasters here all the time, one set of fires had 500,000 people fleeing, so Californians are familiar with refuge situations. I have had co-workers announce they had to go grab what they could before the fires/mudslids/floods destroyed their home but would be back in the morning.

    Back in the 60′s and 70′s Hollywood had a lot of end times films and teevee programs: Mad Max, V, Planet of the Apes.I tend to think this is a mainly secular move that does not have a religious component.

  • sari

    dalea, it may be secular now, but don’t you think it’s at least borrowed vocabulary from apocalyptic religious movements?

  • dalea

    Sari, I don’t think this sort of thing borrowed vocabulary from apocolyptic religious movements. Going back to HG Wells Time Machine and Huxley’s Brave New World, neither one seemed to use such language. The only one I can think of using religious terminology is A Canticle for Leibowitz, a classic of the post-apocolyptic genre. Most of these come from Science Fiction authors, a group that tends not to be very Christian for the most part. And they usually focus on the world has ended, and what do we do now. Not the end of the world is permanent. If anything, they borrow from Wicca which does not use beginning and endings, but cycles.

  • Jerry

    I have a question in return. What would you have left out in order to make space for the religious content you were looking for. That to me is a key question here.

    After all there was this context setting paragraph:

    “We used to go to church to hear stories about catastrophic ends of the world,” said Stephen O’Leary, a USC communication professor and expert on Armageddon and apocalyptic sects. “Now we turn on the TV or go to the movies. People have been telling these stories for thousands of years, but what we have today are updated versions of angels and demons, good and evil, and powers from the sky.”

  • Maureen

    Which apocalyptic religious movement?

    When I see apocalyptic stuff in movies or on TV, it usually doesn’t have anything in common with anything religious. It certainly isn’t interested in any particular historical interpretation.

    Of course, sometimes scholars don’t get this either. Beatus of Liebana wrote a happy, encouraging Apocalypse book about how to deal with the suckitude of life as a Christian having to live with both good and evil people and your own mixed up heart, and Umberto Eco made Beatus’ book a motif of venomous evil in his own medieval mystery novel. You get no love for writing a good Apocalypse commentary with excellent illustrations.

  • sari

    The four horsemen of the Apocalypse come from Christian Scripture, do they not? The word Armageddon also appears in Revelation. The imagery is there, even if many churches do not hold by a literal interpretation.

  • sari

    Most of these come from Science Fiction authors, a group that tends not to be very Christian for the most part.

    Current science fiction writers may not be very Christian now, but you can be sure the authors you cited were well-versed on Christianity, regardless of their level of practice. Walter Miller converted to Catholicism after serving during WWII. Huxley, though the grandson of an atheist,would have been familiar as part of standard coursework at the time. Wells explored a number of religions, adopted none, but believed in a personal god (his own words).

    The much more recent Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, though irreverent, demonstrates a solid understanding of Christianity and its sacred literature.

  • Maureen

    More to the point, a true science fiction/fantasy reader is interested in anything odd and fantastic, and will therefore read all sorts of texts that offer it.

  • sari

    Say what?? That’s a pretty broad statement. Have you data to support it?

    Readers and authors of SF/F tend to be a pretty varied lot and come from all sorts of backgrounds. Further, SF and F are different genres with some overlap; each further divides into subgenres, including near-future, romance, alternative history, and religious. Many readers stick exclusively to one genre, whereas others read widely.

    Here’s the point. Any sort of communication requires shared vocabulary and grammar, whether it’s nodding the head to signal assent or verbalizing the word yes. Rather than create a new lexicon, pop culture draws heavily from the prevalent culture. In this case, that would be Christian Scripture the belief systems of at least some Christian groups. Look at the popularity of Tim Lahaye’s The End Series, for instance. Think about Howard Camping. Ask yourself, what is supposed to happen at the time of the Second Coming. The religious underpinnings to TV shows, movies, art, comics, etc. are apparent to even people with minimal knowledge of religion -and- probably have less to do with the Mayan calendar than the journalist suggests. Their influence should have been included in the article.

    dalea-the idea of cycles is neither unique to Wicca nor new. One of my professors, Richard Rubinstein, the Holocaust theologian, arrived at a sort of mystical-cyclical theology after losing his belief in a personal god. He wasn’t the first, either. One can see similar beliefs in ancient Mesopotamian texts and in many mystical traditions. The idea of a war between good and evil, of light and darkness, is laid out clearly in the books written by the Essenes, who preceded and were contemporaneous with Jesus.

  • Julia

    The word Armageddon also appears in Revelation.

    For sure, and it is derived from the name of an actual place, usually called Megiddo or something similar, in what used to be called the Holy Land where the final battle will occur.

    Additionally, there has been a morphing of the word apocalypse, which actually means the revelation of something hidden. In the case of the New Testament book it was the revelation of the last days – and apocalypse is now also being used to mean the last days themselves.

    Lots of religious terms have been stripped of their religious meanings. It would be one thing if people just forgot what religious terminology means, but many of these terms are being co-opted to mean something totally different than the original meaning.



    From the 1911 Catholic encyclopedia:

    Apocalypse, from the verb apokalypto, to reveal, is the name given to the last book in the Bible. It is also called the Book of Revelation.

    Although a Christian work, the Apocalypse belongs to a class of literature dealing with eschatological subjects and much in vogue among the Jews of the first century before, and after, Christ.


    Notice that


    , the Greek word for reveal, was the name of the most recent movie Mel Gibson produced. There were two reveals made to the hero: the Maya were sacrificing humans and the final scene: ships with Europeans were about to land.

    Is there any way to trademark religious terms so they won’t be misused?

  • Julia

    Should have said that whatever else Gibson may be guilt of, he used apocalypto correctly.