Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed
away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out
of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice
from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
--Revelation 21:1-4 NRSV
Recently in Sunday morning worship one of our elders shared about how she was watching post-apocalyptic movies as a coping mechanism during the COVID-10 pandemic. She and I spoke briefly about our favorite post-apocalyptic films following the service. Like her, I love watching movies and TV shows about zombie apocalypses. Unlike her I’m not one for movies about viral pandemics like Contagion. I was never very good at science class and chemistry baffled me. Also, maybe I just have a violent streak, and it’s more satisfying for me to imagine blowing apart zombies with shotguns. (I’m not sure if that’s a good thing for a pastor to admit or not.)
I’ve been a fan of post-apocalyptic movies for a long time. I’m pretty sure it was a way for coping with my childhood and teenage fears about the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union and the United States destroying the world with nuclear weapons. It was somehow comforting to watch The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and see people surviving after the world fell apart (albeit it in a whole lot of leather and punk haircuts).
Disaster films have probably always been a means of addressing the anxiety in a particular culture whether it was the Cold War seen through the lens of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the tumult of the Civil Rights era as seen in Oscar Romero’s Night of the Living Dead or diseases like mad cow disease in 28 Days Later or swine flue in Train to Busan. Our cinematic depictions of the end of the world as we know it reveal to us our own current anxieties. Seeing plucky protagonists survive the apocalypse can be a catharsis.
In recent days, I’ve begun to wonder if we have reached a limit to our violent end of the world stories. At what point do our fantasies about the future permeate a culture enough to shape the way we view our own future? When both conservatives and liberals have been buying up guns and ammo afraid of post-election violence, maybe we need to slow down on imbibing stories that depict the world teetering on collapse.
I recently read a piece by Cory Doctorow, a sci-fi and techno thriller author, who says he has changed the way he writes about the future because things are getting so bad in American culture. He writes that the idea that we are on the brink of collapsing into Mad Max: Fury Road just isn’t true.
It makes for good stories, but those stories don’t reflect the truth of the world as I see it. Humanity is, on balance, good. We have done remarkable things. The fact that we remain here today, after so many disasters in our species’ history, is a reminder that we are a species of self-rescuing princesses—characters who save one another in crisis, rather than turning on ourselves.
Doctorow points to books like Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 non-fiction book A Paradise Built in Hell, which despite the ominous title, demonstrates that “crises are when our species shines, moments of great personal and group sacrifice.” So, Doctorow is now writing novels that explore the very real threats to our world while also depicting heroes coming together and meeting those challenges.
I think Doctorow is not alone in this opinion. I was drawn to a new series on Amazon Prime Video called Utopia which promises lots of end of the world fun, but reviews have been somewhat negative. In the age of over 200,000 people dead from COVID-19 and predictions of violence the day after the presidential election, stories of mass violence can seem tasteless. Maybe I’ll wait until next year to watch that series when hopefully stories of societal upheaval feel more like fiction again.
I’ve ben struggling to recall whether any of the apocalyptic movies, TV shows and books I’ve read actually depict society coming together to meet the challenge of the world’s demise. The only one I can think of is the book World War Z by Max Brooks (Ignore the movie adaptation starring Brad Piit, it’s nothing like the book.) Brooks is the son of Hollywood icons Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. He has spoken extensively about how he was inspired by his parents’ generation who defeated fascism in WWII. (Remember when we all pretty much agreed Nazis were bad?) In World War Z, he tells of America’s response to the zombie menace in terms similar to the war effort of the “Greatest Generation.” Society mobilizes, experts are listened to, people are heroic and sacrifice their own safety for one another. Maybe we need more stories like that these days to remind us how we can work together to make the world a better place rather than just sliding into collapse.
All this rumination about post-apocalyptic stories, has also got me thinking about the stories Christians tell about the end of the world. The dominant narrative is one of judgement, destruction and disaster. Christian versions of disaster movies have come in the form of A Thief in the Night and the Left Behind books and films. Both present stories about the Rapture (which isn’t even in the Bible) as the beginning of God destroying the world. No doubt the Bible contains apocalyptic imagery, but the different images do not speak in one voice about how it will happen and who it happens to. The only thing all those passages do agree upon is that God sets everything aright in the end.
Christians profess that the ultimate ending of the world is up to God; only God can fully make right what has gone wrong. Yet, at the same time, Christians also profess that the Kingdom of God is not just a future reality but available in the present when love occurs, mercy is shown and those who have the least are made whole. God’s ultimate victory isn’t fully accomplished until whenever time ends, but glimpses of it occur in the here and now when those whom God has created demonstrate sacrificial love for others, whether or not they claim to believe in God or not.
In this time of fear, maybe our culture needs more hopeful stories. We don’t need to run to the nearest gun shop and load up on ammo, because despite how bad humans can sometimes be, we are usually not that bad. In the same way, maybe Christians need to be telling more hopeful stories too. Our stories need to be about a God who never abandons us, who cares for us in this life and the next and who ultimately will create a new heaven and a new earth where there is room enough for everyone.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851