The End of Days

Ahhh. This seems an auspicious topic on the eve of the election.

So, shall we talk about the Apocalypse? In the same way that sometimes you can go for weeks without hearing a song and suddenly hear it everywhere, I feel like there has been a collective murmuring lately about humanity’s imminent demise. I feel like I need to say something about this, just so we can clear the air. I want to be sure that when I raise a glass tomorrow night — or several — that it is with patriotic joy and celebration in my heart.

Just in the last few weeks, I can think of several different instances where people have identified and discussed openly this anxiety about bringing about our own destruction, sometimes in cataclysmic ways.

I have noticed this more than once over the last few weeks, but I feel like I finally really need to say something about it, just to clear the air. I dunno, maybe there’s this thing about a historic election in the air, or a credit crisis, or even that supercollider, but I feel a bit like the issue of the Apocalypse, the End of Days, and the demise of all of humanity is a little too much on our minds lately.

I can think of at least five different instances off the top of my head where people have discussed this idea of The Apocalypse, in varying contexts, with and without movie horror effects, with and without a wrathful God to separate the blessed from the sinners.

Some examples:

And then, if that last one wasn’t enough (it was for me, thanks), last Friday I was stationed at the Information Desk for my usual shift. Key difference? It was Halloween. A couple of the guards were chatting cheerily about their costumes for parties later in the evening; one guard was going to be an apocalypse survivor, he announced. Oh? Yep, he’d dress in a ratty, bloodied t-shirt, and he’d eat people. Hm. And, I asked, how’s that different from a zombie? Well, see, zombies eat brains, usually of living people. He’d eat dead people. Oh, that’s an important point of clarification. Key to survival, I imagine. Delightful.

Later, as I was leaving the Museum to actually head out to my own parties, I drove up First Ave, through Belltown. There were tons of people on the streets, but what I was not expecting — and what spooked me a little — were the street preachers. I have encountered them in other cities, in New York, Boston, SF, London, and I’m sure here, too, but not like this. As I drove past The Showbox and the Pike Place Market, before every large group of people and on each street corner thundered an evangelist, aided by a portable amp and microphone. They and others around them bore huge signs with slogans like: REPENT OR SUFFER THE PAIN OF HELL; HALLOWEEN IS SATAN’S DAY. Honestly, it actively upset me, mostly because anyone who directs that much anger and vehemence at people they don’t know kinda freak me out. It’s the hatred that spooks me.

But still, I don’t think it’s any accident that this theme of the Apocalypse (without Redemption, I might add) is a resurgent theme on people’s lips. Not to fan the flames or anything, but there is a substantial laundry list of items to be anxious about: the housing bubble/credit collapse; global warming; that pesky lingering war in Iraq and its impact on international fuel availability, nevermind geopolitical stability in the Middle East; the krazy notion that CERN might really blow open a black hole that might swallow the earth (a notion which my friendly local physicist pointed out is, indeed, theoretically possible, but also about as likely as the molecules of my dining room allowing a cup to fall through to the floor). On the home front, we do have this historic election (Go Obama! Go!), on which the very happiness of our nation seems to hang; I’d also add that national employment levels are dropping at record rates —  I was swept up in that tidal wave ten days ago. All in all, there is a universal sense that we’ve pretty much effed ourselves in nearly every possible way — that the hubris of the human race is on a scale that cannot be reigned in. We are dangerously close to — if not well beyond — the tipping point. And, worse, we feel that we are beyond salvation. Must we resort to crossing our fingers and praying?

Ahh. This is when being a medieval studies student actually seems like a relevant education. (Thank you, Sallie Mae!) If I can say anything that is a comfort, it is that people have been wringing their hands over the end of civilization since the beginning of time. The medieval period was fascinated with this idea of an End of Days — it surfaced again and again: around the year 1000, during the time of the plague, and again during the Protestant Reformation when there was a major push to make the Bible and masses available in the secular languages. The medievals were so obsessed with their own demise (the theologians, were, anyway) that between the 12th and 14th centuries, images of the Last Judgement and various memento mori were ubiquitous: they were the symbols of man’s fallen nature and a continual reminder of his eventual, unavoidable return to death. For the Christians, the Redemption, and the importance of the will in choosing this path was certainly the more difficult, but also one of greater hope.

Proceeding towards the End is the final act of faith. Our contemporary society’s devolvement into nearly complete secularism has left us without the social structures to emotionally package up this unsettling notion of self-destructing. In a Christian worldview, we do it to ourselves, but God provides the firepower, and thus shares the blame. The Apocalypse in the Gospel of St. John is only the final version of the human-driven cataclysm in the Bible: we are driven out of Eden, God floods the earth and forces Noah and his family to seek refuge in a ship, God brings plagues and death among the Egyptians. The religious framework ensures that each disaster is understood as a harbinger of God’s will; the terror ceases upon reconciliation.

Without that deist framework, however, such events remain unfixed in the moral landscape: they seem random, senseless, and ominous, even if they might be caused by relatively predictable factors. The lesson, perhaps, is that *all* apocalypses are relatively survivable. I am reminded of my 1963 Army Survival Guide which I picked up in a second-hand bookstore: it includes detailed drawings for making a nuclear fallout shelter out of snow, concrete, metal, and various other materials. It also includes comments on how long average survival rates are after exposure to a nuclear bomb blast. Because, you know, you might need to know. So yeah, like I was saying — don’t fret — apocalypses are totally survivable. You might still want to have a bomb shelter just in case.

Happy voting!



~ by ecp on November 4, 2008.

One Response to “The End of Days”

  1. Thanks for linking to my post. I would add that in addition to Chad and Anne’s show there have been other exhibitions in Seattle over the past few months that have had Apocalypse as a theme: “The Violet Hour” at the Henry and “Apocalypse Now” at Ouch My Eye come immediately to mind.

    There was a book by William Strauss & Neil Howe called “Generations,” which came out in 1991 and is “unsupported by academic historians” according to Wikipedia (oh goody!) I haven’t read it, but apparently the authors make the case for four-generation cycles that pass through the following archetypes:

    1) Awakening

    2) Unraveling

    3) Crisis

    4) High

    For Strauss and Howe (and the redactors who apply their model to the generation that’s passed since the book was published), the Consciousness Revolution of the 1960s-70s represented the last “Awakening” and the period we’ve been in since Sept. 11, 2001 is a “Crisis.” Via Wikipedia:

    “A Crisis is a decisive era of secular upheaval. The values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one. Wars are waged with apocalyptic finality. Examples of Crisis eras include the Wars of the Roses (1459-1487), the Spanish Armada Crisis (1569-1594), the colonial Glorious Revolution (1675-1704), the American Revolution (1773-1794), the American Civil War (1860-1865), and the twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II (1932-1945), and now possibly the present time from September 11th, 2001.”

    full article here:

    To this I would add my personal opinion that the notion of “Apocalypse” as popularly understood is inherently egocentric. That is, for the people and institutions who are certain of impending End Times doom and gloom, one’s own worldview is so embedded in the egoic fear of personal annihilation that the immanent collapse of self or current situation MUST imply no less than the end of life-as-we-know-it-for-you-and-everyone-else-too! To fear an apocalypse is to assume that things have ends and beginnings; that time is linear and not cyclical (or both eternal and illusory!)

    Anyway, I enjoyed your post. Happy New President!

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