Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Apocalypse

Feb 25, 2014

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Apocalypse

Everything has a history, and a pre-history. Even the end of history. Tracing "the end" back to its beginnings, and through some of the surprising twists and turns it has taken in U.S. history, can help us think more creatively about how to avoid "the end" and move toward a more hopeful future.

This post is a companion to "Apocalypses Everywhere," a piece I've just posted on another site , which I hope you'll take a look at. There I wrote:

Apocalyptic stories have been around at least since biblical times, if not earlier. They show up in many religions, always with the same basic plot: the end is at hand; the cosmic struggle between good and evil (or God and the Devil, as the New Testament has it) is about to culminate in catastrophic chaos, mass extermination, and the end of the world as we know it. 

That, however, is only Act I, wherein we wipe out the past and leave a blank cosmic slate in preparation for Act II: a new, infinitely better, perhaps even perfect world that will arise from the ashes of our present one.

The Jewish writers who invented this myth didn't make it up from scratch. They were inspired by earlier myths, songs, and poems -- especially biblical prophecies that warned of the coming destruction, not of the whole world, but only of the Israelite or Judean kingdoms. The earliest of those prophecies probably had no happy endings. Destruction was coming, they proclaimed: "The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth" (Amos 9:8). That was the whole story.

But later editors couldn't abide such utter hopelessness. So they added the happy ending: "I will restore the fortunes of my people ... They shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them ... And they shall never again be plucked up" (Amos 9: 14,15). 

Ancient Jewish apocalypses projected this story of national death and rebirth onto a global or cosmic scale. So did the last book of the New Testament, Revelations, the prototype of all Christian apocalypses. In those stories the Christians, the New Israel, must descend into universal chaos so they can emerge from it to live forever in the perfection of the New Jerusalem.

The earliest British colonists in North America knew these biblical stories of endings, both cataclysmic and blissful, very well -- especially the Puritans, whose theology has had such a disproportionate influence on American political mythology.

They also knew a third mythic theme: Repentance could avoid the prophesied destruction of the nation or community. That's the essential message of all those Puritan sermons, and their later imitators, which we know as jeremiads -- though the theme of "repent and ye shall be saved" actually doesn't show up very much in Jeremiah, nor in the other biblical prophets. It's rather the hallmark of Deuteronomy and the biblical histories written under the influence of that book.   

These three kinds of narratives run like interwoven threads through the history American political mythology.

Even Thomas Paine, reviled in his time as an enemy of religion, urged the colonists to revolution in overtly apocalyptic language: "The birthday of a new world is at hand. ... We have it in our power to begin the world over again," even if we must endure the chaos of war to bring that new world to birth.

The same tones can be heard in the preaching of some nineteenth-century abolitionists. Abolitionism ultimately led to a Civil War that was widely interpreted by both sides as an apocalypse. (Ernest Tuveson's Redeemer Nation offers a copious collection of apocalyptic texts stretching from early colonial times to the Civil War, showing the continuities that persisted through widely different historical contexts.)

Yet the dominant theological message of the antebellum abolitionists was not apocalyptic. Its language, shaped mainly in Puritan-influenced New England, drew most from the jeremiad tradition: The nation could avoid disaster by mending its ways, first and foremost by abolishing slavery. We call it "reform," but pious antebellum Protestants were more likely to call it repentance. 

Several decades after the Civil War a new outburst of calls for repentance swept the land in the form of Progressivism, Bryanism, and the Social Gospel. That movement seemed to be felled by U.S. entry into World War I, which Woodrow Wilson justified in stark apocalyptic language: Defeat the forces of evil and we'll live in a world eternally safe for democracy. But Progressivism returned in the New Deal, though its religious underpinnings were now rather invisible.

In this interplay between apocalypse and jeremiad, what happened to the original biblical source of the tradition, the prophetic theme of inescapable doom coming upon the nation? It was pretty much driven underground until it emerged, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, at the end of World War II, when the news broke of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As Paul Boyer has shown in By the Bomb's Early Light, victory in World War II was not widely celebrated as an apocalyptic triumph ushering in a far better world. What the war's nuclear end ushered in was, instead, a nuclear fear that radically changed the very meaning of the word apocalypse.

Type "define apocalypse" into Google's search engine and you'll first get the meaning that the Bomb made dominant in American political discourse: "the complete final destruction of the world." Utter annihilation, with nothing better -- indeed nothing at all -- to follow. THE END.

Then you'll get the most fashionable current meaning of the word: "Any event involving destruction on an awesome scale; [for example] 'a stock market apocalypse.’" So apocalypse is no longer just "the end of everything" but, by extension, "the end of anything": mounting federal debt, the government's plan to take away our guns,  the Comcast-Time Warner mergerocalypse, Beijing's pollution airpocalypse, the American snowpocalypse, and the list goes on and on.

That's why I call this the age of "apocalypses everywhere" -- an age whose dominant mood is defined by the paralyzing message first delivered by The Bomb: "We're doomed to annihilation."

The old apocalyptic promise of a new heaven and new earth has largely disappeared in public discourse -- except in some (sizeable) evangelical Christian circles, where it offers hope, but only to the saved. Unfortunately, their “left behind” culture has produced among many a readiness, sometimes even eagerness, to fight both the final (perhaps nuclear) war with evildoers abroad and the ultimate culture war against sinners at home.

In evangelical circles one can also hear jeremiads often enough, warning that America is doomed unless it repents of its evil (read: liberal) ways.

Where does that leave the progressive left?

A truly apocalyptic vision was once alive on the left, too -- most recently in the late 1960s. When the Jefferson Airplane chanted "Tear down the walls," millions of (mostly young) Americans who lustily sang along felt like they were enlisting in a revolution, offered themselves as "volunteers of America." They assumed that the tearing down was, simultaneously, a process of building, from the ground up, a brand new America, and indeed a brand new world, where "all you need is love."

If it sounds a bit foolish in retrospect, it was no less -- and perhaps rather more --  realistic than all the apocalyptic visions that came before it.  

A combination of violent repression in the streets and popular rejection in the voting booth put an end to the overt apocalypticism of those "volunteers of America."  Certainly many held on to some kind of revolutionary vision in some deeper recesses of their minds.

Yet in the decades since, while "the left" was renaming itself "progressives," it came increasingly under the spell of our growing cultural tendency to see apocalypses everywhere. By now the progressive message, regardless of the issue, is typically: "Stop this catastrophe now or we're doomed!" (e.g., "Stop the Keystone XL pipeline or it's "Game Over"!"). Period. A better future may be implied between the lines, but it doesn't get much attention. So the note of hope that was the hallmark of religious apocalypse easily gets lost.

The goal, of course, is to create a modern kind of jeremiad -- to alarm people and move them to change their ways. But in an age of apocalypses everywhere, all leading to nothingness, the summons to repentance loses its psychological impact. Instead, all this doomsaying from the left is most likely to reinforce the hopeless sense of impending annihilation that pervades American society.

One sector of the left has largely escaped the siren call of doom. Logically enough, it's the religious left, the sector that inherited the ante-bellum Christian reformers' tradition of jeremiad. Today's religious left, like its ancestor, typically avoids an apocalyptic narrative; it does not foresee destructive chaos as the only route to the better world it envisions.  

Rather, it returns to its roots in Deuteronomy, where the message is simple and stark: "I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life" (Dt. 30:19). It's never too late to turn around, do the right thing, and avoid the catastrophic consequences of our past and present mistakes.

Our past and present mistakes are most obviously catastrophic in our natural environment, where the end of the world as we know it is creeping up on us at every moment. It's what Todd Gitlin has called a "slow-motion apocalypse," using the word in its nuclear age meaning of total extinction.

Amidst the gloom of global climate change, though, we may see a ray of the light of a new mythology to address the environmental crisis. Suppose we let the secular left define the problem in its familiar apocalyptic language -- which in this case is all too realistic -- but use the religious left's jeremiadic language of reform to spell out the solution.

What we end up with is a "slow-motion revolution": every day, more and more people recognizing the danger and choosing life; that is, shifting from extinction-breeding fossil fuels to alternative energy sources, thus gradually transforming the impending doom to a realistic hope for a far better world. 

Indeed, as I point out in "Apocalypses Everywhere," it's already happening. Scientists have shown that renewable sources like sun and wind could provide all the energy humanity needs. Alternative technologies are putting those theories into practice around the globe, just not (yet) on the scale needed to transform all human life.

By combining the biblically-based apocalyptic and jeremiad traditions, we can make our words and thoughts reflect, not just our fears, but the promise of this revolution that is beginning all around us. In an age in which gloom, doom, and annihilation are everywhere, it's vital to bring genuine hope -- the reality, not just the word -- back into political life. 

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