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Book Excerpt: "How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith and Politics at the End of the World" by Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson

We're proud to present an excerpt from a new book co-written by RogerEbert.com contributor, Alissa Wilkinson, "How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith and Politics at the End of the World."

Synopsis (from Amazon.com): Incisive insights into contemporary pop culture and its apocalyptic bent. 

"The world is going to hell." So begins this book, pointing to the prevalence of apocalypse — cataclysmic destruction and nightmarish end-of-the-world scenarios — in contemporary entertainment. 

In "How to Survive the Apocalypse," Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson examine a number of popular stories—from the Cylons in "Battlestar Galactica" to the purging of innocence in "Game of Thrones" to the hordes of zombies in "The Walking Dead"—and argue that such apocalyptic stories reveal a lot about us here and now, about how we conceive of our life together, including some of our deepest tensions and anxieties.

Besides analyzing the dsytopian shift in popular culture, Joustra and Wilkinson also suggest how Christians can live faithfully and with integrity in such a cultural context. 


Apocalypse Everywhere

Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. 
J. Robert Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad Gita 

In order to engage effectively in this many-faceted debate, one has to see what is great in the culture of modernity, as well as what is shallow and dangerous. 
Charles Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity

The world is going to hell.

Just turn on the television—no, not the news. Flip over to the prestige dramas and sci-fi epics and political dramas. Look at how we entertain ourselves. Undead hordes are stalking and devouring, alien invasions are crippling and enslaving, politicians ignore governance in favor of sex and power, and sentient robots wreak terrible revenge upon us.

Today, apocalypse sells like mad. Not just the threat of it, but its reality. And especially its aftermath.

This is objectively weird when you think about it. So we go to work all day and then come home, reheat some pizza, flop down on the couch ... and watch our own destruction for fun? What’s going on here? Why would we do such a thing?

One easy answer—too easy—is that our fixation on the end of the world (and us) is itself a sort of sign of the end of civilization. As the narrative goes, we’re a bunch of lazy, privileged Westerners with no real wars to fight, no real struggles, and we have to watch this stuff to get our adrenaline fix. Only people with the luxury of comfort and relative stability could afford to entertain themselves with their own destruction, right?

Well. Yes and no. As long as we humans have been telling the story of our beginning, we’ve also been telling the story of our end—for every Asgard and Midgard, a Ragnarok; for every Garden of Eden, an Armageddon. These stories of “apocalypse” are about the end of the world and the destruction of civilization. This is how it all ends.

But apocalyptic literature is not really just about the end of the world.

The Greek word apokalypsis means not only destruction, not only the disruption of reality, but the dismantling of perceived realities — an ending of endings, a shocking tremor of revelation that remade creation in its wake. It renews as it destroys; with its destruction it brings an epiphany about the universe, the gods, or God.

Apocalyptic literature has always said a great deal more about who we are now—the makers and the receivers—than who we might be in the future. It reveals more than predicts. And that’s why our stories have changed over time: when the way we think about ourselves as individuals and societies changes, our apocalypses change too.

In other words, there’s more to our obsessions with zombies and Cylons and robots and presidents behaving badly than meets the eye.

It’s All Our Fault

Our forefathers conceived of Ragnarok or Armageddon as a judgment visited from on high upon mankind, a Day of Reckoning chosen and enacted by a God or gods. But today, we imagine the apocalypse differently: we’ve swapped ourselves into the position of apocalypse-enactor.

We have science, and scholarship, and technology, all of which let us understand and manipulate our environment with previously unthinkable powers: we can cure disease, beam a message around the globe in seconds, walk on the moon, see the invisible. Our destinies are in our hands, and that control is so broad, so unprecedented, that apocalypse is within our grasp.

You and I have become gods. But that has come with a price: now we can bring about the end. We are the authors of our own destruction.

Since the early Cold War, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction—launch the missile, we’ll launch one back—has constantly reminded us that we teeter on the edge. One diplomatic misstep or inadvertent bump of the button, and our thin veneer of civilization will crack. Our godlike powers are as much a product of our power to destroy as to create.

Our novels and stories and movies and TV shows have shifted from a dominantly utopian imagination to one marked by the apocalyptic—and the dystopian. We once had the Cold War utopianism of Captain Kirk; now we have J. J. Abrams’ “Star Trek into Darkness,” with its none-too-metaphorical annihilation of logic—an inversion of the Trek universe—through the destruction of the planet Vulcan. We’ve gone from the idealist psycho-history of Isaac Asimov to the fatalist siren call of the Cylons in “Battlestar Galactica.” We went from the sacrificial valor of Hobbits to the purging of innocence in Westeros.

What happened? What scorched our fantasy landscape? Why this extraordinary dystopian shift in popular imagination?

An answer lurks in something the philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “malaise of modernity,” by which he means the things we obsess about and the tensions endemic to our modern moral order—an order Taylor calls “secular” (though he means something different by that than you might expect). Our dystopias are different from the apocalypses we saw in the past—in the history of the Christians, Jews, Hindus, and others—because they take a “secular” form.

Thoughtful cultural analysis is valuable, but there’s more at stake here. Apocalyptic literature beckons us peer through the lens of apocalypse at ourselves, looking at these dystopias to see how we conceive of our life together—our politics. Once we’ve seen ourselves more clearly in the zombies and Cylons, in the Panem arena and a corrupt White House, we can start to offer a few modest proposals for getting from dystopia back to apocalypse. Our pop apocalypses let us start to see what is good and what is broken in our culture. That’s where the meaningful discussions about maximizing the one and healing the other begin.

These stories aren’t necessarily prophetic. What comes after this “creative destruction” is our choice—for a place, and a people, worth saving from the apocalypse.

Excerpt from How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, by Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson (Wm. B. Eerdmans, May 9). Reprinted by permission of the publisher; all rights reserved.


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