Spotlighting Student Work #13: Followers of the Apocalypse

Tonight we have a essay from local Jamie Lee–here’s a bit about Jamie and their essay.

I am from Auckland, I am studying a Bachelor of Arts double majoring in Film, Television and Media Studies and English. I am about to head on exchange to the University of California, Santa Barbara, and intend on becoming an English teacher overseas once I complete my degree. I have thoroughly enjoyed this class, as while I am not the most devout Catholic in the world, I have an interest in the way religion and popular culture interact with each other especially through film, music and video games. I am also very interested in the way the Bible has affected modern literature and storytelling as a whole. The main reason I chose to do an essay on Apocalyptic literature was in order to understand both its function and how it was written, as I intend on exploring creative writing alongside my current career plans, and felt like this knowledge might help inspire me creatively in the future.

Enjoy the read and have a good weekend!

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Bombs, Blizzards and Blight: Apocalypse in Popular Culture

Jamie Lee

Popular culture literature, for example films, gaming and music, have manipulated the Bible’s apocalyptic literary genre in order to convey modern audiences social anxieties about the future. Inspired by the Book of Revelation’s symbolism of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and fantastical imagery of the ‘end of the world’, modern apocalyptic literature has been used to convey fears of absolute nuclear annihilation and fears of a global environmental catastrophe leading to humanity’s demise.

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The Book of Revelation’s best boys

The Book of Revelation’s original function was as a symbolic depiction of current events, using fantastical imagery to both depict contemporary anxieties and to spread hope to a Christian audience who were facing persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. This is particularly obvious in the symbolic image of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, each of which is reflective of one of these contemporary anxieties. The first horse, ‘Conquest’, is described as “a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer” (Revelation 6:2). Similarly, the remaining horses of ‘War’ (red), ‘Famine’ (black) and ‘Death’ (pale) all reflect the anxieties of early Christians in the times of persecution they lived in.

Coded language was also used in apocalyptic literature to depict contemporary anxieties, particularly the image of the “mark of the beast”. The “mark of the beast” can be decoded in Revelation 13:18, which reads, “the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. It’s number is six hundred sixty-six”. Through the technique of “gematria”, the number 666 can be decoded into the words “Caesar Nero”, who is both the first Roman emperor and one of the most brutal emperors to persecute Christians following the “Great Fire of Rome”, which Christians were scapegoated as causing in 64AD (Marcus Borg, p.277).

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The apocalyptic fire of Rome

The other function of biblical apocalyptic literature was to provide an ‘end goal’ or resolution to this persecution, which in the case of the Book of Revelation appears through the use of destructive eschatological imagery. This particularly visible in Revelation 16:18, which reads “there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake.” The use of fantastical imagery is what inspired modern writers of apocalyptic literature to use similar imagery in their own works. However, there have been many shifts in the way apocalyptic literature functions in the modern era, particularly in the way in which it is read. As Bart D. Ehrman states in an interview, the Bible’s apocalyptic literature is often misread by the modern audience “as if these apocalypses are predicting things in our own future”, simply because these fantastical events imagined in the Bible never occurred in history. For contemporary readers of apocalyptic literature in the Bible, it was used directly to create hope for them in the face of ongoing Christian persecution, whereas the apocalyptic literature seen in popular culture is far more concerned about the future of society.

Fear of the outbreak of a full scale nuclear war and ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD) has been a very real concern of society since World War II when the first atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. The first use of the atom bomb in Hiroshima led to the instant obliteration of 60,000 buildings within a three mile radius, and between 64,000 to 240,000 people died from mechanical, thermal or radiation injuries (Phillip M. Boffey, p.679). The sheer capabilities of nuclear weapons as shown by these two bombings led to ‘nuclear warfare’ becoming a very real fear of society, and this fear translated into popular culture in the form of modern apocalyptic literature.

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Those 2008 graphics really make you feel the desolation

The video game, Fallout 3 explores a post-apocalyptic civilization following the outbreak of full scale nuclear warfare in the year 2077. One of the most striking things about Fallout 3 is how lifeless the open-world of the “Capital Wasteland” is. Set in the ruins of Washington, D.C. almost no vegetation grows, the colour saturation is extremely pale and the Wasteland itself is filled with derelict, abandoned buildings and constant fighting between the survivors of the war, who without laws or government now do as they wish, with no consequences. This imagery of a desolate and lawless wasteland shares many similarities with apocalyptic literature in the Bible, for example Isaiah 24:1 reads, “Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate.” Additionally, Fallout 3’s main quest itself is inspired by the “spring of the water of life” seen in Revelation 21:6, by forcing the “Lone Wanderer” (the player) to decide whether or not they provide clean water for the people of the “Capital Wasteland”, or to unleash a devastating virus in it to purify the “Wasteland” of its violence and corruption.

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The colour palette may be similar, but the player characters are more attractive

Similarly, the film Mad Max: Fury Road uses much of the same imagery that is seen in the “Capital Wasteland”. Set in its own post-apocalyptic wasteland after an energy crisis led to the end of civilization, this wasteland is particularly distinct, as the entire movie is filled with imagery of sand and rusty machinery saturated in the colours of “ochre by day, cobalt by night” (Nick Pinkerton, p.82). The plot of the film revolves around the escape of the five wives of the tyrant, “Immortan Joe”, through the help of one of Joe’s lieutenants “Imperator Furiosa”, who intends on taking them to the “Green Place”, an idyllic land from Furiosa’s childhood. The discovery that the “Green Place” no longer exists — now a swampland — is extremely similar to the biblical verse of Revelation 8:7, which reads “there came hail and fire… they were hurled into the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up.” One crucial similarity between all of the aforementioned apocalyptic texts (Revelation, Fallout 3, Mad Max: Fury Road) is that they are rife with nostalgia, and all of them long for a return to a golden age.

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Furiosa in Fury Road’s wasteland

As Borg’s reading suggests, Jesus is considered the bringer of a “true golden age of peace on earth”, which is exactly what Revelation calls on its contemporary readers to wait for (p. 284). In the same way, the use of ironic 1940’s rhythm and blues such as “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” by the Ink Spots in Fallout 3 and Furiosa’s idyllic memory of the “Green Place” in Mad Max: Fury Road conveys a longing for a return to a simpler past which in reality can never be recovered.

Another fear in modern society which has been translated into popular culture is the increasing concern about climate change leading to a cataclysmic environmental apocalypse. Revelation’s imagery of cataclysmic events in particular have been the inspiration for popular culture interpretations of an environmental apocalypse. The film Soylent Green, based off the novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison is set in a dystopian New York in the year 2022, where large-scale industrialization has led to overpopulation, resource shortages, pollution and global warming due to the greenhouse effect.

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The plot of the story revolves around the discovery of the horrible secret behind the new food source — “Soylent Green” — and what it is made from, after Sol Roth, Detective Thorn’s personal librarian discovers that the oceans are dying. This imagery of dying oceans is matched by Revelation 16:3, which reads “every living thing in the sea died.” The secret of what Soylent Green is actually made of is then discovered by Detective Thorn, as he finds that it is not made from animal products, but instead that Soylent Green is made out of people! Similarly, films such as 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow take the theme of climate change and use identical imagery to what is seen in Revelation to depict what an environmental apocalypse could look like. Catastrophic weather events seen in these films range from “floods” (Revelation 12:15), “earthquakes” (Revelation 8:5), “huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people” (Revelation 16:21) and “a third of humankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur” (Revelation 9:18). However, the key difference between Revelation and modern apocalyptic literature is that modern apocalyptic literature (especially films) typically dissociate themselves from the spiritual themes and messages of Revelation, instead preferring to focus on the resilience of humanity as a race.

One of the rare cases in which an environmental apocalypse is depicted on the big screen with an anxiety of contemporary Bible readers is in the science-fiction film Interstellar. The main cause of Interstellar’s environmental apocalypse is through the form of “Blight” which has wiped out almost every crop on the planet, and threatens to wipe out the last viable crop humanity has, corn. The manner in which “Blight” is personified in Interstellar is identical to the way “Pestilence” is personified as the horseman of the black horse from the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Revelation 6:5-6). “Blight” is also extremely similar to the famine in Revelation 18:8 which reads “plagues will come in a single day — pestilence and mourning and famine.” However, the solution to this plight faced in Interstellar is not spiritual, instead it is extraterrestrial.

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Look at all that extraterritory

Modern apocalyptic literature and the anxieties they reflect, such as nuclear warfare and climate change, are modern interpretations of society’s new “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. While the imagery of the apocalypse has remained remarkably similar over the course of two-thousand years, the function of apocalyptic literature has drastically shifted from providing hope for its readers by promising a return to a golden age to casting doubts and projecting fear about the future.

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Bibliography

All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV

Boffey, Philip M. “HIROSHIMA/NAGASAKI: Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission Perseveres in Sensitive Studies.” Science, vol. 168, no. 3932, 1970, pp. 679–683. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1729022.

Ehrman, Bart D. “Apocalyptic Literature.” Bible Odyssey, National Endowment For The Humanities, 2013, http://www.bibleodyssey.org/tools/video-gallery/a/apocalyptic-literature.aspx.

Pinkerton, Nick. “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Sight & Sound, vol. 25, no. 7, July 2015, pp. 81–82.

“Reading Revelation Again.” Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally, by Marcus J. Borg, HarperSanFrancisco, 2001, pp. 265–292.

Reagan, David R. “Nuclear Weapons in the End Times.” Lamb and Lion Ministries, christinprophecy.org/articles/nuclear-weapons-in-the-end-times/.

 

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