The political uses of apocalypse: a reading list to be going on with

My Facebook page has become a clash of cultures between my deeply religious relatives and other secular friends over one of those memes that people send about. Memes are always reductive, and they are usually a shorthand form of political communication, designed to score points off of the satirized viewpoint among people who agree with you rather than convince people who don’t. This one had to do with the apocalyptic arm of the contemporary GOP and its focus on supporting Israel not as a freestanding state designed to be a homeland where the Jewish people (to the degree that we may speak of peoples in the Rawlsian sense of the word) have self-determination, but as the ground zero of the end times for all the worthy Christians waiting to be raptured.

This of course annoyed the Christian conservatives who refuse to be painted with this brush (of course not), but apocalyptic thinking is so rooted in western politics that it’s hard to ignore the sticky problem the meme presents, however rudely, about the central problem of apocalypticism in politics.

There are explicit forms of apocalypticism among people who think we physically are on the clock, winding down, which induces fatalism with regard to progress. We have good evidence that Jesus Christ was an apocalyptic thinker, which makes much of the social program he outlines difficult to apply millennia later: if the end times are coming, of course you can give away all you own. You shan’t need that coat, anyway. But in a world that rolls on an on, you just might.

There are also implicit forms apocalypticism that treat disaster thinking as an inherent set of assumptions about the way the world is going. As my colleague, Martin Krieger, points out, you can see apocalypticism in lots of environmental discourse, particularly climate change. And to some purpose: disasters do happen, societies do die, as do cities.

In this way, I tend to think of apocalypticsm as a parallel to utopianism. I’m influenced here by Richard Gunn’s thought piece on the topic (pdf download.) I don’t think they are obverses; I do think they tend to run in tandem because of the influence that heaven and hell influences have on Judeo-Christian thought and attitudes, and, thus, on how people think society might progress or can progress (or not) and thus on the way they think about politics.

And then: ZOMBIES.

There’s a goodly bit of utopianism and apocalypticism in urban studies, which is one reason I find both so interesting: The Life and Death of Great American Cities is an exemplar. Life. DEATH. ZOMBIES.

Here are some things to read if you like this sort of thing:

Genesis 5:21-24 and 6:1-8

Ezekiel 37-39; Isaiah 24-27; Zechariah

Daniel 2, 7-12 (Bible);

4 Ezra (= 2 Esdras 3-14)

John’s Apocalypse, esp. chs. 1-3, 12-18 (Revelation in the New Testament); 1 Thessalonians, esp. chs. 4-5 (for Paul’s apocalyptic worldview);

Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World To Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith. 2nd edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Judean Apocalyptic Literature. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (Viking, 2012)

Eugene Weber. 2000. Apocalypses: Propheicies, Cults, and Millenial Beliefs Throughout the Ages. Havard University Press.

Harrison, J.F.C. 2013. The Second Coming: Popular Millenarialism 1780-1850. Routledge.

There is so much writing on contemporary Christian apocalypticism that I don’t know where to begin. I have always liked:

Daniels, Ted. 1999. A Doomsday Reader: Prophets, Predictors, and Hucksters of Salvation. NYU Press.

But it’s an older book. Anybody have suggestions?