I just watched 2012. The conceit that the world will end last year must be getting tired by now, but I’d been curious about the movie since it came out three years back. As I suspected, there was plenty of religious banter as the putative version of us prepared for the end of the world. I noted that the little boy of the average family that managed to make it all the way to China to seek rescue bore the name of Noah. When the animals were being airlifted to the rescue station with its titanic boats meant to float out the world wide flood, it was clear that the myth of the ark was alive and well. (As I hope all of you reading this in the future are.) So this disaster movie turned out to be a bit of harmless fun, but I nevertheless shuddered at the implications. Those chosen to survive were, naturally, those who could afford to find a place onboard the secretly constructed arks. As even some of the film’s characters recognized, those who had money could buy a place on the ark, and of course they did. I do wonder what their brave new world would have been like. The whole idea of wealth has to do with the perceived value of specific commodities, and apart from our last minute stowaways, you can bet that everyone on board wanted their assets valued highest. Once the waters receded, if I recall the story at all, sacrifices would be made. Even the opening of the decks and the buzzing of helicopters like doves and ravens did Genesis proud.
The end of the world is a funny concept. Those of us who experience the world as mortals can’t really image the place without us, so I suppose it is natural enough. Nevertheless, the tone of the last four apocalypses I remember has been distinctly religious. There was a serious scare (perhaps local, because no internet existed) when I was in tenth grade. The next one I recall was Y2K, a silly episode where even priests I knew were seriously worried. With the Camping and Mayan “predictions” coming so close together, some no doubt supposed the Big Guy had it in for us all. When Christians tell the story it’s always the version with God glaring at us, belt in hand. Remember what Homer Simpson says of the song he wrote: “I’ve come to hate my own creation. Now I know how God feels.” Our cultural sense of disapprobation could be better addressed by helping those in need rather than building arks (or tax write-offs) for those who require no more to live like petty emperors. Emphasis on petty.
The world didn’t end and I wasn’t really worried that it would. The fact is we don’t need God to design an apocalypse for us because we’re very good about engineering our own. Unequal distribution of goods and services throughout a world where means exist for alleviating the suffering of countless numbers of the poor and disadvantaged has already created a purgatory on earth. We don’t need a Mayan calendar, or a New Testament whose message of compassion is overlooked in favor of its putative apocalypse, to show us the end of time. But since we made it to 2013, perhaps we should consider this a stay of execution. Let’s use our post-apocalyptic future wisely and hope humanity will live up to its name. And maybe it’s time for a new calendar.
Back in January, out of a sense of curiosity on a number of points, I began tweeting the Bible. I wondered how long it would take, at 140 characters a day, to type the King James Bible into Twitter. Since that time, I have not missed a day. Until this week. International travel and business travel with uncertain Internet access have been overcome as I flew with Bible in hand to keep it going. On Monday I was just wrapping up the flood story. Clearly this was going to take a long-term commitment. Then early this week a message popped up on my Twitter account stating, “You cannot send messages to users who are not following you. Learn more,” so naturally, I learned more. Unfortunately I am not now, nor have I ever been, a techie. Just a sentence in and words I don’t understand begin to flummox me, building confusion on confusion. What it appears to be telling me, in layman’s language, is that I can no longer post to Twitter.
Apart from the personal rejection such impersonal messages inevitably engender, this development brought to mind the famous verse from Isaiah 40.8, “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” Hath the Lord been stopped by Twitter? Technology changes rapidly, and those of us who’ve never had any formal training in it sometimes feel like we’re driving a car on a dark country road at night with no headlights. I’m not really sure how this all works, but I try to send daily thoughts out into cyberspace and, yes, what you say can and will be used against you. And I wonder about old Deutero-Isaiah sitting there in Babylon peering into an indefinite future.
Our abject dependence on the Internet has changed us as a species. I’ve recently read about how technological innovations have become the evolution of the human species. This collective brain we refer to as the Internet has revolutionized the way we do business, but it has also introduced a component of fragility into the equation. Electronic information is untested in the long term. Some of my earliest writing projects now exist only on three-and-a-half inch floppies, most of which are tucked away in some musty corner of the attic. And what if the earth passes through a comet’s tail or a nasty solar flare jets out our way? Doomsday scenarios have been based on such things (just remember Y2K and smile). So maybe Second Isaiah was onto something after all. Printed books have been known to survive for at least half a millennium, and in rare instances, a couple thousand years. And the pagan sources on which parts of the Bible are based, written in clay, last even longer. And one of the earliest stories recorded was that of a worldwide flood.
There seems to be a society-wide fascination with the end of the world as we know it. Or maybe it is the just the perspective I bring to it. The past two decades with their breathless run up to Y2K and grappling to forge some sense out of 9/11 before 2012 rolls over us, have been awash in popular representations of how it might all come to an end. A society begging somebody to apply the brakes. We’ve got many senior citizens still around who’ve never used a computer attempting to coexist with a generation that has never been without one. From Kitty Hawk to the moon in just 66 years. I remember watching the latter on (black-and-white) television. Now I watch students walk into class with devices about whose function I can only ask Mr. Spock to speculate.
So it was that I finally got around to watching The Day the Earth Stood Still last night. The 2008 remake. Having long been a fan of the original, I can understand the insistent draw to bring it up-to-date. Even by the time Star Trek (original series) aired, it was hard to see what had terrified 1950s audiences about Gort or the idea of aliens. Thus I had great expectations when I first saw the trailers for the remake, but the reviews took the edge off my shine and I’ve only now experienced it. Naturally, I was looking for the religious angle.
Like Justin Cronin’s The Passage, the religious metaphor came in the guise of an ark. Klaatu is here to save all species except us, prompting Regina Jackson to state that after the ark is filled, the flood will come. The apocalyptic end of the world – being eaten by bugs (perhaps prescient of New York’s bed-bug infestation) – brings nanotech and the Bible together in an unhappy marriage. As soon as the authorities learn that Klaatu’s sphere is an ark they try to blow it to kingdom come. And yet Helen Benson is here to tell the tale.
We are vulnerable. For all our achievements, we fear the kids down the block that are bigger than us. Whether they be cold, emotionally flat aliens or ragingly wrathful gods, we are constantly watching the skies waiting for the next great flood.
While recently reading a Gorgias Press book on the Maya (Sam Osmanagich’s The World of the Maya) I couldn’t help but notice the concern of the author with the year 2012. Actually, Osmanagich is looking forward to 2012; it will be when a new era in human existence begins. Since he freely admits throughout the book that extraterrestrials provided technical support in the Mayan monumental architecture, I suppose the fixation on 2012 should not be surprising. The book is charming as a folksy travelogue and disarming in its innocent sense of wonder, but academic it is not.
Concern with the end of the world as we know it seems to have entered the Judeo-Christian tradition with Zoroastrian contact. As soon as the idea was conceived it was immediately apparent that this was going to be a very large baby, and it has not disappointed. Back in my rural Pennsylvania high school, concern that the world would end in 1980 was seriously rampant. (Considering that the Reagan-Bush years were about to begin, it makes sense in retrospect, at least on a metaphorical level.) Worry ran so high that on the stated day — noon was the confirmed hour of doom — my English teacher laid down her grammar book and had us spend our final earthly minutes writing an essay arguing why the world was, or was not, going to end that day. When the class-bell rang, other than some soiled undergarments, everyone seemed pleased still to be there.
I was at Nashotah House for Y2K. A prominent administrator insisted that we all prepare for the likely event of a societal collapse. (From my present vantage point, I’d rather have taken my chances just about anywhere else.) Yet here I am to recount the tale.
Now only a dozen years down the road from Y2K we are being told to prepare for yet another apocalypse. People I speak to seem genuinely concerned about this one, and even I had a shiver or two as Osmanagich calmly laid out how the Maya just didn’t make mistakes like that. As I see it, there are two choices: people should study the origins and rationale of apocalypticism or someone should start a business selling Apocalypse insurance (the name Four Horsemen might be catchy). People seem ready to believe that extinct civilizations knew something about our fate that we just can’t see. And if the world does end in 2012, well, you wouldn’t want to have all those premiums weighing you down by then, would you?
The Four Horsemen -- would you buy insurance from them?