During the first dozen years of the twenty-first century–from Y2K through 2012–apocalyptic anticipation in America has leapt from the margins of society and into the mainstream. Today, nearly 60 percent of Americans believe that the events foretold in the book of Revelation will come true. But it’s not just the Christian Right that is obsessed with the end of the world; secular readers hungry for catastrophe have propelled fiction and nonfiction books about peak oil, global warming, and the end of civilization into best-sellers, while Doomsday Preppers has become one of the most talked-about new reality TV shows on television. How did we come to live in a culture obsessed by the belief that the end is nearly here?
The Last Myth explains why apocalyptic beliefs are surging within the American mainstream today. Tracing the development of our expectation of the end of the world from the beginnings of history through the modern era, and examining the global challenges facing America today, authors Mathew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles combine history, current events, and psychological and cultural analysis to reveal the profound influence of apocalyptic thinking on America’s past, present, and future.
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I have to admit that I was seduced at one time by the whole Mayan 2012 calendar business — that there might be a great planetary/cosmic reckoning in December of this year.
It's been heralded and hyped in dozens of books over the last decade, along with a booming survivalist industry, and it's certainly not difficult to imagine some crescendo of dire problems in the offing with all the trends that beset us: climate change and extreme weather (whether “natural” or man-made, or a combination of both, it's definitely happening), peak oil, disappearing fisheries, overstressed fresh water supplies, declining crop yields, new viruses, antibiotic resistance, solar flares, economic mayhem, nuclear proliferation... and all these celebrities dying young! It's fuel enough to power even the moderately paranoid.
But a new book goes a long way in debunking the imminent apocalypse, “The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About America” (Prometheus Books; 2012) by Matthew Gross and Mel Gilles. (Disclosure: The authors are friends of mine from Moab). It is superbly written and researched, far exceeding my expectations.
The authors trace the lineage of apocalyptic thinking back to the ancient Hebrews after they suffered a series of invasions and calamities that, along with the novel influence of Zoroastrianism, inspired a new linear concept of history — that there was a beginning, and there will also be a climactic end, to human civilization.
Previously, traditional cultures viewed the world cyclically — a succession of deaths and rebirths, just like the seasons, changing regularly but stable and predictable, with humankind but a more sophisticated species of fauna in the natural world. But now, history had a new meaning: Humankind was on an evolutionary path beyond nature.
Christianity inherited the meme, and nowadays many Christians are convinced that the Tribulation and Rapture are nigh, as more secular-minded people are equally convinced that global warming, nuclear pollution, a solar knockout of the global electrical grid, or mutant bird flu are the four horseman of the coming apocalypse. The Mayan calendar, according to New Age folk, merely establishes a likely date for the beginning of a great transition, when a new phoenix of enlightened consciousness will arise from the ashes of the old order.
The end of the world has been scheduled many times before, of course, and all these dates, such as the “Great Disappointment” of 1844, have been postponed. Every decade some preacher sets a new date, the flock prepares for the Rapture, selling off assets and neglecting to milk the cows — and nothing happens. The 2012 date is just as phantasmagoric, so we can all stop hoarding gold and ammunition.