What’s with all the post-apocalyptic/dystopian books, movies, and TV shows these days? If their current abundance is any indication, we can’t seem to get enough of them (The Walking Dead, The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones are just a few examples).
They’re the latest popular trend in entertainment that just won’t die. But these stories wouldn’t be popular to begin with if they weren’t resonating with people in some way. In How to Survive the Apocalypse, Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson take a closer look at themes that can be found in such stories and how they intersect with the cultural moment we, as Christians, inhabit.
Themes of Apocalyptic Entertainment
To fully exposit modern post-apocalyptic/dystopian stories—even just the examples listed above—would far exceed the bounds of a blog post. For this discussion, then, a brief summary will suffice.
Joustra and Wilkinson identify a few themes that recur in these kinds of stories:
- Society is characterized by a freedom and individualism that manifests in each person as the quest for authenticity, or the search for one’s true self. People are “makers of their own meanings.”
- Without a universal morality to guide humans, instrumentality—that is, efficiency—becomes the governing principle. No means are beyond the pale so long as they can bring about the desired ends.
- The “freedom” of individualism actually leads to bondage in two different ways: we become paralyzed by the sheer infinity of choices we can make in creating ourselves, and if we are fixated only on our own selves, society at large becomes neglected, leaving us open to “soft despotism.”
What’s the relationship between these narrative themes and our lives today? Quite simply, the apocalypse is now:
Our age…is the politics of apocalypse….Our slide to realpolitik in Westeros, the constant back-and-forth ambiguity of the zombie apocalypse…it’s not what might be —it’s what is. The worlds are fantastical and fictional. The pathologies are not [emphasis in original].
The dark worlds depicted in these and other stories are extrapolations, albeit exaggerated, of the present. The three themes described above are in turn inspired by philosopher Charles Taylor’s The Malaise of Modernity, in which Taylor argues that these human “pathologies” are specifically modern developments (within the past few centuries or so).
In view of stories like these, and the pathologies of modernity they draw on, the core question Joustra and Wilkinson pose is this: is politics—in the sense of a life together based on common principles—still possible? Are we doomed to the kind of future these stories envision?
A large part of their book is devoted to arguing that this grim future can be avoided. Although modernity cannot be undone or reversed, there is still room for goodness in it:
The struggle is not to be for or against the modern moral order, but to realize the potential of that order while avoiding its pathologies [emphasis in original].
What would a politics that embraces the good of modernity while avoiding the bad look like? The authors make a few key points:
- People can only truly discover themselves within the context of “moral horizons,” external standards that come from beyond us and by which we can differentiate between better and worse life choices.
- People choose to adhere to different moral horizons, which is another way of saying we live in a pluralist society. In their words, “We have a kind of radical pluralism.”
- Even though we discover ourselves within the context of different moral horizons, society can remain cohesive and united based on two principles: freedom to discover ourselves, and dignity in different identities. Creating and restoring cultural institutions that embody these principles will thus serve to strengthen societal cohesion as we discover ourselves through our relationships with one another.
What would be the grounds for our freedom and dignity in this modern society? Joustra and Wilkinson seem to locate it in our shared humanity:
A modern democracy could construct itself around the idea that there are things we share — our rational faculties, our ability to love, even our shared inhabitation of the same piece of land — that give us all dignity and recognition in the eyes of the law and the state, while also affirming that we are free to discover our own unique way of being human within that context.
The authors believe we can avert (or at least minimize) the post-apocalyptic maladies of our favorite stories by cultivating a modern society where we are highly diverse, yet still united by what we share in common, “locating, building, and maintaining overlapping consensus among our many and multiple modernities.” To use their analogy, we Christians are like Daniel and the rest of the Jews in the city of Babylon, and we ought to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jer. 29:7) by making that overlapping consensus a reality.
Our future does not have to be like something out of The Walking Dead, but a society founded solely on freedom and dignity is not the solution. These principles alone cannot guide us into the kind of modern society the authors imagine.
Beyond Freedom and Dignity
To say we believe in freedom and dignity for everyone seems like a truism. As the authors argue, both have become virtually universal principles. But this consensus proves to be tenuous if we ask how “freedom” and “dignity” work in practice.
Joustra and Wilkinson implicitly recognize this when they discuss the controversy over same-sex marriage. Those who advocate for it argue that to deny any person the right to marry is to deny that person’s dignity as a human being. Putting aside how “hotly debated among religious groups” that argument is, this is but one demonstration of the primacy of dignity, the authors observe.
Their focus is on the centrality of dignity as a foundation for modern society, but the mere existence of a differing account on what it means to respect another person’s dignity shows that appeals to “dignity” alone are not sufficient to unite society.
Divergent views of what it means to respect another’s dignity are hardly confined to the topic of same-sex marriage, either. Similar disagreements have arisen in relation to abortion and transgender issues. The idea that individual freedom to discover one’s authentic self and identity can function as a grounding principle of society also becomes questionable if it is ever decided that, in order to truly respect the dignity of a certain group, incursions must be made on another group’s freedom to be authentic.
Because these divisive questions can be raised, (and they are in fact being raised), invoking freedom and dignity alone is not the key to mending or restoring our politics.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse
While we are still left with the question of how to address modern pathologies such as rampant individualism and ruthless instrumentality, Joustra and Wilkinson are right to invoke the Jewish exile in Babylon. As they point out, Christians are called to seek the common good of “the city,” and we can be confident that the labor we spend on it will not be in vain, for “if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7). Finally, consider this point from IFWE contributor Austin Burkhart:
Seeking the prosperity of Babylon was not just something God commanded to keep his people busy while they were in captivity. It was the very tool God would use to bring them out of exile and restore his promise to their nation.
God willing, our service in a time of cultural captivity will further renewal, but come what may, we are in his hands.