Communion at the END of the World

“The idea of the end that can be known and that it is a fate that is shared by all is oddly appealing in an individualistic culture where many people feel alone and where control is understood as defining one’s dignity.”


Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the end of the world. As with many musings about the end of times, many of these latest predictions reveal what I see as a fundamental aspect of human existence—a desire for communion and meaning.

Unfortunately these latest doomsday predictions come with the exploitation of Mayan people—a rich culture that faces far more serious challenges and injustices than those of the fanciful imagination. Instead of actually engaging the Mayan culture and people in their daily struggles in the wake of colonialism and systematic marginalization, this culture is reduced to a caricature alongside Stonehenge and the Egyptian Pyramids.  But this is the subject of another post.

Beyond the cultural exploitations of the Mayan people, I believe that the recent interest in the end of the world highlights something important.  Many of the fears and false hopes about “the end” appear to reflect a sense of isolation and dislocation. The idea of the end that can be known and that it is a fate that is shared by all is oddly appealing in an individualistic culture where many people feel alone and where control is understood as defining one’s dignity.

In a sense, I believe the obsessions with the “end” reflect a longing and desire for meaning and, if you will, communion. We can see this longing for communion in the basic plot line that is shared by many disaster movies and TV shows.

Many disaster movies go like this:

  • People discover something that threatens to destroy the earth.
  • Insert asteroid/aliens/volcano/super storm/plague
  • A team of ordinary (often troubled and excluded people) are called upon to stop the disaster.
  • With some creative thinking and help from unexpected places, the disaster is averted.
  • In the process of combating the asteroid/aliens/volcano/super storm/plague humanity discovers that there is more uniting us than dividing us.
  • Queue the almost cheesy scenes of Arabs and Israelis working together, blacks and whites embracing, estranged relationships being healed, etc.
  • In short, after the disaster no one is isolated.

Here is where I think the hit TV Show the Walking Dead gets it wrong. Instead of showing people coming together in the face of a disaster, the Walking Dead depicts humanity fracturing apart into competitive bands.

This is contrary to experience however. In the midst of many disasters, people generally come together. Instead of descending into a Hobbesian world where each person looks out for themselves, experience show us that most people come together in an occupy sand2emergency.  This was the case in the sufferings of Katrina and much to the surprise of many was also the case in New York during and after Sandy. Warm generosity overflowed into the streets of a city often seen as unfriendly and cold.  Occupy Sandy members, church groups, the Sikh Community and so many others individuals and groups gave their time, talents and treasures to help others.

Of course, the “freak out” (as one NPR commentator called it) over the end of the world like any sense of communion we might get from watching a disaster movie is fleeting. Only the true communion and union in God will satisfy our restless and isolated hearts.

And to find this, we will have to admit that we do not know when and how the end will be (as the Christian tradition teaches). We have to find ways to open ourselves to others today and not wait for some disaster and we have to admit that we are vulnerable and not in control—and paradoxically there something very liberating about this.

Comments? Thoughts?


10 responses to “Communion at the END of the World

  1. Hey Kevin, I liked the post but had a question for you…the theme of end-times is certainly not a new one within Christian history–during Napoleon’s European conquest, many were forecasting the end of the world, as with World War II and the Advent of the nuclear bomb. Do you think, then, that the isolation of contemporary culture fuels the apocalyptic, or (as I might see it) is isolation simply signified through portrayals of the apocalyptic? I.e., has apocalyptic imagery become a contemporary way to exemplify the ideals of humanity?

  2. At its best the apocalyptic can help expresses our hopes for change. At it’s worst it betrays a crisis in the present. The destruction of cities and the raw carnage in war is clearly one way in which we become isolated from one another and ourselves. So I would think isolation, coupled with and stemming from the sense of powerlessness and being out of control in the face of sheer force (as with the wars you mention or now with economic factors) is the perfect place for the apocalyptic.

    But this sense can be channeled into something constructive. After World War II the peoples of the world channeled this sense into cooperation and solidarity. Cooperation is always more natural of a response of human nature than cutting competition.

    Does that make sense?

    • It does, thank you! However, perhaps we’re looking back to the 1940’s and 50’s with too much of rose-tinted glasses. Besides the UN and collaboration, the post-WWII era also welcomed American military conquests in Korea and Vietnam; the displacement of Arab peoples in Palestine due the to the collective guilt of the Shoah; the myth of the all-white suburbia away from racially contentious cities.

      The post-apocalyptic cooperation, evolutionarily speaking, could be said driven by a need for survival. I feel that Christian cooperation, on the other hand, is something different…do people naturally long for real (Christian) agapic cooperation or do they simply long to survive, and will cooperate as needed to do so?

      • I really appreciate your last question there, John. Is Christian cooperation only about survival, or at least rooted in survival? I don’t have a response, but it’s worth reflecting on.

      • The post-war context is far more complex than any blog post can answer. I would not look at the 50s without considering the dirty politics abound. Oliver Stone’s people history shakes that ground. But we must not underestimate the massive energy towards something new that emerged from the ground among people around the world. For many (not all and it wasn’t perfect) there was a shift from finding unity from a common enemy to finding unity based in a common mission. The Cold War and the military (media) industrial complex quickly distorted that in the United States during the anti-communism hysteria (key here War of the Worlds). in Europe, the move to a European Union was remarkable in it being more mission focused than focused on a common enemy with the drums of war. But this is way more complicated than the point I wanted to make with this post!

  3. Thanks for your post, Kevin. I would like to challenge your comparison between disaster movies and the show “The Walking Dead,” however, as the Walking Dead is one example of many of the theme of fracture in the face of disaster. You also see it in other apocalyptic tv series (Revolution, Jericho, even at times Battlestar). I think the operative difference here is really the length of the story being told – the films have 2-3 hours to tell a satisfying story, whereas the tv series need to go on for multiple seasons. If a movie needs to resolve its dramatic tension in a short timeframe, it will be much more difficult for it to demonstrate the kind of fracturing these shows can do over much longer timeframes.

    • Steve,
      Yes, I agree that the longer story arc makes a quick resolution difficult. While Jericho and Battlestar show the fracturing they don’t have as much of a pessimistic baseline anthropology as the Walking Dead. But then again, one will have to just wait and see how WD ends. The Road stands in sharp contrast to what we see in the Walking Dead so far. It is very dark and depressing, but its basic anthropology at the end points to the goodness of creation and the longing for communion.
      But Steve, do you think that some of these TV shows might end up being too pessimistic by having to draw out the story arc?

      • Hey Kevin, I think this is a great post and you make several good points regarding eschatology and popular culture. However, I would also like to take issue with your diagnosis of The Walking Dead. It’s not really equivalent, in my opinion, to run-of-the-mill apocalyptic plot lines. Yes, as noted, the presumed anthropology is generally low, and the cooperative groups initially formed are gradually fracturing. Moreover, recent episodes have made some fairly unexpected and disturbing (in the sense of normalizing) forays into torture and rape. This being said, I think it’s become pretty apparent that the whole zombie plague premise is basically a literary device used to explore the question of what happens to human nature when social institutions go away. Thus, the questions asked by the drama are at a certain level hypothetical–it’s not only a situation which is unlikely to happen, but also the writers are aware that it’s unlikely. Whether most viewers of the show perceive this is another matter. Thoughts?

      • I haven’t watched the Walking Dead enough to comment helpfully on that show, so I’ll defer on that point. I don’t know if I think the other shows end up too pessimistic, in part because I’m not sure what qualifies as “too.” I think the shows focus on ongoing threats (cylons, zombies), and so they also show the fatigue and the fracturing that facing that longterm can bring. Day After Tomorrow, Armageddon, 2012 are all about apocalyptic events that are more discrete – they happen, the devastation occurs, and it’s over. It’s no surprise that those movies end with the elation of survival and with rejoicing in community.

        The other thing I would note is that BSG has the constant threat of “who else might be a cylon,” making it difficult to trust, and WD seems to have a similar fear (anyone can become a zombie).

        So maybe the difference has to do more a difference in the types of threats faced, not with the positive/negative anthropologies involved.

      • Come to think of it, WD does actually seem pretty Hobbesian now in its third season. But it wasn’t always that way (I hope this doesn’t get into too much plot detail): One of the best characters on the show was Dale, who always took the moral high ground by standing up for fair treatment and human rights and so forth. His character represented the real human tendency to engage in behavior motivated by equal regard or even altruism, even and especially in the midst of social catastrophe. And then the show killed him off at the end of season two (major bummer). I’m not sure whether or what the writers might have meant to communicate by doing this. But the show has changed significantly now in the third season–the two major parties of survivors featured in the current plot are both run by explicitly and openly totalitarian leaders. There is a definite Hobbesian focus now on ceding your freedoms over to an absolutist State in exchange for social stability. Whether or not this political arrangement will ultimately hold in future episodes remains to be seen, as well as what the writers might or might not intend to communicate about human responses to social catastrophe in light of their higher or lower opinion of human nature.

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