- The End of the World As We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America
In this lucid and intriguing study of contemporary manifestations of apocalyptic thought, folklorist Daniel Wojcik surveys a remarkable range of eschatological phenomena, from Marian apparitions to UFO lore to Christian fundamentalist dispensationalism. Uniting these and related phenomena, Wojcik argues, is an essentially fatalistic view of the future: catastrophe is typically seen as imminent and largely unavoidable, the product of forces which exceed the influence of humanity. This catastrophe may or may not be followed by some form of renewal, and one of Wojcik’s true strengths is his comparative work between earlier religious apocalyptic thinking, typically “millennial” in some sense, and more recent secular apocalyptic thinking, often characterized by nihilism with regard to the world after catastrophe. Wojcik concludes with a useful, if self-admittedly non-absolute, typology that divides the apocalypticisms he reviews along two axes: the axis of terrestrial (history unguided by superhuman forces) versus superterrestrial (history guided by superhuman forces), and the axis of unconditional (history entirely determined) versus conditional (history in some manner responsive to human free choice).
The timeliness of Wojcik’s volume cannot be overstated, given our temporal position relative to the year 2000 as well as his own efforts to be as up-to-the-minute as possible; the Heaven’s Gate tragedy, in the news scarcely one year ago, figures prominently in Wojcik’s discussion of emergent apocalypticism regarding UFOs. Wojcik’s [End Page 241] timeliness is matched by his inclusiveness: his objects of inquiry, as would be expected from one employing a “comparative and multidisciplinary approach,” (3) range from Cold War cinema to xerography. Naturally, the author has his particular strengths; his treatment of the Bayside Marian phenomenon, for instance, informed by his first-hand experiences, far outpaces his cursory surveys of American literature in the nuclear age. Punk subculture in the nuclear age, however, is treated at length, an allocation of interest which could be questioned but which cannot be said to lack justification, given the relative novelty of such an inquiry and the author’s evident knowledge of the topic. Wojcik’s use of relevant sociological, psychological, ethnographical, and even literary theory is astute, if occasionally overly judicious. More consideration, for example, of the interrelationships between narrativity and apocalypticism—one immediately thinks of the work of Frank Kermode and Peter Brooks—would have well served Wojcik’s chapter on Hal Lindsey’s premillennial dispensationalism, where the idea of scripted history is touched upon but not pursued. Nevertheless, Wojcik typically evidences a thoughtful and discriminating approach toward theory which allows no single critical perspective to dominate his discourse to the exclusion of other useful perspectives.
Wojcik’s book would be of obvious relevance to the understanding of current and future manifestations of apocalypticism, especially those arising from the rich and apparently inexhaustible American tradition. Portions would also well serve scholars interested in conspiracy theories of history, such as that expressed by Colonel Ardenti in Umberto Eco’s Il pendolo di Foucault. Wojcik’s clarity and accessibility, combined with his broad but penetrating coverage (and an impressive bibliography), make his book a valuable addition to any apocalyptic library.