- Existential Threats: American Apocalyptic Beliefs in the Technological Age by Lisa Vox
According to a recent poll, fully 41% of Americans believe that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will happen within their lifetimes. This is a staggeringly high number, and no explanation of the recent political events in the US, including the election of Donald Trump, the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, and the backlash against environmentalism and globalism, can be adequate without taking into account the history and culture of apocalyptic beliefs. In her book, Lisa Vox attempts to do just that. There is no denying the importance of the task; whether she succeeds is a different matter.
Vox argues that there is a common historical trajectory that unifies such seemingly disparate phenomena as the evangelical Rapture industry, churning out thousands of books and movies (the blockbuster Left Behind series and others); the Walking Dead zombie-entertainment franchise; and the environmental doom and gloom. The argument, while not new, is cogent. Proving it, or uncovering the deeper cultural roots of the American Apocalypse, however, requires a methodological set of tools that combines history of ideas with rhetorical and political analysis. This is where Existential Threats falls short of its promise.
The majority of evangelical believers in the US who are firmly convinced that they are simply "Biblical Christians," in fact subscribe to a relatively new and esoteric theology. It is called "dispensational premillennialism" and was introduced by the British pastor John Nelson Darby in the 1830s. Despite its tongue-twisting name, the core of this theology is relatively simple: the Second Coming is at hand; the Book of Revelation of St. John the Divine, the last book of the Christian Bible, is literally true and describes in exact details the near future; the faithful will be "raptured away" just before the bad stuff happens, while the rest of humanity will perish in various unpleasant ways. "Dispensational" refers to the division of human history into various ages or "dispensations": "The current dispensation would end after the Rapture when the unbelievers left on earth would undergo a seven-year 'Tribulation', in which the Antichrist would rise to power" (Vox 13).
One might wonder why such a strange belief, all but extinct in the land of its birth, Great Britain, has had a powerful hold on the USA. Vox endeavors to answer this question by tracing the roots of apocalyptic beliefs in the 19th century, particularly in the aftermath of Charles Darwin's revolutionary Origin of Species (1859). In opposition to the common assumption that science and religion are perpetually at odds, Vox argues that they are ideologically and rhetorically intertwined. She aims to show how "the nineteenth and twentieth century Americans interpreted scientific and technological threats to humanity through an eschatological framework by using languages of science and religion" (x). To do so, she embarks on a wide-ranging survey of cultural trends in the UK and the USA, that includes everything from Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826) to Tim [End Page 190] LaHaye's and Jerry Jenkins' Left Behind series (1995–2007); from H. G. Wells' Time Machine (1895) to Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" speech (1983); from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) to 9/11. Precisely because of its dizzying breadth, her exploration offers few substantial answers. At several points in the book it becomes hardly more than a listing, alluding to novels, movies, philosophical treaties, political events and theological exhortations with no obvious reason. Why The Time Machine but not The War of the Worlds? Why Philip K. Dick but not Isaac Asimov? Why environmentalism but not neo-Nazism?
A simple response would be that no book can cover everything, and that every scholar chooses the texts that best illustrate her thesis. The problem with this book, however, is that there seems no thesis beyond the general desire to explore the interpenetration of science and religion in the apocalyptic discourse. But this interpenetration can be conceptualized in many ways. Science and religion can share a rhetorical commonality; they...