Zany everyman Steve Carrell, the Buster Keaton of our age, is a comedic franchise unto himself. Pair him with everyone’s favorite adventure heroine Kiera Knightly, and you have a box office gold in Krakatoan proportion. Together, they star in a sweet romantic tale called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. That’s right. End of the world — as in finis, fade to black, roll credits, thank you for playing — end of world. It is not blowing the plot to say that their film deals with the existential crisis of absolute utter annihilation of the planet Earth.
I’ve noticed a pattern of recent stories in which the end of the world is inevitable: Think of last year’s Melancholia, a star driven vehicle with Kirsten Dunst and Kieffer Sutherland, which deals with the growing realization that a rogue planet is going to collide with Earth and destroy it. Or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road which was made into a 2009 film starring Viggo Mortensen. McCarthy gives us a slow, but inevitable death of all life on Earth. He makes it clear in interviews that he’s describing the end of all things in his work. On a campier note, we have the recent The Cabin in the Woods, which ends with (sorry to spoil the plot twist if you haven’t seen it yet), you guessed it, the end of the world.
I call this trend Armageddon Chic. It’s the bleak outlook that perceives no hope for the future. It’s not a new bleakness – Henri Nouwen identified it in 1979 in The Wounded Healer. Nouwen writes about the angst of “nuclear man”: “Nuclear man is a man who has lost naive faith in the possibilities of technology and is painfully aware that the same powers that enable man to create new life styles carry the potential for self-destruction.” Faced with the prospect of the utter obliteration of every trace of humankind, nuclear man lives disconnected from the past, fragmented in the present, and apathetic toward the future.
Nouwen was writing in an era of loss of faith in technology. This new trend of Armageddon Chic goes a step beyond – it envisions powers and forces in the universe that are far beyond our control. These powers are at best apathetic to the plight of the humanity, and may well be malevolent. In some cases those forces are rogue planets, in others they are supremely powerful entities who demand regular human sacrifice. It is no great surprise that the Call of Chutulu horror books of a century ago are experiencing renewed interest, for they deal with ultrapowerful alien entities who catch humanity in their power games.
And therein lies the gospel connection. We believe in a power beyond our control or comprehension. The difference is that the power in which we belive is the living God who chose to create humanity in His image and worked to redeem humanity through the cross. God promises something more than fire and dark and silence. We have a story that ends with something more than Ragnarok and chaos. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:1-3). Our story ends with a renewed civilization, not a destroyed one.
In contrast to the ennui of nuclear man, we have the hope of Jerusalem people. We face the prospect of forces beyond our control with the hope that the sovereign God who saves will preserve His people. The cross, the grace of unmerited forgiveness, the gift of the Holy Spirit, they all assure us that unlike the pagan deities of “The Cabin in the Woods”, our God is benignly disposed and patient toward humanity. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentence.” (2 Peter 3:9)
Perhaps the best Christian answer to Armageddon Chic is the science fiction classic A Canticle for Liebowitz, the 1961 Hugo award recipient. It begins in a post-apocalyptic scenario, showing how the church becomes the ark of civilization. Then the story spans across the centuries to a new space age, and a world facing the prospect of nuclear annihliation. Still the church in hope is building an ark, for Christians are people of hope who entrust ourselves to the living Triune God. May we be filled with such hope in these days.