Okay, End of the World

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Dystopian novels require us to envision what could happen if we take societal values or advancements to extreme ends. What does it look like when political power and a controlling wealthy elite are worth more than human life? The Hunger Games. What happens if time travel is invented but it becomes accessible only to the most violent and power-hungry? The movie Looper. What happens when all pain and suffering is removed from human memory? Lois Lowry’s powerful book The Giver. The stunning movie Children of Men depicts a world in which humanity faces extinction after 20 years of global infertility. In the movie In Time, society may have solved the problem of aging, but time is now the most precious currency, allowing those who can afford it to literally purchase eternal life. (How’s that for a good small-group discussion?) Society is separated into two distinct time zones—Dayton, where the poor must hustle daily to maintain just 24 hours of life, and New Greenwich, where the wealthy have so much purchased time they store the extra minutes in high security vaults.

Dystopian novels posit fundamental questions regarding human freedom, political power, classism and the dangers of technology in the wrong hands. They engage issues of human suffering and difficult moral quandaries. In short, they require not a doctrinal response (this happened because of X reason) but a theological response (who am I, who is God and what do we do now?).

Fantasy literature, while not strictly apocalyptic, can create the same kind of questions regarding human agency and responsibility. The difference is that the reader, rather than being transported to the end, must endure the tension of a terrible possibility unfolding. J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings depicts the dark wizard Sauron’s quest for total power in the One Ring, and one hobbit is tasked with destroying it and saving all of Middle Earth. We must read along with bated breath, hoping that Frodo will reach Mordor and complete his quest. Similarly, the Harry Potter series leads the reader through an epic battle between Harry and Voldemort, which serves as a morality play on the dangers of Voldemort’s power-driven search for immortality. But Harry’s battle against Voldemort is not just a battle of good versus evil; it is also a question of how one ought to use his gifts rightfully in the world—a question that lies at the heart of Christian discipleship.

The most harrowing apocalyptic literature is certainly the genre most marked by utter chaos: a medical cure gone awry (I am Legend), a viral outbreak unleashed (World War Z), an enormous asteroid hurtling toward Earth (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World). These realities, the majority of which are zombie-related end-of-civilization tales, describe a humanity blindsided by unforeseen tragedy and impossible moral quandaries. They are facing situations that are less directly the result of human action. At the very least, the crises are unintended consequences of human action. Nevertheless, the question of human agency still takes center stage. Viewers were riveted to the first season of the television show The Walking Dead because the survivors must decide what to do when they encounter loved ones who have become undead. Do you kill them or do you run? That may sound like an undeniably gruesome question, but it is not meant to be salacious. It is meant to be a question of how to survive—and how to help humanity survive—in the worst possible circumstances.

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