Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The End Is Here?

Living in New York City, one quickly grows accustomed to "architectural advertising." Advertisements for gyms, perfumes, record labels, clothing, books, radio stations, television programs, and movies are plastered on subway station walls, phone kiosks, city buses, taxi cabs, and many building facades. In the course of my five years here, I've come to view this colorful assault as a less offensive version of the billboarding of America's highways. The integration of product placement into the urban landscape not only makes more sense, it is also more easily ignored.

With so much visual competition, an ad agency has to come up with a good pitch to standout. For the past month, the new NBC series "Revelations" has been heavily promoted via architectural advertising. Most noticeable are the Metropolitan Transit Authority buses covered (excepting the windows) in an apocalyptic sunset. "The End Is Here," the text proclaims as an evening flight of ravens lifts above a stoic Bill Pullman and Natasha McElhone. The first time I saw one of the "Revelations" buses, I stared after it as it groaned north up Third Avenue. Several times, over the course of the next week, I caught myself involuntarily shaking my head as I passed a "Revelations" poster in a subway station or audibly "tsk-tsking" when I opened a newspaper and was confronted by an advertising spread heralding the mini-series.

What was it that so unsettled me? As a science fiction fan who, for the most part, has a deep respect for thoughtful religiosity, I was surprised by my negative reaction. Upon watching the (disappointing) first episode of "Revelations," though, I realized that it wasn't so much the program's concept that bothered me as it was the advertising itself. After all, a growing number of evangelical Christians believe that the Rapture is imminent. Visit RaptureReady.com and you'll learn that increases in drug abuse, unemployment, environmental degradation, inflation, natural disasters, starvation, and sloth are all desired, even promoted, by Rapturists! The more of these terrible abuses and tragic events, the more the stage is set for Christ's triumphant return. This may be good for the blindly religious Christians among us, but it is not a good thing for a secular democracy, especially the one in which Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" protects those of us who are atheistic, agnostic, or members of a religious minority from the tyranny of theocratic nationalism. So why is NBC promoting the tribal apathy associated with Rapturist belief? The bottom line.

Folks who troll the "eco-blogosphere" have likely read a transcript of Bill Moyers' remarks upon accepting the Harvard Medical School's Global Environmental Citizen Award. It makes for troubling reading and, though I do my best to concentrate on environmental success stories, the doom and gloom is difficult to ignore, no matter what "The Death of Environmentalism" authors prescribe.

From Moyers' address:
"Google it and you will find that the best-selling books in America today are the twelve volumes of the "Left-Behind" series written by the Christian fundamentalist and religious right warrior, Timothy LaHaye. These true believers subscribe to a fantastical theology concocted in the 19th century by a couple of immigrant preachers who took disparate passages from the Bible and wove them into a narrative that has captivated the imagination of millions of Americans.

[...] I've reported on these people, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious, and polite as they tell you they feel called to help bring the rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. [...] Go to Grist to read a remarkable work of reporting by the journalist, Glenn Scherer - the road to environmental apocalypse. Read it and you will see how millions of Christian fundamentalists may believe that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed - even hastened - as a sign of the coming apocalypse.

[...] As Grist makes clear, we're not talking about a handful of fringe lawmakers who hold or are beholden to these beliefs. Nearly half the U.S. Congress before the recent election - 231 legislators in total - more since the election - are backed by the religious right. Forty-five senators and 186 members of the 108th congress earned 80 to 100 percent approval ratings from the three most influential Christian right advocacy groups."
Moyers feels strongly about what he is witnessing and his tone is reactionary and not without hyperbole. As a result, some readers, particularly those predisposed to disagree, will write off his statement as the rant of a now impotent journalist. This is unfortunate. Although I think the political influence of evangelical Rapture-types may be slightly exaggerated in Moyers's address, it should not be ignored. More critically, what of the popular element? With the box office success of Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," some media critics have begun to call this the "religious entertainment era." Religious entertainment? Upon first hearing this label I immediately thought of the Middle Ages, when religious entertainment was at its pinnacle. It is difficult to imagine 21st century America regressing to such a degree. Or is it?

Jonathan Storm writes in The Philadelphia Inquirer, "lavish and well-made, 'Revelations' sadly seems little more than a cynical grab for the zeitgeist, exploiting the popularity of 'The Passion of the Christ' and 'The Da Vinci Code.' It may attract a big initial audience, curious to see a TV blockbuster pushing the idea that the end is near."

That there exists a "big initial audience" for books, films or television programs "pushing the idea that the end is near" is frightening! It highlights the importance of Moyers's question, "What has happened to our moral imagination?" Are we truly a nation content to be force-fed apathy while participating in an orgy of narcotic consumption? Is there really, as Moyers suggests, an absence of "hocma - the science of the heart?" (The hocma Moyers references is one of Kabbalah's ten Sephirot; it is more often spelled chokhmah, or chochmah, and the best translation is "wisdom.")

I'm presently rereading my father's 1983 Pulitzer Prize nominee, Wanderer on My Native Shore. At the end of the first chapter, which focuses on coastal Maine, he writes,
"...as I contemplate the purple majesty of Cadillac Mountain, I feel an awe for its origins mingled with wonder for human optimism. On one hand, our capacity for hope has created marvelous machinery for drilling through the sea floor. On the other hand, this same optimism has generated laws to protect the eagles soaring over Cadillac Mountain.

Life may, indeed, be a dream, and the best efforts of all mankind may be nothing more than brief shadows on a granite dome. Yet isn't our persistent stretching for perfection in the face of inevitable death what touches humanity with divinity?

Our greatness lies not in our sense of humor or intelligence, for other creatures besides man exhibit humor and intelligence. Our greatness lies in our knowing that, although we are doomed, we still want to fashion a better arrowhead or drill bit, and that men may devote themselves to preserving a hard, but productive, way of life as well as eagles drifting on the winds of time."
Well said, Dad. What worries me, though, is the sense that we seem to care less and less about that stretching. Overwhelmed by consumer choices and our slavish routines, apathy has become pandemic. Rather than try to shake the blues, we proclaim the sickness a sign of the apocalypse and, content to wait, pop pills and watch the TV...'cuz Jesus gonna be here, gonna be here soon.

Photo credit: image ripped from inetours.com


Devo said...

I couldn't have said it better myself, HH. As I read Moyers's piece initially, I tried to discern exactly what it was that unsettled me about it. It wasn't that his message -- as he presented it -- bothered me or worried me particularly. But some of the symptoms that indicate his conclusions certainly did. And you have elucidated these symptoms perfectly. The apathy that goes with this headlong rush to the "end" seems either too inertial to be stopped or too blind to listen to reason. And as I learned in studying various specific millenial sects, millenialism expands. It can't control itself because it relies on a philosophy based in uncontrollable forces beyond our ken. These thought patterns are like supernovae. The only way they can end is if they implode under their own inflated expectations. If millenialism as you describe it (popular, media driven and self-sustainable only because of the revenue it generates) is an accurate pattern that is only beginning to emerge, and if it is implicated as closely as you and Moyers propose it is (heck, if it makes a buck, it's got the backing of American Capitalism, and that's quite a solid bedrock foundation as far as getting a foothold in the economic backbone of the world as we know it) in American culture, then it is certainly bad bad bad news.

Now that you've raised a distinctly troubling possibility, do you have any ideas on how to stem the tide? Can optimism take back the reins of progress?

Hungry Hyaena said...

Um, I wish I had ideas about such a transition. Self-improvement, though, is always a good start. I now scrub my skin for two hours each night to "cleanse" the demons.