Apocalypse Now

If I've been rather quiet on the list of late, it's because I've felt a definite spiritual impetus to step back and do some thinking and praying about my writing. Caves in the desert are not readily available when you have a nineteen month-old, but I have a never-ending supply of housework, which is surprisingly conducive to meditation. Folding clothes or washing dishes can be an effective vehicle for contemplation, and it was while doing such chores that today's blog topic occurred to me.

Some of you know that my writing and reading tastes have a definite taste for the apocalypse-- the end of the world as we know it, so to speak. Movies such as Mad Max, the Matrix, or the more recent I Am Legend are perfect examples of well-told apocalyptic tales, the likes of which causes my muse to run happily through the burned-out fields of flowers. Literary greats as far back as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and H. P Lovecraft have penned their visions of the world's end and beyond; a few Christian books are even starting to dip their toes in the genre, such as Terri Blackstock's Restoration series, which chronicles survivor's of a global blackout. So I know I'm not the only one out there who likes to roast marshmallows at a great nuclear bonfire.

The question I asked myself was why the apocalypse? Why should I-- or any other Christian-- spend time in these stark landscapes when we already know good and well how humanity's story ends? It was easy enough to identify why I enjoyed writing or reading the genre. I love a narrative framework that allows me to push my characters to the limits, strip them down to the bare core of what they are, and then show it is still possible to retain grace, faith, and humanity. The Phoenix myth, of destruction and rebirth, has always been a favorite of mine, whether it concerns an individual or an entire society. I am also fascinated by large-scale destruction-- whether it's a volcano or an asteroid or the fall of an empire any other of a dozen apocalyptic scenarios-- and the amazing resilience of the human race, our stubborn capacity for survival. Just look at "little apocalypses" like the New Orleans levee breach or the Indonesian tsunami and you'll find the entire spectrum of human capacity, from indifference , selfishness, and cruelty to sacrifice, heroism, and determination.

But none of this answers the question of why I think apocalyptic fiction, whether explicitly Christian or not, deserves a place on our bookshelves. I think that the genre has a unique capacity to remind us of the true landscape of our fallen world.
In a very real sense, we are all living post-apocalypse. Eden is lost to us. We are not what we once were; we have fallen into a great and terrible ruin no less devastating than a nuclear winter or a desert wasteland. The fact that the spiritual realities of our world are not visible to the naked eye makes it difficult to remember, at times, ours is a broken land. Yes, we can see that if we look at the genocide in Africa or the oppression of women under Middler Eastern Sharia law, but it gets a little harder to see through the illusionary comfort of our modern American lifestyle. We have homes, cars, jobs; beyond the material, we have families, spouses, children. But without the redeeming light of grace, such comforts are no more substantial than a fire burning in a camp of post-apocalyptic nomads. They give warmth but cannot change the utter devastation that surrounds us.

How marvelous, then, the grace that has entered the bleak apocalypse of the Fall and laid open a road, paved with holy Blood, for us to travel through this hollow kingdom to the land of milk and honey! A common theme of apocalyptic literature is that of journey, a quest for a haven that is untouched by the wreck that has consumed all else. The characters are often on an uncertain pilgrimage, facing great odds and danger on the hope of finding a resting place. We who are pilgrims through this world may not face berzerker gangs or zombie hordes but the soul-killers who strive against us are no less brutal. Our pilgrimage, however, is certain in its ending, and our faith is rooted on far more than unsubstantiated hope.
We have the promise that like the Phoenix, a new world will one day rise from the ashes of this skewed wasteland.

Sitting here in my bedroom, writing this by dim lamplight as my daughter sleeps peacefully in our bed, I understand why some people don't want to hear about apocalypses, whether fictional or spiritual. It isn't always easy to see beyond the visible to the true nature of our sin-scorched world, and the truth of the fallen human condition is certainly grim, if you do not know the grace that has been shown us. Even some Christians find it difficult to face the grittier parts of our existence, seeking to pass their pilgrimage in some sort of air-tight bubble that won't let the smell of ash and the sound of weeping disturb their journey.

Others of us, like myself, find solace in the very fact that our world is broken, for we go through life with a sense of incompletion. Even in moments of serenity, of happiness, something in me groans along with the rest of creation, aching at the loss that has befallen us and rejoicing that someday we will be what God intended us to be. If I subscribed to the thought that this present world was the ideal, I would go mad with despair. But knowing that it is a post-apocalypse, the aftermath of a disaster that will one day be made whole again, I journey on with purpose and joy.

Even as I look at my sleeping daughter, I see us in an apocalyptic dimension-- she sleeps in a sling against my chest, warm under my patchwork cloak, as we walk through the gray evening across a cracked and barren landscape. Others are with us; men, women, and children of all races and ages who slowly make our way to a light on the horizon, distant almost enough to be thought a star. The great expanse between is dark, and fierce, but each of us holds a lantern in our hands. To the wretches who look at us from the darkness, we appear as a golden thread, miles and miles of light spun into a trail they may follow and find Home.


Andrea Graham said...

That was beautiful, Karen. Very thoughtful.

TWCP Authors said...

I've often wondered at the appeal of apocalypctic literature and movies. My conclusion (subject to change at any moment) is that people like to see hope manifest itself into reality even in the most dire of circumstances.

The same could be said for any genre, I suppose: the murderer unmasked in a mystery, the nasty corporation exposed in a courtroom drama, the demon incapacitated in a horror, the nice girl gets the guy in a romance. It's the stuff of dreams and most of us like the concept of happily ever after.

I love the imagery of you and Ember. That is beautiful, as Andrea said.

One thing I might take issue with: I am a Legend. We saw the movie this weekend and were disappointed. They could have directed some of their huge special FX budget to the screenplay! We thought it came off as cheesy. However, Will Smith did do a good job with what he was given. My 2-bits worth!

Your post, on the other hand, is pure gold.


Andrea Graham said...

Maybe that's what happens when Hollywood takes a classic sci-fi novel/movie and does a remake of it. My only conclusion is it seems they have run out of original ideas.

kc said...

Nice post, Karen.

I agree with Andrea about I Am Legend. It fell flat for me, although Will is an excellent actor.


karen_m said...

My biggest beef with Legend was that the darkseekers were underdeveloped....several places in the movie hint at a greater complexity that was never fully followed through.
Also, I thought the ending was too happy.
::sheepish grin::
Yes, I know, it was the manifestation of hope that everyone was waiting for, and it wasn't entirely unsatisfactory. I just really liked the concept of Will Smith as the last man and was a little disappointed when I found there had been others all along. It made his struggle somehow less powerful. But all in all, it's the best post-apocalypse movie I've seen in a while (we've had several good dystopia movies but few good true apocalyptic movies) so I'll take what I can get.

Of course, should Steven Spielberg want me to write a post-apocalyptic movie for him, I might could find the time somewhere....

Deborah Cullins Smith said...

Beautifully poignant post, Karen. You voiced it so wonderfully -- and I agree with you 200%! As Cyn said, "... pure gold."