Academic terms are not normally thrown around the set of NBC's Today Show. More commonly it is the source for fluff pieces, pseudo-news, and celebrity interviews. But recently with great earnestness host Matt Lauer asked Zachary Quinto, "What is it about our zeitgeist that so many of the blockbuster films are apocalyptic in nature?" Zachary was on the show to promote his film, Star Trek Into Darkness, where he plays the character of Spock. Zeitgeist is a German word meaning "spirit of the age or time," and is often attributed to the philosopher Georg Hegel. Sadly, Spock had no meaningful response to Lauer's query.
Why is it that the stories we are celebrating and investing millions of dollars in have a reoccurring theme of collapse, destruction, and world ending apocalypse? Is this where war fatigue, terror attacks, hurricanes, and tornados have left us? Consider the evidence.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World: "An asteroid named 'Matilda' is on a collision course toward Earth and in three weeks the world will come to an absolute end. What would you do if your life and the world were doomed?"
Star Trek Into Darkness: "When the crew of the Enterprise is called back home, they find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization has detonated the fleet and everything it stands for, leaving our world in a state of crisis."
Iron Man 3: "When Tony Stark's world is torn apart by a formidable terrorist called the Mandarin, he starts an odyssey of rebuilding and retribution." Mandarin states, "I'm gonna offer you the choice: do you want an empty life, or a meaningful death?"
Oblivion: "A veteran assigned to extract Earth's remaining resources begins to question what he knows about his mission and himself." Jack Harper states, "Sixty years ago, Earth was attacked. We won the war, but they destroyed half the planet. Everyone's been evacuated. Nothing human remains. We're here for drone repair. We're the 'mop-up crew.'"
After Earth: "One thousand years after cataclysmic events forced humanity's escape from Earth, Nova Prime has become mankind's new home."
World War Z: "United Nations employee Gerry Lane traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments, and threatening to decimate humanity itself."
These are iconic films representing some of our most celebrated actors: Steve Carell, Chris Pine, Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Brad Pitt, and Ethan Hawke. Collectively these films will reach millions of viewers and gross huge numbers at the box office. So Lauer's question is an important one. The apocalyptic zeitgeist is not a measure of overheated eschatological expectations but a symptom of the myth of progress placed under strain. It is the loss of innocence metastasizing into a cultural condition.
We are assured in Scripture that if we live long enough our worldviews, idols, and faith will be tested (Matthew 7:24-27). The waters will rise, the winds will blow, and our foundations will be shaken. This is as certain as the sunrise. It's a promise woven into the fabric of reality. Sooner or later one's life will be tested relationally, financially, or physically. And what is true individually is also true collectively. Our culture is being tested and the cracks are beginning to show.
Our cultural foundations either line up with reality or they do not. And ours is increasingly a culture without foundation—highly susceptible to every wind and wave. Insecurity is writ large into the modern psyche. And the recurring images of Sandy Hook; Seaside, New Jersey; the Boston marathon bombing; and Moore, Oklahoma serve to amplify these feelings. Safety and security elude us.
These cinematic apocalyptic sagas are secular versions of the anticipation of Christ's return. Whereas Christ's return brings hope, these twisted stories only bring a nagging unease that flirts with despair. This is an apocalypse without a Saviour or Judge. This is a second coming without Christ. In 1996 Rolling Stone reporter Will Dana stated, "We used to think the center couldn't hold," referring to Yeat's poem, "The Second Coming." "All of a sudden," he continued, "there doesn't seem to be a center at all." We live in a "centreless" world. Such is the cultural experience of living in a world stipulated without any reference to the transcendent. The late University of Pennsylvania sociologist Philip Rieff stated, "Every culture that tries to establish its social order without reference to a sacred order must be called an anti-culture." An anti-culture is a culture of breaking down rather than building up. It is one of incremental decay and collapse. It is not a sustainable reality.
This is what Nietzsche anticipated in 1882, in his book, The Gay Science, when he wrote, "Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?" Nietzsche anticipated that with the decline of Christianity it will seem for a time as if all things had become weightless or without center. Nietzsche continues, "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives—who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent?" These apocalyptic cinematic narratives are the sacred games and the festivals of atonement we have invented to explain a secular second coming to ourselves.
The psychic result is profound cultural insecurity that walks the line between fear and fatalism. These are cultural horror films, where the victim is not the blonde co-ed, but civilization. These are the fruit of cultural PTSD. Global destruction is displayed with high-octane computer-generated imagery, as the act of demolition is more visually stunning than the slow, patient, and difficult task of culture creation. Like pregnancy, culture making is a prolonged process and its work largely hidden from view. Its termination is quick, graphic, and telegenic as portrayed in the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell. For Rieff, Auschwitz is a symbol of the deathwork culture. The practice of abortion is one of the most profound illustrations of what has become an everyday deathwork. Its acceptance and the antinatalism that it fosters leads to a Chinese baby being cut from a sewage pipe.
These apocalyptic films show almost no hope for the rebuilding of community. At their best, they depict a gifted individual triumph Phoenix-like from the ashes to save a team or family member. For the renewal of society is outside the purview of the collective imagination. Genocide is recompensed by saving the heroic individual, which is the thesis of the upcoming film The Purge. We have lost hope—at least in our cinematic narratives—that society can be rebuilt on a human scale. But this truncated imagination has further psychic neuroses.
Our cultural PTSD further represses already neglected religious concerns. It amps up the grasping at anything that promises pseudo-security. Religious concerns in this context are choked by the "worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth" (Matthew 13:22). It fosters the opposite experience of what Jesus commands in Matthew 6:25, ". . . do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on." Oswald Chambers' reminds us, "Jesus summed up commonsense carefulness in the life of a disciple as unbelief . . . Worrying means we do not believe that God can look after the practical details of our lives."
It is not the Devil that chokes out the things of faith, but rather the mundane "cares of this world." This is where unbelief begins. We do not need for our world to end, only to have our imaginations shaped by a symbolic cosmic threat for which there is no recognized spiritual solace. A drowning man will grasp at straws, when it is faith alone that enables one to walk on water. In the end, our cultural zeitgeist is a public mirroring of our hearts. Our culture and hearts are troubled.
There is a cure for this dis-ease. Jesus said, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father's house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?" Jesus too offers us a choice: A meaningful life and an even more meaningful death.