Throughout the month of December, two long-time readers are choosing some of their favorite posts to revisit celebrating five years of sailerb. This post is recommended by Andrew Burt, and I encourage you to visit and follow his blog, Snobbin. Enjoy! –b.
Originally posted November 16, 2011
One of the areas of research in which I take most pride from my time in grad school is in, um, something I made up. Kinda.
I have rebelled some from my fundamentalist, Pentecostal upbringing; not so much as walked away from my faith–though I reject faith’s common definition qua Hebrews as adequate for the Christian experience, another conversation for another day–but have repudiated a lot of the things they strangely hold as non-negotiable. Amongst these things I’ve turned down, which may not necessarily be surprising based on prior work around here, has been any notion of eschatology, or the [Christian] study of the last things. That rejection actually took place close to a decade ago, but what I have noticed either in religious studies work or in a cursory glance at American culture, is that if the rise of fundamentalist Christianity 150-160 years ago bequeathed anything to America at large–and
perhaps even beyond–is its anxiety manifested in its doubling-down on being right, courtesy doctrinal mechanisms like the rapture, tribulation, judgment, even, to an extent, hell.
If anyone doubts this, remember Y2K, An Inconvenient Truth, the bellyaching over the collapse of America, Occupy Wall Street, even in places as seemingly unrelated as the NBA lockout or when a popular show comes to a planned or unexpected end (respectively, cf., The Sopranos finale and, as of today, Community.) For in these, as well, there is an eschatological concern writ large. I suggest this is unhealthy, and christened it in 2009 as epilogomena: the morbid obsession we have with last things.
[Of course, Community remains on the air, somewhere between being a network afterthought and ignored by the public at large. Similar with cult shows Chuck, Heroes and Veronica Mars, amongst a slew of others I forget off the top of my head, when faced with an almost certain network axe, viewership gets very passionate and very defensive. Whatever shall we do without our favorite progrums? Also, see a few paragraphs below.]
In applying Paul Tillich’s emphasis on faith as the expression of one’s ultimate concern–a governing principle that really makes for great bedrock for a philosophical system–fundamentalists failed in expressing their ultimate concern as living out any sense of the Great Commission, rather, they were interested in being right about the way things were ending: neo-Pentecostalism itself was a manifestation of epilogomena in that its very existence was predicated on an [ultimately flawed] eschatological dispensationalist worldview through Joel and Peter in Acts: that the manifestation of the charismata was the beginning of the end.
Epilogomena, then, runs counter to existential notions of responsibility: obsession with the end negates ones efficacy in the present. In focusing on the conclusion, we abandon in the now, pleas to live with, say, compassion and justice in mind now are foregone in our desire for an expected conclusion, if Jesus comes back, and I’m in the movie house, then I’m not going! (Think about that for a moment: an expected conclusion. Aren’t we generally unimpressed with milquetoast endings?)
[One of my all time favorite YouTube clips outlining this can be found here. Still priceless, still the smoking gun against the Rapture.]
In the original work I did on epilogomena, I examined The Truman Show through this lens, arguing how the film itself was a, wittingly or otherwise, social commentary on endings. Indeed, this became the principal theme of the film as soon as we see Sylvia’s button. (“How’s it going to end?” I like your pin; I’ve been wondering that myself.) And what happens at the end of the film? All that experience, all the investment the audience had in the show, all the swag bought, advertising dollars raked in and cheering as Truman exits the stage, and the station goes off the air. Yeah, let’s see what else is on.
[EDITORIAL ASIDE: While I’m here, concerning the aforementioned fiat cancellation of Community, it should be noted that, according to reports, it was drawing only a fraction of the audience of the show airing in the same time slot on CBS, The Big Bang Theory. A show written for dorks getting trumped by a show about dorks. Imagine that. Guess who’s watching what? Or, more to the point, who watched what?]
[In case you didn’t notice, I was a huge fan of Community and not so much of Big Bang. The script since then has flipped: since the Dan Harmon-NBC-Chevy Chase fiasco, I, like many discovered TBBT in reruns and streaming. The real revelation there is that Kaley Cuoco is among the best comedic actresses working today.]
The main thrust here is that we as a culture have the endgame in mind more than we have any sense of bearings with regard to the present moment. We want to lose weight without effort, die rich while doing as little as possible now, have the rapture show up and get us out of this drudging existence, get as much money as possible out of franchise owners without regard to current economic context. Focusing on the ending short circuits our ability to be impactful or even remotely meaningful now. The ending then colors our perception of things now, if not outright manipulates them: see the myriad reports of tampering with evidence in global warming, Jack Van Impe and his ilk, saying anything and promising everything in order to win another term in office, abusing the scriptures to promote a doctrinal pyramid scheme, read the Cliffs notes instead of the book itself. At its core, epilogomena is Machiavellian scheming, that is to say, it is narcissism at its finest.In this culture, it is ubiquitous.
It is also, at its core, anti-philosophical: the Socratic method is to uncompromisingly follow toward the truth, wherever the path may lead us. Bacon reinforced this with the scientific method: to follow through toward a conclusion, affording us the opportunity to be wrong or, worse yet, to fail. Using an uncertain future to dictate the present is nothing short of manipulation. Now dictates the future. Always has, always will.
The sooner we get this straightened out, the sooner we can start to rebuild the walls of a crumbling civilization.
[Since my first academic work on Epilogomena, similar work has appeared everywhere from Scientific American within a month of my original presentation to Andy Greenwald’s Breaking Bad closing recap at Grantland just this fall, to River Song’s persistent teasing in Doctor Who. ‘Spoilers!’ Greenwald, for the record, is outstanding reading. Lots of interested and interesting people are keying in on the concept, in which case I say welcome to the end of the world party! Might I suggest reading my work concerning the Culture of Panic? One goes hand in hand with the other.]