The World is (Always) About to End, No Zombies Required

This week, researchers at Cornell spent presumably valuable time determining the safest places to be during a zombie apocalypse. Key takeaway: not big cities.

To observe that the apocalypse, in varying forms, is all around us is no more than a platitude. Pick your apocalypse: zombie apocalypse, any number of post-apocalyptic worlds that crowd our television screens, movie theaters, and book stores, or, perhaps more traditionally, the apocalypse associated with the Second Coming. Think of the 2011 Family Radio Billboards: “He is Coming Again! May 21, 2011.” Or the tongue-in-cheek bumper sticker: Jesus is Coming, Look Busy.

During the last week of January 2015, police in Utah concluded their investigation of the September deaths the Strack family in Springville, Utah. An older son of Kristi Strack found his mother, along with Benjamin Strack and the couple’s three children, all dead. The announcement concluded that the parents’ deaths were suicides, and that the couple had killed the two youngest children. The way the eldest child died, a 14-year old boy named Benson, remains, according to the AP reports, “undetermined.”

Why would Benjamin and Kristi Strack kill themselves and their children? The short answer: a “pending apocalypse.”

But beyond that, no details. According to various reports, Kristi Strack had once been obsessed with Dan Lafferty, now imprisoned for his role in the murder of his sister-in-law Brenda. (Dan and his brother Ron belonged to a splinter group of fundamentalist Mormons who believed in polygamy, among other things, and Dan continues to identify as the prophet Elijah, who will herald the Second Coming of Jesus.) The Stracks and Dan Lafferty knew each other, but apparently, according to reporters Lafferty did not talk much about the impending end of the world with the Stracks and their contact ended in 2008.

Nothing in the Strack’s house (and nothing they said to their neighbors or friends or family, at least as far as has been revealed to the press thus far) indicates why the Stracks thought the apocalypse loomed near in September 2014. There has been no mention of fear of a terrorist attack or a nuclear attack, of Jesus’ return or the book of Revelation—just hints about wanting to “get off the grid,” as Deseret News reported.

Yet Benjamin and Kristi Strack thought the end was near—and it is hard to imagine that this was unconnected to the theology spouted by Lafferty.

Again, to say that the apocalypse, in varying forms, is all around us is no more than a platitude. Despite the commonplace nature of our fascination with The End, what seems run-of-the-mill becomes profoundly important when tragedies like the Strack family suicide strike. From heartrending suicide-murders prompted by the belief in the imminent end of the world to empty bank accounts and broken families following Harold Camping’s failed predictions of Jesus’ return to our cultural fixation with the shuffling creatures we call zombies, we won’t stop thinking about the end.

Alternatively, maybe we simply cannot. After all, throughout history the end of the world has always been near—despite the fact that the end has yet to happen. The dichotomy matters.

At the end of January, emails flooded my inbox with links to articles that detailed the story of the Strack family. I’m currently teaching a course called “From Revelation to ‘The Walking Dead’: Apocalypse Now and Then,” and earlier this semester I encouraged students to send me articles, videos, advertisements, movie trailers—anything that they that had to do with our topic: the end of the world, from ancient to contemporary conceptions.

In the light of the Stracks’ deaths, the name of my course seems flippant. It is, admittedly, a ploy to get students into the biblical studies classroom: there are no zombies in the Bible.

Nevertheless, zombies sell, as The Walking Dead‘s creator Robert Kirkman and others know well. The course stems from the knowledge that pop culture and monsters interest students, even if ancient biblical texts don’t (at least, not often and not at first). Yet it was also born out of a desire to show students that ancient texts matter, and that these texts continue to live on all around us, whether we know it or not. Sometimes these afterlives are beautiful and inspiring; sometimes these afterlives are awful, created out of fear and some two thousand years of failing (often) to ask the right questions about the text(s) we are reading.

I came to teaching zombies late in the game in the spring of 2014, when zombie courses had long been on the books at a number of institutions across the United States, in literature courses and sociology classes and beyond. Scholars like Kim Paffenroth and Kelly Baker, among others, had already firmly established the relevance and importance of studying zombies and other monsters within the field of religious studies more broadly.

Yet between the excellent work of CMU’s media team and the strange world of the internet where sometimes the AP picks up a story about a class being taught in the middle of Michigan, “From Revelation to ‘The Walking Dead’” briefly turned into my fifteen minutes of fame. Radio shows, newspapers, and television stations called to ask me for interviews.

While the media seemed intrigued, the overarching response form the public was quite different, boiling down to some formulation of “What you are doing is evil. Your students will never get jobs. There are no zombies in the Bible and Jesus is not pleased that you are teaching otherwise.”

However, the end of the world is always/never near—and it matters.

The reactions I received to a course that connected ancient and contemporary apocalypses underscored this. The level of vitriol in comment threads in on-line articles (I know, I know) highlighted ever more pressingly the reality that what we as scholars of the humanities and/or religious studies are trying to accomplish in the classroom is very different from what people think. Most critics assumed that I was teaching students “how to survive the zombie apocalypse.” (I will refer them, now, to the zombie team at Cornell.)

Others, because they saw the word “Revelation” in the title alongside a zombie reference, assumed I was teaching my students that there were zombies in the Bible. (There are no zombies in the Bible; the zombie is a creature that entered Western culture not through the ancient Near East or Europe, but through slavery, colonialism, and a profound Western misunderstanding of the Vodoun religion and Haitian culture.)

What I was trying to do was get my students to think. To make connections between our pasts and our present, to wonder why humans are not so different today than the were 2000+ years ago, and—most importantly—to provide an opportunity for students to improve the kind of skills that they would need when they graduated and entered the workforce. Very few of my students would go on to study either a) the Bible or b) zombies. Yet all of them would need to know how to work with others, to read and write carefully and with an eye toward genre and context, to understand the “Other,” that cultures share (and borrow or steal and adapt) ideas, and that history matters—all things I strived (successfully or not) to teach. After all, what happened to William Miller? Hal Lindsay? David Koresh? Harold Camping? Their followers?

Each tried to read the books of the Bible—including Revelation—in order to predict a coming apocalyptic end. Each—some of them multiple times—were wrong about their predictions. Part of the reason that these endless predictions were wrong was because they weren’t asking the right kind of questions about the literature they were reading. It’s like they had taken a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone into King’s Cross Station and were repeatedly ramming their faces into the brick wall that serves as the backdrop for the tourist trap that is Platform 9 ¾. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone won’t get you to Hogwarts, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from reading it. Harry Potter taught an entire generation of kids (the ones who sit in my classrooms today) about the importance of loyalty, friendship, and studying for exams.

The book of Revelation—or any other apocalyptic text—is not a handbook to how the end times will unfold, but that does not mean apocalyptic literature does not matter. The end of the world is simultaneously always and never here. Type “mark of the Beast” into Google: just recently a man in West Virginia won a court case against the company he works for because he thought that the machine they were using to clock hours was the “mark of the Beast.” That he was wrong—and that the case proved he was wrong—mattered less than his “sincere beliefs” about the usability of the book of Revelation to interpret the present.

These stories are why it matters what we do in the religious studies classroom. Revelation is a looking glass into the world of the earliest Christians and what they desired, feared, and yearned for in their present context. Readers have continued to invoke the book of Revelation in meaningful ways throughout history and today without using it to try to figure out when the end will come. The final book of the New Testament does not have to reside upon a shelf as a dusty, useless relic, as only a failed prediction of the end of the Roman Empire. It can be a source of hope for the oppressed, as it was in apartheid Africa; a critique of imperialism and commercialism; a call to remember the impact that class and gender can and does have on power dynamics. The book is more than a Doomsday Clock.

Likewise, “that zombie crap you teach,” as one relative not-so-gently expressed his opinion of my course, matters. It matters because examining the monsters we fantasize about (zombies or otherwise), as scholars like Timothy Beal and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen have noted, reveal to us something about ourselves. Similarly, the zombie apocalypse is not as different from ancient (and considered by many as sacred) apocalypses that my students read and study in class. Sure, there are no zombies in the Bible (Matthew 27:52-53 notwithstanding).

But as scholars have long noted, apocalyptic texts (secular or sacred, properly defined [apocalypse actually means “to reveal,” and the revelation does not necessarily have to be about the end] or not) ask the profound human questions we are all worried about: what does it mean to be human? What separates “us” from those who are not like us? Why do humans exist? How do we avoid the mistakes made by those who came before us? Where we are going—not just today, tomorrow, or three years from now, but where is history headed and what is our place in that narrative arc? Perhaps most importantly, how can we make things better in this world when it seems like this world is at its worst?

As I teach about apocalyptic texts once again, I mourn for the Strack family. Though they are a family I did not know, I mourn for their lost lives and their surviving relatives, their friends, and community. The end of the world is always and never near—and it matters that we understand why.

 

Photo by flickr user Stephen Dann via Creative Commons.

20 Comments

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Maybe there is more to learn if you look at details of one of these cases rather than just lumping them together as end times. I think David Koresh needs to be considered apart from the apocalypse in order to understand him. He established a community where as the spiritual leader, he was able to take all the other men’s wives and daughters. After a while it evolved into a situation where the younger girls he was taking were also HIS daughters. When it became clear this was all about to come out, he decided the best thing would be for everyone in the compound to die in a fire that could be blamed on the government. This doesn’t qualify as an apocalypse, but it was just Koresh having his way for as long as he could get away with it, then knowing when to stop. Back then it seemed people wanted to turn it into more than it actually was. Maybe it was just the Republicans sensing it would soon be their time, so they were looking for ways to make the public turn on the Clinton administration.

  • oaim50@yahoo.com' Don says:

    Those apocalypsists scare the living crayfish out of me! Just seeing them around and hearing their braying makes me think they are so intent on bring an end to our precious world they are liable to make it happen themselves. I think they should just cut it out, or I’m liable to become one of them.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Don’t worry so much. No matter how deeply they believe, they can’t bring an end. The most they can do is cause a lot of damage, worst case kill a bunch of people. After that, things will always return to normal.

  • There was a time when preachers who pushed the Apocalyptic Gospel were considered to crazy extremists. However, over the last 30 or so years, these preachers have organized and created a movement that has essentially molded our political right-wing landscape. You know their names – Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, John Hagee, Benny Hinn, Tony Perkins, etc. They claim to support Israel, but they do so only because it must be destroyed and all Jews destroyed so that a new Jerusalem for a New World can be established.

    Most people would ignore them in the past, politicians did not form policy to follow their agenda, and they held little sway on this nation culturally. Now they walk the halls of Congress, influence policy on all levels, and have formed alliances with the most extreme elements of our nation’s leaders and PACs because they can deliver the votes. They hide behind PR firms that couch their message in language that appears to be reasonable, but their agenda is not that God will end the world, but that the world must end so that God and Jesus can create a new world. They assume that they will be saved and the rest of us will die.

    Their policy influence is creating the kind of events talked about in Revelations, and because they have little or no understanding of history or historical context, they are twisting it to suit their own twisted ideology that is based not the teachings of Jesus, but their own personal arrogance of religious superiority. When allied with the power brokers, corporate wealthy, and ignorant politicians of the GOP, they become a formidable force to change or destroy the world in keeping with their desires. Make no mistake, these people are no longer the crazies on the street corners with signs – they are the ones forming political policies for the United States, and we are in great danger from them.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    This is a good time to look at where we are going, and where is history headed. A change is about to happen, sooner than most people would think. The change is driven by our new capability and will to move into space, and many who even think we can and will go to Mars in the next few decades. Humans living off of earth will drive changes to our religions, and thinking about just that would probably be a long discussion. Moving into space, or Mars or the moon or almost anywhere else we might end up also means living in a low gravity environment. Mars is only about two fifths of earth gravity. Other places are less. This will do more than anything else ever could to drive evolution and split humans into two species. Spreading through space will also probably split us into more species in unpredictable ways, but I can predict the issue of gravity will be the first and major force that splits us in two. That is where our history is headed. It is not much thought about now, but 100 years from now it will be a major topic, and 100 years is a very short time in human history.

  • wostraub@gmail.com' weylguy says:

    First off, I’d really like to know why it seems all apocalypses have to be on the 21st of the month. My birthday is December 21, and I totally resent it.

    Other than that, I’d also like to know why it is that although every End of the World has come and gone without anything actually happening, people still believe every shyster minister or religious crackpot who proclaims that the world is coming to an end on some particular date. I mean, ask the most deluded religious fanatic that you’ll give him a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge and he’ll just laugh at you, but tell him that when Jesus died the tombs in Jerusalem broke open and spilled hundreds of saintly zombies out into the streets (Matthew 27:52-53) and he’ll buy it every time.

    In the 1840s William Miller had hundreds of followers believing the end of the world was nigh. They sold their homes and farms and gave away all their possessions in preparation for the Big Event. When Jesus didn’t show some were disappointed, but the rest went on to found the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which today has nearly 20 million followers, more than Mormonism, another crackpot religious cult.

    Why is it that ordinarily sane, rational people go off the deep end when it comes to religion? No wonder there are so many megachurch crooks like Joel Osteen, Ted Haggard and Pat Robertson out there fleecing billions from their insane followers. And look how preposterously wealthy Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have gotten off their “Left Behind” books.

    Organized religion truly is a prison for the human mind.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    I am not sure why sane rational people go off the deep end when it comes to religion, but I think I might know part of the answer. It could be since the previous religions that these people believe are so full of contradictions, it can be easy to get them to switch. If you can come up with an alternate to some of the contradictions, and you point out the old contradictions, some people will switch. This doesn’t explain why these people don’t check out the crazy beliefs of the new religion, but it might explain why they will so easily leave the crazy beliefs of the old religion. At least this might help explain the religions of 19th century America.

  • In the CONUS, the safest place to be in a Zombie Apocalypse is the UP of MI – isolated (only Interstate is accessible by a bridge), sparsely populated and snowed in for half the year.

    The biggest danger there would be from drunken mishaps and not the sundry ill-effects of social dislocation.

  • dacu@sp2.upenn.edu' Daniel says:

    Don’t forget global warming, nuclear war, or random naturally occurring things like asteroids and super volcanoes. It’s not just zombies and religion.

  • dacu@sp2.upenn.edu' Daniel says:

    The end of the world is also a big theme for the non-religious. It just takes the form of climate change, nuclear war, genetically modified super-diseases, asteroids, super volcanoes, or republicans taking over the government and driving us into WWIII to profit the Koch brothers.

  • dacu@sp2.upenn.edu' Daniel says:

    Most parts of rural, conservative America would be pretty safe. Sparsely populated and lots of guns. Utah might even get extra points because many Mormons store food and fuel as part of a religious belief in being prepared for economic or natural disaster.

  • Lack of coffee and alcohol would be a show-stopper for many.

    The UP attracted a disproportionate number of Swedes, Finns, Pols and other Baltic nationalities – people who live their pivo…

  • ckweav@yahoo.com' chake says:

    I thought currently the most imminent apocalypse was global warming. It will probably go the way of all the rest of the cry wolf apocalypse theories. The unfortunate upside to global warming, should it occur, would be the reduction of the worlds population.

  • jimbentn@verizon.net' Jim 'Prup' Benton says:

    I like to remind people who mention Camping, Lindsay, Miller, and th like, that there was another preacher talking about the ‘immanent end of the World and the coming of the New Kingdom.’ His name was Jesus, and he was just as wrong, no more, no less, than the other End Time Preachers.

  • stevehistory@yahoo.com' steveduncan1 says:

    The end of the earth comes, (when the wicked are destroyed) after the gospel of the kingdom has been preached throughout the world to be rejected or accepted. In most cases rejected. Now what Religion with a set of gospel principles and ordinances, with only one precise doctrine is sending a strong missionary force that continues to increase in number over the years to all parts of the world, because its membership are not only believers in Christ, but converted enough is help strengthen their brethren throughout the free world? Hint, 1st. Thess. 1:5, and Revelations 14:6-7.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    We have been playing that guessing game for centuries. Now put up or shut up.

  • gr_sutton@hotmail.com' Graeme Sutton says:

    I think the modern zombie genre owes more to the american western than to the book of revelations. Actual apocalyptic traditions tend to have as an endpoint some variation of “everyone dies and goes to heaven and hell”, ultimately they’re about separating the innocent from the guilty and reassuring the members of the faith that however bad things may seem there’s a happy ending coming for those who keep the faith. Shows like the Walking Dead aren’t so much depicting the end of the world as the end of organized society, like the western they appeal to us as a depiction of how humans act in the absence of governmental authority.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    How about Left Behindism where Christians are raptured out of their cars, and the cars are left behind driving themselves, sometimes running down pedestrians? Then things just continue for a few books showing how bad society will become without the Christian witness.

  • gr_sutton@hotmail.com' Graeme Sutton says:

    uh… What does that have to do with my comment?

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    The first paragraph was about how popular Christian culture in America who is up on the latest Left Behind books sees the apocalypse. The rest was just my speculation.

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