How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World.
Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2016 (206 pages)
Dystopian and apocalyptic stories are certainly not new but are especially popular as of late. The Hunger Games franchise, starting with its first book in 2008, seemed to stoke a fire for dystopian literature (and later, films) targeted at young adults. Following the 2016 presidential election, bookstores stocked up on Orwell's classic 1984, and Amazon reported it as the number one bestseller in the days following the inauguration. And women have publicly protested various issues around the world while dressed as handmaids after Margaret Atwood's popular novel was adapted as a web series by Hulu in 2017. Joustra and Wilkinson's book digs into what is behind the stories of apocalyptic television series and films, including fan favorites that are more obviously apocalyptic (Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead, for example) and those that are more unexpected (including Scandal, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men). What all these works have in common, they argue, is not just their entertainment value or popularity, but also that they reveal something about the way we think about "our life together--our politics" (4). The book both successfully diagnoses the pervasive pathologies of our modern, secular socio-political life and recommends faithful responses, without rejecting the benefits of modernity.
More than its fun title would suggest, this book is serious and academic. It is largely rooted in the work of philosopher Charles Taylor and is best understood, itself, as a work of political philosophy with theological and pop-culture relevance. Though fans of the particular shows the authors draw upon will likely make their way through the book with some advantage, this is not a light read for even them, apropos to the weighty subject matter. Still, for readers, like myself, who are interested in political philosophy but not themselves experts, Joustra and Wilkinson provide a thorough, nuanced, and tractable assessment of our political reality. One way they accomplish this is by defining terms right from the start. Following Taylor, they define Secular (capital S intended) to indicate something different from secular, or nonreligious/ignoring the transcendent. A society is Secular when "even those of us who still choose to believe in [transcendent things] live in a world marked by the ability to choose not to believe in them" (4). In this way, even people of faith in the modern West are Secular if they experience religion as a choice and, therefore, constituting a particular aspect of their lives, rather than providing the context, or "moral horizon." for one's whole life. They argue that this has ramifications for the modern notion of apocalypse. It is no longer an irrevocable change or revelation initiated by the gods or God, but rather a shift, an ending, a new order (or lack thereof) that is caused by humans without even a thought of God, that is, a Secular and therefore anthropocentric apocalypse.
What, then, do these contemporary' stories of apocalypse expose about our politics? Using the examples of many recent television series and films, Joustra and Wilkinson identify Taylor's "conditions of secularity" and evidence of related pathologies. They note, for example, that the modern idea of the individual as "invulnerable to outside forces," or "buffered" (15), necessitates the individual's search for authenticity and significance. While the premise of this individualism is that each person has a unique way of being human, it still leaves the individual searching for recognition from others to confirm his significance. The science fiction television series Battlestar Galactica provides a case study, of sorts, of this search for authenticity, not by the human survivors of a robot takeover, but by the robots, or Cylons, themselves. The Cylons seek, it seems largely through relationships with others, to determine what makes a person. Though initially less obviously apocalyptic, the antihero genre of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and House of Cards fits Joustra and Wilkinson's understanding of Secular apocalypse as well. These shows, they say, reveal "how we get from a pursuit of authenticity, of our full humanity, to the disordered narcissism and degeneracy of the antihero" (83). In these stories agency is critical in establishing one's significance and, therefore, choice itself is held in the highest regard. Even the popular political thriller Scandal, they say, is a moral dystopia that finds its drama in radically individualistic people, each seeking their individual power rather than the common good, and thus ultimately landing upon another pathology of Secular modernity, instrumentalism.
While in much of contemporary academic and especially political writing individualism (or its caricature) is seen as inherently and unavoidably bad, Joustra and Wilkinson do not paint with a broad-brush individualism nor a number of other modern pathologies they identify. In fact, one of the chief strengths of this book, and one reason their treatment of apocalypse can be optimistic in the face of significant modern pitfalls, is that it avoids deterministic logic. In discussing subjectivity, or its more radical form subjectivism, the authors argue that "subjectivity need not be anthropocentric or instrumentalist." While they recognize that these three potentially problematic features of Secular modernity can be found in combination, often to our political detriment, they clearly state, "Just because our social conditions give us options does not mean that we have to make choices that produce the kind of pathology Taylor fears" (132). Their analysis is further tempered in that they allow from the start that there are also clear benefits to modernity. Though the dangers of individualism are not minimized throughout the book, they write that "Few people today would actually elect to turn back the clock" to premodernity and its pervasive poverty and political oppression, and that, in fact, "the protection and dignity of individual persons is something worth celebrating" (25).
But the book reveals its optimism most in pursuing its second objective, making suggestions about "[moving] toward restoration" (5). One of the strongest arguments Joustra and Wilkinson make is for a civil society thick with mediating institutions that can counter radically atomistic individualism. They avoid putting this responsibility on the state or other centralized powers. Rather, they characterize a faithful institution as one that is "cognizant of its own power" and "recognizes that it functions best not when that power is centralized in one person but distributed appropriately among people in different roles" (175). Offering a hopeful perspective in the face of fragmented individualism, the authors also suggest that the search for authenticity and this equal value ultimately must be found in something shared and so not fragmented. In particular, one's value is not in her uniqueness (though diversity is valuable and worth pursuing, they say) but in what we share (113). (Christians will recognize this as the image of God.) They also concur with Taylor that the introspection associated with the search for authenticity necessarily, but still authentically, leads the individual to "genuine fulfillment" only in things beyond herself. A final example of Joustra and Wilkinson's optimistic outlook is the positive (or at least pragmatic) spin they put on the modern preoccupation with personal experience, or what some might call feelings. They recognize the challenges inherent in the loss of a "common language of reference" (153) and shared beliefs that come to unbuffered-self members of a community who sense the influence of forces beyond themselves. But in the absence of this common language, we can effectively communicate, they claim, using "subtler languages" of "intuitions and experiences" that "resonate from within"; in other words, we find commonality by building on that which is broadly felt due to coincident human experience (158).
Though I consider myself an enthusiast for dystopian literature and film, I have to admit I was unfamiliar with the majority of the popular content Joustra and Wilkinson analyze. I would expect that the book would be even more enjoyable for those who have a detailed understanding of the television series and films in consideration. For at least one person who does not, the implications of this work are still clear, compelling, and. judging by the account of Andy Crouch who provides the foreword, easier to navigate than Taylor's seminal works. Though the pop-culture references lighten the mood of the book, especially as they reveal the fun the authors must have had researching and writing it, they educate the reader on more than imaginative fiction. In the words of Joustra and Wilkinson. "The worlds are fantastical and fictional. The pathologies are not" (190).
--Sarah M. Estelle
Hope College, Holland, Michigan
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|Title Annotation:||CHRISTIAN SOCIAL THOUGHT|
|Author:||Estelle, Sarah M.|
|Publication:||Journal of Markets & Morality|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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