This semester, I am (again) teaching my course, The Apocalypse in American Culture, in which we interrogate the proliferation of apocalypticisms within religious movements as well as in popular culture. My goal is to help students understand what kind of work millennialism does for various people and groups as well as to understand how the apocalyptic mode of interpretation functions. The course surveys doomsday prophets, Ufology and aliens, conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, punk music, zombies, Jonestown, Marian apparitions, and Left Behind. The course is one of my favorites because I rely on the apocalypse as a mechanism to analyze the ubiquity of the end in religious culture and popular culture. Why the end? Why now (or then)? Why are these ends often catastrophic? This class proves to be particularly poignant after the "Mayan apocalypse" supposedly failed. The course addresses several main questions: Why is the apocalypse, the end, so enduring in the American fascination? What does this longing for the end of the world tell us about American culture more generally? What are the consequences of these perpetual yearnings for the end? What does it mean if the apocalyptic is an American mode of engagement, an interpretative schema, of our world in both the past and the present?
The first unit engages Amy Johnson Frykholm's excellent Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America, an ethnography of the readers of popular Left Behind Series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Frykholm documents the many ways that readers approach the series: how they agree or disagree, how they apply the books to their lives, and how they interpret contemporary events. One of the strengths of the book is that it does not give into the common assumption that readers acquiesce wholeheartedly to this particular form of the end and its political ideology. Frykholm demonstrates how readers contradict, complain, and contest how the books portray the premillennial dispensational view of the end.
My students found the dynamic between ethnographer and conversants to be most intriguing as Frykholm makes clear that she and readers disagree about how to interpret the books. For instance, one of the assigned chapters for the week examined gender in Left Behind, which Frykholm notes interests her but proved not as essential to how readers approached the books. The ethnographer noted the negative portrayal of women while readers suggested that the books were not about gender but faith and witness. This opened up a good discussion of how scholars and adherents might disagree about the interpretation of what really matters, and that this disagreement proves analytically fruitful. To add to our discussion, I also brought in Left Behind: The Movie, which visualizes the gender stereotypes of the books quite effectively. This book proves thought-provoking and useful for students, and I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in how evangelicals understand these popular novels. It proves good fodder for discussion of the place of apocalypticism in the lives of believers in an empathetic yet critical fashion.