Mathew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles. The Last Myth, What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About America. Prometheus Books, 2012.
Well, we all know that the end of the world is going to be on December 21st, which is a shame for the kiddies, who will have been looking forward to their Christmas presents. But these two books reassure us that it’s probably still OK to plan for the turkey, crackers and paper hats.
Although some writers on the ’Mayan prophesies’ have suggested that the idea of an apocalypse is common to all human societies, these authors demonstrate that it is something that is specific to the Judeo-Christian traditions, and was certainly completely unknown to the Mayans themselves.
Greer’s book takes an interesting slant on examining the idea of the apocalypse, treating it as a ‘meme’ which he describes: “a meme is an idea or set of ideas that can be transmitted from one person to another”, explaining that “what makes a meme successful is simply that it encourages the people who accept it to transmit is to as many other people as possible: whether or not it has a positive impact on the lives of the people who accept it is irrelevant.”
Greer traces the apocalypse meme to the development of Zoroastrianism, the original monotheistic religion, in the area of Iran, about 1500 BC. This spread to the Mediterranean world with the return of the Jewish people from exile in Babylon, bringing with them a specifically monotheistic belief system with a Messiah whose arrival would signify the end of history. The Greek and Roman occupations of Judea served to further spread the apocalypse meme.
Greer follows the spread of the meme through Gnostic Christianity, even to China through the ‘Yellow Turban’ movement. He examines some of the apocalyptic prophecies of the Church Fathers, refuting the popular view that there was a specific wave of apocalyptic around the year 1000. In fact apocalyptic prophecies, usually set just a few years into the future, were widespread for hundreds of years before then.
|The Beast of the Apocalypse|
The earliest of these was the Revelation of John of Patmos, the final book of the Bible. Greer takes the view that this was also probably the most accurate prophecy if interpreted as predicting the fall of the Roman Empire, the triumph of Christianity and even the restoration of pre-Christian values at the Renaissance.
The apocalypse meme was revived by the Taborite Rebellian in Bohemia and spread through the religious turbulence of the Reformation and the wars of religion in Europe in the sixteenth century. It later evolved int the semi-secular apocalyptic prophecies and actions, with movements like the Diggers, Levellers and Ranters in England at the time of the Civil War being particularly influential, and having an impact on the development of the meme in America.
In the nineteenth century the apocalypse meme found fertile ground to develop in American, both with groups such as the Millerites and home-grown religions like Mormonism, as well as expressions of apocalyptic beliefs by Native Americans such as the Ghost Dance rebellion, which were paralleled by similar movements amongst colonized peoples in Africa and Asia.
The sub-title of Barrett and Gilles book indicates that it is particularly concerned with apocalyptic expressions in modern America, although the first part of the book covers much the same ground as Greer’s work, tracing the ideas of the apocalypse and the ’end of history’ back to the Jewish exile in Babylon and the subsequent history of Judea.
However the bulk of the book is about how apocalyptic ideas have entered American society at a very deep level, claiming with some justification that America was founded on apocalyptic ideas of a literal New World freed from the decay and corruption of the Old. The authors note that a typical American breakfast might be used to illustrate how much these historical ideas have become part of everyday life: a breakfast of cornflakes devised by Seventh-Day Adventist John Kellogg to purify the body for the millennium, eaten with Oneida cutlery, originally produced by a millennialism cult, and perhaps eaten off a Shaker table and chair designed with utter simplicity for the Second Coming.
They explain the way in which the Rapture has become the central feature of American fundamentalist apocalypticism through the writings of Hal Lindsey, but with very little Biblical justification.
Barrett and Gilles cover twentieth-century secular apocalypticism looking at such phenomena as the millennium computer bug, health panics around diseases like bird flu and ebola, and a range of environmental scenarios from global warming to the Yellowstone super volcano.
Towards the end of the book the authors change tack a little and start presenting their own apocalyptic scenario - overpopulation and resource depletion. These are certainly serious topics and present issues that need to be faced, but it seems a little odd to put forward one’s own apocalyptic predictions at the end of a book which up to then had successfully demonstrated how unfounded previous predictions were!
However both books present an excellent counterweight to current apocalyptic claims, and do so by demonstrating the power and historical continuity of such ideas, rather than just by ‘debunking’ them. I would have preferred it if the Greer book had a more comprehensive index, but both books are well worth reading, and will remain so even after December 21st, 2012! -- John Rimmer.