Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (3)

Roland Emmerich’s 2012 claims to be inspired by ancient Mayan prophecies, but with its lovingly detailed CGI shots of the destruction of the temples of Mammon and saving of a small band of the blessed, it’s actually square in the Christian apocalyptic tradition - something that’s almost as old as Christianity itself. The last book in the Bible, the Book of Revelation (also known as Apocalypse, from the verb apokalypto, to reveal), was written towards the end of the first century AD. It’s a visionary warning of the End Times, when the damned will flock to the AntiChrist, the Earth will be visited with every kind of destruction, and true believers will at last ascend into the infinite bliss of the New Jerusalem. Outbreaks of apocalypse fever have swept through Christianity ever since, peaking around 1500, when dozens of sects proclaimed the coming of the End Times (see Norman Cohen’s The Pursuit of the Millennium), and again around the end of the last century. Millions of premillennialists (especially Evangelical Christians in the United States; one of the Founding Fathers, Cotton Mather, was an ardent premillennialist) still expect at any moment to experience the Rapture of bodily ascent into Heaven as a prelude to the harrowing of Earth by a returned Christ.


This apocalypse is the subject of Victorian painter John Martin’s ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’ (above); this, and other huge, sensationalist canvases, were allegedly inspired by commercial dioramas animated by use of artificial lighting - precursors of present-day blockbuster movies. While Martin’s themes were biblical, most of the apocalypses in Hollywood movies are secular,with nuclear war, asteroids, or Arnold Swarzenegger as substitutes for God’s wrath. But an outfit outside the Hollywood machine, Cloud Ten Pictures, has been making movies for a Christian audience that deploy the tropes of premillennialism with deadly seriousness. They’ve produced a trilogy based on the bestselling Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, a literal portrayal of the End Times of the premillennialists, as well as several thrillers that share the same post-Rapture setting, as well as the same villain, UN President Nicolae Carpathia, aka the AntiChrist (played by Gordon Currie - what must his fan mail be like?): Revelation, Apocalypse, and Tribulation (starring Gary Busey and featuring Margot Kidder and Mr T as, er, Mr T).

They look like science fiction, or science thrillers, but they aren't. As far as the people who made them and their intended audience are concerned, they embody a literal truth.

13 Comments:

Blogger George Berger said...

Thanks for mentioning The Pursuit of the Millenium. Although I have only skimmed through it, a good friend read it very carefully. Years ago she, a rational atheist of Jewish birth like me, read Revelations. She was amazed at the horrid but influential combination of nonsensical verbiage indistinguishable from a report of a bad trip, and appeals to Christianity as the Truth. I lack the patience to read such things, but am all too aware of its influence. Besides the lines that you trace, there are links to the historical stage "notions" of Joachim of Flores, whose writings influenced German mysticism. This turned (pseudo) philosophical with the rise of German Idealism, and this attempt to combine mysticism with historical explanation led, via creeps like Fichte and Arndt, straight to German Fascism. Cohn did us a service by writing this book, for he exposed some sources of evils that are still around. I was recently engaged in a lively "argument" with a believer in such dangerous gibberish. Whenever I asked a reasonable question, or produced a coherent argument, the reply was an enthusiastic (in the literal sense of having the Spirit blow into you!) plea for me to find my way to salvation via the deity. Not one rational answer. No attempt to reason with me in a way that could perhaps lead to a resolution or at least mutual respect. When I deal with such minds I know that I'm one step away from a Crusade or Auschwitz.

November 04, 2009 9:10 PM  
Blogger R Schechter said...

So was the movie any fun?

November 04, 2009 11:59 PM  
Blogger Adam Roberts said...

I haven't seen the film, but I did think of John Martin when I saw the trailer, and pondered a little on that.

November 05, 2009 4:33 PM  
Anonymous Sergey said...

Good words, Paul.
I always thought of John Martin as of fantasy painter. Very underrated painter - it's hard to believe that his pictures were created in the first half-middle of the 19th century.

November 05, 2009 6:27 PM  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

George - Cohen well worth reading carefully. Especially about Anabaptists.

Russ - kinda fun. Like an amusement park ride you went on to use up yr last coupon.

Adam - what ponderings, exactly?

Sergey - I'm no expert on Martin so can't say how deep his belief was. If deep enough, not fantasy, but Things To Come?

November 05, 2009 8:22 PM  
Blogger Adam Roberts said...

The ponderings I linked to, there: viz., --

'I watch [the 2112 trailer]. Then I think: ‘ain’t it reminiscent of the work of [John Martin], though?’ I suppose I think it would be interesting if, of all nineteenth-century artistic figures, it’s John Martin who turns out to have been the most influential in the world’s currently dominant visual art-form. Rather like Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Scriabin, in their spectral conservatoire-in-the-sky, having to accept that, after all, Robert Johnson was the guy who cast the longest shadow over twentieth-century music.'

November 05, 2009 10:23 PM  
Blogger George Berger said...

Thanks Paul. I shall read it it soon. I hope the University Library has it. If not I'll order it from some online source. It has been on my list since my friend read it.

November 06, 2009 11:20 AM  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Adam - did I read that when you posted it? Can't remember, but am happy to cede precendence. Though would argue still that original imagery goes all the way back to St John the Revelator. It's likely that Martin was influenced by large commercial dioramas; later, he ran into all kinds of legal woe when his paintings were ripped off by dioramists. Genre v. high art. Nothing much changes.

November 06, 2009 2:44 PM  
Blogger Gustaf Erikson said...

I can recommend Slacktivist's hilarious takedown of the "Left Behind" novels, linked to from here: http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/left_behind/ Start at the bottom.

A ton of bad writing and worse theology.

November 06, 2009 9:19 PM  
Blogger George Berger said...

I just reserved Norman Cohn's book from the University Library. Thanks for the suggestion

November 08, 2009 5:03 PM  
Blogger Adam Roberts said...

Wasn't trying to snatch precedence! Your thoughts are more engaged and substantive than mine ...

November 11, 2009 11:40 AM  
Blogger Philip Palmer said...

I loved the John Martin painting, which is actually better than the movie. A few amazing CGI images of global destruction, but no evocation of what an apocalypse might actually feel like. Plus, no heart, no wit, no soul.

But damn, yes it is fun.

November 20, 2009 9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PRETRIB RAPTURE RUSTLERS

To see the long hidden side of the 179-year-old, British-invented-and-American-merchandised, apocalyptic "rapture" mania, Google "Pretrib Rapture Diehards," "Thomas Ice (Bloopers)" (the sloppy copyist "genius" that Lindsey, LaHaye and other "rapture" tycoons lean on!), "LaHaye's Temperament," "America's Pretrib Rapture Traffickers," "Edward Irving is Unnerving," "Thieves' Marketing," "Appendix F: Thou Shalt Not Steal," "Pretrib Hypocrisy," "The Newest Pretrib Calendar," "The Rapture Index (Mad Theology)," "Roots of (Warlike) Christian Zionism" and "Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty," for starters. The author of these items plus the bestselling nonfiction book "The Rapture Plot" (available online) is journalist/historian Dave MacPherson who has uniquely focused for 40 years on the bizarre history of this endtime craze which is anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic and anti- just about everyone else! MacPherson is the one who has researched throughout Britain and aired so much rapturesque "dirty linen" he's found behind the scenes (clever revisionism of early 19th century documents, rampant plagiarism, phony doctorates, Swaggart-type scandals etc.) that he is now No. 1 on the hate lists of the leading "rapture" money-changers! As everyone's black, dust-covered book says, "There is nothing hidden that won't be revealed...."

[I spied the above web article not so very long ago. Reactions? Joe]

November 27, 2009 5:09 AM  

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