Existential Threats

American Apocalyptic Beliefs in the Technological Era

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Lisa Vox
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , June
     2017.
     288 pages.
     $55.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780812249194.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

As common wisdom has it, Americans are obsessed with the end of the world. Lisa Vox’s new book on American apocalypticism builds on earlier works on this subject, most notably Ernest R. Sandeen’s The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism 1800–1930. (University of Chicago Press, 1970), Timothy P. Weber’s Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism 1875–1925(Oxford University Press, 1979), George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture(2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2006), and more recent publications by Matthew Avery Sutton (American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, Harvard University Press, 2014) and B. M. Pietsch (Dispensational Modernism, Oxford University Press, 2015). While these authors were primarily concerned with Christian apocalypticism, Vox’s work is comparative and places Christian dispensationalists in the context of “scientific apocalypticists” (i.e., scientists and science fiction authors). Vox forwards this comparison to emphasize an important point: conservative evangelicals are not the only American apocalyptic believers.

Vox wants to explain the rise of scientific apocalypticists such as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozinak, and Bill Gates, who have warned Americans of the imminent danger of human extinction. Aside from some brief comments in the preface, however, these actors are not featured within Vox’s text. Though the reader may be disappointed that SpaceX or Hawking’s “Fireball Apocalypse” are not treated in this narrative, they might find Vox’s argument regarding the origin of the scientific apocalyptic compelling. According to her, “Westerners did not seriously consider that the world could end without a supernatural cause until scientists offered a convincing explanation for a naturalistic origin of the world” (1). Vox therefore argues that protology and eschatology are inseparable: it was only after Darwin’s theory of evolution became accepted as a legitimate origin narrative that people began to believe that the world could be destroyed by natural causes.

Throughout her book, Vox compares the parallel histories of the scientific apocalypse and premillennial dispensationalism, from the 19th century to the 21st. Her primary sources for this project include films, short stories, nonfiction works, and science fiction novels. In her analysis, Vox argues that premillennialists and scientific apocalypticists employ similar rhetoric and thematic arguments to warn people of the imminent end of humanity. Vox therefore concludes that “science did not necessarily produce different, more realistic, or more rational responses to global problems” (xii). Though Vox does not explicate the term “existential threats,” the primary perils that feature in her narrative are the atomic bomb and environmental concerns.

Existential Threats would have been enriched by a thorough discussions of race and gender. Though Vox devoted much of her second chapter to the topic of race, the subject is not addressed in the remainder of her chronological narrative. Aside from some scattered comments on gender, this topic is avoided as well. Since white men have typically appeared as the main characters in science fiction novels and as the leaders in the dispensationalist movement in the 19thand 20th centuries, Vox’s book would have been enhanced by an analysis of the concepts of manliness and whiteness.

Like any good book, Vox’s work raises some questions while it addresses others. Existential Threatsmakes an important contribution as part of a recent shift in the historiography of premillennial apocalypticism. Scholars have long assumed that Christians apocaypticists are apolitical, anti-modern, and against science. In 2014, Sutton demonstrated that premillennialists have political agendas; in 2015 Pietsch argued that conservative Christian apocalypticists embraced modernism, and now Vox has established that dispensationalists have not been anti-science. Furthermore, Vox’s comparative study reveals that premillennialists are more central to the American story than has previously been noted.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin M. Burton is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lisa Vox teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

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