How to Survive the Apocalypse

Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World

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Robert Joustra, Alissa Wilkinson
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , May
     2016.
     206 pages.
     $16.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802872715.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

How to Survive the Apocalypse is less a manual for preppers and more of an extended meditation on the work of Charles Taylor in dialogue with the apocalyptic narratives of popular culture. In the first three chapters, authors Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson carefully define their key terms, invoking Taylor and other similar critics frequently. After claiming that “apocalyptic literature . . . reveals more than predicts” (2), they go on to justify the exigency for another work on popular culture: “For those of us who believe in the project of modernity, popular culture is a matter of life and death” (7). This orientation frames what Joustra and Wilkinson call “a fundamentally optimistic act”: their attempt to “diagnosis and…move toward restoration” (5). This surprising sense of optimism permeates the whole work, contrary to the spooky medieval woodcut displayed on the cover. After unpacking secularity, how we got there, and contrasting the modern with the pre-modern (Taylor’s “porous selves” vs. “buffered selves”), they conclude: “This is a Secular age: not one in which religion is erased, but one in which belief and unbelief are contestable” (23). Joustra and Wilkinson then expand on modernity’s pathologies: “individualism, instrumentalism, and the double loss of freedom” (23). These pathologies inform and structure their reading of apocalyptic popular culture in subsequent chapters under the rubric of the “politics of apocalypse” (30), and this is all part of the diagnosis.  Because they are committed to seeing apocalyptic popular culture as a mirror, the authors carefully broaden the definition from dystopic, millennial, material catastrophes to “impending political ruin or seismic cultural shift” and “emotional and existential collapse” (60). By expanding the concept, they are then able to bring in examples such as Mad Men, House of Cards, and Breaking Bad—television series that are not typically considered “apocalyptic,” but nonetheless, reveal and uncover modern malaise.

The core of the book yokes various TV series and films with Taylor’s pathologies. In regards to Battlestar Galactica, Joustra and Wilkinson claim: “It’s about the new individualism, and about search for authentic ways of being human” (62). Next, they tease out the antihero trope in Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and House of Cards. Antiheroes expose the hollowness inherent in attempting to “’escape’ the inescapable moral horizons that come from beyond us” (95). Spike Jonze’s Her becomes a site for the politics of recognition and how it possibly upends instrumentalism. Then, using Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and World War Z as touchstones, the authors subvert the typical “reading” of these productions as mere entertainment; preferring to see how they work out the multiple dead ends of pure subjectivism and simplistic understandings of self-interest and society.

Running Talyor’s script side-by-side with those of popular culture, How to Survive the Apocalypse concludes with a nuanced and chastened prescription for surviving the malaise. First, the authors argue for a focus in art on “subtler languages” that unite by “resonating within” (157). They then argue against the lack of confidence in institutions which dystopic narratives generally involve. Instead, they point to restorative examples such as Parks and Recreation and The West Wing. In prescriptive tones, Joustra and Wilkinson argue: “So Millennials may at times need to sacrifice their own hunt for originality…in order to rejoin institutions like churches and political parties and universities and financial institutions and other organizations…where the hard, good work begins and is fostered” (177).

In its aspirations, How to Survive is commendable. It is a consciousness-raising text that touches the complexity of modernity as it interweaves popular culture with rarefied philosophical inquiry. However, in its execution, the text falters. Oddly enough, the authors give no biographical data on Taylor other than that he is a philosopher and an author. Whether this was by design or mistake, it is curious, since it leaves the uniformed audience wondering whether or not this oft-quoted guru was a prescient genius from decades ago or a careful observer of the way things are. Moreover, it is hyper-aware of its audience at times, and asks too much at others. For example, there are several parenthetical remarks such as “don’t forget to pack your towel” (33) and “no, not the Lena Dunham variety” (40) that will be incomprehensible to many readers. At other points, the over-sampling of other writers coupled with the mining of Taylor’s work creates a confusing pastiche that assumes a wider literary and philosophical background than in other parts of the text. In short, the gentle fleshing out of terms and ideas in the first chapters gives way to a flood of allusive and elusive ideas in the later chapters that are conjured up to make an isolated, peripheral point.

Where How to Survive the Apocalypse stumbles the most is that it is seemingly unaware of the effects created by its own examples, and the mechanisms that reinforce the very pathologies it tries to subvert. In their Acknowledgments, Joustra and Wilkinson admit as much: “watching (a lot of) trashy television” (197).  Even if tongue-in-cheek, “trashy” is a telling adjective: no matter how much the authors resisted Werthamian moralistic pronouncements for the sake of their research focus in the body of the book, they must add some kind of judgment somewhere on the content. Perhaps the generous reading of apocalyptic popular culture contains within itself the potential to avoid the malaise of modernity, but the typical Netflix bingeing of any of the aforementioned TV series and films surely contributes to it.

Lastly, to be fair, this is not a theological interpretation of Taylor—James K. A. Smith has already done that—or of popular culture. But in steering clear of overt theologizing, Joustra and Wilkinson ironically offer a secularized, demythologized version of the apocalypse.  

This text would be helpful for undergraduate humanities professors or as a supplemental text to popular culture studies. It lacks an index and comprehensive bibliography, however, making referencing difficult.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin D. Crace is an Instructor at the American University of Kuwait.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alissa Wilkinson is assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College, New York City, and critic-at-large at Christianity Today.

Robert Joustra is director of the Centre for Christian Scholarship and assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario.

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