Imagining the Apocalypse

Among Winter Cranes
The Quarterly of the Christian Poetics Initiative
Vol. 3 Issue 2
Spring 2020

Imagining the Apocalypse
By David Mahan

Teaching the course of this title at Yale this spring was a repeat for me. But, needless to say, the context this time around was uncanny.

All who teach love it when the material touches our students where they live. Previously, a class that looked at fictional accounts of global catastrophes only seemed relevant to our society’s preoccupations with a rather bleak future for the world, given the plethora of apocalypses portrayed on the pages of contemporary fiction, and projected onto our screens.

This time, when we read of the bio-genetically engineered devastation depicted in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, or José Saramago’s mysterious pandemic in Blindness, accounts of mass quarantines, societal and economic collapse, and extensive loss of life resonated all too keenly. As one student put it, “It’s eerie!”

Literature and the Common Good

Though in one sense a satisfying outcome for a teacher, the students’ visceral response points to a more profound result: the literary imagination addresses significant issues that intersect with our lives, including our suffering.

Over the course of the semester we returned again and again to some fundamental questions about what it means to be human, how we relate to one another and to Creation, or to God, and what values nurture human flourishing, especially in the face of extensive loss. 

On the last day of class (on ‘Zoom,’ of course), I asked my students to reflect on how our semester-long study of apocalyptic fiction helps us to engage these issues in light of our own present realities. We talked about preserving hope in the face of fear, about remembering what’s important that we should nurture today, about what kind of people we need to be. One student put it simply but profoundly. He said that our class reminded him of one thing especially: the need to be good.

For a teacher and scholar eager to have the material make a lasting impact, that response made our venture into literature of the apocalypse in our own somewhat apocalyptic moment seem as worthwhile as ever.

Recommended Reading

Because I taught this class in the vein of reading literature theologically, our engagement with this literature opened on to significant theological questions, both those the material elicited and those we brought to our reading. One of the substantive secondary readings was an essay by Boston University theologian Shelly Rambo, “Beyond Redemption?: Reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road after the End of the World,” published in the Fall 2008 issue of Studies in the Literary Imagination. If you can find it online, it’s well worth reading during this time. (Read preview here.)

David Mahan
Lecturer in Religion and Literature
Institute of Sacred Music, Yale Divinity School
Co-Director, Rivendell Center for Theology and the Arts

Image Credit:

Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. “Momoyogusa = Flowers of a Hundred Generations.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1909.