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Carnivàle: The Apocalypse is Back / Part 3

When we take a closer look at the 1990s, the years in which Knauf created and wrote Carnivàle, we must seek out the catalyst for this revolution of the apocalyptic mind. For many, both the mainstream Christian and fundamentalist groups, the catalyst in the 1990s was the Persian Gulf War. This military was believed by many to mark the beginning of the end while for others it was an example of America’s systematic political failing. In either case, it triggered a series of visions, ideas, and worries on apocalyptic events. Similar to John’s Revelation, when our social infrastructures fail us, when fear and imminent danger enter our lives, we move to express these manifest fears; for Americans, media is a powerful resource. If our social and political structures will not save us, we must create the Messiah who will, or live without hope of redemption.

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Since the Gulf War in the early 1990s, there have been numerous studies on the effects that the war had on everything from religion to economy. A large number of studies have also been done on the apocalyptic vision produced as a result of the Gulf War. Approximately 15% of America’s population felt that the Gulf War I[1] was a sign of the beginning of the end.[2] This aggravated bad blood between many Christian and Muslim people. A Time Life article, written in 1991, immediately relates the looming Gulf War I to the apocalypse,

           “Rather, the “mother of battles” (as Saddam Hussein likes to call it) is about the fulfillment of biblical prophecies regarding the imminence of Armageddon.”[3]

 

Some Christians felt that the Anti-Christ could be Saddam Hussein.[4] It was in this world that Knauf created his world of Carnivàle; a world, which would be fraught with the ultimate battle between good and evil. In Knauf’s tale of Revelation, however, things are distorted and the lines between good and evil are blurred. He harkens the same sentiments that many people experienced with Gulf War I; perhaps they were fooled as to who represented each side. After Gulf War I had ended, many fundamentalist Christians felt that this was a false-peace and that a second war would erupt.[5]

 

The culmination of global wars, social imagination, media technology, and literary motif made a singular impact on Carnivàle, its story, and its timeline. Kirsten Thompson, author of Apocalyptic Dread, explains that this combination led to American cinema starting in the 1990s to bear such heavy apocalyptic themes.[6] Thompson also discusses the Gulf Wars to be prime material to create apocalyptic frenzy. When political structures crashed, the public released tensions and fear through media outlets. This phenomenon is more noticeable now that the internet has become an increasingly popular way to express fear and anger, criticism or praise for events that seem insurmountable.

 

In 2005 HBO decided that ratings were too low to continue with Carnivàle, which was supposed to include at least one more season. It had been almost five years since a major tragedy on American soil and seemingly as Americans began to gain hope, they lost interest in the end of time. Secular images, however, of apocalypse or apocalyptic prophecy show up at times in American cinema and culture. Even today there are always news stories about something that may or may not destroy the world. Most recently the prophecies have focused around the Large Hadron Collider or the Mayan Calendar ending in 2012.[7] These events continue to shape our apocalyptic imagination. The word “apocalypse,” in and of itself, is an important key to understanding the inherent difference between the religious idea of apocalypse and the secular idea of apocalypse. When we speak of apocalypse in religious terms, we refer to the revelation of narrative in a framework in which God will ultimately liberate God’s chosen from the oppressors. The eschaton in Judeo-Christian theology is a bringer of hope for God’s people, not a senseless and despondent event. In contrast, when the term “apocalypse” is used in a secular way, the idea of hope is lost because there is no God, no creator-being who will save the chosen in the end. In nihilistic fashion, the world simply ends without hope in a destructive way that imbues terror amongst the world’s population. The secular apocalypse rejects the theological basis for the eschaton that allows the religious apocalypse to be liberating rather than a violent destruction. In some ways, the secular apocalypse aims to liberate itself from the fundamentals of religion, rather than the fear and permanence of a death without hope. Many of the wars fought are in part due to religious intolerance and difference, and many scandals have shaken the foundations of the churches. As a result people are turning away from the theological frameworks that once provided them hope. Carnivàle is an example of art in which the lines between good and evil are blurred; this is becoming more common within secular apocalyptic media. The common theme of end-of-life destruction will continue as a main theme in both religious and secular apocalypses. The difference, however, is whether or not there is the hope of life after death that the religious apocalypse holds dear. For those who have turned away from religion, for whatever reason, the secular apocalypse has no established hope for ever-lasting life; death is a permanent and inevitable trap.

 

As 21st century viewers of Carnivàle, we know that the prophecies of Alamogordo will come true. The atomic bomb was indeed tested and used against civilians. Regardless of the unresolved cTrinity-Blast-10-secliff-hanger ending, Daniel Knauf seems to have given his answer that we will eventually be the means of our own destruction. Again and again in American apocalyptic films the Church fails us, religion is weak or corrupted, and perhaps even God has abandoned us. While secular apocalypses retain the imagery of the Book of Revelation, they speak a very different message. The veil they lift is upon the inescapable bleakness of our future, and until the secular apocalyptic imagination finds a replacement for the hope that God brings within the religious apocalypse, the end of all things will simply imply the beginning of nothing.

 

Co-Authored By: Erica Saccucci and Seth Alexander

 

[1] In lieu of the fact that we will be discussing both the 1990 Gulf War as well as the 2003 Gulf War, we will call them Gulf War I and Gulf War II respectively.

[2] Wojcik, Daniel. The End of the World As We Know It. (New York: New York University Press 1997) 156.

[3] Time Magazine. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,972285-2,00.html&gt;

[4] Wojcik, Daniel. The End of the World As We Know It. (New York: New York University Press 1997) 157.

[5] Ibid.. 158-9. Wojcik interestingly enough wrote this book in 1997 before Gulf War II began.

[6] Thompson, Kirsten Moana. Apocalyptic Dread: American Film at the Turn of the Millenium. (Albany: State University of New York Press 2007) 1.

[7] America Online. July 6, 2008. Mayan Calendar, <http://news.aol.com/story/_a/thousands-expect-apocalypse-in-2012/20080706152409990001&gt;.

The Tech Herald. December 8, 2008. Large Hadron Collider, <http://www.thetechherald.com/article.php/200850/2583/End-of-the-world-claims-set-to-resume-with-summer-LHC-reboot&gt;.

Carnivàle: The Apocalypse is Coming / Part 1

theopopcarnivalepicThe apocalypse has different meanings to different communities, but these beliefs have become so engrained in the American psyche that there is now a sense of the apocalyptic even for those who do not necessarily hold to other religious beliefs. What American film history shows developing, beginning particularly in the late 1960s and up to the present, is the idea of a secular apocalypse. The short-lived series Carnivàle (2003-2005), created by Daniel Knauf and originally crafted as a feature film is aAn archetypal tale of good versus evil, the series periodically sat in a drawer and was edited and reworked until, ultimately, HBO decided to produce it as an episodic series after the new millennium. If you have not seen the series, we would implore you to watch, it just might save your soul.

Daniel Knauf uses the cataclysmic events of the 1930s to form the beginning point of his good-versus-evil epic, blending imagery and events from the Book of Revelation to drive home the point that the work is an apocalypse, but a secular one. Knauf’s work is rife with religious overtones, including his own construction of a dualistic cosmology, but the final outcome is that humanity is responsible for the light and darkness in the world, and if there is an eventual end of the world, it will be at the hands of humanity, who have “traded away wonder for reason.”[1] Carnivàle is a concrete example of American apocalypticism in the 21st century: it encapsulates the development from a religious idea to a secular belief in end times, with a focus on the human causes of the final act in Earth’s history.

The opening monologue in the pilot episode of Carnivàle sets the apocalyptic tone for the entire series. Samson, the leader of the carnival troupe, looking old and battered in a close-up of his face, addresses the audience:

 

“Before the beginning, after the Great War between Heaven and Hell, God created the Earth and gave dominion over it to the crafty ape he called Man. And to each generation was born a creature of light and a creature of darkness. And great armies clashed by night in the ancient war between Good and Evil. There was magic then; nobility and unimaginable cruelty. And so it was until the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity, and Man forever traded away wonder for reason.[2]

 

The protagonist of this drama is Ben, a poor farmer who has lost everything in the Dust Bowl. He comes into contact and ultimately joins a traveling carnival troupe, peopled with a cast of colorful characters, including Samson, the second-in-command to the mysterious unseen figure known as “Management”; a catatonic seer, Apollonia, who is only able to communicate through a mediator, her daughter Sophie; Jonesey, the manager of the roustabout, maintenance crew; Lodz, a blind prognosticator. Two other important characters who are not connected to the troupe are Brother Justin and Iris Crowe, siblings who lead a Methodist church community in Mintern, California, far from the carnival’s Midwestern meanderings.

Carnivale

As Season One of Carnivàle progresses, the stories of Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin Crowe parallel in their respective searches for meaning in life and exploration of mysterious, unexplainable powers. The two characters only intersect in their cryptic dreams that they share, despite being strangers to one another. Ben is led in his journey by clues about his past from members of the troupe. He discovers and harnesses a supernatural ability to heal by touch. Justin, meanwhile, must follow the visions of his vocation that he believes are sent from God. Initially his visions seem to be impelling him to start a new ministry for the migrant workers who are pouring into California from the Dust Bowl affected states looking for work. Brother Justin later gains celebrity by partnering with a popular radio personality and strikes a deal with him to broadcast his sermons. He also begins to give into the dark side of his nature. What began as a vocation to minister to the migrant workers becomes Justin’s building of a personality cult and a virtual army of those who are “wandering after him” and his Temple of Jericho ministry. His powers of dark omniscience, which at first plague him, are embraced and utilized to further his goals. Both characters’ situations lead them in polar opposite trajectories: Ben toward the light and Justin toward darkness.

Knauf’s structure of the cosmos for Carnivàle is Gnostic: in each generation a creature of light and a creature of darkness are born. The history of the world up until the time period in which the dramatic action takes place has been characterized by an overall balance of the two opposing principles. This theme of balance is integral to the continuation of the world, appearing in the light character’s ability to heal and give life only if they take energy or a full life from something else.The tension within Carnivàle, symbolized within the very name of the program, is the overturning of this balanced order, which endangers the perpetuation and well-being of the world. Throughout the two seasons of the program, the central question becomes whether Ben Hawkins will be able to hold the balance in place, or if Brother Justin will triumph and bring about an age of darkness, sending the world into a cataclysmic oblivion.

 

Co-Authored By: Seth Alexander and Erica Saccucci

 

[1] Carnivàle, Season I, Episode 1, 2003.

[2] ibid.

 

 

 

 

“Captain, you mind if I say grace?” … “Only if you say it out loud” – Firefly, Serenity, and Morality in the ‘Verse.

Firefly Pic

It took all of my will power, which is actually very little, to wait even one posting to write an article on Firefly. Firefly and its follow-up, Serenity, received both heavy cultic praise as well as criticism on its western-meets-space-meets-Chineselanguage-dystopian-Whedonverse identity. For those who love it already, read on. For those who don’t… well… there is really no help for that, read on anyway.

I could, potentially, write a book on Firefly/Serenity, but since we’re dealing here with ideas in theo+POP, let’s stick to a few key themes, shiny? Being a dystopian sci-fi, Firefly was set after the Earth was destroyed, everyone baled, and then went on to wreck other parts of the ‘verse in an inter-planetary war. Firefly takes place after that war. The revolutionary Browncoats, representative of the outer planets, lost the war to the central planets and the Alliance. That was summarized from my head, so if you want to read the full synopsis, travel here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firefly_(TV_series)

So where does religion and/or theology fit into Firefly? Well, let’s begin with the idea that the themes of theology go beyond the obvious character of Shepherd Book, the wandering overtly Christological figure. Though Book is certainly in the theological trenches, he is not representative of Firefly’s theology in its entirety. As a Shepherd, even one with an unknown and potentially questionable past, Book is about faith and morality. Though he seems, at first, to be the “holy” character, his interests lie more in people finding goodness in their own beliefs than in people finding God in his. Risking a spoiler for all those who are reading this posthaste, at the end of Book’s life, after being fatally wounded by operatives of the Alliance, he tells a perpetually reluctant Captain Malcolm Reynolds, “I don’t care what you believe. Just believe it…” before he took his final breath. [1] Book, being the gun-wielding preacher that he was, questioned his own Christian morality in its imperfection. It was clear from this scene, however, that he was more concerned with Mal finding his own sense of goodness. Book knew that a moral life was not only about belief in “absoluteserenity-book-death” principles, but rather the efficacy and commitment of belief in general. In other words, he wanted Mal to find that spark worth fighting for.

Digging a little more deeply into this theme of believer vs. skeptic, while Book makes a good case for believers – being that he is generally a “good” person – the skeptics are not completely misguided in their anti-religious sentiments. After all, River was almost burned at the stake by zealots along with her brother, Simon, for being a witch.[2] Mal was married off in a furtive ritual to Saffron, who we all know turned out to be bat-shite crazy.[3] The religiously zealous can, at times, take beliefs to the extreme. On the other hand, the scientific minds were also convinced of their own greatness and god-like intelligence. They killed off the entire planet of Miranda and in the process created the Reavers – the very worst…and scariest!…of humanity. Though it is understandable that Mal distances himself from these atrocities on both sides, which turns him into a nonpartisan automaton, it only works for so long. Eventually, like Tiresias, he begins to see beyond his blindness. Mal cannot ignore his own moral values rooted in humanity, and so chooses to do what he believes is good for all.

It seems that the word “good” gets tossed around frequently when we discuss topics like saving the world and what is “just.” Justice for the Alliance was indicative of control, order, wealth, and the sterilization of messy humanity. The Browncoats, Mal in particular, fight against the “Big Brother” system so that justice will prevail and ordinary people can live good lives. Where self-interest thrives, it is clear that nothing else can. There is a fragile balance in order that Mal and his tenacious crew seek to restore.

Book’s dying moment, as described earlier, is essential to the Firefly philosophy. Similarly to Karl Rahner’s idea on the anonymous Christian, Book sees that through conscience and intent of goodness, belief – a most powerful gift – can be found in the most unexpected places.[4]

As Book and River discuss in the episode Jaynestown,

“Shepherd Book: What are we up to, sweetheart?
River Tam: Fixing your Bible.
Shepherd Book: I, um…
Shepherd Book: What?
River Tam: Bible’s broken. Contradictions, false logistics – doesn’t make sense.
Shepherd Book: No, no. You-you-you can’t…
River Tam: So we’ll integrate non-progressional evolution theory with God’s creation of Eden. Eleven inherent metaphoric parallels already there. Eleven. Important number. Prime number. One goes into the house of eleven eleven times, but always comes out one. Noah’s ark is a problem.
Shepherd Book: Really?
River Tam: We’ll have to call it early quantum state phenomenon. Only way to fit 5000 species of
mammal on the same boat.
Shepherd Book: River, you don’t fix the Bible.
River: It’s broken. It doesn’t make sense.
Shepherd Book: It’s not about making sense. It’s about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It’s about faith. You don’t fix faith, River. It fixes you.”[5]

 

[1] Joss Whedon, Serenity. Universal Pictures, 2005. 1:06:52.

[2] ibid. “Safe,” Firefly. Fox. November 8, 2002.

[3] ibid. “Our Mrs. Reynolds.” October 4, 2002.

[4] Rahner, Karl and  Paul ImhofHubert Biallowons. Karl Rahner in Dialogue: Conversations and Interviews 1965-1982. New York: Crossroad. 1986.

[5] Joss Whedon. “Jaynestown.” Firefly. Fox. October 18, 2002.

By: Erica Saccucci

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