Apocalyptic visions, care of secular prophets

Remember that odd news-you-can-use meditation feature that ran the other day in The Los Angeles Times, the one that didn't seem to realize there was a religion angle to the story? Now the Times of the left coast is back with a similar story about a trend in popular culture. It's a great hook for a story, because the media trend is very obvious and the subject is also very religious.

It appears that the Times team knows that. Sort of.

So what's the trend? We're talking about entertainment about the end of the world, judgment day (see the attached icon), apocalypse, that kind of thing. It's everywhere on television right now, backed with another round of movies punching the same buttons. Here's the top of the story:

Armageddon is about to get unprecedented amounts of TV airtime. In the coming months, network and cable channels will use doomsday as a hook to draw viewers to end-times-themed reality competitions, action thrillers, comic-book adaptations and docu-dramas.

Blame the Mayans, or mangled interpretations of their hieroglyphics, for the reenergized fascination with the apocalypse, which some 15% of the global population believes could come on Dec. 21, according to a recent Reuters poll.

Or chalk it up to human nature, which can't seem to get enough of cataclysmic entertainment, even against the backdrop of serious real-world economic problems, political instability and news reports of asteroids, avian flu and cannibalistic assaults.

Now, here's a question for the journalists in our audience: When you think about finding experts to interview on this kind of topic, where do think about hunting these voices?

In this case, the story includes two topics that must be covered: The apocalyptic visions that ARE in these entertainment products and the ones that ARE NOT. In other words, you need to take both halves of the equation seriously.

Thus, I would assume you need a minimum of two voices or two KINDS of voices for sure. You need someone who speaks fluent pop culture and you need someone who is familiar with the content of the end-times doctrines of the major religions in the culture (think church history, theology professors, etc.) that you are writing about. I had assumed that this culture was the viewers, as in America, as opposed to the creators, which would be Hollywood.

Guess which half of the equation the Times team nails?

"We used to go to church to hear stories about catastrophic ends of the world," said Stephen O'Leary, a USC communication professor and expert on Armageddon and apocalyptic sects. "Now we turn on the TV or go to the movies. People have been telling these stories for thousands of years, but what we have today are updated versions of angels and demons, good and evil, and powers from the sky."

Totally true and totally valid. This is half the equation.

But if you are taking the religious content seriously, this is not enough. No way.

The story marches off into a long, news-you-can-use litany of the various shows that illustrate this trend, from "The Walking Dead" to the new "Revolution," from that J.J. Abrams guy. There are many, many other options to choose from.

When these shows talk about the end of all things, or the threat of the apocalypse, what is the religious content of these visions? I agree that this is, in a way, a kind of church lite. But what is left, in terms of content, and what is missing? Is there any judging in these judgment days?

Sorry, the Times of the left coast is not the place to look for answers that take religion seriously. That other voice never shows up. In the end, we are left with Mr. Secular USC again, tasked with the job of telling us what this all means:

USC's O'Leary said he is not surprised by the current wave of interest in the apocalypse, with its religious, cultural and political threads, just as end-times discussions were all the rage around 2000.

"It does reflect cultural anxieties, and every few years the stock of people selling doomsday goes up," he said. "Then the bubble bursts. The hard-core will still be building their bunkers and stockpiling precious metals and getting ready for when the world falls apart. And Hollywood will go onto next big thing."

You see, the story is about a fascinating religious subject -- but there is no need to talk to people who know the details of the issues involved. The religion half of the equation doesn't really matter. Move along.

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