April 20, 2009
As David Leigh, S.J., was finishing up a book in the late 1990s, much talk was in the air about the approaching new millennium and the cataclysm that would be wreaked on all humankind. Y2K, of course, came and went without the world ending, yet all those late 20th-century prognostications got the English professor thinking about his next scholarly project.Many of Father Leigh’s students already had been questioning why there was so much literature out there about the end of the world, so Leigh decided to take a closer look. His decade-long research yielded Apocalyptic Patterns in Twentieth-Century Fiction, published late last year by the University of Notre Dame Press.
Leigh studied various forms of apocalyptic literature, ranging from the theological to something more on the order of science fiction. He surveyed 20 novels by authors such as John Updike, Doris Lessing, C. S. Lewis, Toni Morrison, Walker Percy, Salman Rushdie and others. He also examined theological thinkers like Jürgen Moltmann, Teilhard de Chardin, Paul Ricoeur and Karl Rahner.
A few of the recurring themes Leigh came across in his readings include the cosmic battle between good and evil, death and dying, and humans getting right with God. He says apocalyptic literature serves many purposes. Some of it is purely for entertainment. Many are cautionary tales. Other works can be read as metaphor for people enduring oppressive or trying times.
Ruminations on the end of the world are nothing new. Leigh’s book reaches back to Revelation, a defining work of apocalyptic literature, which he says is rooted in Old Testament books such as Daniel and Joel. Yet, apocalyptic literature proliferated in the 1900s, and for good reason. “We tend to think of the 20th century as being advanced,”Leigh says. “We had all the tools and all the science, and thought of ourselves as sophisticated. Yet, we had a higher scale of violence and evil in that century.”
Indeed, two world wars, the Holocaust and a nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union provided no shortage of inspiration for the apocalyptic authors of the 1900s.And there’s as much fodder today, with the heightening prospect of a nuclear weapon being developed by an unstable government or falling into the hands of a terrorist, a mounting concern over the fate of the environment and an everpresent potential for ruinous natural disasters.
When asked, Leigh says he has no inside information on when the world will actually end, but speaking from his own tradition, he says, “For Christians, after the coming of Christ, the whole world is in its last stage. We’re an eschatological people, meaning we are people of the last days—not in an escapist way, but we’re supposed to build the Kingdom of God on earth as much as possible.”
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