For Hol­ly­wood, the ‘end’ is the start of prof­its

HBO se­ries is lat­est apoca­lypse drama

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY MERED­ITH SOMERS

Mil­lions of people dis­ap­pear with­out a trace, leav­ing be­hind chaos and an­ar­chy while a lone hero emerges to stand be­tween mankind and the end of the world. For some, this is known as the Rap­ture, the pre­am­ble to the apoca­lypse. For Hol­ly­wood, it means a bi­b­li­cal block­buster.

“Je­sus ex­plic­itly warned about ‘that day or hour no one knows, not even the an­gels in heaven,’” said Craig Detweiler, pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Pep­per­dine Univer­sity. “But pro­duc­ers and di­rec­tors can’t re­sist the temp­ta­tion to spec­u­late.”

HBO on Sun­day pre­mieres its lat­est se­ries, “The Left­overs,” based on the book of the same name by Tom Per­rotta, which chron­i­cles the aftermath of mil­lions of people van­ish­ing.

Later this year, Ni­co­las Cage stars in “Left Be­hind,” based on the best-sell­ing postapoc­a­lyp­tic novel se­ries by Tim La­Haye and Jerry B. Jenk­ins.

“End-of-the-world fears and sce­nar­ios have haunted us for eons,” Mr. Detweiler said. “It pro­vides the ul­ti­mate test of our met­tle: If you only had a few days or hours to live, how would you re­spond? That is the crux of grip­ping drama and tests of char­ac­ter.”

The Rap­ture of­ten is re­lated to the bi­b­li­cal apoca­lypse, the end of the world and the sec­ond com­ing of Je­sus Christ.

In fact, the con­cept is not Bi­ble-based but is com­monly at­trib­uted to 19th century re­li­gious leader John Nel­son Darby. Darby was a found­ing fa­ther of the Ply­mouth Brethren Church, which has its roots in Angli­can­ism, and he ex­plored a con­cept called “dis­pen­sa­tion­al­ism.”

The idea be­hind dis­pen­sa­tion­al­ism, ex­plained Dan Mathewson, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of re­li­gion at Wof­ford Col­lege, is that the time from cre­ation to the point where ev­ery­thing ends is di­vided into dis­pen­sa­tions, or eras. How many of these eras ex­ist is up to in­ter­pre­ta­tion, but those of us around to­day are in the sec­ond-to-last era be­fore Christ re­turns, Mr. Mathewson said.

The Rap­ture is be­lieved by some to sig­nal His im­pend­ing ar­rival.

Darby didn’t coin the term “rap­ture,” but it’s a ref­er­ence in his think­ing that “those of us be­liev­ers on earth, when this mo­ment Christ comes back, be­liev­ers will sim­ply van­ish and will meet Christ in the air,” Mr. Mathewson said. Once all be­liev­ers are safely in heaven, the earth will go through a “tribu­la­tion pe­riod.”

“It’s an aw­ful, hor­rific pe­riod. Most of us die hor­ri­ble deaths. There’s pain and suf­fer­ing,” he said.

Darby’s writ­ings cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion — and cu­rios­ity — of people in the 19th century, but he wasn’t the first or the last to try his hand at ex­plain­ing what the end of the world might bring.

“Chris­tians start­ing with the Apos­tle Paul were very in­ter­ested in how and when this is go­ing to hap­pen,” Mr. Mathewson said. “You do get apoc­a­lyp­tic groups of Chris­tians that get re­ally in­vested and be­lieve this is go­ing to hap­pen in their life­time. We shouldn’t be ter­ri­bly sur­prised [some] Chris­tians are very per­suaded by the no­tion the world is go­ing to end.”

In mod­ern times, one of the most well-known evan­ge­lists of the apoca­lypse is Hal Lind­sey, au­thor of the 1970s’ “The Late Great Planet Earth.”

“What he put to­gether was re­ally catchy, breezy prose,” Mr. Mathewson said.

Mr. Lind­sey’s mis­take, ex­plained Stephen Bauer, pro­fes­sor of the­ol­ogy at South­ern Ad­ven­tist Univer­sity, is that he was too spe­cific in de­scrib­ing the fu­ture.

“Lind­sey was dis­cred­ited some by pre­dict­ing the Rap­ture in the mid-to-late 1980s,” Mr. Bauer said. “Due to those fail­ures, the Rap­ture di­min­ished in pop­u­lar­ity some.”

But in the mid-1990s, the first novel in the “Left Be­hind” se­ries came out and sold mil­lions of copies, in­spired a low-budget film from Kirk Cameron in 2000 and “vaulted the Rap­ture back to promi­nence through skill­ful use of movie and lit­er­ary en­ter­tain­ment forms,” Mr. Bauer said.

With the world thrown into chaos and the knowl­edge of im­pend­ing doom, the con­cept of the Rap­ture and Ar­maged­don is a ter­ri­fy­ing thought for some. But for Hol­ly­wood stu­dios, it means dol­lar signs.

“The fear of be­ing left be­hind goes through­out our whole life,” said S. Brent Plate, vis­it­ing as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of re­li­gious stud­ies at Hamil­ton Col­lege. “Rap­ture sto­ries put that in a nice sort of con­text. It plays on some of our deep­est fears, and I think that’s why it keeps be­ing a pow­er­ful story. We don’t need a happy story to go to the movies, but I’ll put down $11 if you scare me a lit­tle.”

Mr. Mathewson said au­di­ences ac­tu­ally have been watch­ing apoc­a­lyp­tic sto­ries for as long as ac­tion thrillers have been grac­ing screens.

“In main­stream cul­ture, one of the most pop­u­lar movies that we have is the ac­tion plot­line,” he said. “Here is an im­pend­ing end of the world [and] one lone mes­siah fig­ure who bat­tles the forces of evil. It’s the rough bi­b­li­cal apoca­lypse story, mi­nus the ex­plic­itly Chris­tian con­tent.” All that changes is the ver­sion of the threat. “Fifty years ago, our fears of the Cold War and dooms­day bombs fu­eled films like ‘On the Beach’ and ‘Dr. Strangelove,’” Mr. Detweiler said. “Twenty-five years ago, Hol­ly­wood of­fered up small-scale films in­spired by the Book of Rev­e­la­tion like ‘The Sev­enth Sign,’ star­ring Demi Moore, and ‘The Rap­ture,’ with Mimi Rogers.

“In re­cent years, we’ve seen Ni­co­las Cage wres­tle with the end of the world in ‘Know­ing’ and a host of co­me­di­ans holed up in James Franco’s house for ‘This Is the End.’”

Mr. Plate said au­di­ences to­day are see­ing a sec­u­lar­ized ver­sion of the Rap­ture.

HBO spokes­woman Nancy Lesser de­clined an in­ter­view to dis­cuss the faith roots of “The Left­overs,” ex­plain­ing that the se­ries “is not a faith-based show” but one based on an “apoc­a­lyp­tic” type of event.

“It will be in­ter­est­ing to see whether HBO’s more main­stream take on the Rap­ture in ‘The Left­overs’ gar­ners more in­ter­est than Nic Cage deal­ing with the im­pli­ca­tions of be­ing left be­hind,” Mr. Detweiler said. “Au­di­ences may ap­proach both projects with a bit of skep­ti­cism, won­der­ing whether to in­vest their time, their faith or their money in buy­ing a ticket.”

HBO PHO­TO­GRAPHS VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

“The Left­overs” aims to cash in on Hol­ly­wood’s on­go­ing affin­ity for projects that show­case the end of the world and apoc­a­lyp­tic bat­tles be­tween good and evil.

Justin Th­er­oux stars in the Rap­ture-themed se­ries “The Left­overs,” which pre­mieres Sun­day on HBO.

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