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Explore Folklore

Explore Mythology
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The Myths of Reality

the end is always now

Bob Trubshaw

Based on a chapter in Explore Mythology

Although myths about the origins of the universe are among the most prevalent, they are often accompanied by myths about the expected end of everything. In such myths the world rarely ends with a whimper; rather amidst apocalyptic scenarios outdoing a Spielberg block-buster.

The word 'apocalypse' has come to mean the end of the world, or a major catastrophe. For Christians more specific images may come to mind, such as the Four Horsemen heralded by trumpets bringing cataclysm, fire in the sky, turning the sea to blood, stars falling into the sea, and plagues. But originally the word 'apocalypse' meant 'revelation'.

This is why the Four Horsemen appear in the book of the Bible called the Revelation of St John. In the original sense of the word 'apocalyse' the Four Horsemen are not the bringers of the apocalypse, rather they are characters in the narrative of St John's revelation. Indeed, Biblical scholars speak of various apocalypses, including those of Daniel, Zachariah, Isaiah, Joel, Enoch, Baruch, Ezra and Abraham. They are matched by non-Biblical apocalypses in Greco-Roman, Gnostic, and Persian myths.

'Apocalyptic' is a literary genre that includes narratives dealing with divine revelation through dream, vision, or supernatural intermediary. These narratives usually but not always concern the 'end times', known to mythologists as 'eschatology' (from the Greek eskhatos, 'last'). Eschatological myths sometimes describe disastrous events that will engulf everyone on earth; others emphasise the subsequent happiness for 'God's chosen few' who survive. Myths about floods 'washing away' and cleansing corrupt societies abound in early Middle Eastern cultures (indeed, can be found as far afield as pre-Columbian America, China, south-east Asia and across the Pacific), although the best-known version is the one that survived in the Biblical tale of Noah. Likewise the more comprehensive carnage of St John's apocalypse has much earlier precedents in the Zoroastrian beliefs concerning the day of judgement, where the forces of light confront those of darkness, and the dead arise to be judged.

End times for one's own times

All myths arise in specific the social and political contexts. St John the Divine wrote his Revelation about 90 CE while imprisoned, at a time of great oppression (the anti-Christian Roman emperors Nero and Domitian had ruled since 54 CE). His apocalypse can be considered as a letter of consolation to the tyrannised Christians of Asia Minor. There was no intent to incite rebellion or active resistance against the oppressors of the day, because the final war between good and evil would take place not on earth but in heaven, when God would deliver the protagonists from their enemies. After all the carnage, the righteous will live happily ever after. The faithful are told that, when all else has been annihilated:

    God himself shall be with them, and he shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and death shall be no more; neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more.... And he that sitteth on the throne said, "Behold, I make all things new."
'Making all things anew' resonates with Hindu cosmologies, where creation and annihilation repeat in a never-ending cycle, considered as the cosmos breathing in and breathing out. This cyclical concept of eternity places less significance on the punishing of human failings. In contrast, the Norse myths of Ragnarök are less optimistic – even the gods are doomed. Nevertheless, after the usual 'special effects' (in this case earthquakes, the darkening of the sun, the rising of monsters, Armaggedon, and all-consuming fire), life is renewed.

As might be expected, Mircea Eliade included end times in his comparative studies of cosmology (see especially Eliade 1954 and 1963 chapter 4). Subsequently a useful collection of essays by various authors about apocalyptic traditions in various cultures appeared in Semia Vol.14 (1979) under the title 'Apocalypse: the morphology of a genre'. Winn (1995 Ch.9) provides a useful survey of Indo-European apocalyptic myths. Hellhold (1983) has surveyed apocalypticism in the Mediterranean and Near East.

Apocalypses explain everything

The images of apocalyptic texts are complex, and a great deal of scholarly effort has been devoted to this aspect. But for the purposes of this section an observation made by Christopher Rowland, in his book The Open Heaven (1982), is helpful. He shows that Judaeo-Christian apocalyptic writings sought to do more than relate divine wisdom about the future. Rather, they covered past, present, and future, explaining history and contemporary events in terms of prophecies for what lay ahead. That is, they aimed to provide an understanding of all history.

The idea that creation has a predestined course (in which people's lives are merely one aspect), with divine intervention ultimately resolving injustices, is a welcome doctrine for a subjugated society. However, Bernard McGinn, in his book Visions of the End, made a broader observation:

    The structure and meaning of time, the meeting place of this age and eternity, are consistent concerns... The desire to understand history – its unity, its structure, its goal, the future hope which it promises – is not a passing interest or momentary whim, but a perennial human concern. A sense of belonging in time, as well as the need to understand the special significance of the present, is the anthropological root of apocalyptic systems of thought.
    (McGinn 1979: 30)
These days physicists, historians and archaeologists aim to satisfy these 'perennial human concerns' although modern minds still require and create myths to satisfy these urges. Indeed, modern thinking is deeply imbued with thinly-disguised apocalyptic myths (see Denning 1999a; 1999b: Ch.6). In the last fifty years the West has invented two widely-feared eschatologies, although the pessimism of the Cold War nuclear annihilation has largely been supplanted by expectations of ecological disasters. The trumpets of four horsemen may now seem rather exotic but the din of excess traffic is an equivalent precursor of end times for eco-warriors.

Apocalypses for all times

St John's apocalypse has produced some unexpected sequels over the centuries. Edmund Spencer's The Fairie Queene, written in 1590 opens with descriptions of the chief protagonists that use words taken directly from Revelation. However, Spencer's purpose was to condone and celebrate the status quo of Queen Elizabeth's reign, rather than to offer hope to the oppressed.

Someone who was offering hope to the oppressed was Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of the Diggers or True Levellers during the seventeenth century. In his book, Fire in the Bush, of 1650 he alludes to Revelation on the title page: 'The great Battle of God Almighty, between Michael the Seed of Life, and the great red Dragon, the curse, fought within the Spirit of Man' and, in the text, quotes directly from Revelation.

Although D.H. Lawrence did not share the extreme views of Winstanley, at the end of his life he prepared a study of Revelation. This prompted the literary critic Frank Kermode (1973: 131) to read an eschatology of sexual resurrection into Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928). More predictably, Kermode (1990: 309) also drew out the parallels between Revelation and T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land (1922). And the end times were evoked by name in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now. This film is powerful modern myth making, drawing implicitly on Revelation as well as explicitly on Joseph Conrad's story The Heart of Darkness (1902). Laurence Coupe has summarised this intermeshing of myth and history thus:

    With Apocalypse Now the sense of crisis and catastrophe predominates, as is appropriate in a film about Vietnam. Atrocity follows atrocity, in this postmodern war, to no apparent purpose. Thus we find Colonel Kilgore leading a bombing raid on a Vietnamese village to the sound of Wagner, in order to clear the beach area for a surfing display. Again, we find the Do Lung bridge being manned by leaderless, drug-hallucinating soldiers, shelling an invisible enemy, merely so the generals can say that the bridge is open. If out of the symptoms of chaos we infer narrative pattern, we are hard put to name it. Kilgore's massacre and the Do Lung fiasco become eschatological signs of an ending which is immanent rather an imminent, chronologically pervasive rather than critically forthcoming.
    (Coupe 1997: 83)
'This is the end' Jim Morrison of The Doors declaims maledictorily as Willard kills Kurtz at the culmination of Apocalypse Now. This apocalypse is the apotheosis of the consolation of St John's divine revelation.

Apocalypses in politics

Laurence Coupe summarises the writings of Edgell Rickword (1898–1982) a member of the British Communist Party who founded the short-lived journal Left Review in 1934. Rickword discussed 'The cultural meaning of May Day' in the April 1937 editorial for Left Review and also explored the myth of 'The returning hero' – an image he 'borrowed' from Sir James Frazer but invested with the Marxist symbol of 'Man the Worker'.

Kenneth Burke had explored similar ideas a couple of years earlier in a speech to the American Writers' Congress, at that time predominantly communist, entitled 'Revolutionary symbolism in America'. Burke specifically notes that Marxism cannot ignore its mythic aspects:

    'Myths' may be wrong, or they may be used to bad ends – but they cannot be dispensed with. In the last analysis, they are our basic psychological tools for working together. The hammer is a carpenter's tool; a wrench is a mechanic's tool; and a 'myth' is a social tool for welding the sense of inter-relationship by which the carpenter and mechanic, though differently occupied, can work together for common social ends. In the sense a myth that works well it is real as food, tools, and shelter are.
    (Quoted in Simons and Melia 1989: 267)
Burke continues by discussing specific mythic symbols:
    The symbol I should plead for, as more basic, more of an ideal incentive, than that of the worker, is that of 'the people'. ... The symbol of 'the people', as distinct from the proletarian symbol, also has a tactical advantage of pointing more definitely in the direction of unity... It contains the ideal, the ultimate classless feature which the revolution would bring about – and for this reason seems richer as a symbol of allegiance.
    (Quoted in Simons and Melia 1989: 267, 270)
Those interested in an extended summary of mythology in 1930s Marxist rhetoric are recommended to read Coupe 1997: Ch.3.

Marxism's overt ambitions were to bring about a social revolution, with expectations of greater outcomes than had resulted from either the socialist French revolution or the Leninist Russian revolution. Although these revolutions cannot be considered revelations, in the minds of many – certainly the landowners and industrialists – they were apocalyptical. British politics of the nineteenth century had been deeply worried by the prospect of an English revolution, and these concerns certainly took on spectres of millennialism as the 1890s advanced. The October Uprising in Russia in 1917 confirms that revolution was a real possibility.

The Great Depression of the 1920s and 30s renewed fears of social uprising, especially in America and Germany. If the suggestion that the First World War was a direct response to fears of social uprising might be rather maverick, then there is no doubt that the Second World War was the consequence of the German government's attempts to subvert the threat of popular revolt. In passing, it is appropriate to note that by the end of the Second World War at least two new eschatological images had manifested – the death camps of the Holocaust and the mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Cold War of the 1950s and 60s can be considered a war of myths. American propaganda deliberately mythologised the threats from socialism (from 'reds under the bed' to the kangaroo courts of McCarthyism) and of the risks of a nuclear Armageddon. The same propaganda processes were also promoting the evils of marihuana, to the benefit of the alcohol industry, and destabilising various south American governments, starting with Guatamala, to protect the interests of American agrarian and mineral extraction businesses.

Francis Fukuyama's book The End of History and the Last Man (1992) asserts that we now live in an 'end time', as democratic capitalism had entirely displaced Marxism. Fukuyama's ideas have brought numerous responses, including Peter Lamborn Wilson's characteristically imaginative yet pertinent suggestion that, far from capitalism having 'transcended' history, we are yet to embark on another rerun of nineteenth century politics, but on a more global scale (Wilson 1998: 38–71). Laurence Coupe has also undermined Fukuyama's views in the broader context of 'end time' myths (Coupe 1997: 86–7).

This compressed history of twentieth century politics hopefully suggests the ways in which major events have unfolded in response to underlying assumptions of an apocalypse – that is, a social uprising along the lines of the Russian revolution.

As are explored in a separate article, political systems – whether right-wing, left-wing or somewhere nearer the centre – are, at their core, mythical systems. As Kenneth Burke noted, political systems reduce the complexities of 'real world' social interactions to pithy phases and images. The success of such slogans and images is greatly enhanced if they 'touch the right spots' in the minds of the populace. In other words, they need to work in the same way successful myths have always 'worked'. The 'spin doctors' of American and British political leaders may become more sophisticated in the last couple of decades, but their need to engage effectively with human thinking requires that myth-making remains a crucial skill. What is notable that the political 'apocalyptic myths' of recent years have shifted from Cold War 'nuclear winters' to the threat of terrorists with unspecified 'weapons of mass destruction'.

Apocalypses are us

Not that politicians have the any prior claim on apocalypses. Scientists have provided us with secular myths of the apocalypse, commencing in 1856 with Hermann Helmholtz's cosmological theory based on the Laws of Entropy, that considers the universe is steadily 'winding down' to a uniform state of chaos. This secular eschatology was matched by a secular cosmogenesis in 1927 when Georges Lemaitre formulated the now well-known concept of the universe originating with a 'big bang'.

Just at the time the threat of a nuclear apocalypse was lifting, ecologists evolved their own expression of end times. Awareness of a looming disaster was triggered by Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring. This focussed on the threats from non-degrading biocides such as DDT. Popular opinion has caused this threat to be reduced. However other threats have been recognised – such as global warming, damage to the ozone layer, and exhaustion of fossil fuels. These threats are real, yet the 'messages' are built on foundations that owe everything to myths of the apocalypse.

If the interests of ecologists are largely at the expense of big business, then big business created an apocalyptic scare of its own, truly millennial in nature, when in the late 1990s the risk of widespread computer problems were envisaged if 'bugs' caused critical systems to fail in the first few hours of 1st January 2000. The 'Y2K bug' proved to be inconsequential. Some might say this was because of the vast sums of money spent to upgrade software and hardware, others that the risks were in many instances greatly exaggerated.

The FBI soberly assessed the risks of 'extremist' groups marking the dawn of 2000 with acts of terrorism or self-immolation, as is recorded in a report prepared in 1999:

    The threat posed by extremists as a result of perceived events associated with the Year 2000 (Y2K) is very real. The volatile mix of apocalyptic religious and (New World Order) conspiracy theories may produce violent acts aimed a precipitating the end of the world as prophesied in the Bible...
    (FBI, Introduction to Project Megiddo report, 1999.)
Even the title, 'Project Megiddo', is imbued with myth, as the report explains:
    For over four thousand years, Megiddo, a hill in northern Israel, has been the site of many battles. Ancient cities were established there to serve as a fortress on the plain of Jezreel to guard a mountain pass. As Megiddo was built and rebuilt, one city upon the other, a mound or hill was formed. The Hebrew word 'Armageddon' means 'hill of Megiddo'. In English, the word has come to represent battle itself. The last book in the New Testament of the Bible designates Armageddon as the assembly point in the apocalyptic setting of God's final and conclusive battle against evil. The name 'Megiddo' is an apt title for a project that analyzes those who believe the year 2000 will usher in the end of the world and who are willing to perpetrate acts of violence to bring that end about.
    (FBI, Introduction to Project Megiddo report, 1999.)
Jerusalem was regarded as especially vulnerable and a whole chapter of the Project Megiddo report was devoted to the various groups whose ideologies might spark off such a crisis.

In the event the FBI's fears were unfulfilled, although we will never know whether this was a result of effective counter-action (there were arrests in December 1999 in Jordan and at the US/Canadian border of 'foreign nationals' who were allegedly planning to attack crowded millennium celebrations) or simply that all the purported 'extremists' simply decided, like most of the rest of the world's population, that New Year's Eve 1999 was too big a party to miss.

Although not a noticeable aspect of British Christianity, in America there is a well-known apocalyptic belief among some Christians that the faithful will, one day soon, be whisked off to heaven together. This expected event is known as the 'Rapture' (more accurately, the 'pretribulation rapture'). According to one of the many Web sites that mix-and-match Bible quotations to support this notion:

    The rapture is an event that will take place sometime in the near future. Jesus will come in the air, catch up the Church from the earth, and then return to heaven with the Church. In 1 Thes. 4:13-18 we are given a clear description of the rapture, 'the dead in Christ will rise, then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord.'
American car bumper stickers saying 'In the event of the rapture this car will be unmanned' are seemingly expressions of earnest belief rather than exquisite parodies!

Apocalypses for us all

If apocalyptic concerns are the foundations of much of twentieth century politics and science, then it is hardly surprising that similar concerns pervade popular culture. Popular fiction and its cinematic counterparts abound with disasters and massive conflicts on a global and even inter-galactic scale. To anyone with a moderate awareness of apocalyptic myths then their plots and motifs can be seen to have a long pedigree.

The military paranoia of the Cold War was matched by an obsession with visitors from 'outer space'. Extraterrestrial invasion is the twentieth century's contribution to eschatological motifs. H.G. Wells' novella The War of the Worlds (1898) is the grand-daddy of such myths. However, as if to show how we create the Other in our own image, by the 1960s invasion-by-force was typically moderated to 'take me to your leader' diplomacy, and even to the domestic bliss of Steven Spielberg's ET (1982). Nevertheless the predominant myth in today's American 'UFO' studies is of humans being abducted by aliens and subjected to 'examinations' rather reminiscent of sexual abuse scenarios. I have summarised the complexities of this in Explore Folklore.

Science fiction scenarios are infused with eschatology. Early examples include the stark post-nuclear Armageddon of On the Beach (1959) to the complexities of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Social disintegration was the flavour of the seventies, with Soylent Green (1973) and Rollerball (1975). (Anyone who considers that this depiction of life on earth after a series of corporate wars to be far-fetched might care to reconsider a world in which Rupert Murdoch has more power than Tony Blair, and corporations dictate the political agenda for American presidents.) Twenty-one years later and Independence Day (1996) showed Hollywood could again succeed with a blockbuster based on 'end times', despite the plot details being generally implausible – for instance, the American President personally flies a jet fighter to deliver a payload of missiles against an attack by extra-terrestrials (although facts followed fiction when George W. Bush – who had flown jet fighters, but not in combat, terrestrial or otherwise – became President). Two years later and a brace of 'watch out there's a meteor about' films, Deep Impact and Armageddon, attempted to entertain audiences with the threat of planetary oblivion. The paucity of their plots makes Douglas Adam's approach in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (first broadcast 1978) eminently more sensible – zap the planet in the first chapter then simply avoid the Vogons while travelling to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe for cocktails.

For an excellent survey of apocalyptic thought in America, from earliest Puritan and Calvinist texts through to Los Angeles and New York punks, see Daniel Wojcik's The End of the World as We Know It: Faith, fatalism and apocalypse in America (1997).

Apocalypses and archaeologists

Given this widespread awareness of the modern forms of these myths it should be unsurprising that popular non-fiction authors also embody apocalyptic concerns in their narratives. Adrian Gilbert and Maurice Cotterell's 1995 book The Mayan Prophecies proved to be an international best-seller. Based on their exegesis of Mayan calendrical carvings, they predict that 21st December 2012 will be the occasion of the greatest catastrophe that mankind has ever known. Unprecedented sun spot activity, reversal of the magnetic field, massive floods leading to submerged land masses, a drop in temperature... a completist's collection of catastrophes.

But such themes of inevitable eschatology also underlie more academic archaeological writing, as Kathryn Denning has discussed in detail (Denning 1999a).

She draws attention to an unusual example of archaeological writing – Paul Bahn and John Flenley's 1992 book, Easter Island, Earth Island. The note on the cover, 'A message from our past for the future of our planet', is an interesting parallel to The Mayan Prophecies and similar works.

Bahn and Flenley, rather than fixating on the traditional questions of how Easter Island's inhabitants got there, and how they made those amazing statues, concern themselves with the evidence surrounding the culture's violent decline, after centuries of peace and stability. They ask: 'What cataclysm could have had such a devastating impact on the island's culture?' and then say that

    the answer to this question carries a message that is of fundamental importance to every person alive today and even more so to our descendants.... This is more, therefore, than an account of the rise and fall of an extraordinary prehistoric culture. ... it is, indeed, a cautionary tale relevant for the future of all mankind.
    (Bahn and Flenley 1992: 9)
The ecological catastrophe that befell Easter Island centred on trees. The once-abundant palm trees disappeared, leaving the islanders in serious trouble. They could no longer make canoes to go deep-sea fishing, erosion became a problem, and fresh water supplies dried up. As the stresses increased, there was war, a drastic population decline, and a rapid degeneration of the society. The great statues were toppled over and mutilated, providing a powerful metaphor for the end of a 'golden age'.

What is particularly interesting, and the reason I am dealing with this book at comparative length, is the way that Bahn and Flenley chose to narrate their ideas. There were three main factors that contributed to the complete deforestation of the island: drought, tree cutting, and rats eating the trees' seeds. Where others have argued for climate being the most important variable, Bahn and Flenley choose to emphasise the factor that was under human control. They state that the islanders 'brought disaster upon themselves', and go on to opinionate that the inhabitants of Easter Island 'carried out for us the experiment of permitting unrestricted population growth and profligate use of resources, destruction of the environment, and boundless confidence in their religion to take care of the future. The result was an ecological disaster....' Then they ask 'Do we have to repeat the experiment...? Would it not be more sensible to learn from the lesson of Easter Island history, and apply it to the Earth Island on which we live?' (Bahn and Flenley 1992: 213) Bahn and Flenley implicitly acknowledge the power that archaeology has to contribute to the narratives by which people today understand their current situation. This point had been made previously by Bruce Trigger, among others. In his History of Archaeological Thought (1989), Trigger suggested that such approaches to archaeology encourage a world view that 'attributes the shortcomings of a world economy to largely immutable evolutionary forces rather than to specific and alterable political and economic conditions.' He adds that 'This explanation has attracted a willing audience amongst the insecure middle classes of Western nations, who are anxious to believe that they are not responsible for the fate they fear is overtaking them.' (Trigger 1989: 323) Should archaeologists explain past phenomena by the purpose they serve? Or should they postulate causes for these phenomena? The latter approach implicitly emphasises our own responsibility in the present.

Apocalypses are always now

In an increasingly secular society where traditional beliefs are being replaced by scholarly wisdom, archaeologists contribute by unwittingly projecting the apocalyptic 'deep structures' of the present onto the past.

As the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard noted, apocalypses are not descriptions of future events, they are embedded into the 'here and now' of our thinking (Baudrillard 1992). This has always been the 'function' of the genre – the prophesising is a transcendental smoke screen. So, St John the Divine aimed to console his persecuted readers, and Coppola's Apocalypse Now alluded to various pre-existing eschatological motifs to underscore his expression of the chaos and futility of 'postmodern' war.

Myths are essentially 'timeless' (see making time article), especially when the subject matter deals with the beginning or end of the cosmos. Myths are also the means by we transmit ideas about the order and structure of the cosmos, especially the social world. This order may be idealised and achievable only by transcending external limitations, whether they be natural cause (such as death) or manmade (such as political inequalities). Apocalyptic prophecies may be expressed in terms of a chaotic destruction of the 'flawed order', yet this can be only understood by an implicit recognition of how things 'should be'. To a greater extent than is commonly recognised, ideas originating in apocalyptic myths are rife in popular belief (if the Rapture doesn't get you, then the aliens or atomic warfare might, and ecological disaster awaits us all... ); in modern politics; and in academic approaches to history and archaeology. Every bit as much as 'primitive peoples', we see – and structure – our world through apocalyptic myths.

bibliographical references

BAHN, Paul and John FLENLEY, 1992, Easter Island, Earth Island, Thames and Hudson.
BAUDRILLARD, Jean, 1992, 'Hystericizing the millennium' in L'Illusion de la Fin: Ou la greve des evenements, Galilee (online English translation by Charles Dudas).
COUPE, Laurence, 1997, Myth, Routledge.
DENNING, Kathryn, 1999a, 'Apocalypse past/future', in Amy Gazin-Schwartz and Cornelius Holtorf (eds), Archaeology and Folklore, Routledge
DENNING, Kathryn, 1999b, On Archaeology and Alterity, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sheffield.
ELIADE, Mircea, 1954, The Myth of the Eternal Return, RKP.
ELIADE, Mircea, 1963, Myth and Reality, Allen and Unwin.
FUKUYAMA, Francis, 1992, The End of History and the Last Man, Hamilton
HELLHOLM, D. (ed.), 1983, Apocalypticism in the Mediterranean World and the Near East, Mohr.
KERMODE, Frank, 1973, Lawrence, Fontana.
McGINN, Bernard, 1979, Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages, Columbia UP.
ROWLAND, C., 1982, The Open Heaven: A study of apocalyptic in Judaism and early Christianity. SPCK.
SIMONS, Herbert W. and Trevor MELIA (eds), 1989, The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, University of Wisconsin Press.
TRIGGER, Bruce, 1989, A History of Archaeological Thought, Cambridge UP
WILSON, Peter Lamborn, 1998, Escape from the Nineteenth Century and other Essays, Autonomedia.
WINN, Shan M.M., 1995, Heaven, Heroes, and Happiness: The Indo-European roots of Western ideology, University Press of America.
WOJCIK, Daniel, 1997, The End of the World as We Know It: Faith, fatalism and apocalypse in America, New York UP.

 

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003

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