It's the End of the End of the World (And I Feel Fine)
As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8, CEB translation)
Toward the end of 2012, my son came to me all tangled up in emotional knots. “It’s almost here. Don’t we need to do something?”
“What’s almost here?” I asked.
“The end of the world. You know, the Mayan calendar says…”
I stopped him before he could finish. “Oh honey, this is just your first end of the world. You have many more to come.”
Every generation has their own end of the world crises. Growing up in the 1980’s, my end of the world scenarios usually revolved around nuclear weapons. If you could tie it in either to the Bible or to the prophecies of Nostradamus, all the better! Then, as I entered adulthood, the world was gripped with the panic of Y2K. Since 2001, we have all lived with the threat of terrorism. And lately that terrorism has been homegrown in the actions of mass shooters.
Is it any wonder, then, that pop culture has been playing around with apocalypses, really forever, but in a concentrated effort over the last 2 decades? Think of some of the big movie franchises and television series that play out around the theme of the world coming to an end, or at least living in a bleak post-apocalypse: Hunger Games, The Walking Dead, the Terminator series, Avengers, Mad Max, Cloverfield, The Last Man on Earth, Sleepy Hollow, The Handmaid’s Tale. Those are just a few I could think of off the top of my head.
We have been so obsessed with apocalypses and post-apocalypses since around the turn of the millennia that I have been able to assign my Course of Study students a paper in which they compare Revelation to any pop culture apocalypse of the last decade, and they have no trouble finding one. Actually, that is not entirely true. Every year I have a few students who do not compare revelation with a fictional apocalypse out of pop culture, but instead have used an actual, real life apocalypse instead, and they have chosen: 9/11, mass shootings, our dysfunctional political system, the environment and global warming, economic recessions, injustice in our legal system that has resulted in innocent deaths, sexual violence, and local and global poverty.
We are in a season of apocalypses. Or, we have been. But as a student of religion, literature, and culture, I have seen some signs that we are turning out of this season. Signs like the failure of Mortal Engines. And signs like the response after the Parkland shootings. Make no mistake, we have world-ending problems before us still, problems that aren’t rapidly going away. We also still have some movie franchises that will continue to play with end-of-world scenarios, and will do it well (I’m looking at you, Marvel). But our obsession with sky is falling, woe is us scenarios may be coming to a close. Why? Because Generation Z is rising.
I feel like I need to give some quick education on the breakdown of our two youngest generations (not counting Generation Alpha, which is probably being born as we speak) so we are all on the same page here, because many of you think I mean Millennials when I say Generation Z. I do not. Millennials were born roughly from 1980/82 to roughly 1997/2000 (it is hard to draw a hardline on where generations stop and end here). Millennials are all adults now. When many of us deride Millennials, then, we are really deriding Gen Z, and we are deriding them not because we know anything about them, but because we have always derided the generations that come after us. Anyway, the oldest of Gen Z have been in college a couple of years now, and otherwise they are all our youth.
There appears to be a distinct difference in Millennials and Gen Z when it comes to the end of the world. Millennials have shaped their worldview around it. Gen Z has decided to ignore it. Most Millennials have vivid memories of 9/11. Many of them also remember Y2K. Their childhoods were shaped by the end of the world. This had a profound effect on their psyche, most evident in a reordering of their priorities. Older generations think Millennials are lazy. Far from the truth. They actually work incredibly hard, but also incredibly efficiently. They are the generation for whom technology changed the workplace game. They don’t have to sit in an office and answer a phone that is tied to that location. Their office has pretty much always been able to travel with them. Also, though, these end-of-world events that framed their worldview have created a generation that does not live to work, but works to live. They are not waiting until retirement to do the things they dream of doing. They do not trust that retirement will ever come, since they have spent their lives figuring a gunman could come in their school or office at any point and take that all away from them. So, they live for now. They spend time with friends and family. They vacation. They clock out of work, and then do things that bring their lives meaning (tremendous number of volunteers in this generation, though they volunteer differently than other generations – I will do a different post on that). Since the world is ending any day now, they are making the days they have count, and have reordered their priorities to reflect that reality.
Gen Z, on the other hand, has always lived in a post 9/11 world, at least as they are conscious of it. In other words, they are living less with the threat of an apocalypse, and more of the reality that it has already happened. They are a post-apocalyptic generation. The thing about living in a post-apocalypse, though, is that we aren’t all dead. Life actually does still go on. And eventually, you get tired of living like that. Gen Z is showing signs of apocalypse fatigue. This first occurred to me while I was watching a TedTalk by Corey Seemiller about Gen Z. She explains that the first year she had Gen Zers in her college course, they (unlike their earlier Millennial counterparts) were not so excited about the 10 hours of volunteer work she required of them. She was trying to get their enthusiasm up, when one of the students asked if she could count 10 of the hours of the work she does running her non-profit. Seemiller laughs and says, “Of course, and anyone else running a non-profit, you can use those hours, too” and then sees heads nodding around the room. She didn’t need to encourage these students to volunteer. They were already CEOs of non-profit organizations!
Gen Z has grown up in a post-apocalypse, but they also have grown up with all the tools they need at their fingertips to change that. Gen Z has always understood that the phone in their back pocket has the capacity to change the world. They have understood it because they have seen it. They have understood it because they have done it. Gen Z is changing the world because they are changing the rules of the game. And we will all struggle to catch up. So in short, Gen Z is not interested in apocalypses. They are far more interested in creating the reign of God (even if they, in large part, wouldn’t call it that, but I will do another post on how the church and Gen Z can find each other).
And Gen Z is in good company. In the passage quoted above, Jesus is offering his parting words to the disciples before he ascends back to heaven. The disciples are still holding on to an outdated understanding of how the world is supposed to work. They have felt like the world ended when Jesus died, but he overcame that. Surely he can fix their other apocalypse – that Rome is in control of Jerusalem. Jesus is not interested in fixing old and broken systems. Jesus is interested in doing something new. Something that will change the face of the planet. Something that will bring God to anyone and everyone who will listen. Jesus tells them to forget about how things have been working. The Holy Spirit is about to arrive and jack with everything. Innovation is on the horizon. There is plenty to do to change your neighborhood (Jerusalem), your region (Judea and Samaria), and the whole earth. Do that. Those words may as well be the battle cry of Gen Z. Forget the end of the world. That happens all the time. Instead, spend your life making the world better. Spend your life beginning the world instead.
So this generation is at their end of the end of the world. And you know what? Thank God. Now my hope is that I am either a help to them, or I know enough to get out of the way and let them at it. That is the task before me. And I feel just fine with that.