Art has always had an influence on society, even if that influence is more indirect than the artist intended. In the “age of mechanical reproduction” (Benjamin 1969), the aura of art may not be as strong as the medium of film and television has eclipsed the close distance of the stage. The late 20th century marked the rise of the culture industry (Adorno 1975), where art is now produced for profit rather than for a specific customer. Thus, “mass culture” has essentially become culture itself as the lines between high, middle, and low cultures are blended together (Peterson and Anand 2004) for maximum profit. In order for culture to innovate changes in culture, it subsumes itself (Debord 1977). The tragedy of culture, according to Simmel (1968), occurs when the subjective soul finds itself under the logic of the objects of the cultural works of man. This is happening every day in our culture that is dominated by the art of television and film media. We dedicate time and money to the consumption of media, only to have it affect our conversations and sometimes ideological framework. We identify with characters and incorporate the parts of them that we idolize into our stories (Holstein and Gubrium 2000).
As Debord (1977) wrote, the spectacle has become reality and is the “main production of present-day society” (p. 15). In an era where “reality television” is scripted, it should be no surprise when the tangible world is replaced by an accumulation of images and spectacles. Because narratives, stories, and art are all directly tied in with the media, we understand that a great story often beats reality. We, as members of a spectacle filled society beholden to the culture industry, have internalized the very performances of the stage and screen in our presentations of everyday self (Goffman). We can “restory” the “self” through the process of a narrative reconstruction (Holstein and Gubrium 2000), and the media presents an almost infinite number of examples of stories for us to choose from. We are affected by the depictions of “self” in tv and film as we develop a “cinematic self” (Holstein and Gubrium 2000).
The media clearly has influence on us. Even those who do not necessarily go the cinema or watch television are affected by pop-culture influence on others who live their lives as a cinematic “self”. Culture, defined by Williams (1982), is essentially a process once regarding the cultivation of crops that has been extended to the human mind. Although we are individuals, all who live in a dominant culture are cultivated by the same institutions. We share the same schools, same work environments, and are privy to the same pop-culture influences within those spaces to elicit collective memories (Borer 2008; Zerubavel 1996) of events we may have not been directly exposed to.
For instance, one might have never watched a baseball game, but the influence of baseball culture in Boston determines economics for the entire city when decisions about Fenway Stadium are made (Borer 2008). When the ballpark is threatened, the culture around it is as well. Like a tangible community is often defined by our association to and with a physical area, mnemonic communities (Zerubavel 1996) are shared memories by association, even when we have no personal experience with an event. Media can act as social sites of memory where mnemonic battles are fought by those seeking to remember – or forget – certain events. Thus, media can be quite influential on its audiences as it elicits collective memory, guides self-narration, and is used by the culture industry to steer culture to its desired ends.
Religion satisfies the cognitive and affective desire to comprehend the world (Geertz 1973). Religion, according to Durkheim (1915), is “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (p. 19). For Durkheim, religion is the worship of the social group. It is born from society, and may spill out beyond the confines of a church, so long as a group of individuals are practicing rites and rituals together and uniting in the power of collective effervescence – the power that the group holds over the individual.
Bellah (1967) builds on Durkheim’s framework in his discussion of “civil religion” in America that is based on Christianity, but is not Christian. Our society has always embraced religious symbols that mirror social ones. We sacralize the Constitution as Scripture, Independence from the British as our Exodus, and America as the Promised Land. Ours is a nation that is moralistic and social rather than theological or spiritual. Thus, America has always been a nation on the verge of secularization.
According to Berger (1967), secularization is the process by which the modern world is moving away from its historical relationship with religion as certain segments are removed from religious dominance. Critics of secularization theory point to detraditionalization (Heelas et al. 1996) or the rise of spirituality as a replacement to traditional religion as evidence that secularization is either not occurring, or is not as pertinent as Berger would have us believe (Davie et al 2003; Hadden 1987; Heelas et al. 1998; Stark and Finke 2000). The critics may be correct in terms of secularization and spirituality as religion, but I believe that in a society that has historically favored one particular religion, like Christianity, Berger has a strong argument.
If we were to reword Berger’s thesis to exchange religion for Christianity, it would read, “secularization is the process by which the modern world is moving away from its historical relationship with Christianity as certain segments are removed from Christian dominance.” America was founded by men who were predominantly Christian or were deists by way of the Christian faith. Though not many initially belonged to a specific church, many of the early colonists had read the Bible and followed what they believed were Christian principles. By the 20th century, an overwhelming majority of Americans self-identified as Christian. Even now, as secularization appears to have taken a firm hold – once we remove spiritual movements from the equation – more than 70% of Americans claim to be Christian. Though that number is in decline, it is still a large numerical majority. Christianity, though still believed by a large segment of the population, is losing its dominance on America.
Long-standing religious and social traditions have been shifting since the Enlightenment (Heelas et al. 1996), and it has affected many cultures around the globe. However, there has been a clear increase in religious pluralism (Bellah et al. 1985) in the United States. The individualistic nature of American culture and the move toward hyper-individualism at the root of postmodern societies go hand in hand with this religious shift, and these changes are often reflected in the media.
The Role of Television and Film Media and the End Times
Most studies on religion and popular culture focus on entertainment (film, tv, music, sports, etc) and have discovered traces of religious symbols, myths, and rituals. In American pop-culture, perceptions of religion are often produced by Hollywood, as religious narratives find their way into narratives on film (Chidester 2005). However, as Hollywood borrows from religious narratives, it often secularizes them before producing them for mass consumption.
Almost every major world religion has an End Times prophecy of some sort. The End Times denotes the end of humanity and/or the world as we know it. Most religions point to some type of major global catastrophe the destroys all or nearly all life on Earth. The Norse believe in Ragnarok. Many Muslims are awaiting the return of the twelfth Imam, or Madhi. Christians are awaiting the return of Jesus Christ who will judge the world. Because the United States remains a nation where the majority of citizens still self-identify as Christian, I will focus my research on dealing with specifically Christian End Times depictions in the secular, that is, non-Christian, media.
The three main parts of the End Times for many Christians begins with The Rapture – where Christians will be taken immediately to heaven without dying while unbelievers are left behind. This is represented in Luke 17:34-36 (KJV): “34 I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. 35 Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left. 36 Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.”
I believe that the highly rated HBO show, The Leftovers, is the best example of The Rapture on television and film. The show begins with a very similar phenomenon. Thousands of people disappear in an instant, and those left behind start a journey of seeking answers about what happened. There are both direct references to The Rapture and alternative explanations given by the end of the series. It is clear that the show producers are aware that the premise of their television show is a direct reference to this Christian End Times belief.
The second part of the End Times is the Apocalypse or Great Tribulation. This is a seven-year period, half of which will be peace on Earth while the latter half is Hell on Earth that leads to the Battle of Armageddon. 2 Peter 3:10 (KJV) says “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”
I have chosen the film, Knowing, because it has a very strong depiction of the fiery destruction of the world. The premise is the son of a scientist begins seeing visions of otherworldly beings that are sending messages about the coming apocalypse. During the investigation that the main character embarks on throughout the film, many Christian references are made. Most prominently, a passage from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel discussing angelic beings riding in a giant yellow wheel within a wheel that is used as some sort of supernatural transportation from the heavens to earth is not only mentioned in exposition, but is depicted quite literally in the film.
The third End Times event is the Millennial Reign of Christ, but could literally be described as the Post-Apocalypse. For Christians, this is a 1,000-year period of total peace on earth after Christ destroys the world found in Revelation 20. However, the first thing that happens is depicted in I Thessalonians 4:16 (KJV), which says “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first.”
There are no great depictions of a peaceful millennium where evil no longer exists in the media. However, there are several shows and films that deal with survivors of the apocalypse trying to regain some semblance of life before destruction and rebuild what little civilization they can muster. The Walking Dead is the most popular show on television, and is about a group of Post-Apocalyptic survivors who encounter zombies – or once living humans who have been stripped of sentient life and are doomed to wander the earth seeking only food; most often the flesh of still living humans. They encounter other surviving groups that they are able to either partner with or must wage violent war on. I am choosing this show because of its social relevance, popularity, and interesting depictions of survival after the world “as we know it” has ended.
To explore the roles that forms of media play in the social life of contemporary Americans, I will look to message boards dedicated to the media I am researching. This user-generated content will hopefully contain discussions of beliefs about the End Times before and after watching the media. It might also be possible that media consumers may not have their beliefs about the End Times affected at all. To understand what End Times phenomena are discussed in the shows and movie, I will analyze the way that the producers depict content that correspond with the themes that I will discuss later.
My research questions are 1) What types of Christian themes are depicted in The Leftovers, Knowing, and The Walking Dead? 2) How are Christian themes portrayed in The Leftovers, Knowing, and The Walking Dead? 3) How is The Rapture portrayed in The Leftovers, the Apocalypse portrayed in Knowing, and The Post-Apocalypse portrayed in The Walking Dead? 4) Do these media portrayals affect Americans’ beliefs in End Times events? And finally, 5) How do these media portrayals affect Americans’ beliefs in End Times events?
To answer the first three questions, I will conduct ethnographic content analysis (Altheide and Schneider 2013) of all three seasons of The Leftovers, the entire film Knowing, and the first three seasons of The Walking Dead. To answer the fourth and fifth research questions, I will investigate and perform ethnographic content analysis on user-generated content found on message boards dedicated to the television shows and film. Surveys and focus groups are time consuming and can be expensive. To save time and money, I believe that message boards can be a valuable data source so long as the focus is on whether or not Americans’ beliefs about the End Times are changed by watching these media.
I am researching and analyzing the entire show of The Leftovers rather than one or two seasons because each season deals with a different way that the supernatural phenomena are presented, and the explanation for what happened in the show does not happen until the very last episode. I am specifically choosing only the first three seasons of The Walking Dead, rather than the entire show, because the subsequent seasons are mostly just a rehashing of the narrative presented in the first three seasons. The group fights for survival, finds a safe place, encounters resistance and leave the safe place, fight for survival, finds a safe place, encounters resistance, rinse and repeat.
I will use theoretical purposive sampling (Altheide and Schneider 2013; Warren and Karner 2015) to collect data from the t.v. shows and film, as well as the message boards because I am going in with an idea of the materials that will most exemplify the themes I am looking for to help me answer my research questions.
My units of analysis are the individual episodes of the television shows and the film, and the individual posts on the message boards. The foci of my observation are Christian and End Times themes depicted in The Leftovers, Knowing, and The Walking Dead as well as on related message boards. When it comes to the t.v. shows and film, I am not concerned with an external temporal dimension, but only with the temporal order within the narrative structure of the television shows and film and that of the order of End Times events 1) The Rapture; 2) The Apocalypse; and 3) The Post-Apocalypse. However, I will look for a temporal dimension of any changes a message board user discusses from the time prior to watching and as they continue to watch the shows or film until the end.
The main themes I am looking for in the aforementioned television shows, film, and message boards are 1) The Rapture – including terms or ideas of being left behind, a remnant, missing people, the departed, etc.; 2) The Apocalypse – The end of the world as we know it, destruction by fire, the Tribulation, etc.; 3) The Post-Apocalypse – After the “end of the world” or end of civilization, the Millennium; 4) Christianity – religious leaders/pastor/priest, God, The Bible, Jesus Christ, faith healing; 5) Alternative religious beliefs – non-Christian religions with non-Christian doctrines; e.g. Islam, Hindiusm, New Age, Spiritualism, Buddhism, Taoism, Eastern Religions, Judaism, etc. Examples might include reincarnation, non-faith healing, and other forms of mysticism; 6) Alternative explanations of End Times phenomena – science or explanations from other religions; and 7) I will allow for emerging insights and sensitizing concepts (Altheide and Schneider 2013) to inform me of additional lines of inquiry that I have not previously accounted for.
Data Collection and Analytical Strategies
One rich source of user-generated content is on the site, reddit.com. Reddit has message boards dedicated to each of the shows and film with hundreds of posts and replies. If Reddit does not yield enough useful data, then I will expand my search to other sites until I reach saturation.
I understand that it would be incredibly difficult to read every single comment, so I will use purposive sampling to target user post titles that seem to deal with the themes I presented or anything that might lead to a discussion on views, beliefs, or whether or not the user was affected by the media.
Once I have drafted a data collection sheet listing several items or categories to guide data collection, I will then test the protocol by collecting data from several episodes of the television shows and film, as well as posts from the message boards. As I move through the process, I will revise and refine the protocol as necessary. I will use thick description (Geertz 1973; Altheide and Schneider 2013) when collecting data using my data collection sheet. As I continue to collect data, I will also perform data analysis including conceptual refinement and data coding. I will engage with my notes and the data repeatedly and thoroughly (Altheide and Schneider 2013).
In order to measure what I want to measure, I understand that I must address the validity of my study. I will be mindful of 1) face validity; 2) internal validity – matching up my conceptual and operational definitions; 3) construct validity – the extent to which a measure is related to other measures (constructs) in a way consistent with the research questions; and 4) external validity – generalizability, or relating to whether the results can be extrapolated to other settings (Neuendorf 2002). I will look to connect two or more elements of the framework and determine if the connection is correct based on the best available data (Griswold 1987).
When analyzing television shows and movies, I do not have a full team of researchers with which to compare and contrast notes. I am not able to use electronic resources like Lexis/Nexus to assist in locating specific themes in the film and t.v. media or on message boards.
I also understand that searching message boards for specific themes is difficult and time consuming. There are voluminous numbers of user-generated message boards for any given t.v. show or film. It would be impossible to collect and analyze data from an exhaustive list of sites.
Ethical Considerations and Political Implications
I am concerned with maximizing my own ethical standards in trying to be as systematic and scientific as I can be throughout my research. When dealing with human participants on the message boards, I want to be accurate in presenting their voices and opinions about the shows and film. I also realize that all research is political, thus I must be open and honest about my own biases. I am not seeking to affect change, though my research may inspire others to do so.