Americans are fascinated with surviving an apocalyptic collapse – whether a fabricated story or a feared scenario.
David Morrissey plays The Governor in AMC's "The Walking Dead." Nielsen reported that an early November episode had 10.7 million viewers, Parham says. (Photo: Frank Ockenfels/AMC)
Consider three popular TV dramas.
One is the "The Walking Dead," a drama about surviving zombies, who eat flesh, and stressed out human beings, who are often bad to the bone.
Fleeing from Atlanta into rural America, a small band of survivors struggles to retain their humanity and to form a community in a country without a government and the necessities of life.
It's an apocalyptic world of band against band, humans against zombies, hope against despair.
It is "the most watched drama in basic cable history," reported the show, which has been renewed for a third season. Nielsen reported that an early November episode had 10.7 million viewers.
"Falling Skies" pits a ragged civilian militia against technologically superior alien invaders.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the survivors are on the run, hanging on to their humanity, hoping to save others "harnessed" as slaves and holding to the ideal of American democracy.
The third season premieres in 2013.
"Revolution" is the newest survival drama. When the electricity mysteriously goes off, the government collapses, cities empty, militias and counter-insurgencies emerge. Human beings behave badly and sometimes unexpectedly well.
A recent November episode drew 8.5 million viewers.
All three dramas are set in a post-apocalyptic America without a centralized government, no social services, limited supplies, and adversity around every corner.
Self-reliance and skill with primitive weapons – swords and bows – often determine survival for another day.
These fictitious TV dramas resemble the future expected by the "preppers." Not the zombies or alien invaders, but the feared disintegration of civil society and the need to be prepared for survival in a world without electrical power and a fresh food supply, where self-reliance is fundamental.
Never heard of the preppers? What about TEOTWAWKI?
Preppers are those preparing for a bleak future when civilization ends. TEOTWAWKI is code for "the end of the world as we know it."
The Tennessean and New York Times magazine both had major stories about the preppers movement on the same day in mid-November.
The National Geographic Channel has a reality show on the movement, "Doomsday Preppers." It is in its second season, and episodes are available online.
One episode looks at an "ordinary American" outside of Nashville who fears an electromagnetic pulse that would wipeout the electrical grid. A Utah housewife fears a financial collapse with the value of the dollar falling to pennies. A "New England liberal" is preparing for a black swan event like a New Madrid earthquake that would disrupt transportation and power.
These preppers and others stockpile food, store water and fuel, seek alternative sources of energy, establish security systems, and train for self-defense. Most have lots of guns and ammo – lots of both.
Preppers use Facebook and have a website – American Preppers Network (APN) – to help you can meatloaf balls and deal with weevils.
The availability of prepper resources is at odds with the paucity of prepper transparency on theology.
The widely read blogger at SurvivalBlog.com identifies himself as a Christian who adheres to Reformed doctrine and libertarian philosophy.
But the Christian Preppers Network appears to have little traffic and even less content. A few sources suggest tension between Christian preppers and Mormon preppers.
Mormons do have the LDS Preparedness Manual, which doesn't appear to bear the imprimatur of the church.
The New Times of Broward Palm Beach in Florida has a piece on Mormons as preppers.
The Salt Lake Tribune has a news story on a family featured in the National Geographic Channel show on the movement.
"We are Mormon, and it is a tenet of the Mormon religion that you should be self-reliant and have a year's supply of food storage," said an interviewee.
Enough evidence appears on APN to suggest the influence on the organization of those who adhere to the Mormon faith.
Nonetheless, the movement is more than Mormons, and the American fascination with surviving an apocalypse is more than conservative Christians.
Yet the three TV survival dramas lack a consistent and clear note about the role of religion when everything collapses. Not too terribly surprising, given Hollywood's disconnect from authentic faith.
One episode of "The Walking Dead" has a scene in a church that reinforces how little the writers and producers know about Baptists.
The church sign read, "Southern Baptist Church of Holy Light." The marquee had "Revelation 16:17." And Christ hanging on the cross behind the pulpit was more fitting for a Catholic than Baptist church.
Survival dramas and survivalists may not get the religion piece right. Others do.
We know from episodic disaster events like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy that real faith really matters when things go bad. Christian and other religious groups are among the first to respond and the last to leave.
Faith matters when things fall apart.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.