A lot of people have been watching Contagion recently, and many others are asking why. Downloads of the 2011 Steven Soderbergh film have skyrocketed in the last month: it shot up into the top ten of the iTunes rental chart, it has become the second-most-watched Warner Bros. film of this year, and its popularity has spawned great editorializing on why people are so interested in watching it. Is it strangely comforting? Terrifying but in a helpfully distancing way? Morbidly fascinating?
I accidentally watched Contagion with a friend a couple of months ago, though it feels like a million years ago at this point. Strangely enough, it didn’t feel particularly relevant at the time. Another friend of mine was worried about getting masks to her family in Hong Kong, and I had read a little bit about the spread of the virus in China, but the full reality of COVID-19 had not yet reached our shores. It was just another quasi-apocalyptic movie featuring an unlikely disaster.
Sometimes it takes a dramatic story to grab our attention, and sometimes our current conditions need to be exaggerated to their breaking points for us to finally notice them.
I watched it again a few days ago out of curiosity for its current appeal. The first time around, the film had been eerie and fascinating, but it was hard to imagine wanting to watch it now as its themes fill our current headlines. My second viewing was drastically different from the first, but one element remained the same: there is something strangely compelling about watching the world end.
On the day of my second viewing, I spent most of my time alternating between watching eschatology lectures for my now-online seminary classes and reading COVID-19 updates. (There’s a joke somewhere in there, but it’s hard to make light of either the suffering around us or the reality of the coming redemption of the world.) Right before watching Contagion, I read through Revelation a few times to prepare for the next batch of lectures, and I couldn’t help but notice the way these two vastly different stories produced a similar affect in me.
Until recently, the Left Behind books (the kids version, to be specific) had ruined Revelation for me. I spent a few childhood years with regular nightmares that my family had been raptured and I’d been left alone in the tribulation. Revelation is terrifying and confusing and incredibly dark. And yet amid a world brought to its knees by a microscopic virus, it has become more comforting. The world was much more fragile and frightening than we had been led to believe, but perhaps that was a reminder we desperately needed.
For many of us, the way of the world usually seems invincible—this is just the way things are, good or bad, and they will keep going on this way forever. It was only a few months ago that this kind of sudden interruption into our regular way of life seemed so unthinkable as to be proper fodder for a movie night. Our businesses and schools, our jobs and recreation, our economy and government—these things are so powerful in their regularity as to be inevitable. Things might change, sure, but the basic structure will just keep chugging along the way it always has.
COVID-19 has halted much of what we thought was inevitable—in a horrific, deadly way that we should all mourn. This is no call to “see the bright side” of the tragedy. If all we got from this unwelcome intrusion into our lives was a reminder that the world is fragile and frightening, that would not be near enough. But the good news is that there is hope beyond the regular running of this world. In fact, a reminder that none of this is inevitable is particularly good news when we remember how horrifically evil so much of the regular running of this world really is.
If the way of the world is not inevitable, that means systems of oppression and exploitation are not inevitable either. It might be “just the way things are” that the rich hoard resources, the powerful get away with abuse, and strong structural barriers prevent those dynamics from changing. But the world will not always be “just the way things are”—it will one day be radically redeemed. Our meager efforts of this redemption now are both empowered by this future vision and will be justified in the light of eternity.
This is one reason why apocalyptic movies have a strange allure. Yes, they display fundamental aspects of the human condition that remain even under the most unimaginable circumstances. But they also pull back the curtain of the supposedly inevitable social conditions that shape our world and reveal that they might be more fragile than we think. That’s frightening, but it’s also strangely revelatory: the things that really matter must be more sustainable than the flimsy building blocks of our world.
Contagion may be strangely comforting to some, but it is also certainly discomforting—the virus is deadly, society breaks down rapidly (grocery store looting and pharmacy shortages that result in riots), and there is potential corruption of both the government and blogger-selling-herbal-remedies variety. Like most movies of its genre, Contagion’s disaster scenario reveals not only the fragility of our world, but the unique vulnerabilities and injustices that many of us have had the privilege of ignoring.
Revelation works in a surprisingly similar way. Revelation (or apokálupsis in Greek, the source of our word apocalypse) is so named not necessarily because it foretells the end of the world, but because it reveals or uncovers something hidden. Defining apocalyptic literature like Revelation can be difficult (or even properly fitting Revelation into the category!), but there is at least one common theme: otherworldly secrets are revealed to the prophet, and those secrets usually have something to do with God’s judgment or salvific activity. The curtain is pulled back on the regular machinery of the world and something that has been hidden is now revealed.
In a much broader sense, this is the function of much great literature: take something ordinary or expected and exaggerate it in such a way that something new is uncovered. Flannery O’Connor, describing the value of the grotesque for the Christian writer, notes
The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience.
The solution to an audience unable to recognize the depravity around them is to exaggerate— “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
The many historical and prophetic possibilities we face in interpreting Revelation must include at the very least this element: the powers and principalities that animate our shared social life are unveiled as powerfully evil, pervasive, and ultimately defeated. In the historical context it was written, the pretensions of the Roman empire are unmasked, revealing the abuse and exploitation required to keep things running. As theologian Richard Bauckham describes, there are two fundamental vantage points on the world: imperial propaganda of a peaceful and prosperous society, or the view from heaven that sees past the shiny exterior to the idolatry and injustice underneath.
The things that really matter must be more sustainable than the flimsy building blocks of our world.
Contagion functions in a similar way. Its production company Participant Media is known for socially conscious films, and it raises important questions about how prepared we are—politically and scientifically—for a global pandemic. It also makes a stunningly relevant point about the equally deadly power of misinformation: a blogger (Jude Law) convinces millions of people that the plant forsythia will cure them without any scientific evidence, even encouraging people against the eventual vaccination. Sometimes it takes a dramatic story to grab our attention, and sometimes our current conditions need to be exaggerated to their breaking points for us to finally notice them.
Our current crisis is already functioning as an apocalypse in this revelatory sense. Long standing problems that many of us had the privilege to ignore have finally blown up in our faces. COVID-19 has exposed the fragility and inequality of our economic system: the security of a wealthy few has been bought at the price of the constant insecurity of many. It has exposed our broken healthcare system: millions have been laid off and lost their insurance at the exact moment when reliable medical care is so important not only for the health of those individuals but for managing a public health crisis. It has exposed the prejudice of our churches: we are all experiencing an isolation similar to that of our disabled brothers and sisters, because churches have successfully fought for exemptions from ADA accessibility requirements. It has exposed our nationalism and exceptionalism: a global pandemic is only a problem once it hits our shores. It has exposed the vast reach of racial inequality: disparities in healthcare access and economic safety nets have resulted in higher infection and fatality rates for black Americans.
If COVID-19 is an apocalypse, it should not merely reveal the full extent of the evil forces working behind the scenes, it should point us towards redemption. Apocalyptic literature was often used to comfort an oppressed people who might be asking: how can we trust a God that would allow all this suffering? Contagion does this by offering glimpses of hope in the midst of pain: a teenage girl dancing in the living room for a makeshift prom, a CDC official who sacrifices his own vaccine for the child of the janitor who cleans his building, a research scientist who tests a vaccine on herself in order to speed up the approval process.
But this is ultimately unfulfilling. The teenage girl’s dad gets a camera to commemorate the “prom” and finds pictures his wife took before her death. The CDC official has a congressional hearing waiting for him because he told his fiancée about the outbreak before it was official. The vaccine is rolled out, but into a world harshly altered by the disease.
Revelation’s apocalypse similarly reveals age-old injustices—the corrupting influences of wealth and power, the oppression of the vulnerable, the lure of idolatry—but ends in a gloriously redeemed creation. The curtain is pulled back and the great power of evil in the world is revealed—a revelation not intended to dampen our efforts at righteousness now, but to introduce the necessity of God’s dramatic intervention into our state of affairs. COVID-19 has revealed fragility and injustice we would rather ignore but offers us an opportunity to seek justice and flourishing in our communities with our eyes toward the ultimate redemption of all things. The great promise of this moment is not in whitewashing its horror with platitudes but in remembering truth that can hold both our pain and our joy: redemption is coming.