Q&A: Philly’s Very Own Professor of the Apocalypse

Stuart Charmé just wrapped up his “End of the World” course at Rutgers Camden.

According to some interpretations of the ancient “Long Count” Mayan Calendar, the word is ending tomorrow. On December 21st, (roughly) the current 144,000-day calendar year will have ended, signaling the conclusion of the 13th Long Count cycle, or b’ak’tun. Thirteen was a symbolically important number for Mayans, but not one that they necessarily believed to be apocalyptic. I talked to Philly’s resident doomsday expert, Stuart Charmé, a professor of religion who’s just wrapped up his course “End of the World” at the Rutgers University-Camden.

Hello, how are you?
SC: Enjoying this little flurry of media attention.

You’ll miss it when the world ends. And even if the world doesn’t end, the attention will also probably disappear. You lose either way, so I would say, enjoy it while it lasts.
SC: I assume you’re running up against some sort of deadline?

Yes, we have to get this interview up before the end of the world. So, who dug up this Mayan stuff and convinced people the world was ending? When did this happen?
SC: If you want to get into the capitalist dimension of this–usually the market for apocalyptic products is at its best between three and six years before the event. Books about the Mayan prediction began appearing maybe 2006. (Ed. note: See 2012: The Return of the Quetzalcoatl by Daniel Pinchbeck.) It’s close enough if it’s a few years off, maybe that could be true. But it’s also far enough off that you’re not going to be looking foolish either way.

How many people in America are taking this seriously?
SC: There was a survey done about five months ago. Globally it’s about 10 percent, which is pretty shocking. In the United States in that same survey, it was 12 percent. To put that in context, in lots of polls about more traditional Christian ideas about the end of the world, about 40 percent of Americans believe Jesus will return sometime during their lifetime.

Are there evangelical Christians who subscribe both to Mayan and Christian apocalypse scenarios? People who are just really into prophesies?
SC: There’s certainly a lot of activity in Christian apocalyptic circles that we are close to end times, but not because the Mayans said it. But if you look at it from a bird’s-eye view, it’s totally true that the signs of being near the end are usually the same. Everybody sees the same stuff–economic depression, wars, horrible storms. For the people who are prophesy junkies, you can really pile it up. The I Ching, for instance …

What’s the I Ching?
SC: The I Ching is a classic Chinese divination tool. Some guy took some symbols of the I Ching and lo and behold, the end of the world came out December 21st. Same with Nostradamus. Somebody has found some obscure verse. Everyone has been jumping on the bandwagon. This is the date of the moment.

I see extreme weather events and also get worried about the end of the world. Is there a climate change dimension here?
SC The idea of something happening 50 or 100 year from now is really not interesting to them.

Which sort of suggests that these people want the world to end now. Why?
SC: There’s this idea that maybe this isn’t the end of the world in the physical sense, but a transformation in human consciousness that enables us to enter a whole new level of existence. It’s a gigantic loophole [if the world doesn’t end].

Do people wish for the end of the world so they can take the rest of us down with them? If everyone dies, no one dies?
SC: I don’t think they’re worried some dark planet is going to crash into the earth–there’s no way to prepare for that. It’s more that there will be some other threats that will destroy normal support for societies people are used to. If you know how to live off the land and have some supplies (Ed. note: tents, tools for skinning animals) then that’s become a fairly decent market in the American economy.

Is there a Philly connection to any of this? We can get pretty apocalyptic about our sports teams.
SC: One of the best apocalypse films of all times was 12 Monkeys with Bruce Willis. It depicts post-apocalyptic Philadelphia. City Hall, Broad Street, empty of people, when most of humanity has been killed. Only animals in the zoo that have been wandering around. (Ed note: The movie was partially shot in Philly, but officially set in Baltimore.) Also, in colonial times probably in the mid-18th century, the Puritans were very into a certain kind of apocalyptic preaching about an angry God. There was this British guy by the name of George Whitefield, who did hold some revival meetings in Philly at which Ben Franklin is believed to have attended and been impressed.