George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 reached #1 on Amazon’s best seller list at the end of January after Kellyanne Conway’s famous quip about “alternative facts.” The spike in sales even led the book’s publisher to order an unusually large reprint of the 1949 novel. Conway’s remarks were in defense of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, after he insisted that attendance at Donald Trump’s inauguration exceeded that of previous presidents’ ceremonies. For many, this spin captured just how at odds the Trump administration is with readily verifiable fact.
The brazenness of the claim, especially when considering how irreconcilable its terms are, carried shades of Orwell’s dictatorial world. In the pages of 1984, the powerful solidify their grip on the rest of the population through incoherence eerily similar to what Conway attempted to pass off to her television audience.
War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength: these are the slogans of Orwell’s ominous Big Brother who controls the masses through both overt and covert manipulation. Power itself is Big Brother’s aim, and this end justifies any means. In fact, the populace’s submission to blatant irrationality poignantly signifies the totality of their domination—of the public’s mind, body, and spirit. Many saw such manipulation at work in Conway’s statements and, more to the point, they saw her remarks as an avatar of the spirit of Trump’s campaign and of his presidency so far.
Out of this resonance was born a sudden renewed interest in Orwell’s novel. In addition to increased book sales, this interest has prompted many pieces detailing the parallels between the world of Winston Smith and the presidency of Donald Trump, or comparing its relevance to our historical moment with another classic dystopian work, Brave New World. But what draws us to stories like this? Ones so dark that even the horrors and tragedies of our world pale in comparison? Is there any value in contemplating these fictional scenarios?
Professor and writer David Dark suggests that there is, and his work offers a helpful framework for understanding their function. Story itself is a powerful means of expressing and relating to a particular cultural moment, but there’s something unique about dystopian tales that allows them to communicate truth in a particularly piercing way that other genres cannot. Dark calls many of these stories “apocalyptic”—not because they tell a tale about the destruction of the world, but because they invite us to discover its ultimate end, in both senses of the word—our world’s driving purpose and logical outcome.
Dark argues in Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacredness Revealed in Radiohead, the Simpsons and Other Pop Culture Icons that apocalypse “unveils” the truth around us, allowing us to see for the first time the world as it actually is and ourselves as we really are. Dark offers examples as disparate as The Truman Show and The Simpsons to explain how cultural artifacts can accomplish this, and 1984 operates in that same sphere. Apocalyptic illuminates and exposes by way of exaggeration, allowing us to inhabit a world that seems, at first glance, very different from our own.
We’re able to let our guard down for a moment, because it’s not immediately apparent that the work is criticizing us and our world. But instead of the cheerleading clichés or triumphalism that much of popular culture offer, apocalyptic works show us just how depraved and broken things really are, waking us up to the suffering and corruption all around us before offering a better way forward.
The apocalyptic must fully expose and maximize our sense of suffering and depravity before it can reveal hope, because “the hope has nowhere else to happen but the valley of the shadow of death.”Like the examples Dark provides, good apocalyptic doesn’t paint the general brokenness of our world in broad strokes. It is most powerful in specific iterations. While 1984 has been required reading in high school English classes for decades now, the truth it unveils speaks the loudest in our current “age of information.” Today, we are often overloaded with more news, political commentary, and exposure to tragedy than we can possibly hope to process. We’re desensitized out of necessity, unable to truly feel the effects of a world that while just as broken as it’s always been, now offers us ubiquitous proof of its brokenness.
Dark sees in Flannery O’Connor’s writing an intentional response to this kind of apathy. O’Connor’s shocking stories capture the spirit of apocalyptic, driven as she is by the belief that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” Similarly, Dark calls apocalyptic the “maddening corrective” to this kind of callousness—it “highlights, exposes, or lampoons the moral bankruptcy of our imaginations while teasing us towards a better way of looking at, and dwelling within, the world.”
In our world corruption runs so rampant we have become accustomed to it, lies are so universal we forget what distinguishes “truth,” and the degradation of human life is so widespread we’ve stopped noticing. Dark explains that there is a “machinery of self-justification” at work in any culture, country, or community—a tendency to self-affirm, to smooth over the rough edges of our shared experience and insist that things really are all right.
But in Orwell’s world, the contradictions are made plain by sheer exaggeration and absurdity: the Ministry of Peace wages wars against ill-defined adversaries to shore up patriotic fervor, the Ministry of Love coerces party loyalty by way of torture, and the Ministry of Truth comes up with creative new ways of rewriting history. Appeal to objective reality has been displaced by appeal to brute strength, which results in a world where basic definitions are dictated by the interests of the powers that be. This is what 1984 can offer us: a fuller picture and vocabulary to articulate the brokenness beneath our apathy, fear, and information overload. It also suggests a means of retaining hope while caught in such a system.
Winston’s efforts at resistance are ultimately futile, but the simple steps at resistance he takes do have purchase in our moment: he keeps a diary, he falls in love, he engages in “thoughtcrime” (mentally entertaining unsanctioned ideas). Even those of us with little political authority can put these into practice today—telling the truth in a “post-truth” culture, loving people in spite of the risk to our own safety and security, and continuing to think things not in vogue. In an increasingly divisive and partisan society, caught between groups vying for control, these are radical acts, rejecting the principalities and powers of this world for the one beyond.
1984 can serve as a powerful reminder for American evangelicals in this regard. For decades we’ve made a tenuous alliance with a particular political party. Many of us could barely discern where our faith stopped and our political affiliation began. While there’s always been those who have criticized the strong association between the two, the 2016 election seems to have revealed the fullest extent of the damage it has always had the potential to cause.
The worst moments in evangelical political engagement have been rooted in desperate attempts to maintain cultural power, whether motivated by a desire for control itself or a fearful self-preservation. It’s a deadly combination: leaders willing to do anything for the sake of authority and those under their leadership willing to submit to anything out of the fear stoked by those leaders.
1984 offers a striking picture of what such unbridled power can do. Instilling one’s hope in a political party or institution can confer on them unjust authority. After Winston is interrogated and tortured repeatedly, he eventually embraces the irrationality his captors are working to make him accept, that 2 + 2 = 5. This acceptance signifies the breaking of his spirit and Big Brother’s total control. Similarly, entrusting the purposes of the church to be delivered through an arm of the state has forced many with Christian convictions about objective truth to accept contradictions and outright falsehoods from those in power.
When wrongful circumstances are maximized, we have the ability to see what was always there, and we’re made aware of the deeply problematic nature of a system we may have thought a matter of course. It might take a president who represents everything the Religious Right has decried for decades—sexual immorality, crude language, dishonesty—to “unveil” what’s always been wrong with this alliance. 1984’s outright inversion of values clarifies the absurdity of these contradictions, as it declares that “war is peace,” torture is love, and power determines truth.
And yet this divisive and difficult political season has the potential to spark more nuanced and robust discussions about Christian civic engagement. We must be willing to view our current circumstances in the light of apocalyptic, watching for the places of unveiling, the moments when the current circumstances powerfully illustrate the problems inherent in too tightly entangling our faith and our political loyalties. James Joyce calls these moments in fiction “epiphanies”—sudden spiritual realizations born out of a particular moment or experience.
Literary epiphanies, like those offered in 1984, can make us more attuned to such moments in our day-to-day lives. In Orwell’s novel, Big Brother requires submission so totalizing that it costs Winston his identity and humanity in the process. For many Christians, this election revealed the great cost of continued submission to the Republican party. When we find ourselves bending over backward to reconcile conservative convictions with the man who is supposed to represent them, we may find that we’ve fallen over—a fall so damaging we evaluate why we started bending in the first place. As Jesus asked his disciples, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”
We have reached a moment when evangelicals can reevaluate our approach to political and cultural engagement, and possibly cultivate some foundational changes. As Dark argues, the apocalyptic must fully expose and maximize our sense of suffering and depravity before it can reveal hope, because “the hope has nowhere else to happen but the valley of the shadow of death.”
May we strive for this to be the redemptive feature of a difficult political season: that the American church experiences its own important epiphany, that our power is found in weakness, and that our mission is found in the margins. If we don’t, we may find ourselves resembling the defeated Winston at the close of 1984. We, too, God forbid, might love Big Brother.