Magazine article The Christian Century

Those Left Behind

Magazine article The Christian Century

Those Left Behind

Article excerpt

Mainstream popular culture tends to prefer human-made cataclysms to the biblical variety. We love to be entertained by portrayals of environmental disasters, viruses unleashed by unethical experimentation, or aliens swooping in to take advantage of our shoddy management of Earth. But there's little room for good old-fashioned divine intervention.

This might be changing. The new Noah movie and the coming remake of the Left Behind series, starring Nicholas Cage, put a divine agent front and center, and the new HBO drama The Leftovers breathes an air of supernatural mystery into the genre. God is not present directly, but the disaster that befalls humankind has a biblical ring to it.

Three years prior to the main action in The Leftovers, 2 percent of the world's population disappeared instantaneously in a Rapture-like event. There seems to be no pattern, no rhyme or reason for why some have disappeared and others have remained. What could possibly unite Pope Benedict, Jennifer Lopez, and Condoleezza Rice--all real world celebrities supposedly raptured? Centered in the fictional small town of Mapleton, New York, the series follows those who are "leftover" as they try to resume normal life in the face of destabilizing loss and uncertainty.

Unlike most end-of-the-world dramas, this one features no zombies, no day-today battles for survival. The veneer of human civilization remains intact even as all meaning-making systems start to crumble. Most of the citizens of Mapleton are not handling it well. As the town prepares to honor the departed with a parade, the chief of police remarks: "People aren't ready to heal. They are ready to explode." Rage, despair, and nihilism threaten to bubble to the top of the most ordinary encounters.

The task of survival is either to make meaning in some imperfect way or learn to live without it--which is not so different from the world we viewers live in, even without the Rapture. The focused uncertainty of The Leftovers is a parable for the same but more diffuse reality of our time. Framing the show this way means it is, or could be, a deeply theological fantasy. Will the show leave room for theological reflection? If so, it should focus on more than explaining phenomena. Any explanation of divine causality would suggest a capricious, chaotic God that Christians would reject.

What if The Leftovers were to address the Christian call to cultivate practices that show meaning in the fabric of lived life? The theological task in such a universe would be offering a way to live in faith, hope, and love even when faced with great uncertainty. …

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