Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Leftovers . . . Finding Meaning in the Contingent

I was listening to NRP (where else?) last week and Fresh Air had an interview with Tom Perrotta, the author of a new book, The Leftovers.  Apparently Tom had written a previous book, The Abstinence Teacher, and he had to do some research into American Evangelicalism. In that later book, he dealt with the culture wars over sex education and abortion.

While doing his research, he stumbled onto the most popular Christian books (at the time) the Left Behind series.  This stuck in the back of his mind and he couldn't shake it.  I can't remember what his personal philosophical orientation is based on. I think he called himself an atheist in the interview. He did make it clear that he was not a Christian.

The concept of the rapture was not new to him, but he had never realized how central it was to evangelicalism until he read the one Left Behind book. But he started to imagine, what if you put a twist on it?

His twist, as expressed in The Leftovers, is that one day suddenly about 20% of the population disappears.  I think right out of their clothes, or at least their shoes as the cover depicts. However, and that is a big HOWEVER, there is no rhyme or reason to who was taken and who was left. Okay, some evangelicals were taken, but many more left behind. But along with the evangelicals, some Catholics disappeared.  Okay, you (if you were an evangelical speaking) might think, so some Catholics were real Christians after all! But the absurdity doesn't stop there. Some Hindus and Muslims were also taken.  Hmmmm, you think. So God judges you by your heart and your good deeds. But wait a minute, some atheists were taken . . . and some left. But also some harden criminals vanished and some really good people were left.

This is the point of the story. It takes place in one small town and it looks how people take a totally random act (even be it of God . . . or aliens . . . or a freak of quantum physics) and try to sew a meaningful narrative on its backside. But, and the author is the only one laughing at this point, there is no meaning!

In this small town, several cults spring up in the rapture's aftermath.  Some of them Evangelical sects, some off the wall heretical cults and some more nihilist than any religious persuasion.

This reminds me of dogma. We humans are desperate to resolve everything. We can't live with loose ends, be it in methods for living, the purpose of our lives, or our doctrines and personal philosophies. Not only does every t have to be crossed and i dotted but we must find the exact connection between the i and t to spell "it."

The best example I can think of is the book of Revelations. What a bizarre book. Yet, during my younger Christian years, it was the most important book of the Bible. But everyone had to figure out exactly what the purpose of it was and the secret message it was telling us . . . about the future.

I think it would be funny if when we got to meet God face to face that he laughs and says "That crazy John, he had Alzheimer's dementia with psychosis and you guys just had to create a religion around it."  Okay, I'm not saying that the Bible isn't trustworthy but that I bet we will realize some day that we didn't have this life figured out at all like we though we did.

I use to have the corny bumper sticker on my Jeep that said, "Jesus is the Answer."  On my back window I had another one that read something about in case of rapture the car would be unnamed.  I felt very proud about my bumper stickers. It gave me value in the eyes of my fellow believers (what a zeal for God, they thought) and I thought God loved me more because of them.

But now I feel that to say that "Jesus is the Answer" is an insult to Him. He is so much more!  Okay, if you create a very small compartment where we are struggling to feel God's pleasure . . . then you could say that Jesus is the resolution and answer. But I don't believe that the Bible has the answer for all problems nor is Jesus the answer for all problems. It isn't that He is impotent to be so, but that God has no desire to sew up all of life into resolved pieces. Life is an adventure. I am curious that maybe if there had never been a fall, that life would still be convoluted and fragmented as part of God's plan . . . He is a complex God.

I will close with one more part to this. My daughter graduated from Pacific Lutheran University on Sunday. Over the week end, through several receptions, I got to meet and to know (on a superficial level) the president of the university. On Sunday he gave the commencement address.  He is a sharp guy. Now I'm the first to realize that although it is a "Christian" university that it wears that title loosely. A son of Evangelical friends attended there . . . briefly. He quit during his first quarter because of the "godlessness of the campus" where gay rights were openly promoted and endorsed. But that's another story.  The point I'm trying to make is that the president told the graduating class,  "Don't live by another person's dogma."

I use to be attracted to dogma like a moth to a porch light, but under the guise of "being Biblical." But there is something refreshing about not knowing or resolving.  It reminds me of a book from a decade ago, Blue Like Jazz.  Donald Miller said he picked that title because Jazz is a type of music that doesn't resolve everything.  I'm not sure that makes any more sense than Oliver Barrett IV (from Love Story) saying that "Love is never having to say you are sorry." But there is something sweet about a Christianity that doesn't try to meddle in and fix everything but lets us live the life of adventure and skinned knees.


Tapji said...

Mike , is there anyway i can contact you? i have a story i would like to send you. Its from one of my friends who has recently left christianity & has for the most part become a secular humanist.

Tapji said...

Actually i'll just write it here. I love for you to write a post about this perhaps?

"It was in grade 8 when i became really christian. I'm not too sure exactly when it happened , but it did. I started going to church more frequently and attended church events. I even tried to stop swearing , but there was one problem. I didn't feel like i belonged. I still had my doubts and i felt awkward hanging around my non-christian friends. I just ignored it and said "God will help me through this". After about two years of going to camp , I really started thinking. I thought , what if there is no God? What if this is all fake? What if this God is just the same as any other diety? Halfway through grade 10 I dropped religion. I decided that i didn't want to subject my life to something i wasn't even certain exists. Why would I devote my life to something that has less evidence of existing than aliens or bigfoot? I thought that was insane! I never really liked going to small group either. I thought of it as a waste of time. I could be skateboarding with friends or biking , instead of sitting in some guys basement praying for someone i've only met once in my life. I never had to feel ashamed of myself for swearing or playing video games. And it feels good. More than half of the christian guys I used to talk to couldn't talk about video games or movies , because it was too secular or they were too busy doing devotions or praying. All they wanted to talk about was god , which was a topic I avoided because it was boring to me. Ever since I dropped religion , I felt more "free". I could play the video games I wanted to play and watch movies I liked without having to confess my sins at summer camp. I feel like i've broken out of restraints that were holding me back from things I like. I've learned that you don't need religion to be a good person. I know lots of good people who don't believe in religion."

That is all. I would love to hear your take on it.

jmj said...

The sad thing is all he is talking about is bathwater. It has nothing to do with the baby. I find church very boring too. Most normal people do. I can't stand religion either. Somehow we must drive a wedge between simply being a Christian, and having to adopt religion.

He still must slow-dance with Bigfoot, one way or another. Like I've posted before, there is no default position for why we are here, which is easier than all the others. They all are hard, ambivalence is the most absurd.

tapji said...

very true monist. I have to put alot of the blame on the church. The real depth of what we believe is never discussed.

Philip Long said...

Sounds like a cool book. Thanks for your insights.

Also, that's what I feel like about "Jesus is the answer" stickers as well. He is the ultimate answer to what we're looking for, but he's so much more as well. And he's not the answer in a quantifiable or safe sense. In Jesus, we meet a wildly passionate and loving God. Not simply an answer. And you're right it, probably ticks him off to be demoted to a bumper sticker religion.

Thanks again!