Life after Death: Coping with Loss as a Christian in HBO’s “The Leftovers”

HBO’s “The Leftovers” has become one of my favorite shows of the year. After an apparent rapture of 2% of the world population, the show details the difficulty its characters have moving on from this “departure,” and attempts not to answer what happened or why, but “what now?”. I think this show can teach us something about coping with death, especially as Christians.

The truth is American Christians have been riveted by stories of the apocalypse for decades now.  If this craze were a house, zombie horror movies in the 80s and 90s laid the foundation, Timothy LaHayes’ widely read Left Behind book series built the house, and AMC’s The Walking Dead raised twins and a spaniel in it. I think Christians are particularly adept to loving these shows and the overall narrative in the apocalypse genre for a few reasons: we actually think resurrection exists and is possible (even if we don’t act like it); we like to prey upon shows with any resemblance of Christian symbolism and imagery, even if it’s actually not there (I am guilty of this); and, maybe most importantly, we like to say these violent and bleak shows and movie have Christian motifs so we can warrant our obsession with something that is so morbid and mostly unimportant. Christians just can’t admit that we like to be entertained by things more interesting than Kirk Cameron’s movies.

The Leftovers has all of these draws. It’s fun to watch, gives you something to think about, and makes you question what a faith in anything looks like in the midst of such despair and confusion.  However, there are some serious differences, differences that I think set apart The Leftovers from the usual ramblings of apocalypse narrative that we Christians bandwagon.

Unlike zombie films and popular renditions of resurrection and life after death, The Leftovers is not about dead people coming back to life, or what happened to people who vanished in rapture-esque manner. It is about people who have lost loved ones to reasons unknown and what their lives look like as they try to cope and move one from this loss. Because no one knows where “the departed” went or what happened to them, there is a strong focus on the unraveling of lives trying to live with such questions. It show characters who try to date again after their spouse poofed into thin air; daughters who deal with their parents divorce after one of them joins a cult dedicated to smoking cigarettes, silence, and constant reminding of the departed; and sons who go looking for hope and truth in those who claim to have it, and being let down when they realize they truth doesn’t exist.

The shows still focuses on life after death that is so popular in resurrection/apocalypse narratives, but just not in the ways we are used to. “Life after death” for The Leftovers means actually looking at people’s lives after they experience death; it diverts our eyes away from those who die and find life again to those who witness death and have to live with it everyday. The attention in not to the miraculous return to life, but the daily grind of life itself. If The Leftovers was a story about Jesus, it wouldn’t be a gospel detailing Jesus’ miraculous return to earth or his ascension, but about the disciples who were left behind with feelings of abandonment and questions of “what next?”.

And that is exactly the questions that The Leftovers thinks matters. Not “Why?” but “What now?”. The show challenges us to think about the everyday struggle of moving on, of trying to get over what seemed impossible.

And we should be reminded that impossible things happen to each of us everyday. Three years ago my father took his own life, an action that still seems absolutely unreal and with which I am still trying to live. The truth is that death happens everyday and shatters our entire worlds, making it hard to carry on and imparting grief that seldom rests. As many of us experience, even as Christians try to profess hope in death it is hard to look any other direction than despair when we are faced with loss, even if there are better things we hope for like Heaven.

I appreciate that The Leftovers deals with the daily musings of what it’s like to live with and after death, not zombies, angels, and little kids who see God. I think this approach is more helpful, more authentic to human experience, and, honestly, far less corny.

The Leftovers shows us the dark side of the reality of resurrection and life after death. By giving an alternate view of “rapture,’ we are reminded that our obsession with apocalypse narratives has us looking in the wrong direction. The view of life on the ground is much more important and interesting, one that helps us move on to what’s next. Although an afterlife is a hope many of us share, we can’t forget about the dangers of focusing on it too much. Frankly, resurrection should scare us to death.

Geoff John’s Comments on why Superman is “The Most Relatable Character Ever,” and Why He’s Wrong

I been posting my thoughts on Superman’s super-ness over the last few weeks in my series, “Capes and Flags.” One of my points was that Superman embodies, even though he is an alien, what we like the think of as a human ideal – the perfect human body and moral code. This idealism is what I find quite alarming for two reasons: (1) What about us who are not white, male, muscular, handsome, and (questionably) morally exemplary?; and (2) we must consider, then, what effect Superman’s idealism has had on American culture and the adolescent minds over the last 80 years of his existence as a comics icon and a feature film star.

I say all of this in the respect to the recent comments by Geoff Johns, the mastermind behind the new Superman comics series, “The Men of Tomorrow,” and Chief Creative Officer at DC Comics. Johns said that Superman’s ideal is something beautiful and that he is the most relatable character ever. Here are few quotes from his interview over at ComicBookResources.com:

“Superheroes — I like to call them “good junk food.” On the surface, they look like they’re candy and they’re popcorn, but I think they embody ideals that all of us get drawn to. Especially Superman. You know exactly how Superman’s going to act. I think he’s one of the easiest characters to write, because you know exactly what he’s going to do.

 

“I think it’s important to keep these characters alive, because they do inspire people. Especially this one. This is the most inspiring super out there.

 

“Everyone’s like, “He’s so powerful, I can’t relate to him.” Are you kidding me? He’s the most relatable character ever. He grew up on a farm, he doesn’t have a lot of friends, feels isolated, he can’t tell everybody what his secrets are. He’s a great character. He feels overlooked — who hasn’t felt overlooked, or wanted to connect with people? All social media is, is people wanting to connect with other people. That’s all it is. Because people long to connect with other people. And Superman is the embodiment of that. He’s more relevant now than ever.”

Johns’ sentiment is respectable, especially considering his attempt to flesh out the humanity of Superman in recent comics. However, The reasons he gives for Superman’s relatability fall short considering what I have briefly detailed above, and what you can find in my other posts. Sure, he is from a farm, but he embodies the city and its technology, able to overcome its dangers and fight its crime. His isolation is no doubt relatable, but only if you take away his great power as the cause of his loneliness and replace it with fear, rejection, and weakness that normal humans, me and you, feel and have to deal with. In this way, Superman as an icon of the small town farmer, the one who is lonely, and those of us who are cast-out and overlooked, simply doesn’t work. Real human pain, I want to suggests, cannot be relatable if it has to be first filtered through great power that then causes pain and some arbitrary form of weakness. Superman is not truly weak, nor is his truly from a farm; the only reason his is overlooked is because he is borderline narcissistic about his self-sacrifice for the sake of others (primarily women; I should say, primarily women he loves and feels need his protection). Last years “Man of Steel” movie came as a prime reminder that Superman is hard to make relatable, even if you give him Kevin Costner’s ideals and a every-man’s hairy chest.

Most people think Superman brings hope to and something to which us fallen human can aspire (just listen to Russel Crowes’ words in the trailer for “Man of Steel”), that the Man of Tomorrow is what we people of today are reaching for, that Superman serves as a Christ-figure showing us the way, or at least giving us hope for being better. Now this all sounds great and powerful, and maybe it is on the surface; but underneath, as I have argued in my earlier posts, it’s simply a way to cover over very realistic pain and tragedy with masculine salvation.

And for those who think Superman is a Christ-figure: remember that Jesus died on a cross as a homeless man who was betrayed by all his friends, and, if you believe as much, resurrected still with scars intact. Jesus was so not-super it killed him, so intimately human that his story has lasted 2,000 years.  I think we all can relate to that guy regardless of our faith, but maybe not so much to the good-looking Superman that Geoff Johns’ is talking about.