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.

I Am Not A Blessing!: Witnessing and Oversimplified Stories

Too often in the church we dull the horror of people’s stories by our need to appropriate these stories as necessary content for witnessing and blessing toward others. In doing so, we effectively skip to the end of the story without having to experience any of the real horror and truth with these people in the moment(s) of their suffering.

I believe the same can be said about the Gospel narrative, as well. More so than not, Christians attempt to boil the Gospel down to one act: Jesus’ death on the cross. This is apparent in the majority of famous hymns, such as the “Old Rugged Cross” (hymns like “I’ll Fly Away” are equally as guilty, just in their contraction of the Gospel into the singular focus of heaven), and countless sermons directed to the cross of Jesus and its salvific operation for the “damned.”

A fancy name for what happens in these instances is called “metanarrative,” which simply means a grand narrative that simplifies and focuses smaller narrative into one main point or idea, roughly speaking. For example, if you asked me what the Harry Potter books were about, I would say that the metanarrative is that a young boy grows up through several hardships and magical encounters with the infamous Voldemort. In this definition, I have funneled the meaning of the narrative into one big, simplified idea. But, as you Harry Potter lovers will duly point out, there is much more going on in the books than that. This why, and I have personal experience with this, people will often tell you that the best way to sum up Harry Potter, or any other book for that matter, is to read it!

We see this very thing at work in the churches popular notion of witnessing. Churches go out and approach people with a three-sentence catch phrase of the Christian Drama, which often goes something like this: “Excuse me, can I share the Gospel with you? Are you a sinner? If so, (you know you are) Jesus died on a cross for you so you would not have to. Accept Jesus, believe he was raised from the dead, confess your sins, and you will be saved.” (This sentence comes from my personal experience from various churches, and, as paraphrased as it might be, it is a very real and common trend in the church.) The difficulty of this witnessing paragraph is the beginning sentence, that is, the notion that anyone could sum up the Gospel in five minutes on an isle of Walmart, or, more commonly, in one week at a African village. On a side note, I want to argue that this is the reason our churches are dying and that we are not making concrete relationship anymore in the church. Namely, people are looking for something deeper than a sermon trying to save people every Sunday, or a hymn about going to heaven. But that is another post for another day.

Oh, and this is what “witnessing” meant for the early church. Martyr comes from the Greek word for witness.

For the purpose of what I have said above about people’s personal stories and the way the Gospels are often read, I want to reject metanarratives and suggest a more intimate encounter with people’s stories and a more involved notion of reading the Bible. By denying metanarratives, we resists conflating the Gospel story into one moment, however definitive it maybe. There is so much to experience and lament and cry and laugh about in the Gospels, apart from Jesus’ death. The Gospel is not simply the sum of its parts, or paradigmatic of its climax; rather, the Gospel is meant to be read with painstaking attendance to the minor details. Admittedly, one could argue that these minor details are unintelligible without the cross; I am not denying that. But the same can be said of the reverse – the cross is most definitely unintelligible without attention to the details leading up to Calvary in their own respect.

Likewise, listening and interacting with people’s personal stories, especially Christian people, should be experienced along the way with the person; every horror, every happiness should be dealt with on their own accord and not as a means to an end, especially if that end is witnessing to others. So, like the Harry Potter books, the only way to actually know a person’s story is to experience it with them in the moment, to actually read their story with patience and loyalty, and without simplifying it into a sentence or two.

“Take Up Your Guns Daily, and Follow Me”: The Problem with Christian Rights

Let’s be honest, guns are easier to carry than crosses.

Christians across America are taking to Facebook and lighting up the Twitterverse in response to President Obama’s proposal that introduced the most substantial gun control reform in decades. As plagued as social media may be, those who proclaim to follow Jesus have expressed their varied opinions and faithful concerns through intense arguments, devotional writings, and a frenzy of blog posts. Among the pro-gun control plaintiff’s concerns is the argument that they have rights and that a firmer gun control policy will violate their constitutional privileges.

We Americans are always prepared to reiterate the fact that we have rights: you have the right to defend yourself from someone mugging you; you have the legal right to own a gun; there is an inherent right for every human to express their freedom of speech, even at the expense of others. These are your “God-given” constitutional rights, as we like to say. So maybe we should be angry if President Obama is trying to take away, or impose more strict laws upon, your guns.

From a Christian point of view, the talk about “rights” – the right to own a gun, or the right to do this or that – is problematic. First, along the lines of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), Christ beckons us to give up our rights. Christ says when someone slaps you on the cheek, offer them the other one; when someone sues you in court for your coat, give them your cloak also; and when a Roman soldier asks you to walk a mile with their luggage (which was a Roman law imposed upon Jews), sacrifice your right to stop after only one mile and walk with them two. Furthermore, and maybe the most compelling, are Christ’s words in Luke 9:23. After addressing his disciples on his suffering and death to come, Jesus proclaims, “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23; NRSV). In other words, to follow Jesus means to give up the securities of daily life; forgo the riches and give to the poor; to leave your personal convictions behind and to look forward to an inverted world where only love and compassion make sense.

In light of these scriptures and the message of love that makes up the fabric of the entire biblical narrative, rights have little say, if any, in the life of Christian disciples. Christians in the early church had the right to not be fed to lions, but they willfully walked into the coliseum and met death with a kiss. Saint Peter had the right to be crucified like everyone else, but instead he felt unworthy of dying the death of Christ and chose to be crucified upside-down. Christianity urges us to give up our own rights as a witness to others, and as an imitation of our Lord. If anything, Christianity is the voluntary surrendering of rights and the acceptance of the counter-cultural understanding of the first being last, and the last first; of losing your life to find it.

Whereas rights connote a boundary or a zone that citizens possesses and others should not breach, Christianity suggests an openness to relationships that violate and transverse these very boundaries and securities in the name of love. In this way, we can experience what makes someone essentially human, not constitutionally American. When Christianity comes into contact with the political sphere (and it should), it is not that Christianity lives by an apolitical mantra that produces the quietist, “stay where you are and be happy,” mentality. On the contrary, The Christian faith produces another politic, a counter or inverted politic, that engages the real world, which includes real people and deals with authentic problems.

In all the muddiness with the interaction between faith and public life, Christians should always struggle to read the scriptures with sensitivity to the tensions that emerge, while also attempting to remain faithful to the difficult task of following Jesus in our contemporary setting. Certainly, taking into account the situation of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, or the effect the issue of human trafficking has on the discussion of rights, leaves us with more questions to ponder and only deepens the difficulty of being a conscientious cross-bearer. We should always be reminded that the task of theology and discipleship is never finished.

The weight of a gun and the security it brings are far more appealing than being crucified. Guns protect those we love and hold dear to us. It is our American right to own a gun. However, there is no such thing as a Christian right to bear arms.

Love Wins: Kierkegaard’s Thoughts?

I know everyone is getting tired of hearing about Kierkegaard, but who cares; I like him.

With Rob Bell‘s recent release of Love Wins, a book addressing hell and universalism, it is still intriguing to watch YouTube videos of folks trashing his work. Whether Bell is right or wrong in his study is no the point off this post. My point is made through the Kierkegaard quote that follows:

If a man perhaps lacks courage to carry his thought through. . . then it is surely better to acquire this courage, rather than waste time upon undeserved eulogies.

Kierkegaard, Søren. FEAR AND TREMBLING  (p. 21).

As Kierkegaard says, at least he is struggling and speaking out about his uncertainties; at least he is carrying his thought through. Here is a guy who was extremely popular in the evangelical genre of Christianity, and he steps out with what he knew many people would crucify him over. And they did, if you havent heard. That takes courage.

I am aware of many things that I am unsure of, but I will be called a heretic before I give “undeserved eulogies” to doctrines and biblical stories that I am not quite sure of. Kudos to the person who has the courage to carry their thoughts through.

More Kierkegaard; Abraham and Paradox

Here is more on the Abraham story from Kierkegaard’s point of view. I interpret this quote as Kierkegaard’s way of explaining how one comes to the slightest understanding of the Abraham-Isaac story. More to come.

An old proverb fetched from the outward and visible world says: “Only the man that works gets the bread.” Strangely enough this proverb does not aptly apply in that world to which it expressly belongs. For the outward world is subjected to the law of imperfection, and again and again the experience is repeated that he too who does not work gets the bread, and that he who sleeps gets it more abundantly than the man who works. In the outward world everything is made payable to the bearer, this world is in bondage to the law of indifference, and to him who has the ring, the spirit of the ring is obedient, whether he be Noureddin or Aladdin, and he who has the world’s treasure, has it, however he got it. It is different in the world of spirit. Here an eternal divine order prevails, here it does not rain both upon the just and upon the unjust, here the sun does not shine both upon the good and upon the evil, here it holds good that only he who works gets the bread, only he who was in anguish finds repose, only he who descends into the underworld rescues the beloved, only he who draws the knife gets Isaac.

Kierkegaard, Søren (2009-06-22). FEAR AND TREMBLING (UPDATED w/LINKED TOC) (p. 19). Classics-Unbound. Kindle Edition.