May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
July 1, 2014
“…hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.” (W. Brueggemann)
The gist of the apocalypse of The Leftovers finds its origin in the pre-exilic prophets of Israel, whose images of judgment and restoration cycle in passages of time through the prophets that follow, speaking hope into the darkest hours of the nation. Empires rose and fell. Jerusalem found itself again and again at the center of periods of great violence followed by years of occupation by the kinds of indifferent powers described by the prophets. The breathtaking temple rose and fell, rose and fell again. In the centuries prior to its total destruction in 70 AD, the written voices of the prophets of Israel grew louder and more insistent. The Jews of Judea and surrounding regions laid claim to different interpretations of these apocalyptic visions, especially the ones that described a Messiah that would come and forever deliver Israel from the vicissitudes of history.
One of these competing voices was that of the followers of Jesus, who claimed that he was the one described by these prophets. This kind of grandiose claim, of course, was nothing new to Jews of that era. A string of would-be messiahs litter the second-temple era. But their message spread north, south, and west across the Roman empire. It caught on. Something was very attractive about the way it combined an uncanny sense of prophetic fulfillment, a cross-cultural appeal to both Jew and non-Jew, its abandonment of class or gender distinctions, and a subtle sense of resistance to an empire that was growing crass with power. When Rome moved to crush the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, Judaism spilled across the empire as the region emptied out. The voices of the ancient prophets reached a crescendo as the house of God vanished a final time stone by stone and then they grew silent again.
One flicker of Jewish apocalypse remained alive in a newly packaged form among early Christian communities. From what we can see in texts like 2 Peter and Revelation, a narrative world built on visions of the rapture of the faithful, the judgment of the nations, and a New Jerusalem remained a key part of earliest Christian belief. And it has ever since, in various forms. The key images and symbols of this apocalypse remain present in Christian theology even if the details of their interpretation vary widely. This basic pattern of judgment and restoration has woven its way into most of the templates of Western culture.
Even if much of this theological history is unknown to the reader, you know bits and pieces of a version of it through stuff like the Left Behind series (or at least Fred Clark’s lengthy review of it) or basically anything that has an Antichrist figure in it. Or you know of it through novels like The Leftovers. The basic narrative of a dominant modern form of Christian apocalypse is that God will take his faithful to heaven, a rapture, followed by a seven year period during which the world essentially goes to hell as an Antichrist appears. And then there is judgment.
In the past few generations of American Christianity, this sense of impeding apocalypse has become a benchmark. There is a fairly tangled history behind the different brands of eschatology on the marketplace, but the sense that we need to be connecting the dots between current events and the ciphers of prophecy in the Old and New Testament is a key mood of one side of the ongoing debate. Tom Perrotta grafts this brand of Christian end-times storytelling into his novel, The Leftovers, which begins with a rapture of a chunk of the world’s population.
Perrotta takes liberty with the rapture event, as it remains unexplained in the novel. After the dust from the “sudden departure” settles, his novel gains traction in the everydayness of those left behind. I was not too captivated by The Leftovers, as the rapture set-up frames an otherwise fairly boilerplate suburban drama. Its new religious movement flourishes flesh out the sense of loss and doom at the heart of its plot mechanics. I could see its appeal to a screenwriter, as the way its storylines weave together makes for easy cinema.
But my abiding issue with the book is the way it domesticates Christian apocalypse. As you can see from the above thumbnail sketch, these end of the world narratives have appeared in the record as a form of yearning, of groping in the mists of history. Over time, the prophetic stories become a refuge during cycles of violence and occupation – a reminder that though it doesn’t seem like it, history is a story that has a direction. It has a beginning, a middle, and end. The final few pages of history will tell us what this all means. It tear back all the cloaking mechanisms and show us the true identities of the powers and principalities that have long held us in exile. The past will be uncovered (the literal meaning of the Greek ἀποκάλυψις). This uncovering is accomplished through a great act of cosmic violence, in which the very fabric of the earth is unraveled and woven back together.
Apocalypse is always wild, uncontrollable narrative. It can only just barely be contained by the symbols and images present in the prophetic literature. It is a story always poised, right at the threshold of human progress, to invade, overcome, and reshape what we hold dearest. It resists domestication. N.T. Wright made apocalypse popular again in Christian circles with his book Surprised by Hope by finding a way to describe the ungovernable nature of apocalypse as a mode of being:
“…left to ourselves we lapse into a kind of collusion with entropy, acquiescing in the general belief that things may be getting worse but that there’s nothing much we can do about them. And we are wrong. Our task in the present… is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day… as a sign of the first and a foretaste of the second.”
Or as David Dark simply says in Everyday Apocalypse: “Apocalyptic changes everything.” In other words: If we can’t beat apocalypse, join it.
The Leftovers unwittingly domesticates this narrative. It is an apocalypse without any teeth, or at best an apocalypse-lite. Using the rapture image as a framing allows the novel and TV adaptation to uncover the true condition of the people that are left behind. They are “losers.” They are lost. They all eventually get up to pretty horrible or desperate things. But the Christian version of apocalypse, born out of its Jewish heritage, is far more than showing humans what they are really like. It is about taking a world apart bit by bit, divesting it of the systems of power, lust, and injustice that infect it down to an atomic level, and putting it back together again so that it can be re-inhabited by people who will never have to feel lost again. It is, as Wright describes it, the very essence of surprise.