Devouring Leftovers


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For a tortured, impressionable year of my adolescence, the Rapture filled most every crevice of my groping young mind. I picked up this interest through conversations at the local Baptist church and fed them with admonitory church anthems and midnight, sweat-soaked spirals into the worse scenarios I could imagine. There were locusts and dragons, Middle Eastern deserts and multi-eyed horned beasts manning army tanks I had probably borrowed from reruns of The Rat Patrol. 

One standout font of fear during this period was a lurid and, frankly, entertaining novel on the subject, Raptured. Televangelist and Robin Williams joke fodder Ernest Angley situated his page turner in the immediate aftermath of the Rapture, during a period known as the Tribulation. Beset with its scorpions and famine, the Tribulation was a both impossibly difficult to survive and the left-behind crowd’s only hope for a second chance.

Ruling the post Rapture society was a one-world government. As they sought to politically subjugate the world, the forces behind the Tribulation took no guff. In one scene, the Antichrist’s minions behead one highly symbolic holdout. Angley lays into the gruesome scene with all the gusto of Martin Scorsese. My 13-year old mind seized on these scenes. It’s pretty damn gross.

The fear of a one-world government may very well have been what was feeding America’s Rapture frenzy. That term— “one-world government”—is a fungible one, adaptable to any number of developments in the post World War II era. Some of these developments were political, like the spread of Communism and the rise of the United Nations. But there were technological and cultural changes, as well: mass media, urbanization, the advent of computing.

For some—and this is where the story takes an Alabama turn—the most damning evidence that we were all being silently controlled by powerful forces was something so innocuous to us today that it seems downright asinine: the barcode. Those of us who remember price tags that one had to key in will appreciate how odd the UPC system was. Mad magazine made the barcode a perennial joke once they started showing up on their covers. But others, like Montgomery, Alabama’s own Margaret Stewart Relfe, saw it as damning evidence that a one-world government was just around the bend. Her book, When Money Fails, suggests that these strange, powerful lines could be custom fit to the infidel’s forehead. And in the world steeped in peel-and-stick price tags and analog cash registers, why would we all not be at least a little suspicious something wicked was afoot?

I haven’t thought much about the Rapture since those days, not even when a second wave of interest overtook the U.S. in the form of Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series. That is, not until binging the HBO series The Leftovers this June. Unlike Ernest Angley’s and Tim LaHaye’s accounts, the show’s creators pursue their setting like dead-eyed secularists. In the narrative, there’s no moralizing, no consistent appeal to the explanatory power of miracle, no attempt to make sense of the event that takes two percent of the world’s population.

Rather, the event is so compelling for the ambiguity of its stance. The three-season saga’s most engaging character is Nora, a deeply troubled woman whose husband and two children are taken in “the event.” The theft of her family is undeserved. There is no lesson to be learned except that life is capriciously unfair.

Grownups already know that, but where The Leftovers differs from reality is in the ubiquity of this unfairness. Virtually everyone has suffered a sudden, inexplicable loss of loved ones. The responses in the God-haunted US are predictable. Meaning unravels for many, leading them to adopt a violent nihilism. Others see the event as a sign to repent. Most simply walked around with PTSD.

The town that escapes all of this is Jarden, Texas, surrounded by the aptly named Miracle National Park. Through a fluke of physics or a manifestation of God’s mercy on the few, its inhabitants have been spared. The miracle that is Jarden attracts to the town’s outskirts a throng of end-times lunatics, half-naked hippies, wild-eyed prophets, and outright charlatans. Jarden’s response is predictable: build a wall to protect a blessing they never earned. 

It’s not hard to read into Jarden a parable of modern America, a place that has been bestowed with gifts, that believes it has been chosen, despite much evidence to the contrary. Jarden is a place of moral failure, and a place where people are insanely unhappy.

My weeklong Leftovers binge led me to another direction, to a friend who helped form my belief in this event. Today, my friend, Dee, describes herself as a religious eclectic, a “BaptaPresbyCostal with a Catholic Twist,” who likes to keep her ear open to what’s happening in the evangelical world. She too, had been haunted by Ernest Angley’s Raptured. We chatted by text and she recounted a harrowing Raptured experience of 40 years ago:

“I was downstairs reading. When I came upstairs my mom and siblings were gone. They had just been there moments earlier. The TV was still on, supper was cooking on the stove, all the lights were on. I waited a little while and no one came back. So, I started panicking that the Rapture had happened. I called every relative I knew and no one answered their phone. Keep in mind, that this was in the day before cell phones. I kept waiting and waiting. I was crying, panicked. I think I was about 11 years old.

“Soon after, my mom drove into the driveway. She had simply gone to my grandmother’s to borrow a cooking ingredient and took my brother and sister with her. My grandmother brought it out to the car and they started talking so that’s why Granny didn’t answer her phone. I probably called her six times because she was the godliest person I knew and believed if anyone was gonna be Raptured, it would be her for sure! It sounds silly now, but I burst into tears when Mom walked back in the door.”

Dee had not noticed that her mother’s car was not in the driveway. (“That would have been a big clue,” she says.) I asked Dee why she was so willing to “go there” and not a more naturalistic explanation. After all, one’s family disappearing could mean they snuck off to the movies without her, or that they had been kidnapped, or that they were all right in front of her and she had simply lost her young mind.   

Dee says that, as a grownup, she’d be much more inclined to check off ordinary explanations before jumping to a supernatural one. But while it may not feel as immanent as it as a child, she still holds that the Rapture is something that could happen at any time—not today, “honestly, probably not tomorrow.”

Surely there’s something immanently believable about the Rapture. Whether The Leftovers, or Raptured, or Left Behind, Rapture stories have one thing in common: they focus on the earthbound. The fact is, we’re all going to lose someone, perhaps gradually, perhaps suddenly, but either way, we’ll experience the bereft feeling Dee and Nora felt. Eventually we’ll die and force loved ones to also deal with a loss.

The Leftovers is a departure from the genre. It offers no other-worldly explanation, no promise of heavenly relief if one can only persevere, no meaning beyond the immediate ones we find in the here and now. We could decry this failure to take a stand, but it’s what makes its take on the here-and-now so precious. Joy is in the beauty of earthly relationships. Redemption is found in moments of real altruism and sacrifice.

This is what, I suspect, The Leftovers hopes we figure out. Building a world we want to live in is hard work. There is no easy, rectifying quick win. Filling our world with values likely to stick won’t be accomplished in an eye’s twinkling. Meaning in this world points to a higher meaning in another, but if we see that meaning gradually, we’ll be more likely to cherish it. We will have built it… and earned it. Even a die-hard theist like me can get behind that. 

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