The Common Good

What 'The Leftovers' Can Teach Us About Hope and the Christian Faith

Editor's Note: Spoilers ahead! You've been warned.

Image via TheLeftoversHBO on Facebook.
Image via TheLeftoversHBO on Facebook.

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Over the past eight episodes of The Leftovers, HBO’s latest drama based on Tom Perrotta’s play of the same name, viewers have been treated to a case study in grief and faith in the midst of a life-changing event. Unlike the Left Behind series, which incorporated Christian triumphalism with terrible theology, The Leftovers examines the deeper human and spiritual issues of what would happen were two percent of the population to suddenly disappear. It is powerful and beautiful and really hard to watch (especially Episode Five). It asks the question: does life go on when your world is changed forever?

The show offers a variety of responses to the Sudden Departure of October 14: Kevin Garvey, the police chief who seems to be losing his mind after his wife leaves him for a cult and after his father needs to be committed; Nora Durst, who’s lost her entire family, so she keeps everything exactly as it was when the Sudden Departure occurred; Rev. Matt Jamison, Nora’s brother whose faith has been shaken because he was not taken; the town dogs who have become feral; and finally, the creepiest citizens of Mapleton, the Guilty Remnant, or the GR as they’re “affectionately” known.

This past week’s episode gave us a greater understanding of the GR. Although the nihilistic views of the Guilty Remnant are quite different from those of Christianity, I was struck by their powerful and strategic mission of witness. The cult was formed out of the recognition that everything changed on October 14 and that to pretend otherwise was foolish. The group, in their white clothes, their silence, their stripped-down existence, bears witness to the fact that they are living reminders of what happened. They are fundamentalists about their cause and willing to die for it — even if that death comes from their own hands.

As Christians, we are also called to bear witness to an event that changed everything, that “Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.” Through the new community that results from this shared creed, we represent to the world that Christ is king and we are members not only of his family, but his kingdom. We are meant to show a world in despair “the living hope” that comes through Christ’s resurrection. We are living reminders of God’s unconditional grace, love, commitment, and forgiveness.

And yet …

You can read through most of the entries on this blog and see essay after essay about how we fail to do that very thing.

You can read most newspapers and see our failures there too.

You can also probably read most Christian’s journals and see the wrestling and personal failures that each of us experience but never discuss.

Without adding to the burden of hopelessness and despair that many of us may feel when we constantly miss the mark, might I submit that perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions. Perhaps the issue isn’t “what are we doing wrong?” as much as “how do we go deeper into a faith that is built on our inability to hit the mark?”

My former pastor in New York once wrote:

“Think of people you consider fanatical. They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving or understanding – as Christ was. Because they think of Christianity as a self-improvement program they emulate the Jesus of the whips in the temple, but not the Jesus who said “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).What strikes us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel.” (Timothy Keller, The Reason for God)

Sometimes I think we view Christianity as a self-improvement program. When we fail at justice or mercy or grace or even just kindness, it’s devastating because we’re supposed to be better than this, right? Yes, of course. When faith leaders say and do things that are contrary to the Gospel, it’s frustrating because we are righteously angry and feel disillusioned. We’re a bride in need of moisturizer, a face-lift, and some OxyClean.

But perhaps that’s the witness that we bear — that despite our best efforts and our most spectacular failures, we are loved. The Christian faith is predicated on Jesus pleading with the Father to forgive us because we don’t know what we’re doing. This faith is not a way to be a better human. In fact, if you try to live like Christ without abiding in Christ, you will probably become a very bitter and angry person because it’s impossible to do on our own. This faith bears witness to the world that even God gets it and knows we will fail, but offers us hope and new life anyway.

When I watched one of the Guilty Remnant being willing to take her own life, it was terrifying. There was the visceral, hide-behind-a-pillow terror over someone taking their life in such a gruesome way. But there was also a moment of reckoning for me — do I really believe what I say I do enough to live it radically? Am I willing to die every day to the “normal” human reactions of anger, frustration, and unforgiveness, even and especially when they’re justified? Because those are a Christian’s fundamentals.

To be a fundamentalist Christian who radically lives out his or her faith is to be humble, gracious, compassionate, and merciful. When we forgive those who sin against us, when we have grace for each other even when we’ve been hurt, when we have grace for ourselves, we bear witness to the world that the status quo has forever changed. And when through the power of the Holy Spirit we can get up after falling down, we bear witness to the world that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.

Juliet Vedral is Press Secretary for Sojourners.

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