I retain a vivid memory from my middle school years. Staying up late during a sleepover at my best friend’s house we debated the rapture: when it would come, how it would happen, and the crucial question: Are you afraid? This was the mid-1970s, after Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth ushered in a new round of Armageddon angst, while the apocalyptic fright film A Thief in the Night was making its rounds of churches.
In the evangelical environment in which I lived, the imminent end of the world was assumed, and the rapture (the taking up to heaven of the faithful) was assured. People would be taken, and others would be left behind.
Those left behind form the somewhat perverse premise of HBO’s new miniseries, The Leftovers, based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name and co-created by Perrotta and Lost producer Damon Lindelhof. The trailer for the series portrays events not unlike those of the fundamentalist fright films: two percent of the earth’s population has disappeared, and those left behind struggle to figure out why.
Only here, the religious element is downplayed. It doesn’t seem to be the righteous who have been taken, at least not those of any particular creed. This rapture is random.
Which all confounds the rapture I grew up with. The end was near. That much we knew. Only, how could we be sure we were on the right side? What about that accidental “goddamn” that slipped out when I tripped up? That mysterious aching desire for the cute girl in the second row of homeroom? And, most troubling, did that last altar call really take? Was that last prayer to ask Jesus into my heart really sincere? Did I get the metaphorical nuance of it all sufficiently?
More than anything, as Lindsey’s books and the scary movies made sure, we had the hell scared out of us. It was not uncommon for a child in our circles to lie in bed in terror wondering whether we too might wake up to an empty house, just like the woman at the beginning of A Thief in the Night.
Apocalyptic mythologies — as told by ancient Hebrew prophets, early Christians, early Muslims, and later by early Mormons, and finally, those told by the Religious Right in the latter half of the twentieth century — were designed specifically to frighten, to provoke, and to make us seriously entertain the question, “What if?” In doing so, we might be challenged to change our ways, be purified, and made ready.
Surely there is a strong tinge of emotional mistreatment in all this. Call it apocalyptabuse.
If the rapture will be televised, it will also be secularized. This is the genius conceit of Perrotta’s story. Take away the divine dimensions and we are left with real human desires and fears. (If you are longing for a theological angle, rest assured — Left Behind, starring Nicholas Cage, will be released later this year.) For anyone who has been “left behind,” and I dare say it’s an experience most of us share in one form or other, we get why the mythology is effective. We parents, children, lovers, and partners of whatever religious or non-religious persuasion, have all been left. Survival stories strain at our heartstrings, highlighting our fears of abandonment, disconnection, and our desire for one another.
All myths, whether of beginnings of worlds or ends of worlds, exist solely in their tellings and retellings, the old stories made ever new. And they are meant to fit particular categories of socio-political life, geared to specific audiences. So, The Leftovers is a retelling of the old story for the “nones”, the unaffiliated.
The power of rapturology, whether religious or secular, is not in the event itself, but in the before and after. For my evolving middle school mind, I learned the importance of “being ready.” Judgment day is coming, and so I’d best be prepared. Which meant my code of ethics had to be up to snuff, my beliefs in line, and my heart in the right place. This is manipulative, but it’s also a part of a longstanding prophetic tradition designed to make us behave differently. It’s the same logic that makes warnings on tobacco labels, forms the basis of political campaigns, and portends the threat of global warming. I’m not suggesting this is the best way to get us to shape up — only that apocalyptic warnings are not so different from other forms of behavior modification.
Arguably more interesting is what happens if we don’t shape up, and this is The Leftovers’ taking off point. If some get raptured, what happens to the survivors? How do we get along? Here is where Perrotta’s partnering with Lindelhof works well. While most of the audience of Lindelhof’s Lost seemed to miss the point of the end of that series, Lindelhof knows that the real story, the mythic dimensions of it all, are not wrapped up in clear and clever answers. The weird story is not there as a puzzle to be solved, but a lesson to be learned — in the case of Lost, it was all about community: people finding each other, living together, and dying alone.
Myths need ambiguity in order to be improvised, morphed, and adapted to new settings. As with Perrotta’s novel, all indications point to the suggestion that this new series will not explain things away either. The answers are never so interesting as the questions, because the questions allow insight into human endeavors.
The great scholar and classicist Norman O. Brown once wrote an essay on the Apocalypse, digging into its meaning and its mythical effects on people. The Greek roots of the word could be literally translated as “unhiding,” while the Latin corresponding term is “revelation.” There is a mystery, and that which was hidden gets uncovered. But, Brown says:
I sometimes think I see that civilizations originate in the disclosure of some mystery, some secret; and expand with the progressive publication of their secret; and end in exhaustion when there is no longer any secret, when the mystery has been divulged, that is to say, profaned. . . . And so there comes a time — I believe we are in such a time — when civilization has to be renewed by the discovery of new mysteries, by the undemocratic but sovereign power of the imagination.
Like Lost, the answers in The Leftovers will be less interesting than what the story might suggest about human struggles with loss and connection. It is wonder and mystery that keep us going, preparing, and hoping to get it right.
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