HOW TO BE AFRAID – Looking at The Leftovers

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My introduction to the idea of the rapture came through film and television, so my attention was naturally drawn to The Leftovers since first learning about the show. Having read Tom Perotta’s book that HBO’s show is based on, I have to admit I was surprised that the greatest storytellers in television were looking to the theology of evangelical Christians for source material. I would later come to understand what made the idea of the rapture such a powerful catalyst for TV, but first, journey with me back to the year 1980, when I learned how to be afraid.

Even the most dysfunctional families can unite to watch television together. My family was no different. We spent many evenings gathered around the lit screen in our dark living room. My father typically controlled the programming and thus the remote control. One late Friday night, while channel surfing, he paused on a music video that quickly paraded a heavy metal artist performing a song called “666.”

My mother quickly remarked, “I can’t believe they’d make a song about that.” My father agreed and switched the channel. My brothers and I were intrigued by the coded numeric reference that my parents understood and seemed disturbed by. We asked what the numbers meant. My parents spent a few moments quietly debating each other with their eyes as to whether we should be given the knowledge they were considering imparting. My mother finally resigned that it was something we should be aware of. My father wearily dropped his head and began to share with us a story that would change our lives.

He told us that one day soon, Jesus would be returning to the earth to take the Christians back to Heaven. Those who were taken would basically be eating a meal that lasted seven years before returning to the earth with Jesus to reign for 1000 years. So far, so good, in my young mind. One of my brothers asked about those that Jesus didn’t take. My father told us that those left behind would be tortured by a man, who would rise up to rule the earth, called the Antichrist. The Antichrist would require that every person on earth have the numbers 666 tattooed on their hand or forehead, in order to buy or sell anything, including food. If you chose to receive the “number of the beast” you could never be saved or go to heaven. If you refused the mark, you would be beheaded – but you would get to go to heaven.

My brothers and I simultaneously burst into tears. This had officially become the scariest thing we had ever heard. Our parent’s tried to assure us that we had nothing to worry about as we were Christians and would be taken in the rapture. The problem was we were of a religious tradition that gave us weekly warnings of just how easy it was to lose your salvation. It could happen and you might not even be aware. Our faith community, at the time, seemed to lack consensus on exactly what could cause you to lose your salvation. Most agreed that smoking cigarettes, drinking a beer or having a tattoo would count you out. However, many also felt that the act of going to the movies, subscribing to HBO and using profanity would also have similar consequences, all of which occasionally occurred in my family.

From this point forward, anytime I walked into the house and didn’t hear my mother stirring about, I questioned whether the rapture had occurred and I had been left behind. I would immediately begin to question whether I could go through with a beheading.

A decade earlier, these exact scenarios of fear had become a hotbed of discussion in Christian circles, when they were cinematically explored in movies such as A Thief In The Night. My father, who was attending Bible College when the film was released, snuck off campus with friends to see one of the films. It seems that even a film ABOUT the rapture was trumped by the theatre of evil that screened it. In the theology of the day, going to the movies to see a movie about the rapture could actually cause you to miss the rapture. The film came on the heels of another media event, this time in print. The Late Great Planet Earth, a 1970 best seller from Hal Lindsey, explained the upcoming rapture and events to follow in laymen’s terms. That book was also adapted into a film in 1979, narrated by film legend Orson Welles.

While Tom Perotta’s rapture is vastly different than the one I grew up believing in, I have placed myself in the shoes of the show’s characters many times. Growing up, I played out thousands of scenarios in which I was a leftover – waiting for my final headless chance at redemption. Daily considering all I had lost. “One of the things that happened was, I started to think of the Rapture as an amazing metaphor for loss, and particularly sudden loss,” Perotta has said in an interview with the New York Times about the story. The potential for that loss had become very real to me.

While my theology about the what, when, why and how of the Rapture has changed since I was a boy, there is something that remains. Surprising to some, it isn’t the fear, the shame or the insecurities. Instead, it’s the practice of living each moment as it might be your last. When you recognize the vapor-like qualities of life, you treat each moment with the fragility it deserves. We can’t avoid loss, but we can avoid much of the regret that too often accompanies it.

The Leftovers airs Sunday nights on HBO beginning June 29. I will be blogging weekly about the show and it’s relationship to faith and pop culture.

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