How The Leftovers Changes the American Conversation on Religion

Sarah Jones, a former Appalachian fundamentalist, wrote a beautiful personal essay about HBO's The Leftovers in Monday's Guardian. It touched on a lot of themes—spiritual, cultural, American—that usually get left out of the conversation but speak directly to, in my opinion, the show's true strengths.

Growing up as she did at ground central of the American Eschatological movement—her parents were followers of a 19th century British theologian who was very, famously very, into the Rapture—you may not find yourself identifying with her story. I have almost nothing in common with her myself, reared as I was in a proudly eclectic spiritual environment, which is what makes her take so fascinating and ultimately appealing.

"The Leftovers owes a debt to the films I watched at youth group, [but] deviates significantly... with plots that treat spirituality and skepticism as related instincts, not opposing forces."

The thing that I find beautiful about The Leftovers, but very hard to talk about, lies in exactly this contradiction. To me, the culture wars are intensely boring because it's a sucker fight on both sides: Evangelical Creationists are a infinitesimally fractional minority of Christians (themselves a fractional minority of the world's people of faith), and yet in this country we are so predisposed toward this "science versus faith" narrative that an actual conversation never takes place: Regular Christians learn to shut the fuck up about their beliefs, and nutjob Christians can't form a sentence in the first place.

How The Leftovers Changes the American Conversation on Religion

It's a divide and a silence that privileges only the worst among us: Teabagger politics, paid for by corporate America and created from pure astroturf, sets the unprepared up against the unimpressed, resulting in a sort of churning Brownian motion that creates wedge issues out of thin air. Intellectually and ideological bombed back into the stone age and told they must fight for their "rights"—to unchecked gun violence, to die at the whim of the healthcare racket; the right to yearn for wealth while voting to make sure you never achieve it—these are the Americans that deserve our love and compassion the most, not the least.

But then, it appeals to the worst of us on the Left, as well: Why engage in a conversation with a Christian you respect, when you can simply troll the dumbest strawman you can find and pretend that he represents all organized religion? When you consciously limit your arguments to the nonsense, concretized babbling of the weakest opponent, you're not engaging in a real exchange. You're bullying the dumb kid. You're pretending that he oppresses you—the worst possible and most disingenuous response—when the truth is that everyone who would lower themselves to the fundamentalism fight is a junkyard dog, paid for by lobbyists and advertising dollars to create a war that doesn't even exist.

"...The conflict between faith and reason has always been a fiction, promoted by hardliners on either side of the debate, and in The Leftovers that conflict has finally been put to rest. Here, at last, the great antagonists are allied—by their shared confusion and collective trauma... There is no certainty here: the manual no longer applies. Viewers are given no evidence that God has interfered, or that science can solve the problem."

The reason atheists' depictions of faith are my favorite stories—Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Game Of Thrones; even Davies's Doctor Who, even True Blood—is because, like The Leftovers, they allow us to set aside the most concrete elements of this dumb fight, to say, "Now what. Fine. You got your answer, or not. You got your proof, or not. And now the question becomes, What was the point of all that?" (And meanwhile the shows that aim to meet this fight head on, like Lost, satisfy nobody in the end.)

Into a world where nothing is known for sure, one concrete fact is introduced to believers and doubters alike: Humanity is no longer capable—it's right there in the title—of intervention or redemption by an outside source. No longer an option, if it ever was. Now the characters, both inside and outside the splintered cults of those left behind, are looking for new approaches to achieve the divine in the demonstrable absence of the divine.

But then, that's all we were ever doing.

How The Leftovers Changes the American Conversation on Religion

"To culture war's discontents, myself included, there's something familiar about The Leftovers' postapocalyptic world ... but its version of the apocalypse isn't meant to appeal to true believers. This is an Armageddon for a generation making peace with its doubt."

The Guilty Remnant take their faith to strange and sometimes dark places, it's true; but it's also true that they've repurposed the tools of religion back toward the transformative experiences God was invented to give us in the first place. I don't know what's going on with the magic hugs guy, but I don't think it's anything worthwhile. The devout Laurie and her compatriots stand silently even as the blows and rocks and fists fall, gorgeously hateful; hatefully gorgeous, our freelance priest speaks ill of the disappeared. Meg is engaged with finding God, and peace, in the absence of both. And so on. To me, this is a truer picture of faith in our country, and our world, than almost anything I've ever seen.

How The Leftovers Changes the American Conversation on Religion

"It's particularly apt that The Leftovers premieres now, to an audience in drastic flux. I'm hardly the only religious exile watching the show. The number of Americans who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated is rising at an unprecedented rate, particularly among young people. These unaffiliated Americans aren't necessarily atheists... But they're also less reliant on the moral certainty that's driven the so-called culture war for the past several decades."

It's easy in this country to look at Christianity, crummy old kicked-around poorly enunciated Christianity, and think that describes the whole of religion. That's a falsehood: It doesn't even properly describe Christianity, much less the religious impulse. When we talk about religion we are talking about Taoism, and Sikhs, and Hindus, and witchcraft, and all the rest of it, the million faces people see when they see God, but we're only thinking about the Big Three (and really only two of those).

How The Leftovers Changes the American Conversation on Religion

William James said something once about how the human impulse toward war will always be with us until we find a "moral equivalent" that channels our aggressions and need for meaning into something else. I would say the same thing of faith.

In the Santa Claus fight of science versus faith the hardline atheist says you can't fix a broken carburetor by singing to it, and therefore music doesn't exist. The fundamentalist says maybe you can, if questioned may become violent; when spurred by promises of financial abundance he will make singing to carburetors a new and central article of his faith, to be defended to the death.

But for the vast majority of Christians, and people of all faiths—even for plenty of atheists—the answer is a lot simpler: You can't fix a car by singing to it, that's what mechanics are for. But music goes on existing, all the same.

And to me—and I think to a lot of us, even if we use different words to describe it; even if it's difficult to talk about and uncomfortable to express—the joy of the supposedly joyless Leftovers lies there: In watching them listen for it. In hoping, just like they do, that one day they'll hear it again.

[Images via HBO and Fox]

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