July 21, 2018

IM Book Review: An Agnostic Apocalypse


What would happen in the world, in the church, in our lives, if an event like the Rapture took place, but the event was completely enigmatic?

What if hundreds of millions of people around the globe suddenly disappeared, but there was no rhyme or reason as to who was “taken” and who was “left behind”?

Some Christians believe the Bible teaches a pretribulation Rapture of the church. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, Jesus will come back, raise the Christian dead, and cause true believers living on earth to ascend into the clouds to meet him. He will take them to heaven where they will await the outcome of seven years of tribulation on earth under the rule of the Antichrist. A climactic battle at Armageddon will lead to the glorious return of Christ to judge his enemies, set up his throne in Jerusalem, and inaugurate a thousand year reign of righteousness and peace on earth.

Tom Perotta, in his novel The Leftovers, imagines a different scenario. Christians who look for the Rapture see it as one of the ultimate clarifying events. But in The Leftovers, a Rapture-like event — “the Sudden Departure” — only raises a host of unanswerable questions. In this story, “God hadn’t factored religion into His decision-making,” and all manner of people, from babies to the elderly, Christians to Hindus to atheists, righteous and unrighteous alike, vanish without a trace and with no evidence of any design or logic behind their disappearance. And those who remain have to try and make some sense of it all.

As far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest, and the one thing the Rapture couldn’t be was random. The whole point was to separate the wheat from the chaff, to reward the true believers and put the rest of the world on notice. An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all. (p. 3)

Perotta envisions all manner of grief responses to the Sudden Departure in The Leftovers. In an interview, the author said the book “became an examination of collective grief, and I realized I was writing about a search for meaning in the wake of a terrible mystery. What would an authentic contemporary American religious upheaval look like?”

Rapture-believing Christians in the story, of course, were puzzled and confused by the Great Departure. Rev. Matt Jamison, formerly of Zion Bible Church, became one of the staunchest “Rapture-Deniers.” He made it his mission to prove the difference between the scriptural prophecies and what had taken place. Jamison published a newsletter and made sure it got distributed around town, revealing damning facts about local individuals who had disappeared in order to show that they were neither Christians nor virtuous people. It couldn’t have been the Rapture! look at all the sinners that were taken! was his argument.

The bulk of the story focuses on individual and family grief responses by describing what happened in the household of Kevin Garvey, mayor of the small town of Mapleton, three years after the startling disappearances.

Kevin’s son Tom left home and became attached to a cult leader who promised healing but abused his power seducing many young women who fell under his spell. Tom accompanies one of those girls, a pregnant coworker in the cult, on a trip across the country disguised as “Barefoot People” a reinvigorated hippie movement with religious overtones.

Kevin’s wife also parted, but stayed in town and joined the Guilty Remnant, a white-garbed, cigarette smoking group of ascetics that silently confronted people to make them feel uncomfortable about pursuing normal lives after the Departure. Their mission was to “resist the so-called Return to Normalcy, the day-to-day process of forgetting the Rapture, or, at the very least, of consigning it to the past, treating it as a part of the ongoing fabric of human history, rather than the cataclysm that had brought history to an end” (p. 207).

Kevin’s academically gifted daughter Jill began staying out every night and partying with all the kids around town who had no more interest in school or whatever future high achievement might offer them. They no longer saw the point.

As mayor, Kevin tried to help the town move past the tragedy by staging a “Heroes Day” parade in town, but when life turned into coming home to a mostly empty house he wondered if he himself would ever know joy or normalcy again. Kevin and the most bereaved person in town, a woman named Nora who lost her entire family in an instant, went through the motions trying to make a tentative connection only to find that the way was murky and uncertain.

* * *

Uncertainty forms the very atmosphere of The Leftovers. That is what made it intriguing reading for me. It forced me to ponder God’s ways, which, when you think about it, are almost always mysterious, subject to a variety of interpretations, and contrary to human expectations.

The fundamentalists would have us believe otherwise, for fundamentalism is all about thinking that Truth (with a capital “T”) is as clear as the nose on your face and that God is in the business of making himself known in obvious and incontrovertible ways every day.

What world do they live in? What Bible are they reading?

Of course, there is a fundamentalism of uncertainty as well. One wise teacher warns us not to let the wilderness become our “destination, where . . . questions and confusion are “baptized,” where uncertainty becomes the new certainty, where coloring outside the lines becomes a new arrogant and self-righteous identity.”

But we must acknowledge that even Jesus’ resurrection, the sine qua non event upon which we base our faith, was not a glorious public event designed to convince the masses immediately and without any more doubt that his claims were true. He appeared to his disciples, who in turn became his witnesses, and we must rely upon their word of testimony for our good news.

It does not seem that God is in the business of overwhelming us with clarity, to say the least.

So I appreciate The Leftovers. It provides believers with an interesting thought experiment. The first coming of Jesus the Messiah did not happen according to human expectations and people have been arguing for two millennia about what it all means. What if God’s future interventions turn out to be just as confounding?

How might we respond?

* * *

The Leftovers has been made into a series that premiered last Sunday on HBO. Here is the trailer:



  1. “What world do they live in? What Bible are they reading?”

    They are reading the same Bible we all are – they’re just reading it selectively. They concentrate on the passages where God spoke clearly and unequivocally to His prophets, and the passages where the Apostles give clear moral enjunctures. The passages where God’s people struggle with doubt; with His seeming (or real) absence; where the disciples look at each other and whisper “What on earth did Jesus mean by *that*??” – those passages get explained away, or get a pass. If absolute clarity is what you demand, you will find a way to get it – whether it be through the Bible, or through the tenets of atheism. That’s why you see people shift from one pole of fundamentalism to another – if there isn’t a GOD, then there is NO GOD, but by God, there is TRUTH (and I *will* have it)!!!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      If absolute clarity is what you demand, you will find a way to get it – whether it be through the Bible, or through the tenets of atheism. That’s why you see people shift from one pole of fundamentalism to another – if there isn’t a GOD, then there is NO GOD, but by God, there is TRUTH (and I *will* have it)!!!

      And both are equally obnoxious; strutting around Absolutely Right with a sledgehammer ready for everyone else who is Absolutely Wrong. (Ask Eagle; he’s seen both.)

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    > What world do they live in?

    Not mine. But I lived in theirs, or at least spent an extended vacation there. We, the wealthy west, have become very very good at creating ghettos. They have their own clubs, rallies, politics, book stores, gyms, movies, etc… It is not entirely separated, they still see mainstream stuff, but they are immersed enough in an alternative world that the mainstreams stuff they see gets read differently. I can remember so many discussions of the currently trending movie about what the “message” in it was and how to use it reflect on Scripture; which now seems to me completely twisted around.

    > What Bible are they reading?

    I wonder if the more accurate question is “are they reading?”. In at least my limited anecdotal experience – I recall surprisingly little bible reading, and widespread shockingly deep biblical illiteracy. Deep enough to shock me – a late teen from a marginally Christian home [or marginally at least by their standards]. I was invited to teach numerous bible studies – and I learned that such things are very pro-forma. Nobody, or so very close to nobody, read the material in advance. I recall one young lady leaping to her feet it astonishment shouting “Jesus was a Jew?!?!”; I’ll never forget that one, it was like a ringing of a bell for me that something was very wrong with this place.

    It is the oddity about fundamentalism and its near orbit: you don’t need to read, you already have the answers. You need to *expound*. But this is a trap that ensnares lots of different groups, not limited to fundies and near-fundy evangelicals [that is a hazy border]. It is Confirmation Bias written in 30ft tall letters of fire.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The fundamentalists would have us believe otherwise, for fundamentalism is all about thinking that Truth (with a capital “T”) is as clear as the nose on your face and that God is in the business of making himself known in obvious and incontrovertible ways every day.

      And God is reduced to nothing more than The Party Line.

      It is the oddity about fundamentalism and its near orbit: you don’t need to read, you already have the answers. You need to *expound*.

      And count coup on all those Heathens, Heretics, and Apostates around you.

    • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says:

      Yes. I think I’ve mentioned before – in my decades in fundagelicalism, I’ve never heard a single “expository” sermon that didn’t agree with what the pastor already believed.

  3. Sounds like an intriguing series; too bad I don’t have cable, maybe it will come to Hulu. One scripture that blows my mind every time I think about it is Matthew 28:16-17, “16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Really! They doubted? They watched him die, they saw him appear twice in the room. They saw Thomas touch his scars! And they doubted! That passage of scripture SO undercuts the fundamentalist position it isn’t even funny. And how many nights have I wrestled with him until dawn. Yea, the blessings come, to be sure, but I’m still limping.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Slacktivist was comparing and contrasting Leftovers with Left Behind a few days ago. One thing I’m pretty sure of is Leftovers is probably going to be better done. Since it’s being made outside the Fundagelical Circus, it doesn’t have to follow The Party Line; seems as though Leftovers took the basic premise of The Rapture(TM) and figured “if something like this actually went down, how would people react? What would be the ripple effect?” That’s the difference between a legitimate speculative story and an End Time Prophecy checklist.

      P.S. Ever figured that Jesus might have chosen Thomas BECAUSE he was a hard man to convince?

    • Damaris says:

      Mike the Geologist — I’ve seen ads for it on Hulu. I think it will be aired there.

      • Damaris, there are no BO shows on Hulu, but Hulu does have lots and lots of movie and TV trailers.

        Amazon.com has an exclusive deal with HBO now for a great many shows. It will probably show up on their streaming service (fee per episode).

    • I happened to watch it last Sunday night, which was the same day I first heard about it. It was intriguing — of course it has the usual HBO-esque raciness to it (which may or may not reflect the book) — but from what I saw I’d recommend it.

      The main character, however, appears to be the police chief, rather than the mayor.

  4. Robert F says:

    The ambiguity and uncertainty that permeates my life, including religious ambiguity and uncertainty, is greatly exacerbated by two factors: my tendency to refuse to see, my tendency to deny, truths about myself and life that are painful and inconvenient; and my tendency to cling to false beliefs about myself and life, because to let go of them would also be painful and inconvenient. In these ways my certainties contain uncertainties and my uncertainties hide certainties.

    Given this, I would almost certainly respond to God’s future interventions in a woefully inadequate way. Or perhaps not?

    “Everything is grace.” — Georges Bernanos

  5. Well, we’ve just got to know (everything)…

    so there’s always a good buck to be made from this stuff.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Are you referring to Leftovers per se, or to the direction this thread is going re Certainty?

  6. petrushka1611 says:

    For the comic, cynical, raunchy flipside of this, check out the film Rapturepalooza.

    And when I say “raunchy,” I mean it — it was almost too much for me, and that’s saying a lot. However, the first half hour is at least worth watching, and is quite hilarious. It is also the best argument for a non-literal interpretation of Revelation I’ve ever seen.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      A quibble: the Rapture crowd is not reading Revelation literally. It is imposing an idiosyncratic interpretation upon the text. The mere fact that they piously intone the claim that their reading is “literal” doesn’t make it so.

      • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says:

        Correct. Not that I have ever heard a “literal” interpretation of Revelation (not even sure that’s possible), but the pre-trib position is pretty fast and loose with the text.

    • ShalimarTheClown says:

      ” It is also the best argument for a non-literal interpretation of Revelation I’ve ever seen.”

      No Offence, but you need to read better books or something. Seriously, that movie sucked.

      • petrushka1611 says:

        And you’re aware of my reading material? Apparently you’re not aware of hyperbole, or of the fact that I said “seen,” not “read.”

  7. Joseph (the original) says:

    It does not seem that God is in the business of overwhelming us with clarity, to say the least.

    yup…this. God seems to choose to remain veiled or covert in His dealings with me, although I do attribute His fingerprints on specific ‘happenings’ in my life. even if the events themselves were intense or dramatic, they were not supernatural special FX intended to inspire awe, or events that left such an otherworldly mark upon the earth as to invite making such a place into a shrine…

    when misguided people attribute wide-ranging ‘phenomena’ to God as some warning or curse or punishment, I have to wonder just what god it is they claim to recognize. maybe the Great Oz god of awe-inspiring special FX is the wizard of such imagination. I do believe God can be found equally in the mundane as well as the spectacular, but if His desire is to be found, then we must do the pursuing at a steady pace without putting the onus on Him to show up with pre-conditional proof ‘manifestations’. and another thing, God is not under any obligation to set a ‘divine precedent’ to do so to all believers vs. just the individual He intended it for as well as ever doing it that way again anyway! He most likely delights in His revealing as He does so to draw us deeper into a mystery that can be frustrating for us at times, but then I think it is simply because He does not wish to overwhelm us and eliminate all uncertainty. hmmm…more food-for-thought…

    • Joseph (the original) says:

      P.S. anybody else see the HBO series? opinions?

      • See above. It seems to be pretty good, though the fact that they (apparently) changed the main character from mayor to police chief makes me wonder how true to the book it will be. So far, judging from CM’s precis above, it seems to be faithful enough so far.

        • It has been suggested that they made the change in order to use more violence in the show and to put Kevin Garvey in the center of it. I didn’t see the pilot, but my understanding is that they ratcheted up the violence significantly.

  8. Randy Thompson says:

    I have long thought that the Second Coming probably will not happen as “planned.”
    “Planned,” that is, by the people who have made a good living telling us what’s going to happen.

    If Christ returns to us just as he left us at the Ascension, then what are we to do if some guy suddenly and rather mysteriously appears on the Mount of Olives out of a “cloud,” tells us he’s Jesus, and then invites us to follow him.

    Now there’s a thought experiment for you, and one which encourages us to pray “Lord have mercy!”

  9. Danielle says:

    This is a great premise for a story, and an even better title!

  10. MelissatheRagamuffin says:

    I don’t think fundegelicals are the only ones not reading the Bible. Hubby and I recently had dinner with a friend who claims to be one of those “Red Letter Christians.” During our conversation my husband said, “Jesus said…” This person insisted that Paul had actually said it and therefore was not valid. I pulled out my Ipad, opened my Bible app, and showed him that Jesus, in fact, said it.

    How can someone claim to be a “Red Letter Christian” if he doesn’t know what the red letters say?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      It could simply be an honest mistake. Human minds + data often yields mush, not stew.

  11. Rick Ro. says:

    Sounds intriguing. Seems to match up with my notion that we really don’t know how God truly operates, no matter how hard we try to pigeon-hole Him. I tend to not engage too long with Christians who are focused too much on end-times stuff. Too much talk about “look at all the signs” and “this is the way it’s going to go down” for my taste.

  12. Robert F says:

    Such an event does not necessarily require divine intervention. Extraterrestrials could abduct hundreds of millions of us. Why would they do such a thing? Well, they might think that, in the words of Perry Farrell, “we’d make good pets.”

    • Robert F says:

      “we’d make great pets.”

      Where’s that blasted edit button?

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        Really? I think we would make terribly pets. We are sneaky, deceptive, cunning, and prone to amazing cruelty. A human can make a weapon out of just about anything.

        As an ET living in a complex and intricate space craft – I wouldn’t want us wandering around. That would be like having chimpanzees roaming free in an air-liner.

        • Robert F says:

          I think Farrell had really evil aliens in mind, who would want nasty little pets.

  13. They’re filming this show in my town this week. Anybody want me to get them a shoutout via giant placard, end-of-the-world style? I can see it now:

    “HUG > HBO”

    “The Eagle has landed, and we’re all screwed”

    “Internet Monk predicted the coming collapse!”

    “I love Luther, and I’m not talking about Idris Elba”


    • Robert F says:

      “You have entered the Post-Evangelical Wilderness: do not exit your vehicle.”

    • Rick Ro. says:

      “Elvis is dead, and soon you will be, too”

      “It’s not Global Warming! God’s just turning up the heat!”

      “When the Last Supper is over, you don’t want to be Leftovers!”

      • Joseph (the original) says:

        “When the Last Supper is over, you don’t want to be Leftovers!”

        …and we have a winner! 😉

  14. dumb ox says:

    “Jamison published a newsletter and made sure it got distributed around town, revealing damning facts about local individuals who had disappeared in order to show that they were neither Christians nor virtuous people.”

    This sounds like a lot of would-be theologians who explain away suffering by blaming the victim.

    • dumb ox says:

      “You’ve been projecting your sh..t at the world
      Self-hatred tarted up as payback time
      You can self destruct-that’s your right
      But keep it to yourself if you don’t mind.”
      (Bruce Cockburn, from “Tell the Universe What You’ve Done”.

  15. dumb ox says:

    I like the sound of the plot. It reminds me of “The Plague” by Albert Camus.

  16. Christiane says:

    I suppose if we all knew exactly what God had in mind that we don’t know now, we are weak enough in our human nature to try to ‘play the game’ and scam the system ‘in order to be saved’

    but I’m glad for the ‘mystery’ of God . . . I am glad for the revelation of God through Our Lord Christ

    . . . this way, I can learn by His example,
    which often moves my heart in a different direction from where my logic alone would take me,
    and makes me appreciate that there exists a strength in Christ so powerful that when an injured person comes up against it, he doesn’t get shattered into pieces

    that tells me what I need to know about God to trust Him

    If I were ‘left behind’ in the scenario, and the only member of my family to still be on Earth, I would genuinely be surprised, yes and hopeful that they are safe in heaven
    . . . goodness, there are certainly enough reasons for me that I could not make the cut, but trust is something that when things don’t go well, I have lived long enough to understand that there is always more going on just ahead, and it will become clearer, and clearer,
    so in theory the best response might be ‘not to worry, to be peaceful, to wait upon the Lord . . . to go on in trust and not be afraid’ . . . that at least is a good plan, since now the topic arises to consider and make one up just in case

    just one additional . . . the puppy . . . what if the puppy is taken ? I’ll think about that catastrophe tomorrow. 🙂

    how WOULD I react ?

  17. dumb ox says:

    It’s like when one realizes the evidence is not on the side of young-earth creationism. There are many ways to respond. One can give up. One can become defensive/militant. One can live in denial. Or one can change.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      That one is such an odd fight.

      Either way onion rings are still awesome, Founders makes the best beer, and my sidewalk still needs to be shoveled when it snows.

      > Or one can change.

      I doubt it would really require much change, other than to stop interpreting everything as somehow relating to the age of the planet / human civilization.

  18. I have heard of this show and I am really interested in it now due to book behind it. I believe one of creators of Lost is working on it, which means the mystery will be complex and layered. Probably makes for a good show. I enjoyed the post and got me thinking about how God truly is unpredictable and how it is silly for me to think that he will come in a clean and clear way. When Jesus was born, it was the most unconventional way possible – with animals, in a small town. The rapture will be different and not what we expect.

    • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says:

      Fun fact: at least one of the writers for Lost got his chops on HBO’s Sopranos – which I still rate as the second greatest television show ever.