The Leftovers: “The birth of religion in the face of mystery.”

The Leftovers — the HBO series about a community coping with the Rapture-like disappearance of many of its members — premieres this coming weekend, and while I haven’t been scouring the internet for coverage of this series the way I sometimes do for films like Noah etc., a few things have popped up in my regular news feeds, including a new video, a new interview with the show’s creators, and a handful of reviews.

The interview, with novelist Tom Perrotta and series producer Damon Lindelof, is up at The Daily Beast, and it’s a bit of a frustrating read for me, as I find myself nodding along at some points and wanting to argue with the interviewees at others. Here’s a sample:

Do you guys believe in The Rapture?

Lindelof: Tom has done much more exhaustive research on The Rapture than I have, but my belief is that The Rapture itself is so ill-defined in the texts upon which it’s supposedly based that that word doesn’t even appear in the New Testament, so it’s an extrapolation. And even amongst evangelical communities, there’s a tremendous amount of debate as to whether it’s figurative or literal, and also to the timing of it. The deeper into it you go, the harder it is to give it any fundamental validity, but for me, the presentation of the Departure in Tom’s book is much more believable than Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind books, which are trading in that Biblical canon. To me, the idea of, “What if a huge, inexplicable supernatural event occurred that the scientific community was completely and totally baffled by, and that was also undeniable?” You go see the Transformers movies, and you’re like, “So… the world has experienced massive robot battles and invasion ships in multiple American towns, and then every time a new Transformers movie starts, they’re just back to where they started.”

“Not again with the Transformers!”

Perrotta: [Laughs] Forgot about that shit!

Lindelof: They’re aware that it happened, but they haven’t changed their lives in any way. That idea that you’re living in exactly the world that we know now—except there are Transformers in it—is a very heightened reality. The thing about the Tim LaHaye books is everyone in the world accepts that it’s the Biblical Rapture because you’re able to take out your Bible and say, “This is happening! Here’s where the antichrist is. All those people that disappeared are really good people, and the rest of us didn’t make the cut.” Tom’s book says there doesn’t seem to be anything tying these people together and that just became infinitely more interesting to me, because that felt like it was more reflective of what our lives are, which is that we’re living in a perpetual state of mystery about a number of things.

I totally agree with Lindelof that the Rapture theology espoused by Left Behind is essentially unbiblical (it was created in the early 19th century by an Anglo-Irish priest), and that the kinds of stories one finds in Left Behind are utterly unrealistic because they fail to take into account the sort of effect that an event like the Rapture would actually have on people and the way they go about their lives.

And yet, I can’t quite get on board with the idea that, if life is just one damned thing after another, then the Rapture would be just another of those damned things. The whole point of the Rapture is that it is part of the End Times, that it is part of that final drawn-out moment in history when all the narrative threads in the world will find their resolution. There’s no “perpetual state of mystery” about it.

Later on, Perrotta remarks that the series is all about how people create religions to explain things that can’t be explained, and how the sudden disappearance of so many people three years before the series begins “throws off existing religious systems, it creates this vacuum.” This makes me wonder: Would everyone find their theology “thrown off”? What about any Christians who might be left behind, who might believe that the sudden disappearance vindicates the theology that they had been taught? I suppose they, too, might be disillusioned after a while if no Antichrist comes along; if there’s no seven-year Tribulation after the sudden disappearance, then the sudden disappearance certainly wasn’t the Rapture they were taught to expect.

At any rate, I look forward to seeing how the series tackles these questions.

And I can’t help noting that, as N.T. Wright and others have pointed out, the birth of Christianity was, itself, partly a response to a confounding spiritual experience, namely the Resurrection. First-century Jews thought they knew what a “Resurrection” would look like, and what it would entail — not just the resuscitation of one dead person but the bringing back to life of all Israel, and perhaps the entire world as well. Those who encountered the risen Christ, however, were startled to discover that it didn’t entail all that — not yet, at least — and so they had to rethink everything they thought they knew about the end of the world and the climax of history.

So perhaps there’s a precedent there for wrenching a highly anticipated supernatural event out of the context in which people have always expected it to happen.

I haven’t paid much attention to the reviews of The Leftovers, but for what it’s worth, the first few episodes currently have a 70% rating based on 20 reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, and a score of 66 based on 22 reviews at Metacritic.

HBO has also released a new trailer featuring dialogue from a minister played by Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who, etc.). The trailer raises such familiar questions as: Is the suffering we endure a punishment or a reward? Is it, perhaps, a blessing in disguise, something that makes us stronger? You can watch the trailer below:

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