This is the way the world ends… and starts up again

Review of The Postman by David Brin

Forget, if you will, the Kevin Costner abomination that ruined him in the eyes of men who had loved Robin Hood and women who had loved The Bodyguard. (Or heck, vice-versa—I’m not judging in this review. I mean, I am judging, because this is a review, but I’m not judging that.) Before there was a movie version of The Postman that was so bad that it’s really mean to even joke about it, there was the original book by David Brin, which is simply excellent.

It’s the beginning of the 20th century, and America lies in ruins—a post-apocalyptic wasteland of epic proportions stretches as far as the eye can see. What brought this about? Nuclear war? Famine? Plague? Nope—all of those things were unleashed and we managed to survive. Not all of us, of course, but American civilization held together through World War III, the resulting nuclear winter, and the ravages of wave after wave of famine and plague. What finally brought it all down according to The Postman was…  wait for it… the gun nuts. 

Wait, what?

According to David Brin, the true enemy of civilization is the survivalist. Those people who want to live off what they can grow in their gardens, what they can build with their own hands, and what’s on sale at Wal-Mart are the ones who bring the whole thing down. After the World War III, when the country was at its weakest, these survivalists—the “Holnists,” named after the thinly-veiled-Ayn-Rand-figure named Nathan Holn—saw their opportunity and took it. They rose up with their radical individualism and hatred of mankind and their love of rape and murder and tore the country apart with their sweaty, grease-stained hands. Though Holn himself was eventually executed, his legacy lives on as bands of Holnists roam the desiccated landscape and prey on the few remaining communities.

But now something is happening in the region formerly known as Oregon. A lone wanderer has stumbled on an old bag of mail and a postman’s uniform, and in an attempt to con his way to a free meal has re-ignited a flame of hope in the weary remnants of civilized life. Working with the “servants of Cyclops”—Cyclops being the sole remaining supercomputer in the world—and with the mysterious George Powhatan (king of his own small—but just and free—kingdom), the Postman is leading the fight to re-establish the civilization of America.

This book is simply ridiculous, and I loved every second of it. Despite the absurd premise, The Postman really is well written, thoughtful, and fast paced. It raises fascinating questions and challenges us to think carefully about the nature of civilization, our responsibilities towards others, and of course, the end of the world.

The repeated theme—the one that turns the Postman from a simple con man into the symbolic foundation of a restored civilization, is the idea that we have to take responsibility.

Why, why is nobody anywhere taking responsibility for putting things right again? I’d help. I’d dedicate my life to such a leader.” (73)

But what does it mean to “take responsibility” for civilization? How do we do that? The Postman suggests that it involves a number of things. It means caring for others, it means working for the common good, and it means being willing to put the interests of society ahead of your own selfish wants and needs. But it also means sacrifice. For the Postman himself, part of that sacrifice is knowing that everything he does and says is based on a lie. He rides from town to town carrying mail in the name of a restored United States government, knowing all the while that there is no such thing. Yet, the promise of his words and actions inspires such powerful hope that people once again start to act civilized. The ideal myth is a myth (what Plato called the Noble lie), yet it is transformative for the way people live. The myth becomes reality as it is believed and acted upon.

 

This in turn leads to the idea that civilization is built on symbolism. In The Postman, the symbol is that of well, a postman. Which is fair enough—I suppose there aren’t that many government offices that are as immediately recognizable and useful, and of course “The Comptroller in Charge of Assessing Institutional Effectiveness” wouldn’t have nearly the punch as a book title. The point is that the symbol takes root in the minds of the people, and begins to transform them according to the ideals it represents. All of society is established on and bettered by the people’s relationship to the symbols of that society.

Which leads to a fun tidbit: Despite the fact that this book might sound like—and was, I suspect, intended to be—a leftist work of science fiction (what with its resounding condemnation of the radically individualist survivalists),  it promotes deeply conservative ideals. The idea that civilization is founded on responsibility, sacrifice, mythology, and symbolism is something today’s leading conservative thinkers are increasingly concerned with.

And, well, that’s probably enough politics. I would love to put on my political scientist hat and drone on about how the problem with civilization isn’t the nuts living on its fringes, but rather the rot at the center. (Not that I’m a defender of radical individualism—I have far too high a view of original sin to do that.) But because we are an Evangelical blog, it’s more important to talk about how Brin’s view of the state highlights the difference between Christianity and society.

If we assume for a minute that Brin is correct (or at least that the Postman is), and that society is indeed based on personal responsibility, self-sacrifice, symbolism, and myth, then we can immediately see where the Christian life and church are going to radically deviate from that system. What we see when we look at a Christian is someone who admits his failure to take responsibility and instead trusts that Jesus Christ has done so in his place. We see someone who believes himself to be inherently selfish, and who needs the self-sacrifice of the Son of God to rescue him from that selfishness. We see someone who rejects faith in symbols and holds to faith in the proclaimed reality of the Gospel. And we see someone who does not believe a myth, but understands that Jesus was a real person who was touched, seen, and heard; and who lived, died, and rose again. Symbols and myths are valuable insofar as they can highlight the historically real foundations of our faith and point us back to Christ, but disconnected from truth they have no use to us whatsoever. Likewise as a corporate body we encourage each other to take responsibility for one another and to make sacrifices for each other as needed, but again, we understand that this encouragement, practice, and sacrifice are alike built on the finished work of another. If I try to sacrificially care for my brother or sister in the church thinking that the whole thing will fall apart if I fail, then I’ve missed the point entirely.

As much as some Christians in the past have been enamored of the idea of a “Christendom”—that is, a blending of Church and state—we see here that Christianity and society are built on radically different foundations. (Again, assuming Brin is correct in his analysis, and he may not be. I’m by no means a die-hard supporter of that theory of government.)

All of this to say that David Brin has written an excellent and thought-provoking book that is well worth your time.

Highly recommended.

Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University. He is neither a survivalist nor a postman, though he does prefer snail mail to email. 


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