Reading literature over the years has convinced me of two things: (1) much of what passes for "great" modern or contemporary literary work seems void of transcendent hope (there are exceptions, of course), and (2) secular writers often express more of God's revealed truth than they realize. Both points are clear in my mind after reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Let me first describe the sort of hope that's praised in this book by its critics, and then I'll show where I think McCarthy is more illuminating than he probably knew.
DARKNESS AND THE SPECTER OF EARTHLY HOPE
Apocalyptic fiction paints the world in the darkest of colors, setting the characters on a canvas so black and bleak that any glimmer of humanity radiates off the page. The man and the boy in this story are a bit like embers blown into light by the slightest of favorable winds: watching the ashen world from the warmth of a fire, finding extra cans of food in a hidden bunker, getting a rough hair cut and shave after weeks of ragged filth and sweat, swimming in the ice cold water of the charcoal gray surf. These tiny moments are supported by a fragile hope that they will find "the good guys" after the world has burned in an apocalypse. The good guys are the ones who don't murder and rape, who don't pillage and cannibalize or roast newborns on a spit. The good guys, as McCarthy poetically puts it, "carry the fire." Interpreting that phrase is already a task beyond the reach of many readers.
The trouble is that the hope the characters carry with them, guarded only by a shoddy pistol and an exhausted hyper-vigilance, is a purely earthly hope. It's a hope stuck inside what Charles Taylor in A Secular Age called "the immanent frame." For the man and his son, peace on this ashen planet, in the here and now, is as good as it gets. Those who carry the fire are those who curtail the fear of imminent doom and strive toward some humanitarian ideal.
But, in fact, this isn't enough. Despite the man's admission that many nights he went to sleep envying the dead, he and the boy want more than what they wish for in words. They want more than survival among an equally exhausted and disenchanted pack of fire-carriers. They're just too defeated to admit it. This comes through in the nearly eclipsed references to God. After firing a flare gun into the dark beach sky, the boy was nervous that they'd be seen by others.
They couldn't see it very far, could they, Papa?
No. Not far.
If you wanted to show where you were.
You mean like to the good guys?
Yes. Or anybody that you wanted them to know where you were.
I don't know.
Yeah. Maybe somebody like that.
God is on the periphery of their hopes, present but not tangible enough to invest in. In fact, there's a fear that any hope in another world (heaven) is a death sentence for this one. "When your dreams are of some world that never was or of some world that never will be and you are happy again then you will have given up," the man said. "Do you understand? And you cant give up. I won't let you." In McCarthy's tale, heaven is a hell-sentence. The light of God is a fairytale that will burn up your breath and leave you in ashes.
In McCarthy's tale, heaven is a hell-sentence. The light of God is a fairytale that will burn up your breath and leave you in ashes.
The real darkness from the book comes not from the ashen apocalyptic world they trudge through—with all of its rust, char, and desolation, its silhouettes of life once lived buried beneath the debris of death. It comes from the smallness of the light they think is worth chasing, a light they think is inside themselves, an earthly light. In God's eyes, such light is tantamount to darkness. And "if the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" (Matt. 6:23). The man and the boy struggle all the way to the end to maintain a light of hope that is essentially dark, because it is bound to a world not that is passing away, but that has passed away. The San Francisco Chronicle called it a story of "the miracle of goodness." I found it to be quite different. It is a story about the dimness of a death-destined hope in a world bound to burn (2 Pet. 3:10).
Real, transcendent hope, the sort we seek out like crazed detectives, is sown in the seedbed of every soul. God has put eternity, not the earth, in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11). He's made us to look skyward, to long for the travel "further up and further in," as C.S. Lewis put it. As I reflected on my father's early death, I once wrote, "The beauty of hope is in its defiance. Everything can mount against it—experience, reason, physicality—and still it stands like a rooted tree in an open field, quiet but determined, ready to weather a hurricane of doubt" (I Am a Human, p. 63). Transcendent hope is defiant. As I read The Road, I couldn't help asking if the characters' hope was defiant enough. And as I finished the book, I decided it wasn't. Earthly hope leads only to earthly goods. And when the world has burned, what's left?
If earthly hope is a specter that haunts The Road, transcendent hope is the voice that harkens us home, and it refuses to be silenced, even in a burning world.
In one of the most brilliant lines of the book, McCarthy reveals his character's existential dilemma: "Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it." How close he was to the truth! Everything we have is borrowed because everything we see can be nothing more than an echo from our real destiny, sound waves from a holy city, where trumpets dare to blare (Rev. 11:15). If earthly hope is a specter that haunts The Road, transcendent hope is the voice that harkens us home, and it refuses to be silenced, even in a burning world.
THE MEANING AND THE MYSTERY
McCarthy also lets more meaning than he knows drip from his words. Redounding throughout the book is the perennial question of purpose and destiny: why are we here, and where are we going? Look at how he ends the book. (Spoiler alert for those who haven't read it yet!)
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
Mystery. That's where he ends when it comes to the question of purpose, of destiny. But he also ends with something categorically secular: the impossibility of redemption ("Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again."). Take these two points together, mystery first.
Many Christian readers might balk at the book's ending because what it suggests as "mystery" should really, they think, be stated in print, plain and simple. "Jesus will come back to finish what he started. All things will be made new, and God's people will live forever with him in heaven." There's your mystery . . . solved.
But look closer at the creative and redemptive movements of our three-personed speaking Spirit. Why did God make us in the first place? What was he doing playing with that dust in the dawn, making little images of himself? How can God talk to humans? How can he hold the whole world together with the word his power? How can utterance establish and lift up the universe? And when things get so broken beyond holy recognition, how can the infinite God become an infant? How can he walk death straight out of the cosmos with the resurrection? How can the whole earth be moaning in anticipation throughout it all? There is mystery everywhere. As Cornelius Van Til once said in a sentence that nearly broke my brain:
We certainly cannot penetrate intellectually the mystery of the Trinity, but neither can we penetrate anything else intellectually because all other things depend on the mystery of the Trinity, and therefore all other things have exactly as much mystery in them as does the Trinity. (From the lecture “Christ and Human Thought: Modern Theology, Part 1")
All things have exactly as much mystery in them as does the Trinity. That's why McCarthy's ending on mystery is so powerful. It's not just non-Christians that should see this, but Christians. There is more mystery to the world and to our place in it than we could ever fathom. We just do everything we can to forget that and pursue the illusion of control and mastery.
As for redemption, it's no surprise that McCarthy's apocalyptic world saw no way of setting things right. If all you have is this world, and this world has been burned to the ground, then the story is over. You can write an elegy for it on the bellies of trout. But there's no fixing what's been fractured. This is the epitome of what Van Til called "one-circle thinking," or what we might call in literature "one-circle imagining." Because God is left out of the picture, and because humans are limited and transient (not to mention corrupt), "good" literature becomes all about lament. Lamenting youth, lamenting creation, lamenting love, lamenting war, lamenting identity. It's all lament and no grace-based restoration. In fact, it can't have that, because secular literature has no place for it. It doesn't believe in the Creator-creature distinction; it only believes in the creature. For secular literature, redemption must be either this-worldly or absent.
Contrast that with the biblical narrative, which not only announces the possibility of redemption, but the inevitability of it. Not because God has to redeem, but because he freely ordained to do so from the beginning. He willed self-sacrificial love to win the day. That's why in Scripture there is a parallelism between Creation and re-Creation. The Word creates, and the Word restores. The Spirit gives breath, and the Spirit gives new life. The Father makes the prodigal, and the Father welcomes him home. There is the sweetest symmetry between the world that God created and the world he has already begun re-creating. To use McCarthy's imagery, God made the road for us to walk on, but after we tore apart the world, he used a parallel path to bring us home. In McCarthy's work, the road is an aimless wander. In God's world, the road is a path paved with divine generosity. If McCarthy's world is about surviving, God's world is about receiving—first the gift of life and then the gift of second birth.
THE DEEPER ROAD
I don't know if you've read McCarthy's work or if you ever will. He's a gripping writer, haunting even. It's no accident that the book won the Pulitzer. Readers saw something in this book that struck them deeply: a struggle and yearning for peace and vitality, a sacrificial love, a passing of one generation's wisdom to another, and the unexpected miracle of good favor (I refuse to say "good luck"). But maybe what calls people back to its pages so frequently is a deeper truth: we know full well that we're on a road. And though our lives may feel ashen and corrupt, stuck in a swirling haze, we keep getting up. We keep hunting for firewood. We keep chasing the possibility of forgotten canned goods in the storehouse of someone else's life. We keep "carrying the fire."
But McCarthy was no fool. He had to know that carrying the fire is only worth it if the flame is given to us, and if its light leads beyond what we see here. The Road was a story that kept me looking down. My life is a story that keeps me looking up.