Friday, September 02, 2011

An intelligent use of the Rapture premise

by Salman Hameed

It is hard to keep a straight face while talking about Rapture - the ideas that good Christians will be lifted up before the End Times - and the rest of the population will duke it out here on the Earth. This is not a mainstream idea, but it is popular amongst a subset of Evangelicals in the US. It is also a relatively recent idea (I think it goes back to 18th or 19th century - but I'm sure some of the readers may know better than I do) and I first heard about it via The Left Behind series. Of course, there is also much entertainment in this as some atheists are also offering to provide post-Rapture care for the pets left behind.

But now there is a fascinating new novel that asks the question what if some people did disappear? It does not explain why or how, but just that some have just disappeared. This is the premise of what looks like a fascinating new novel, The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta. Two of his earlier novels, Election and Little Children have been turned into fantastic films, and The Leftovers is being adopted into an HBP miniseries.

Here is a thoughtful Fresh Air interview with Perrotta. It is fascinating that the novel is not about the religious aspects of Rapture (though he does have the formation of cults as a result of these disappearances), but rather it focuses on how humans deal with pain of losing loved ones. It also asks the question of how people react to unexplained causes. Perrotta himself is skeptical of religion, but he seems to understand the reasons why people believe and he respects that. He has an interesting take on how he views novels and religion:
"I would probably have to say that reading fiction — those stories fill the space that other people might use religious stories for. The bulk of what I know about human life I've gotten from novels. And I think the thing about novels that make them important to the people who love them is that there's always another perspective. I think there's no novel that really works unless it has an internal dialogue and attention. And I think that is obviously a real alternative to religion which tends to give you a unified perspective and isn't that interested in competing ideas that are equally valid. ... It's very relative in that sense — absolute — and that's what drives religious conservatives crazy. They don't like the idea that there are multiple truths for multiple people."
The premise of Rapture is indeed fertile ground for philosophical explorations. In the face of thousands (or millions) of sudden disappearances, how would (or should) scientists respond? Should there be an actual search for people and/or natural explanation or should science give up on rational explanation and accept the supernatural? How and when do we get to this point? I don't know if the novel deals with other religions, but I think it will be interesting to note the reactions of other religions (for example, Muslims) if the prediction of a rival religion appear to have come true. Would that fundamentally shake up faith, or would reinterpretations be enough to explain the disappearances? Of course, the element of doomsday cults is already in the novel.

Oh - I love it! I'm psyched about the HBO series and will try to find time to read the novel.

Listen to Fresh Air interview here and get the book from Amazon here.

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