If you have watched any apocalyptic movies lately, whether that includes zombies or end of world catastrophes, death is a common occurrence. Because it is so frequent, it is dealt with in an atypical way. In many stories, very few characters die giving the protagonist plenty of time to deal with and process death in a very personal way. In a movie with a high death toll, the interaction with death changes dramatically. For one, the goal of the story becomes survival. Scene after scene shows the protagonist’s escaping harrowing near-death experiences (while those around him or her are not so lucky). McCarthy’s The Road focuses solely on a surviving father and son as they journey to the ocean while trying to avoid death by cannibals or starvation after an apocalyptic event has wiped out most of the population. The ironic part is seen, however, when the viewer is forced to remember that even if they “get away,” they have not cheated death. Because even if they escape the destruction, they will still die. In the case of The Road, the main character is lost at the end. The audience is left wondering what is the point of the story. The protagonist is not successful in any meaningful way. Having made it the ocean, nothing is found there and his life ends. The only redeeming moment is that his son still lives. But what kind of life the son lives, the audience will not know.
Mainstream media does not know what to do with death. In movies like World War Z, 2012, and The Day After Tomorrow, our heroes survive and rejoice over it. But, in reality, we know that this rejoicing is only temporary. We may survive the tsunami or volcano or zombie apocalypse, but, one day, the Grim Reaper is coming for us, and we cannot avoid him. The Bible tells us that the fear of death controls man, and every movie made along this vein echoes this truth. It terrifies us. And it should because death points to the meaninglessness of life. That is–unless we have hope.
It is interesting that the last 15 years or so has created a preponderance of apocalyptic literature and shows. To me, this is evidence of the restlessness of the post-modern mindset that is trying to make peace with an idea that there is no larger story or metanarrative that gives meaning to life. Without this overarching idea to guide the actions of life, people may grab on to the YOLO concepts but find, like the hedonists and Epicureans of the past, that pleasure does not bring peace or value. This lack of resolution has tormented the greatest minds throughout the ages (and not just ours). And, in each age, it is always the power of story that enables people to make sense of the enigma of life and death.
Cornelia Funke’s recent series Inkheart is a novel about a man with a rare ability. When he reads a book out loud, he brings the story to life. In one ill-fated moment, he is reading aloud the book Inkheart and brings forth some of the most notorious characters and sets them loose on the world. And, even more horrifying, he finds that his precious wife has been sucked into the novel herself. The next few books deal with the various characters attempting to undo this horrible event, but along the way we meet the author of Inkheart Fenoglio and an interesting idea emerges. What happens when the author of the story enters his own story? In the end, he is the only one who can fix the mess that the story has tangled itself into:
He put pen to paper, hesitated–and began to write.
New words. Fresh words. Meggie thought she could hear the story taking a deep breath. Nourishment at last, after all the time when Orpheus had merely fed it with Fenoglio’s old words…Meggie stared at the paper. There is was again, the story she had last heard when she had brought Orpheus here.
Yes. The words obeyed Fenoglio once again.
When the story of our earth got so tangled up that no one could unravel it, the author also stepped in to write new, fresh words–words that would set in motion a movement that would bring hope to the furthest corners of the world. For up to this point, man had struggled with his purpose. In myths and stories, he has contemplated his place among the divine and found no sympathy or help except in rare circumstances. But, in Christ, we see the image of the invisible God and all the musings and wonderings are silenced in the presence of The Word.
And we see for the first time the role of death. In fact, we learn surprisingly that death is no longer as powerful as we once believed. Jesus and every one of his disciples and countless other martyrs throughout the years have laid down their lives not in defeat, but in victory. In this narrative, the one who “survives” but ultimately loses his soul is not the winner. And Jesus makes it clear that the pathway to true victory lies in giving up our lives. He gives the powerful imagery of a seed that must die in order for life to occur (John 12:24).
In fact it is this revolutionary idea of death that made the church so powerful. From a tiny group of mostly uneducated Jewish fisherman, citizens of a conquered and despised nation, comes a movement that would eventually impact the whole world. What made their message so appealing? Andy Crouch discusses sociologist Rodney Stark’s research from his book The Rise of Christianity. His research revealed that during two particularly horrible Roman epidemics that annihilated ⅓ of the population, Christians stepped up to help those who needed help. He describes it in the following way:
In the face of terrible conditions, pagan elites and their priests simply fled the cities. The only functioning social network left behind was the church, which provided basic nursing care to Christians and non-Christians alike, along with a hope that transcended death…The church would grow not just because it proclaimed hope in the face of horror but because of the cultural effects of a new approach to the sick and dying, a willingness to care for the sick even at risk of death. (157)
When we adopt this new, countercultural view of death, much in our lives could change. We may become bold. Sacrificial. Focused on a goal beyond that which can be found on Earth. And maybe, just maybe, the world will see what power the Gospel has to transform lives and give hope in a way that could foment a desire for something truly lasting.
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep togain what he cannot lose.”
Jim Elliott (martyr)