What does one read immediately before commencing an intensive doctoral program in biblical studies?
I had all sorts of plans. After arriving in Durham, I intended to spend half of each day translating Bultmann’s German commentary on John and the other half reviewing a Hebrew Grammar. For fun, I would also better familiarize myself with the works of my supervisor, Francis Watson.
I also thought that it would be helpful to squeeze in some of the most recent material on narrative criticism in the Gospels as well as Christology.
Those plans have not materialized. Part of this is due to the fact that most of my books are still en route from a port in Charleston, or staged in a warehouse in Manchester awaiting a cargo truck to bring them to Durham. But even if I had in hand all my precious, impressive books, it is quite unlikely that I would have carried through with those plans.
I just haven’t been up to it.
I remember that after finishing up my M.Div. at Beeson, I found myself unable to read a sentence without having to re-read it. My retention was pathetic. So that summer I took up Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy again and found that flowing fiction restored my brain back to hard, concentrated reading. I am voracious when it comes to books, even tough books, but the move to England was such a demanding saga that I needed a break from my normal reading patterns.
I almost returned it to Joel Busby, but I decided he would be forgiving once he discovered that I had packed his copy of The Road in my luggage (sorry, friend!).
Cormac McCarthy is the author. I wanted to read some of his stuff for two reasons: I loved the dialogue in the movie No Country for Old Men and I remember one of my former Beeson professors, Gerald Bray, suggesting that more Christians need to listen to the voices in our society unafraid to explore the darkness and depravity of the human heart. He specifically cited McCarthy as an example.
The Road is not light reading. It is a miserable tale set in an ashen, post-apocalypse death-scape. The story details the pathetic, hand-to-mouth existence of a straggling father and son, skulking like ghosts in fear of their lives at every moment along burned and abandoned roads cut through a world whose time has come. They are not alone on those roads. Other shadowy, skeletal humans lurk about, some dying of disease or starvation, others preying on the weakest. McCarthy never satisfies the readers’ curiosity about what exactly happened to plunge the earth into its holocaust status. His attention is on developing the emotional bond that exists between the unnamed man and his unnamed boy, a bond that leaves the reader aching in concern over every danger encountered that threatens its dissolution.
There is a powerful theme of good against evil. But along McCarthy’s “road,” the line between the good guys and bad is that the former do not eat other humans.
Morality in such a ghastly realm is messy. The story unfolds along the spine of the father’s consuming sense of duty to defend and protect his son in this wasteland. Rescue the child… at all costs. Keep the boy alive… at any expense. That is the virtuous task, and all things are determined virtuous by whether or not the boy survives. Yet the boy himself exhibits a compassion and care that seems entirely out of place amidst the dead trees and the new society of the damned that haunt the road. The sweetness of that compassion is so poignant against the nightmarish backdrop McCarthy has created.
As an aspiring writer, I am in profound awe of McCarthy. The Road won the Pulitzer Prize. I can tell why. Every paragraph is brilliantly crafted and ekes of the terror of the landscape, aches with the pain of the father-son relationship, and pulses with the barely visible beauty that sometimes exists, though dimly, in the darkness. Throughout every page is the awful tension surrounding how many bullets are left in the chamber of the man’s pistol. On every page is the longing for a meal, the desperate hope for clean water, the raw fear of disease generated by a cough. It is a masterpiece of apocalyptic writing.
Near the end of the book, the Father says,
Look around you…. There is no prophet in the earth’s long chronicle who’s not honored here today.
I was awestruck over sentences like these, and so many others.
McCarthy’s writing is not all macabre and dark. There are faint (oh so faint) glimmers of hope. But there is hopefulness in the face of a brutally grim reality. As a hopeful realist, I loved—really loved—this book.
McCarthy is writing about post-apocalyptic existence. In his account, that existence is rough and sickening beyond registry. Thinking about this brings to mind the call of Christians not to a post-apocalytic existence, nor even—more surprisingly—a pre-apocalyptic existence. As followers of Jesus, we live an existence that is, at this very moment, always apocalyptic . What we refer to with the term “apocalypse” (read, “revelation” or “disclosure”) is not simply a cataclysm of unusual proportions. It is the revealing of God’s mighty, saving hand outstretched through the work of Christ by His Spirit. That divine disclosure entails, eventually, the destruction of evil forces that have plagued and threatened God’s good creation for millenia. Our existence is in the middle of two major stages in that apocalypse, or revelation, of God’s salvation of humanity and all the earth. The first advent of Jesus and His subsequent crucifixion and resurrection, are part of this apocalypse… and the climactic denouement awaits.