Religion is an important facet of society, so naturally it has a role to play in the cultural narratives we produce and consume. How exactly it is represented differs depending on the denomination, culture, and time period; examining these differences provides valuable insight into religious trends and perceptions. That is the central aim of this column, which will look at various themes tied to religion in television and film, and what they represent. The first of which, below, looks at The Leftovers and its use of religion as a coping mechanism for grief and trauma.
With the recent broadcast of season two, The Leftovers is beginning to firmly establish itself as a strong voice for discussions of faith – its uses, applications, and issues. For those unaware of the series, it centers on the fictional aftermath of a rapture-like event (“The Departure”), which results in the disappearance of two percent of the world’s population. Given the explicit reference to the Rapture (Christians being taken to Heaven during Jesus’ “second coming”), it would be expected that there be some divine judgment or sign. Here, there is nothing. Scientists and theologians clamor to explain the event, and both come up with no answer to the disappearance of so many. This is where viewers are introduced to the story.
The portrayals of religion in the series are varied; although there are Christian themes, the core of the series shies away from mainstream religion and towards the establishment of new forms of faith. The supposed random choice of those who are “departed” moves it away from the traditional idea of the Rapture, and of Christianity offering a saving grace. Instead, the storyline focuses on the grief of those left behind and their coping mechanisms. While grief and trauma feature as the main theme of the show, some of the methods of dealing with them invariably involve faith in its many guises, adding an interesting dimension to the series.
The Rapture is an undeniably present idea in American culture. In a 2013 Pew Forum survey, it was found that forty-eight percent of Christians believe that Jesus will return in the next forty years. Yet, for a series using a seemingly Christian religious event as a springboard for wider discussions, it feels remarkably secular. Firstly, there is a consistent denial of the religious aspects of the event by characters such as Nora, Kevin, and Jill, who also display an absence of faith. Secondly, there are several examinations of faith in the series; their depiction as hypocritical or damaging ends up positioning the show as exploratory, as opposed to it merely endorsing a certain faith. The first of these, perhaps the more traditional, is that of Reverend Matt Jamison. He is a Christian Reverend, and in “Two Boats and a Helicopter” (S1:E3), viewers witness what has become of his life: trying to prove those who were taken were sinners, so the event couldn’t be the Rapture. This quest becomes his coping mechanism: a frenzied attempt to validate both himself and his faith (i.e., he is a good Christian, so this couldn’t have been the Rapture since he wasn’t taken!).
He describes the event as a “test for what comes now,” and more interestingly, he argues, “if we can no longer separate the innocent from the guilty, everything that happened to us, all of our suffering, is meaningless” (S1:E3, “Two Boats and a Helicopter”). This search for meaning is something that pervades both the series and our species as a whole. Religions like Christianity can be seen to offer answers to questions. But here, where the “rapture” cannot be explained by science or religion, there is a deviation from the narrative. The event has caused conflict – it has forced humanity to face its own mortality and find ways of coping. Because the traditional methods (e.g., Christian theology) have failed to explain and give meaning, there is a turn towards alternative quasi-religious routes such as – and primarily throughout the series – the Guilty Remnant, who offer a collective yet worship no god, and Holy Wayne, who purports to take away suffering, but offers no further answers. Another element reinforcing the trend is institutionalized religion, particularly Christianity, being viewed negatively, as shown in the series by Reverend Matt’s empty church and his hypocritical actions, which include gambling and violence. The subsequent ousting of Reverend Matt from his church by the Guilty Remnant enables an ushering in of a new, alternative kind of faith.
The Guilty Remnant is disparagingly cast as a “cult” that formed in the aftermath of “The Departure.” Their trademarks – dressing in white, chain smoking, and not speaking – seem confusing to those who inhabit the town. They provide one of the central storylines in the series and are often positioned as the antagonists. They strive to remind people of what happened and this is painful for those survivors who lost loved ones. Despite their lack of vocalization, their very presence angers people to the point of violence: at the beginning of “Gladys” (S1:E5), viewers see a Guilty Remnant member being stoned to death, which aside from being a gruesome murder scene, interestingly recalls biblical modes of punishment.
Despite the focus on the Guilty Remnant, they are not shown as the answer to this crisis either. Both Reverend Matt and the Guilty Remnant are searching for a solution, and their ways of coping are similar in some ways, but fall short of satisfying those who weren’t departed.
Arguably, using a Christian narrative to underpin conversations about trauma and grief offers an easily recognizable narrative that can be interpreted in various ways, offering a rich cornucopia of stories and meanings. Yet with the conflict between the Guilty Remnant and the Reverend and his traditional forms of faith, there comes a more pertinent echo.
In discussing the series, Adam Kirsch in The New Republic argues that “the most important spiritual fact [today] is the decline of the mainstream churches and a rise of a variety of cults.” It reflects a trend observed by the Pew Forum that there is a turn away from traditional forms of Christianity (and instead towards alternative methods of spirituality), with a rising inclination for people to describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” According to The Guardian, the series offers “an Armageddon for a generation making peace with its doubt.” In short, it embodies the various trends – both the turn towards spirituality (the belief in a god or universal spirit, but being unaffiliated) and a rising atheist population (who believe in no form of spirit or god) – giving the multiple viewpoints on faith a voice through the various characters in the show.
This is perhaps the most important fact about the show: there is no one way of coping, no one faith to follow, and many ways to find meaning. Yet, what we should bear in mind is the limited examples we are given in The Leftovers offer different forms of faith. The characters presented seem at times to serve primarily as a vessel for their particular form of faith, and as such they come with stereotypical treatment: the manipulative side of cults (The Guilty Remnant), the hypocrisy of the church (Reverend Matt), the flawed nature of the godless (Nora, Kevin, and Jill) – all common tropes onscreen, and as such, should be viewed with awareness of their narrative function. As to where the third season will take us, we can but hope for an interesting continuation of the exploration into the American religious landscape and the many forms it takes in response to grief and trauma. The link between grief and religiosity is evident in other current narratives, which is something that will be discussed in the next post. With a particular focus on the expression of grief, both The Leftovers and the subject of the next post touch upon key issues tied to the current on-screen representations of “religion.”