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What are we going to do?

Alan Noble


How do you tell the story of the end of the world without bothering to tell us how it ended? We get is a series of low concussive sounds, ash, fires, and cannibals. But what caused it all? Readers of Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road are often troubled by absence of a clear explanation for what caused the disaster, something McCarthy has commented on:

"A lot of people ask me. I don't have an opinion. At the Santa Fe Institute I'm with scientists of all disciplines, and some of them in geology said it looked like a meteor to them. But it could be anything—volcanic activity or it could be nuclear war. It is not really important. The whole thing now is, what do you do?"

"What do you do?" Near the end of The Road, the father asks his son a similar question: "What are we going to do?" And the son replies, "Well what are we?" That answer cuts to the marrow of our modern anatomy. What you do at the end of the world is remember who you are. And by that I don't mean the collection of social and commercial preferences we identify with, or our gender, or our personality type. At the end we have no choice but ask what it means to have being.

This kind of deep questioning is hard for modern readers because we are so terribly good at being distracted all the time. Its a good day when I don't wake up and immediately reach for my phone and fall asleep with it in my hands. The electronic buzz of being (as I've called it elsewhere) sweeps us up in continual checking and embeds us thoroughly within culture. It's difficult to think of ourselves as distinct beings with weight and purpose. Our identities are culturally defined so we can't quite imagine what it means to be a person made in the Image of God.

Had McCarthy identified the disaster, he would have distracted his readers from issues surrounding their existence. Instead of having to ask, "Why bother living in a world filled with suffering and lacking all hope for the future?" we would be asking how we can stop climate change, or a nuclear war, or an asteroid.

I think for some readers, the desire to know what caused the end is itself a form of escapism, a desire to avoid the anxiety which arises when we accept the startling world McCarthy portrays, one in which our very existence is questioned. It is easy to read a book and be chastised to recycle or advocate for nuclear disarmament; it's quite another to be asked to strip away everything that seems to make us who we are, so we can see our place and our being, truly. Yet, perhaps that's exactly what the best of Christian writing will do: help us see God's grace anew.