In HBO’s ‘The Leftovers,’ concept of Rapture gets secular treatment

The message seems to be, God is sitting this one out.

By Michael Parnell

HBO pioneered the adult television series, shows that usually appear on Sunday nights. Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire and the recent True Detective are examples of these series, but I like to think of them as long form feature films. The latest entry into this long list is the recently premiered The Leftovers.

The premise of the show is simple. On an October day, the 14th, 2 percent of the world’s population — of all ages, races and genders — just disappear. We see what happens to those who witness the disappearances in the town of Mapleton, N.Y.

The event looks like what Jesus described in Matthew 24: “At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left.”

The show quickly moves forward to three years after the disappearance. We see a town where people are trying to live normal lives, but deep within you can sense something is wrong.

One of the first things we see is that a person is going around killing stray dogs — presumably those whose masters have disappeared. Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), the town’s police chief, is out for his morning run and he comes upon one of the animals. Before he can find out who the dog belongs to, the gunman shoots the dog and drives off.

As we enter this world we discover that people are trying to live with the echo of lives gone and that echo becomes unbearable. An example of this is a cult that forms and is known as the Guilty Remnant. Its adherents chain smoke and adopt a vow of silence. They are awaiting the end and stand as silent witnesses to those in the town. They are like ghosts, walking among others and appearing out of nowhere.

When the town attempts to hold a memorial service on the third anniversary of the disappearance, Guilty Remnant members appear, dressed in white, holding up signs that say, “Stop Wasting Your Breath.” This demonstration turns the town’s people into a violent, angry mob which attacks the Remnant.

The story gives us little information about how the disappearances took place or who did it. In one scene, a congressional hearing is being aired on C-SPAN and a witness testifies that in his opinion it was not the Rapture. He believes, “God sat this one out.”

That seems to be the message — God is sitting all of this out. For God is not a part of what is taking place. A minister in town tries to refute the claim that the disappearance was an act of God because some of the people who left were not good.

As I watched, I thought of what I was taught as a child about the Rapture — how the righteous would be taken and the unrighteous would be left in a godless world. What the creators of this series have done is take that idea and create a world where there are no clear answers to why and offer no explanations. But the idea of the Rapture lies behind what is going on here. Evangelical Christians let this idea loose into the world and now find their idea has been turned inside out. That is what happens to ideas.

An idea is presented and no one has ownership of that idea. The concept of people disappearing without notice now becomes a tale about what the world will be like for those who remain or are “leftover.”

What I see here is a world where things are unhinged. The status quo does not exist, because the moment the 2 percent left, the normal ceased to be. People and their environment now find themselves in a primal state where it appears God has left them to figure out how they are going to make it.

This was the pilot, and we will see how The Leftovers works itself out. I will be watching to see how the creators continue the story. For now, I am hooked and want to see more.

A word of warning: this is an adult series. It contains plenty of adult language and adult situations, and there was sex in this first episode.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.