Thursday, April 10, 2008

A dark, worthy parable

I was on vacation in May of last year and I picked Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel entitled The Road. It is a wonderful story written by a man who is, according to one reviewer, “our greatest living author.”

The Road is a dark story. I recommended it to my brother and he said, “That is the most depressing book I ever read. I can’t believe you liked it.” In a sense it is a depressing book, but it makes a wonderful point that our society desperately needs to hear.

At the center of the story are a father and son trying to survive in the dark world that exists after an apparent nuclear holocaust. The father is fixated on keeping his son alive in a very dangerous and ugly world. From time to time they have opportunities to aid others along the road and the boy always wants for his father to extend a helping hand. The father never wants to. He avoids human contact fearing that others might be dangerous and they often are. The father sometimes allows limited contact with those in an obvious weaker position who do not represent a threat. The son always wants the father to help the weaker ones, but the father resists. Sometimes he does help a little, but not much. Often the father does not help others at all.

For much of the book I identified with the father and I understood his reluctance to help others. The others might be dangerous to himself and to his son. The can of food they share might be all that stands between themselves and starvation in a few days.

But as they continued down the road I realized that the strict path of self-preservation followed by the father reduces his life and that of his son to, literally, an animal existence. Those little chances that they have to help others, risky as they are, offer their only chances to experience a little light in a dark world.

Finally the son has an opportunity to take a tiny step of faith and he does. In that tiny step of faith, dangerous though it was, he has a chance to experience a different way than that revealed to him by his father. He got a chance to speak with someone who would talk to him about God instead of talking to him only about how to get by in the world.

The Road is a dark story, and it is supposed to be. In the tradition of the dark biblical book of Ecclesiastes, Cormac McCarthy reveals the way the world looks when goodness, faith and the spiritual are stripped away. The disturbing thing is that the life of the father and son in The Road is the life of many in our society. Indeed, too often the goals of that father are very much like our goals in life.

By stripping away all the extras McCarthy hopes to show us the ugliness and emptiness of the road that many walk. Because of all the stuff we have, because of all the distractions we enjoy, we cannot easily see that our lives often follow the same repulsive road that the father in the story tried to teach to his son.

One person who read the story told me that I was too hard on the father. After all, he was only trying to protect his son. My response was that the father went too far to try to protect his son. Look how far Jesus’ Father went to protect his Son. While he possessed the power to stop it, Jesus’ Father let him die a horrible, unfair death. But revealing a path of goodness and love and forgiveness and grace was more important than saving the life of his Son.

The parable that is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road helped me to see the ugliness of the ways we often cling to desperately and reminded me afresh of the superior path offered by Jesus: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:32-33, TNIV).

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