Visions of a Post-Apocalyptic America

For some reason, I just finished reading two different books set in America after a cataclysmic event of some sort.  Both books were engaging and caused me to think about the world we live in and the future that I foresee.  First, my reflections on the books themselves, in the order I read them:

World Made By Hand by James Kunstler:  I was captured by the very first chapter of this book and honestly, the title caught my attention at the library.  I read this in about five days – pretty quick, given my more recent reading pace.  The story centers around the characters of a small upstate New York town trying to survive in post-apocalyptic America.  One of the strengths about the book is that the story does not focus on what has happened (that is, the cause of the apocalypse), but where the main characters are now and how they deal with an uncertain present and future.  Similarly, there is not a lot of politisizing on the cause of the destruction/apocalypse – which is only alluded to in the narrative.  I was concerned that we would get a rant or several about oil/global warming/overpopulation/radical religions/etc…somewhere in these pages.  Therein making the story a cautionary tale.  This is surprising especially given the authors others books, particularly his non-fiction work (although I have not read any of it).  In many ways, this absence, is why I found the story so compelling.  I was able to imagine the world that the characters inhabited and consider the reality of their day to day struggles.  Unfortunately, at the end of the book, I was left wondering what the point of the story was or even what the main thrust of the story-arc.  There was suspense, romance, redemption, etc…and religion/Christianity played a large role in the story, but there seemed to be several storylines that were presented and then dropped.  And then the book just kind of ends.  Still, I really enjoyed reading this book and found an engaging story, even without a larger story being told.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy:  I have been interested in reading this story after watching the Cohen Brothers adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country For Old MenThe Road also has been made into a movie with Viggo Mortenson playing the lead and will be released Thanksgving week.  In terms of writing and story-telling, McCarthy’s work is far superior.  As with World Made by Hand, something has happened, most likely a nuclear holocaust that results in a nuclear winter.  Again, there is no direct mention of the cause of this event or even any inkling of the reasons.  It is about a father and son on the road simply surviving day by day and the various things they encounter on their way headed south.  The landscape is bleak and sparse and the dialogue and writing reflect that, establishing the mood of the entire book.  A friend called it dark and sobering and he is right.  And yet, there was a light that shone forth from the charred landscape, depraved survivors, and a seemingly hopeless situation.  The father’s love for his son is nothing less than heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.  In the coldness of nuclear winter is the warmth of this love that drives the story to its conclusion.

My reactions as a Christian to these books:

  • My faith causes (or should cause) me to look at the future without fear of what might happen or might become of us.  This does not mean that nuclear holocaust will not happer, nor worldwide economic collapse, but I have the promise of Romans 8 firmly implanted in my heart:
  • 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
    36 As it is written,
    For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.
    37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
    38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,
    39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    These promises do not guarantee health & wealth or the absence of nuclear holocaust or whatever might come.  The above passage actually recognizes that there are some circumstances that we might face that might be described as quite bleak.  And so, as a Christian, I have to recognize the potentiality (not probability) of the visions presented in these books, even while hoping in the goodness of God’s will.  This is not something you would ever hear Joel Osteen say, as there is a huge difference between holding onto the promise of God to “never leave, nor forsake us” and the message that God wants you to prosper, period.  In this way, these books are closer to a truly Christian position than some who read the bible in parts and misrepresent the purposes of God.

  • Neither book painted a kind picture of “fallen” humanity.  Both stories contained truly depraved characters and actions (for this reason, these books may not be appropriate reading for all audiences.  As with any type of media, discernment must be exercised).  Either this does not comport with the prevailing notion of the universality of benign humanity or humanity is solely conditioned by its environment (e.g. desperate times call for desperate measures).  I do not know if this reflects “postmodernism”, whatever that means,  but it is not that far from the biblical notion of total depravity.
  • I found it intersting that in both stories, God is not “dead”.  He may not figure prominently at all times, questioned at others, but He is not written out of either story.
  • While I do not think that McCarthy intended to write a “Christian” novel, in many ways he has.  At one particular point when the father wonders if he could kill his son to save him from the horrors of what others could do to him, I thought of Abraham & Isaac, but primarily the Father who gave us His Son for us (Romans 8:32 – He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?).  The context and purpose are different, but the heart of love out of which the actions and thoughts of that father echo the Father’s love for sinful humanity.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Helen Lee on October 2, 2008 at 11:24 am

    Hi Adam. Sorry it took me so long to get to your blog. I was going through my emailbox today and realized that there were plenty of emails I hadn’t paid attention to. I have read The Road but not the other book you mention. I agree with you about McCarthy’s book. The love of the father for his son was the beating heart of that book. And even though the son at times felt strangled by that love–and strayed from it–the father’s devotion never failed. A wonderful picture for us to dwell on.


  2. […] World Made By Hand by James Kunstler:  I wrote my reflections on this book and The Road here. […]


  3. Posted by Wade Martin on December 22, 2008 at 12:16 am

    Greetings. I just finished “The Road”, I have not read “World made by hand”. Needless to say, I was disappointed in “The Road” in that I expected the book to involve some Christianity basis. The only reference to God was in the first chapter when “The man” cursed the heavens for their fate. Further, I was very disappointed in the non-practicality of the story. The basic helplessness of what was left of humanity. Not taking proper shelter, not having an assortment of weapons, no basic skills of survival only to name a few. In reality the main characters would have died with the first frost. I do recommend reading “The Postman” by David Brin. An excellent story of the survival and
    re-birth of humanity after wars and diseases. Again, what is missing in the story is faith in the Lord..but still a great story. (Avoid the motion picture)
    Thank You.


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