NPR put out its "Best Novels of the Year" list in December and so as we set out to do a lot of driving in January, I went ahead and picked up several of these books at the local library. The last in the pile was, The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta, a great read. The novel opens with a rapture. Millions of people around the world vanish in an instant. Only the selection seems entirely random - all ages, all religions, all walks of life, all ethical codes from good to terrible are represented among those who disappear.
People react in predictable and completely unpredictable ways. Some work to throw themselves back into "normal" life. They try to resume their daily routines. A national hippie group forms called, "The Barefoot People." They encourage and celebrate any act that brings enjoyment - so lots of drugs and sex. College age kids swarm to this movement. National cults emerge including one called, "The Guilty Remnant, " with chapters in most communities. Their members take a vow of silence, wear all white, live in group homes, smoke incessantly and trail local people in an attempt to keep the rapture event uppermost in everyone's minds at all times.
The main characters in the novel all respond differently to the rapture, but no matter their response, there is a discomfort with and a rejection of the trivial. The future in uncertain. No one knows if and when a next rapture might strike. People begin to live more in the moment. And even those who work hard at re-establishing a new normal in their outer life are always at work within, trying to make sense of their world....post-rapture.
This calls to mind the glass observatory deck at the Grand Canyon - a destination high on my "must see" list. This floor intrigues me. From what I hear, it is very disconcerting to walk out on the deck, look down and see the dizzying drop below, knowing only this sheet of glass stands between you and death. A lot of people can't even get themselves onto the platform.
The characters in this book I've described are like people who've suddenly had the floor rolled out from under them. They look down and realize just a thin sheet of glass is separating them from a world totally unlike anything they've ever imagined. I'm guessing John, James and Peter could maybe relate.
Story 1: Jesus lead his three disciples up a high mountain by themselves, for what reason, the three men could only guess. They were hiking along, savoring the day, the rare taste of privacy. They had enjoyed good conversation at the outset, but exertion soon crowded out talk and so they simply took pleasure in the easy camraderie. Nothing alerted the three friends to the nearing presence of the supernatural. Then again, nothing could have prepared them for the sight of their friend, Jesus, glowing in the pathway ahead of them with a holy and white-lit, blinding radiance. They clutched each other in shock and disbelief, using one another to keep upright as first Elijah and then Moses materialized out of thin air to stand on either side of Jesus. Only later did they stop to wonder at how each intuitively knew the identities of the men who flanked Jesus' sides in a mysterious communion. Overwhelmed at the vision that refused to clear no matter how many times he shut and opened his eyes, Peter felt prompted to do something, anything. He opened his mouth, unsure of what to say, and was predictably abashed at his idiotic suggestion to build dwellings for the three unearthly creatures.
Just when the disciples thought their minds sufficiently blown to pieces, a bright cloud descended upon them and from the cloud a voice rang out, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" The men fell to the ground, terrified. They covered their ears with their hands and shut their eyes tight to blot out any reminders of this otherworld they were so wholly unprepared to face. Sometime later, maybe seconds, maybe hours, when one of them finally screwed up the courage to peek, all was as it had been before. Only their friend Jesus stood there, looking down on them with a curious smile.
My family has been enjoying the fantasy genre for the last little bit. We listened to Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins on our first trip to Canada last month and now my son and I are deep into the series. We also listened to The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black as well as The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne. In these books, people ride atop giant bats, witches cast spells, trolls live under bridges, fairies are real. In each case, just a thin veil exists between our "real" world and the world of fantasy. Most often the two worlds are interwoven together with only humans ignorant of the greater reality. In each of the books, a handful of humans are allowed a glimpse into wilder realms and are forever changed by their experiences. You might say they are given the ability to see what is always there, but not normally visible...to human eyes.
That is precisely what is happening, both in the Transfiguration story (recounted above) as well as in an interesting narrative from the book of 2 Kings (retold below). According to the commentaries I consulted, these stories take place outside of the normal chronological structure of time as well as in a place mysteriously set apart. And within these narratives, the characters are given eyes to see that which would not normally be perceived by human eyes.
Douglas Hare, New Testament scholar and author of the Interpretation commentary on Matthew writes, "Matthew refers to what occurred on the mountain as a 'vision'. By this, of course, he does not mean to collapse the event into an inner 'psychological' experience, since four persons are presented as independent witnesses. What is meant is that the 'seeing' is not a natural function of ordinary human eyes but is God-given; God grants the disciples the power to see what otherwise would have been invisible to mortal perception."
Story 2: A beloved and devout prophet and mentor, Elijah, is preparing himself to be taken up to heaven by a whirlwind. His loyal student and friend, Elisha, is unprepared for his teacher's imminent departure. Elijah tries to persuade Elisha to stay behind as Elijah goes to meet his fate. Elisha will hear nothing of it. And so they carry on. Upon their arrival in the next town, Elijah again works to detatch his student. Even the town's prophets come out and suggest to Elisha that maybe he should stay behind so God can take Elijah away in privacy. Elisha tells them to "Shut up" and sticks like glue to Elijah's side. They carry on. At the next town, the scene is replicated. And so again, they carry on.
Finally, they reach the River Jordan. Elijah takes his mantle, strikes the water and it parts, allowing the two men to cross over to the other side on dry ground. After their crossing, Elijah turns to Elisha and asks him if there is anything he can do for Elisha before he is taken away. Elisha requests a double share of Elijah's spirit. Elijah gives a cryptic response sayings, "If you actually see me being taken, your wish will be granted." Elijah is taken and Elisha does see. End of story. Kind of.
Fantasy is the creative and unrestrained imagination. As I read these texts it seems to me God's reality is just as fantasmic as any fantasy novel we care to read. This Elisha story is taken from the second chapter of 2 Kings. In its entirety, the chapter also includes: a region's water made clean by a handful of salt, wild bears which do a prophet's grisly bidding and of course, chariots and horses of fire provided to accompany Elijah to heaven.
Probably most people are more than happy to omit most of these supernatural accounts from their own personal canon. These stories are a bit embarassing, reeking of fable and myth as they do. They can't be explained, can't be tamed, better just to ignore them. This is a mistake.
In a nutshell, this is why I get excited about the field of quantum physics. In that disciple, fantasy is acknowledged as potentially real. These scientists are devoting their lives to pulling back that veil between worlds, encouraging us to believe in the improbable: wormholes, time travel, alternate realities, black holes.
If we're going to make the flying leap and believe in God, than it doesn't seem that wacky to open the door on all sorts of other possibilities too.
What I really like about the Elisha story is how Elisha hangs onto Elijah, knowing full well he is about to be doused with a dose of the supernatural he may or may not survive. He is asked to stay back. Many times he is asked. But Elisha turns a deaf ear, determined to see for himself a dimension of the world and God he has only brushed up against in his dreams. When Elijah's moment of departure finally comes, Elisha is given the gift of special sight and he begins shrieking unchecked, over and over, "Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" He doesn't cower on the gound with his eyes closed. He has no one there to lean on for support. There's not a lot about Elisha that I like. (Read all of chapter 2 to see what I'm talking about.)
But I do admire his courage.
I think it's telling how Elisha emerges from his experience in contrast to the disciples. Elisha, who faces into the supernatural realm and accepts it, immediately begins performing truly amazing miracles and becomes known as a great prophet and healer. Peter, James and John, on the other hand, fall to the ground and cover their eyes when it gets to be too much. The transfiguration account appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke and in all three, the exact same story follows the transfiguration. It's a story about the disciples' failure to heal - their inability to believe in what is truly possible. Isn't that interesting? Most of us, most of the time, have feet of clay. Our imagination, our abililty to truly believe in what seems unreal, is very limited. But this unreal, fantastic, out of the world, mysterious dimension is a very real part of God. And so it behooves us to get out onto the glass deck and take a long, shaky look as often as we are able.
When we do, something interesting will happen. How we look at life will be radically altered because the trivial will begin to burn away. That's what was most striking about that novel I read. After the supernatural rapture event that changed everyone's life in a way that could not be denied, people could suddenly see how trivial so much of their life's focus had been to that point. In the new reality, who cares if the living room furniture matches? Who cares about getting into a prestigious and expensive college when the local community college serves just as well? Who cares who wins the Super Bowl or the Oscars? Reality TV bites the dust.
Even after the Transfiguration, James and John can still argue over who will sit at Jesus' right and left hand in glory (Mark 10). I think they didn't face into or seize hold of the Transfiguration in the way they might have. But by the time we reach the Ascension, a.k.a. Jesus' departure for heaven, a.k.a. another spooky, supernatural event; all the disciples are there, watching, staring up into the sky until suddenly, two men in white robes interrupt their reverie. From that moment on there is nothing trivial in the actions of the disciples. Mistakes are still made, certainly. But they are about their ministry and calling with courage and purpose.
We tend to try and tame our images for God - shepherd, parent, friend. In each of these, there is a face of truth. But God is so much greater and more terrifying than our inadequate images allow for. And it's important to avail ourselves of that truth regularly as well. It is the wild and mysterious God that helps sharpen our focus. It is the fantasmical God who holds the promise of answers for all our most heart-wrenching questions and doubts - a God who reigns not only in the limited bounds of our comprehension but also beyond our realms of understanding, a God who holds us and loves us but who remains veiled, just beyond the limits of our mortal ability to see and know. I am so thankful for a God who lives larger than my imagination!