Dirk Russell On "The Road"
By Dirk Russell
One of the first books the seniors read in their humanities class is Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” At first glance it is easy to conclude that the book is bleak in that it presents a world that is “barren, silent, godless.”[*] But in the midst of the bleakness, “The Road” also holds out a sliver of hope concerning what the world could become. (Granted, if you have read the book you know it is a tiny sliver, but it is there nonetheless.) The book also helps the reader consider what in life is really important; in a world where everyone has lost everything, what is truly important becomes very clear.
As far as I know, Cormac McCarthy does not profess to be a Christian. And from the scant number of interviews he has done it is clear that he was not trying to write a book which espoused a particular set of moral principles or religious values. That being said, at a visceral level, McCarthy “gets it” and stumbles on to the truth and beauty of a Christian worldview. Specifically, there is something about “The Road” that accurately captures what it means for us as followers of Christ to live as aliens and strangers in this sinful world as we anticipate and seek the coming Kingdom of Jesus Christ.
The question at the heart of “The Road” is: What does it mean to be human? Under normal circumstances this is a difficult question, but in the world created in “The Road” it is exponentially more complicated. “The Road” is a simple story about a man and his son. We never learn their names because they live in a world where names don’t matter. This fact is emphasized early in the book when the man finally, after a number of years, throws away his wallet, drivers license, money, and credit cards. He does this since these things have no value in a barren, silent, godless “feverland,” a term McCarthy uses to describe the world in “The Road.” The man and the boy live in a world that has been destroyed, and the seemingly few people left are losing or have already lost any hope of rebirth. “The Road” presents a world “peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators…Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeway like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last.” It is also a world peopled with so-called “bloodcults” full of men “who would eat your children in front of your eyes.”
“The Road” never reveals what happened to the world, but like the names of the man and the boy, it doesn’t matter. “The Road” also gives very little insight into the life the man and the boy lived before the disaster. The reader is simply dropped into the story a number of years after the unnamed disaster. What we do learn, however, is that in the early days of the disaster, the man “…told the boy stories. Old stories of courage and justice as he remembered them...” In the early days after the disaster the man made sure the boy understood that they were the “good guys” who would never resort to murder or cannibalism. Central to the man’s stories was the idea of “carrying the fire.” Over and over again, the boy asked to be reassured that he and the man were still carrying the fire.
In class we discussed what it means to carry the fire. The students agreed that the fire represented goodness, compassion, love, beauty, truth, and humanity. We also discussed that for us as followers of Christ, carrying the fire means living as faithful image-bearers of Jesus Christ no matter the cost or the resistance we experience in the world. The lesson the man gave the boy in those early years is that in a world that has utterly lost its way, it is essential that the good guys carry the fire and refuse to lose their humanity. To carry the fire is essentially the answer to the question of what it means to be human. To be human means living righteously even though the world no longer understands what is good. It means protecting the weak, and caring for those who cannot care for themselves. It means fighting injustice and creating a world of goodness, beauty, and truth. It means showing mercy and grace to those who don’t deserve it while forgiving those who have wronged you.
Unfortunately, by the end of the book the man loses his faith and fails to hold on to the fire. This is beautifully but tragically pictured when, in a moment in which the man needed to exhibit courage and strength, he drops and loses forever his lighter – a prop that is important in the early pages of the book. He physically loses the fire as he figuratively loses the fire. The boy, however, persists in carrying the fire even after his father is no longer willing to bear its burden.
I have the seniors read “The Road” because by the end of the book it is clear that the story is as much about us as it is about the man and the boy. “The Road” challenges the students to think about the choices they make every single day. The book helps them to see that they too are on the road as pilgrims, aliens, and strangers. The world they inhabit has not been destroyed by an apocalyptic disaster; the world they live in is actually in worse shape as a result of having been marred by sin. Of course, there is hope because God sent his son to bear the awful weight of sin through death and resurrection. But that is not the end of the story of what God is doing in the world. He has also created for himself a people, a people redeemed from sin and given new life. His people represent restored humanity and are called to be pilgrim ambassadors. “The Road” helps us understand that we are the ones called to carry the fire of Christ and his kingdom in order to show what it means to truly be human.
[*]All quotes are taken from: McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.
Photo by Braden Hall