I am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.
Alan Noble (PhD, Baylor University) is an Assistant Professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University, Managing Editor at Christ and Pop Culture, and a Freelancer for The Atlantic. He and his family attend CityPres in OKC.
In 2006 Cormac McCarthy published one of his finest novels, The Road. It is a masterpiece of prose, at turns moving and terrifying, beautiful and gritty, transcendent and nihilistic. The novel tells the story of the end of the world after some unnamed cataclysmic event which blots out the sun, sets fires across the world, destroys cities, and ends society as we know it. McCarthy asks, what is left for us if we no longer have a culture to give us guidance and meaning?
To answer this, he tells the story of a nameless father and son as they travel south on a road toward warmer weather and the hope of finding other “good guys.” But this hope is irrational; the world they inhabit is violent and evil: bands of cannibals, steal, rape, and eat the weak, there is almost no food to be found, and there is no prospect of the world getting any better. In one pivotal scene, the boy’s mother tells the father that the ethical thing to do in such a world is to kill their young son before some great evil happens to him. And from a strictly secular perspective, she’s absolutely correct. When there is no future imaginable for anyone, why would you risk your son being horribly tortured? Following the logic of her own argument, the mother commits suicide.
Absurdly, the father refuses to murder his son. He retains a belief that his son has been given to him by God as a warrant of God’s existence and goodness. And by faith the father acts as if his son has a future worth living for, worth risking incredible suffering for, and the fantastic and fascinating thing is that McCarthy actually rewards that faith in the novel’s conclusion.
It’s difficult to express how remarkable this novel is. Modern readers expect a hopeless ending, an ironic ending, an ambiguous ending, or at best an ending that praises the human will to persevere in the face of a godless and hostile world, but McCarthy very intentionally validates the faith of his protagonist, a faith that is absurd from a secular perspective (for a lengthy treatment of this absurdity, see here).
One of the points made by Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor in his great work, A Secular Age, is that while religion remains popular, our society no longer assumes as a basic fact that the supernatural or transcendent is a reality which can affect us. Whether it is miracles in the Bible or God’s preserving common grace today, most modern people find it difficult to conceive of the supernatural. Ours is a largely disenchanted world, one in which we look inward for our hope and significance and direction, rather than outward toward a transcendent reality. And yet here is Cormac McCarthy, perhaps the foremost living American novelist, telling a story that acknowledges the weightiness of the secular vision (in the voice of the mother) and then denies that vision by validating a faith in the transcendent.
For those who can tolerate language, unsettling images of violence and suffering, and the even more unsettling moral questions that accompany those images, The Road is a rewarding and gripping read. And for the modern Christian reader, it is a moving reminder of the tension between secularism and faith that so strongly defines our time.