Grieving Through Pop Culture
The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 6 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Lost & Found,” available for free for a limited time. You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.
“I‘m scared, Daddy.”
“What’s wrong? Why are you scared?”
(Points to heart.) “Jesus doesn’t live here anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s gone, Daddy, and it hurts.”
My phone rang at 11:30 p.m., interrupting whatever television show I was binge-watching that week. One of my best friends, a youth minister, was in a car accident with his youth group as they traveled home from a mission trip. No other details were given, other than he was on his way to the hospital and prayers were appreciated. I hung up the phone and pressed play on my computer screen, rationalizing away my spiritual laziness with a certainty that everything would be alright. God loves my friend, I thought, and He works all things for the good of those called according to his purposes.
My phone rang again at 3:30 a.m., interrupting my sleep. My friend was dead. I didn’t pray when it was worthwhile, and now, he was gone. Gone gone. The New Testament euphemizes death as falling asleep. I didn’t sleep again for 48 hours. Though my body remained awake, my faith began a slow process of slumbering—in the New Testament sense of the word.
Cultural artifacts offered words and longings for which I was unable to articulate in the throes of my own suffering and doubt.I didn’t doubt God’s existence or His goodness; I doubted His promises.
I was asked to eulogize my dead friend.
On my 13-hour drive to Tennessee, I encountered a song that said better with music what I wanted to say with words. Saintseneca’s “Only the Young Die Good”:
If only the good ones die young
I’d pray your corruption would
swift like a thief in the night
Right I pluck my right eye right out”
Between tears and construction zones, Saintseneca’s words comprised what became the last of my prayers and worship to God for nearly a year.
“I’m the corrupted one. Let me reap what I’ve sown. Why must the good die young? Take me, the liar and cheat!”
That summer HBO aired a new television show titled The Leftovers, which features a rapture-like event that causes 2% of the world’s population to disappear. The show isn’t an exploration of how, or even why, the “Sudden Departure” happened as much as it was used to foreground the wreckage that unexplainable loss can leave in its wake. Cults, prophets, suicides; faiths, doubts, insecurities; reckless abandon, promiscuity, psychosis. There is a place for everything under the sun in a world weighted with insufferable grief. In fact, the world of The Leftovers is not much different from our own, aside from a slightly lower population.
I didn’t realize I was grieving through the characters’ grief until the third episode, “Two Boats and a Helicopter.” Named after the modern parable of a man waiting for God to rescue him during a flood, the episode is a character study on one of Mapleton’s clergy, Father Matt. In the face of inexplicable loss, Father Matt works tirelessly to expose the sin and guilt of the disappeared in order to prove the Sudden Departure was not for the righteous, and thus to validate his faith. In the episode, Father Matt follows signs he believes are from God to save his church. He gambles, wins a jackpot, and then on his way to save his church, he stops to help cult members only to receive a rock to the head. He wakes up in a hospital days later and reacts upon learning his church has been sold to a local cult, the Guilty Remnant.
“You’ve given me your word, God. You’ve given me your law. I obey as best I can, and it’s all for naught!”
While Father Matt’s existential and religious struggle resonated deeply within me, the season’s second character study on Matt’s sister, Nora Durst, validated my grief. Infamous throughout Mapleton for losing her entire family in the Sudden Departure, Nora attempts with all her might to maintain a pre-departure life. But maintaining the facade requires a certain death. In pining for what was, Nora becomes dead to what is—so much so that while wearing a kevlar vest she pleads with a prostitute, Angel, to shoot her in the heart, just to feel something. Though Nora Durst was the only one in her family left alive, she’s incapable of living.
After spending nearly an hour succumbing to the numbness that is Nora’s life, we witness the possibility of redemption. Nora encounters Holy Wayne, a cult leader whose power and mystery lies in removing the pain and grief of others through hugs. Hugs. Amidst all of her doubt and skepticism, Nora allows Holy Wayne to embrace her. A substitution occurs; he takes her grief and she takes his joy. Through the power of a hug, Nora is able to release her dead self and resurrect anew.
Immediately following this scene I had to rush out to a church leadership meeting. There’s no better (false) cure to grief like a busy life. My wife stood at the door, arms open with the compassionate gaze of Holy Wayne.
We hugged; I sobbed uncontrollably.
I thought I had been grieving for months. In this moment, I realized I had been running from my grief. That Holy Wayne–embrace allowed my wife to enter into my suffering for the first time. I was no longer alone.
I miss my dead friend.
But I don’t think about him day-to-day.
I don’t wake up every morning feeling the void of our friendship.
Why does my grief follow me?
Maybe I’m not grieving him.
Maybe I’m grieving the slow death of my faith as I know it.
This past year of pop culture has been rife with stories of loss. Following my second binge through The Leftovers, my wife joined me in a consumption of depressing narratives exploring death and existential dread. From Serial and Broadchurch to real-life tragedies such as the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, I came to understand grief as a communal experience. Danny’s death, and its ensuing investigation in Broadchurch, showed me that what’s done in the dark will always be brought into the light. The protests and #BlackLivesMatter movement following the deaths of African-American men and boys at the hands of white authorities gave voice to my own inner protest to God about justice and goodness.I went to church each Sunday because my wife wanted me to—though I fought with childish fits and attempts to stay home. When I went, I refused to worship God (even when my spirit longed for it). I didn’t pray. I rejected others’ offers to pray for me. I was in rebellion.
If I’m honest, though, even in my rebelliousness I continued to join my faith community on Sundays because I expected something. I shook my fist at God, but I waited for Him to love me anyway. Expectantly. For hope, answers, punishment even. As a community called for justice from the streets of Ferguson with the threat of tear gas and police retribution, I demanded answers from an aluminum chair in the back of the sanctuary.
Mine was a sad display of pride and privilege.
“It’s not worth it, God. None of this is worth it. Is it worth it, God? Show me it’s worth it!”
I once prayed drunk with Kyle Minor.
Not really. But his collection of intertwined short-stories, Praying Drunk, served an epiphanal role for my doubting/grieving/rebelling self.
My friend died, and I was sad about it, but I was more depressed that his death broke my faith.
But it’s okay to be broken. Kyle Minor told me so.
Q: Why do you have the robot in the story about the suicide?
A: It was a mistake. That story needed seventy-three robots, twelve pirates, three Vikings, three zombies, seven murders in polygamist cults, two slow trains to Bangkok, three bejeweled elephants in the court of Catherine the Great, six scarlet-threaded elevators to space, fourteen backlit liquor bars in Amsterdam, five bearded men spinning plates on top of thirty-foot poles in Central Park, four mechanical rabbits, three alarm clocks, two magic tricks, twenty-four test tubes, the Brooklyn Bridge, the London Bridge, the boob doctor’s daughter…
Q: Whatever it takes to get your attention?
A: Whatever it takes to cover all the hurt.
Through Q&A with angels, locker room bullying, an unsuccessful fight with cancer, a pastor’s lost faith, a father-son pill addiction, suicide, robotic clones of the dead, abandoned children, failed love, missionary murder, and (believe it or not) more, Praying Drunk exemplifies in its storytelling an inescapable brokenness. In so doing, the reader is pressed to confront the fact that all is not right—but it’ll be alright.
Praying Drunk reminded me that my grief did not have a simple balm, nor did my faith have an easy fix. Instead, Minor’s stories invited me to sit in my brokenness. As a type-A personality, I long to fix problems, repair what’s broken, find meaning and purpose in the chaos. When my friend died, I was unable to reconcile the promises of God to a tragedy outside my control. Praying Drunk confronted my insufficiencies, forcing me to rest in my friend’s death, and subsequent lost faith, before rationalizing it away or attaching special meaning to the events.
“I don’t believe You, but I want to.”
In a bout of fear and sleeplessness, my 4-year-old son became a prophet. Although he has no understanding of Jesus setting up residence in our hearts, he spoke to me the words I refused to speak to God: “Jesus doesn’t live here anymore. He’s gone, Daddy, and it hurts.” I was Sisyphus, and the Christianity I knew was the boulder I carried up the mountain only to tumble down again and again. I was weary of faith, tired of believing, and exhausted from maintaining the “good Christian” facade. The Christianity before my friend’s death was one built on my own understanding, education, and effort. It was sustained by church work (preaching, small group leadership) and Christian busyness (daily Scripture reading, Bible studies, leadership meetings, discipleship). It was defined by culture wars and theology texts, practiced through “right” beliefs and spiritual discipline checklists.
When I accepted that my faith was gone, I stopped trying at it; when I stopped trying at it, I experienced grace in its fullness.
Even when trying to have nothing to do with God, I was incapable of abandoning a worldview so knitted to my innermost self. I was reading Shusaku Endo’s Silence at this point in my journey, a classic piece of literature I should have been made to read earlier in my life. Wrestling with faith and doubt in the seemingly meaningless martyrdom of 17th century Japanese Christians and Portuguese missionaries, the cultural irrelevance of the Gospel, and the temptation of apostasy, Endo’s Silence fictionalized my very real yearning for answers and purpose. After wrestling with the silence of God in the most trying of circumstances, after persevering in faith up to the point of martyrdom, Christ breaks His silence to Father Rodrigues:
And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’”
Rodrigues’s epitome of strong faith was a martyr’s death. It’s what he expected. It’s what he wanted. But when Christ spoke, Rodrigues was beckoned unto apostasy. The voice was still, quiet, and unexpected; the command unfathomable. While martyrdom was for Rodrigues, apostasy was for the sake of others. In order to find true faith, Father Rodrigues had to die to his own idea of what it was and live what he perceived as a life of cowardice.My friend died, and I was sad about it, but I was more depressed that his death broke my faith.
In my grief and doubting I knew I couldn’t return to the faith I knew. It was too exhausting. It wasn’t worth the effort. To be at peace with God, I had to trample my faith as it previously existed. I was at a crossroads, ready to leave Christianity entirely. Two days after my son’s prophetic indictment, God spoke. A brother-in-Christ, one of my closest friends who grew up in the faith with me, reminded me of a truth I had forgotten. “You keep saying you can’t go back. You’re right. You can’t,” he said. “Chris is dead now. To go back to the faith you knew is to go back to when he was alive. Your faith has no room for his death.”
If you were looking for a grand climax, existential epiphany, or the purpose behind unexplainable loss, I’m sorry. I was expecting something like that too. But those simple words, truths of which I cognitively knew beforehand, tore down the veil and lifted my burden. I didn’t say anything, but I knew it immediately. I felt it. God had just entered into my friend’s living room and spoke to me. I had been shaking my fists in anticipation of an earthquake, strong wind, or blazing inferno. Instead, I got His still, small voice. A seemingly inconsequential word that surprised and made all things right. Jesus didn’t knock like He’s supposed to; He just showed up and took His room back.
“Thank You, Jesus.”
I tried to live without faith for a year, and Jesus ruined me. The loss of my friend caused me to lose my faith, trapping me in a vicious cycle of grief in which I was never sure what I was supposed to grieve.
Paul’s epistle to the Romans assures believers that when “we do not know what to pray for as we ought…the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (8:26).
Not only did I not know what to pray, I didn’t want to pray. But while the Spirit was groaning on my behalf, I grieved, doubted, and repented through books, television, and film made meaningful through my own experience. The Leftovers introduced me to grief; Broadchurch opened me up to communal suffering; Praying Drunk beckoned me to rest in grief and feel my brokenness; and Silence resurrected my waning faith, giving me new eyes to see and believe the promises of God. These cultural artifacts offered words and longings for which I was unable to articulate in the throes of my own suffering and doubt.
“Thank You, God, for pop culture.”
Image: HBO The Leftovers
Tyler, this telling of your crisis of faith is beautifully written and reminds me of my husband’s journey with grief that he wrote about in The Turning Year: a memorate. Richard’s almost -ex wife, who clearly was mentally ill, shot and killed the woman he was planning to marry. She was an acquaintance of mine, the sister of a friend. I met him at the wake. He represented the reverse of your kind of faith: he had always had spiritual longings, but no religion. Through the tragedy of this woman’s death, in which he perhaps was in some moral sense implicated — although no one knew how to cope with his wife’s mental illness — he came to Christ. He was a university teacher of English and Folklore; his grief was processed through many literary touchstones and trials, including the kind that go through courtrooms. The comparison of similarities and differences in your faith experiences is fascinating and, from the standpoint of grief counselling, very helpful.
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