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Are humans alone in the cosmos, or does some Divine Being watch over our lives? Is there a God who loves us, or are we left to ourselves? And how might human evil affect our ability to give an answer? Such questions arise from Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road, a story in which the evil that has ruined the world is entirely the fault of humans.
The novel opens upon an Earth decimated by nuclear war, locked in a perpetual nuclear winter. In the (roughly) ten years since the bombs dropped, all animals and plants have died, as has most of humanity. Human bodies litter the roads. Some corpses are melted into the eroding asphalt by heat from nuclear blasts. Others are the flayed skeletons of people killed by marauding bands of cannibals.1 The few houses still standing have been looted by survivors or commandeered by smaller groups of cannibals who capture travelers to harvest and eat them alive, body part by body part.2 Most of the humans still living form communes where brutality reigns. Weaker humans serve as labor slaves or sex slaves, women are common property, and every member is potentially food for everyone else.3 In one small group, a woman produces children for food.4
Because the standard relationships that give humans identity have been obliterated in the collapse of civilization, McCarthy leaves both places and — with one exception — characters nameless. His two protagonists, a father and son, he identifies as the man and the boy. Indeed, for all but the last few pages of the book, this father and son exhibit the only humane relationship. The love they manifest justifies, therefore, the one variant on the man that the author allows: the boy calls his father “Papa.”5
In this world, ascendant evil tempts everyone with nihilism. The man’s wife — the boy’s mother — commits suicide, convinced that there is neither relief for their daily suffering nor security for their persons against the violent gangs who would rape and eat them. Her heart sucked dry by human evil, she is no longer able to feel love. Thus, she finds hope an unwelcome burden. Just before she kills herself, she tells the man, “My only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.”6 When the man tells her, “I wouldnt leave you,” she replies, “I dont care. It’s meaningless. You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover [death].”7 The irony chills. By embracing death, she affirms the vision of herself and of humanity implied by both a nuclear holocaust and cannibalism: that utter annihilation is just. Her suicide renders her complicit in the evil acts that have so deeply wounded her soul.
Neither the man nor the boy, however, succumb to evil. In a world where most survivors are “men who would eat your children in front of your eyes,”8 this man sees his son as good, as “[a] strange beauty”9 whose moral, spiritual, and biological life is worth nurturing. Therefore, although religion, apparently, has been wiped out, “the sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality,”10 the man teaches his son the difference between right and wrong. Like the physical world, the man’s language for the spiritual and moral world is skeletal. He speaks of good guys (who don’t eat people) and bad guys (who do) and teaches his son that the two of them “carry the fire,” his image for both hope and moral good. Through “old stories of courage and justice,”11 he reminds the boy (as the boy, at times, reminds him) that each must protect the light he carries within himself, a light of conscience that bespeaks an innate moral sense and seems to point, at times, to God.12
Like the fires which they cobble together to keep alive through the frigid nights, this light must be nurtured; or it will flicker out. The boy, for example, begs his father not to kill an emaciated tramp who steals their supplies. He senses that a retaliatory killing would render them similar to the cannibals who keep alive by killing and eating other people.13 Indeed, the boy retains a moral consciousness that harmonizes with a description of humanity offered by the Second Vatican Council: “In the depths of his conscience man detects a law which he does not impose on himself but which holds him to obedience.”14 This law, of course, has been violated by others; for only by ignoring the law of conscience could humans perpetrate so diabolic a crime as worldwide nuclear holocaust. Likewise, forgetting that his son’s is not the only life worth protecting, the man is prone to take the life of any person who appears the least bit threatening. Into this temptation, the boy speaks mercy, striving to prevent his father and himself from becoming like those who have left the world desolate. Repeatedly, he asks his father, “Are we still the good guys?” reminding the man that he too must tend the light of conscience within himself, because, for him, God’s presence in the world is too often narrowed to the singular being of his son of whom he says, “If he is not a word of God, God never spoke.”15
Erik J. Wielenberg contends that the hypothetical quality of the preceding sentence is intentional. The man is not, at every moment, certain that God has spoken.16 There are moments, too, when he crosses the Joban threshold and curses God, supposing, in such moments, that there is a God to be cursed.17 Although he is enraged that God seems to have abandoned them, he does not kill either himself or the boy.18 At another time, he tells the boy, “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.”19
By juxtaposing moments of faith and despair, McCarthy reveals just how potent is the human capacity to affect human faith. A world in which humans have mostly wiped each other out, a world so dead that we can hardly imagine it will ever regenerate, makes belief in God very difficult. As the novel’s only prophet (turned atheist) says, “Where men cant live gods fare no better.”20 For when the image of God in humanity is denied (and how better to deny it than to incinerate most of humankind and eat the rest?), the God whom humans are supposed to reflect becomes obscure Himself, as obscure (though perhaps as persistently present) as “the banished sun [that] circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.”21 McCarthy’s story supports, therefore, several important observations. First, if God has not abandoned His human creatures, they remain, nonetheless, vulnerable to evil and to evil’s power to subvert the belief that God is love. Second, the human fear of death and the desire to survive can lead us to stupendous acts of evil.
Therefore, despite the unsentimental picture of humanity reduced to a demonic preoccupation with mere survival, hospitality — the virtue of welcoming the stranger — remains a prominent counter-balancing theme in the The Road. Although most of the humans the two meet are dangerous, they are welcomed, retroactively, to the provisions of those who have not survived.22 In two different houses and one underground bunker, the man and the boy find the sustenance they need to continue their journey. And the boy, at least, is careful to voice his gratitude for the gift of food and shelter, as one would if provided these things by living human beings.23
McCarthy further underscores the virtue of hospitality by its depraved violation.24 In one particularly disturbing scene, the man and the boy happen upon a house in which they hope to take temporary shelter, only to discover that it is inhabited by cannibals who (in a dark twist on the cellar as image of abundant provision) store living humans for food. Such evil terrorizes the boy, and the man fears it may kill both hope and conscience within him.25 Thus, finding other hospitable humans becomes the man’s singular concern, people who will listen to the word from God that his son is, who will receive him, welcome him, and care for him as an image of God.
In The Road, the hope that love has any lasting place in this world is tenuous — that it can renew the world, even more tenuous. But the man is tenacious, moved by love that has no obvious rational basis: for who could wish his son to live on such an Earth? And yet, to give in to despair, to yield, as does the man’s wife, to the temptation of death would be to give the world up to evil. For this man, suicide means accepting and accrediting actions that declare that slavery and cannibalism are the law of existence. Such a death would be a protest, no doubt, but it also would be complete defeat. The man, though, remains hospitable to his son, making space for him in the world and refusing to take his life even to protect him from evil. “I cant hold my son dead in my arms,” he tells the boy.26 Seeing his son as a divine gift, he calls him, at one point, “God’s own firedrake,”27 at another, a god himself.28 Thus can Ashley Kunsa contend that, “grace and redemption [rather than hatred and violence}….drive the narrative [of The Road]: [because] out of love for his child and hope for some salvation, the man pushes himself to the point of death to preserve the child’s physical and spiritual safety.”29
When, therefore, another family appears, McCarthy offers a tenuous hope. Scarred by battles, worn down by the strain of keeping alive in this world, they are, as yet, unconquered; and they offer the boy a home when his father dies of exhaustion, his lungs ruined by the ash that still pollutes the air.30 In their persons, the themes of conscience and hospitality meet. Because they do not eat people, the boy recognizes them as carriers of the fire. But their humanity shows itself most poignantly when they welcome this defenseless boy into their family, despite the obvious limits of their own resources. They are practitioners of hospitality, of love for their fellow humans. As such, they provide McCarthy’s best hope that humanity will survive and flourish. They also provide the novel’s best evidence for God. As the apostle John reminds us, “Love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”31 In McCarthy’s fictional but utterly believable world, people who do not eat other people have kept their humanity alive. They are people open to the word of God still beating in their own breasts. In the welcoming words and arms of the woman who offers the boy her love, The Road suggests that humanity must nurture the law of God written on the heart, or it will destroy itself. Because, however, the novel offers no guarantee that the family who welcomes the boy will not itself be wiped out, he offers no unambiguous evidence that God exists or that He loves humankind. Such ambiguity is consonant, though, with the scope of evil portrayed in the story.
If love is necessary for belief in the Christian God, then Christians must recognize that our praxis either supports or subverts our faith because our actions make claims to our fellow humans about what God thinks of them, or whether He thinks of them at all. If human love can be offered as evidence for Divine love, then human hate will call such love into question. Living, as we do, in times of heightened suspicion, hatred, strife, and enmity, we who profess Christ have an enlarged responsibility to offer hospitality, especially to strangers. Doing so may be the strongest evidence we can offer that He whom we claim to follow is the God Who loves.
Stephen Mitchell teaches English at Covenant Day School in Matthews, North Carolina. He holds a PhD in humanities.
“Jesus doesn’t encounter Matthew and John — or you and me — and ask, ‘What do you know?’ He doesn’t even ask, ‘What do you believe?’ He asks, ‘What do you want?’ This is the most incisive, piercing question Jesus can ask of us precisely because we are what we want.” —from You Are What You Love, by James K.A. Smith