This is our second message about the Theological virtues identified for us by the Apostle Paul, who wrote to a fledging group of first generation Christians that three things abide – are always present – faith, hope and love. To examine the qualities of this second virtue, we are following Professor Karen Swallow Prior’s technique of using a popular literary work to illustrate the nature of a specific virtue. Her choice for our enlightenment is The Road by Cormac McCarthy, published in 2006.
This is another case where I have not read the book. However I have seen the 2009 movie version, staring Viggo Mortensen, and feel that I have a passable understanding of the story, supplemented further by essential details provided by Prior in her expository narrative for her book On Reading Well. Thereby I hope to do McCarthy’s highly praised work justice in our own journey to a better understanding of an abiding virtue.
The Road is firmly rooted in the post-apocalyptic genre, which is very prevalent in movies, TV and literature these days. It is also a minimalist work in its form and representation of the setting in which a father and son journey towards some form of redemptive future. It is described as being near the sea, where they will find greater warmth and hopefully fellowship in the company of like-minded souls.
The father provides the impetus for the arduous journey through his eclectic teaching. He assures his son that the two of them, but especially the son, are good guys, who carry the fire. The latter quality is not defined, but should resonate with the reader as a post-apocalyptic version of being the keepers of the flame; the ones who retain some ideal of warmth and light to elevate the human spirit above that of shear animalistic survival.
That the book never defines what it means to carry the fire is of no consequence. The father and son are fictional characters after all. The meaning is deemed to reside within the reader, the only one who can be truly shaped by this story. And that is what Prior is after in her book On Reading Well, the realization that good literary works affect us by shaping our own character through insights gained from the fictional lives concocted in an author’s imagination.
Prior makes use of The Road to symbolize hope, but acknowledges that first it displays the virtue of love as shown in the relationship between the father and son. We can take this even further and say that in McCarthy’s story all three of the Theological virtues – faith, hope and love – are present. The son reveals faith in all its purity by his reliance of his father’s instruction. Even when the son questions his father’s actions, he willingly accepts the response, assured by the refrain that they carry the fire. The son’s trust in his father’s undefined phrase justifies all.
Hope abides in us all. The father and son’s journey in The Road demonstrates our need to find purpose outside the self, something transcendent, to sustain us in our hope that life has meaning. That we see in this story that hope is best revealed in combination with the other Theological virtues is not surprising. The unknown author of the biblical book Hebrews shows the relationship when he writes “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1 King James Version)
The sequence expressed in this statement is correct. Faith engenders hope. As I wrote in last week’s message faith is not blind. It is the consequence of experience. We say that we put our faith into someone or something based on the evidence we encounter. I have faith in Karen Swallow Prior as a teacher based on her position as a professor of English at Liberty University and by what I have read so far in her own writings. Because of this faith I hope in her ability to provide further insights into the nature of virtue. This is the type of good result hope seeks to find in some future attainment no matter how difficult or delayed the result may be. An example of something far more potent than the hope I have in the good professor’s teaching can be found in the Apostle Paul’s letter to his student Titus, when he wrote of the blessed hope, “the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Titus 1:2)
Prior relies on the philosophical teachings of the Dominican Friar Thomas Aquinas to illustrate another significant combination of the Theological virtues. Aquinas taught that hope leads to love and action. We see this in the father’s decision to save his son following his wife’s suicide, the consequence of hopelessness. Love for the boy and hope for the attainment of a safe haven prompts a journey of epic proportions. Prior writes, “What else but love, the fruit of hope, could fuel the fire of such an arduous action as survival in a post-apocalyptic world?”
The Road retains the elements of a hero’s journey defined by Joseph Campbell based on his research into the epic stories of the past. The one distinction from his literary predecessors I would claim for McCarthy, though, is the element of fellowship. The bond between the father and son as they share in the experience and inspire one another’s actions is the antithesis of the classic hero as a lone warrior. Think of Perseus slaying Medusa or the 12 Labors of Hercules and you get the idea. Modern day versions of a life journey tend toward buddy stories. Father and son have more in common with Frodo and Sam than they do with their mythic forebears such as Orpheus’ lone descent into the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice.
A post-apocalyptic scenario allows any author to posit entirely new values in a world that is essentially a morally blank slate. However, even though the setting may be in a post-apocalyptic world but the reader is not. The terms of the writing, no matter the form, must remain understandable to those of us who take up the book in the present age.
The values of the protagonists in The Road reflect this dynamic. The “good guys” are easily recognizable as they retain the white-hat persona of a Hollywood western hero, while those of the “bad guys” reflect the traditional storyline found in such works as William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. Good and evil do not vanish beneath the ashes of a dead world. They are merely accentuated by the absence of material distractions. Something transcendent must remain. Hope fulfills this need as do its companion virtues faith and love.