Saturday, March 5, 2011

Faith in Susan Beth Pfeffer's The Last Survivors Trilogy

I recently reread Susan Beth Pfeffer's Last Survivors Trilogy: Life As We Knew It (2006), the dead & the gone (2008), this world we live in (2010). I believe the books offer much food for thought. (Much like the book of Job offers food for thought.) While not exactly 'religious' in nature, these books do offer readers a fictional look at the end of the world. The catastrophic events do prove challenging, beliefs are being tested. In a way, each book offers a 'to each his own' philosophy when it comes to matters of faith, belief, religion.


Megan's religious fervor can be hard to take in Life As We Knew It. Her readiness to face death makes, if anything, a negative impression of Christianity. But for better or worse, she has decided that to die is better than to live. She has confidence and assurance that a heavenly mansion awaits her. It doesn't help that her minister is questionable. How much do we really know about him? Is her church really focused on 'selling' their pastor over and above Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior? Well, we only get Miranda's view of things. And she is angry that her friend has found God; a God that from her perspective frowns on fun. Is Megan the absolute best witness to the faith? Are any of us when it comes down to it? Her friends, Sammi and Miranda, thinks she is taking this sin-thing, this God-thing much too far, much too literally. I do believe that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) I do believe we are called to repent. Now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30) Where it becomes tricky is in presentation. Does Megan give a full account of the gospel? That it is by grace, that the faith by which we are saved comes through God-given-grace? Or is the focus more on works? on obedience? on being good enough? Because one half of the gospel coin is sin and repentance or the threat of hell looms large; the second half, the half that completes the picture, is full of faith and hope and love and redemption. Romans 5 comes to mind: For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die--but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. And Ephesians 2: But God being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved--and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. So it's certainly possible that Megan's pastor is horribly, horribly selfish, misguided; an example of a wolf in sheep's clothing, a false preacher. Our one glimpse of him--his conversation with Miranda--doesn't go well for him being one of the good guys. But I have a harder time dismissing Megan's faith--even if it does burn a little too strongly. (Without this crisis, would she have matured in her faith, would she have come to a better understanding, become a better witness?) I agree with Megan that God is sovereign, that humanity is fallen, that we've been called to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. On smaller points, we might have disagreed. But we don't get a complete picture of every little thing Megan believed to be true about Christianity. If Megan's gospel is work-oriented, I would have to disagree with that. But still, I'm glad that Pfeffer was willing to go there, to offer one view of how a Christian might face these tribulations. Is it the only view? Is it the right view? Well, that's for readers to decide. It's important to remember that--at best--we see Christianity portrayed imperfectly through two individuals, two sinners who may or may not be true believers.

Miranda, the heroine, is skeptic in matters of faith. One of those that believe that if God exists why would there be so much suffering? If God does exist, he wouldn't--couldn't--be as good as Christians profess because how could God create a world and then not care when something this horrible, this awful happens. So God's existence is one big IF for Miranda. It would take a LOT to convince her at this point.

Mrs. Nesbitt. Readers, as far as I remember, are never told what--if anything--Mrs. Nesbitt believed about God, about the afterlife. But I can say this, she died well. She faced death bravely. She was prepared to die; and she did what she could to show her love to Miranda, Jon, Matt, and Laura (their mom). She loved sacrificially and unconditionally. Part of me wants to believe that she believed in God. That this is a godly example, a godly portrayal. But there is no text to support this at all. So who knows?!


If religion was portrayed negatively in Life As We Knew It--or perhaps ambiguously is the better word--then readers are left with a completely different perspective after reading the dead & the gone. In this second novel, the focus is on how the Catholic church became Christ's hands and feet during these trials and tribulations. It may be the end of the world, but the Catholic church is still going strong offering hope, salvation, and even food! Maybe not to everyone, maybe just to their parishioners, to their students, and maybe just so long as supplies lasted. But still. You don't get the image of them hoarding their provisions, of them being selfish. There were so many great scenes of this faith-in-action. Where people were responding with their hearts in faith as opposed to acting out of fear and anxiety. It's courageous and wonderful.

The Morales family star in this one. Alex, Bri, and Julie. While each of the siblings has their own reaction--response--to the crisis, none loses their faith, none lose hope completely.

God save their souls, Alex prayed. God save ours. It was the only prayer he could think of, no matter how inadequate it might be. It offered him no comfort, but he repeated it unceasingly. As long as he prayed he didn't have to think. He didn't have to remember. He didn't have to decide. He didn't have to acknowledge he was entering a world where no one had laid out the rules for him to follow, a world where there might not be any rules left for any of them to follow. (65)
"She says you've been having bad dreams."
"Aren't you?" Julie asked. "Isn't everyone?"
Alex burst out laughing. "Only sane people," he said. "Okay, maybe not Bri. But everyone else is."
"Are things going to get better?" Julie asked. "Is that why you listen to the news all the time, because someday things are going to get better?"
Alex shook his head. "That's not why I listen," he replied. "That's why I pray but not why I listen."
"Do you think God listens?" she asked.
"Bri thinks so," Alex said. "Father Franco thinks so." (81)
"And what's so special about you that you deserve compassion?" Father Mulrooney said. "You have shelter. You have food. You have family and friends. I'm supposed to feel pity for you because of a cut cheek?"
"You don't understand at all," Alex said. "I have shelter for as long as no one thinks about it. Once they do, once they realize my father is gone, they can throw us out. I have food only if I get lunch here. We're down to almost nothing at home, and I have to make sure my kid sister eats. She is my family right now, because my parents are both gone and my older brother is in the Marines somewhere and I sent my other sister to live at a convent with strangers. My cheek was cut because I got caught in a food riot, with my kid sister, and we ended up with no food anyway. I'm not asking you to pity me. I pity me enough for the two of us. But when one of your students asks you for food, you shouldn't say no and feel righteous about it. That's not what Christ would have done, and you know it." (133)

"What do you have planned for tomorrow?"
Alex shrugged. "The usual," he said. "Checking on the elderly, studying theology, fighting for survival. Same old, same old." (151)

"I know it's wrong to feel that way about God and I know it's wrong to not feel anything. I hate it. I don't hate God. I hate not loving Him." (184)
I believe that this book offers ample opportunities for discussion. What does the Catholic church get right? What would Jesus do in Pfeffer's world? How would he show love and compassion? How would he provide hope and comfort? What would be the Christian thing to do, the moral thing to do? In what ways would you--could you--love sacrificially?


This World We Live In is the sequel to both Life As We Knew It and The Dead & The Gone. Readers get reacquainted with Alex, Julie, and Miranda--for starters. This one has a large cast of characters. Upon first reading, I didn't notice the role of faith, of religion. Besides THE ENDING OF ALL ENDINGS which, of course, provides food for thought when it comes to discussing ethics and morality, of "deciphering" what is right and wrong. (I don't think it's as simple as I first thought.) But this second reading, I noticed that faith does indeed play a role. For within their home--or perhaps within Mrs. Nesbitt's former home?--a Bible study gets started. They take comfort in God, take comfort in the Bible, take comfort in prayer, in faith, in each other. We're not told what they're reading--what book(s) of the Bible they're studying--but we do see the joy it brings into their lives. To Lisa and Julie--it means a GREAT deal. Now Miranda is still having none of it, but I think faith is presented more positively in this one than in Life As We Knew It.

Verses to reflect on....

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer's;
he makes me tread on my high places. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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