Opening credits of “The Leftovers” (Photo Credit: Flickr user Ryan Cogswell)

Jill Marshall

The Leftovers made year-end “Best of TV” lists and it is also, as far as I know, the only TV drama that had a scholar of religion as a consulting producer (Reza Aslan). As a fellow scholar of religion, I believe this is no coincidence. With nuance and empathy, the show, and Tom Perrotta’s book upon which it was based, probes the religious and nonreligious responses to a worldwide traumatic event—the “Sudden Departure,” a moment in which 2 percent of the world’s population inexplicably disappear. Religious responses include the emergence of new religious movements (the Guilty Remnant, the followers of “Holy Wayne”) and new interpretations of older, more established religious traditions (Matt’s Christianity and the rituals in and around “Miracle,” Texas).

Within these responses are references to scriptures. Characters quote portions of biblical texts, including the Psalms, Job, and Matthew, and the central plot echoes the Christian idea of the “rapture,” which has its origins in Paul’s First Thessalonians. I’m intrigued, however, not by the precise texts that are quoted or the influence of the Bible on the narrative, but rather by what the characters do with scripture.

For religion scholar W. C. Smith, “Scripture is a human activity.”[1] People in communities come to an agreement that certain writings are “sacred,” and they do things with those texts that reinforce their sacredness. Building on Smith’s observations, Jeffrey Rogers identifies several scriptural activities evident in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This corpus comes from a separatist Jewish community at Qumran in the Judean desert (ca. 2nd cent. BCE to 1st cent. CE), whose activities revolved around doing things with the sacred texts of the Hebrew Bible—e.g., copying them, incorporating them into prayers, and creating paraphrases and expansions. These “scripturalists” engaged in activities that demonstrate the dynamic process that humans develop so that they may participate in something larger than themselves—that is, something that transcends the human world and touches the divine.[2]

Smith and Rogers aver that these activities and scripturalizing impulses are common across cultures. The activities of the Qumran scripturalists are also apparent in other religious movements, including those of the fictional characters in the Leftovers. Art, including TV, is a reflection of and dialogue with real life; therefore, an examination of scripturalist practices in the fictional world of the Leftovers sheds light on similar practices and views of those practices today. The Reverend Matt Jamison in particular is the foremost “scripturalist” in the Leftovers. As a scripturalist, Matt is, using Rogers’ terms, a liturgist, commentator on the present, elaborator, and visionary. His role as scripturalist evolves throughout the three seasons, and his activities with scripture influence other characters’ use of sacred texts.

The Scripturalist as Liturgist

First, as liturgist, Matt recites and performs scripture, whether in traditional services in his empty church or unconventional public settings for people who may not want to hear his ideas. The Christian scriptures sustain Matt’s worldview after the Departure, and his performance of them expresses his own emotion and desire to experience something bigger than himself.

In the first season, one of the central conflicts is between Matt, the Christian minister who tries to prove that the Departure is not the rapture, and the Guilty Remnant, the chain-smoking, nihilistic cult that emerged after the Departure. Matt finds solace in scripture, while the Guilty Remnant dismisses the power of words in general. They take vows of silence, and writing is strictly utilitarian for them. This contrast is clear in one scene in Episode 5, in which Matt addresses the Guilty Remnant after the violent death of Gladys, one of its members. He feels the need to eulogize her and say goodbye to a person he barely knows, and he invites the Guilty Remnant to come out of the house and join him. Matt acknowledges Gladys’s suffering and everyone’s pain after the Departure and admires her commitment even as he doesn’t understand her faith.

He begins to recite Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from?” At that moment, Laurie Garvey exits the house and walks toward Matt. He looks pleased that he has reached someone and that she will do what he thinks she should do—express her grief. He continues: “It comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” Instead, Laurie blows a whistle in his face to drown him out. He is confused: Why doesn’t this scripture help her as it does him? Her face shows deep pain, resulting from an avalanche of tragedies and enflamed by Matt’s reading. It is easy to empathize with both characters: Matt for his certainty in the words and Laurie for her insistence that they cannot help her.

Liturgical uses of texts have two main functions: (1) The scripturalist performs the scripture in order to cause a reaction or emotion, in themselves or others, and (2) he seeks to impose order upon the chaotic world. This is precisely what Matt does in this scene, and the reaction of the Guilty Remnant shows that they do not share his assumptions about scripture, faith, or the transcendent.

The Scripturalist as Commentator on the Present

Second, Matt is a commentator on the present situation. In this category of scriptural activity, the sacred text is not an ancient object but a tool that reflects the present world. The scripturalist does not comment on the text but channels the text’s commentary on the world.

In Season 1, Episode 10, Matt comments on the present with the help of the Book of Job. After another violent death, that of Patti Levin, the leader of the Guilty Remnant in Mapleton, Matt helps the police officer Kevin Garvey bury her body in the woods. Matt again insists on a eulogy and gives Kevin a biblical passage to read, Job 23. “If I go to the east, he is not there. If I go to the west, I do not find him.” In the Book of Job, God tests Job after God and Satan have a disagreement about Job’s faith. In the passage that Kevin reads, Job speaks. He cannot find God anywhere, but he still follows God: “I have not departed from the commandment from his lips.” That one word, “departed,” jumps out to make this passage distinctly relevant for Matt and Kevin and an apt commentary on the present. Even though Job has not departed from God, God continues to “carry out his decree against” Job. Kevin chokes up as he reads, “That is why I am terrified before him.”

Matt seems to have learned something from his scriptural failure with Laurie and has chosen a passage that resonates with Kevin. While the Psalmist is confident that God is present, Job is less sure. Moreover, Matt’s motives for using scripture have shifted. Matt is no longer performing, and he knows he cannot impose order. He can only comment on his and Kevin’s present situation.

Both Matt and Kevin are Job-like characters. Matt embodies the faith of Job in the face of all of the horrible things that have happened to him: his childhood illness, his parents’ death, his wife’s paralysis, and the Sudden Departure. Like Job, Matt can’t catch a break. Kevin’s Job-like trait is fear: He embodies the terror (“the Almighty has terrified me”) and darkness (“the thick darkness covers my face”) that Job experiences. The Sudden Departure did not snatch away Kevin’s loved ones, but it did break apart his family, brought on his madness, and caused him to kill Patti. He is terrified before God.

The Scripturalist as Elaborator

In Seasons 2 and 3, Matt’s beliefs and his use of scripture evolve. Season 2 takes him—and Kevin and Nora and their extended, unconventional family—to Jarden, Texas. Unlike Mapleton, the church in Jarden is packed; the old religion is still vibrant because no one in the town disappeared in the Departure. Essentially, one could say that Christian belief “worked” in Jarden, aka Miracle, in contrast to Mapleton and the rest of the world. But darkness works its way in. Three teenage girls disappear, and the Guilty Remnant and a mass of people who have camped at the gate invade the town. At the beginning of Season 3, the Murphys lose their daughter Evie, Nora her adopted daughter Lily, and Matt his wife Mary and their Miracle baby.

The Book of Kevin

For these reasons, Matt ups his scriptural game in Season 3. Recognizing the void that new religious movements fill in the post-Departure world, particularly as it approaches the seven-year anniversary, Matt writes a new scripture: the Book of Kevin. Kevin has sidestepped death several times, which has caused Matt and his co-authors John and Michael Murphy to view Kevin as a kind of savior. They remain in the church, but they have had added to their Christian beliefs their faith in Kevin. If in Season 1, Kevin is a Job figure, in Season 3 he is a Christ figure. “The beard looks good on you,” Matt jokes. Mary tells Kevin that Matt “thinks that the New Testament is getting old.” While Kevin may have identified with Job, he does not initially identify with his role as a new Christ. He takes the handwritten, leather-bound Book of Kevin, the only copy in existence, away from Matt, who urges him to read it and understand his role.

In writing the Book of Kevin, Matt as scripturalist is an elaborator who articulates a new version of an old story. In his discussion of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Rogers points to the Genesis Apocryphon as an example of scriptural elaboration. This text rewrites Genesis, paraphrasing some parts and adding others. The Targums, Aramaic translations of the Hebrew biblical texts, are similar elaborations. Second Temple Judaism also saw a proliferation of rewritten scripture and expansions of scripture, such as the Book of Jubilees (rewritten Genesis) and the novelistic Joseph and Aseneth (expansion of the story of Joseph).

The Leftovers never reveals the content of the Book of Kevin, but it appears that a similar elaboration, or riffing on scripture, occurs. After years of reading and reciting the Bible, Matt mimics biblical language and themes to create something new that can respond to the new world.

The Scripturalist as Visionary

Since the content of the Book of Kevin is not fully revealed, it is difficult to know to what extent Matt’s creation looks toward the future or is meant to be prophetic. But once a book leaves the hands of the author, his intent does not matter. Grace Playford, a Christian woman in Australia who finds the book, does interpret it as prophetic. She reads it to understand the signs in her present world that reveal the future. In her role as scripturalist, Grace is a visionary who uses the text as a window to the future.

Grace’s interpretation of the book is influenced by her Christian background and modes of reading sacred texts. She was one of the few people pleased to find her entire family departed because she interpreted the Departure as the rapture. This detail from her past shows her tendency to read texts with a futuristic orientation. For her, the things that scripture describes will happen. When she reads the Book of Kevin, she not only thinks that the events described in it will happen but also that it is her role as a believer to make them happen. At the beginning of Season 3, she recites a few biblical-sounding verses: “And he looked at them and raised his hand, but they did not wave in response, and so he clutched the stone to his chest and jumped into the water.” The viewer knows that the book is describing one of Kevin’s failed deaths from Season 2. Grace, however, finds a police chief named Kevin, abducts him, and drowns him because she thinks that he is the indestructible Kevin of the Book and that she is fulfilling the book’s vision.

This is not the first time that Grace’s futuristic view of scripture has had disastrous results. Her belief that the Departure was the rapture also had deadly consequences. She later found out that only her husband departed and that her children went out from the church on their property to find their mother. Because she thought that they all had been snatched up, rapture-like, she did not search for them, and their skeletal remains were later found in the desert.

In both cases, Grace’s visionary use of the sacred text is disappointed, much like the Millerite woman from the Season 3 prologue. The Leftovers begins Season 3 with this historical scene of prophetic interpretation of texts as a parallel of the fictional world of the show. The Millerites were a millennialist offshoot of American Christianity in the mid-nineteenth century. Based on the Book of Daniel’s “2,300 days” prophecy (Daniel 8:14), William Miller calculated the second coming of Christ to sometime in 1843 or 1844. He recalculated each time his predicted day passed without event, and eventually his followers lost faith.

In the prologue scene, the Millerite woman is one follower who does not lose faith and who participates in futuristic speculation and visionary use of scripture. This scene in the Leftovers begins with the narration of scripture that hints that Miller’s attempts were futile: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But of that day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the son, but the father alone … Therefore, be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:35-42). According to the Gospel of Matthew, knowledge of the end of time is impossible—“you do not know which day your Lord is coming.” But there are enough prophecies and apocalyptic perspectives within Christian scriptures that allowed Millerite millennialist speculation and caused people to ascend to their rooftops every night to wait for God. The use of this passage in the Millerite scene highlights the fact that humans just will not, as Iris DeMent says in the Seasons 2 and 3 opening song, “let the mystery be.”

Scripture is a human activity. The fictional world of the Leftovers portrays scriptural activities that are meant to create order and meaning in a chaotic world. The “scripturalists” often assume that others need sacred texts and read them in the same way that they do. This assumption causes many of the show’s conflicts, but the show does not judge the various human responses to the Departure as better or worse. The scripturalists recite texts liturgically, assert that they provide commentary on the present, spin variations on old stories, and predict the future with them. People do things with texts, in fictional worlds and in the real world.

[1] W. C. Smith, What is Scripture? A Comparative Approach (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 18.

[2] Jeffrey Rogers, “Scripture is as Scripturalists do: Scripture as a Human Activity in the Qumran Scrolls,” in Early Christian Interpretation of the Scriptures of Israel, ed. Craig Evans and Christopher Sanders (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997), 28–43.

Jill Marshall completed the PhD in Religion from Emory University. Her research focuses on women’s activity in early Christianity and the history of interpretation of people and places in New Testament texts.

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