This (timely!) article by CJ Green was originally featured in Issue 7 of The Mockingbird: The Church Issue

Don’t tell me you’re going to read Stephen King next, my mom said when I started high school, suspiciously eyeballing my more grown-up selection of books. At the time, I didn’t know who Stephen King was, but I did think, Hm, why not?

I started off with his first book, a bloody-covered copy of Carrie, the horrifying tale of mean girls and dirty pillows; I read The Shining next. And it wasn’t long before I discovered one of the most brilliant mass market end-of-the-world stories, a 1500-page brick called The Stand.

Telling the story of the end of America, The Stand is widely acclaimed as King’s greatest achievement[1]. It begins in 1990 when a diseased patient escapes a high-security testing facility and unleashes a superflu that kills off 99.9% of the world’s population in weeks. King carries us through daily life in the throes of the virus, inviting us to keep up with his massive troupe of characters as they watch their loved ones progress from stage one (coughing) to stage two (death)[2]. A pregnant college student carries her father’s body down the stairs and buries him in the garden; a famous singer wakes up to find his naked lover stone cold. Bodies stack up like Jenga on street corners, cars spin out on exit ramps, the government collapses, and violent cults hit the streets. Only when the smoke clears do the main characters, a scattered assortment of survivors with an immunity gene, dust off their knees and come out of hiding.

No sooner have they comprehended their dire situation than they begin having, or more accurately, receiving dreams—two separate dreams, repeatedly. The first is a nightmare. In it, a terrifying “dark man” calls them to join his community of survivors in the haunted remains of Las Vegas. The other dream features a smiley 108-year-old woman inviting them out to her sanctuary in Boulder: “Mother Abigail is what they call me…you come see me anytime.” The survivors cross the country, walking, camping, motorbiking in denim jackets (this is the 90s, after all), and in time, everyone gets swept into one camp or the other.

The epic narrative wrestles with one of life’s most critical pieces: community. The characters discover, as the saying goes, that ‘hurt people hurt people.’ Everyone in The Stand is a ‘survivor’—they have witnessed the obliteration of all that they held dear: family, friends, the infrastructure of their country, and most importantly their own identities.

Strangely, God begins to occupy more and more of their conversations. In the sharing of their sufferings, the characters’ communities begin to look distinctly like churches, and the need to choose the right one becomes increasingly high-pressure, as it grows clearer with every passing page that belonging to one or the other will seal the characters’ fates. The pressure that King illustrates, to choose between communities, reflects a phenomenon known in certain spheres of contemporary Christianity as ‘church shopping.’

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When I first vaulted into the Protestant sphere of thought, I was advised by some highly respectable Christians to screen each church I ‘tried’ with a rigorous list of pros and cons before choosing my ‘home.’ Did I feel comfortable around the congregants? Did I connect with the music? Were enough members in my own ‘walk of life’? Were enough members not in my own ‘walk of life’? As the list grew longer and longer, my inner Catholic arched an eyebrow, mainly because the only church shopping I had ever done was for a shorter homily. Still, I confess: I became a seasoned church shopper.

My introduction to the concept coincided with my first taste of Chick-Fil-A sauce. I was sitting across from my non-denom crush, in the flickering lights of a college cafeteria under construction. Chewing, I relayed the dismal experience of yet another Mass spent standing in the back next to an elderly man with BO. “You could try my church,” she said, a thought which had never crossed my mind. To me church was more like skin than a coat, not something you could try on at the store.

I took a chance, though, and the following Sunday I wandered through the gym doors where the pseudo-Baptists gathered once a week for “worship and the Word” and, best of all, was greeted by a whole company of well-deodorized young people, smiling.

So while I wouldn’t necessarily pronounce it wicked, church shopping nevertheless reveals a restlessness in the Church as a whole. We are unable to feel at home simply because a church bears the name ‘Christian’[3]. In Catholicism, it’s easy: One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, all capital letters, easily defined. Protestant churches come in so many forms, we must ask ourselves: what even is church? And how can a church that plays rock music and encourages its youth to do cartwheels at the altar be a slice of the same pizza that rejects visual art and sings hymns without instruments? Is one more right than another?

Without a wall enclosing all of Christendom, Christians are released into the world to reveal their most human of tendencies, division. A shopper must decide which church preaches the best Gospel, and which one most effectively ministers to the needy, and which one has the most delicious chili cook-offs. Within this rubric, church becomes a place of improvement-in-practice rather than a shelter from the storm.

A popular word is ‘thrive.’ It’s not a bad one. Everyone wants to thrive, but that want has little to do with the cross of Christ. The expectations of the ‘thriving’ Church are high. The church that leans on the Lord is expected to be healthier than, say, the local chess club; that a church might experience discord, or contribute to injustice, feels intolerable. In addition to the pressures of being extra holy, churches must also live up to the expectations of the congregants and also to the whims of that church shopper peeking through the stained glass for the first time, gauging whether or not the ushers are friendly enough or if the music is traditional enough or if the social justice initiatives are thorough enough. This church offers free food but that church has cushioned pews. But maybe that’s because the sermons are too long? The church shopper scratches his chin. And then an asteroid hits.

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We love cultural representations of the apocalypse for the way they remind us of our survivor instincts without putting anything at risk. The opening scene of HBO’s The Leftovers features a young mother complaining over the phone about everything from her daily appointments to the payment options at the laundromat; meanwhile, her baby screams in his car seat. In the middle of her rant, the baby goes silent—and disappears into thin air, along with 2% of the world’s population. The mother drops her phone, weeping and calling out her baby’s name. All of her previous concerns fade. Apocalypses quiet the chatter of everyday life and amp up the question of the Ground and Abyss of Being. Apocalypses remind us that if the world were to fall under the attack of self-combusting birds (Birdemic[4]) or nuclear warfare (Dr. Strangelove), no one would have a particularly strong opinion about the typos in the church bulletin.

I’ve heard it said that the Church’s factions beautifully reflect God’s multifaceted character, but I suspect that may be an attempt to settle the queasy feeling brought on by human irreconcilability; it made St. Paul queasy as well. In his first letter to the Church at Corinth, he wrote, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” Yet the only mind that the Church seems to share is the mind of disagreement; its most defining trait is divisiveness. The Church is more reflective of Christ’s severed body than God’s multifaceted character. Can we be sure that every separation is not a pulling apart of limbs? The moment one church splits from another is the same moment that walls go up, and it’s the same moment one group has the opportunity to exalt themselves over another. It’s more like what Larry says in The Stand: “That wasn’t an act of God. That was an act of pure human fuckery.” Paul says as much in his same letter: “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?”

What I didn’t expect from The Stand was how truly King’s depiction of post-apocalyptic society would reflect church. As the superflu wipes out most of America, two rival communities emerge: the “good” one, in Boulder, under the governance of the benign Mother Abigail, and the “evil” one, under the rule of the “dark man” in Vegas. A more critical read will prove, however, that neither community is as easily defined as that: the Vegas community is comprised of some very pitiful and even sympathetic characters while the Boulder community houses both vain and reckless ones. Like churchgoers, they have hurt and been hurt, and would like to make it through the day without falling back into sins of the past. What draws churchgoers to the pews, or to the fold-up chairs, is often the challenges of situations outside of church. The need for a place to rest when everywhere else is full[5].

What King describes is “simply one survivor clinging to another.” Clinging—which is the essence of community—is easier said than done. When two survivors cling to each other, nothing magical happens. A tired and scared person does not easily find answers in another tired and scared person; yet they hang onto each other anyway. The adage, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle,” rings true. It might not be altogether ridiculous, therefore, to look at the churchgoer in the pew next to you and wonder what apocalypse they survived this week. The prerequisite to Christianity is the admission that something has gone wrong, and that help is needed.

The refugees in Boulder, despite being in the “good” group, are far from good, even farther from perfect, and certainly not equipped to face an apocalypse. They themselves have little faith in their ability to rebuild:

There’s precious little reform in the human race … Shall I tell you what sociology teaches us about the human race? I’ll give it to you in a nutshell. Show me a man or woman alone and I’ll show you a saint. Give me two and they’ll fall in love. Give me three and they’ll invent the charming thing we call ‘society.’ Give me four and they’ll build a pyramid. Give me five and they’ll make one an outcast. Give me six and they’ll reinvent prejudice. Give me seven and in seven years they’ll reinvent warfare. Man may have been made in the image of God, but human society was made in the image of His opposite number, and is always trying to get back home.

The characters in The Stand realize that their chances of creating a utopia are just as slim as everyone else’s throughout history. The final line is striking: human society is always trying to get back home. We all yearn to create a heaven on earth. All any church ever wanted was to be transformed and sanctified by its Maker. It wants to be the group that makes it ‘home’ and yet the attempt to get there is often a distinct reminder that it isn’t there. Robert Farrar Ca­pon makes a similar observation in Kingdom, Grace, Judgement:

[The church] has acted as if it were the salvation of the world and as if its members were the sum total of the saved. It has risen up like a false Christ and stipulated the spiritual signs and wonders by which it thinks the kingdom can be brought in.

In Capon’s thinking, the Church does not exist to bring about the salvation of the earth but, instead, to be an external sign of the salvation brought by Jesus for the world. The Church is like a Guilty Remnant, evidence of undeserved mercy for the surviving world.

Similarly, The Stand reminds us that communities stand in opposition to total desolation; they exist for refuge. But those same communities are made of survivors, scarred and scared. They admit, “What we’ve got here in Boulder right now is mass confusion, everyone bopping along and doing his own thing … But that oth­er fellow [the dark man] … I’ll bet he’s got the trains running on time and all his ducks in a row.” And so the quest for righteousness continues.

Justification and ultimate redemption are not about fixing whatever’s broken. The justification of the Church requires that it first go beyond the bounds of self-salvation. If the Church is the body of Christ, it must not flourish—it must, like all of us, die[6]. It must be pitched up at the place of the skull where it boasts nothing but “Christ and him crucified.”

The concept of the dead church is offensive because we have so much invested in the thriving church. We have sought the best liturgy, music, and architecture. We have church shopped in faith. So when all of those efforts are pinned to the cross, we find ourselves bleeding a little. Church shopping, and the apocalyptic search for righteousness, is truly a search for a more righteous version of ourselves, a version that feels at home in the righteous community we dream about. Before the credits roll in Mad Max (2015), a fictional coda plays across the screen: “Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?”

Even now, sans zombies and aliens and corrupt milk-drinking dictators, we wander as congregants in what Moltmann calls the “exodus church”[7], a title that suggests we are not yet who we should be or where we are meant to be but that in the end we will be taken to our Green Place, our Promised Land.

But for now, on Sundays, we either press snooze twice and show up five minutes late to church or we wake up early and judge the sleepyheads. We confess our sins, and we run from them. We church shop through the high shelves and the low ones, but no amount of effort can bring us what we are truly looking for when we look for a better church: a better self. As King writes, “The place where you made your feet stand never really mattered. Only that you were there…and still on your feet.” The fate of the characters in The Stand is not, in the end, determined by the communities themselves. Life and death is orchestrated by the hand of something greater. Likewise, wherever we find ourselves on Sunday morning, whether it be dancing in the front row or swaying in the back, or sick in bed, or sick of church, sitting at home reading horror novels, what matters is only that we are there, and even so loved to the end of the world and beyond.


[1] And, as David Zahl notes in his annotated list, “Post-Apocalypto,” published in our latest book, Mockingbird at the Movies, we fondly remember The Stand as one of the all-time favorite novels of Mockingbird’s presiding spirit, David Foster Wallace.

[2] The official stephenking.com lists over 450 different characters.

[3] Not the least of the reasons being that many churches are weird, weird, weird.

[4] Birdemic: Shock and Terror is truly a must-see. Commonly categorized as “one of the best worst films of 2010” (and beyond), this DIY film apocalypse currently holds a remarkable 20% on Rotten Tomatoes.

[5] “Father, I think I need a bit a sanctuary” (Claire Ashworth from Broadchurch: Season 2, Episode 7).

[6] “Oh, but what ain’t living can never really die” (“Love Like Ghosts,” by Lord Huron, from their fun apocalypse-themed album, Strange Trails).

[7] Theology of Hope, 304 (1993).