Matthew Lickona, the 30-something Catholic traditionalist and author, wrote in his 2006 book, Swimming with Scapulars, that looking at the stars and imagining the vast sweep of dark universe beyond sometimes depressed him. Did God’s law, so tailored for human existence, really apply out there?

Reading Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, The Road, gives the believing reader a similar chill. The main characters, a man and his young son, exist in a terrifying world: Some sort of catastrophe (nuclear? worse than nuclear?) has befallen the world, leaving a barren, burned landscape where the few humans remaining live by scavenging and even eating one another. McCarthy conjures up a world so thoroughly dead and evil that the reader must ask: Does God still exist here?

This theological question is at the heart of the novel. The man, unnamed throughout, remembers the choice his wife made: to kill herself rather than face yet more years of horror, eating from trash and hiding from marauding bands of cannibals. “We’re not survivors. We are the walking dead in a horror film,” she tells him.  “My only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.” [McCarthy writes with no apostrophes or commas.]

Yet even as she makes her final choice, the wife and mother sees that her husband may yet soldier on with her son. “The one thing I can tell you is that you wont survive for yourself. … A person who has no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost.” The man does live for his son, watching over him as he sleeps, wresting nourishment from a famished landscape, and even killing another man to save them both. But the man does more than sustain physical life: he  manages to instill a sense of hope, morality and faith in his son, who has known only a world where parents can eat their own children.

The novel demands this question of the reader: What would you do? Is your faith in God, your love for those closest to you, strong enough to survive an endless night? The question echoes those found in the Holocaust writings of Elie Weisel and others. Does God even exist if the world as we know it has ended?

The bright light of hope that shines at the end of the novel comes as a profound relief to the reader, but the disquieting questions of faith reverberate long after the book has been passed along to a friend.

A special thanks to Kristi Bachir for passing this title along to ReligionWriter.

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