“My son, my son,” said Aslan. “I know. Grief is great...Let us be good to one another.” (The Magician’s Nephew)
The world of The Road is an arid ghost town America that pulls up images from I Am Legend. The “good guys” are few and far between, trudging, homeless, through the snow in makeshift clothes. The bad guys are cannibals and thieves, plundering in faithless bands. The protagonists are unnamed, in keeping with the naked heart of the story. But the film is highly visual, and so pointed, that the absence of names is fitting.
When the film The Road opens, we feel as if we are falling. Falling into an unnamed, slate-colored void. We wonder how anything so bleak can be resolved or redeemed; we doubt things could be worse. But as we wait out the penetrating night we begin, almost against reason, to see the faintest splinter of dawn.
The focus of the movie is not the desolate apocalypse or the fate of the planet. Trudging, steadfast, through the nightmarish landscape, we find our very hope for the human spirit; manifested in the love between a Man and his Boy. The Boy trusts his father and clings to him, taking to heart all the Man stands for. The Man loves by protecting the boy and encouraging him to “keep carrying the Fire.”
“The Fire” is a last ember of hope, a determination to not forget “stories of courage and justice” - to be set apart from the roving hordes who have forgotten their humanity. The Fire is an inheritance, it is passed on. The Man teaches his son about it, the Boy, in turn, passes it to the other sojourners when the Man is gone. Someone must be carrying the Fire, or there would be no reason to live, no reason for stories, no hope. The Fire is something inside us, yet beyond us. Possessing the Fire means that there is more than just this moment - more than just “surviving”. There is life. As William Wallace said “All men die, but not all men truly live.” When the world has been stripped to its very basest core, we find a relentless humanity still there, preserved by the Fire. The Man and his Boy may die of cold or starvation, but they will “never eat anybody”. This is true for all who carry the Fire.
“While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” (Luke 12:36)
What does carrying the Fire mean? Let us then do that. In the case of The Road, the Man and the Boy are set apart by love for one another, conscience, thankfulness, compassion and forgiveness on other travelers, value of good things past and present, appreciation of beauty, sense of duty, hope for something better, selflessness, even grim humor. We know that in another time, the Man would treat his son the same - except that instead of teaching him how to commit suicide if the need arose, he might be coaching him in sports or helping with homework. All good guys carry the Fire, no matter how hungary they are.
Though it’s bleakness is a slap in the face, we may look at The Road as a metaphor for our present condition. We, as sons of the living God, have “the Fire”. We are sons of light and we have a father who will protect us from those who, like Satan, seek to devour us. We are born into sin - into the ashen apocalypse. Yet instead of following the enticement of death as Adam followed Eve, we refuse. Likewise, the Man refused to give up hope when his wife suggested suicide. He ended up saving his Boy. This is like our world - we have already fallen in sin (we are in the apocalypse), but we have a second chance at life because of Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Man represents our second life, in which we refuse the enticement of death, and press on, though the earth is an ashen wasteland.
In The Road, earth and humanity are on the very brink of existence. Images of God are reduced to whisperings around lonely campfires and decrepit, empty churches. There is a beautiful scene in which the Boy and his weakening father huddle in a ravaged church, seeking refuge from the cold. The only light in the scene filters in through a cross slit in the wall. Such symbolism reminds us that, so long as he is alive, man’s ability to commune with God is not completely snuffed out. God is there for those who carry the Fire, even perhaps working through them to be visible to other sojourners.
In this way, the Fire is a light to the world; even to a world already burned. The Fire is not dormant, not secret. In the movie, the Boy reminds his father of their obligation as “good guys”, persuading him to share food with fellow travelers. They even show compassion on a thief who stole from them. What would the Fire mean if it did not survive in the most unlikely places? This is what makes such a grim film something worth remembering.
But with this hope there is danger, because the Fire illumines the conscience and ignites love. To have compassion means risking one’s own safety. To care about anything yields the grim potential for sacrifice.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable....The only pace outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love is Hell.” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves)
We face these dangers of love as we “are hard-pressed on every side....struck down, but not destroyed - always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our body.” (2 Corinthians 8-10) The mother who sacrifices her career to train her children is passing on the Fire to the coming generation. The father who gives up a promotion to spend more time with his family. The soldier. The martyr.
The Man was made vulnerable by loving the Boy. We too, upon taking up the Fire, are sent “out as lambs among wolves.” This is what sets us apart, that we might become “fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.” (2 Corinthians 2:15) This is the light in the darkness, the pale sunlight eking through the cross on the wall, the tiny prayer of thanks. This is the city on the hill, “the commandment I give to you.” There is more than death, more than this moment ,more than mere survival. There is “life leading to life”. Keep carrying the Fire!
“By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”