TV Top Ten: 10 Favorite Episodes of Poirot

Agatha Christie's Poirot [6] Episode 4 - Dumb Witness Mystical premonitions, family inheritance and suspicious murders ruin Poirot's plans to go and watch a friend of Hastings' attempt to break the world water speed record. The Tripp sisters' supernatural warnings and Poirot's advice to change her will, fail to prevent the murder of Emily Arundel. Poirot must reflect on which member of the family poisoned the medicine. Bob, the terrier dog, is the only one who knows who the murderer really is. L-R: DAVID SUCHET as Poirot,m KATE BUFFERY as Theresa Arundel and HUGH FRASER as Captain Hastings © ITV plc (Granada International)
Over the past year Agatha Christie’s Poirot has become possibly my favorite show on television ever, besting old favorites like Breaking Bad and LOST. For whatever reason, this long-running show (1989-2013) about a Belgian detective has captured my imagination like few other shows have.

Why do I find it so appealing? I suspect for many of the same reasons I love Harry Potter. Both feature elegantly crafted mysteries set in a timeless world of trains and pubs and handsome estates and murderous intrigue. Both series grew increasingly darker and more ambiguous as their characters aged and were forced to contend with the depths of human evil and the darkness in their own hearts. The early Harry Potter books, with their whodunit structures, owe a clear debt to Agatha Christie’s novels, and the television series acknowledged this debt in its later seasons by borrowing the look and tone of the movies.

I’ve just finished my first run through the series (well, almost… I still haven’t gotten around to that final episode). But I’ll be watching the show and reading the novels on which it was based for a long time to come. For any aspiring writer of mystery novels, this series is indispensable. I loved almost every episode—and I find myself loving them even more on second viewing—so coming up with a list of my 10 favorites was especially challenging. Consider this a first attempt.

  1. The Veiled Lady (Season 2)

In its early seasons Poirot oscillated between 50-minute short story adaptations and feature-length novel adaptations. While the latter are generally more complex and rewarding, the hour-long episodes are fun to watch just to see what mad adventures Poirot and his friend Hastings get into from week to week. It’s very formulaic, and that’s part of what makes it so entertaining. In the first season the show was still developing this formula, but by the beginning of the second it had perfected it. “The Veiled Lady” is a showcase of everything that makes Poirot great, and features two of the series’ most memorable moments: Poirot and Hastings getting arrested for burglary, and a climactic scene involving a hall of statues and a cat.

  1. The Cornish Mystery (Season 2)

Possibly the quintessential Poirot episode, this was the first episode I watched where I realized the show was turning into something truly special. Poirot and Hastings take a trip via train to Cornwall, where they meet a woman who fears she’s being poisoned by her husband. “The Cornish Mystery” beautifully cements the rivalry between Poirot and Inspector Japp, the no-nonsense police inspector with whom the Belgian detective develops a competitive but enduring friendship.

  1. Hickory Dickory Dock (Season 6)

This is one of several feature-length Poirot adaptations to improve on the original novel; Christie’s plots were generally inspired but her prose was lackluster and her characterization shallow. The TV adaptation unceremoniously dispenses with several extraneous and somewhat offensive foreign characters, which makes for a tighter plot that allows the true beauty of the surprises Christie throws at us in the second half to shine all the more clearly. (Just ignore the mouse, and the choir that starts chanting anytime the mouse appears onscreen).

  1. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (Season 6)

In the novels, Poirot sometimes only shows up about midway through the story once a murder has already been committed; the series invariably has him present from the very beginning, which raises questions about why death and mayhem seem to follow him wherever he goes. Christie excelled at holiday-themed stories, and in this Christmas episode Poirot is visiting a family estate when the avaricious and unloved Simeon Lee is found dead in a locked room.

  1. Death on the Nile (Season 9)

My friend Hannah and I have an ongoing debate about which is better, the more formulaic and light-hearted early seasons or the later ones (roughly seasons 9-13) with their higher production values, darker themes and more complicated plotting. While I prefer the earlier seasons as a whole, I love the plots of the later episodes, and “Death on the Nile” is a great example of why. During its first half it seems to be the story of a couple being stalked by a jealous woman, but not everything is what it seems and the final scenes, in which Poirot reveals a conspiracy most intricate, are both intellectually thrilling and emotionally poignant. Also features Emily Blunt in one of her first roles.

  1. Evil under the Sun (Season 8)

Another ingeniously plotted murder mystery set in an exotic locale, with a seemingly ordinary premise (a woman who has numerous enemies is found lying dead on a beach) that becomes more layered and disturbing with each new revelation. Like “Death on the Nile,” so much of the brilliance of this episode lies in its final 20 minutes that to say too much would ruin the surprises, and there are many.

  1. Five Little Pigs (Season 9)

The first episode of the “new” series also has the distinction of being the most gorgeous, with a flashback structure that avoids being overly complicated and a tragic history that picks up emotional weight as we see the sins and mistakes of the past casting their shadows into the present. An initially disturbing but ultimately very moving story of deceit, betrayal, violence and a single redemptive act of unbelievable courage.

  1. Murder on the Orient Express (Season 12)

One of Christie’s best-known and most beloved stories became one of the best Poirot adaptations. Poirot is traveling through Europe via the Orient Express when a certain wealthy and despised passenger is found dead in his cabin. Mysteriously, everyone on the train bears some connection to the victim. This adaptation is chilling not only because of the cold that seeps through every frame but because of the moral dilemma Poirot faces, one that ultimately breaks his spirit. Watch out for Jessica Chastain in another “before she was famous” role.

  1. Murder on the Links (Season 6)

Poirot and Hastings are summoned to the French countryside and one of the more bizarre mysteries of his career, when a man is found lying dead in a shallow grave on a golf course. Soon another man turns up dead in the same area, and a woman voluntarily confesses to murder. But everyone involved in the case is lying about something and Poirot must exercise his considerable ingenuity to find out how and why. By turns tragic, funny, and sweepingly romantic, this episode also provides an overwhelmingly moving resolution for one of the series’ most beloved characters.

  1. Peril at End House (Season 2)

The first novel to be adapted into a feature-length film is also one of the definitive Poirot adaptations, featuring an old estate in the country, a wealthy but vulnerable heiress and a series of disturbing murders. This episode is everything that makes Poirot great distilled into 90 minutes, including an ingenious method for catching forgers, one of the all-time great line readings—“You’re all so… STUPID!”—and a conclusion that sees Poirot, Hastings, Inspector Japp, and Poirot’s assistant Miss Lemon eating ice cream on the beach. The way all mysteries should end.

What I’m Into: October 2015 (Mysteries!)

021-agatha-christie-s-poirot-theredlistSo this month was kind of a big month for me. I moved to a new town, became an UNCLE, and got my driver’s permit. I also accepted my destiny as a writer of mystery novels.

When I look back over my life, this really isn’t all that surprising. When I was in grade school I used to write long, LONG mystery stories loosely inspired by Walker, Texas Ranger and read them aloud to my Gifted and Talented class. In college I gained a reputation for writing Gothic mysteries with bizarre, outlandish twists (a house turns out to be alive, what??).

But I always thought of myself first and foremost as a fantasy novelist.

That began to change this year. In the series of essays I wrote to commemorate my tenth anniversary of reading Harry Potter, I realized that before they are anything else, the Potter books are elegantly constructed whodunits, Agatha Christie with hippogriffs. In January I began watching the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot and inaugurated a love affair that continues to this day. And I read a great essay by Joan Lowery Nixon in which the acclaimed YA novelist argues that mystery is far and away the most beloved genre among young adults. “Teachers and librarians will tell you,” she says, “that kids who won’t read anything else will devour mysteries.”

Partly this is because we’re compelled to finish reading a book when we find characters we love in peril. Accomplished mystery writers know how to keep the pages turning, so that we sit down to read a book and find ourselves having read 200 pages without breaking a sweat. (This is why Agatha Christie is the world’s bestselling novelist, having sold something like two BILLION novels).

But also (according to Nixon) because mystery stories traffic in primal emotions like “anger, hatred, resentment, loss, fury, the desperate need to be loved” that are at their most potent when we’re growing up and even the most minor event seems to herald the end of the world. (This is the same reason why certain types of music remain perennially popular among teenagers).

Reading that essay was a game-changer for me. I realized I’ve always thought like a mystery writer, I just didn’t know it. And since it seems like this is probably what I’m going to do with my life, I might as well study the craft and become really good at it.

TV Series

So this month I watched the final six seasons of Poirot, all except for the last episode (I just couldn’t bring myself to do it!) and a couple of documentaries on the making of Poirot. I’m already writing a list of my 10 favorite episodes of the series, which has obliged me to go back and revisit some of my favorites. Suffice to say, Poirot might be the gold standard for literary adaptations, and anyone who wants to write stories (in any genre) but feels intimidated by the breadth of Christie’s writing should check out the show, which is worth a whole class in plot construction.

Other shows I watched this month were Veronica Mars and The Legend of Korra. I continue to be enamored with the former and intrigued by the latter. Both are shows that aspiring novelists could benefit from watching.


Having run out of Poirot episodes and not knowing what to do with my life, I picked up the books and started reading them. I read:

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel, which moves at a brisk pace but shows more reliance on Holmes-ian methods of deduction than would appear in later books, where Poirot primarily relies upon his fine grasp of human psychology to solve crimes. Still, this book is noteworthy for deliberately making the murderer the character you MOST suspect.

Peril at End House, in which a woman claims she’s narrowly survived being murdered on three separate occasions. When Poirot comes to investigate, the woman’s cousin turns up dead. One of my favorite Poirot stories, this is a spookily good read.

Hickory Dickory Dock. This one is… not one of my favorites? But it made a good adaptation and has one particularly brilliant twist.

Hallowe’en Party, one of Christie’s later books from the 1960s when her powers were beginning to wane. Not one of her best, but has a terrific premise.

Other books I read this month:

Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell. Back in 2013, Rowell wrote a novel about a girl named Cath who’s writing a fan-fiction based on the Simon Snow books, a fictional series of books based on the adventures of a boy wizard. Carry On, which came out in October, is the final book in the Simon Snow series as Rowell imagines it. It brings the Harry Potter mythos into the 2010s, imbuing it with all the warmth and relational sensitivity of Rowell’s realistic YA novels. It’s a whimsical, scary, violent, gorgeous, hilarious and disturbing book.

The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson. This 2011 novel by everyone’s favorite Twitter personality is a ghost mystery involving a girl at a London boarding school, so, she was clearly catering to that Boze demographic. I started reading this book at about five in the afternoon and didn’t put it down until I had finished at around midnight. It’s that good, and luckily it’s the first in a series.

What about you? What did you read, see, and listen to this month?

Belle & Sebastian: My 10 Favorite Songs from the World’s Best Band

screw the RIAA

Tonight on Twitter my friend Britta asked me to recommend some of my favorite Belle & Sebastian songs, which is a bit like asking me to name my favorite streets in London: if we’re not careful, we could find ourselves having a really long discussion.

Belle & Sebastian have been recording for 20 years now; they’ve released nine studio albums and a couple of generally excellent compilations. They’ve been my favorite band since the fall of my senior year in college. There are other bands I listen to and rave about more (Keane, The Killers, Oasis, Dry the River), but no other band that sounds the way I think my soul would sound if my soul could make music. Belle & Sebastian has never been hugely popular, but over the past couple of decades they’ve taken over the niche that was occupied by The Smiths in the 1980s and 1990s, the cultural and artistic standardbearer for sad-eyed indie kids who wear cardigans and knee-high socks and go tramping through the woods alone and sit in the windows of coffee shops reading books by Marx and Engels and wondering if love will ever find them.

At any given time my 100 favorite songs list has at least eight or ten Belle & Sebastian songs in it, which doesn’t make the task of naming my ten favorites particularly easy. In this list I’ve tried to include tracks from both halves of their career: the early years in which their music was moody and atmospheric and their lyrics often seemed to be compressing whole novels into the space of a few verses, and the later years in which they began evolving towards a more danceable, infectious pop sound.

  1. Nobody’s Empire

The best introduction to late-period Belle & Sebastian—and to their music in general, really—is the first single from their latest album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (January 2015). Lead singer Stuart Murdoch has called this the most personal song he’s ever written. It’s one of the few songs in which he foregoes inventing characters and imaginary situations and sings directly from his heart. Hearing him describe his experience overcoming a chronic illness in his early twenties to found the band that would save his life is a powerful and, ultimately, hopeful experience.

  1. Like Dylan in the Movies

The best songs from Belle & Sebastian’s early years all seem to be trying to capture a particular moment in words and music. Even their albums can roughly be grouped according to specific seasons. This track from their best album (If You’re Feeling Sinister, the fall album) vividly captures the feeling of walking through a city park at twilight, late in the year. It’s gorgeous and a little scary and a little sad.

  1. This Is Just a Modern Rock Song

Belle & Sebastian’s lyrics have always had a weirdly meta-fictional element to them (see also the song “Belle & Sebastian” later on this list). They like to sing songs about themselves, in a band singing songs. Probably the apotheosis of their postmodern bent is this soft, seven-minute rocker from their first compilation album, in which the various band members take turns singing about themselves and each other and the song they’re playing (“we count three, four / then we start to slow / because this song has got to stop somewhere”). It’s great.

  1. My Wandering Days Are Over

            and 06. I Could Be Dreaming

Belle & Sebastian’s first two albums are now widely regarded as two of the best indie-rock albums of the 1990s. Remarkably, they were both written and recorded in a single two-month creative burst. These two songs from their first album exemplify the rich orchestration (cello, glockenspiel, Hammond organ, etc.) and elegantly crafted, evocative lyrics of those first sessions. In the first, the band cheerfully commiserates with a friend who’s fallen on hard times (“you were doing it for businessmen on the piano, Belle / you said it was a living hell / you said you were in hell”), while in the second they contemplate murdering a sister’s abusive boyfriend.

  1. Belle & Sebastian

I can’t defend my love for this song, except to say that it’s a deeply personal song for me (and even showed up during a key scene between two people in my memoir). It’s the story of a woman named Belle who seems to own the whole world, and a miserable boy named Sebastian who pines after Belle, crashes his car, and tells his diary he’ll never be young again. But he will.

  1. Act of the Apostle 1 and 2

The Life Pursuit (2006) is the best album Belle & Sebastian has released in the twenty-first century, the perfect middle ground between their “sad bastard” phase in the late ‘90s and the shoegazing dance-rock of their last few albums. Act of the Apostle is actually two songs, both of them about a teenager struggling to navigate high school and a broken home. The second begins with one of the best keyboard intros you will hear this side of heaven.

  1. The Boy with the Arab Strap

Apart from being one of the bounciest, catchiest, clap-happiest songs Belle & Sebastian ever did, this song is a perfect example of their lyrical brilliance at its peak. “Color my life with the chaos of trouble / ‘cause anything’s better than posh isolation” became the rallying cry of a whole generation of pretentious indie kids. And how many other deliriously infectious dance songs can you think of that could get away with the word lascivious?

  1. Fox in the Snow

If You’re Feeling Sinister is so atmospheric, there are moments when it almost ceases to be an album of songs and becomes instead a collection of gorgeous images, like an impressionism exhibit in a fine arts gallery. If the effects are sometimes overly precious, they are also devastatingly effective, never more so than in this wintry, Satie-inspired ballad about lost kids trying to find their way in a cold and unforgiving world. Here the band most nearly approaches the simplicity of the early Beatles both musically and lyrically (“don’t let yourself go hungry now / don’t let yourself go cold”), in the process attaining a level of poignancy they never reached again.

  1. Waiting for the Moon to Rise

How is it that Belle & Sebastian’s weakest album gave us their best song? This is both my favorite Belle & Sebastian song and one of my three or four favorite songs of all time. The half-wistful, half-enchanted orchestration melds with Isobel Campbell’s ethereal vocals to create a dream of half-lit city streets and empty train stations and misty autumn mornings with the sun just rising over the fields on the far eastern horizon. It’s the band at their most sincere and most romantic, in awe of the indescribable beauty around them. Around all of us.

On Turning Ten (and Birthdays that Should Have Been)

Today would have been Beth’s thirtieth birthday. We met when she was 19, a freshman at Southwestern brimming with optimism. When we celebrated her twentieth birthday ten years ago tonight, I read aloud a poem that former poet laureate Billy Collins had written on the tenth birthday of his son. Characteristically, it reminded Beth of her younger brother.

Here’s the poem again, in full. Happy birthday, Beth.

On Turning Ten
by Billy Collins

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

What I’m Into: September 2015

20110925-011821This month I came through an existential crisis and reaffirmed my trust in the goodness of life and an ultimate purpose to human existence. I also watched a lot of movies about outer space, because apparently that’s what I’m into in September 2015.


            A few of the lesser films I saw this month (there were a lot, okay?): Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Road Warrior, 2012 (blame this on my brother-in-law), Home, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (with Stephen Fry), A Tale of Two Cities (1989), Arabesque (with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren), Week End (Godard’s worst movie? hopefully?), Bigger than Life (a fine performance from James Mason), The Haunting (1963), Never Let Me Go.

            Now for the better ones:

            Kingsman: The Secret Service. Somehow I saw the censored version of this one. A few days later I watched the original cut and walked away with a less positive feeling. The violence is cartoonishly over-the-top, but it features an excellent performance by Colin Firth as a Hagrid-type father-figure shepherding a young man into a secret spy organization. The narrative combines elements of Ender’s Game and Harry Potter. ***1/2

            Captain Phillips. Based on a true story and powerfully directed by Paul Greengrass (who also directed the second and third Bourne movie), this movie about Somali pirates hijacking a merchant vessel features one of Tom Cruise’s best performances in years. ***1/2

            Saving Mr. Banks. More fine performances from Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson as Walt Disney and P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, respectively. Colin Farrell appears somewhat randomly in flashbacks. ***1/2

            The Theory of Everything. A Stephen Hawking biopic that tells you almost nothing about Hawking’s ideas, choosing to focus on his disastrous marital life. Excellent performances by Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne (who won an Oscar for the role).

            Westworld (1973). Initially I rated this one only three stars. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Or talking about it. Michael Crichton writes and directs this pre-Jurassic Park story about a Wild West theme park staffed with robots who turn and kill the human guests. But the highlight of the movie is Yul Brynner as a gun-toting, slow-walking, murderous robot cowboy—the Terminator in spurs and a Stetson. ***1/2… actually, no, make that **** stars

            Stalag 17. One of the classic prisoner-of-war dramas, about a group of men being held prisoner by the Nazis and the one man (William Holden) who is suspected by his fellow soldiers of being an informant. Great script and several unforgettable moments. ****

            Inside Llewyn Davis. Come for the folk music, stay for a sweet story about a cat and a vivid evocation of winter 1960 in New York. ***

            The Lady from Shanghai (1947). It’s no secret that I love everything Orson Welles has ever done. This noir film about a man framed for murder occasionally stretches credulity (how could anyone be so gullible?), but features possibly the first use of a “hall of mirrors” climax in cinema. ***1/2

            The Stranger (1945). Another great Welles noir, featuring the first use of concentration camp footage in a motion picture and a dizzying denouement atop a clock tower. ***1/2

            Carrie (1976). The movie that helped launch John Travolta and Sissy Spacek into stardom, this is one of those films that everyone knows the plot of, even if they’ve never seen it. Still, I was surprised by how effectively it made me feel for Carrie in the moments just before she wreaked her unholy vengeance. ***

            They Live! John Carpenter’s quasi-Gnostic, pre-Matrix parable about a man (Roddy Piper, sporting a mullet and fresh out of bubblegum) who discovers a pair of sunglasses that reveal a hidden alien society all around him. Simple, sometimes troubling, but always engrossing. ***1/2

            Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (special edition): the highlight of this late western is the Bob Dylan soundtrack. (Dylan himself appears in an understated role as a curly-headed young man). ***1/2

            The Secret Garden (1949). Great black-and-white cinematography and set design elevate this story about three children who discover a secret garden. Directed by Fred Wilcox (who would go on to direct Forbidden Planet), this movie is a wonder to look at. ***1/2

            Howl’s Moving Castle. Stunningly original, visually brilliant, with a story that is convoluted (in the grand tradition of most Miyazaki films) but always compelling. ****

            2001: A Space Odyssey. I loved this movie. I don’t understand why everyone thinks it’s so boring. It’s contemplative. It’s a prayer. It’s humanity in search of the meaning of our own existence. ****

            Lawrence of Arabia. Several finely staged setpieces, some unforgettable narrative twists, and the most epic cinematography ever committed to film. Worth it just to see Peter O’Toole and Alec Guinness together on screen.

            Before Midnight. The third film in Richard Linklater’s Before series deconstructs the romance of the previous movies, showing us a Jesse and Celine who are nine years older and beginning to wonder if their relationship is really worth it. Includes one of the most realistically written and acted arguments in any movie. ****

……....Fanny and Alexander. Bergman released this movie in a theatrical edition and a TV version for Denmark television that was five hours long. I started watching the shorter version and became so engrossed I knew I had to watch all of it. Having now finished part one of the TV series, I can already say it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen, like a Tolstoy novel on screen.

            TV Series

            Black Mirror. A modern-day spin on The Twilight Zone, but focused on the perils of technology. The first, unforgettable episode recently made the news when Lord Ashcroft claimed that David Cameron had had sexual relations with a pig at Oxford, which happens to be almost the exact plot of that episode.

            Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Continuing my trek through this decades-in-the-making TV series, I finished Season 6 with “Dumb Witness” and began Season 7 with “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.” The series has adapted Christie with admirable consistency (and at this point might be my favorite show, ever).

            Veronica Mars. Joss Whedon called this teen mystery drama the TV version of Harry Potter, and it’s true. This show is everything I need right now.


            Dombey and Son. Almost a hundred pages into this one. It has some of Dickens’ best prose, which is both a virtue and a drawback. Dombey has a son (and possibly a daughter?), but apart from that I have no clue what’s going on.

            Spooky Texas (S. E. Schlosser). Now that I’m home, I have access to several collections of southwestern folklore. This one compiles several of the best-known legends of Texas.

            We Were Liars (E. Lockhart, 2014). This is a gorgeous book and everyone must read it.

            The Missing Girl (Norma Fox Mazer). I read this book about five girls and the man who decides to kidnap one of them in one sitting.

            Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream (H. G. Bissinger). A powerful and damning indictment of Texas sports culture, and possibly Texas in general.

            Jane Austen’s England (Roy and Lesley Adkins). A breezy but informative handbook for writers.

            The God of Hope and the End of the World (John Polkinghorne). A book that helped me through a profound crisis.

            Collected Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor. Flannery! FLANNERY!!!

            First Term at Malory Towers (Enid Blyton). The first in a series of books about a girls’ boarding school. I LOVE this book. The relationships are all beautifully, convincingly rendered and the girls’ mischievous antics are reminiscent of the Weasley twins, among others.

            What about you? What did you read or see this month?

The Way the World Ends: What if Jesus Doesn’t Come Back to Save Us?

treeoflife01Over the weekend, some of my progressive Christian friends were grousing on Twitter about how growing up in ‘90s Evangelical culture and being taught that we would be raptured up to heaven before anything terrible happens in the world, ever, left us ill-equipped to face the reality that we would one day die.

I quit believing in the rapture early on in high school when I realized it was inconsistent with Jesus’s own teachings on the end-times, but in retrospect I can see how this denial of death bled over even into the forms of Christianity towards which I was drawn in my teens and early twenties. In the doomsday cult I was a part of in college, we believed we would be impervious to the bullets fired at us in the Middle East by the Antichrist and his hordes of demonically driven Muslim supporters.

“If it wasn’t time for us to be dead,” my friend April* told me, “God could just send us back down. So that might be a really great option! Whenever we’re in any kind of danger, we can just shoot each other! Like if they were going to behead you, I could just SHOOT you and then Jesus could send you back!”

“I don’t think I like where this is going…” I said in a low voice.

April cocked an imaginary gun. “‘I’LL SEE YOU IN A MINUTE!’” she yelled.

After I left the group I began studying Gnostic groups (like ours) that believe they have a special mission to accomplish at the end of history. This sense of being in a cosmic drama relieves us of the appalling tedium of being not-particularly-special people living in a fairly uneventful period of history. One writer made a point that has stuck with me: he said that these Gnostic groups, even the ones that call themselves Christian, deny the wisdom of the Old Testament writers that life is an incredible mystery, and that everything that has a beginning must also have an end—ourselves, our relationships, our accomplishments, the world itself.

And I don’t think I fully got that until I stood in front of my friend’s coffin, face to face for the first time in my life with the awful specter of mortality. Nothing in my upbringing or religious education had prepared me for this. Bethany had been there not long ago and now she was just gone. I could spend the rest of my life roaming the earth trying to find her and would never find her. The body in the coffin had once belonged to her, but now it resembled her less and less. I had no idea what to make of this. As I wrote in my journal on the day after the visitation, “She was dead and I suddenly had no idea where her soul had gone, or if she even had one.”

I had already begun to abandon the convoluted eschatological scheme accepted by most Evangelicals (seven years of tribulation followed by a thousand-year reign of Jesus) before Bethany’s death—the Catholic Church which I was in the process of joining teaches only that Jesus will return at some point in the future and set up his kingdom forever. The rest is just speculation. But it was only after I had thrown out most of what I had been taught and believed all my life about the end of the world that I ran into a problem—namely, that science already has a pretty clear idea how the world is going to end, and it’s pretty grim.

Basically, carbon life has only existed on earth for about two billion years out of the roughly fifteen billion years of the lifespan of our universe. The first Homo sapiens emerged some tens of millions of years ago, only a second ago in geologic time, sweeping down out of the trees onto the savannahs with a miraculous awareness of themselves that is surely the greatest mystery and miracle of cosmic history—“the universe,” as one scientist put it, “becoming aware of itself.”

Barring some nuclear or ecological disaster, our species and life on our planet as a whole will lumber along for another few hundred million years until we are wiped out by an asteroid, a comet, a meteor, a chance collision of two black holes somewhere in our galaxy, an explosion from a neighboring supernova or some other ghastly and xenocidal event. Assuming we manage to survive each of these extinction-level threats, within a mere five billion years the sun will enter the next stage of its life cycle, becoming a red giant and swelling up to gargantuan proportions, in the process casually destroying the three closest planets in its orbit.

Of course by then it’s entirely possible that we’ll have developed the means of leaving earth and colonizing other solar systems. But even if we do, it turns out we’re only delaying the eventual end of our species, for the stars are going out one by one, leaving us in a cold void of perpetual night.

On the bright side, if there is one, this is still an inconceivably vast number of years away from happening, and by the time the sun winks out, everyone you know will be dead. Maybe you’re okay with that. It’s hard enough getting people to care about rises in ocean levels that will flood coastal regions and cause massive droughts, leading to war and famine, in the lives of our children and grandchildren. Still fewer are kept up at night by the cosmological certainty that our species will eventually be annihilated when the sun, the giver of life, blows up and devours its own offspring. But I am.

It troubles me because even as a child I had a mystic’s eye for the goodness and beauty of the world, because I believed that this world is full of more good things than we can possibly dream or imagine, and love makes it hard for me to accept that all this—the churches of Greenwich, the bistros of the Left Bank, the factories of Birmingham and Philadelphia; every piece of flannel, every strip of paper, everything you ever built or wrote—will perish in solar fires, unobserved and unremembered. Surely if anything can test a person’s faith, it is this. Philosopher Bertrand Russell felt keenly the implications for humanity when he wrote, “All the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system … The whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”

Perhaps Shakespeare glimpsed something of the futility in which all humanity’s ambitions must end when he had King Lear ask, “Is man no more than this?” This is the sort of question people of faith are going to have to take seriously, if we want to be taken seriously by the rest of the world in our time.

As a Christian blogger, I’m supposed to state here that it’s all going to be okay and we don’t have to be afraid of extinction and Jesus will come down and save us before the universe reaches Threat Level: Midnight. But I don’t know that for a fact, and you don’t, either. In this life we’re given promises, but no guarantees. We have assurances, but no certainties. That’s why it’s called faith.

Ironically, part of what led to my current existential crisis was the Catholic faith in natural processes, in the idea—going all the way back to St. Augustine, who developed an early theory of evolution to describe how life on earth had come into being—that God uses natural methods and natural laws to accomplish his purposes in the natural realm. (This is still a major source of division between Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists: it was a Catholic priest and astronomer, Georges Lemaitre, who first proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory, which is almost uniformly rejected by fundamentalists who don’t seem to realize how it converges with the Genesis account). Once I accepted that maybe God had used a slow unfurling of cosmic evolution to bring the worlds into being over a span of eons, I couldn’t help wondering if maybe God would end space-time in precisely the same way: slowly, over many billions of years.

I spent much of yesterday reading a book by John Polkinghorne, a renowned Cambridge physicist—his work was instrumental in the discovery of the quark in the 1960s—who is also an Anglican priest and amateur theologian. The book, The God of Hope and the End of the World, summarizes his conversations with several other scientist-theologians at Yale University who are trying to reconcile our scientific knowledge of the eventual extinction of our species with the Christian faith in a bodily resurrection in which God raises individuals from death and restores them to their bodies in a natural environment. (The belief I was taught growing up, that when we die, our spirits leave our gross bodies behind and fly up to heaven to be with Jesus forever, is actually Gnostic).

Polkinghorne and his colleagues raise several possibilities for how this might happen in a way that doesn’t contradict current scientific findings or Christian orthodoxy. For example, maybe the information-bearing part of a human being (what we call “the soul”) is stored in God’s memory after death until the day of resurrection. Maybe we all die at different times and then find ourselves together again at the same time, as happened in the final episode of LOST. Maybe we awaken to find that the billions of years between our death and the end of the old universe have already transpired while we slept.

Ultimately, as even Polkinghorne himself seems to concede, none of these answers can be entirely satisfying because they all have to be taken on faith. “Any hope of a destiny beyond death,” he writes, “can ultimately rest only on the faithfulness of God the Creator.” In the end we’re left only with hope: hope that we were created for a purpose; hope that our creator loves us; hope that this world of unthinkable beauty is leading us towards a world of beauties even more unthinkable.

And, if I’m being honest, hope is what I’ve been missing ever since Bethany’s death. She trusted God to protect her, and God seems to have failed her. After she died, I could no longer entrust myself to pious certainties. People die. People are murdered or take their own lives and no deity intervenes to save them. Terrible things happen because this world can be a terrible place, because humans are terrible and depraved and a savage darkness lurks in even the most devout heart. Just look at what they did to Jesus.

And ultimately that’s why I remain a Christian, because even with all my doubts and questions I know I’m not asking anything new or original. Nothing has changed in human nature just because we now understand that the sun will eventually destroy us. It was Thomas Kempis in the twelfth century who said, “Look on all things as passing away, and thyself as doomed to pass away with them.” It was Job who asked why man is born to trouble, and it was Jesus who in the agony of his final hours dared to ask God why he had been forsaken, and heard only silence in response.

Two Poems: On Atheism and the End of the World


            I think

            I could become

            an atheist

            if I thought

            it would annoy





            Lights Out

            Science tells us

            (with near certainty)

            that one day in the distant future

            the sun will swell its proportions

            and engulf the earth

            and every living thing

            and every memory of things

            and every tree and hill

            and the whale that sings in the sea.

            and I think an artist could come to accept

            that she might cease to exist

            but that this gorgeous world

            might one day end

            is grief

            too deep

            for words.