A Question for Richard Hays: Metalepsis in The Leftovers

In the finale of season 1 of the HBO show The Leftovers, Kevin Garvey reads a passage from the Bible over the body of Patti Levin, which he just buried with Rev. Matt Jamison. The whole season has culminated in this moment, which was partially the result of his own decisions, decisions sometimes made after blacking out and sleepwalking. These frightening episodes were in turn the result of dealing with the unbearable grief of losing each member of his family one by one to their own grief in the wake of The Departure (a rapture-like event a few years before)—all while serving as Chief of Police for a town that is being torn apart at the seams.

So Jamison hands Garvey a marked passage, and Garvey reads:



The passage is Job 23:8-17 (NIV). The scene is probably the most affecting—and least typical (i.e., not Psalm 23 or Genesis 1 or a Gospel)—reading of Scripture I've ever witnessed on screen.

And it got me thinking about Richard Hays. Specifically, it got me thinking about his books Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (1989) and Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (2016). In those books Hays uses a literary device called "metalepsis" to uncover or identify allusions to passages of the Old Testament beyond what is explicitly cited in the New Testament. The idea is that, say, if a small portion of a Psalm is excerpted in a Gospel or Epistle, the author is thereby calling forth the whole Psalm itself, and that attentive readers of Scripture should pay attention to these intertextual echoes, which will expand the possible range of a text's meaning beyond what it may seem to be saying on the surface. So that, for example, when Jesus quotes Psalm 22 on the cross, those who know that that Psalm ends in deliverance, vindication, and praise will interpret the cry of dereliction differently than those who understand it as the despairing separation of the Son from the Father.

At last year's meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, there was a session devoted to Hays's latest book. When it came time for questions, I raised my hand. I asked whether his argument rested on authorial intention, that is, whether, if we could know for certain that the Evangelists did not intend any or most of the metaleptic allusions Hays draws attention to in his book, that would nullify his case; or whether we, as Christian readers of Holy Scripture, are authorized to read the New Testament in light of the Old in ways its authors never intended. Hays assumed I hadn't read the book and that I was asking on behalf of authorial intention (i.e., he and Sarah Coakley both treated me a bit like a hostile witness, when I was anything but), but he answered the question directly, and in my view rightly: Yes, the metaleptic readings stand, apart from historical claims about authorial intention. Whatever Mark may have meant by the quotation of Psalm 22, we aren't limited by that intention, knowing what we know, which includes the entirety of the Psalm.

So back to The Leftovers. May we—should we—apply the hermeneutic principle of metalepsis to this scene's use of Scripture (and scenes like it)? What would happen if we did?

When I first watched the episode, I mistakenly thought that the famous passage from Job 19—"I know that my redeemer lives..."—followed the words cited on screen, which is what triggered the idea about metalepsis. In other words, if Job 23 were followed by words of bold hope in God, should that inform how we interpret the scene and its use of the quotation? Even granted my error, there is the wider context of the book of Job, and in particular the conclusion, in which God speaks from the storm, and Job is reduced to silence before God's absolutely unanswerable omnipotence—or, better put, his sheer divinity, his incomparable and singular God-ness. Might we interpret this scene, Garvey's story in season 1, and the whole series in light of this wider context?

It seems to me that we can, and should. But then, I'm only halfway through season 2. Job comes up again in episode 5 of that season, when Jamison is asked what his favorite book of the Bible is, and gives some trivia about Job's wife. Which suggests to me that perhaps Damon Lindelof and his fellow writers may be wise to the wider context and meaning of Job, in which case we viewers may not have to interpret against authorial intention at all.

That's a bit less fun, though it increases my respect for the show and the artists behind it. In any case, I'll let you know what I think once I finish.

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