Ronald Weiland, the pastor of the Church of God Preparing for the Kingdom Of God, predicted that on May 27, 2012 Jesus Christ would return to Earth, ushering in the End of Times as detailed in the Book of Revelation.
I remember this date because May 27 is one day before my birthday, and I thought to myself: great timing, Jesus. Thanks. But the date came and went with a birthday party and no rapturing of the faithful. No apocalypse or global collapse of any sort. Later that year, Weiland was sentenced to three years in prison for tax fraud.
The notion that the world will end, whatever that might mean, is a constant cultural refrain. The collapse of civilization, the apocalyptic ruination of humanity on earth—it’s like we can’t wait to see it come. Usually, that’s played out in apocalyptic fantasy like The Walking Dead or The Hunger Games. But sometimes it’s about faith, God, religion, and eternal questions of souls and salvation.
Not all who claim to know when it’s all coming down are relegated to the crazy pile of history. Predicting the end has been popular since humans could conceive the end of the world. Nostradamus, Christopher Columbus, Rasputin, and Martin Luther all gave specific timeframes for the event.
The only thing they all have in common is that each prediction has failed. Every prophet and explorer and theologian and huckster who has ever claimed to know when doomsday will arrive has been wrong—which, when you stop to think about it, is so obvious it’s ridiculous.
This is not lost on Bryan Bliss, author of the new novel No Parking at the End Times. It’s the story of one family who gave up everything they owned, sold the house and all their possessions, moved into a van, and followed Brother John to San Francisco. There, they awaited, along with the other faithful, the return of Christ and the end of days.
“I hold on, I pray, I wait,” says the novel’s narrator, 16-year-old Abigail, on the opening page. But she waits in vain. The end does not come.
Instead of an apocalypse, Bliss uses the expectation of the end of the world to explore big questions about faith and God, as well as intimate questions about family, loyalty, and home.
Christopher Zumski Finke: The expectation of the end of civilization is a popular story trope of the time. This story comes in all shapes and sizes, from young adult literature to HBO. But in No Parking, the end of the world does not come. Why did you want to tell a story about the failure of the world to end?
Bryan Bliss: I think the failure of the event as an ending is something people expect. So while it might give you tension early on in your story, most readers are going to sniff out where you’re headed pretty quickly. Plus, how many times have we seen this story unfold in our culture? Most Christians don’t even believe these “prophets” when they start putting up billboards and screaming about the end of the world. So unless I was going to actually have Jesus come back—which, admittedly, is kind of intriguing—it felt like the tension in the story was how you cope with making such a big mistake. How do you come back from something like this? How do you pick up the pieces? Those are questions I’m interested in investigating.
Zumski Finke: Your book is about teenage siblings who are pulled from their roots by their parents in North Carolina and live in a van in San Francisco. Where did you grow up?
Bliss: I grew up, primarily, in the Chicago area. But I moved to North Carolina when I was a senior in high school. It was complete culture shock. I went from a huge Midwest high school to a tiny school in rural North Carolina. And I loved it. It’s where everything changed for me, where I made actual lifelong friends. It’s probably the reason I really enjoy writing teenage characters, too. If it wouldn’t be completely cliché—not to mention a Friday Night Lights rip-off—I’d be down for getting a North Carolina Forever tattoo.
“Being around teenagers keeps you on your toes. It forces you to be authentic…”
Zumski Finke: Life as a teenager is heavy business. Everything matters so much and it also all happens so fast. You capture that feeling well in your book. What were those years like for you? Is there are part of your teenage years that you can share that emerges in No Parking?
Bliss: I’m about to get poetic here, so advanced apologies. But it’s driving with the windows down and the radio turned up. It’s being out with friends and seeing that person—girl, guy—and having your heart feel like it’s going to kick out of your chest. It’s the first kiss, the break-up. It’s all those intense feelings that get funneled into embarrassing songs and worse poetry. I’m in my late thirties now, but I can still feel it. And I’ve had enough time to not only process it, but hopefully explain it in a way that isn’t mawkish and, well, embarrassing.
Zumski Finke: Your bio says you work with youth. How did that work affect you writing No Parking?
“Our parents aren’t superheroes. They bounce checks and flip people off in traffic.”
Bliss: Being around teenagers keeps you on your toes. It forces you to be authentic, because they have a remarkable ability to sense when an adult isn’t being straight with them. That alone makes writing teen characters fun. They’re shockingly mature at times. And then they’re doing the most incredibly stupid thing you’ve ever seen in your life. It’s wonderful and dangerous, which hopefully comes out in my writing. It’s a time when life is happening at a warp-like speed and so much is riding on every moment, every decision. I love it.
Zumski Finke: No Parking gives readers a window into a teenage girl’s confusion about the world. She has to see her parents as humans. Her faith is challenged or even crumbling. All this stuff that has been taken for granted starts to crumble around her. The world doesn’t literally end, but Abigail’s world does.
Bliss: That’s what this book really is about in my mind: the moment you realize that your parents are fallible. It’s universal. Our parents aren’t superheroes. They bounce checks and flip people off in traffic. Granted, the family in No Parking at the End Times is learning this lesson on a much grander scale than most of us. But that’s the place I kept coming back to as I wrote the book.
You mentioned Walking Dead above. I always say that No Parking at the End Times isn’t a book about religion just like the Walking Dead isn’t about zombies. Sure, those things are influencing the story and the characters—but it’s not what the story’s about. At the end of the day, I hope No Parking at the End Times is a story about a family who just happen to be religious.
Zumski Finke: Did you grow up religious? Are you still?
“I like to think [Jesus Christ Superstar] turned me into the questioning and sometimes hesitant member of the church I am today.”
Bliss: When I was in middle school, I started going to church by myself. I’d show up, hang around. It was probably very strange, this awkward sixth-grader sitting in the back of the church with no parents. Haunting the free doughnut table. But there was a pastor there who pulled me into that community and that was that—I was there until we moved to another town my freshman year of high school.
From then on, I didn’t really go to church. It was always in the periphery, but I didn’t connect with a community until much later in my life. At that time, my biggest theological influence—weirdly enough—was the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. It was amazing to have something be so beautiful and powerful. I didn’t realize until much later how edgy it was, but that definitely had an effect on me, too. I like to think it turned me into the questioning and sometimes hesitant member of the church I am today. That doesn’t mean I don’t take it seriously. I just think—when you’re making capital “T” Truth claims—you’d better be a really good listener with a healthy dose of humility.
Zumski Finke: That question, about being religious, always feels weird. Do you feel like that’s even a useful designation?
Bliss: It depends on the day and whether my more conservative friends and family members have posted something troubling on Facebook, honestly. In all seriousness, though—I had a weird realization a few years back. I have a seminary degree. I’ve worked for religious institutions for years. My MFA had a focus of art and faith. I will argue theological points with you. But if you asked me if I were religious? I’d be like: Marginally. Maybe. The realization cut me quick. It was like: Dude, c’mon. Look at your life. You’re the most religious guy you know.
I think that hesitation comes from years of trying to square mind-bogglingly insane theological doctrines with how I understood Christianity. I very seriously believe there’s something radical about the message of Jesus. Loving your neighbor. Redemption is possible, even at the last moment. And I realize that likely sounds pretty evangelistic, but I take those points as far as I can. It means living with compassion and empathy and never giving up on people. I could never connect those ideas with some of the hate and ignorance I sometimes see being labeled as “Christian.”
Zumski Finke: The book is clearly critical of exploitative religious figures. But as I read it I thought it came from a place of deeply considered faith. Why do you think a story of faith like this book is needed in 2015?
“I love … writers who really embraced the messy and beautiful moments of what it means to be a person of faith.”
Bliss: I’m glad that you picked up on that, because I took a lot of care writing Brother John, the main antagonist. To some extent, he has to be a villain. But I didn’t want him to be a simple foil. I wanted to know why he thought the world was ending. To do so, I needed to inhabit his mind as much as possible. What would he do when he realized he was wrong? How would he respond? The parents were the same way. People hate them, which is understandable, I guess. It was a constant struggle to answer questions like: Why is this is so important? Why don’t they just turn around and go home?
The answer to that is also my answer to why books that deal with faith are still necessary and important. First, I’m definitely biased. I wrote this book because I wanted to tackle specific questions. Plus, I love Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene—writers who really embraced the messy and beautiful moments of what it means to be a person of faith.
But they didn’t write tropes, which is so necessary if you’re going to write about religion in 2015. I have no interest in writing “Christian” fiction with its prescribed endings and automatic assumptions. What makes fiction exciting is getting a glimpse of something mysterious, something we don’t understand. To me, that’s faith. And fiction is a natural place to work toward those glimpses, I think.
Zumski Finke: Brother John (the end of the world cult leader) hooks the family into his orbit and Abigail’s parents really struggle to get away from him. Who is Brother John? Where’d he come from? Have you met a Brother John?
“For some, it’s empowering to believe that this world is temporary, that everything will be made right in the afterlife.”
Bliss: Thankfully, I haven’t known anybody like Brother John. In fact, I have little experience with this sort of predatory theology so I spent a lot of time watching videos of what I’d consider to be on the fringe of faith. Snake-handling, doomsday preachers. I wanted to make sure I got the words and actions correct before I started building him as a character. That said, there are plenty of people who use religion as a weapon and while I definitely tried to stay away from making definite theological statements in the book, I believe there are some theologies that are destructive and need to be confronted.
Zumski Finke: For a large portion of this book, I could not escape the quote from Albert Einstein about the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Why do you think people are seduced by the expectation of the world’s end, even though, every time it its predicted, it never comes?
Bliss: I think, at some base level, it’s hope. For some, it’s empowering to believe that this world is temporary, that everything will be made right in the afterlife. Even as I say that, I’m conflicted on how to feel about it. It’s so obviously an opening for predatory behavior. But I also really respect people who go all in on their faith. I don’t think I could do it, honestly.
The thing I hear most often about the book is how terrible the parents are. This always surprises me. Have they made a mistake? Yes. Are they theologically misguided? Certainly. But terrible? I hope not. I might be too close to them as characters, but I think the parents are operating out of a place of desperation during much of the novel. They legitimately thought the world was ending and God was calling them to do something big with the remaining days. I respect that, even as I simultaneously think it’s completely bonkers.
I also think they’re very scared. Because what if they leave and Jesus does come back? What then? You’ve risked everything for nothing. Like anything, it’s complicated and not as black and white as we’d like to believe—no matter how our culture paints it. Belief in anything—radical or not, religious or secular—is always nuanced and pulls at our hearts and minds in a lot of different and competing ways.