Fallout and Spiritual Gatekeeping

D. Marquel

At a posh house in the hills above Los Angeles, a nuclear war spoils a child’s birthday party. When the first bomb drops, chaos erupts as guests race to their cars. As the host, Bob (Mike Doyle), opens the door to his bomb shelter, he’s approached by Frank (Jamal Thomas), another father seeking refuge. In response, Bob punches Frank, knocking him to the ground so that he and his own family may escape safely underground, alone.

This is our introduction to the world of Fallout, the Amazon Prime Video series based on the popular video games. Just over 200 years after this nuclear war, post-apocalyptic America is populated by the remnants of humanity struggling to survive this harsh, new world. But beneath the surface, in sealed, interconnected vaults, a privileged few enjoy a leisurely life that closely resembles the old world. Not everyone gets to reside in the vaults, however. At the heart of Fallout's first season is this question of gatekeeping: when the world ends, who rightfully holds the keys to humanity's salvation?

Life is good underground. Vault Dwellers are optimistic, imbued with an atavistic naivete befitting the show’s 1950s soundtrack. They have gardens, Shakespeare, old movies, a massive digital screen that projects imitation blue skies, loving families, and a functioning democracy. Their life is one of peace and hope. The surface, by contrast, is rife with violence and despair, filled with killers, thieves, animals evolved into vicious beasts, and survivors mutated into ravenous rotting ghouls. It’s a wasteland with scarce resources, littered with the dead and the foundations of fallen structures as the only evidence of a time before.

The Vault Dwellers want to save America. According to Hank MacLean (Kyle MacLachlan), the community leader of Vault 33, they all have “a shared duty to keep the candle of civilization lit, while the rest of the world has been cast into darkness.” They’ve built this society in preparation for Reclamation Day, a day when lowered radiation levels finally permit a return to the surface to recolonize whatever and whoever remains. “These survivors,” Hank says, “will need to be shown a better way.” The irony, of course, is that this approach to promoting a “better way” relies upon separation from the very people they profess to want to help and self-isolation from the world they intend to save.

Though their intention is, ostensibly, to rebuild the Kingdom of God on Earth, many institutions of faith do so by rejecting those who don't make the cut for any number of reasons, both substantial and superficial. This spiritual gatekeeping runs directly counter to what Christ intended: a pathway to salvation for all.

Many of us have seen this attitude reflected in faith communities, maybe even our own.

I’m reminded of a church I once visited, at which, during Sunday service, the pastor amiably relayed what wouldn’t be tolerated in this particular house of worship. Unlike “those other churches,” he said, there would be no jumping or hollering. “You know those people,” he said. “Those people draw the attention from Jesus and onto themselves.” He stated simply that if anyone were to engage in such behavior, they’d be asked to leave.

While I appreciated this church’s desire to maintain order and to cultivate a culture that met the needs of its congregants, I was taken aback by the threat of expulsion. Having grown up in the Black church, I couldn’t help but consider the worshipers I’d seen sing and dance and “catch the Holy Ghost,” as they say—falling out, crying and calling for Jesus, consumed at once by the burdens of daily life and the relief only the church could provide. I thought, What about those people who are really going through it? Would they be dismissed, their pain deemed too inconvenient? And I wondered, Who are we to close the door on anyone’s salvation?

In Luke 14, before sharing the Parable of the Great Banquet, Jesus instructed: “. . . when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus exemplify this by blessing the poor, healing the sick, and coming alongside sinners—all to the chagrin of the religious elite. With this parable, Jesus further rejects the purity culture that excluded the unclean from temple worship, because God’s grace is for everyone.

Jesus’s message is also about eliminating social division, particularly in the name of God. We’ve seen divisions along lines of race, gender, class, appearance, and orientation prevent members of the larger community from full participation in the faith community. As we see in Fallout, stoking such division, even in the name of saving the world, ultimately yields the opposite result. (Spoilers ahead.)

We eventually learn that, before the bombs were dropped, Vault-Tec—the company behind the bunkers—was primarily driven by a desire for exclusivity. In order to sell more vaults and corner the market, it was in their best interest—they, in fact, had a “fiduciary responsibility” to their investors—to do what they could to stall world peace, even if it meant dropping the bomb themselves. “When we are the only ones left,” declares Barb Howard (Frances Turner), a Vault-Tec executive, “there will be no one to fight. A true monopoly.”

When exclusive religious institutions sacrifice one another, close off our faith communities, and turn our houses of worship into secure vaults designed to save a select few, we prioritize the institution over the rest of humanity. This is exactly what Jesus warned us not to do—not if we truly seek the Kingdom. Paul writes in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Our job, then, as people of faith, is to embody and exhibit the truth of this statement by opening our arms and our doors to everyone, especially those who don’t otherwise fit institutional standards. We can’t save the world if we aren’t willing to save one another.

Topics: TV