It’s the end-of-century sensation of the Christian publishing world: Stacks of them block bookstore aisles and in three years, they’ve rarely been absent from even secular best-seller lists.
It’s Left Behind - the series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins which took off in 1996 and shows no sign of slowing after six volumes and a projected twelve in the series to be published a breathless rate of one ever nine months.
The response the series is strong. Readers rave about stirred imaginations and changed lives. Tyndale Publishing counts its blessings. Literally. The company sold 1.2. million units of the books, the spin-offs for youth, audio and video tapes in both August and September 1999. The latest volume, Assassins had sold 1.5 million copies from its August 5 release through the end of September.
The seventh in the series, The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession is due to be released on May 23. At this writing (April 4) it's already #24 on the Amazon sales list, just on the basis of pre-orders. (BTW, the next Harry Potter, due out in July, is #2)
So what’s going on? What are you missing if Left Behind has left you behind?
Not much. Only a couple of thousand pages of stupendously poor writing and stealth proselytizing. You’ll survive without it. Left Behind is really nothing more than a simple-minded fictional rendition of a bizarre eschatology called Dispensational Premillenarianism.
Tim LaHaye, who conceived and outlines the books (Jenkins writes them), is a longtime evangelical leader and one of the most prominent advocates of this convoluted, relatively new theological opinion. Left Behind is simply one more attempt to promulgate his views to a doubting world.
As Left Behind begins, a slew of airplane passengers suddenly vanish. Reports filter in from all over the globe, indicating that this is not exactly a unique experience. Millions have disappeared, leaving nothing but their clothes. Gosh, what happened?
A small group, led by dashing pilot Rayford Steele, his beautiful daughter Chloe, hot young journalist Cameron (Buck) Williams and associate pastor Bruce Barnes quickly unlock the mystery, assisted by a videotape left behind by a forward-looking (now vanished) minister who saw the whole thing coming down – the Rapture.
The rest of the series follows the adventures of this crew as they see their past errors, get saved, and then make their way through the Tribulations: earthquakes, plague, war, and, of course…the rise of the Antichrist, one Nicolae Carpathia.
Carpathia ascends rapidly from an obscure position in the Romanian government to fulfill the world’s need for leadership in the wake of the Rapture. Within weeks, he’s been elected secretary-general of the U.N.( renamed the “Global Community”), decided to move the headquarters to Iraq – (New Babylon. Get it?), convinced every nation to destroy 90% of its arms and hand over the remainder to him, bought all the major media outlets of the world, and convinced the new Pope to be his right-hand man in abolishing all distinct world religions and forming the “Enigma Babylon One World Faith.” Busy man.
So that’s Left Behind in a nutshell: Our heroes - the Tribulation Force - keeping the faith, spreading it, and coping with life and love in the Apocalypse. The first volume actually closes with the group in an airport concourse “striding four abreast, arms around each other’s shoulders, knit with a common purpose.” Really.
There’s a lot to say about these books, not much of it positive. Eye-catching covers. Flawless marketing. But the writing? The theology?
In Left Behind, we’re dealing with cookie-cutter prose (what do you expect when you’re churning out a 450-page book on an average of every eight months?), shallow characterization, and a fair share of unintentional humor:
“Hon, do you see no irony in your being offended by the man we’re convinced is the Antichrist?…you expect common courtesy and decency from the most evil man in the history of the universe?”
“Chloe astounded him with her ability to run an international company while taking care of a new baby.”
“Whatever joy David and Annie might have had in the first love stage of their relationship was dampened by the travail of so many…People were dying and going to hell.”
Questions of logic bedevil the reader making her way through this magnum opus. How is it, that amid the massive chaos brought on by earthquakes, herds of sulfur-spewing horses galloping through the sky , diminished solar energy, war, and storms of fiery, bloody hailstones, the Tribulation Force is forever getting its hands on super sophisticated gadgetry? Untraceable cel phones, untraceable global internet access, and a never-interrupted gasoline supplies for a never-ending supply of Range Rovers, Lear jets and helicopters are always close at hand.
If the Antichrist can hypnotize whole crowds and has an uncanny understanding of everyone he meets, why doesn’t he pick up on the minor detail that his plane and office have been bugged by the Tribulation Force ? If the Antichrist is just that, why don’t either Rayford (eventually Carpathia’s pilot) or Buck (his media honcho for a while)– just kill him during any one of the hundreds of hours they spend with the guy?
And why, for heaven’s sake, doesn’t anyone in these books ever actually do anything?
After the first volume, the plots cleave to an instantly predictable structure: The previous book’s culminating disaster is summarized. The main characters spend approximately four hundred pages dashing about the globe looking for each other and earnestly discussing Revelation . Another seal is broken , a new disaster vents itself, and the wheels are in motion for the next volume. No one is able to influence the course of events or do much but sit and watch those horses galloping across the sky. But it has to be that way, you see, since these characters are dwelling, not in real life, but in the fatalistic world of “Bible Prophecy.” Speaking of which, let’s move on to theology.
Since the fourth century, when the expectation of Christ’s imminent return passed, the Catholic Church (and subsequently, most mainstream Protestants) has followed Jesus’ instruction that “you know not the day or the hour” and taught the fundamental truths we find in Scripture about the end of time: At some point, God will conquer evil once and for all, Jesus will return in judgement and believers, living or dead, will enter the fullness of eternal life.
Following the example of St. Augustine in The City of God, the teaching Church has been cautious about interpreting the visions in Scriptural apocalyptic literature literally, and, most especially, about connecting these visions to contemporary events.
Not so fundamentalists. Unpacking “Bible Prophecy” is a central occupation of Biblical literalists. And, just as any issue that comes up within the ranks of those who insist on the literal “plain meaning” of the Scriptures, they fight like banshees about just whose interpretation of the plain meaning is correct.
Dispensational Premillenarianism claims that when you do this literal interpretation, you come up with the following scenario for the endtimes: Then the Rapture will snatch up the true believers, protecting them from the wrath to come. They get that from First Thessalonians and Matthew. Seven years of really bad stuff follows. That’s the Tribulation. The general timeline comes from Daniel and the nature of the events – those wars, earthquakes, big man-faced locusts and the Antichrist – mostly from Revelation, but Ezekiel and Daniel come in handy, too. After that’s over, the Millennium will arrive, during which Jesus will physically reign over the earth. Then, after a little bit more trouble, the world will end and it’s time for everyone to go to heaven.
The problems with this view, of course, are legion, beginning with the insistence that all of the apocalyptic material, including that obviously written with the travails of second-century BC Jews(Daniel) or late first-century AD Christians (Revelation) in mind, should be interpreted as a coarsely literal “prediction” of future events.
Besides, it doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. In No Fear of the Storm, Tim Lahaye wrote, “The pre-Tribulation view is the most logical view of Second Coming when Scriptures are taken for their plain, literal meaning..” Really? The more you know about this view, the more absurdly strained it is in its attempts to fit wildly disparate Bible passages, all taken completely out of context, into the script. Just take the concept of the Rapture as a distinct event – such a view isn’t supported by Scripture at all, which always associates the taking up of living believers with the Second Coming of Christ. The “Pre-Trib” view, as it’s known, isn’t uncontroversial among evangelicals either, many of whom critique it for that very failure to be as “literal” as it claims. So where did this whole idea come from?
The PreTribulation eschatology that’s being pushed in the Left Behind series is a recent invention. It was initially dreamed up by a 19th-century Englishman named John Nelson Darby and popularized in the United States by Cyrus Ingerson Scofield, who integrated the view into the footnotes of his immensely popular Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909 and still in use today.
If all this isn’t enough, be warned that these books are unapologetic in their standard fundamentalist anti-Catholicism. The pope is raptured, sure, but only because “He had stirred up controversy in the church with a new doctrine that seemed to coincide with the ‘heresy’ of Martin Luther than with the historic orthodox they [Catholics] were used to. “ When ace reporter Buck chats with Peter Cardinal Matthews of Cincinnati about the vanishings, the Cardinal (soon to head the Enigma Babylon One World Faith) allows as how his own sister and aunt had disappeared, but , you know, since they’d recently left the Catholic Church, he’s concluded the disappearances were punishment. We, of course, know better, since we’re informed later of the “archbishop’s attempt to explain away the doctrine of grace.”
Jerry Jenkins and Tyndale Publishing claims that these books aren’t anti-Catholic, but they're both being disingenous, if not downright dishonest. If a book works out of the assumption that following the orthodox teachings of the Catholic Church on grace and salvation leads one to eternal damnation isn’t anti-Catholic, just what is?
For those doubting the strong anti-Catholic basis of these novels, just go to the bookstore and leaf through Revelation Unveiled by Tim LaHaye, published by Zondervan and marketed as the book that "lays the Scriptural foundation for Left Behind. It only takes a second to discern that LaHaye buys into and propogates every deeply anti-Catholic viewpoint ever espoused by the most virulent bigots, from Martin Luther on - yes, LaHaye explicitly identifies the Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon. Case closed.
There are, of course, Catholic apocalyptically-themed novels. Michael O’Brien’s Father Elijah and Bud McFarlane Jr.’s Pierced by the Sword feature liberal, tolerance-mongering Catholic cardinals in league with media-savvy Antichrists, as well. They share with Left Behind the insight that in the contemporary world, evil disarms good by using the power of the mass media to saturate the world with relativism. But they differ in that their vision of the future is more informed by the visions of mystics and Marian apparitions that by Revelation.
This Catholic environment might make these books more interesting to Catholic readers, but since, like Left Behind, they are really focused on proselytizing (here against the missteps of the post-Vatican II Church) they suffer from the same problems - the good guys are unfailingly faith-filled fellows who dialogue in homilies, rather than conversations. They do, however, drink a whole lot, which, of course, you wouldn’t ever catch the Tribulation Force doing, even with those big locusts knocking at the screen door.
So, buyer beware of Left Behind. What presents itself as an exciting, faith-based adventure through the Last Days is nothing more than a fire and brimstone sermon concealed under a flat, deeply illogical fiction, designed to move readers to accept a particularly bizarre fundamentalist Protestant theological viewpoint through that lowest of techniques: fear.
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