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THE "Left Behind" phenomenon is an outgrowth of apocalyptic theology, the strand of Christian eschatology whose end-time scenarios focus on judgment and retribution. Another Christian eschatological tradition, called millennialism or millenarianism, focuses on restoration and regeneration -- a thousand-year period of blessedness preceding the end of the world.
The contemporary American version of apocalypticism is indebted for its particulars to the writings of the Englishman John Nelson Darby, who broke from the Anglican Church around 1830 to found a sect called the Plymouth Brethren. His thirty-two volumes of collected writings (including a memoir titled Personal Recollections of many Prominent People whom I have Known, and of Events -- especially those Relating to the History of St. Louis -- during the First Half of the Present Century) describe a view of history called dispensationalism, which segments God's relationship to humanity into periods of time during which we are subject to different divine laws and different criteria for salvation. According to Darby, the current dispensation began with the Crucifixion; the next will begin with the Rapture of the Saved, leading to a seven-year period during which the Antichrist will rule the earth; and then will come Armageddon and the Last Judgment. This, Darby wrote, is the literal truth of Revelation. Darby's dispensationalism was adopted by the fundamentalist C. I. Scofield's First Reference Bible, and is the standard reading of Revelation among those Christians who believe in biblical inerrancy, including Billy Graham and Hal Lindsey (author of The Late Great Planet Earth). It is also the historical time line of the "Left Behind" books. That Tim LaHaye's scriptural study Revelation Unveiled, published last year as a companion to the "Left Behind" series, does not credit Darby in its bibliography is a measure of the degree to which Darby's ideas have been absorbed by fundamentalists as the plain sense of Scripture.
For almost 2,000 years the cultural context for such detailed apocalyptic scenarios seems to have involved intense oppression, whether real or perceived. Revelation was written by John of Patmos during the reign of Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96). Scholars debate the question of whether Revelation's first readers suffered violent persecution or physical deprivation or both. There is no question, however, that those Christians suffered intense cultural oppression. Domitian required all subjects to worship his image and to address him as "Lord and God" -- and surely Christian resentment of this fueled Revelation's fiery visions of Babylon's destruction and Jerusalem's glory. Countless Christian communities since then have found spiritual solace and political power in Revelation's promise of a new world coming, with mixed results. (America's nineteenth-century abolitionist movement was strongly millenarian; David Koresh's cult in Waco was strongly apocalyptic.)
Revelation's inspirations have been similarly spectacular in literature, including Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland, and Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust. For sheer rhetorical power (and, one must admit, priggishness), however, it's hard to beat D. H. Lawrence's Apocalypse, which let rip a ferocious indictment of Revelation's symbolic power among working-class English Christians. "Down among the uneducated people you will still find Revelation rampant," Lawrence wrote, belittling his own background.
It is very nice, if you are poor and not humble -- and the poor may be obsequious, but they are almost never truly humble in the Christian sense -- to bring your grand enemies down to utter destruction and discomfiture, while you yourself rise up to grandeur.Lawrence believed that the English proletariat's dreams of revenge were rooted in the class resentments of first-century Christians.
By the time of Jesus, all the lowest classes and mediocre people had realised that never would they get a chance to be kings, never would they go in chariots, never would they drink wine from gold vessels. Very well then -- they would have their revenge by destroying it all. "Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils." ... -- how one hears the envy, the endless envy screeching through this song of triumph!It's easy to giggle along with Lawrence; it's equally easy to see how mean these passages are. And it's important to ask where this kind of vitriol comes from. Why, if the uneducated people were so pathetic, did Lawrence expend his vital energies (in his last book) stomping on them?
One reason was to prove that he was not one of them -- a motive given urgency by his inescapable knowledge that he had at least begun as one of them. (You can't choose your relatives.) Another, more laudable reason might have been to defend the Modernist life force of which he was a prophet. Yet the way to defend one's beliefs is to live them, not to hurl eggs at people who pose you no real threat. What did it matter if "mediocre people" fantasized about being top dogs? For his last battle Lawrence could have done much better.
Lawrence's class-based critique of Revelation junkies does not apply to the makers and consumers of the "Left Behind" phenomenon, which is produced and received (at about $20 per hardback) in an atmosphere of some class privilege. But his condemnation of the envy that animated English lower-class readings of Revelation does apply to the phenomenon itself. Envy, not of money (of which "Left Behind" folks appear to have plenty) but of cultural status (of which they are bankrupt), fairly oozes from every page of these books. And it has very real social consequences: it sharpens the destructive habit of enmity between the once- and the twice-born.
"Left Behind" offers no strong alternative to the world's definition of what matters; it merely appropriates and baptizes worldly standards. Everyone in the books is above average. The characters' brains and physical beauty are sometimes described with clumsy cultural references that demonstrate little more than Jenkins's aching, futile desire to be "with it": one character looks "as if he had come off the cover of a Fortune 500 edition of GQ." Buck is "Ivy League" educated; Rayford, despite his simplistic conversation, is described as an "erudite reader." The Tribulation Force drives a snazzy Range Rover loaded with gizmos (cell phone, "citizen's band radio," and "a CD player that plays those new two-inch jobs"). Everyone is online, and the Tribulation Force proselytizes on two separate Web sites. One, maintained by a messianic Jew named Tsion Ben-Judah, is strictly theological ("ten times more popular than any other [site] in history"); the other, maintained by Buck, is an underground newsmagazine called The Truth ("ten times the largest reading audience he had ... [at] Global Community Weekly"). And the leading believers get treated like stars. A young Jewish convert (David Hassid) is amazed that Rayford knows Tsion Ben-Judah personally. "Shoot," Rayford says, "I can probably get the kid an autograph."
THERE is real pathos in details like these, as there is in Jenkins's calling himself "the most famous writer nobody's ever heard of." Published interviews with Jenkins amplify his conflicted desire for worldly fame. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune in 1998, Jenkins described the pleasure of seeing his books prominently displayed at Barnes & Noble stores. "I always take a little picture," he said. An interview for a Tyndale House advertisement in Christian publications offers even odder evidence of Jenkins's hunger for fame:
[Jenkins] tells how he might see someone on an airplane reading the book, and he'll ask what it's about. The person will try to describe the story. At some point Jerry will say, "People tell me I look like the guy on the back cover." The person will look and say, "Yes, you do, sort of." And then Jerry will say, "Well, I really am the author" and relish the response. (Once someone said, "Glad to meet you, Mr. LaHaye"!)Why would Jerry B. Jenkins want to be famous? In The Frenzy of Renown: Fame & Its History, Leo Braudy points out that Emperor Augustus made the Roman state "the only place where personal dignity could be conferred." Then Christianity came along "to define an arena for individual nature well beyond the political," and "dignity was conferred not in the service of Rome, but in the service of God." (Render unto Caesar, and so forth.) The empire socialized the desire for personal recognition; the Church spiritualized it. Still, the Church and the Empire each also retained some vestige of the other's power. The Catholic ecclesiastical structure can still slake the human thirst for worldly recognition within a community of the faithful; for Catholics, salvation has always had to do with actual physical interaction among believers.
Protestants, in contrast, have only their Bibles to keep them warm. Their church hierarchies are more various (in many evangelical and fundamentalist churches they are almost chaotic), and their salvation depends more heavily on an abstract relationship with the Truth, revealed through Scripture. These facts can't help creating a conflicted relationship between Protestants and the culture at large -- a heightened sensitivity to culture's world-shaping power and a fear of words and images that do not point back to the Word.
This fear is what makes Jenkins desire fame. His books suggest that he fears being left behind by a secular, global, technological culture bereft of Christian messages, and the popularity of his books confirms that he's not alone in his fear. Jenkins fights fear with fiction, by Christianizing the world. But the "Left Behind" phenomenon has been swept up in worldly culture, even enraptured by it. ("Our most important goal is to produce a movie that is accessible and understood by the average moviegoer.") This must be a terrifying experience, because now the fear doubles: Jenkins is a Christian at war with secular culture, but his toy soldiers use a $100,000 Range Rover as their tank. No wonder Rayford Steele is the Antichrist's personal pilot.
Jenkins and LaHaye have done a masterly job of using conservative Christian media networks to purvey their message, build their image, and make their fortune. But the great throng of their fans, and even the authors themselves, are painfully aware that they are out of the loop. The harder they try to be culturally relevant, the more ridiculous they become, the further they fall from relevance, the more intensely they are exiled -- not only from cultural legitimacy but also from the spiritual power of their own beliefs.
Jenkins and LaHaye estimate that about 2,000 people have been born again as a result of reading the "Left Behind" books. Sadly, however, the books also tempt their audience to feel self-satisfied derision toward those who don't share their views. And in a society where the kinds of people who read the series have considerable political influence, such derision is dangerous.
As the demon locusts descend on the earth, Rayford is giving the business to a couple of stupid nonbelievers. One of the chumps asks where that sound is coming from, cueing Rayford to deliver one of his best Clint Eastwood lines: "One of your last warnings. Or another trick by the fundamentalists. You decide."
Stiff-necked cultural elites get to roll their eyes at those crazy fundamentalists; believers bloated with righteousness get to snort and whoop at the wacko liberals. Whether we roll our eyes or guffaw, however, we are laughing so hard that it hurts. Such is our cultural diversity.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.