The Trials of the Tribulation

In the "Left Behind" novels things get very bad -- the planet is invaded by "200 million demonic horsemen," for example, and that's before Armageddon and the Last Judgment

JERRY B. Jenkins jokingly refers to himself as "the most famous writer nobody's ever heard of." Until 1995 the most noteworthy of Jenkins's 120 books were his ghostwritten or as-told-to autobiographies of Nolan Ryan, Hank Aaron, Orel Herschiser, Mike Singletary, and Billy Graham. Then Jenkins came into his own, with a series of Christian sci-fi thrillers that imagine the events of a seven-year period of Tribulation following the Rapture of the Saved, inspired by the New Testament book of Revelation.Left Behind, Tribulation Force, Nicolae, Soul Harvest,Apollyon, and Assassins have sold some 10 million copies for Tyndale House, a publisher of religious books, and among them have spent four years at the top of the best-seller lists. (Assassins appeared on the New York Timesbest-seller list frequently last fall, and often trumped Thomas Harris's Hannibal.)

Although Jenkins writes every word of the books, Tim LaHaye, a "lifelong student of prophecy and end-times events," receives credit as co-author, because he checks Jenkins's writing for prophetic accuracy. In 1998 Jenkins and LaHaye launched a series of special "Left Behind" books for children aged ten to fourteen. A CD of music inspired by the books, called People Get Ready, has been moving fast at the evangelical ForeFront Records. Six more adult novels will be written before the series ends, in 2003, with The Glorious Appearing, in which Jesus Christ returns. And a movie based on the first book is scheduled for release sometime late this year.

The Web site "Left Behind -- The Movie" states,

Our most important goal is to produce a movie that is accessible and understood by the average moviegoer. Not everyone who sees this movie will be Christians, and we want to produce an exciting film for them as well. Be assured, however, that the core message of the books and of Scripture will remain in the film.

Envy not the movie's screenwriters, John Bishop and Chris Auer. Even a bare-bones summary of the wickedly funny, constantly twisting plots of these six novels, which total more than 2,500 pages, requires sweeping elision, not to mention considerable risk of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. But here goes: The series begins high above the earth, in a Boeing 747 en route to London, piloted by Captain Rayford Steele. The handsome, married, unsaved Steele is enjoying a moment of adulterous fantasy when the object of his affection, a flight attendant named Hattie Durham (to be fair, he's thinking about her smile), comes screaming into the cockpit.

Breathless, Hattie tells Rayford that dozens of passengers have disappeared from the cabin, leaving behind only piles of clothing and -- depending on vanity and physical health -- "eyeglasses, contact lenses, hairpieces, hearing aids, fillings, jewelry, shoes, even pacemakers and surgical pins." Rayford takes a peek at first class, "where an elderly woman sat stunned in the predawn haze, her husband's sweater and trousers in her hands. 'What in the world?' she said. 'Harold?'"

Rayford turns the plane around, lands in Chicago, and makes his way home to the western suburb of Mount Prospect, where he discovers that his wife, Irene, and son, Raymie, both born-again Christians, have evaporated. His daughter (and fellow religious skeptic), Chloe, an undergraduate at Stanford, flies home to join him. They take their grief and confusion to Irene and Raymie's New Hope Church, where they learn that "Jesus Christ returned for his true family, and the rest of us were left behind" -- this from the pastor, Bruce Barnes. The pastor was left behind because, he says, his pre-Rapture faith was "phony"; he didn't believe that "Jesus [is] the only way to God." Rayford converts immediately; Chloe follows shortly thereafter. (The second-chance period for reprobates following the Rapture is the series' most noteworthy contribution to Christian theology.)

As one might expect, the Rapture leaves the world in chaos. An obscure Romanian politician named Nicolae Carpathia arises to become the most powerful leader on the planet. His popular message of unity -- "We must disarm, we must empower the United Nations, we must move to one currency, and we must become a global village" -- eventually wins him control of all government, media, and institutional religion. He is named the sexiest man alive byPeople magazine. He appoints a new Pope. ("A lot of Catholics were confused, because while many remained, some had disappeared -- including the new pope, who had been installed just a few months before the vanishings. He had stirred up controversy in the church with a new doctrine that seemed to coincide more with the 'heresy' of Martin Luther than with the historic orthodoxy they were used to.")

Meanwhile, the star journalist Cameron "Buck" Williams, who was on Rayford and Hattie's fateful flight, persuades the editors of his Newsweek- look-alike employer to assign him the Carpathia beat. As a quid pro quo for Hattie's having helped Buck get an Internet connection so that he could e-mail his editors from the plane just after the Rapture, Buck introduces Hattie to Carpathia. She quickly becomes Carpathia's personal assistant and lover.

Through Hattie, Buck also strikes up a friendship with Rayford Steele, whose Christian explanation for the disappearances gives Buck a "constant case of the chills," because it "tied everything together and made it make sense." Buck converts, and he, Rayford, Chloe, and Pastor Bruce Barnes figure out that Carpathia is the Antichrist. This is bad news for Hattie, who soon becomes pregnant with Carpathia's illegitimate child. Yet when she considers solving the problem by getting an abortion (in "a church that had been retrofitted into a testing laboratory and reproductive clinic"), her Christian friends do everything they can -- including killing a man -- to stop her.

As the number of believers has continued to grow, the main characters have coagulated into a "little group inside the group, a sort of Green Berets" of believers, called the Tribulation Force, to wage holy war during the coming tribulations. These will include a "wrath of the Lamb earthquake"; a meteor strike; maritime disasters; global darkening; plagues of fire, smoke, sulfur, and demon locust-scorpions; and an invasion by 200 million demonic horsemen who will kill a third of the world's population.

Through a series of coincidences Buck and Rayford find themselves on Carpathia's payroll, Buck as the publisher of Carpathia's propagandizing newsmagazine Global Community Weekly, and Rayford as Carpathia's personal pilot. These are very stressful jobs. Rayford would like to kill Carpathia, as would Buck, but neither one gets a clear sign from God that he's been chosen to pull the trigger.

In the sixth book, Assassins, Carpathia convenes a "Global Gala" in Jerusalem. (Teddy Kollek Stadium is festooned with banners reading "Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Utopia" and similar messages; there are lots of prayers to "the great one-gender deity"; and a noon-to-midnight party is thrown in the Holy City's "hedonist district.") Rayford and Buck are there. Buck stands around wishing that he could "pop Nicolae between the eyes, even with a slingshot." Rayford does him one better: he brings a loaded gun. After Carpathia's chief deputy introduces "the man God chose to lead the world from war and bloodshed to a single utopian community of harmony, your supreme potentate and mine," Rayford takes aim, prays hard, and

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 thePlymouth 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 studyRevelation 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'sApocalypse, 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 theChicago 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.