Critics and Readers Look Inward Toward the Novels
(The post formerly known as http://oldmaid.jallman.net/entry.php?id=10 )
(EDIT 2016: the Spoiler posts—which originally your host had not intended to write—have been among the most popular on the Potluck website. Therefore if this post is to be a collective book review, it seems fair to at least give an outline of the books being reviewed. After this, we will include the original post material.
In Volume 1, millions of adults and billions of children vanish in an End-Times phenomenon called the Rapture. Every child under an “age of accountability” gets raptured. This age roughly corresponds to either thirteen years old (because Ishmael and bar mitzvah?) or to puberty. (In a spin-off series for children, the youngest major character to be left behind is Ryan, an 11-year-old boy.) Despite this staggering loss, the world fails to change its ways. The characters who do respond are those who know the truth: four protagonists who will form the Tribulation Force in Volume 2; and the rising Antichrist, Nicholae “Jetty” Carpathia, and his competitors and minions.
In Volume 2, Rapture–widows and –orphans marry or remarry, get new jobs (with Carpathia as their new employer, so that they can spy on him), and discover that sinners also can be fruitful and multiply. The one protagonist who isn’t on the Antichrist’s payroll promptly dies.
Volume 3 has the orthodox Jewish rabbi, Tsion Ben Judah, escaping from national Israel (the one land not under Antichrist’s rule) into the wider world. (When he converted to rapturist Christianity, his fellow Jews murdered his family; whereas the Antichrist doesn’t scare him nearly as much.) The Wrath of the Lamb Earthquake spares national Israel but otherwise damages the entire globe.
Meanwhile, Carpathia seems to have comprehended that there’s nothing in the Bible to support the novels’ sub-plot that Satan would have grandspawn. In a story twist, the Saveds argue with the mother for the life of Nicky Junior. She doesn’t want it either, and Carpathia’s decision to send her ex as a singing telegram instead of dumping her himself does nothing to improve her mood. This begins a multi-volume plotline in which The Girlfriend gets chased, captured, almost-killed, lather, rinse, repeat, plus stung by demonic insect-beasts. As for the Saved female leads, babies get born in Volume 5, but the characters have to dodge mushroom clouds, plane crashes, and cars in trees to get there.
Much of the middle of the series consists of the characters wandering the globe and rescuing each other. Natural disasters and supernatural disasters pummel the earth. Eventually the male leads irritate Carpathia enough to lose their jobs. Minor characters are introduced to get new jobs working for the Antichrist. (In the novels this is considered very important.) Figuring that two can play this game, Carpathia lets word slip that a protagonist has been spying on the Tribulation Force for him.
Things pick up somewhat with the assassination of Moses and Elijah (yes, that Moses and Elijah). They eventually rise from the dead and ascend into Heaven. Assorted angels appear in the series, including Michael the archangel.
In a nod to the Dallas plotline called who shot J.R., at least three different characters decide to assassinate Carpathia. They kill him in Volume 6, go to the referee’s instant-replay screen to see who scored, and realize in Volume 7 that that was merely the play before halftime. In the novels, Satan then resurrects Nicolae Carpathia from the dead and enters into his body. The indwelt Antichrist now has his forever-body and Satan a Satan a vehicle through which he can speak to the people. (We see in Volume 11 that he can glow in the dark, even during the Plague of Darkness. It’s a faint and ghastly green which the characters compare to a light of distant hellfire, but it is, indeed, glowing.)
At Volume 8 the villains force the Mark of the Beast upon all nations. (Apparently it includes both a tattoo and a biochip.) The Saveds have a Seal on their foreheads, which only other believers can see. In a controversial scene, a teenager who wears the Seal of salvation is overruled by adults who decree that he is not responsible to make his own decisions—they restrain him and apply the Mark of the Beast over the top of his Saved Seal. The Tribulation Force welcomes this “bi-loyal” young man. Evildoers cannot see the Seal. The young man now has access to all places that honor the Mark. At the same time, the Tribulation Force (and, by extension, the authors) argue that God “cannot” see the Mark because the lad already has a Seal. (“The Bible says that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, and that has to include our own selves” –Volume 8, page 354.)
(Personal aside: The Bible itself is silent on whether the Mark or the Seal would be visible to other humans, and on whether other humans would kill a person for taking one that they did not like.)
In Volume 9 and continuing, Jewish characters flee to the red rock city of Petra for protection from Carpathia. They didn’t mind when the Antichrist helped them to build the Third Temple (i.e., it was born defiled), or when he nuked Great Britain and the USA, or when he targeted Moses and Elijah, or when he murdered one of his own lackeys within Third Temple walls—but when he tortures a giant pig to death in the same Temple and dances in its blood (“I wanted roast pork!”), they reject him. In Volume 11, Carpathia loses his stronghold of New Babylon, and storms Jerusalem.
Volume 12 sees the return of Jesus Christ in visible power and might. Living characters are judged, the righteous dead resurrected, and the enemies sent to Hell. Some readers expressed dissatisfaction that the novel ends with Rev. 20:7.
Volumes 13, 14, and 15 (or Prequels, 1, 2, and 3) show the main characters before they were left behind, including childhood.
Volume 16 (or Sequel 1, or Volume 16-called-13) speculates on life on earth after Jesus comes back. It’s mostly about the kids. King Jesus lives in the Fourth Temple, while the former King David answers the doorbell and handles visitors. It is said to be a Jewish paradise, where all Jewish characters keep perfect Torah and keep Torah perfectly, and this causes 100 percent of Jewish children to accept Jesus. The only unsaved characters are Gentile youth under the age of majority. (Note that this is not the same as “age of accountability.”) Eventually there are so many unsaved Gentile youth that they make war against Jesus to depose Him. (Spoiler alert: they lose.) Then everyone who is going to Heaven, goes. It’s an unusual book, to say the least.
Every Left Behind volume includes a testimony or witness—a detailed and coherent account of that character’s faith journey. (One would testify, or give a testimony, to a fellow believer. One would witness, or give a witness, to a nonbeliever.)
We now resume the original post material which reviews the series by critical analysis.
The use of fiction as a tool of Christian witness has a celebrated history in the English language, ranging from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and its derivatives. The fact that Christian fiction could thrive in the English language is itself something of a marvel, given the language’s Puritan heritage. The Puritans banned theater, acting, and related storytelling entertainments as illegal. (The Puritans reasoned that “fictions” were stories that are not true; stories that are not true are called “lies”; lying is a sin; ergo, fiction is a sin.) Nevertheless Christian fiction has become a popular method to introduce an author’s religious beliefs to an audience who might not otherwise be exposed to those beliefs.
(Personal aside: J.R.R. Tolkien was widely criticized when he first wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. What was a Roman Catholic “in good standing” doing, to write novels about wizards? Stung, Tolkien retorted, “Gandalf is an angel.”)
Proponents of the Left Behind series praise them as a testimony that “convicts” their own hearts and serves as a witness to strangers. Our critic Frykholm interviewed a variety of avid readers. Several of these interviewees credit the novels as a prop or tool they can use to introduce other people to their faith.
Many readers feel that the books provide an opening, a casual and non-threatening way to present their faith to others. The Bible is too intimidating a place to begin, so readers turn to fiction to offer their faith to their friends. And not only friends, but strangers too. Readers purposely read the books in public places so that they can be questioned about their contents. [snip] [A reader named “Laura” says,] “Maybe its less-officialness makes it easier to discuss, and it sparks the conversation a little more than if I am sitting there reading the Bible. It’s got those cool fiery balls on the front and somebody could say, ‘Oh, Apollyon, I never heard of that. What’s that?’ Then you can say something, and I love opportunities like that!” (page 157)
Critics of the Left Behind series call them “tract novels,” distributed to promote a specific minority belief system. Frykholm interviews a variety of people who dislike the novels as well.
Storytelling techniques such as plot, setting, dialect and dialogue, cultural reference and placement, and characterization are the constructs that build the novels and bring the rapturist story to life.
In the 2005 version of this post, we did not discuss plot and setting outside of the Spoilers posts. This was because none of our five critics spend much time on these constructs, except as sub-sets of their larger response to cultural reference/placement, dialect/dialogue, and characterization. The two critics who directly address the plot—Rossing and Frykholm—consider it too thin to analyze separately.
(Personal aside: When critics state that the plot is “thin,” they do not mean that nothing happens. Clearly many things happen in the 16-volume set. Rather, the critics mean that other rapturist novels such as Watson’s In the Twinkling of an Eye [published 1916] and Kirban’s 666 [published 1973, c1970] tell the same events in one volume and, moreover, feature strangely familiar protagonists.)
Riddlebarger (pages 200-206) and Currie (page 257) address the plot backhandedly by proposing an alternate plot. Both critics argue that rapturism and Left Behind in particular err in a belief that the events of Revelation take place in chronological order. Both critics believe the events are recapitulated twice, that is, spoken three times.
As a pure amillennialist, Riddlebarger argues that Revelation demonstrates the fulfillment of specific doomsday prophecies in Ezekiel. He believes that Rev. 12:7-11 and Rev. 20:1-6 are the same events, depicted in different “camera angles” (pages 202-203). Both of these passages are retellings and fulfillments of Ezekiel 38, 39 (page 205). Thus when we count the old prophet’s vision, the same events are described three times.
As a preterist, Currie also argues that Revelation has a short plot, told three times from three points of view. The six seals tell the story from Christ-and-heaven’s point of view. The trumpets tell the story from the Sanhedrin’s point of view. And the seven thunders? Well, “a powerful angel now unleashes seven thunders, but St. John is not permitted to write these details for us. How ironic: Jesus’ nickname for John and his brother was boanerges, or “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17), yet John is forbidden to tell more about those seven thunders” (page 257).
Currie also points out that rapturism and Left Behind can double up when they must. Currie insists that if we add up every specified time period in Revelation, it would make their Great Tribulation fourteen years long instead of seven years (page 284). He asks, if rapturism disagrees that Revelation tells the same events from multiple points of view, then where do rapturists say the extra seven years went?
This is the closest that the critics get to addressing Left Behind’s plot on its own, as opposed to addressing the worldview and characterization driving the plot
Let us return to our five critics for their assessment of Left Behind’s dialect and dialogue. As Jason Byassee reviews Rossing and Frykholm for his book review, he comments:
Frykholm asks what, precisely, these people mean by conversion, by the “accepting” of Christ at altar calls. She suggests it reflects a willingness to take on the worldview and speech of evangelicals. (page 20)
Dialect and dialogue are ever-present in the long list of testimonies offered by the novels’ assorted characters. These characters repeat a model of the rapturist “plan of salvation” which concludes with “the sinner’s prayer.” Frykholm proposes that the testimonies are included for the benefit of the reader, not the characters. The rapturist model gives readers a checklist, useful for self-diagnosis or as a tool for the diagnosis and conversion of a reader’s acquaintances (page 163-4; 167-8).
Dialect and dialogue can be character-specific. Frykholm (page 72) states that the character Tsion Ben Judah speaks like C.S. Lewis, often to the point of lifting whole paragraphs from Lewis’ books.
(Personal aside: Lewis attracts a diverse audience. I have heard Catholic radio stations praise him highly, and his children’s novel The Last Battle is a cursory good fit with classic amillennial eschatology. Rapturists also love his work, but not all of his work. A rapturist of my acquaintance objected to my citing Lewis’ The Last Battle despite the fondness of Left Behind’s Ben Judah for Lewis. A few days later a [lapsed?] Catholic objected to my citing The Last Battle in spite of the novel’s strong resemblance to the eschatology his church teaches! Do C.S. Lewis’s writings attract “cafeteria” believers? That is, many people who love Lewis’ work pick and choose which of his works they love.)
Fans of Left Behind find it an easy read. A few readers who dislike the novels also find them an easy read, although an “annoying” or “offensive” one (pages 56, 72). However for readers who are not already familiar with rapturist dialect and dialogue, these constructs can obscure the very storyline.
Frykholm cites an interviewee named “Ellen,” a Mormon who is “confounded by a sequence in the beginning of the first novel in which Buck Williams claims to have come to believe in God after a miraculous occurrence in Israel, but is still not a Christian” (page 73). Ellen gave up after finishing volume one, commenting that it was “hard to read.” A second Mormon reader (unnamed) also found the dialect “so far out there, to my mind it is almost wacky” (page 73). Instead of achieving its purpose of converting Ellen and her friend, Left Behind made Ellen curious to look up a Mormon response.
A reader named “Mark” coined the term “Protestant-ese.” This word is Mark’s attempt to describe the dialect and dialogue, and the behavior of the characters who adopt that dialect and dialogue.
Mark is clear about the fact that he did not connect with the first Left Behind novel, the only one he read. This can, in part, be explained by the fact that he feels alienated by the religious language of the books. As a devout and lifelong Catholic, he cannot identify with the Protestant language. Instead he finds himself watching, bemused, as the “Protestant-ese … played itself out and tried to pretty itself as entertainment.” He asks for acknowledgment that “in Christian circles, people talk differently,” acknowledgment that the language of the books is not a universal Christian language. Mark is put off by the books’ construction of a Protestant worldview that then makes vast universal claims. The books’ Christians hold Promise Keeper-like rallies in sports stadiums around the world and assume that the entire world finds this as captivating as Americans do.
All of the Christian characters, whether they are Middle Eastern, Greek, or from the American Midwest, speak in the idiom of American evangelicalism. In the midst of all this, Mark wants an acknowledgment that “other people won’t understand.” (page 72)
A typical example of this dialect and dialogue would be what Frykholm calls the “mercenary” terms used to describe conversion (page 167). In Nicolae (page 407), the character Rayford Steele believes that another character, Hattie Durham, may have died. He hopes she was able to “make the transaction.” By this he means that he hopes Hattie was able to make her peace with God, to be “saved,” to be reconciled, to be justified, etc. (as opposed to, say, making a “transaction” that would involve calling her stockbroker).
There is some theology embedded in this unusual phrase. Jerry Jenkins explains that he chose new metaphors to describe existing beliefs. In an interview with Frykholm he cites John 1:12 and comments that “Sons of God are joint heirs with Christ, so they get what He gets, primarily eternal life” (page 168). The Christian’s spiritual inheritance is mentioned in Rom. 8:16-17. Christianity teaches that Christians receive the Holy Spirit when they are baptized. Saint Paul describes the receipt of the Holy Spirit as the “seal” upon a believer (Eph. 1:13-14, Eph. 4:30, 2 Cor. 1:22). The koine Greek word used to describe this “seal” of the Spirit was originally a word that meant “down payment, deposit, earnest money” that committed a buyer to a deal. Paul declared that the Holy Spirit came to believers as a seal, a “down payment” on that believer’s life, salvation, and presence in eternity.
In the mortal world, inheritances may be described in financial terms. Therefore for clarity Frykholm calls Left Behind‘s new terms “mercenary” to distinguish them from the older terms—what Frykholm calls “traditional, organic metaphors [such as] ‘washed in the blood’ or ‘born again.’” The new “metaphors of consumer culture” emphasize the documentation of tangible items of inheritance (instead of intangible bequests such as love, memories, values, and so forth).
The Left Behind phrase “made the transaction” can be puzzling to those who do not understand the root term—but it is also puzzling to those who do. For if the characters are not being baptized in the Holy Spirit (which they would have to do to be “sealed” in the Biblical sense of the word), then what exactly are they doing? Well, in the novels they get a type of physical tattoo or stamp, receipt, or mark. But previous generations of believers, including the character Irene Steele, did not get this tattoo/stamp/receipt/mark, either in the novels or in the real world. In the real world Jesus was sealed (John 6:27). Since Jesus is the Christian’s example it stands to reason to ask, are not Christians sealed the same way? Why would it “look” different on people than it “looked” on Jesus? This is why critics ask if the “sealing” described in the Bible and the visible “seal” or tattoo/stamp/mark of the Left Behind novels are the same thing.
Frykholm (page 148) points to the rapture and the visible seal as a sort of comfort-object, a reassuring and foolproof way to tell exactly who is who, making it easy to draw the line between “us” and “them.”
Left Behind’s authors offer a fantasy of assurance through this mark [or “seal”] that readers cannot have in their daily lives. The mark both answers the anxiety of the uncertainty of salvation, of having no tangible proof that one really belongs, and, at the same time, gives readers a longing for such assurance that has no answer in life on this side of the rapture (page 148).
Currie (pages 246-7) says that the “mark of God,” the “seal” of Rev. 7:3 “refers to the spiritual mark received at mass … The fact that God’s servants are sealed with this mark ‘upon their foreheads’ shows that their minds are right. They think as Christians should because their loyalty is to God and His Kingdom.” Currie adds that Jeremiah prophesied a day when God would “write [His] law on man’s heart” (Jer. 31:33). However “no serious scholar of Jeremiah assumes that God meant that He would write the words of the law on their hearts with a ballpoint pen” (page 297). Also, “The mark of the beast and the mark of the Lamb are inward and discernible only through the actions of those marked. Having it on the hand signifies the change in what we Christians do as a result of our loyalty, while the forehead mark signifies how our loyalties change the way we think” (page 299). Currie argues that Left Behind takes the “ballpoint pen” approach to “the seal of the Spirit,” which is why it looks different on Rayford, Chloe and the rest of the characters than it looked on Jesus.
The characters in Left Behind are reassured that after they are saved and sealed, they cannot backslide or lose their salvation. Currie (pages 234-5) objects to this theme: “The church of Sardis is bluntly urged to awaken. Anyone who responds, Christ ‘will not blot his name out of the book of life’ (Rev. 3:5). Many rapturists also are strong proponents of eternal security. They do not believe that anyone can be blotted out, even if they stay asleep through Christ’s warnings. The letter to Sardis ought to give them pause.”
(Personal aside #1: Some readers wonder how the characters can be sealed-and-saved when some of the characters behave in a less-than-exemplary fashion. The novels assert that once a person is sealed, he cannot lose his salvation. The novels use the same verses Currie has used in order to argue exactly the opposite thing he argues. In particular, the eighth novel The Mark argues that God the Father has one book of life, and the Lamb has a completely different book of life. The novel insists that believers can be blotted out of the book of mortal life—like a census—but can never be blotted out of the book of eternal life—that is, the characters believe they cannot lose their salvation no matter what they say or do. Many Biblical scholars insist that it is possible to lose one’s salvation because the term apostate cannot be applied to persons who were never saved.
The footnotes of the
Harper Study Bible RSV, 2nd ed. (c1971) for 1 Cor. 3:1 state, “Scripture distinguishes between two kinds of Christian walks. One walk is termed carnal and the other spiritual. The carnal believer is a converted believer whose life is fleshly [sarkinos/sarkikos] because he is under the domination of the sarx or self-relying, self-pleasing nature. Therefore he is not walking in full fellowship with the Lord Jesus nor is he wholly surrendered to the Spirit of God. He is not Spirit-filled although he should be [Eph. 5:18]; nor does his life reflect the fruit of the Spirit [Gal. 5:22-23]. The spiritual Christian [pneumatikos] is one whose life is yielded to God and whose will is in subjection to the will of God. He is filled with the Spirit and men can see the evidence of spiritual vitality, for he produces the fruit of the Spirit in his life. An unbeliever is not spoken as either carnal or spiritual. He is called a natural [psychikos] man. See 1 Cor. 2:14 where he is called the unspiritual man.” [For a longer discussion, see also Riddlebarger, page 116.]
As we duly turn to the footnote for
1 Cor. 2:14 we read that “psychikos designates the man who is dominated by his psyche or natural “soul” [that individuality or life-principle which man shares with animals, although his soul is possessed of a higher order of intelligence].”
Therefore if Rayford changed from a
psychikos to a sarkikos he would be sealed in the Spirit and it would not be fitting for others to call him “unsaved,” unless of course he falls away. [Then he would be called an apostate.] However it is acceptable to wonder why it is taking so long for him to become pneumatikos, and it is acceptable to question why the “seal” is a physical mark on Rayford when it was not so on Jesus.)
(Personal aside #2: As long as we are on a side expedition, we notice that the
Harper Study RSV footnote to 1 Cor. 2:14 seems to be saying that animals have souls; animals merely lack our intellect. See also our upcoming discussion in “Applied Theology II” on the stewardship toward earth / the mortality of the earth.)
What else does dialect and dialogue, “worldview and speech” include? Well, there is one big item that it does not include. Rossing (page 4) observes that in the Left Behind series, the “Our Father,” the Lord’s Prayer, is not prayed by anyone. Ever.
This is not as much a surprise to readers who recognize how many sarkikos there are in the storyline. In 1 Cor. 3:1-3 Paul frets that a church of weak, worldly believers (sarkikos) have yet to outgrow their “milk teeth” behavior and faith to consume spiritual “solid food.” The Lord’s Prayer is one such chewy morsel. Rossing thinks it is because the Lord’s Prayer includes the line, “Thy kingdom come / Thy will be done on earth…” Rossing adds that “it is not a prayer to take us away from earth, nor a prayer for escape in a bunker, but a prayer that God’s reign will come to earth—and that it will even come ‘through us,’ as Luther explains” (page 16).
(Personal aside #1: Readers also would be hard-pressed to find a record of the characters participating in the holy feast or the rite of water baptism. It must be noted that the real Jesus specifically instructed His followers to perform both rituals until the Second Coming.)
(Personal aside #2: Now, the villains do speak an evil mutant version of the Lord’s Prayer, which the characters at least recognize. The sight of the villains teaching this “prayer” to enthusiastic small children on television makes a character momentarily suicidal. Although the characters do not pray the Lord’s Prayer themselves, it wounds their spirits to see the prayer abused. See Volume 7, pages 56 and continuing.)
Let us continue with the critics’ examination of the novels as literature by adding characterization, both group characterizations and individual.
Olson does not spend much time on the plot or characters in Left Behind, preferring to address the history and theology of its parent movement. But there is one characterization he dislikes, and it is a big one. In Left Behind the fictional pope is whooshed up to heaven along with the rapturists. Presumably this means that he also was a rapturist, or as rapturists think of it, a “real Christian.” Olson does some digging into this fictional pontiff’s beliefs and declares that the beliefs of this pope are closer to those of the Lutherans than to the Catholics. The message imparted is that the fictional pope was whooshed up to heaven because he was a “bad” Catholic. His successor on earth and the Catholic flock are left behind for seven years of tribulation because they are “good” Catholics.
(Personal aside: The first pope might not qualify as a good Lutheran either. The “Secret Rapture” teaching stands outside standard Lutheran doctrine. “Pope John” is succeeded by figurehead pope Peter Matthews, who will follow the Antichrist yet will be murdered on his orders anyway. The Orthodox Jew Tsion Ben Judah will become the real “pope” of the series, albeit one who implores George Sebastian to teach him how to use a machine gun.)
On the character of Rayford “Rafe” Steele, Frykholm observes that “domesticity, home and family are markers for faith. These are the very things that Rayford ignores in order to pursue women, success and power” (page 31). To win over his daughter Chloe, Rayford “learns to open himself emotionally” and to become a “Promise Keeper model of the servant-leader.” Yet Rayford continues to “flaunt his wealth; he flies into ungodly rages; he struggles with sexual temptation.”
(Personal aside: There’s that pesky sarx at work.)
The character Rayford soon gets plenty of company in this self-pleasing, self-relying nature. Rossing (page 15) dislikes the characterization of these “Christians” as people who carry weapons. She observes that the male characters get weapons that would fell a SWAT team. Chloe Steele Williams, a Founding Father (um, Founding Mother) of the Tribulation Force (and a potential target for abduction or assassination just like the he-men) is issued only “an ancient Luger.” (The character does trade up to submachine guns in future volumes.)
Rossing lets the gender discrepancy slide, noting that it is the same difference—there is nothing in the New Testament to authorize Christians to pack heat. If they carry guns, they are doing it for themselves, not for God. “Revelation does not advocate the use of violence or bloodshed. Revelation is more a book about terror defeated than terror inflicted, ‘which is why worship and liturgy are such a central feature of the book’ … If the slain Lamb is our model it means that the blood of Revelation is first of all the Lamb’s own blood, shed for us and for the world. Even the blood on Jesus’ garments in Rev. 19 must be presumed to be his own blood, not anyone else’s” (page 119).
As Frykholm (page 91) will observe later, readers consider Buck Williams their favorite of the Left Behind characters. He is not a favorite of Rossing’s, though. She implies he is selfish, a road-rage bully who cares little for outsiders. Ironically, she thinks he was probably less so before he got “saved.”
Hero Buck Williams was probably a law-abiding driver in normal circumstances. But the Left Behind message is that times are no longer normal. In these final days on the cusp of a new era or “dispensation” in God’s prophetic clock, the rules are suspended and ethics shift. Every male reader’s road-rage fantasy is fulfilled when Buck bypasses a long line of traffic [to outrun a mushroom cloud] … [This] makes perfect sense in the Left Behind mentality that the end-times are upon us and only born-again individuals matter. So does his decision to drive right to the car dealership and buy the largest, most powerful car he can possibly afford—a fully loaded Range Rover “under six figures.” After all, gas mileage and global warming are hardly a concern if the planet only needs to last seven more years. (pages 14-15)
(Personal aside #1: Even the unsaved characters recognize how important it is for Buck and Chloe to survive so that the novels can continue. The unsaved drivers thoughtfully stay in their designated traffic lanes long enough for Buck and Chloe to escape instead of, say, trying to drive the same escape route to preserve their own lives. On a personal note your host found this more eyebrow-raising than the idea that Buck and Chloe could outrun a mushroom cloud at all.)
(Personal aside #2: Your host does not like calling Cameron Williams “Buck.” Yes, your host remembers country-western singer Buck Owens, and there was a great athlete named Buck Williams, but that is not the audience the character is aiming for. The problem is that the word ends in not one but two linguistic pestholes. Angrier websites than this one have insisted that most of the male American characters have names straight out of boy-meets-boy porn. Your host having neither the knowledge nor the desire to verify this information, we will offer no comment. Nevertheless the Gentle Browser deserves to know that the allegation exists, indeed, is widespread. No, what caught your host’s attention is the character’s attitude toward a coworker named Lucinda Washington. Lucinda is whooshed up to heaven; we meet her through her coworker’s mixed memories of her. Apparently the unsaved Mr. Williams does not Play Well With Others. Not only does he scoop rival newspapers, he poaches stories from his colleagues. At one point he embarrassed Lucinda and her staff in public—and remembers her primarily as the one co-worker who rebuked him for his behavior. After he goes to great lengths to portray her as a matronly black role model, he expresses to the audience his irritation that Lucinda continually addressed him by his given name Cameron. Possibly it never occurred to him—or to the authors—that “Buck” was a white racist word for a black male slave, such as Lucinda’s grandfather. He assumes Lucinda called him Cameron to impose a barrier of formality between them, as a gesture of polite resentment. [His family uses his given name for this reason.] The fact that he insists upon a nickname that is a distasteful word in other circles may have escaped him. Certainly Cameron “Buck” Williams may be chasing vainglories when he constantly corrects others to use his nickname as friends are wont to do, when they are not, in fact, his friends. So it is possible your host is misunderstanding the authors’ or character’s intentions. In all likelihood the audience simply was not supposed to like the characters before they were saved, which is why they act the way they do. But your host still doesn’t like calling him “Buck”.)
Rossing (page 15) observes that Left Behind’s “fascination with violence escalates in the later novels.” Even as the series draws to a close, Rayford is captivated, mesmerized by the spilling of blood. Rossing (pages 139-40) cites series volume 11 (Armageddon, page 324) when Rayford the pilot finds himself unable to resist flying over the battlefield despite the risk of getting stuck in an aerial traffic jam with other spectators. By flying to the scene he can see the final battle from the same vantage point as his wife Irene, who was whooshed up to heaven in volume one. (They both will see the battle from above.) Although Rayford supposedly misses Irene terribly, his motives in flying to the field do not involve going to a place where Irene could see him so that he can wave hello. Rayford’s love for his wife is not the “undertow” that draws him. He just wants to see the rivers of blood.
(Personal aside: If Rayford and Irene are seeing the battle from the same aerial vantage point, is that like a date? It certainly is closer to “going on a date” than Rayford treated her when they were together … even though he still is not paying attention to her. Too busy watching the movie. Well, that and he promptly remarries … good old What’s-her-name. Good old What’s-her-name dies when he is busy flying a different plane in Volume 3. He loses yet another person close to him when he is flying yet another plane in Volume 11. Frequently Buck is with him, also losing friends and loved ones as reported to him from a great distance. Time and again, whenever something bad happens to Rayford and/or Buck’s loved ones or associates, they are elsewhere flying a plane. The effect is distancing, rather like watching someone else watch a movie.)
Repeatedly Rossing compares the rapturist attitude toward the end of the world as a “movie” they expect to watch at a safe distance. She also quotes John Hagee saying it (page 138). Rossing’s title for this, um, romantic date movie is Terminator Lamb. That would make the series Terminator Lamb, TL2, TL3, and TL4, one “movie” for the four battles Left Behind collectively calls Armageddon (page 138). The problem, says Rossing, is that the word “Armageddon” only appears once in the real book of Revelation, “but dispensationalists make it the book’s centerpiece.”
Currie (page 318) seconds Rossing’s concern: that there is no prophecy of any battle at Armageddon. “There is not the slightest mention anywhere in The Apocalypse of a battle near the Mount of Megiddo, which is west of the Jordan River in the plain of Jezreel. Read the passage again: ‘They assembled them at the place which is called in the Hebrew, “Armageddon.”’ It describes only the gathering of the army there.” According to the preterist interpretation promoted by Currie, General Titus did gather his army there, but no battle was fought there. It was only a rendezvous point. Titus took his army and fought a battle somewhere else. They went to Jerusalem and launched the “hailstones” (Rev. 16:21) in the form of catapult stones—stones uniformly cut to “a hundred-weight” for ease of transportation (Currie, page 319).
According to both Currie the preterist-amillennialist (page 318) and Rossing the idealist-amillennialist (page 121), any army that does gather at Armageddon at the end of time will not engage in battle either. Before the army can do anything, Christ will slay them with “the sword of his mouth” (Rev. 19:15, 21) and/or “fire from heaven” will consume them (Rev. 20:9). Either way, there was no battle to speak of; there will be no battle to speak of. They arrive; they die. They might not even fire a shot. Rossing notes, “The word is Jesus’ only weapon” (page 121). She adds (page 118) that the believers who stand with Jesus in this absolute victory “conquer by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:11). These are all spiritual weapons; against such things evil has no defense. So where did Left Behind get the idea for four distinct blood-soaked campaigns called Armageddon?
In addition to the Terminator Lamb “movies,” there is also the Wrath of the Lamb “movie.” Rossing protests,
The phrase “the wrath of the Lamb” occurs only once … in Rev. 6:16—and then only on the lips of people who are trying to flee. In twenty-eight other references to the Lamb throughout the book of Revelation, John never again refers to the Lamb as wrathful. Yet “wrathful” is the favorite dispensationalist description for the Lamb. Most of the third [sic] Left Behind novel, Soul Harvest, describes the “Wrath of the Lamb Earthquake” with graphic descriptions of bleeding and decapitated bodies. This even becomes a central point of reference for the novel’s timeframe—“Where were you during the Wrath of the Lamb Earthquake?” (page 136)
Rossing finds the overall message grim—“a theology of despair” (page 13). Byassee (page 21) states that Rossing “has no problem imputing malicious motives to the Left Behind writers: ‘Slaughter sells books.”’
These are all examples of how plot and setting becomes subsumed into characterization. Rossing argues that the characters advance the plot in ways that reflect their belief in a “Terminator Lamb.”
That Lamb is like a muscled action figure whose Tribulation Force followers conduct paramilitary operations out of an underground bunker. To be sure, that version of the Lamb’s story offers a certain way of “making Scripture come to life,” and that has strong appeal for people. But what kind of life? Ultimately, that story is just another version of imperial Roman victory through military power. The Tribulation Force of Left Behind, and the rampaging armies of Hal Lindsey, win victory for the good guys with superior military power and God on their side. But their God does not look much different from the Roman generals who brought about victory through violent conquest. (page 137)
Frykholm notes that traditional rapture fiction usually depicted Christians as
… simple, often rural people who do not function well in the modern world. If not exactly backward, they are old-fashioned, clinging to home and family in the midst of overwhelming social and cultural change. While the Antichrist and his followers are elites, the Christians are ordinary people. In this way, authors of rapture fiction have sought to portray Christians as both marginalized and authentic. They have depicted their own brand of Christianity as out of step with the modern world, but all the more sincere and powerful because of this.
Left Behind offers an almost direct reversal of this portrayal of Christianity. Following the trend of upward mobility among conservative Protestants, Left Behind’s Tribulation force is made up, itself, of elites. Rayford Steele is no ordinary pilot, but a pilot whose name is known even to the president. Buck Williams is not an ordinary reporter, but “Ivy League educated, New York headquartered, at the top of his profession.” (page 34)
Jason Byassee agrees.
The series leaves its predecessors far behind in its embrace of technology. Steele and Williams use ultra-high-tech computers, satellite phones, the Internet, covert underground bunkers, super-futuristic weapons and massive range rovers driven in ways that conflict with local traffic laws. They rely on their elite educations, political connections at the highest levels and limitless reserves of cash. In other words, this is not your grandma’s Scofield Bible-inspired tribulation force. (page 19)
Although Frykholm is not overly impressed with the progression of Chloe’s character, Chloe Steele Williams also is Big News compared to her pioneer-wife, peaches-and-preserves, “American Gothic” ancestors. With the Stanford-educated Chloe running a cyberbusiness out of her bunker, even the housewife (the “mascot” to use Chloe’s own term) is sophisticated and elite even when compared to many Westerners. Only among the white American men of her resistance cell is she the low person on the totem pole.
(Personal aside: the critics leave out even more details about the extent of the characters’ wealth and comfort, such as the fact that San Diego resistance cell has a gym of exercise equipment; in a compound of 200 fugitives, baby Kenny has his own room, and so forth. The characters utilize a fleet of air and land vehicles. They buy what they need with gold. [A minor character named Ken Ritz hoards over a million dollars in gold.] They design untraceable cellphones and computer servers powerful enough to absorb “one billion hits daily.” They turn the entire lost city of Petra into a fortress. As the series progresses, the characters utilize so many bases and boltholes—and enjoy so many amenities in these bases and boltholes—that the effect becomes less a “hiding in the family farm’s root cellar” and more a “Montreal’s underground city” setting and mentality.)
Frykholm notes that these elite heroes are quite successful in creating “a massive underground popular movement [that] pits Christian popularity against the Antichrist’s popularity” (page 36). These protagonists outwit and outmaneuver the Antichrist, sometimes brazenly so. The heroes also are far, far more successful than their fictional ancestors when it comes to the task of attracting converts.
The virtuosity of Left Behind’s rapturists not only makes them “better” Christians than nonrapturists, it also makes them “better” Christians than their own parents and grandparents. This puts the fictional rapturists in position to look down upon those parents and grandparents, if they were so inclined. As it happened, Frykholm soon met several real-world rapturists who did look down on their parents. This attitude usually flowed in one direction—adult child to older relative—rarely the other way around. (We will explore this in the upcoming Applied Theology II.)
The dialect, dialogue, setting and characterization can combine in ways that make Frykholm question the message behind this popularity contest.
Feminism is a target of the books, as is homosexuality. The books are anti-Semitic in that conflicted way that evangelical texts often are, portraying an Israel too stubborn to see that Jesus is the Messiah and making heroes of Jewish converts to Christianity. In addition, the books can clearly be understood to be portraying a racially charged American chauvinism. White American men are the “natural” leaders of the Tribulation Force, and all “others”—African Americans, Arabs, Asians, people from many nations and converts to Christianity from many faiths—submit to their leadership, sometimes in scenes of disturbing capitulation. (page 178)
(Personal aside: In her footnotes Frykholm cites these “scenes of disturbing capitulation” as Apollyon [p.110-13] ; The Mark [p. 24-28] ; The Indwelling [p. 70].)
A reader named “Samantha” told Frykholm (pages 68-72) that, because of the “message” Left Behind represents, she was careful never to read the books in public. Although she spoke freely with Frykholm, she added, “I wouldn’t want to be known as a person who read the book and believed this as a sort of extension of doctrine.” Initially Samantha read Left Behind because she reads everything and it was free and “handy.” She read it as a book where “you probably forget the plot and go on” to read something else. However the second book provoked a stronger reaction.
“I started to get irritated. I think the primary reason was the portrayal of male and female roles … I remember of the remaining people who weren’t taken up in the rapture, there was a woman who was not a believer, but became a believer and was really dependent on a man for her faith. Her faith was really wrapped up in her relationship with this guy. Then there was a woman who turns out to be really bad … By the time I got tired of it, all the women were either stupid or bad.”
Samantha describes ending her relationship with the books because she became “irritated” and then “tired of it.” A little later in the interview, however, she describes another response: anger. Anger prompted her to buy the third book.
“Then I started to read the third book. I actually bought the third book. I was mad now and I wanted to see if I was going to stay mad. I didn’t know if it was just where we stopped … I was mad and I wanted to know if I was mad for the right reasons. [snip] This was the first of them that I had bought and when I finished that, I thought, ‘No way am I contributing to this.’ At that point I was making a commercial, ‘how do I vote with my feet’ sort of decision.” (page 70)
Frykholm comments that readers like Samantha who disliked the novels sometimes do not remember the characters or the plot well. “For other readers more invested in the novels’ eschatology and theology, the characters often stand out in sharp relief. These readers remember scenes vividly, and certain scenes bring them to tears while others bring them to their knees to pray” (page 71). However Samantha had already considered rapturism, decided “that this kind of end-times belief is not persuasive to her.” The novels remind her of the reasons she has rejected this belief. Unlike other readers who read the series in public so that they may be questioned about its contents, Samantha avoids reading the books in public because she does not want do anything that might promote or endorse the novels in any way.
(To be continued)