(The post formerly known as http://oldmaid.jallman.net/entry.php?id=11)
Critics and readers look inward toward the novels (concluded)
“Samantha’s” observations lead us to the issue of gender. Frykholm the professor of feminist studies has a strong interest in the way the series presents gender roles. She believes that “because gender has played a central role in the development of fundamentalism, it has also been a central concern of rapture and tribulation narratives from their inception” (page 30).
(Personal aside: For this reason, your host is surprised that neither Rossing nor Frykholm mentioned Rayford Steele’s distaste for his underage son Raymie, whom Rayford dismisses as too compassionate, too selfless and “a mama’s boy.” It is one thing for his macho father to snub him but another for the critics to do so. Also puzzling is the critics’ silence on the topic of Rayford’s new wife, good old What’s-her-name, and the lessons Rayford learned or failed to learn. Well, her name was Amanda, and she was a fellow Rapture-widow, with “streaked hair and impeccable taste in clothes” who was, surprisingly, older than Rayford. In fact she was perhaps ten years older than Irene, whom Amanda adored, even though she couldn’t quite remember her name [Volume 2, pages 407-410].
Amanda was killed in a plane crash in Volume 3. On page 407 Amanda receives two sentences of mourning, but Rayford grants his could-have-been-mistress Hattie three sentences of mourning, including the famous “made the transaction” line. Frykholm, who actually saw that paragraph about Rayford’s women, makes no mention of the [new] wife, only the Other Woman. Even the rare and tender scene of Rayford lingering at his wife’s watery grave in Volume 4 is marred by insinuations about her loyalties, and a plot point about Hattie’s involvement promptly turns the attention of both Rayford and the critics back to Hattie. Poor What’s-her-name! She wasn’t worth critiquing.)
On pages 97-99 Frykholm notes that the rapturist movement of the 19th Century made Jesus into a feminine ideal, in that the qualities that were desirable in women (meekness, obedience, nurturing others in selfless service) were similar to the behavior of Jesus. Also, early rapturist women could expect to be vindicated by the armies of heaven, as Jesus would be vindicated on the Last Day. Devout women came to be perceived almost as the embodiment of the church. (Both of them waited for their spiritual bridegroom.) The combination of Jesus’ vulnerability and his hidden strength made Jesus powerfully attractive in women’s eyes. As a bonus, the devout woman (like her church) would be Whooshed Up to Heaven to become the bride of Christ, her compensation for being unappreciated by the mortal males in her life.
(Personal aside: the 14th Century mystic Dame Julian of Norwich wrote extensively on the topic of “Christ’s motherhood.” Also, it could be argued that Protestants never re-evaluated the role of the Virgin Mary because Jesus also has a strong feminine side.)
Unfortunately it also sent the message that women should hope for justice in the next life rather than expect it in this one, Frykholm notes.
Traditional rapture narratives nearly always begin with the rapture of a woman. In rapture fiction, women are often depicted as disappearing at a moment of domestic crisis. They are taken up just as they are about to be beaten by drunken husbands or abandoned by faithless ones. In the midst of these sufferings, the women have preserved their faith and are reward by rapture. The husbands face their wives’ disappearance with disbelief and then despair, sometimes committing suicide or simply falling deeper into disgrace and sin.
In other cases, rapture provides the context for an unbelieving husband to come to Christ. These narratives offer to women the role of the faithful and forgiving victim who disappears into silence rather than name the injustices done to her, who receives otherworldly reward for her suffering rather than this-world justification. But in dialectic fashion, the narrative punishes the man who is left behind, perhaps for desiring the woman’s disappearance. Her powerlessness and submission to the men who dominate and abuse her in this life becomes a kind of justification and power in the world beyond. This power has effect, however, only when she disappears, only when she is no longer on earth to receive or act on it. (page 30)
(Personal aside: Independent mega-church preacher Dr. Frederick K.C. Price is the first Protestant your host has heard to argue in favor of a Protestant interpretation of annulments. Maybe. He posits that people abuse the phrase “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder” to justify the mistreatment of a spouse. Price argues that a spouse who abuses or sexually betrays a marriage partner has broken the covenant of the marriage. The injured spouse would have the right to not renew the covenant. Price proposes that it is cruel to argue that God joined a couple knowing that they would be cruel to each other. Alternately, God should not be invoked to hold together a failed or nonexistent marriage when God would not have joined these two people in the first place. As in the Catholic scenario, it seems Price is arguing that two people can go through a marriage ceremony, comport themselves as married people, and yet not be married because the marriage was entered into under false pretenses and/or became falsified after the breaking of its covenant.
Too often protest against “sanctified suffering” is silenced as “a cross” the injured spouse must bear. If a husband abused his wife, the woman was expected to remain steadfast and passive as Jesus remained steadfast and passive during the Passion. Almost Jesus’ last words were a prayer that the people who killed Him would be forgiven on the grounds that they did not know any better. Mistreated women were, and sometimes still are, expected to behave the same way. The theory was that a cruel man did not know any better, but a woman who deserted her marriage was deserting God because she did know better. How could the man be saved if the woman deserted her post? It would be as if Jesus had deserted His post.
It may not be possible to obtain reliable statistics on domestic violence within specific Christian communities, but “sanctified suffering” survives in the 21st Century. The bias remains that a woman who deserts an unfaithful or abusive spouse may be treated as a more sinful person than the man who mistreated her. Allowances are made for the man, but the woman endangers her immortal soul because she “should know better.” This is very divisive to the Body of Christ. Even many Catholic women who are eligible for an annulment do not necessarily pursue it. There are no easy answers as to why this problem persists.)
When the raptured female is not being abused by her husband, she is given another role—that of a mother and devout wife whose purity and faithfulness is the source and wellspring of her family. Women embody the purity of the church and the perfection of piety. While men are corrupted by modernity, women remain, in the dispensational imagination, above it. This gives them a kind of privileged position, but it also means they have no real power to act in and on the world. Instead, they are never truly at home in this world. They are too good, too pure to become embroiled in the political and public difficulties of modern life. By remaining outside the public sphere, they preserve their purity but remain relatively powerless.
Left Behind follows closely in this tradition. Rayford Steele’s wife, Irene, is the devout and domestic wife who pleads for Rayford’s salvation. She is raptured in the opening scene of the first book and takes on mythological status as the archetypal mother and wife.
In this way, she becomes intensely symbolic—far more powerful as a symbol of faith than she was as a living believer. Irene Steele has no effect upon her husband’s salvation while she is living. If anything, her commitment to her faith drives him away. But in her disappearance, she comes into full power, and through her example, Rayford is saved. (pages 30-31)
Frykholm thinks Irene’s husband and daughter are more fully developed because they reflect the uncertainty and changing times of new-school rapturism, whereas Irene is a figure of an old-school past (when “good” women did not work).
In establishing an apocalyptic narrative, dispensationalism draws clear lines between the saved and the unsaved, between the raptured and the left behind. In the symbolic and archetypal structures that have emerged from this tradition, this church-world dichotomy has often become a female-male dichotomy as well. Women are pious; men are worldly. Women are raptured and saved; men are condemned.
Left Behind seemingly begins with this tradition, but then departs from it. Unlike many men in rapture fiction, Rayford is not condemned. Rather, he is transformed from a worldly man to a Christian leader. Or is he? Can Rayford Steele retain his worldly savvy, his swaggering masculinity, his rational and unemotional intelligence and become a Christian? This question forms the foundation for many of Rayford’s early struggles, and the answer appears to be both yes and no.
This negotiation between faithfulness and worldliness constructs a somewhat unstable gender identity for Rayford—not a pure archetype. (pages 31-32)
As Frykholm continues (pages 99-101), we see the contrast between rapturist strategies in the 19th Century versus the 20th Century. The real-world rapturist expansion occurred when the movement changed its tactics. One, it had to be acknowledged that feminine witness made too few male converts. Two, it had to be acknowledged that men were disinclined to join a church that considered them spiritually inferior. As Frykholm explores on pages 32 and 99, rapturism responded with a series of well-coordinated, explicit attacks against the “effeminate” nature of the nonrapturist church. Jesus and the disciples were emphasized as men first rather than as humans first. It now was taught that men had a greater natural “aptitude” for holiness than did women. At the same time men were expected to become sensitive. Women could make significant demands upon their husbands as compensation for the loss of spiritual status. However there was one complication, one threat to this happy order: that a woman who was not “saved enough” became a threat to her family’s stability and/or salvation. So who decided whether the woman was “saved enough”? Everybody but her. (We will see examples of this in Applied Theology II.)
Of course Frykholm the feminist will gravitate to Chloe’s “mascot” speech.
“Don’t parent me, Buck. Seriously, I don’t have a problem submitting to you because I know how much you love me. I’m willing to obey you even when you’re wrong. But don’t be unreasonable. And don’t be wrong when you don’t have to be … don’t do it out of some old-fashioned, macho sense of protecting the little woman. I’ll take this pity and help for just so long, and then I want back in the game full-time. I thought that was one of the things you liked about me … Am I still a member of the Tribulation Force, or have I been demoted to mascot now?”
(Frykholm, page 33, quoting Soul Harvest, pages 307-312)
(Personal aside: After this exchange, Chloe’s husband privately decides to take her advice, but he deliberately waits a few days before airily announcing his decision. This behavior gives the impression that he will only consider her ideas when he can take credit. However there is a corollary: some of Chloe’s ideas are good enough to steal.)
Frykholm analyzes Chloe’s speech and seems to support Chloe’s choice … at first.
While it is easy to be distracted in this passage by the rhetoric of absolute submission and Chloe’s appeal to Buck’s desire, Chloe also strongly articulates herself here. She refuses to become an object and even demands full participation in the work of the Tribulation Force. She both submits and asserts herself, negotiating for a position that will allow her to be Christian mother and Christian warrior. Later Chloe becomes CEO of the underground network of the Christian Cooperative, running the business from the Tribulation Force’s bunker. This is a position that allows Chloe to be both a stay-at-home mom and a smart and savvy businesswoman. Even later in the series, Chloe leaves for an adventure in Greece while Buck stays at home with their son.
Absolute gender difference is often asserted in the rhetoric of evangelical leaders, yet Left Behind seems to offer, subtly, an alternative. This is not to say that the books are not full of gender stereotypes and scenes of female submission to male authority. They certainly are. This is also not to say that the books are not invested in maintaining a patriarchal order of male leadership, heterosexuality, and female docility. Many examples could be offered to demonstrate this. At the same time, we can see evidence of a negotiation in the books and in the lives of readers. In their everyday lives, men and women work out gender identities in complicated ways, not by pure rules dictated by evangelical authorities. As a work of fiction, Left Behind reflects those more complex realities. (pages 33-34)
At the same time, Frykholm seems to see Chloe’s character development as a series of “negotiations” that extract concession after concession from Chloe.
Introduced to the reader as a skeptical, Stanford-education young woman with a feisty personality, Chloe gradually softens into something that looks more like the domestic ideal of Christian motherhood. She marries and has a child. She speaks a rhetoric of submission to her husband that seems inseparable from her newfound religious faith. Despite this apparent surrender to a passive domestic model rooted in evangelicalism, Chloe is an ambiguous figure. She both departs from and conforms to the ideal presented by her mother. (pages 32-33)
Nevertheless Frykholm’s last word on Chloe is that of a “strong woman … silenced” and “domesticated” because the novels have no place for a woman without a man (pages 90-91).
As Frykholm mentioned, rapturist women experienced a trade-off of reduced spiritual power for greater emotional leverage. “In exchange for this kind of familial devotion and responsibility, women must only acknowledge men to be the spiritual leaders in the household. Judith Stacey has called this the ‘patriarchy of the last gasp’ that always waits to be asserted in a moment that never comes. Successful evangelical marriages, she and [Brenda] Brasher both argue, work in far more flexible realities than the absolutist rhetoric would imply” (page 100).
Yet in some ways gender roles and expectations remain rigidly fixed—for the women. Male characters in rapturist fiction tend to be more “realized,” more fully human.
A prominent figure in both the biblical narrative and rapture fiction is the Bride of Christ’s symbolic opposite—The Whore of Babylon. In the biblical text, the Whore of Babylon, a key figure representing the decadence of the pagan world, is destroyed—consumed by her own demons—and a voice from heaven calls the faithful to celebration. The voice praises God and invites the listener to a wedding banquet: “Let us rejoice and be glad and give glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His Bride has made herself ready” (Rev. 19:7).
It is no accident that the wedding banquet of the “Lamb” and “His Bride” takes place following the destruction of the Whore of Babylon. This contrast is crucial to establishing the Church as “pure” as opposed to the impurity of the Whore. In rapture fiction, the role of the Whore of Babylon belongs to women who refuse their God-ordained positions as wives and mothers. These are women who go off to seek their fortunes and end up as prostitutes in lives of faithlessness and decadence. They are women who leave the home, refuse domesticity, and pay a price with their souls. (page 98)
Overwhelmingly, male and female readers alike identify themselves with Buck. Readers find Buck “brave,” “fearless,” and “adventurous.” Some identify with his life circumstances, or with him as a new convert and a worldly person who needs to “humble himself to the Lord.” Through identification with Buck readers teach themselves spiritual lessons: how to strengthen their faith or tell their own stories. This appreciation for Buck steps outside the rigid gender categories that I construct and suggests that gender needs to be understood in a more subtle way. Readers use the characters, particularly Buck, to nurture aspects in themselves such as strength, spontaneity, and faith. (pages 90-91)
Is there anything left to question in the male-female roles and relationships in Left Behind? Yes—in the portrayal of homosexuals.
Homosexual characters frequently arise in the books, especially as enemies of the Christians or lackeys of the Antichrist. Early in the series, Buck has several conflicts with a woman named Verna, who readers eventually learn is a lesbian. Her lesbian identity explains her power struggle with Buck and why she always gave Buck the “willies.” She is repeatedly contrasted with Chloe, whose femininity is obvious in her deference to Buck, her “selfless and loving” nature, and the fact that she is never “catty or a nag.”
Later the authors introduce another homosexual character, this time an artist who works for the Antichrist. As with Verna, Guy Blod is meant to be funny, a character at whom we should laugh. Guy giggles and prances through his scenes. His sexual identity is set up in contrast with the authentic masculinity and heterosexuality of the Christians. We last see Guy worshipping the statue of the Antichrist that he himself has made. (pages 77-78)
(Personal aside: At this point some Christians certainly would argue, “This critic proposes that the novels should feature homosexual characters as positive role models. Why would our religious literature promote something of which we disapprove?” At this point other Christians certainly would argue, “No, this critic simply means that Left Behind introduced homosexual characters specifically to make fun of them, and to ‘prove’ that gay people are more naturally predisposed than straight people to follow the Antichrist. These characters could have advanced the same plot points if they had been straight, but the authors chose to make them gay to make them easy to identify as adversaries.” In both cases the readers would add, “Well, she should say what she means, whatever it is she means.” Actually Frykholm makes no judgment comment upon the characters aside from the comments printed above. Instead she goes on to tell how a reader had trouble reconciling her stance on homosexuality as a concept with her love for a real-world relative who was a lesbian. The unyielding stance of the family’s church warred with the family’s love for this relative. Unlike in the novels, the family found no easy answers.)
Frykholm considered this background extremely important to her study of the Left Behind books. At the same time, almost all her interviewees (rightly, she later concedes) resisted her attempts to steer the interview in that direction. Often she became as mystified by the interviewees’ perception of gender roles as they were mystified by hers.
For many scholars of evangelicalism, gender is a central issue in the history and construction of the religious movement. In particular, gender is, in my view, central to Left Behind. For example, the books struggle with creating a viable Christian masculine identity. Buck uses computers and SUVs to consolidate his masculinity. Rayford rages in anger and lusts after Hattie Durham to demonstrate his. Strong women are a problem for the novels as well. Chloe is silenced through marriage and a family; Hattie is excluded as a “bad” woman who refuses to concede Rayford’s authority. The series is both consciously and unconsciously a largely negative response to feminism.
This is my view. It is not the view of Left Behind’s reading public or of the people that I interviewed. Most readers have little interest in engaging with me on the question of gender. They see the characters not as gender types, but as personality types. Hattie is not the “bad woman,” the “whore of Babylon” as I peg her, but a “tragic” and “proud” person whom readers use to identify unsaved people in their own lives. Chloe is not a domesticated woman, but “hard-headed” and “spunky.” Buck is a “survivor,” Rayford “impulsive.” Readers often say, “My mother is like Hattie” or “I am like Rayford,” but these identifications do not necessarily follow gender lines.
Overwhelmingly, male and female readers alike identify themselves with Buck … This appreciation for Buck steps outside the rigid gender categories that I construct and suggests that gender needs to be understood in a more subtle way.
In an early interview with “Carolyn,” I ask about the portrayal of the female characters. “What do you think about the way women are portrayed in the novels? Do you like the way they are portrayed or does it bother you?” As I learned more about readers and gained interview skills, I came to see this as a very poorly constructed interview question.
By the look on her face I see that I have asked a question that closes doors for her rather than opens them. She looks at me rather blankly as though trying to discern the meaning behind my question before she answers. “They are strong women. It doesn’t bother me. They are strong.”
Now it is my turn to be surprised. “Strong” is not the word I would choose to describe either Hattie or Chloe, the books’ two main female characters. I press a little further, feeling awkward. “Do you like to read books with strong women characters?” Carolyn responds in a way that seems intended to shut off this line of questioning. “I do,” she says, “but I also like strong men characters.”
This exchange with Carolyn illustrates the way I often miscommunicated with readers on the question of gender. (pages 90-92)
When Frykholm stopped asking either/or questions about gender types and started asking open-ended questions about the personalities in the novels, readers became more spontaneous and vocal. Specificially, they became vocal about one character: Hattie Durham.
“I think [Rayford] was probably trying to be a good husband and she [Hattie] was being flirtatious. She used a lot of her womanly skills to lead him astray. In other words, if the rapture hadn’t happened, she would’ve eventually gotten him into bed.” (page 93)
“I see her as a little girl and she just wants to be loved. I pray she will receive Christ and be OK.” (page 94)
“Hattie was probably the most tragic person in the book to me, because of her relationships to the other people, she repelled the message that they had. A sorrow comes over me, because it’s like, wow, she won’t listen to them because of what happened between her and [them] … That to me was very much like when I became a Christian … my message was probably repelled, even though I didn’t know what my message was at that point. It is real sad to see.” (The only man to comment on this character ; page 95)
“Hattie, she just gave me the chills. And the amazing this is that they [the Tribulation Force] have taken her in and I’m like, I know God wants us to take care of these people, but I can’t believe you are doing that! Put her out in the cold! She’s jeopardizing their lives and it just amazes me. I do read it and think, ‘Oh, she is making me ill.’” (page 95)
“Just put her out. Slap her first, then put her out … I’d like Hattie to say, ‘I was such a butthole.’ She just got on my nerves. I don’t like reading those parts.” (page 95)
Frykholm wonders if Hattie’s gender does matter to the readers despite their denial.
Hattie is not the only unconverted person with whom the Tribulation Force interacts, but she is the only unconverted woman. In my “paranoid” reading of Left Behind, it seems obvious that Rayford’s obsession with Hattie has to do with his extreme discomfort with a woman who refuses to submit to his authority, who routinely breaks the rules, and whom he finds attractive at the same time. Readers frequently reject this understanding, arguing that Hattie is treated poorly in the novels not because she is a woman, but because she is an unbeliever. If she would accept Christ, she would be spared the suffering that she endures. Yet readers themselves treat Hattie differently in their responses than they treat other unbelieving characters.
A feeling of disgust for Hattie arises much more often among female readers than male readers. Male readers rarely single Hattie out—and when they do, it is with sympathy—but female readers regularly express their dislike. Perhaps this dislike, even disgust, indicates an identification in reverse. Female readers feel a persistent need to define themselves against Hattie, to say, “I am not like her.” Hattie’s rebellion raises a desire to articulate their alignment with orthodoxy and their rejection of her alternative.
At the same time, the other role that Hattie consistently plays for readers is that of a quintessential nonbeliever who stands in for the nonbelievers in their own lives. If Buck is the representative of faith with whom readers readily identify, then Hattie is the representative of those who reject the faith. (pages 94-95)
Finally, one topic on which our five critics were strangely quiescent is the subject of abortion. The series spends a large amount of time discussing abortion despite the fact that none of the named characters actually have one. (Well, Nurse Leah had one twenty years before the narrative begins. It was awful. More on this in the Series Stray Spoilers/Discussion post.)
As the series begins, all children under the authorial Age of Accountability, whether born or unborn, are Raptured (Volume 1, pp. 46-48, 92-93; LB: The Kids, Volume 1, pp. 88-89). It is commendable that the authors recognize unborn babies as children. The Antichrist character does not. He promotes abortion aggressively, even makes it mandatory in some cases (Volume 3, pp. 132, 369-370).
In any in-depth discussion of abortion in the series, all roads inevitably lead to Hattie Durham. Impregnated as a result of horror films like The Stand of Rosemary’s Omen-baby’s Exorcist rather than by any reference in the Bible, Hattie is the ultimate test case. Her multi-volume storyarc is too elaborate to do justice here, and so will be covered in the Series Stray Spoilers/Discussion posts.
Left Behind was written as a rapturist interpretation of the book St. John’s Revelation of the Apocalypse. Obviously Left Behind is a work of fiction. (There is no person in Revelation named “Rafe.”) Otherwise rapturists consider Left Behind to be one possible and plausible scenario for Revelation to come to life.
Nonrapturists such as amillennialists argue that Left Behind drifts too far from the source material. Left Behind proposes a new world where the old rules can be set aside when they become inconvenient. Instead of the saints fighting with spiritual weapons, the protagonists of Left Behind fight with bunkers, technology, wealth, education, influential worldly allies, and earthly weapons. Instead of a Christ who conquers by being slain (and whose clothes are spattered with his own shed blood), the Christ of the Left Behind series conquers by slaying others and becoming spattered in their blood. Instead of a future society in which believers stand equal before God and the Lamb, we see contemporary national, racial, gender and class divisions projected into the foreseeable future—celebrated, amplified, and enforced.
Currie (page 311-313) compares Revelation to a worship service, complete with prayers and petitions, hymns, and the holy feast. Rossing (pages 119-120) agrees it has overtones of liturgy. Also, she compares it to a class-action lawsuit brought before the divine court. Victims plead for justice. They testify, and “testimony always has a power to change history, both in heaven and on earth.” In contrast, in Left Behind testimony is as often intended to recruit more soldiers as it is to save souls. And although the characters pray a lot—and have a lot to pray about—the Lord’s Prayer is just about the only weapon that the Tribulation Force will not use.
Because of Left Behind’s fascination with violence, self-reliance, hierarchy and power, nonrapturists consider it a questionable study guide to Revelation, at best. For as our critic Rossing notes (pages 157-58), more than any other book in the Bible, Revelation “speaks to poor and marginalized people.”
The Left Behind novels follow the pattern of other apocalypses as they take readers on a vivid journey and wake them up to a sense of urgency about God. That is the novels’ strength. Their failing is the dangerous conclusions about God and our life in the world that grow out of the Left Behind version of the apocalyptic journey.
Left Behind presents an individualistic, jet-setting life for its secret band of born-again “Tribulation Force” heroes, a lifestyle that stands in sharp contrast to the Bible’s concern for the hungry and the poor, as Jesus taught in Luke 16. Left Behind’s characters spend more time in airplanes and helicopters, or in underground bunkers, than they do walking the earth—illustrating the dispensationalist view of the world as a place from which to escape. Their high-tech gear, satellite phones, customized Range Rovers and stadium-sized rallies cannot be reconciled with the heart of Revelation, because more than any other biblical book Revelation speaks to marginalized and powerless people. (pages 86-87)
(Personal aside: Yes, the Gentle Browser read it correctly. Rossing did say it twice. Actually her book says it many more times than twice. Most of the critics do.)
If the novels were nothing more than fiction, critics probably would not care about them, except to evaluate whether the stories were well written, “a good read.” Left Behind would be one of many stories that borrow Revelation’s plot as an outline for a thriller—no more controversial than, say, Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross (who drew as much upon The Divine Comedy as upon Revelation). But Left Behind’s writers and fans did not endorse this series simply to tell the public about “a good read.” Left Behind is being promoted as a fictional path to a real spiritual truth. As Frykholm discovered, “Some churches have even developed witnessing programs based on the novels and are training people to ‘spread the gospel’ while sharing the novels” (page 155). We will explore the results of this form of advertisement in Applied Theology II.
Next stop: A side trek into the “real” Beam-me-up realm (gender roles redux)