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October 22, 2003

Revelations. Slacktivist is blogging about the mega-bestselling “Left Behind” novels, so far here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. For those of you who may have missed this $50 million phenomenon, the “Left Behind” novels, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, are near-future thrillers about the supposedly imminent Rapture and apocalypse.

Slacktivist is a Christian, and that’s what gives his mounting outrage at these nincompoops its special tang. As he wrote in an earlier post, before getting down to the meat of the books themselves:

The only Bible where you’ll find LaHaye’s weird apocalyptic fantasies is a Scofield Reference—and that’s only in the convoluted and arbitrary footnotes below the text. Nowhere is this vision “laid out in the New Testament.” It is the bastard child of “premillennial dispensationalism”—a tortured and torturous hermeneutic that carves up Scripture like a veg-o-matic and functions as a kind of American evangelical cabala.

“Secrets of Bible prophecy revealed” read the advertisements for the thousands of “prophecy seminars” promoting this nonsense every week across the country. “Secrets…revealed”—can you get any more gnostic than that?

We often refer to evangelical Christians as “conservative”—which accurately reflects their cultural and political views. But there is nothing “conservative” about the obsession with prophecy theories that has twisted so much of the American church.

Indeed, quite the contrary, it’s occultist and hermetic, in all the worst senses of those words. But what earns Slacktivist’s particular ire is the “Left Behind” worldview’s fundamental cruelty:
Christians, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” We believe, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, in “the resurrection of the body.”

L&J are not interested in resurrection. Resurrection is something that happens to dead people, and L&J don’t want to die. Death scares them. And that, more than anything else, explains what rapture-mania is all about.

Christianity is about death and resurrection, not about the denial of death. Not about “Jesus coming back to get us before we die.”

This escapist fantasy of a gospel isn’t just bad theology. It’s cruel. Consider the poor souls clinging to this hope who get the big bad news from their doctor. Consider those who have lost a husband, wife, mother, father, daughter or son. Consider all those who have died and all those they have left behind.

In his most recent post, Slacktivist cites a recent Jimmy Breslin column about the sudden death of an infant, headlined “A Thief in the Night.”
Whether Breslin himself or some Newsday copy editor wrote that headline, the allusion is apt. The end is sudden, mysterious, imminent and inevitable, yet always a surprise. Suddenly, we are out of time.

More than anything else, this is what pisses me off about the shallow, death-denying, false hope of the false gospel preached by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins in their Left Behind series. They would pervert every piece of biblical wisdom about our mortality into a fairy tale of “Jesus coming back to get us before we die.” This weird and desperate mythology denies L&J’s followers of the comfort, hope, wisdom and solace needed in the face of the death of Daivon Nicolas Richardson, 18 months, or of anyone and everyone else.

A theology that denies the reality, mystery and meaning of death is ultimately irrelevant for us mere mortals.

Worth reading by everyone, “Christian” or not, religious or not. This bizarrely mutated Christianity is a powerful force, and we need to understand it better. (In yet another provocative post, Slacktivist suggests that the disorder, like so many other dysfunctions in American life, is rooted in slavery.) Whatever their origins, these cults are now radical and revolutionary, not even remotely “conservative”, and a threat to normal American life. [08:47 PM]
Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Revelations.:

Uhhh ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 11:03 PM:

My understanding of this theology is that it isn't a denial of the resurrection - it's just that some people are snatched away so that they avoid the tribulations... If you've "died in Christ", then you'll still be resurrected, eventually...

Could be wrong, though...

Norbizness ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2003, 11:44 PM:

Anything that gets made into a recent series of movies starring Kirk Cameron is by its very definition a bizarre, occultist phenomenon.

Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 12:13 AM:


You've missed the point. You are technically correct about the theology propounded in the Left Behind series. However, that's window dressing. The core of the passion for people who believe that they live in the latter days and will be raptured into heaven (I don't remember the names of the various theologies, at the moment) is not about the great passion of Christ.

The story that calls to them is not one of redemption and resurrection. Instead, it is a story of revenge, a story of watching all those so-and-so's who've been so smug and superior all their lives being humiliated but good. It is a story of how wonderful and lucky they are, so wonderful and lucky, indeed, that they will be snatched up into the air to be with Jesus, in his full glory. This is a story for people who think that Judgment Day will be fun, and that Armageddon is a spectator sport.

Which isn't to say that everyone who believes in dispensationalism and its multitudinous revalatory offshoots are unpleasant people. All my grandparents believed in one flavor or another of this type of Christianity, and they were weird, but not particularly mean or vengeful. On the other hand, some of the sermons I've heard based on this branch of theology have been down right nasty.

I suspect the Left Behind books of being worse, of being a cynical attempt to turn what is a sensational and semi-familiar tale with lots of sex and gore into a thriller that carries the imprimatur of the Evangelical movement.

Paul Hoffman ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 12:14 AM:

The cruelty of the L&J work is pretty deep. They purposely send to hell many people who were good and generous simply because they didn't claim Jesus as their lord and savior, and save folks who are less good and generous because they made the claim.

When confronted with folks of this ilk, I usually just ask "Where did Jesus talk about that?" and "Which of Jesus' actions makes you think that?" They always take it back to the book of Revalations, and I ask again "did Jesus say that?"

It's amazing how many Christians haven't thought through the huge difference in tone between the beginning and end of the book...

Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 02:06 AM:

It's amazing how many Christians don't think, period.

Then again, I don't want to have an Easterbrook moment; this lack of thought is hardly unique to Christianity. And when you view the great variety of whacky-assed things people take at face value, its really hard to start throwing stones.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 02:08 AM:

Lydy's right. They've got exactly the same tone as survivalists talking about wars, plagues, famines, and chaos, and gold bugs talking about the imminent meltdown of the market. They profess to fear these events, but in fact they're looking forward to them, because they'll be proved right and have the upper hand, and everyone else will be wrong.

By the way, what do you have to do to claim Jesus as your lord and savior? And what about that bit in the Bible that says that not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" will be saved?

Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 02:16 AM:

Then again, I just realized that, if run back and forth through a translator program, "Left Behind" could become "Sinister Butt-Cheek."

That would actually be a good title for the Asian release. Or for a porn movie parody.

I mean, who wants to watch Kirk Cameron when you can have a whole bunch of Harlot of Babylon action?

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 02:40 AM:

Has the Slacktivist tackled the Left Behind YA stories yet? I bet the kids love to find those in their Christmas Stockings. Almost as much as they like finding, say, underwear, or hard candy, or Santa Claus pencils.

Me, I'll learn about the End Times the modern way, through comics:


Ray Radlein ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 03:41 AM:

I was surprised to discover recently that Mel Odom has written a Left Behind tie-in novel called Apocalypse Dawn.

David Frazer ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 05:17 AM:

I love the IMDB's goofs page for Left Behind: The Movie:

Factual Errors: The flags flying outside the real United Nations building are of the member nations. The ones shown are of Canada's provinces.
Paul ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 09:29 AM:

They profess to fear these events, but in fact they're looking forward to them, because they'll be proved right and have the upper hand, and everyone else will be wrong.

On that note, let me share something I read yesterday on Mark K-Punk's excellent blog.

"[Nigel]Kneale's SF, like Ballard's disaster novels of the early 60s, is compelled to endlessly rehearse apocalypse, to re-imagine civilization in meltdown. Don't be fooled: the moral messages are what libido (=Thanatos) needs in order to simultaneously mask and show itself. If you are continually repeating something, it's because you want it. Like the rest of us, Kneale can't help desiring London's devastation."

I'll also plug one of my favorite SF novels here: John Kessel's Good News From Outer Space. It's a riveting portrayal of eschatological nuttiness.

bill ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 10:11 AM:

I'm glad somebody's writing about this. Thanks.

Bernadette Bosky ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 10:51 AM:

Slacktivist has some excellent insights, but I'm uneasy about anyone drawing any conclusions about a multi-book series by analyzing the first few pages of the first book. Yes, I've read all the Left Behind to date--I plan to write about them, using the approach I took to Peretti in an article just published in NYRSF. The other text supports some of the ideas and challenges others--for instance, the characters' actual attitudes towards death seems very sane (as well as Christian) to me--they don't like it, but they go to it with faith in the afterlife, much like the protagonists of Lloyd Douglas' nondoctrinaire The Robe. For those interested in premillenial dispensation and the Scofield Bible, I recommend Bruce Bawer's engaging and thorough study, Stealing Jesus.

Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 12:01 PM:

I've heard that other publishers are working on their own Left Behind clones, to try and get some of that big apocalyptic lit market.

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 01:03 PM:

Hmmm. Left Behind series clones. Working titles:

Rapture Plus X
Stood Up
The End Times Liberal Smasher Chronicles

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 04:28 PM:

[I]f run back and forth through a translator program, "Left Behind" could become "Sinister Butt-Cheek"...a good title for...a porn movie parody...who wants to watch Kirk Cameron...?

I was about to say, I wouldn't mind seeing a porn movie with Kirk Cameron's butt cheeks, but then realized that, after all, I would mind.

And when my story "After the Rapture" is published (which will be sometime after it's written, if ever), please don't mistake it for one of these. Much as one of the characters therein thinks so, it isn't.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 05:18 PM:

On the subject of clones, y’all might be interested in this Strange Horizons article on “Christian Apocalyptic Fiction” by Tom Doyle — there’s already a rich mini-tradition of End Times fiction, though none as successfull as L&J. (And again on the subject of clones, cloning Jesus is apparently a recurring motif in these things: “You just can't go around cloning people, especially if the guy you want to clone might just be the son of God!”)

Teresa — one of the reasons End Times Christians sound so much like survivalists may be that some of them are the same people.

Uhhh ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 11:34 PM:

My previous post was off of the point a bit, but what I was trying to say in my inimitable pithy/occult way was that I didn't think that the rapture was meant to abnegate the resurrection myth, but that it was a (perhaps gratuitous) adjunct to it. Just a bad interpretation of Revelation, driven by a need to know how the world will end, as well as yet another inducement to live the good (godly) life.

Neither is dispensationism necessarily "bad theology". Or rather, no worse than the rest of the christian theology that I'm familliar with.

Slacktivist says, "A theology that denies the reality, mystery and meaning of death is ultimately irrelevant for us mere mortals". But that's exactly what most christians seem to believe. Christ dies, yet rises again in three days! Voila, death has lost its sting! We're going to live forever! Woo hoo!

This is too complicated for a thread to cover, and it is late. I do understand that certain people are into revenge, whatever the original reason for the genesis of the rapture idea. The point I wanted to make is that I don't think that this particular theology is any crueler than mainstream christian thought, and is no more or less a denial of death than mainstream christian thought. Perhaps more triumphalist, though.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 11:57 PM:

I think the basic mysteriousness of the universe deserves some respect. And even, dare I say it, humility.

So does Slacktivist, as far as I can tell. Although we might disagree on a number of other details.

The "theology" of LB seems to me to be about respecting no mystery, and affording nothing respect. It's the cosmos as D&D. It's as schematic as an auto-parts manual, and dreary as shit.

julia ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 02:22 AM:

actually, Stef, I believe that before I left Barnes & Noble on my most recent visit I saw a few copies of that book that had inexplicably been moved from the children's section of the store to the adult manga section, where they undoubtedly sold far faster.

julia ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 02:32 AM:

You know, I've been thinking about humility whlie I've been reading those posts, and I can't begin to imagine what a moral system might look like from the inside that tells you that once you've handed over your papers, you become part of the G-d syndicate and stand giggling at the top of the stairs like Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death while the cosmic wheelchair bumps toward the landing.

OK, florid, but these people are handing out dictated-not-signed memos on behalf of the supreme being of the universe (as they understand him) and they feel confident enough to send them out without asking the big guy to read them. He's busy. They'll help him out. They know what he would say anyway.

These are some seriously creepy people.

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 02:59 AM:

It's the cosmos as D&D.

I wonder how much Gygaxian weirdness is even now wiggling its way through the memepool on its way towards turning into Serious Religious Doctrine a few centuries hence. Long theological discourses on the relationship of Heaven to the Prime Material Plane, or the propriety of wearing armor while working magic, or Leviticus-like discourses on the distinctions of various kinds of polearms.

Teresa's mention of St. Dallon reattaching his own head, over in the "Judging the dubiousness of saints" thread on her blog, reminded me of the Head of Vecna story, one of the great bits of D&D folklore, right up there with the gazebo story.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 09:15 AM:

I think one of the ways you tell real religion from something else is the presence of awe.

"Left Behind", and the movement with which it is associated, seems singularly lacking in awe.

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 03:12 PM:

"I wonder how much Gygaxian weirdness is even now wiggling its way through the memepool on its way towards turning into Serious Religious Doctrine a few centuries hence."

I could see this happening. Perhaps my signed set of Classic Edition books will someday be regarded as holy relics!

Redeemed ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2003, 05:08 PM:

Graydon, you know, if you are really seeking the Truth, it is not "Religion" that will provoke the sense of "awe". It is the Spirit of God drawing you. He is stirring a hunger that is buried deep within you. No "thing" of the earth will satisfy that for you. If you have been "stirred" by that "Presence" recently, and you are really interested in the ride of your life, ask the Creator of your life, the Ancient of Days, to "stir" you again. He will not let you down. I remember the first time this happened to me, and it was a long time before I responded to this "Presence". I went through a lot of hell before I finally realized His mercy and experienced His mighty love. All it was was this: I was on a vacation in Germany, about a dozen years ago. My grandmother and I had been riding in a tour bus all nite long, and were just entering Bavaria. If you have been anywhere near the mountains in any number of regions, you have an idea what I am talking about. I was half awake, stiff, yet still exhilerated by the adventure of my first trip to Europe, and listening to piped in yodeling music a la Lawrence Welk. You may laugh, but it was kinda cool. I had experienced hours of little hamlets, stuffy body odor, and a nagging stomach longing for sustenance of some scrap of hotel food when we would finally arrive at our destination. Long story short, one moment we were riding in the "flat land" and the next, wow, man alive, we were embraced in the company of the Alps. To the left and to the right, as far as you could see, were the mountains. We rode through a strip of valley intersecting them. The music kept playing, the bus lurched, and the mountains just remained. They were indescribable really. Growing up in the midwest I had never seen anything so massive, so mighty, so beautiful. And me and the bus, so small, our progress so slow in comparison to the substance of the "hills" surrounding us.

So. That is it. Finally a couple years ago I realized that there was a vacuum in my life that somehow for a moment, this experience underlined for me. Everything is temporary in this life. Even those mountains, as ancient and as enduring as they seem to us in our short lifes, are temporary and are a part of a cycle of earth's change that they could be leveled, or under a great ocean in a few centuries from now. Noone (who would know?) would see or enjoy them. No bird would nest in their tree tops. No family of bears would nestle in one of it's caves for protection from the blasts of a winter storm. As I rode that bus intersecting the Alps for the first time in my life, I felt humbled, and safe, and in awe. For a moment, from a distance, God came close and touched my emptiness. I longed to be a part of that place. Now I know it isn't anything intrinsic to the call of the Bavarian bellow (even tho I still recall it fondly), but the draw of the Heart of my Father, who made me, is mightier than the beautiful Alps, but, who like a mighty Mountain is my safe, awesome, refuge, who "always was" and "always will be". He calls to His lost children to be reunited with Him in His Glory. That "Presence" finally did break through the haze for me, and it was a mighty shower of light burning off the fog of confusion and emptiness. I suppose that i could carry the metaphor of the mountain a bit too far, because He doesn't just sit on His mighty mountain condemning us in all of our mistakes. God came to us in the form of Man, to live through all of our mistakes, and to have compassion for us. A compassionate God? Without a doubt. A God who wants the very best for us-so much so that He doesn't want us to exist for all of eternity in the broken down state that we were born in, unable to love and be loved as we were meant to be, with a nature that is self-centered, evil, and limited. He wants us to be free from all of that. It is His Love that breaks you out of that prison. I simply began to believe. I couldn't intellecualize it. How can you intellectualize your love for your parents? How can you intellectualize the love you have for your children? It is more than just social and biological. You know we are more than apes. I believed that Jesus is the Son of God. I believed that He suffered for my mistakes-sin-I believe (have faith) that He paid the consequences for my sins on the cross. Something just happened to my heart. An intangible change rocked my world.

So this may bit a tad disjointed. But I wanted to tell you that it isn't "Religion", that is awe-inspiring, it is the Presence of a mighty God, and the hope that He has to touch your heart one day. Take this personally if you like. I hope you do.

When I was giving birth to my daughter, I remember laying under the knife preparing to have a "C" section. I wanted a "pelvic" anesthetic so that I would be conscious as they operated. This had to be one of the very most important moments in my life. I didn't have a faith in God yet, but I knew I really wanted to "experience" this spectacular miracle of creation even though I couldn't have a natural childbirth. As my boyfriend sat at my side, and the doctor, nurses, and technicians did their jobs and chatted a bit with me, all i could talk about was that moment in the mountains and that Bavarian bellowing...

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2003, 07:14 PM:

[in passing]

I was discussing this with a friend who actually has read a lot of end-times fiction (I think it's a really strange genre), and he said that he wasn't sure why he read it. After some discussion, someone came up with the idea that this was biblical fanfic. I suspect he nailed it.

Kris Hasson-Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2003, 10:02 PM:

Randolph: biblical fanfic, oh yeah, with Mary Sues and everything.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2003, 11:06 PM:

Redeemed --

I'm not after that feeling. I'm noting that a social movement motivated by religious feeling should give evidence of many of the people in it, particularly its leaders, having had that experience, and the humility that comes from it.

Redeemed ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2003, 01:24 PM:

Hi Graydon-

Is it worth using the word "awe" at all then?