Left Behind: evangelical “pornography”?

Jeff Overstreet has just linked to this article by Ken Morefield on the possibility that the Left Behind series of books might constitute a form of “evangelical pornography”.

As Morefield writes, “I would argue that the success of these books is largely because they serve a Kaplanesque pornographic function — they allow readers to simultaneously gratify and hide a desire.” He adds, “I would argue, however, prior to the ascent of Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition in the 1980s and 1990s, the dominant mood of the Christian community was one of dismay at the loss of perceived privileged status as the dominant worldview of the country. For that reason, I think it is easy to see the portrayal of Christian persecution [in] the post-apocalyptic world as being allegorical rather than prophetic.” He concludes:

In Left Behind, as in much Christian fiction, the objects that are portrayed seem to be represented in such a way as to gratify the consumers rather than challenge them. The role of the constructed reader flip-flops seamlessly, as it does in much pornography, between that of the victim wronged by the object of pornography and the victorious and vengeful corrector of past injustices. Pornography often reveals a deep-seated anger or hostility in the heart of the consumer which, combined with his feelings of powerlessness, creates a need to manipulate, punish, and humiliate the perceived sources of that treatment.

Quite so. As I wrote in my own article on end-times fiction for the Vancouver Sun a few years ago:

Most evangelicals [in the 19th century] were postmillennialists, and it was this belief that fuelled their efforts on behalf of the abolition of slavery, the rights of women, and so on. But by the early 20th century, they were growing discouraged, as missionaries met with resistance overseas and churches back home turned to more liberal interpretations of the Bible. The Christianization of the world seemed increasingly unlikely, and in the 1920s, fundamentalists were pushed even further to the margins of society, following the public-relations disasters of Prohibition and the Scopes trial. The idea that God would remove all the true believers and then exact his judgment on the rest of the world appealed to an increasingly marginalized community.

Or, as Michael Joseph Gross put it in the Atlantic Monthly five years ago:

“Left Behind” offers no strong alternative to the world’s definition of what matters; it merely appropriates and baptizes worldly standards. Everyone in the books is above average. The characters’ brains and physical beauty are sometimes described with clumsy cultural references that demonstrate little more than Jenkins’s aching, futile desire to be “with it”: one character looks “as if he had come off the cover of a Fortune 500 edition of GQ.” Buck is “Ivy League” educated; Rayford, despite his simplistic conversation, is described as an “erudite reader.” The Tribulation Force drives a snazzy Range Rover loaded with gizmos (cell phone, “citizen’s band radio,” and “a CD player that plays those new two-inch jobs”). Everyone is online, and the Tribulation Force proselytizes on two separate Web sites. One, maintained by a messianic Jew named Tsion Ben-Judah, is strictly theological (“ten times more popular than any other [site] in history”); the other, maintained by Buck, is an underground newsmagazine called The Truth (“ten times the largest reading audience he had … [at] Global Community Weekly”). And the leading believers get treated like stars. A young Jewish convert (David Hassid) is amazed that Rayford knows Tsion Ben-Judah personally. “Shoot,” Rayford says, “I can probably get the kid an autograph.” . . .

Why would Jerry B. Jenkins want to be famous? In The Frenzy of Renown: Fame & Its History, Leo Braudy points out that Emperor Augustus made the Roman state “the only place where personal dignity could be conferred.” Then Christianity came along “to define an arena for individual nature well beyond the political,” and “dignity was conferred not in the service of Rome, but in the service of God.” (Render unto Caesar, and so forth.) The empire socialized the desire for personal recognition; the Church spiritualized it. Still, the Church and the Empire each also retained some vestige of the other’s power. The Catholic ecclesiastical structure can still slake the human thirst for worldly recognition within a community of the faithful; for Catholics, salvation has always had to do with actual physical interaction among believers. Protestants, in contrast, have only their Bibles to keep them warm. Their church hierarchies are more various (in many evangelical and fundamentalist churches they are almost chaotic), and their salvation depends more heavily on an abstract relationship with the Truth, revealed through Scripture. These facts can’t help creating a conflicted relationship between Protestants and the culture at large — a heightened sensitivity to culture’s world-shaping power and a fear of words and images that do not point back to the Word.

This fear is what makes Jenkins desire fame. His books suggest that he fears being left behind by a secular, global, technological culture bereft of Christian messages, and the popularity of his books confirms that he’s not alone in his fear. Jenkins fights fear with fiction, by Christianizing the world. But the “Left Behind” phenomenon has been swept up in worldly culture, even enraptured by it. (“Our most important goal is to produce a movie that is accessible and understood by the average moviegoer.”) This must be a terrifying experience, because now the fear doubles: Jenkins is a Christian at war with secular culture, but his toy soldiers use a $100,000 Range Rover as their tank. No wonder Rayford Steele is the Antichrist’s personal pilot.

Jenkins and LaHaye have done a masterly job of using conservative Christian media networks to purvey their message, build their image, and make their fortune. But the great throng of their fans, and even the authors themselves, are painfully aware that they are out of the loop. The harder they try to be culturally relevant, the more ridiculous they become, the further they fall from relevance, the more intensely they are exiled — not only from cultural legitimacy but also from the spiritual power of their own beliefs.

FWIW, it may also be possible to look at the Left Behind series as a simple revenge fantasy. John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett explore this angle when they include the film in their chapter on disaster movies in The Myth of the American Superhero; there, they coin the term “Tertullian ecstasy” to describe the almost sensual pleasure that Christians such as Tertullian and Jonathan Edwards have expressed at the thought of seeing the wicked unbelievers punished — ideally in this life, but certainly in hell. (And the Left Behind series is, basically, all about how this world goes to hell, once all the Christians have been removed.)

Footnote: Morefield goes a little easy on the books’ treatment of Catholicism; he does not mention that the raptured Pope had apparently Lutheran tendencies and was thus okay in the eyes of Tim LaHaye and his readers. So, what seems like an ecumenical concession on the books’ part, isn’t, exactly.

ADDENDUM: While we’re gleefully trashing Left Behind from every possible angle, consider also this article from Touchstone on the ‘Precious Moments’ phenomenon and “baby worship”:

Baby Worship is a haze widely diffused in the Christian cultural atmosphere, scattered throughout a myriad of popular images and passages of devotional ephemera, but rarely condensing into a theological proposition. Since heresy and orthodoxy are propositional matters, it is hard to convict an idea of heresy when it habitually avoids propositional expression. We need, then, a propositional statement of Baby Worship, one that will illustrate and flesh out all its errors. We need a book ill-conceived enough to be the very symbol of the problem at hand.

For this, I am grateful for the work of Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. Their book, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days, kicked off the series of the same name. With over 20 million in sales, the Left Behind books have been both the apocalyptic hit of the decade and something of a cultural phenomenon. An apocalypse is a showing forth of hidden things, and in Left Behind the hidden things of Baby Worship are made plain.

In Jenkins’s and LaHaye’s apocalypse, Baby Worship rises to a literally unsurpassable height, as every baby on earth is raptured off to heaven to be with God. Before the rapture, the godly Pastor Billings predicts that those left behind will see “the pain and heartache of a world without precious children.” And so it happens. Following the rapture, “it looks like all children are gone, even unborn ones.” “Not one was left!” A quick look back through the novel reveals ten passages where infant rapture is discussed; there are probably more.

Jenkins and LaHaye are, in fact, even more committed to their Baby Worship than to their traditional premillennial eschatology. When the two concepts come into conflict, Baby Worship emerges the victor. As the logical consequences of this victory cut far beyond debatable matters, like the rapture, into the core of Christian orthodoxy itself, the victory of Baby Worship is worth analyzing in some detail. . . .

I’ll let you all check out those details for yourselves!

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  • MattPage

    Interesting how the idea of “Baby worship” in these novels flys in the face of what is generally accpeted doctrine in Conversative evangleical circles of an inherited sinful nature which implies that without undergoing salvation no-one is automatically saved.

  • Kerberos

    “The harder they try to be culturally relevant, the more ridiculous they become, the further they fall from relevance, the more intensely they are exiled — not only from cultural legitimacy but also from the spiritual power of their own beliefs.”

    ## As Someone said, “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his soul ?”