"Left Behind": Evangelical Pornography?

Ken Morefield examines the outrageously popular saga, and considers how it plays to evangelical “appetites.”

For most readers who are not evangelical Christians (and for many of us who are), the representation of reality in the Left Behind series can come across as oddly distorted. I have adopted the term “Evangelical Pornography” to describe the Left Behind franchise because its methods of representing its characters, particularly those who differ from its target audience, fit the description of what psychoanalyst Louise Kaplan calls a “perverse strategy” …

And listen to this…

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.

It has been my argument that much of the success of Left Behind has been because its evangelical readers feel exactly that sort of anger at and powerless over those loved ones who reject their own Christianity as well as at those non-Christians who have mocked or marginalized them. The response has been to create a fantasy world where those loved ones who have injured “me” are humiliated and forced to repeatedly acknowledge their own inferiority to “me,” while those strangers who have hurt me are placed in fantasy scenarios where roles are reversed and my arguments are clearly superior, my thinking always awarded the last word. While it may be comforting to imagine such a world, it is worth thinking on whether our comfort is worth the price we pay when we purchase it by stereotyping and caricaturizing those who threaten or disrupt it.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Josh

    Jeffrey, you really should add a listening journal to this here blog.

  • Chris Durnell

    I agree with bethr. Whether the LEFT BEHIND series counts as evangerlical porn, as opposed to simply Christian or evangelical literature, ultimately depends on the quality of the LEFT BEHIND books.

    While not having read the series myself, based on reviews I’ve read and a basic persual in book stores, I would tentatively agree. If the authors did intend for the series to be used as evangelical material to non-Christians, as Morefield claims, they have abysmally failed. However, they have certainly succeeded in fueling the wish-fulfillment desires of its evangelical readers.

    Crossing the threshold from poor writing to pornography depends on various themes and depiction, and I think Morefield was clear in what areas he belives the LEFT BEHIND series qualifies as such. It can easily be seen as an extended revenge fantasy where they inflict all sorts of mea culpas, torture, and humiliation on those who mock or disagree with them in this world.

    LEFT BEHIND is essentially a pot-boiler, and pot-boilers do not make great literature. We should not expect great literary merit, and if it is intended as an exploration of what the Rapture and the End Times mean, the series fails. Whether it succeeds on its own terms depends on whether the eschatology serves as backstory and setting for a great adventure, or whether it merely exists to give Schadenfreude on the terrible fates of non-believers.

    I think this post is similar theme to the discussion on the merits of the anti-ecology tract State of Fear on Jimmy Akin’s site. (http://www.jimmyakin.org/2005/04/state_of_smear.html)

  • Peter T Chattaway

    “It is largely a States-side, evengelical/fundamentalist and quite recent eschatological phenomenom.”

    More or less, yeah. Dispensationalism and belief in the Rapture as an event distinct from the Second Coming goes back only 180 years or so, but it was actually created by an Anglo-Irish priest, John Nelson Darby, and did not become popular in North America until some decades later.

    I don’t know what people in the British Isles make of this belief nowadays, but I gather it isn’t popular there any more (assuming it ever was). N.T. Wright, now the Bishop of Durham, wrote an article for Bible Review a while back saying that the eschatology of the Left Behind books was a specifically American phenomenon that boggled the minds of the Brits, which prompted one letter writer to fire off a missive saying it was the Brits’ fault for coming up with the doctrine in the first place!

    “However, I do not believe it was borne of frustration nearly as much as comfort.”

    Let’s put it this way. In North America at least, the popularity of this doctrine was born out of an expectation of comfort that was increasingly frustrated by the events of the 1920s. For more on that, check the links at the blog post I linked to above.

  • BethR

    Not that Dr. Morefield needs defenders, but I believe his argument is that the “Left Behind” fictional novels may be considered to be a kind of “evangelical pornography,” not the entire dispensationalist, pre-trib rapture interpretation of scripture. Although admittedly, it is a fine line.

  • jasdye

    OK, just to clarify from my understanding of pre-trib rapture. It is largely a States-side, evengelical/fundamentalist and quite recent eschatological phenomenom. However, I do not believe it was borne of frustration nearly as much as comfort. If you look at the history of Protestantism (did I make up two words in three sentances?), rarely have we had a period or time of public rule and luxury as in 20th Century America. Other Protestant cultures globally – that have been under stricter jurisdiction and real communal, familial, and governmental persecution – do not see a problem with struggling through an upcoming tribulation (whether the whole way through or partially, I don’t claim to know or understand), as long as they know they can come out through the other side seeing Jesus’ face and feeling his embrace.

    For the most part, I agree with crimsonline:
    ‘”Poor writing”? Yes. “Errant theology”? I believe so, but humbly admit my own blind spots at the same time. “Evangelical pornography”? Please.’

  • mark

    Once again I feel as though I am catching a conversation by people who are a couple of hundred feet farther up the trail than me. I can catch bits and pieces of your conversation and it sounds fascinating, but I really can’t understand enough of what you are saying to be sure of anything. For my two cents worth, James 5:1-12 seems to say that it is not only natural for us to look forward to the downfall of the wicked, but a positive thing. Or maybe it is just assuring us it will happen.

    By the way. What is “Baby Worship?” I have never heard the term before.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    FWIW, I’ve blogged this post and added some comments of my own.

  • crimsonline

    I’m not saying that “they really believe it” absolves anybody. What I am saying is that the accusation that they _made_it_up_ in order to suit their own fantasies is unfair and foolish.

  • Thom

    But just because they believe the theology doesn’t mean they are not creating scenarios that play up to “revenge fantasies”. “Evangelical Porn” is not really that ridiculous of an accusation. If “they really believe in it” somehow absolved people, heck, good intentions would be all we needed.

  • crimsonline

    I just want to charitably point out that Evangelicals/Fundamentalists who hold to the dispensationalist view of a pre-tribulation rapture have not created “a fantasy world” where the believers are rewarded and the non-believers are punished. Rather, they believe that this is the view taught by Scripture.

    It is more than possible to critique this view (and I would be among the first to do so) but I wonder if the author of this piece is not himself guilty of “stereotyping and caricaturizing” his opponents in order to make his point. Isn’t there a threshhold of “brotherly love” that should have at least a nod when criticizing fellow Christians?

    “Poor writing”? Yes. “Errant theology”? I believe so, but humbly admit my own blind spots at the same time. “Evangelical pornography”? Please.


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