Joan Didion on Left Behind

Thanks to "david" in Atrios' comments, I found this essay by Joan Didion in The New York Review of Books.

Didion's frightening question is how much the kind of thinking found in the Left Behind books influences the decisions of President George W. Bush, proud evangelical Christian, doubter of Darwin, and courter of the fundamentalist Christian right.

She cuts through to the scary political implications of these books having a fanbase of 55 million:

We understand immediately: this will be an end-times scenario with a political point. These are not books that illuminate Christian theology. The apocalyptic events of Revelation roll out in their appointed order, each judgment more literal than the last … famine giving way to pestilence, fire to the falling star to the darkening of the sun by a third … the plague of locusts to the plague of two hundred thousand brimstone-breathing horses to the plague of boils, the sea turning to blood, and, in Armageddon, the Euphrates drying up. What might seem to be the lesson of the Christian litany, that only through the acceptance of a profound mystery can one survive whatever spiritual tribulation these poetic fates are meant to signify, is not the lesson of the "Left Behind" books, in which the fates are literal rather than symbolic …

Consider: 55 million Americans believe that such events will occur soon and inevitably.

I spent years working for groups like "Evangelicals for Social Action" — trying to get Christians to follow the Bible's teachings about justice and mercy for the poor, and the "Evangelical Environmental Network" — trying to promote a stewardly care for God's creation. In that work I would frequently encounter rapture-maniac Christians of the LaHaye/Bush variety who seemed genuinely to believe that any such efforts to make the world a better place were contrary to the will of God as they understood it.

To such people God's will was for the world to spiral downwards into chaos and ever-increasing suffering. Such a view leads these Christians to pursue the opposite of what Jesus taught. It is, in one word, "Anti-Christ."

  • Jeremy Osner

    Worshipping at the altar of Heisenberg — the God of Uncertainty

  • Deana Holmes

    This is one thing I liked about The Matrix Reloaded: it had a prophecy, the prophecy drove what the major characters did, and at the very end, the prophecy was exposed as just another method of control. I’ve often thought about that over the last few months–what would happen if the “end of the world” (as it were) came, and it wasn’t the end these pre-trib types thought it was going to be?
    I am concerned that the people who believe in this endtimes Fantasia aren’t really looking at what’s going on in the real world, but in some fake parallel world where actions are seen as portents or omens of “what God is doing”. One need only read a prophecy email list to see what I’m talking about. These people seriously pray (for example) for God to remove Supreme Court justices and expect it to happen in the real world. Or they claim to see things happening in the spiritual and expect it to bleed over into the real world.
    Another thing that really annoys me about the pre-trib types is the whole notion of their “salvation”. They expect to be removed from the scene of disaster before anything really nasty happens. In other words, they don’t really care about the long-term effects of what they do, because they expect that God is going to remove them from the earth, leaving behind a groaning Federal deficit, a world in great tension, a people who are less free, and so on and so forth. They don’t care about the long term.
    Except for maybe John Ashcroft. He might think in his heart of hearts that he’s setting things up so that the Beast can exert minute control in the USA as a result of his (Ashcroft’s) Patriot Act. Ashcroft’s Assembly of God; he was raised with this stuff drilled into him from very young. I’d love to quiz him with a blowtorch on this very point.

  • Darryl Pearce

    Well, the “latter-day saints” have been around for–what?–170 years (and about eight generations) worth? We’re going to have a lot of disillusioned evangelicals around come about 2015 or 2020.
    –ventura county, ca

  • Kevin Brennan

    Actually, the series as a whole has sold 55 million copies. That’s not 55 million readers. Given that there are 11 books, it’s a more likely proposition that between 10-15 million people have read at least one of the books, and there’s no guarantee that all of them are sympathetic.
    I mean, I’ve been tempted once or twice because I like apocalyptic literature as a genre, although the appalling quality of the plot has always managed to change my mind.

  • David Adams

    I’m one of the non-believing readers. My mom bought me the first several books of the series and I read a few of them because the concept intrigues me, but the poor writing and stupidly spread-out development burned me out quickly.

  • Deana Holmes

    Well, the “latter-day saints” have been around for–what?–170 years (and about eight generations) worth? We’re going to have a lot of disillusioned evangelicals around come about 2015 or 2020.
    Mormons aren’t a good example for this, because while Mormons have had an end times scenario, it’s not plotted out in nearly the detail that the pre-trib one is. Which leads to this amusing result: the popularity of the Left Behind books among Mormons, reinterpreted to fit within the broad parameters of Mormon doctrine. (For example, the Rapture is reinterpreted as “being translated”, a similar but not equal concept in Mormonism.
    Perhaps the better example of the future might be the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have had most specific prophecies of date and time leading towards the end, and yet they’ve managed to survive, if even thrive, even though they’ve had to disavow previous dates.
    And, I would point out, back in the late 1970s, it was thought that the rapture was nigh because there was or soon would be 10 members in the Common Market. This was related to the beast in Revelation with seven heads and 10 horns (or was it 10 heads and seven horns?). No matter. This, along with the introduction of barcodes, caused the John Ashcrofts of the world to think that the end was coming. Twenty-five years have passed, and you know, we’re still here, the Common Market has metamorphosed into the European Community and the Rapture has not occurred. I drank pretty seriously from the Rapture bottle in the latter half of the 1970s (I was a teenager and indiscriminate about the spiritual rotgut I’d consume), and now, a generation and more on, I’ve become convinced that my end of the world will be at the end of my life, and not at a rapture that never happens.

  • Darryl Pearce

    Dang! And I was hoping for a literal bible so I could see a seven-headed, ten-horned beast come out of the sea! (Oh, wait–didn’t I see that on Power Rangers® ?!)
    Of course, we could metaphorically see Halliburton as the “whore of babylon.” But, if it’s a metaphor than the bible can’t be taken literally…?
    Well, I’m still philosophizing in:
    –ventura county, ca

  • Robert O. Green

    grumble grumble, it’s all made up and a waste of time…mutter mutter
    sigh.
    the shit humans could accomplish if we could remove the scourge of religion, the mind reels.
    me, i wait for the next matrix movie to learn THE TRUTH! none of this weak-ass l. ron hubbard sci-fi, i’m talking wachowski brothers MADNESS! WOO HOO!
    now i pray to the deity (stephan jay gould or maybe dawkins) that everyone will wake up and realize how fucking silly they’ve been.

  • Jorge

    Darryl,
    I thought Anne Coulter was the whore of Babylon?

  • MM Grouch

    Just finished reading Didion’s piece and I find it perplexing. Why do so-called liberal intellectuals go through life so clueless about their enemies? And then suddenly find those enemies have grown in power. Wake up Joan! Wake up intelligentsia! I’ve written about this several times. There are no if ands or buts about Bush and the fundies. They aim to create, manipulate, or let happen catastrophic events that, they hope, will fulfill the fantasies in the novel they call the Bible. They want to be the last generation. They can’t wait for their “savior” to return so he can install his thousand-year Reich. The Bush adminstration has not been hijacked by Christians. They were there at the beginning, before the big biz pals of Dick Cheney signed on (unless they were big biz Christians). And they will remain there in the end.
    The Matrix!?! You people believe that substituting a vindictive desert god for a phony Hollywood mythology somehow gives you special insight. Pathetic and retarded. The truth is unattainable. Only Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K. Dick have come close. Everything and everyone else are shadows.

  • Deana Holmes

    For the record, MMGrouch, I chose something that people might know a lot about (i.e., the comparison with Matrix Reloaded) as a comparison because it is relatively well-known. I think the point made in that movie is a point well-taken and worth considering: if you consider that the future has to be a certain way, you may not be able to react properly to events that do not fit into your timetable.
    I think it’s entirely apropos to juxtapose the Matrix movies with these endtime speculations. Both are heavily promoted; there have been two movies made so far of the perfectly barfola Left Behind series. The difference is, Nobody is taking Neo, Trinity, Morpheus and the rest as gospel truth (certainly the Wachowskis are laughing all the way to the bank). This is not the case with the Left Behind books. I used to lurk/post on the LB board over at leftbehind.com and there were people who thought the end was going to turn out to be Just Like What Jerry and Tim Have Written. And they wouldn’t hear any differently. And they couldn’t understand that others not of their worldview would see the LB books as hateful on so many levels. Nobody believes the Matrix world is real–but there are lots of people who believe the LB world will be very real when Jesus comes back (which is Very Soon Now).
    And the scary part is we have people in government who believe this dreck implicitly. I’d especially like to grill John “Crisco Anointing” Ashcroft particularly on this point.

  • mondo dentro

    OK, look, it scares the hell out of me, too. But the real question is: what can we do about it?
    I do not think poo-pooing belief will work. It is way way past the time when some sort of rational, modernist argument will even make a dent. We live in a time when people feel a hunger for meaning, and they have, faced with this hunger, turned to fundamentalisms of the worst sort. An existential exhortation to accept complexity and “meaninglessness”, to finding meaning in our common humanity, will fall on deaf ears, or, worse, will be demonized as “secular humanism”.
    What the host of this blog is doing it vital, but it’s only a first step.
    The US, in it’s own way, has made the same bad bargain that was made in, for example, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (in very different sociopolitical contexts, to be sure): the power elites turned over the public life to the madrassas, assuming arrogantly that the harsh theology taught there would provide an opiate for the masses without ever being a threat to the stability of the state. They were wrong in both of those cases, and underestimated the potential for the development of “revolutionary power”. And I am worried that they may have been wrong here, too. It is clear that the cultural penetration of Apocalyptic Christianity is widespread in the United States, and deep. Without weekly reenforcement at thousands of theologically sympathetic churches, I do not believe the Left Behind books would have any more impact than, say, Harry Potter. In short, we have our own madrassas, and they are backed up by media empires.
    We need to get people like Slacktivist and Brill, Lerner at Tikkun and Wallis of Sojourners, out of the blogs and secondary media, an into the mainstream ASAP.
    Maybe we need to start taking over those little cable stations in every town to get one progressive Christian voice on in each area? A lot of work? Yep. But I don’t see any other way. Can it be done? The religious right did it. Why couldn’t we?

  • Darryl Pearce

    Faith is the assurance of things unseen. Science is a process of confirming information facts; results should be reproducible, both the successes and the failures. Science DOES NOT and CANNOT test for supernatural influences and results.
    As Larry Flynt said, “Take a little lithium. You’ll be fine.”
    What’ll these end-timers be like when they’re all disillusioned because it doesn’t happen?

  • mondo dentro

    What’ll these end-timers be like when they’re all disillusioned because it doesn’t happen?
    Well, that is not the issue. If their collective death wish is translated into a reality that just approximates their visions, then we will have to deal with the consequences. It would be cold comfort to know that they were “wrong”.

  • Streaker

    If their collective death wish is translated into a reality that just approximates their visions, then we will have to deal with the consequences. It would be cold comfort to know that they were “wrong”.
    It already is … ‘cold comfort’, I mean. It just moves much more slowly than they wished, and not in one big ‘boom’ (the rapture) like they thought. They are the prime consumers of their own product: ‘instant’ gratification. But it’s one tiny drop in the overall scheme of things. If we persevere, the ‘collective life wish’ of the universe (the universe moves toward life, at least for now) will prevail.
    Don’t know how to say it so it doesn’t sound dippy … just hopin’, wishin’, prayin’ …

  • Joe Taylor

    The Left Behind series is, of course, appallingly bad. But we shouldn’t forget that Joan Didion probably thinks all Christians are narrow minded and stupid, regardless of their theology or denomination. A piece in Salon made some of the same points about the Left Behind series and its influence on this administration (thankfully, it was brief–my god, Didion does go on at length) and I think the points were just as specious. Are there fundies in the administration who buy into the Scofield end-times point of view? Probably, but fewer, I’ll bet, than Didion wants to believe. Plenty of foreign policy hardliners in the administration have come to their conclusions and formed their policy–agree with it or not–without ever consulting Revelations.
    On the issue of Christianity’s place in Bush’s life, I think she scores some hits. I’m, frankly, not that comfortable with Bush claiming to have divine authority to take certain actions in domestic and foreign policy. But most of us non-mainliners speak the way Bush does about God’s influence in our daily lives. Are we wrong? Is Bush? Didion is happy when faith leads, as it does with Jimmy Carter, to actions she probably approves of.
    “There are obvious problems, made manifest over the past two years, in letting this kind of personality loose on the fragile web of unseen alliances and unspoken enmities that constitutes any powerful nation’s map of the world. ” There are obvious problems in being such an intellectual that you write bullshit like that. Agonizing over the world’s complexities allows you to ignore genocide in Bosnia, in Zimbabwe, and other countries that the UN has decided it doesn’t want to do criticise. Plenty of intelligent people (unenlightened though they may be in Ms. Didion’s eyes) have noticed that the UN is strictly status quo about human rights abuses, unless they occur in Western Democracies.
    Still, on balance, Didion makes some pretty strong points.

  • Luthien

    Just read this fascinating review of the Left Behind movie which apparently thought they were not religious enough. Click here

  • Patann

    Didion is happy when faith leads, as it does with Jimmy Carter, to actions she probably approves of.
    I may be wrong, but I don’t remember Carter’s faith being anything like bush’s. Carter’s seemed to make him more humble — he admitted mistakes, as I recall. Did he ever say god called him? I guess anybody could say that about anything, but when you combine it with bombs and money and a huge military, whew! It comes off different to me!

  • Deana Holmes

    I would think Jimmy Carter would have the humility to consider that God probably didn’t call him to be president. Bush, on the other hand, seems to have enough hubris to not consider that maybe he isn’t God’s chosen boy.

  • david

    “There are obvious problems, made manifest over the past two years, in letting this kind of personality loose on the fragile web of unseen alliances and unspoken enmities that constitutes any powerful nation’s map of the world. ”
    What a great line. You really think that’s bullshit? Focus Joe. And don’t go on about human rights abuses — Didion’s probably got you beat there, and in the context of your post, you’re just U.N. bashing with the acumen of an Andrew Sullivan.
    Anyway, glad y’all got onto the article, and glad that you’re checking out this freaky series.

  • Joe Taylor

    I think Jimmy Carter is a great man and I fully believe that he’s led by his faith, but I’m sure people who disagree with him see him as arrogant. I do sometimes sense a bit of smugness in him.
    I don’t need to focus, David. That sentence I quoted is pure intellectual twaddle. Read it and honestly try to figure out what the hell it means.
    Didion and other Western intellectuals do not, in fact, have anyone beat on speaking out about human rights abuses. Amnesty International seems to evenhandedly call attention to abuses regardless of ideology or politics, but people like Dideon are selective in their criticism.
    Look, it was an OK article, she made some good points, but for every 4 clear sentences she wrote there’s 1 that’s pure gas.

  • Patann

    I think Carter’s smugness is outweighed by his attempts at trying to make the world a better place. I haven’t read the entire Didion article yet, and I’m taking this out of context, I guess, but it seems she is talking, in that sentence you quoted, about the ‘obvious problems’ that we’re discussing in other lefty blogs: no exit strategy for Iraq, escalation in violence and danger in Israel/Palestine. Those two are enough for me to agree with her statement. In addition, the way bush personalizes these things, thereby enabling his supporters to personalize them: they hate us because we (1) are a xian nation; (2) love freedom; or because they’re Muslims. I know bush doesn’t always say these things, but he allows it said on his behalf.

  • http://nielsenhayden.com/electrolite/archives/003901.html Electrolite

    Revelations.

    Slacktivist is blogging about the mega-bestselling “Left Behind” novels, so far here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here….

  • Kip W

    Coulter’s the Babbler of Whoredom.

  • Ray D. Brown III

    It’s interesting you guys are such “great minds and deep thinkers”, who supposedly philosophize and speculate in an attempt to grasp at the more ephemeral “truth” that the rest of us apparently don’t have. It’s hip and philosophically trendy to quickly disregard the beliefs, notions, concepts, and ideals of pop culture or long held belief for something more humanistically centered. Just remember that you don’t have the final, definitive truth.
    As for me? I trust in Jesus.

  • Patrick J. Mullins

    Comments like the final one about trusting in Jesus (including the curious condescension to the “humanistically centred” which can be found among COURSE IN MIRACLES people too–who also don’t think anything is “bad”, that it’s all in “God’s plan”) often happen when blogs have stopped being “hot,” I have noticed. I just think this was a most unfortunate “period” that was left in place for over 3 months, after several good pieces placed here.
    Admittedly, online work can be pretty “bare life” and viral, but it might as well be tended to just like the rest, since it’s here to stay.

  • Patrick J. Mullins

    I appreciate the host for bringing Didion’s fine article in NYRB to my attention. I usually buy her articles when they come out at the newsstand, but I don’t subscribe, and was in the process of preparing a business trip to Tahiti at the time–which I mention because it is bizarre that I went to the Evangelical Church in Papeete to hear the famous, glorious a capella Tahitian choirs; and in the middle of the hymns, I heard for the first time from one of the ministers that Saddam Hussein had been captured. It probably does not need to be emphasized all that strongly that Tahitian Evangelicals, living as they do as Polynesians in a French territory, do not much resemble the Evangelical Christian of the LEFT BEHIND variety, the George W. Bush variety.
    Didion has always had some of the most interesting perceptions, and it’s a position that takes a lot of guts. I have read all the published volumes of fiction and essays (except for the 4 short stories), but there are some old magazine articles I have never seen. She remains fairly consistent throughout, although I did notice something that disappointed me in 2002: I had heard her read from POLITICAL FICTIONS at Queens College in October, 2001, when the trauma was still quite palpable here; in the Q & A afterward, she exclaimed to her host, Joseph Cuomo “wasn’t Giuliani amazing?”; a year later, in the FIXED IDEAS article, Mr. Giuliani, who helped us all right here on the premises in New York, was barely alluded to, but Susan Sontag, whose largely frivolous article rightly infuriated liberals and conservatives alike, was defended–and in a very unthorough way that is not characteristic of Didion: she did not discuss aspects of the Sontag essay, but just quickly dispensed with it as if writing about it for people who hadn’t read it closely. The NYRB clique is well-known, but I didn’t expect to see Didion letting this show; some degree of community affiliation is inevitable for any social being, but I realized that there was something about the NYRB’s smugness (you get a lot of this in Elizabeth Hardwick’s critical writing over the years–she wrote the stupidest, most condescending one-line dismissal of Capote’s masterpiece OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS of all those written when it came out in the late 40′s– while valiantly defending the graceless novels of Sontag in the 80′s , and this NYRB mandarin is clearly a Didion favourite, as was even apparent when I saw them on stage together after the 35th Anniversary of the NYRB in 1998) that I might dislike intensely and would therefore have to live with–since this was a fact. Oh well, I always hated the phrase “nobody’s perfect,” but it applies here, since I have long been a devotee of Didion.
    Some of the trademark wit of Didion is found throughout this article, the way she remains cool while observing various devastations.
    Like this one:
    “She wanted an abortion, but was discouraged from this course by Rayford Steele and the other new believers whose opposition to abortion apparently extends even to the child of the Antichrist.”
    And although she didn’t write the next one, I am eternally grateful, as it is the most hilarious thing I have ever read, as an “Evangelical hermaneutic” is given birth (is this the first one? I am not sure if Jacques Derrida would know the answer to that question.):
    “(another tenet in the Doctrinal Statement of the Pre-Trib Research Center affirms that ‘we believe the Bible should be interpreted normally, as with any other piece of sane literature, by a consistently literal hermeneutic which recognizes the clear usage of speech figures’),”
    In a more serious vein, the following fragment is Didion at her best, the kind of “warning” I have often found in almost all of her work, although I can’t say how subjective this is. For me, I would not have yet identified the inextricable connection between the believer and the related useful political operator to nearly so great a degree–although I was certainly aware of it; and it’s useful to know because the threat of consequences is understood to be so much greater thereby. Better to know this than not to, no matter how unsettling:
    “Nor do we dwell unnecessarily on the fortuitous way in which the sinner found God at the exact moment when he was called upon to corral the religious right into his father’s camp.
    There is a reason we do not dwell on such points, and the reason is this: the question they raise, that of “sincerity,” makes no substantive difference. Either of the two possible answers to the question—the politician who talks the talk of the true believers is himself a believer, or the politician is merely an astute operator of the electoral process —will produce, for the rest of us, the same end result. In either case, believer or operator, the politician will be called upon to display the same stubborn certainty on any issue presented to him.”
    No one person can cover everything–even Paul Krugman. However, some of these imperfect incredibly brilliant minds can almost always show us something we would have never thought of–and we have to try to do the same.
    Patrick J. Mullins
    New York City

  • cathy conway

    it is my hope and prayer that God the Father will forgive you all for the letters i have briefly read,i pray that those who have read and been awoken to their faith continue to perserve knowing that even now the enemy seeks to destroy and i pray for you that the God of Truth will open your eyes before you wake up to find that millions are missing, when you do remember this there is still time for you

  • cathy conway

    it is my hope and prayer that God the Father will forgive you all for the letters i have briefly read,i pray that those who have read and been awoken to their faith continue to perserve knowing that even now the enemy seeks to destroy and i pray for you that the God of Truth will open your eyes before you wake up to find that millions are missing, when you do remember this there is still time for you

  • Bill

    Not all Christians are as crazy as that. Some are actually trying to improve this country because they know that we’re stuck with the world we’ve got and no one is going to magically whisk all the shitbrain human sheep away and torture everyone else for the rest of eternity.
    These people have no case for their own faith, only working off their own emotional exploitation and fear propaganda for converts. Jesus Christ is lord, but he’s not a lying sadist like those people subconciously assume.
    I’m glad they don’t represent mentally active Christians.
    By the way, I’m a Christian, and also sane. Let us be free from oppression and self-fulfilled prophecy. It’s time to set afloat all those who aren’t willing to make this country a better and freer place for all.
    God bless,
    Bill

  • Ken

    John Nelson Darby, 1835. Look him up in Wikipedia sometime.
    He was the guy who first assembled and popularized the “Pre-Trib Secret Rapture” that for better or worse has become THE default end-of-the-world choreography for American Evangelicals. What results (after 170 years of fermenting) is the likes of Left Behind — the Ultimate Escape Fantasy followed by the Ultimate Revenge Fantasy.
    Given that, the Bush-bashes on this comment thread are missing the mark as thoroughly as Jenkins & LaHaye. Compared to its Islamic counterpart — the “Twelfth Imam” cult now in control of Iran — Pre-Trib Rapture has a strong passive streak to it. Just sit up on your rooftops with your packed luggage and repeat “This world is not my home; I’m just passin’ thru”, because you’re SAVED and God’s going to beam you up before things really get bad for you. Just sit and wait. Passive.
    While Iran’s Twelfth Imam cult — the Muslim Left Behind — is definitely NOT passive. Highly aggressive instead — start Armageddon so the 12th Imam Mehdi (Islam’s End-time Conquering Messiah figure) reveals himself and kicks Infidel ass until Islam triumphs over the whole world for all time. Not only active, but highly aggressive; an apex predator’s End Times.
    You couldn’t have designed two End of the World beliefs for a better predator/prey fit.
    Thank you, John Nelson Darby.

  • George Arndt

    This is the gospel of “I’m getting mine, so fuck you”. It’s about finding a magic ticket to heaven, not giving a damn. Faith should something more that reward and punishment.

  • Jaedee Jaye

    Wow, the concept of the Anti-Christ being not a single person, but a group of Christians as you say “pursuing the opposite of what Jesus taught” is not only profound but frighteningly realistic. What does such a group think Jesus was trying to teach them in the parables of the master going away and leaving the estate to be watched over by the servants? Disregard for property (shared or owned) seems to accompany disregard for others.


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