L.B.: Not creepy enough

Left Behind, chapter 1

The remarkable thing about LaHaye and Jenkins’ description of the rapture in this first chapter is how very creepy it isn’t.

The events they’re attempting to describe are so audacious, so potentially unsettling, that this chapter should make your flesh crawl and the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.

But it doesn’t. And that’s not just because L&J are bad writers.

Left Behind, despite its religious trappings, is part of a larger genre of earth-shattering apocalyptic tales. Contrast the opening chapters of LB with the early pages of Stephen King’s The Stand, which offers a similar sweeping epic tale of the end of the world.

King’s story is genuinely frightening. L&J’s is not. This is, of course, partly because Stephen King is a better stylist. But the main difference is not King’s skill as a storyteller, but his objective. When you read The Stand, he wants you to imagine this is happening to you.

The tone and objective of LB, instead, asks you to imagine this happening to someone else. The reader has no purchase, no foothold in the story — and thus no reason to find it personally unsettling.

L&J’s approach divides their readers into two categories. You can, like the authors, consider yourself among the departed, looking on these wooden characters with a gloating scorn. Or else you must be, like these characters, the object of that scorn. Either way, there’s little room for the empathy necessary to make such stories truly frightening.

L&J’s polemical triumphalism blunts any potential the story has for emotional impact. See for example the closing lines of their first chapter:

Worse, Rayford had told Hattie he didn’t know what was happening any more than she did. The terrifying truth was that he knew all too well. Irene had been right. He, and most of his passengers, had been left behind.

We the readers also know “all too well” what has happened — it has been clumsily, didactically spelled out, and will be again and again in the book. There is no sense of mystery or mysteriousness, no sense of wonder. Even God and the workings of God are fully known, fully understood, pinned to a board like an entomologists specimen. There is nothing “terrifying” about such reductive, Gradgrindish “truth.”

The theme of the book is stated directly in that paragraph: “Irene had been right.” Irene is Rayford Steele’s prophecy-obsessed wife, the one who warned him all along of the coming rapture and tribulation and antichrist, while educated fools like Rayford had sneered at her faith, scorning her beliefs. She is the first of the authors’ stand-ins, which means you can substitute their names for hers in that sentence and convey, precisely, the whole point of this series of books: “LaHaye and Jenkins had been right.”

Mennonite theologian Loren L. Johns identifies this “unadulterated triumphalism” as one of the most disturbingly unchristian aspects of the series:

… Fundamental to the spirit of the Left Behind series is the sense of vindication that “we” have been right all along. The not-so-subtle news headline that lies behind the entire series could well be, “Premillennial Dispensationalists Proved to Have Been Right All Along.” The message of this series is unadulterated triumphalism. You can forget the business of Christians taking up the cross in this series!

Premillennial dispensationalists have admittedly gotten rough treatment in the modern world. From a modernist or secularist point of view, the claims of a pre-Tribulation rapture of the church, followed by seven years of Tribulation, followed by the thousand-year reign of Christ just seems too preposterous to be believed. Combine that with the fact that premillennial dispensationalists have been prone to set dates for the Second Coming of Christ — and the fact that their batting average so far has been zero — and that well-educated theologians as a whole tend to pooh-pooh their ideas, and you quickly come to a point of eschatological frustration with the way things are.

It is not the Lamb who has conquered in this series, but the premillennial dispensationalists! “We win!” Similarly, “You lose!”

Johns is astute in pointing out the transparent insecurity and frustration that are the source of this fictional vindication, and how it undermines the “taking up the cross” that is the literal crux of Christianity.

What he doesn’t also mention is this: It renders the story far more dull than such a tale has any right to be.

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  • Brennan

    I just remembered where to find an entertaining April Fool’s Day (2002) tribute to L&J’s masterwork:

  • Ron

    One of the things I remember from my (probably liberal history teachers in college) was that during the middle ages one of the teachings of the church was that one of the “joys” of being in heaven was watching the damned suffer in Hell. So hey, there you go a long and strong history of — well I’m not sure what to call it.

  • bgn

    Schadenfreude. It’s not just for atheists anymore.

  • Deana Holmes

    Schadenfreude. Gosh, I never really thought about it, but you know, the Left Behind series has schadenfreude in huge, heaping piles lying here and there. In fact, I’ve often thought of LB as the ultimate revenge fantasy, the frustration of millions of Christians who have witnessed to their friends and neighbors only to be politely (or not so politely) rebuffed: “You wouldn’t listen to me and get Jesus, so now you’re going to get yours while I’m in heaven! Muwahahahahah!”
    I keep wondering why the people who believe in a Left Behind scenario think they’re so much more privileged than the martyrs of centuries past. I compare Rayford’s daughter (whose name escapes me now) to, say, Perpetua, and the unnamed Steele comes up pretty darn short.

  • Wednesday White

    And she just gets worse, too. Their lady of perpetual whining.

  • Left Alone!

    Found in Locus Online’s April Fools 2002 letters, via Slacktivist’s outstanding Left Behind vivisection – OK, here’s the idea. The Left Behind series is about what happens after the Rapture, right, when all the righteous get taken up? And everyone…

  • Slactivist on “Left Behind”

    Slacktivist gives us a tour of surreal worldview of the all American heresy of Millenial Dispensationalism, through the pages of

  • Deana Holmes

    Is that “Chloe” or “Cloying”?

  • michael (in DC)

    Schadenfreude is not just the point of L&J’s work, but also a very funny sketch comedy troupe out of Chicago who also have a weekly half-hour show on local Public Radio. You can access Real Audio versions of the show from their site…
    [not just OT but completely irrelevant!]

  • Chris

    It’s a perfect American theology though. We win, you lose. You lost because it’s your own damn fault. People who do things right never have icky nasty things happen to them. etc. No wonder L&J are so popular. It’s the ultimate in theological porn.

  • Tlachtga

    There is nothing “terrifying” about such reductive, Gradgrindish “truth.”
    Extra points for mentioning Hard Times, one of Dickens’ least-read books. (I’m currently in the middle of it.)

  • Big Tex

    The problem with the Left Behinder’s eschatology is that, in the final analysis, it defies reason. God’s final victory is left a partial one. Why sould God, who (for the sake of argument I’m assuming God exists and is all powerful and all good) is all powerful and all good, settle for a victory which leaves numerous souls damned? Shouldn’t God’s end game be designed to sweep His divine forces to a total victory, leaving no evil left in the universe? Of course, any victory that leaves souls damned or leaves evil left in the universe is only a partial victory. So, according to the LB’s eschatology, God has gone through the motions of this spiritual melodrama for thousands of years only to settle for something less than total victory? It makes no sense. It defies reason.

  • Chris

    Oh Big Tex you so miss the point. God isn’t an all powerful, all good, transcendent being. He’s just a really big brother who went away to college. Then he comes back and kicks some evil-doer ass and then goes on with his own life. All that matters is staying on his good side. Compassion for your neighbor and love of sinners is all just a scam.

  • Umberto Eco: Eternal Fascism-2

    [ 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 ] “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt” Umberto Eco, New York Review of Books, 22 June 1995, pp.12-15 {Abridged version excerpted in the Utne Reader} The first feature…

  • Joe

    From an early comment:
    “One of the things I remember from my (probably liberal history teachers in college) was that during the middle ages one of the teachings of the church was that one of the “joys” of being in heaven was watching the damned suffer in Hell.”
    That kind of thing is usually associated with Tertullian.
    But then Aquinas: “The blessed in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned, in order that their bliss be more delightful for them” (Summa Theo III, Supplementum Q 94, Art. 1)

  • Faustus, M.D.you

    So obviously I’m a few years late to the party, but of course I’m loving this (I got here via Andy at lastdebate.blogspot.com).
    My one concern with what I’ve read so far is that the distinction between literary criticism and theological criticism isn’t as clear as I think it might be. I mean, I’ve never read these books but from the quotes you’ve posted I feel I understand everything, so don’t get me wrong–the LB books seem to be both literary and theological pablum–but I’m worried that, as we go along, it will be easy to blur the distinction and start (unconsciously and inadvertently) pointing to the bad writing as evidence of the bad theology, which would be like saying–oh, it’s late and I’m far too tired to come up with anything truly amusing, but you know what I mean–which would undermine the really interesting arguments you’re making.
    Of course, I’ve only just begun reading, so my concern could prove to be baseless (or maybe it’s addressed somewhere). In any case, I love you and if I weren’t a man and didn’t hate children then I would want to bear yours.

  • Rikalous

    If anyone going through the archives wants to see “people vanish from an airplane, leaving their clothes behind” done creepily right, check out “The Langoliers.” It’s a Stephen King story collected in Four Past Midnight.

  • Pam

    The Langoliers is creepy as hell. It’s also made into a movie.