L.B.: Carl Olson sits in

I’m not accustomed to being in total agreement with something posted at the National Review Online, but I have to offer a hearty “Amen” to Carl E. Olson’s devastating dismissal of Glorious Appearing, the latest book in Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series.

Olson is an orthodox Catholic and the author of Will Catholics Be Left Behind?: A Critique of the Rapture and Today’s Prophecy Preachers. (For a long list of Olson’s articles debunking apocalyptic Rapture-mania, see here.)

As such, he is offended by the strange 19th-century heresies that L&J peddle as biblical truth. And he’s just as offended — almost just as angry — with their aesthetic and literary sins:

episode #12, titled Glorious Appearing, is underwhelming and pedestrian, poor qualities for a novel about a Big Event. …

Having read many of the other “Left Behind” books, I readily admit that I expected Glorious Appearing to be bloated, stilted, and corny. As it turns out, that combination would have been a welcome relief from the 400 pages of repetitive, numbing bombast that assaulted my weary eyes. …

This apparent cynicism isn’t a matter of theological triumphalism (I believe in the return of Jesus Christ) or literary snobbery. I’ve enjoyed books by Louis L’Amour, Robert Ludlum, and Wilbur Smith and have never mistaken them for literary giants, although they did have the commendable ability to tell a story, a talent not employed in the writing of Glorious Appearing. That is, unless you think a good story can consist of endless details about weaponry, vehicles, telecommunications, Palestinian geography, and premillennial dispensationalist theology, interrupted by the conversations of bland characters who elicit no sympathy whatsoever.

Olson also catches LaHaye in what is at best an arrogant delusion, at worst a lie. LaHaye told Pentecostal Evangel magazine that “Left Behind is the first fictional portrayal of events that are true to the literal interpretation of Bible prophecy.” LB’s premillennial dispensationalism is hardly based on an obvious or literal reading of the Bible, but let that pass for the moment. The problem here is that L&J’s books are merely the latest in a long line of PMD novels — novels from which L&J derived their basic template and borrowed many essential tropes.

I noted earlier how Buck Williams is plainly based on the journalist-protagonist Tom Hammond in Sydney Watson’s 1916 Rapture novel The Twinkling of an Eye. Olson notes that many of the details of LB are “remarkably similar” to Salem Kirban’s 666, a best-selling Rapture novel published in 1970 by Tyndale House — L&J’s publisher. (Olson explores these similarities in more detail in “Recycled Rapture.”)

As Olson writes, the LB series:

… weren’t the first Rapture novels, nor are they the last. Whether or not they are the most painful to read is still open for vigorous debate …

Many others have written scathing reviews of the newest book in L&J’s series, but what sets Olson’s review apart is that he rejects the authors’ claim that the theology informing their series is biblical, or even Christian:

First, the “left-behind” theology is not the “Christian” or the “biblical” view of the end times, despite what LaHaye says, or what the media sometimes echoes. Premillennial dispensationalism and the belief in a Rapture event separate from the Second Coming is rejected, either explicitly or implicitly, by the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and nearly every major Protestant denomination. Dispensationalism, with its particular views about the nature of the Church and the role of Jews in end-times events, was created in the 1830s by former Anglican priest John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and later systematized in the United States by C. I. Scofield (1843-1921) and Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952). Hal Lindsey’s 1970 best-selling The Late Great Planet Earth took popular dispensationalism into secular culture, a feat repeated by the “Left Behind” series.

As Evangelical scholar and Wheaton College graduate Ronald M. Henzel has decisively shown in his book, Darby, Dualism, and the Decline of Dispensationalism, Darby built his entire theology on a radical dualism between heaven and earth that was unprecedented in the history of orthodox Christian thought.

A key phrase here is “despite … what the media sometimes echoes.” Olson puts his finger on what I find infuriating in the vast majority of coverage of the LB series. Naive and ignorant journalists (such as Morley Safer) simply take at face value L&J’s preposterous claim that they are presenting biblical, Christian theology. They’re not. And by repeating this claim, even otherwise critical reviews wind up bolstering LaHaye’s dubious authority as a “biblical scholar.”

I have no problem with people writing novels based upon their religious beliefs, no matter what those beliefs may be. Authors like L. Ron Hubbard or Ayn Rand had every right to promote their esoteric pseudoreligious claims in didactic novels. But authors do not have the right to pretend these views are something they are not. You can’t write a book about Scientology or objectivism and then claim that it’s actually based on Buddhism or Santeria. You can’t write a book about premillennial dispensationalism and then claim that it’s actually based on orthodox Christianity.

I’m not arguing for the persecution of heretics. I’m devoted to pluralism — let a million flowers bloom. But don’t write an Arminian novel and then tell me it represents strict Calvinism. Don’t write a Mennonite novel and then tell me it represents Roman Catholicism.

And don’t fecklessly fictionalize a 19th-century American mistake and tell me it represents “biblical Christianity.”


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  • Cosma

    While I agree with this principle, it seems to me that its application here isn’t entirely clear-cut. As I understand it, a key tenet of dispensationalism is the belief that it’s “biblical Christianity”. This would seem to leave us with the question of what to do with faiths which profess objective falsehoods…

  • Darryl Pearce

    Hmm, in comments with some of my friends who love these books, I commend, “When you fictionlize, you trivialize.”
    (They seem to understand bumpersticker-quality nuggets.)
    –ventura county, ca

  • emjaybee

    I remember reading “666” and the sequel “1000” in junior high, when I was into this stuff. Pretty bad. Though I did like the bit when after Jesus took over the Earth again, childbirth became easy (lifting Eve’s curse) though the author had trouble dealing with the fact that new babies=potential new sinners.
    There was also a book called (I think, can’t find it Googling) “The Seven Last Days” that was actually better-written (relatively speaking)–I believe the author was a former nurse. She was better at keeping the action moving.
    Thanks for the links, though; nice to see someone else has been looking at this genre.

  • bitter_engineer

    The problem with your complaint is that if I took it to LaHaye, he would assert that HIS version of Christianity was “biblical christianity”, that whatever Darby came up with in the 1800s was the correct interpretation of the Bible, and that the term Premillenial Dispensationalism is just a slur used by bad (or unsaved, or corrupted, or whatever) Christians who can’t abide the True Faith.
    Yes, it would be stupid for Ayn Rand to claim that Atlas Shrugged is a Rastafarian novel, but Rand never believed that she was trying to write a Rastafarian novel. To the extent that she cared about religious outlook, Rand believed that she was creating the correct philosophy for Atheists to live by. And if you ask certain Atheists about it, they will give you complaints about her that are very similar to yours about LaHaye (e.g. how Roark was supposed to be both based on Frank Lloyd Wright and also an Objectivist role model).

  • jam

    PMD is an attempt to square the circle. Revelations is a really terrible text to try to interpret. And there’s an increasing divergence between its 144,000 saved and the notion that all who believe in Him are saved. It may have been possible in Reformation Geneva to believe that only 144,000 were predestined both to believe and to be saved. It’s become harder since. Particularly since the only guy who has ever believed himself predestined to damnation was William Cowper. The really bright notion behind PMD was to apply the 144,000 number to those to be Raptured, leaving a later Judgement to save those who believed. This reconciles the explicit text of Revelations and the quite clear language of the Gospels.
    In this sense, PMD can call itself Biblical Christianity. It’s managed, by inventing an unbiblical event, to reconcile an apparent biblical inconsistency.
    Catholics, of course, never took the 144,000 saved of Revelations seriously. So never felt the need for reconciling it with more generous language of the Gospels. But the Protestant tradition, particularly the versions stemming from Calvin, did and does.

  • Deana Holmes

    The book you’re thinking of is The Seven Last Years by Carole Balizet. Of all the Rapture fiction I’d read, that is the best of the lot, but it’s not hard to be best of a bad bunch. Balizet is no longer writing fiction but has gone on to more or less head up a group calling itself “Home in Zion.” This is what the group’s web page (http://www.homeinzion.com/) has to say about Carole’s beliefs now:
    After 30 years’ experience in the field of Surgical Assistant, Labor/Delivery Room nurse, Emergency Room Supervisor, ICU/CCU specialist and instructor and House Supervisor, Carol was led by God out of the medical system. Over a nineteen-year period, Carol has been involved in more then eight hundred “Zion Births.” These are births with no input, assistance or backup from the medical system.
    It is alleged that Balizet’s teachings have caused the deaths of infants. You can google her name for more information.

  • Hypatia

    Interesting. I never realised that the whole LaHaye thing was based around Plymouth Brethren-type stuff.

  • drieux just drieux

    A part of the problem of eschatology has always been the struggle between whether it was a critical component of the faith, or should one take literal the injunction that no person would know the time and place, and that the book of revelations was to be taken, essentially as a metaphorical model that asserts “don’t sweat it, there will be an end time, and all will be setteled out then”.
    Then there has always been the row over ‘the songs of solomon’ – should one take it literally as ‘erotica’ – or must one transfigure it as ‘something prophetic’ about the coming of the mesiah and the relationship of the church to god. Always a fun set of arguments there when discussing the issues of ‘biblical literalism’.
    So it is not at all surprising that we of course, as americans, have that whole ‘evolution v. genisis’ angst since, well, in america we have a fetish about ‘literalism’, and our cultural inclination towards ‘says what he means, and means what he says’ that keeps causing folks to try to pre-quel things like “WMD related activities program” as what we had always thought there was a ‘clear and compelling, grave, gathering and growing’ but never actually an ‘imminent threat’ that was a sufficiency of reason for a pre-emptive defensive retaliatory first strike…
    Hum. What if persons actually took the injunction seriously about the end times and that it was really not an issue that ‘good christians’ worried all that much about, since there were actually more important issues to deal with. Such as living a godly life.

  • Glorious Appearing Critique

    Fred Clark via Slactivist has been providing an ongoing critique of various Left Behind series books. Here, he provides a pointer to Carl Olson’s excellent Catholic critique of the dispensationalist nonsense that is masquerading as biblical Christianit…