L.B.: Global Weekly II

A few more quibbles with David Gates' Newsweek cover story on "The Pop Prophets," Left Behind authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

One of my complaints was already voiced in the comments to the previous post. Andrew Cory noted this odd assertion in Gates' article:

Left Behind gives believers an equivalent of such secular sagas as the Lord of the Rings books: a self-contained, ordered world with a wealth of detail in which a reader can become blissfully immersed, and the assurance that good must win out …

This is actually two odd assertions: 1) that Tolkien's books are "secular," and 2) that therefore believers needed a religious "equivalent." It's not strange that LaHaye would believe such things — he went to Bob Jones University, after all. But the fact that Gates accepts them indicates another example of that cardinal error of reporting on figures like LaHaye. Here Gates allows LaHaye to describe and define the wider context in which he exists, and Gates accepts LaHaye's definition without question. Thus anyone who is not sectarian — and sectarian on precisely LaHaye's terms — is regarded as "secular."

Thus Tolkien, a devout Christian, is a "secular" writer. His great epic, which is infused with and shaped by his own Christian faith while incorporating aspects of the anything-but-"secular" Norse and Arthurian mythologies, is therefore — to LaHaye and to Gates — a "secular" book. It doesn't matter to them that some of its main characters, such as Tolkien's wizard Gandalf, are deities of a sort. When the gods themselves — and the devil too — are described as "secular," it's difficult to know what that word is supposed to mean. (Perhaps it means "well-crafted" or "entertaining.")

Other commenters noted the one section where Gates actually does question LaHaye fairly vigorously, prompting a revealing response:

"I wake up every morning," [LaHaye] says, "and I see this beautiful place, and that drop-dead gorgeous view of the mountains, and I think, 'This is fantastic.' Because God is faithful." How does he reconcile that with Jesus' injunction to sell all you have and give to the poor? "I can accomplish far more from my present lifestyle and the giving that I do to Christian work," he says. "If I just sold everything and gave it to the poor, I can't see where that would advance the gospel as much as I'm doing." But wouldn't it advance the poor? "Well," he says, "you know how much I pay in taxes?"

For LaHaye, the Great Commission trumps the Great Commandment. It's acceptable, he begrudginglly allows, for Christians to heal the sick, comfort the dying, feed the hungry and look after orphans and widows in their distress — but only if such activities are effective means to a different end, the spreading of "the gospel." Here Gates pushes LaHaye just a little bit, actually has the fortitude to make him reply to challenges to his worldview, and thus gives him enough rope to hang himself.

Unfortunately, Gates immediately undercuts this with his next sentence:

To LaHaye, spreading the Good News is far more compassionate than redistributing the wealth.

Not "… than feeding the hungry." Not "… than empowering the poor." Not even "… than sharing the wealth."

"Redistributing" is the word Gates uses, but again it is really LaHaye's word, LaHaye's terms, LaHaye's reality. For folks like LaHaye, any suggestion that the wealthy might want to share their abundance with the needy is a "redistributionist" scheme, i.e. socialism. Suggest that the wealthy landowner ought to round off the corners when plowing his field so that the poor might glean enough to live and you are accused of advocating "redistributing the wealth." You're Joe Stalin.

Gates here also misses a golden opportunity. LaHaye and Jenkins preach that the End is Near. They have also, over the last nine years, reaped an immense, Grisham-like fortune. What are they doing with the money?

LaHaye is 78 years old. If he were anyone else, one would assume he was doing some estate planning. But why do estate planning if the world is about to end?

Jenkins is a "baby boomer." An actuary would suggest he has several decades still ahead of him and a prudent investment counselor would recommend some stable, long-term investments. But if the world is going to end, is it really necessary to tie up your money in a Roth IRA? Does Jenkins invest in 30-year bonds? What about his mortgage? (Is it ethical to sign a 30-year mortgage agreement if you're certain that Jesus is coming back before the house will be paid off?) And what about the children and the grandchildren? Have they started college funds?

I want details here. This is important. "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also," Jesus said. So where is L&J's newfound treasure? Gates doesn't ask. But I could venture a guess.

  • Reid

    Actually, could I venture a small correction?
    While I can’t speak for LaHaye, it’s not so much that “any suggestion that the wealthy might want to share their abundance with the needy is a “redistributionist” scheme, i.e. socialism,” it’s that any suggestion FROM THE GOVERNMENT that the wealthy might want to share their abundance with the needy is essentially socialism.
    There is a world of difference.
    Despite the obvious flaws in LaHaye’s theology, I doubt he casts the same jaundiced eye on appeals to give to his church or nonprofits.

  • Reid

    I hasten to add — great analysis! Really gets at the heart of most of why the whole Left Behind phenomenon bothers me so much.

  • Tim

    “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,”
    That’s great. I’ve never seen that before.
    OT- Can you suggest a historical/critical annotated bible, or analytical book concerned with the same? I’ve got an old new american version, but what I’d like to do is study the bible bit as a deconstructed text… but I’m also lazy so we’re talking one book, I’m done.
    Any suggestions?

  • bellatrys

    Fred – I once asked someone I know who works in Christian publishing *that very question* a few years ago when I first became aware of messrs L & J and the Left Behind phenomenon – were they living in poverty and if not what was the logic of hanging onto it, since the world was gonna end right away according to the LB ministry?
    Their reply wasn’t printable, but the gist of it was that they were richer than Croesus and socking it all away, and bloody hypocrites.
    It didn’t ocurr to either of us, naive as we were, that they might have *theological* grounds for not giving all to the poor and following a certain someone…
    Was that bit about ‘he went home sad, because he had lots of money,’ and that other bit about needles and camels, was all that in some other book?

  • Thel

    “It’s acceptable, he begrudginglly allows, for Christians to heal the sick, comfort the dying, feed the hungry and look after orphans and widows in their distress — but only if such activities are effective means to a different end, the spreading of ‘the gospel.’”
    I had a conversation with an evangelical Christian friend recently via email in which she basically argued the same thing. She said, “Did Christ preach a message of helping all people? I think that giving aid to the Fatherless and the widow and the poor was definitely a part of his message, but not the whole….[A]ll of his compassion and kindness were to draw people to the Father, not just simply to show compassion.”
    It took me a longgg time to even try to respond to that. It was so depressing. “Yeah, sure, Jesus said to help people, but he really only wanted to do it as a means to an end, just to convert them.”
    And this is from a friend who’s actually committed to helping people in need–she’s not a wealthy self-righteous prig. But she is still convinced that, as you so succinctly put it, the “Great Commission trumps the Great Commandment.”
    Bah. I don’t know what to say to people like that. And most of the time whatever I do manage to say in polite disagreement is just met with the equivalent of, “Well, clearly you’re not a real Christian anyway, or you wouldn’t be arguing with my holy inspired words, and therefore I don’t have to listen to a thing you say.” Which is obviously what Jesus should have done whenever he was questioned by people–stuck his fingers in his ears and shouted, “La la la, I can’t hear you, I’m the son of God and you are wrong and going to hellllll!”

  • Riggsveda

    I don’t buy the idea that just because someone professes to believe that Jesus was a deity, it thus follows that person is a Christian. As Elaine Pagels (among others) has noted, many people down the millenia have considered themselves Christians who did NOT believe in Jesus’ godhood. Certain schools of belief eventually won out, and we got the Roman Catholic Church and the Nicene Creed.
    If I start calling myself a Jain, but go on a tear around the house murdering small animals and then twist a few of the religion’s precepts to excuse my behavior, does it mean I’m a Jain, even though I just violated a basic value held by all Jains?
    If a person behaves like Herod or a moneychanger in the temple, he should be called on it and taken for what he is, which would certainly not be Christian. I don’t see Christianity in LaHaye, or any other of his ilk, and maybe we should stop allowing them to legitimize their actions behind that facade.

  • Nick Kiddle

    Which is obviously what Jesus should have done whenever he was questioned by people–stuck his fingers in his ears and shouted, “La la la, I can’t hear you, I’m the son of God and you are wrong and going to hellllll!”
    I thought that’s what he did… No, sorry, that’s Rayford Steele, isn’t it. He only *thinks* he’s the son of God.
    I seem to remember something about knowing who the real Christian were “by their fruits”. Of course, that bit got edited out of the L&J Bible.

  • pharoute

    Tim – The Jesus Seminar’s “The Acts of Jesus” and “The Five Gospels” are a good place to start, but are focused only on the Gospels.

  • Mark

    “Left Behind gives believers an equivalent of such secular sagas as the Lord of the Rings books: a self-contained, ordered world with a wealth of detail in which a reader can become blissfully immersed, and the assurance that good must win out …”
    Let’s unpack this a little further:
    1. The “assurance that good must win out”? What translation of Tolkien has this guy been reading?
    What Tolkien gives is the mandate for good to continue fighting, right up to the end, even when good is obviously going to lose. That’s different. Very, very different.
    2. “world with a wealth of detail” [cough] If the detail consists of entire books on the geography, natural and political history, language structure, legal systems, and social customs of more than ten thousand years of imagined events, yes. If the detail consists of the types of vehicles and weapons used by Rayford Steele to take revenge on everyone who was ever mean to him, also yes.
    “At the low end, the technothriller tends to degenerate into a kind of soft-core porn with war machines as the objects of desire and wearyingly simpleminded conservative/militarist politics on constant display.”
    – Eric S. Raymond, of all people
    3. The “equivalent of the secular” is a strangely popular and perverse idea among evangelicals. It’s probably most visible in Christian music, where bands are constructed to imitate the sound of the secular pop music of the week, but with Christian lyrics and a Christian mythology surrounding them, and then marketed primarily to parents as a substitute for said secular pop music.
    There’s something deeply perverse about this: taking Britney Spears, rewriting her lyrics and putting them in the mouth of a less-visibly-slutty Virtual Britney, and thinking _that’s_ worship in Spirit and in truth. It’s also incredibly stupid. (Does it occur to these people that kids do things to conform to the culture of other kids, and to rebel against their parents?) It’s also immoral–when Good consists of a cheap knockoff of Evil, what good is it?

  • wheat

    Another comment on the “equivalent of the secular”: I used to teach a summer camp for kids, mostly from 6th-10th grade. It was a technology camp, so kids would bring CDs to listen too while they worked on flash projects and the like. It was not uncommon to find kids whose entire CD collection was christian-rock knock offs of Korn and the like. I asked a few kids about their music and was told “my folks only allow me to listen to christian bands”. So, for these parents (not of the worst sort, generally) the whole christian rock thing was some assurance that their kids were not subjected to real thing. It was a stamp of approval (from whom?) that the contents were safe for consumption. It seemed to me the parents were saying, “rather than taking the time to get to know the bands you’re listening to and discuss them with you so I can have some influence on your values and on how you process things, I’m going to put blind confidence in the marketing department of some christian rock record label”.

  • Discordia

    The argument that LaHaye makes (the “Great Commission trumps the Great Commandment” argument, as Fred so eloquently put it) actually seems evident in his writing style. As Fred has pointed out, the characters in LB are generally more concerned with logistics than more abstract things (emotion, compassion). In LaHaye’s personal life, the logical (“I can spread the gospel more effectively as a rich man!”) trumps the compassionate (“The hungry and homeless need my money more than I do”).

  • Daddy-O

    I have to wonder how many of these Christian knock-offs of pop bands feel they have to pay royalties.
    It was right about here–”But if the world is going to end, is it really necessary to tie up your money in a Roth IRA?”–that I started to laugh very hard, Fred.
    Good stuff. Later.

  • http://WWW.offthekuff.com/mt/archives/003552.html Off the Kuff

    Link dump

    Lots of good stuff out there… Al Gore’s speech. ‘Nuff said. Kash mentions a scary word from the late 70s….

  • Jim

    Mark, Let’s unpack your first point (1. The “assurance that good must win out”) a little further. In Tolkien’s LOTR, good does not so much win out as does evil destroy itself. At the last moment Frodo cannot bring himself to destroy the Ring. It takes poor corrupted Gollum to do that. And, even after Evil is brought down, also lost is a significant part of what was “good”. So, the good toil on (witness Aragorn’s and the Hobbits’s continuing efforts to rebuild) even when they know the “good” things will never be as they were. This is well within the Christian tradition and the Gospel teachings I learned as a child.
    It is not by our will alone that we will attain a state of grace…

  • Dan

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  • Dan

    Christian Rock Rip-offs
    South Park has made a very pertinant episode dealing with this very issue, “Christian Rock Hard.” The boys desire a platinum album, so naturally form a Christian rock group. Parker & Stone’s wit is, as usual, cutting and goes right to the heart of it all:
    Cartman: Our band should play Christian rock!
    Kyle: Christian rock?!
    Cartman: Think about it! It’s the easiest crappiest music in the world, right? If we just play songs about how much we love Jesus, all the Christians will buy our crap!

    Cartman: Christians have a built-in audience of over one hundred and eighty million Americans! If each one of them buys just one of our albums at twelve dollars and ninety-five cents that would be-
    Butters: Two billion, three hundred and thirty one million dollars.
    Midwest Evangelicals are later described thus, “Each one of them is a walkng, praying wallet full of cash.”
    And true to form, their “Christian” music is nothing more than blatant lifting of ‘secular’ godhating mainstream music: “All we have to do to make Christian songs is take regular old songs and add Jesus stuff to them. See? All we have to do is cross out words like “baby” and “Darling” and replace them with Jesus.”
    Slavish adherence to this principle leads to some of the most hilarious lyrics I’ve ever heard (yet, sadly, not far inferior in quality to actual Christian rock that I’ve heard). Who could forget lines like,
    “Don’t ever leave me, Jesus. I couldn’t stand to see you go.
    My heart would simply snap, my Lord, if you walked on out that door.
    I promise I’ll be good to you, and keep you warm at night.
    Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, why don’t we just… shut off the lights.”
    “I love you, Jesus. I want you to walk with me
    I’ll take good care of you, baby. Call you my baby, baby!
    You died for my sins, and you know that I would die for you, right?
    What’s the matter, baby? You tremble at Jesus, baby!
    Your love… is my life! You know when I’m without you, there’s a black hole in my life! Oo-ohhh!
    I wanna believe. It’s all right, ’cause I get lonely in the night and it’s up to you to
    Save me! Jee…sus…bay-by!”
    “I want to walk hand-in-hand with Jesus on a private beach for two./
    I want him to nibble on my ear and say ‘I’m here for you.’”
    “I want to get down on my knees and start pleasing Jesus, I want to feel his salvation all over my face.”
    “Whenever I see Jesus up on that cross/
    I can’t help but think that he looks kinda hot.”
    “Yes I may be born again, but I was wasn’t born again yesterday.”
    “The Body of Christ! Sleek swimmer’s body, all muscled up and toned!
    The Body of Christ! O, Lord Almighty, I wish I could call it my own!”
    Once again, SP proves to be a better social commentator than LB.
    (PS, I am NOT the same Dan as the one who added that spam above)

  • Ken

    Thus Tolkien, a devout Christian, is a “secular” writer. His great epic, which is infused with and shaped by his own Christian faith while incorporating aspects of the anything-but-”secular” Norse and Arthurian mythologies, is therefore — to LaHaye and to Gates — a “secular” book.
    An informant of mine went into a Christian bookstore and claimed the clerk tried to plug a Christian Fantasy trilogy to him as “Just like Tolkien, except CHRISTIAN!”
    I think he bailed out of the shop and spent the next 15 minutes banging his head against the nearest wall.

  • Jesurgislac

    Dan: (PS, I am NOT the same Dan as the one who added that spam above)
    Good. Maybe Fred will delete it soon…
    The lyrics are hysterical. Late feedback – I didn’t see this when you first posted.


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