L.B.: Shackled

Left Behind, pg. 48

Here is the final of the “dozens of stories” Rayford Steele sees CNN report on the aftermath of the Rapture:

At a Christian high school soccer game at a missionary headquarters in Indonesia, most of the spectators and all but one of the players disappeared in the middle of play, leaving their shoes and uniforms on the ground. The CNN reporter announced that, in his remorse, the surviving player took his own life.

Jenkins is a native of the evangelical subculture, so when he imagines a high school scene it is in an evangelical high school. Few such schools are large enough to field a football team. Those that are aren’t near enough to other evangelical schools of a similar size to have anyone to play against. Thus evangelical schools play soccer, usually against other evangelical schools in leagues that are parochial but not “Parochial.” Somewhere I still have a varsity jacket that announces Timothy Christian School’s status as “JCAC Champs.”

In the Jersey Christian Athletic Conference we traveled pretty far for games — bus rides down to Trenton or up to Hackensack, Parsippany, Manhattan and Huntington, Long Island. This makes me wonder who it was that the MKs at this Christian school in Indonesia were playing against. Both teams are raptured, so both seem to have been composed of believers. Was this a game of American missionary students versus indigenous Indonesian Christian students? If so, why are the American students segregated from their brothers and sisters in Christ?

Anyway, that’s just a quibble. My main point here is that this anecdote may be the ultimate example of the inverted gospel — and inverted evangelicalism — of Left Behind.

This story is the anti-Unshackled.

Unshackled is an old-time radio melodrama, recorded in front of a live audience. Since 1950, the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago has produced this program, which is broadcast on stations all over the world.

You may have stumbled across it late one night when driving across one of those vast radio wastelands where you press the seek button on the AM dial and watch the numbers cycle through without picking up a signal. Suddenly, you crest a hill or the ionosphere shifts and you hear a swelling, lugubrious organ, the sound of footsteps, a door opening and the clink of ice in a glass. It’s all terribly campy, but it’s also fairly well done — the actors and foley artists know what they’re doing. The story is sheer melodrama and the organ accompaniment is overdone, yet it’s also strangely soulful.

The Pacific Garden Mission is descended from the ministry of Dwight L. Moody. Like Moody himself, Unshackled combines all the show-business acumen of a televangelist with the earnest sincerity of an earlier age. The program is a soap opera for Jesus. Every story follows pretty much the same arc. A soul in despair — without hope, without faith — finds redemption and a reason to live in the mercy of a God who is dying to offer us another chance. It’s both “the old, old story” of the gospel hymn and the old story of “the man in a hole” (a man falls into a hole, he gets out again). And thus, despite its overdose of schmaltz, it’s strangely appealing.

Contrast this archetypal Unshackled story with the story of L&J’s left behind left back stranded on an Indonesian soccer field. Here is a young man without faith, without hope. He is convinced the world is meaningless — there is no God, death is absolute, life is absurd and love is a delusion.

Then the fateful day arrives. In the twinkling of an eye, his teammates and opponents vanish. He is confronted with stark, incontrovertible proof of the existence of God. Life, he realizes, does have meaning — there is a basis for faith, hope and love. And so he kills himself.

Left Behindand Unshackled are telling opposite stories about opposite Gods. Pacific Garden is a rescue mission. The “Tribulation Force” is not.


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  • Mike

    There’s a “Christian soccer” league here in town, and I watch them play once in a while. Unless, of course, those red and yellow cards the ref hands out are actually tickets to Heaven, I’m thinking there would be more than one player left behind on the field…

  • mark

    Fred…..WHY the crap about LB? Why waste your time?

  • Laertes

    Love the LB stuff. Keep it coming, boss.

  • Amanda

    Ha! That’s exactly what I thought when the kid killed himself–how far from normal human behavior can you get? Why not just fall down and be saved right then and there?

  • michael (in DC)

    I’m getting worried.
    by my count, there are now 47 posts in the LB archive, and you’ve reached page 48…even allowing for “meta” posts and a certain amount of frontloading/focus on the event of the Rapture, this post-a-page pace is, erm, punishing.
    I’m currently reading “Les Miserables,” and just passed Hugo’s detailed description of the practice of the nuns at Petit Picpus, whose Benedictine rules include such goodies as wearing the hairshirt 6 months of the year and kneeling on stone before the alter for hours at a time (if you tire you’re permitted to lie face down on the stone with your arms outstretched to make a cross…). It’s either reassuring or disturbing to see a similar ethic of noble self-inflicted suffering alive in the 21st-Century Blogosphere.
    I join in gratitude for your dissection of this crap and your fight for genuine Christianity, but still: Dude, you sure you can keep this up?

  • Naomi

    Having been raised with this ethos, Fred, let me explain…
    That suicidal child? Being Left Behind, he knew, meant that he was headed for Satan’s Permanent Barbecue. So why not go ahead and start the damnation now and end the suspense?
    That, btw, is yet another thing about these books I don’t understand. Apparently, Steele and certain other heroes are later born again? I was taught that that couldn’t happen. . . that the Holy Spirit, who alone has the power to regenerate souls, would leave the earth with the Church, leaving the world entirely in the power of Satan.
    Or did I get this scrambled somehow? No wonder I chucked it all to go papist….

  • Jon H

    Ah, Pacific Garden. I lived in the neighborhood for 5 years. It’s definitely a relic of a bygone age.
    (Decor-wise. Alas, the homeless are quite up to date.)

  • Jon H

    ” Here is a young man without faith, without hope. He is convinced the world is meaningless — there is no God, death is absolute, life is absurd and love is a delusion.”
    But what if it’s worse than that…
    What if he believed in God, in eternal life, etc, etc, and thought he was doing right and on the path to heaven?

  • Eli

    Naomi – Whatever you were raised with isn’t quite the same as the Lahaye & Jenkins version. In the Left Behind pretribulation Rapture scheme, the extraordinarily good are immediately swept away, but the okay-to-middling souls who are left behind still have some hope – they just have to put up with the tribulation. So the survivor who killed himself was, in the authors’ view, weak or confused… I guess; “out of remorse” is a really confusing way to put it, but I think L&J are assuming that their audience already more or less shares their point of view.

  • Eli

    Uh, not to mention that it’s really ridiculous that a CNN reporter would offer such an explanation for why this kid had killed himself.

  • Beth

    My vague childhood memories pretty much corresponds with Naomi’s. I wasn’t raised in ‘the faith’, but I had a neighbor who was. As he explained it, if you weren’t alread a saved Christian by the rapture you were basically screwed. It was too late to repent. There was one exception, though. Jews could accept Christ any time before the end and still be saved (I guess even Jesus isn’t above a little nepotism). I’m not sure how Completed Jews — the ones who were ‘completed’ before the rapture — fit in, but I suspect they weren’t raptured and had to stay till the end.
    Maybe Naomi and I encountered an odd variation of the story, or maybe there’s been a theological shift, but I suspect the rules were changed to accomodate ‘Left Behind’ type stories. If there was no hope of post-rapture salvation, it would ruin the whole narrative. The action-adventure heroes would either have to be Jewish or be doomed from the start and neither of those options really work. Completed Jews can be noble allies, but you wouldn’t want one as a protaganist (let’s face it, they’re still Jews, and who wants to identify with a Jew?), and while the ‘doomed hero’ thing works in bleak, existentialist novels, that’s definitely not what L&J are going for here.
    The suicidal soccer player is necessary to resolve the question that post-rapture salvation creates: if you can be saved after the rapture — and the rapture’s going to occur within your lifetime — why bother being a good Christian now? Wouldn’t it be more fun to go ahead and sin for a while, then eventually join Tribulation Force, become an action hero, and get Saved in the end? The soccer-suicide provides the answer to that. If you know The Truth, but don’t live up to it, you’ll be a loser. Better do exactly what your preacher tells you. If he’s got it right, you’ll get to sit up in heaven and laugh at all the suckers down below. If he’s got it wrong you can still get a cool, homoerotic hero name and fly around the world battling the forces of Evil. Either way, you won’t end up a loser who kills himself in shame and despair.

  • Nick Kiddle

    I always figured the balance of his mind was disturbed. Everyone got Raptured but him, which must be like everyone else being invited to the party but you. And there have been high-school kids whose self-esteem is in such a bad state they’ll kill themselves over something like that.

  • Eli

    Oh, sure. I actually don’t have much trouble imagining that. But can you imagine a TV reporter coming upon a scene in which several hundred people vanished and the one survivor immediately killed himself, and concluding that the latter was from “remorse” rather than shock or insanity? That part makes no sense unless the reporter has already read the books, so to speak.

  • Moebius

    Well, I just pciked up LB out of morbid curiosity, and 25 pages in, I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor: “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

  • brettk

    I just wanted to voice my admiration for the formidible task you’ve taken on–and I hope you aren’t forced to abandon it by the sheer bloody awfulness of the prose style.
    I’m a public librarian in the Ozarks and the Left Behind series and its imitators are some of our most popular books. Librarians on the whole feel that providing the public what it wants is a sacred duty; but occasionally you do feel like you’re polluting the reservior.

  • Amanda

    Actually, I think there’s still a point to being a fundamentalist Christian and getting raptured even if you can convert afterwards and be saved. You’ll miss the horror of the Armaggedon, of course.
    Under the “only Jews can be saved after the Rapture” interpetation, it seems your best bet to cover your bases is to convert to Judaism and then if the Rapture actually happens, you get a shot at being saved.

  • Patience

    Oooh… “UnSHACKLED”! What a flashback to childhood summers at my fundamentalist cousin’s house, who was (and probably still is) addicted to that show. I was actually less religious as a kid than I am now, but I do remember finding the show strangely compelling but not too heavy-handed. From your posts, it would seem that L&J aren’t quite so good at handling subtlety.

  • Pete M.

    I just recently came across your excellent L.B. summaries and have greatly enjoyed reading them. I managed to make it through about 8 of the books before my body began physically to reject them. I think it’s kind of like drinking a bottle of chocolate syrup. Sure, it might taste okay at first, and before you know it you’ve chugged about half of it. But shortly after, you begin to wonder why on earth you’d done such a foolish thing and then you find yourself sick and miserable. When the 9th book came out and I tried to pick it up off of the display at the bookstore, I suddenly began to tremble and then fell to the floor, convulsing with terror. I tried to remember what they taught me in seminary for such times as these but then realized that they’d never taught me ANYTHING for times such as these so I guess I’ll just have to avoid reading the rest. (Sorry, God)
    I still want to know what happens (Will Jesus save our fearless heroes? Will the dastardly Nicholas J. Carpathia (where the hell did the “J” come from?) win out in the end? Will Rayford’s secret porn video be discovered?) and I’m glad that you’ll suffer the pain for me. I guess in the purest literary sense, that’d make you a Christ figure. (Hooray for Fred!)
    You also point out one of the things about these books that bothered me immensely: Jerry’s nearly complete disdain for descriptive detail. I remember reading the book where they’re driving around Chicago in their souped-up Range Rover and thinking, ‘Hey, I used to live in Chicago. I wonder where they are.’ But the more I read, the more I realized that they could just as easily have been in Sioux Falls, Kissimmee, or Zurich. There was absolutely no description that wasn’t completely generic.
    I recently came across an interview with Jerry where somebody actually asked him about this. His response seemed very telling. He said that if he put in things like street names or landmarks, he’d probably get them wrong and then irate people would write to him so he just doesn’t even bother. Talk about great observational skills.
    Anyway, thanks for the laughs and fantastic site. I can’t wait for your next installment!

  • Vendor X

    One thing that should be considered regarding the suicide kid is something Fred mentioned earlier. Why the heck does everyone in the story keep assuming that the rapture is at hand? If I were a kid on a soccer field and suddenly everyone else just disappeared, I would probably assume that I just dodged a really big bullet, and that God must love me very very much.
    I think this kid commits suicide because the authors themselves have condemned him. They know he’s evil, and they punish him for it. He has no free will in the matter. I envision a scene, the boy struggling to resist as his own hand, forced by the merciless will of Jenkins and LaHaye, rises slowly, quivering, to point the gun at his temple.

  • Scott Cattanach

    Funny thing, LaHaye is/was ‘writer in residence’ at Moody in Chicago. One of the ‘authors’ lives there, and they still can’t do better than generic descriptions of the place.
    I lived there 10 years ago. Give me maps.yahoo.com and I could do better.

  • Michael Bowen

    At a Christian high school soccer game at a missionary headquarters in Indonesia, most of the spectators and all but one of the players disappeared in the middle of play, leaving their shoes and uniforms on the ground.
    The remaining player pumped his fist up and down several times and then proceeded to score 200 consecutive goals in row, a league record.

  • Eli

    And then killed himself in his remorse.

  • Barry

    How, exactly, does a high school kid in the middle of a (now) empty field, kill himself?
    Hold his breath till he turns blue?
    Pull out the knife he’s cleverly hidden in his shorts?
    Swallow the soccer ball?

  • Grotesqueticle

    Pete M.,
    The “J” comes from unwritten rule of Cartoon Characters #1. ALL cartoon characters middle initial must be J.
    Examples: Rocket J. Squirrel. – Homer J. Simpson – Stimpson J. Cat.
    And all the people populating these books are cartoon characters, right?

  • Lemon Squash

    re: Cartoon Characters middle initial.
    Don’t forget Wile E. Coyote.

  • Patrick J.Mullins

    I wonder if fascination with all religious lunacies is the same: I used to be unable to keep from shutting up about Scientologists. As recently as this past December, I went past the headquarters in Los Angeles, although I was not quite as supercilious this time–I used to think it hilarious the way they’d rush out to help you make your way to the e-meter. I’d been directed to a Kinko’s on Vine Street and it was nowhere in sight–I forget that senses of distance considered very long in New York are short to Angelenos. I remember that right there were some visible Scientologists, and that when I asked them where the kinko’s was, one of the guys answered me just like anyone else was without offering me salvation. It sounds like nothing, but I never expect a straight answer from these people. Since then, they finally seem delimited, even if I had seen them recruiting a young Midwestern teenager in the same place only 2 years before and had gone into a new rage–asking him where he was from was the last specific thing he would get to be for them if he didn’t know to get away.
    Those I know that were programmed by EST in the 70’s and 80’s are still suffering, when they are still alive–one did a slow “expressionistic suicide” which he recorded in his diaries. I was always interested in how the “you create your own reality” was applied to the old contexts of troubling circumstances after awhile–as the “training” wore off.
    A COURSE IN MIRACLES has the same tenet at the core of that EST does–YOU did this, YOU made this happen; and you can tell from visiting their chat rooms that they have become basket cases: This amazing intellectual muddle occurs in which they “forgive” mass murderers like Osama bin Laden, et alia, but brutality straight from their gut emerges if anything like the New York City Ballet is mentioned. In other words, what is seen as snobbism in a chat room is treated as a cardinal sin, offensive in the extreme, while bloodletting that occurs outside it is seen as “part of God’s plan.” That’s not all that different from the New Age admonition against the word “should” which then allows us to “see a blessing” in all things, no matter how horrible (of course, that’s true, too,when it’s said by a sober mind like Plutarch, but there has to be accountability if only to prevent something anyone knows is just painful and hateful. Knowing what the realpolitik of something is doesn’t mean that it’s a self-evident truth for the future.)
    The piece from last year that Joan Didion wrote is the only way I would know how to see the LB people too–as means to understand why George Bush is the way he is. She had also read all the Newt Gingrich oeuvre before reviewing them, and that sounds like torture, too.
    I guess I would hope for greater attempts to marginalize all these kinds of cults. They all have a weird sci-fi fascination, maybe, but none of them is really important until they start influencing important policy, as with Bush.
    I would also suggest that sometimes they be force-fed some real thinking themselves. On Sunday, the New York Times Magazines published Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Torture of Others” on the Abu Ghraib photos and I slipped quickly into the MSN Course in Miracles room and pasted as much of it as would go on there. These are the people who think they have gone “past” the real hardthinking people like Sontag (when she keeps from indulging in boasting) and believe that dim-witted people like Marianne Williamson actually have real wisdom. The COURSE IN MIRACLES was obviously written by the Columbia professor Helen Shucman as she was becoming progressively more unstable, but she claimed she was channeling it from Jesus himself–and all the people who swear by this “course” agree that Jesus is really the author. There have been a series of idiotic lawsuits on the matter of its authorship.
    The end result of all these cults, at least as far as I have been able to see something that is in all of them, is that difference between “violence” and “brutality” that Derrida talks about: “violence” is the “shameless” exposure of individual gifts, a celebration of “specialness;” and “brutality” is what is practised by the cults on these individuals to make sure that they conform to the “perfection” found in the lowest common denominators, in other words, where everything is most obviously lacking and no semblance of perfection is at all evident.
    This is nothing new. Helen Waddell’s use of the word “dangerous” to describe the appeal of the Desert Fathers and their extreme austerities does help one realize that, if you read the sayings and teachings of the Desert Fathers themselves, you find that those “still in the world” (often meaning Rome in that period) are referred to as though they had such an inferior and unholy existence as to be unreal in any serious sense.
    As far as I have been able to tell, this has been the case with all “pure religion” which holds itself separate from the secular and worldly, so I guess I agree with those who have remarked above that at some point those cultists and religious lunatics actually have to be ignored, the project to probe them perceived as completed enough–because if they are not themselves left behind, as it were, they still have some power over us. And some life they are offering us, isn’t it? The joy of disregarding all history and the memories that we know bring happiness to us in are present life.
    I know I’ve left them behind, because I am incapable of reading anything but the passages people have quoted here–the LH people have not a thing to offer and they display much to beware of.

  • bellatrys

    Dunno if this link has beenposted befor, but Eschton just dredged this up, our old buddies with “special access”: Apocalyptic Morons™ own website
    In particular, please note their seal! *Hubris much?

  • Sophist

    How, exactly, does a high school kid in the middle of a (now) empty field, kill himself?
    That’s what I wondered. I mean, if this was in Texas he could root around in the piles of clothing for a gun, but this is an Indonesian missionary headquarters we’re talking about here.

  • Dan

    Perhaps he found a hammer left behind among the bleachers, a la Team America.

  • Scott

    Dunno if this link has beenposted befor, but Eschton just dredged this up, our old buddies with “special access”: Apocalyptic Morons™ own website
    The “purpose driven” blurbs are activating my satire alert system….

  • winna

    In my parents’ particular sect of fundamentalism the only way to be saved after the Rapture was to allow oneself to be martyred.
    Cheery stuff to teach an eight-year-old.