L.B.: Tin men

Please forgive a brief aside, we'll pick up again on page 129 this week in a second post. Here I want to explore a theory about the theological foundations of Bad Writing and, in particular, Bad Evangelical Writing. As it turns out, I doubt this theory applies to LaHaye and Jenkins, but bear with me.

In the last installment, we followed Buck Williams on an impossible journey across central New Jersey to Manhattan, which seems distorted and immense — like Greenland on a Mercator map. I grew up in central Jersey, in Dunellen, just a few blocks from the commuter train that Buck may or may not have ridden, so the garbled, unreal geography of that section hit, well, close to home.

Gershom Gorenberg had a similar response to the Left Behind series. Gorenberg lives in Jerusalem where he is, among other things, an editor with The Jerusalem Post. He happened to be on vacation in the Galilee, near Tiberias, while reading the third book in LaHaye and Jenkins' series, Nicolae: Rise of the Antichrist.

Gorenberg reads that Buck Williams, "would find who he was looking for in Galilee, which didn't really exist anymore." But it gets worse:

A couple minutes later I'm giggling again: Now Buck has decided to make the three-hour journey to "Tiberius" (sic) by boat — one of the many touring boats that, in the book, ply the Jordan River. Which would be fine if the Jordan were really "deep and wide," as the song goes, but in reality it's a narrow trickle not fit for navigating.

The experience is jarring, like meeting someone who calls you by your name, insists he knows you, remembers you from a high school you didn't attend, a job you never had. I'm reading a book set largely in the country where I live — but not really, because the authors' Israel is a landscape of their imagination, and the characters called "Jews" might as well be named hobbits or warlocks. Israel and Jews are central to Nicolae and the other books of the hugely successful Left Behind series — but the country belongs to the map of a Christian myth; the people speak lines from a script foreign to flesh-and-blood Jews.

That's from Gorenberg's fascinating book The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. (Gorenberg has a lot more to say about LB and the apocalyptic obsession of folks like L&J, so we'll be getting back to him and End of Days a bit more down the line.)

Gorenberg's take on the mythic "landscape of the imagination" helps to explain some of the warped geography of LB. Places like Jerusalem and Manhattan are meaningful to L&J only insofar as they represent forces at work in their predetermined End Times puppet show, so it doesn't matter if the mythic Israel or the mythic New York bears any resemblance to its real-world counterpart.

But this doesn't explain L&J's strange habit of bogging down in places like Waukegan or Easton, neither of which plays a role in pseudo-biblical prophecy. (Neither does New York, of course, but that doesn't stop L&J from treating it as a stand-in for Rome or Babylon or Ninevah.)

Much of this stuff is simply Bad Writing. Sometimes it can be accidentally entertaining in a Plan 9 From Outer Space way, but usually, like most Bad Writing, it's just boring.

In the case of such passages, the dark matter that composes the unreadable bulk of the series, it is not the content that bears theological or political significance, but the simple fact that it exists. This craptacular prose was written by Christian writers, approved by Christian editors, printed and bound by a Christian publishing house. This is shameful.

Christianity has traditionally held a high view of vocation. Christians believe that the artisan, tradesman or professional has the opportunity and obligation to glorify God by striving for excellence at his or her craft. The primary duty of a Christian plumber, in other words, is to be a good plumber. And the primary duty of a Christian artist is to be a good artist. This is true whatever one's calling: doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, online copyeditor.

This teaching goes way back — at least to Aristotle (as rechristened and adopted by Aquinas). But a competing understanding has arisen in American evangelical Christianity. From this perspective, the primary duty of every Christian regardless of vocation is evangelism. Everything else is just a means to this end.

According to this view, then, the primary duty of the Christian plumber is to spread the gospel. After all, what doth it profit a customer if a Christian plumber fixes their sink, but leaves their immortal soul in disrepair? This doesn't necessarily mean that such an evangelist-plumber will be incompetent at his trade. It's possible he could still be an excellent, if somewhat annoying, plumber. But excellence — or even basic competence — is no longer his priority. And he certainly does not believe, as craftsmen of the Aquinastotelian tradition did, that incompetence is a sin.

In this view vocation is unimportant. The standards of your craft become secondary to your duties as a member of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. This is particularly problematic for the Christian artist, whose art is now made a means to an end, i.e., propaganda.

This is one possible explanation for the utter inattention to craft of Jerry B. Jenkins, evangelist-novelist. It's a rather charitable view, ascribing Jenkins' incompetence as a novelist to a well-intentioned, but misguided, understanding of vocation and Christian duty.

I do think this devaluation of vocation helps to explain a lot of bad "Christian" art, including the dismally derivative world of "contemporary Christian music." But I'm not sure LaHaye and Jenkins really deserve such charitable consideration. As I've argued elsewhere, the presumption of charity ends when you cash the really big check.

Tim & Jerry are laughing all the way to the bank. They're reaping millions from these slapdash books without putting in the effort that even a semi-competent novel would require, the effort that their readers deserve. (Jenkins has said that each of the books in the series took him about 28 days to write.)

This is a form of stealing. The priority of evangelism provides a nice spiritual cover-story, but LaHaye and Jenkins are simple con-men and thieves, preying on their brothers and sisters in the church.

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  • Kristin Hill

    I’m doing my Master’s Thesis on the rhetoric of Christian apocalyptic and I will be focusing on LB. I have a small pet theory, let me know what you think.
    Fundamentalist Christian writers are producing such badly written work because of their incestuous relationship with literature. Most of these writers would never read what the rest of the world recognizes as good literature because these novels and essays are secular, praise adultery, fornication, alcohol and drugs, use offensive language, etc. If it’s true that the best writers are the best readers, these Christian writers only read one another’s work and are therefor insuring the Christian writing gene pool lies stagnating. Do you find this to be true?
    In a related ?, do you think so many readers of LB are George W. Bush fans because according to the description of Anti-Christ as a good speaker, charismatic, peacenik who seeks to bring unity . . . they figure GWB could not POSSIBLY be the Anti-Christ?
    Just some thoughts. I would appreciate anything you guys would like to say on these, so I might incorporate them into the thesis. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to keep coming back for more ideas and chat. THanks, Kristin

  • ajb

    I know that I read somewhere (a Google search should turn it up) that the White House convened a group of Evangelical leaders from the apocolyptic camp to basically advise them on how to deal with the Middle East.
    As I recall, word of the meeting got out when one attendee, Jack Van Impe (who can be seen on cable around midnight intepretting that week’s headlines as unambiguous harbingers of the “end of times”) bragged about the meeting.
    You might want to look into that re: the relationship between the LB theology and the Bush White House.

  • ajb

    On apocalyptic rhetoric, I think a comparative study between contempory apoc lit (i.e. LB) with the “classic” stuff (the original Hebrew apoc literature and, of course, John’s apocalypse) would demonstrate what piss-poor authors L&J really are.

  • Erick Oppeen

    As far as I know, Jack Chick is still very much alive, even though he’s old. He’s still drawing, too…the Chick-fan websites like http://www.chickcomics.com can point you out the differences between Chick’s own drawings and those of his other artists (mainly Fred Carter, the inspiration for the black half of his Satan-fighting duo, the Crusaders) and a mysterious third artist who may or may not be one of the Brothers Hildebrandt.

  • Manalive

    In one of the interviews Fred referenced in an earlier post, Jenkins lists “Cider House Rules” as a favorite book. I’ve not read it, but Irving has the reputation of being an excellent writer.

  • Paolo

    Barbara Nicolosi of Act One runs a Christian Screenwriter’s Workshop in Hollywood California. Her basic complaint is the same as Fred’s, that most Christian writers are so busy propagandizing, they lose the craft of storytelling. Here is a typical letter she writes to some of the scripts she critiques try to make hit movies but miss wide of the mark.

  • B-W

    How can no one mention the horrible art of Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light ™! in this topic?
    I’d actually avoided mentioning Kinkade earlier, though I’d had him in mind as certainly “derivative.” Part of my reluctance is due to some loyalty I feel toward him. You see, he is a native of my parents’ home town.
    And I would certainly argue that whether or not his work is “horrible” is a matter of opinion. I find some of his work very peaceful, and do, in fact, have a rendition of his “Mountain Chapel” on my office wall, largely because it reminds me of where I went to college.
    However, his work IS rather formulaic and derivative, and as perhaps the primary example of “Christian art” out there right now, I find this situation highly deplorable. Kinkade is technically good at what he does (*I* certainly couldn’t paint a semi-realistic looking chapel building if my life depended on it!), but his lack of imagniation leaves me aching.

  • Jason

    Most of these writers would never read what the rest of the world recognizes as good literature ….
    A view bolstered by the book’s unintentionally hillarious jacket blurb, which reads (paraphrased from memory): “Even those who are not fiction connoisseurs will find this book engrossing!”

  • jdsalmon

    In terms of rock music made by christians, note that there’s a difference in the end result depending on which audience the musician is aiming at. Most CCM folks aim for their crowd, so the fact that much of the music could be horridly over-produced shitty adult-contemporary would be irrelevant.
    however, there are PLENTY of rock/country/americana folks who are christians but who write for a pop/indie audience. Go find two bands out of denver: Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, which is a full-on revival apocalyptic hootenanny(and on the Dead Kennedys’ label), and Sixteen Horsepower, which was a darker southern gothic/”Joy Division from the backwoods” group. 16HP has since broken up, unfortunately.
    and, in regards to Spiritualized/Jason Pierce; you gotta remember that _every_ song he’s ever written(remember “Walkin’ with Jesus” from Spacemen 3, his previous band?) has been about 1) God and 2) drugs, and lyrics referring to one are easily interpreted as referring to the other. With the exception of one album, he tends to only write on two themes, and in two keys(G and C).
    We should probably mention Johnny Cash in here, somewhere…

  • Kristin Hill

    Thanks for the suggestions and comments. I also wanted to take this opportunity to agree with what the post said about Thomas Kinkade. I used to work in an “art” gallery that sold Kinkade paintings, prints and products. YEEECHK! I was innundated with flowers and quaint little cottages. I did kinda like the impressionistic ones, though. But I have the same reaction to apocalyptic rhetoric. I feel guilty in dispising it, because I associate it with my past, or more accurately, with myself. I was raised in an Assembly of God home/church, and while I’m discovering more everyday about the fallacious logic, negligent Biblical analysis and horrific intolerance of these and other apocalyptic writers, I’m still entranced by and scared of their version of the end times. Their arguement is that if I disagree with the rapture theory in anyway, I must be one of the false teachers or prophets they are warning their readers will come in the last days.
    Circular reasoning that villifies dissenters is very persuasive.

  • walden

    I like the point about excellence in craft being a praise of God. This was one of the theological points of the Shakers. They had a slogan for it which I forget…..
    I remember many years ago a cabdriver who spent the entire cab ride evangelizing me and proceeded to spend so much time and effort focusing on this that he missed several turns and and I ended up missing my airplane. He was not even apologetic….since I guess he felt he had completed his real mission for the day.
    And this was after we had already established in the first few minutes of the cab ride that yes, I was a Christian believer. I think that a reason for some of the evangelizing was to make sure that I was (or would become) the “right kind” of Christian believer. And it must have been God’s plan or something for me to miss the airplane…

  • John E Thelin

    I’m not a big fan of music with a Christian message (or even Christian themes), being the Godless heathen that I am.
    Yet, Prefab Sprouts “Jordan: The Comeback” is an album I rate as a bona fide masterpiece. It’s something as mad as a concept album about Jesse James, Elvis and Jesus (with Michael Jackson thrown in for good measure). It may be dismissed by many as schmaltzy, but I find its humor and incredible tunesmithing that saves it from becoming too earnest.
    It contains a line I find rather apropos when discussing bands who sing glory to God: “Sing me no song/You’re not King David/Sing me no high hushed glory be/Sing it to one/One of the broken/And, brother, you’re singing/Singing to me”
    This from a song that starts with the spoken lines “Hi, this is God here. Talking to me used to be a simple affair. Moses only had to *see* a burning bush, and he’d pull up a chair”
    And the pairing of “Scarlet Nights” and “Doo Wop in Harlem” is about the most touching farewell to a parent as I have ever heard. Even if you believe in an afterlife, death is not something to be taken lightly (which LaHaye and Jenkins seem to not understand, as noted). “Yes, I know we’re not saying goodbye/Yes, I know that farewell don’t apply/Yes, I know no matter how I try…/Yes I know, and you should know/That all the same I’ll cry” And it’s incredibly uplifting.
    Sorry to gush, but Prefab Sprout are just one of the most overlooked bands in the world (especially in the US), and if I can turn just one person onto the genius that is Paddy Macaloon, then it’s worth it.

  • Slacktivist on the Left Behind Books: “Tin Men”

    “Christianity has traditionally held a high view of vocation. Christians believe that the artisan, tradesman or professional has the opportunity and obligation to glorify God by striving for excellence at his or her craft. The primary duty of a Christ…

  • Steven

    Speaking of Christian music/musicians, may I point to one of the most popular acts in the world over the last twenty years? ;)
    Take a look at the religious imagery (especially Christian, though not…conventionally so) in U2.

  • mndean

    An artist friend of mine (A devout Christian, I might add) one night had much to say about Kinkade and his lack of anything approaching challenge in his “art”. I look at a Kinkade painting, and all i can say is “oh, how CUTE”, and other cracks on that level. There is nothing in them to make me think or feel on any deeper level. Now, some widely hailed contemporary artists have done work that has utterly angered me in its derivativeness and cheap sensationalism, but for Kinkade, I can feel nothing.

  • Steve

    Good musicians that are/were Christians:
    U2, Johnny Cash, The 77’s, Adam Again/Gene Eugene, The Lost Dogs, Steve Taylor, Sufjan Stevens, Vigilantes of Love, Rick Elias, Buddy Miller, Terry Taylor/Daniel Amos, The Call and many others…

  • Steve

    Bad musicians that are/were Christians:
    I’ll resist starting the list, but it would be lengthy…
    Saw Rick Elias play this past Saturday night in a church and he said “You know, I’m a musician, not a minister. Some people expect me to do a lot of talking between songs, but I do my talking through my music. I know some musicians are really good at the preaching part of it…unfortunately, it seems, usually, the better they preach the worse the music is.”

  • Doctor Science

    Thomas Kinkade’s art has some interesting parallels with L&J’s writing, though Kinkade is far more technically competant an artist than they are writers.
    Look at Kinkade’s painting of Block Island’s Southeast Lighthouse, for instance. It so happens that I am on Block Island as I type, vacationing here as my family has for more than 30 years, so I am very familiar with the pictured spot. Kinkade’s painting isn’t the best version of this view I’ve ever seen, but it’s not technically the worst, either.
    It *is* the only one with an explanatory “message”, however. Kinkade says:
    “Block Island is a study of resolute courage and dignity. The house stands alone, severe, crisp of line. It supports the proud light tower. A single antique auto stands in its fenced yard; a solitary figure, back turned to the viewer, strides toward the comfort and consolation that the house offers. The sea has eroded the rocky coast; in centuries to come, the house itself will surely fall before the water’s inexorable advance. A solitary ship sets out on its voyage to an unknowable destination, led away from danger by the stoic resident of Block Island.
    The first thing I notice, as someone who as been in this spot many times, is that Kinkade has altered the perspective. In a photograph taken from more or less this angle, you may be able to tell that the path of the “solitary figure” is Kinkade’s invention. The actual distance from the place where the footprints begin to the lighthouse is much longer than appears in the painting, and Kinkade has put the snowy path in over two deep gullies, to make it seem much more direct than it would be in real life.
    This only bothers me a little, though you may feel free to make it into a metaphor for formulaic, easy-peasy Christianity. What really sets me back on my heels is Kinkade saying that “in centuries to come, the house itself will surely fall before the water’s inexorable advance.” Kinkade’s painting dates from 1998; if he ever visited Block Island (which I doubt — I bet he worked from photos) or studied the site of the real lighthouse he would have known that the erosion didn’t take centuries to make the house fall, but only decades — or it would have, except that the lighthouse was picked up and moved back from the cliff in 1993. In fact, Block Island’s Southeast Light would be an excellent symbol not for stoic, changeless endurance, but for the foresight that knows when it’s time to change, for both strength and flexibility.
    The way Kinkade distorts both physical distances and the intrinsic meaning of this specific location reminds me of the way L&J distort geography and emotional reactions in LB. I get the feeling there’s some factor underlying both distortions: perhaps it’s that both, um, artists have privileged their message, their evangelization, over the demands of their art. The Muses are jealous bitches, and they won’t stick around where they’re not really wanted.

  • syfr

    A really good book on the relationship between Christianity and Art is, “Walking on Water,” by Madeleine L’Engle. She is a novelist perhaps most famous for, “A Wrinkle in Time,” and its sequels.
    From the first chapter:
    “Christian art? Art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story. It it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject. If it’s good art –and there the questions start coming, questions which it would be simpler to evade.”
    The book is well worth a read.

  • A Bride Most Begrudging

    Isn’t this just an awesome cover for a romance?
    It’s a Christian historical title, and TLHines has an interview with the author, if you’re interested. (And, she’s got a pretty

  • Dale Evers

    I guess this is a Blog. I’m not experienced in the bloger-world. This whole critique of the “left behind series” is appropriate. The overall lack of critical thinking within modern christiandom is disturbing. I have been a professional sculptor at the international level for 20+ years. What I can’t seem to get my arms around is the popularity of the, so called, artist Thomas Kinkade. I see this sort of western Christian bull market hucksterism in both the Lehay camp and the Kinkade crusade. “His work conjures a simpler peaceful life.” The whole thing is dung. I’m disgusted with the modern western marketing of Christianity. I wonder how Christ feels?

  • Ken

    I’m reading a book set largely in the country where I live — but not really, because the authors’ Israel is a landscape of their imagination, and the characters called “Jews” might as well be named hobbits or warlocks.
    That’s because they’re not Jews, Hobbits, or Warlocks. They’re just pieces to be moved around on the End Time Prophecy gameboard.

  • One To Recommend

    Found at Slacktivist, A comparison of now and then: FDR: Oh, I’m sorry, was wiping out our entire Pacific fleet supposed to intimidate us? We have nothing to fear but fear itself, and right now we’re coming to kick your…

  • Nate

    Thank you, thank you so very much for stating what I’ve thought for a long time now.
    Faith, should never excuse bad work.

  • Abelardus

    Since this post concerns itself with shoddy workmanship, I’ll ask the question here: does anyone know the reason why Jenkins uses flush left/ragged right margins in his books; as opposed to the more conventional “justified” alignment? I ask because it makes the work look juvenile — juvenile without even reading!

  • cjmr

    Maybe he never figured out how to use the buttons on his toolbar?
    Really, though, that’s a typesetting issue. Even if an author submits his drafts not right-justified, it’s up to the editor/printer/publisher to fix that in the actual book.