Dr. Sarah Hammond on Left Behind

Religious history scholar Sarah Hammond died last Thanksgiving, too soon.

I was not familiar with Dr. Hammond or her work until reading some of the tributes to her posted this week to mark the anniversary of her death. Here was the tribute from Provost Michael Halleran of William & Mary, where Hammond taught. Linn Tonstad remembered Hammond at Religion in American History and Sarah Morice-Brubaker mourned her loss at Religion Dispatches.

Writing at State of Formation this week, Kathryn Rey praises Hammond for “the ethic of critical empathy, which permeates her work”:

The worlds Sarah chose to study were not the ones in which she moved and operated. As an ardent Democrat, a female professor who held authority over men, and a lesbian, she had every reason to study people and events that empowered and vindicated her as a person.

But instead, she devoted herself to the study of evangelical Christian businessmen whose deepest values not only disagreed with hers but called her very personhood into question. Yet she dove into their world carrying no axe to grind, but with the empathy of one who had an abiding affection for those she studied.

That quality can be seen in Hammond’s assessment of the Left Behind series, which she saw as a useful window into the theology and culture of American evangelicalism. The following is a 2001 post by Hammond an academic forum, in which she encouraged her peers to take the series — and its readers — seriously:

Thanks to its Tom Clancy-esque potboiler prose, the series is an accessible gateway into what noninitiates might see as the arcane and remote history of popular premillennialism. Tim LaHaye’s Bob Jones roots and more recent engagement with therapeutic, suburban Protestantism are on full and ambivalent display, offering rich fodder for discussion both of conservative evangelicalism/fundamentalism and of religious readership in general.

Dr. Sarah Hammond, 1977-2011

For list members who haven’t read Left Behind and its successors, the books are techno-thriller versions of every fundamentalist child’s nightmare of being passed over at the Rapture. (In fact, there’s a kids’ series starring teenagers who blew their chance at the age of accountability. They find Jesus when they become Rapture orphans.) Theologically, the books offer the usual fare: pointed jabs at liberal churches whose Christianity consists in nonjudgmental do-gooding (all of whose stiff-necked members keep insisting that Revelation was never meant to be taken literally); philo-/anti-semitic anticipation of the “harvest” of Jewish converts; a strong anti-Catholic streak (a Pope in trouble with the Council of Cardinals for issuing dogmas that sound suspiciously Lutheran gets raptured, and the antiChrist appoints his successor as the head of the one-world religion); stern reminders, in the form of unraptured characters who had seemed like perfect Christians, that “head” religion is not the same as taking Jesus into your heart; elaborate analysis of biblical prophecies, down to identifying the antiChrist from a roster of candidates by his racial lineage. Readings from Paul Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More or Timothy Weber’s Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming may be useful — Boyer, especially, for the conspiratorial political context, since the antiChrist is based (where else?) at the U.N.

Culturally, Left Behind and its successors are a complicated and canny mix. The authors issue several pre-emptive strikes against the Elmer Gantry vein of mockery. All the main characters are upwardly mobile professionals, two of them Princeton- and Stanford-educated to boot. The New Class credentials are ambiguous. The explicit message is a thumb in the nose to fancy degrees and yuppie self-congratulation: after they’re saved, the characters realize how dumb they were when they thought they were so much smarter than everyone else. Yet LaHaye and Jenkins repeatedly underscore their heroes’ secular success, denying modern Menckens or Lewises any chance to sneer at Bible-thumping bumpkins. In the same vein, the writers are in love with up-to-the-minute technology, a perfect jumping-off point for a classroom challenge to the supposed anti-modernity of “fundamentalism.” To no small extent, these novels — like Clancy’s — are upscale boys’n’toys fantasies.

Boys’n’toys notwithstanding, gender is perhaps the most unresolved issue of all. (It would be great to get a demographic breakdown of the buyers.) LaHaye and Jenkins, building on the LaHaye duo’s pop psych, veer between essentialism and challenges to traditional gender roles that reveal how far feminism has diffused throughout the culture. It’s a Promise Keepers perspective, but that perspective is far from straightforwardly patriarchal. For the men of Left Behind, becoming Christians means getting in touch with their feelings and valuing family more than the rat race. The main female character is tough and assertive, challenges men who patronize her because of her gender, and becomes the CEO of a worldwide Christian co-op designed to evade the mark of the Beast. Sure, she agrees to submit to her husband. But the one time the issue comes up (at least through book 7), she tells him that the plan he wants her to obey is idiotic. He realizes that she’s right and he’s wrong, and doesn’t exercise his headship. Some “submission!” R. Marie Griffith’s, Christel Manning’s, and Brenda Brasher’s work on conservative Christian and Jewish women would be terrific supplements.

That’s perceptive, smart and kind. I’m saddened that we won’t get to read more and learn more from Dr. Hammond.

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