NRA: Not of this world

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; pp. 125-127, 132

The premise of the entire Left Behind series is right there in the title of the first book: Left Behind. It’s about separation and sorting. The children of God — the real, true Christians of the sort that God finds acceptable — are whisked off to Heaven, and everyone else is left behind.

That everyone else includes all the phony Christians, Jews, believers in every other religion and every nonbeliever. The lot of us will be given one last brief chance to convert to real, true Christianity before we will be killed by Jesus and tortured for all of eternity just as we deserve.

It seems like that should be insulting. The authors, after all, are insisting that we are all utterly wicked and depraved and irredeemably evil. And then on top of that they continually suggest that we’ve all deliberately chosen such wickedness just for the sake of being wicked.

Yet it’s hard to take offense at any of that because whenever they try to describe our alleged wickedness it never actually sounds that bad. None of us likes being called evil, but the word loses its sting once you realize that by “evil” all our accusers actually seem to mean is that we go to the wrong church, or to a synagogue instead of a church, or that we don’t go to church. Or they mean that we prefer peace to war, or that we look favorably on the idea that people in the developing world might not be quite so poor. Or … well, that’s pretty much it.

The authors classify most of the world as evil, but then their definition of evil turns out to be mostly benign. Once in a while they’ll spice it up a bit by suggesting that we’re all marauding criminals, but even then it doesn’t seem like they have much of an idea of what that means either, and they never sustain the idea for very long.

This thin notion of evil gets even stranger on the rare occasions that something actually happens in these books. Every few hundred pages or so there’s an airplane crash, or a bombing. And then, invariably, we’re shown a scene in which all of the “evil” people are scurrying about trying to aid the wounded or to rescue those in danger, while our virtuous heroes pass by, scarcely pausing to notice except perhaps to complain about the way this sudden outbreak of human suffering inconveniences their plans.

Given that, being classified among the evil and the wicked seems nothing at all like an insult. It seems more like a badge of honor.

I think this all flows out of the authors’ misunderstanding of the idea of “worldliness.” For them, to be “worldly” is to be evil. And thus to be good is to avoid “the world” — to shun it lest it’s contaminating contagion of “worldliness” infect them with its evil.

For a sense of what this means, let’s look at two ways of responding to this passage from the book of James:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

For LaHaye and Jenkins, the emphasis there is on being “pure and undefiled” and “unstained by the world.” That’s the priority, and thus for them that other bit about “care for orphans and widows” is perilous — touch an orphan or a widow and you risk becoming “stained by the world.” The orphans and widows business thus becomes, in this view, a kind of optional extra credit, something that’s nice to do, but only provided that one has a chance to do so while still ensuring that one keeps pure, undefiled and unstained by their worldliness.

And thus the authors wind up with the ideal of the Christian life presented in this series, that of Irene Steele, by-stander to the world, who spends all of her time sheltered at home or in church, praying and making “knick-knacks” and shielding her undefiled purity until “Jesus comes back to get us before we die.”

The alternative approach is to read James’ words through the lens of his brother. If we consider this same passage in that light — in the light of Jesus’ words, example and commandments — then we read it with a different emphasis. The idea then becomes something more like this:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and thereby to keep oneself unstained by the world.

From this view, James isn’t telling us to keep “undefiled” and also to “care for orphans and widows,” he’s telling us to keep undefiled by means of caring for orphans and widows. “Worldliness,” in other words, means not caring for those in need.

Viewed in that light, Rayford Steele and Buck Williams and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins all seem deeply marked by the stain of the world.

For the authors, then, the whole point of life is to avoid “worldliness” and contamination from “the world.” Or, in other words, the whole point of life is to avoid the world — a view that mutually reinforces the escapist eschatology of Rapture-mania.

Part of what this means is that the authors have steadfastly avoided learning about the world.

And that’s unfortunate for their novel, given that the world is where it’s supposed to take place.

This muddles up the section of Nicolae that we’re looking at today in at least two ways. First it means that we’re reading an attempt to describe a detailed agenda for the world written by two men who have scrupulously avoided learning anything about that world or how it works. And second we’re reading an attempt to describe evil government written by two men who equate evil with “worldly,” and thus have no basis for imagining the possibility of good government.

Don’t misunderstand me — I’m not referring to the perennial ideological debate between those who favor larger or smaller government in various capacities and roles. What I mean is that government, by definition, must be worldly. It has to be concerned with the world — that’s its job. Filling in potholes, maintaining traffic safety — everything the government does or is supposed to do will be worldly, no matter how mundane. (That’s actually what “mundane” means — “belonging to the world.”) And therefore everything a government does or is supposed to do will be self-evidently wicked.*

Thus here we’re presented with a scene in which the Antichrist — purportedly the worst tyrant in the history of the world — lays out his agenda for global oppression, yet much of it seems either boring or baffling. He proposes some modest taxes and some impossibly ill-defined ones. He wants to build a second Alaskan pipeline. He offers some extremely vague and contradictory ideas about the structure of his new one-world government (tyranny administered via “bloc grants,” apparently).

All of this is, to the authors, self-evidently evil because it’s all so very worldly. But to readers who are better acquainted with the actual world, the few bits of it that make any sense seem unremarkable and unthreatening. The gist of the passage seems to be that Nicolae Carpathia’s one-world government intends to govern.

Toward the end of the chapter, Nicolae does recommend some actual evil policies, which we’ll try to make sense of next week, but let me skip ahead to the last page of the chapter just to look at Rayford’s reaction after listening in on all of the Antichrist’s plans:

All Rayford could do was pray. “Lord,” he said silently, “I wish I was a more willing servant. Is there no other role for me? Could I not be used in some sort of active opposition or judgment against this evil one? I can only trust in your purpose. Keep my loved ones safe until we see you in all your glory.”

Even Rayford Steele is frustrated by the impotent idleness of a faith that consists only of avoiding the contamination of worldliness. Even he wishes he had some “other role” besides that of feckless bystander. Even he wishes his faith demanded something more “active.”

But in the end, he submits to the authors’ will, trusting that it is God’s purpose that he have no purpose. And praying that he and his loved ones stay safe and unsullied until Jesus comes back to get them before they die.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Tip-toe up to the ledge with me and take a moment to appreciate how deep and how far this goes. This is how we wound up with a subculture for which the word “secular” is a synonym for evil rather than just a necessary term for the temporal, mundane realm of the world we live in. This affects and infects a great deal of American politics. OK, careful now, let’s step back from the ledge.

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  • Dogfacedboy

    For them, to be “worldly” is to be evil.

    When I brought my first girlfriend home to meet the ‘rents way back when, my mom (who who could hold her own with Irene in the knick-knack department), characterized her as worldly.  I know she meant to dissuade me by saying that, but boy did that get me excited.

  • AnonymousSam

    I’ll put it this way: there are thousands of people who believe that Obama is going to somehow get a law passed which allows him to continue on as president after his term should have ended. Him leaving office will not deter them from continuing to believe that he’s pulling strings for his UN masters.

    I have few doubts that if he took on a movie role as antichrist, we’d be reading about his murder within the month.

  • TheBrett

    He’s got to have an accent, otherwise the American audiences won’t buy that he’s supposed to be smart and evil.

  • Do they even know Barack Obama isn’t an actor? :O

    Admittedly, politicians and actors have a lot of job skills in common.  :p

  • MaryKaye

    CS Lewis writes at length about the word “world” in _Studies on Words_ and also touches on “secular” en route.  He says that all of these world-words have two meanings in the Christian cultural context, one neutral to positive and one very negative, and that immense mischief has come from their confusion.  He quotes “God so loved the world” and “Love not the world” as exemplars of that confusion.

    Surely Jesus was not hostile to concerns of the world (neutral sense):  “Give us this day our daily bread” is about as worldly (neutral) as a prayer can get.

    The negative sense, Lewis says, is about ambition and pride:  caring about “the world” in this sense means caring more about what people think of you, how important you are, how rich and powerful you are, than you do about God.  It seems to me that these teachings are not ones that wealthy, powerful, self-important people are going to easily remember or grasp.  So they use the “world”-words confusion to redirect onto a completely un-Jesuslike emphasis on not touching the unclean, not associating with those of lower status–which is precisely “worldly” in the negative sense.

    Rayford actually seems pitiable to me.  (I am in the faction that hates Buck more, for some reason.)  Here’s a man who has a central role in the great spiritual drama of the ages–and yet his own spirituality is utterly empty and barren.  There is no wonder, no joy, no awe, no holy fear; no experience of the peace that surpasses understanding.  There is not even the purifying force of real contrition.  It’s all dust, because it is, in the last analysis, worldly (negative)–and the underlying theology has managed to make Heaven worldly.  Purges in the Millenial Kingdom?   Differences in rank among the Elect?  How worldly can you get?  “I am more important than you” played out on the stage of Eternity with all the stars for witness.  That is sad.

    As an adult I have a lot of issues with Lewis (whom I loved as a child) but at least the man knew what the experience of God might *mean*.  In _Surprised by Joy_ he talks about a sense of aching longing that is paradoxically more to be desired than any earthly satisfaction.  Rayford hasn’t a clue about anything like that.

  • AnonymousSam

    Everyone knows that it works best injected directly into the brain stem! A few doses of that and I can hardly even coddle elephant inflatable fourteen!

  • For the authors, then, the whole point of life is to avoid “worldliness” and contamination from “the world.”
    I am reminded of Talis Kimberley’s response to the British authorities clearing Occupy London from St Paul’s Cathedral.

    Bookends and stationery, jigsaws and gifts For you lovers of luxury, strangers to thrift  All your cufflinks and printed silk shawls bought from the shop of St Pauls  Gordon Brown’s laughing so all must be well  ‘We’re a centre for public debate’ say the bells  The economists set out their stalls under the dome of St Paul’s Christopher Robin and Christopher Wren, When will my England lie easy again? With sanctuary offered to the women and men  Who stand on equality’s side?  The good Christian Reverend Fraser resigns,  But the bulk of his colleagues have pulled down the blinds  While their restaurant serves only the finest of wines  And the organ plays ‘Here comes the Bride’… 


    Of course the Church of England can’t be Real True Christians, but somehow I think Ray-Ray would feel more comfortable touring the cathedral and eating in their restaurant than doing anything with or for the poor.

  • aunursa

    The question asking fans to choose an actor to play Nicolae was posted on Tuesday.  Now the Left Behind fans are helping to make a decision that’s much more important: whether Ashley Tisdale should be a blonde  (Chloe in the book) or a brunette (Chloe in the original movies.)  There’s considerably more interest in this question; it’s only been out for six hours, and there are already a hundred more responses than for Nicolae.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Do they even know Barack Obama isn’t an actor? :O

    I know! People, Barack Obama is a character portrayed by Fred Savage.

  • Magic_Cracker

    You know, I also assumed that for Fundegelicals “worldly” meant diddling daddles (as well as daddling diddles, diddling diddles, daddling daddles, etc.). I had no idea the term was so inclusive as to exclude pretty much all of everything.

  • While acknowledging the validity in Fred’s arguments, I’m going to suggest something a lot simpler to explain Nicolae’s not-especially-evil evil plan. It’s nothing more complex than a writing fallacy, one that’s so common in dystopian literature that I don’t even notice it anymore.

    A hallmark of the immature writer is a villain who simply represents everything the author hates. It doesn’t matter if those traits make sense together, or if the villain’s motivations make sense. That’s just the way it is. In dystopic novels with political themes (a very robust subgenre), this applies to the evil ruling body. The government (or corporation, or church, or whatever) supports whatever policies the author opposes, even if those policies make no sense in the context of the story. After all, those policies are the point of the story.

    The only thing that’s surprising is that this sort of thing would appear in a novel produced by an alleged professional. Just goes to show how far you can make it in Christian literature without ever honing your craft.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Is there a term for the antagonist equivalent of a Mary Sue? If not, I suggest Barry Boo.

  • I do not like you, Rayford Steele
    I do not like the way you feel.
    You say you want to do some good.
    I wish you would! I wish you would!
    You sit there while the Antichrist
    Does many things that are not nice
    The plane goes up, the plane goes down,
    Why don’t you crash it in the ground?!

  • DavidCheatham

    He professed no faith, no acrimony toward Carpathia from a spiritual standpoint. The man had committed first-degree murder, and regardless of what Buck thought about the victim, it was a crime.

    So, in other words, the evil dictator of the entire world, who rules by mind-control and has murdered millions of people, is _not actually evil enough to assassinate_ by normal people. It’s only okay if you really know he’s the anti-Christ. That, and only that, would possibly make it understandable. There’s no _secular_ justification for stopping Nikky.

    You know, we can ignore all the completely horrible writing and utterly absurd plotting that is just used to move people around, and the complete lack of characterization…well, whatever. That’s poor writing.

    But here, as we hear the non-evil plans of Nikky, the writers have managed to fail at something that a 10 year-old can manage: Imagining some sort of motive and goals for evil people.

    Or, in fact, for good people! To the extent that the viewpoint characters can be called ‘good people’. (I accidentally called them the protagonists in that sentence, but luckily caught it before I posted.)

    Anyone can fail at writing, but it takes a special kind of misunderstanding of the world to fail at imagining what other people might conceivable want. And I don’t mean _real_ people, I mean _people you yourself have invented_.

    And this isn’t just the normal ‘Hey, the bad guy’s plan doesn’t actually work.’ Fridge Logic that sometimes shows up. That’s a writing mistake, although it’s true here (At least if Nikky knows he’s the anti-Christ.), it’s a common mistake.

    No, they’ve managed to go well past that, to create bad guys that switch rapidly between nuking entire cities and slightly raising taxes! That switch between mind controlling the entire fricking planet, and signing peace treaties for no reason. That put in oil pipelines…because…evil?!

    This is like if Voldemort comes back and the very first thing he does is lobby for England to host the Olympics. It’s like if there was  a subplot in Lord of the Rings where Sauron cheated his way into a dance competition. It’s like if The Nothing decided that, in addition to erasing anything and everything, it was going to set up better cell service in Fantasia.

    I can’t…that’s not even a thing that makes any sense at all.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Your poem got me thinking, how would Homer immortalize Rayford?

    Sing, Muse, of the man of gripes and snipes,
    He sat flat-assed in his pilot seat while the world beneath him burned…

  • Edo

    I’m pretty sure it *wasn’t* about nonattachment. 1st-century antiquity was familiar with comparable ideas in Stoicism and Cynicism, but Christianity was distinguishing itself from them at least the Gospel of Mark, if not Jesus himself – and for Jesus and the Twelve, separateness is in terms of Second Temple Judaism: it’s about religious identity, Israel’s chosen status and relation to God, and (as Fred’s fond of writing about, regarding Peter’s vision in Acts) codes of purity and contamination.

    (And it DID result in coldness and aloofness. That’s why the parable of the Good Samaritan involves a priest and a Levite: their coldness was BECAUSE of their purity, not despite it.)

    I think your last paragraph nails it, though. Christian asceticism at its best is about discipline: cultivating virtues and creating spaces to learn a certain freedom from concern, the better to keep your eyes on the goal and run the race with Paul.

  • Random_Lurker

     Willem Dafoe

  • AnonymousSam

     … Now I’d like to see a book of AntiSeuss poems.

    And at that very instant we heard a klupp-klupp
    of feet on Wallstreet and the AntiChrist klupped up!
    The boys in the UN had made him one too!
    In his fist was a non-nuclear Big-Boy Boomeroo!
    “I’ll blow you,” he yelled, “into pork and wee beans!”
    “Please do,” the readers said. “Advance this plot, please.”

  • Edo

    It’s like Lex Luthor stealing forty cakes?

  • Magic_Cracker

    It’s like if there was  a subplot in Lord of the Rings where Sauron cheated his way into a dance competition.

    What do you think that Tom Bombadil stuff was about, bro?

  • Dmoore970

    Bingo!  I think someone hit the nail on the head last week about Carpathia.  His program consists of a modest tax on fuel consumption used to fund development in poor countries instead of something more diabolical because it allows them to respond to liberals proposals to tax fuel consumption and give aid to poor countries as the emodiment of all evil.  If he did something really diabolical, they would have to admit that, even if they oppose redistributionist taxation, it really does not rank all that high on the total depravity scale.

    The same, I imagine, with showing Carpathia’s sexual depravity by having him (gasp!) live with a woman he is not married to.  It allows them to feel so superior to the countless cohabiting couples these days.  If he did something really depraved, it would be hard to argue that non-marital cohabitation was all that evil on the total scale.

    The nuking entire cities, I suppose, is thrown in for gratuitous evil.  Then you can think, foreign aid today, nuking cities tomorrow.

  • Lori

    I know logically that it’s not possible that every single person who posts on that board is smoking crack, and yet….

  • P J Evans

     I don’t think I want to know. Plaster bunnies and geese with ribbons around their necks is the first thing that comes to minds. (Plastic-canvas needlepoint tissue-box covers is another one.)

  • Lori


    Do you need to worry about career-furthering roles after being elected US President for the second time?   

    Not generally, but at least in Obama’s case you have to worry about life-furthering roles. He’s got more than enough nutters wanting to kill him as it is. No need to add more folks who can’t separate fact from fiction.

  • Willem “Scary Eyes” Dafoe would be an excellent Antichrist…were it not for the fact it would be painfully *obvious*. 

  • It’s tempting to think Carpathia’s plans have some kind of overarching sense, but it’s just our brains turning vases into faces. It’s a list of pet peeves and then mass death.

    Kind of like throwing a dinner party and exclaiming, “It can’t all be finger food!” and dumping a six pound roast in the middle of the table.

  • Good post. It seems like some Christians think their goal should be to NOT SIN (and I used to think that too). But now I think being a Christian should be about loving and helping others- especially those who are different from us. Interactions with people (especially across cultural differences) open up the possibility of misunderstanding/hurting each other- oh no, that’s sin! But it’s certainly better than focusing on just trying to isolate oneself and “not sin.”

  • I wonder if they’ll make an exception to the rule that says only 10 years of Secret Service protection after a Presidency, rather than for life, just in case, y’know.

  • I like the theory that “Carpathia is total evil, so he should do the things that the American Taliban opposes to prove how evil those things are”, but I’ll offer one more alternative explanation:

    Tim LeHay can’t have Carpathia performing any inspired acts of evil, because then the readers will ask “how did you come up with such evil schemes for Carpathia?” Imagination is viewed as suspect at best in such a culture, so the only way LeHay could write such evil plans is if he too held evil in his heart!

    Jerry Jenkins didn’t write such things because Jerry’s brain was replaced with sawdust and gravel in 1986, and has been working with regular oil changes every six months or 600,000 words. 

  • I think it would be interesting to have Nicolae played by two separate actors.

    One would be dynamic, charming, and handsome, the other would be…well, not.  There are a few ways* you could go with the other Nicolae.

    The point is, the dynamic, charming, and handsome actor would portray Nicolae as he’s seen by the unsaved.  The other would be Nicolae as he’s seen by those who have been saved.

    You could go with one actor who’s able to pull of two very different performances in one movie, and then do some make up/FX to subtly alter his appearance, but I think it would be more effective to have two actors to create a more marked contrast.

    *I actually think the “Nicolae as seen  by RTCs” role would be interesting if it were filled by Keanu Reeves at his most wooden.  Being sort of bland, blank, and non-threatening underneath the façade, especially given that despite his non-descript nature he’s engaging in acts of supreme evil, would be an interesting take, perhaps providing a powerful example of the banality of evil.

  • P J Evans

     They passed a law in January that restores lifetime protection. Because yeah. It covers Shrub, also.

  • Lori

    I’m hoping that after he’s been out of office for 10 years the need will have more or less gone away, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it doesn’t and an exception does have to be made. 

  • Haley Joel Osment, for Nicky!
    Christian Bale, for Rayford!
    Philip Seymour Hoffman, for our intrepid reporter

  • aunursa

    I’m glad to hear that the lifetime protection has been reinstated.  I never understood why it had been limited to ten years in the first place.  I would not be surprised if there are many, many deranged people who are obsessed with harming either President Obama or former President Bush, and the passage of ten years may not ease their zeal.

  • reynard61

    “Such impudence, sire! If I could only reach him!”

    Or this gem from Robin Hood: Men in Tights!: “So it’s come to this, has it? A fight to the death, mano a mano, man to man, just you and me and my…*GUARDS!!!*”

  • Kind of like throwing a dinner party and exclaiming, “It can’t all be
    finger food!” and dumping a six pound roast in the middle of the table.

    (Wait, what was that “finger food” again?)

  • aunursa

    Reminds me of Cary Elwes’ more famous role…

    “So you mean, you’ll put down your rock and I’ll put down my sword and we’ll try to kill each other like civilized men?”

  • I think the movie should mess with their heads and make Chloe a redhead.

    Then again, isn’t red hair a sign of witchcraft?


    Apparently the 10-year limit was passed in 1994 and would apply to Presidents sworn in after 1997.

    Probably some cheap penny-pinching measure passed by the Republicans to look like they were cutting “wasteful programs”.

    The Secret Service does not divulge the costs of its protective details, but it’s believed to be in the range of tens of millions of dollars a year for each former president.

    Oh, puh-LEASE. That’s a rounding error in a trillion-plus dollar budget. Given that the Secret Service has files on probably a thousand-plus people stupid enough, or reckless enough, to present themselves as actual dangers to the person of the US President, the money spent is probably worth it for general peace of mind all around.

  • aunursa

    Aside from a couple of requests for redhead, it’s split almost evenly between blonde and brunette.  About one out of every ten comments says it should be blonde because the movie must remain faithful to the book and that was her hair color in the book.  A few even said blonde even though they agreed with the general consensus that she looks better as a brunette.

  • arcseconds

    I’m not sure the writers worry too much about putting co-habitation and tax adjustment into perspective.  If that was the concern, the nuking entire cities would already be a problem.  

    The rest of your post sounds right, though.  I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in your last remark: rather than worrying the readers might notice the gap between co-habitation and mass destruction and murder, the point is really to collapse the distinction.

    The very reason for the books is to preach.  There’s not much point in preaching against serial rapists, because everyone, including non-RTCs, is already very much against them.

    The books are to a large extent about encouraging the readers in their RTC norms.  Portraying co-habitation and tax adjustment as things moral monsters do acts as both a carrot and a stick.  If you do these things (or approve of them, or not disapprove of them enough) then you’re in league with moral monsters.  If you refrain from and condemn then, though, you’re morally superior to the hoi polloi who just go along with these things.

  • aunursa

    If the law limiting protection was passed in 1994, then presumably it was signed into law by President Clinton.  (I could find no indication that the law was passed over a presidential veto.)  And the Democrats controlled Congress in 1994.  So this is not a law cannot be blamed on Republican penny-pinching.

  • reynard61

    “Do they even know Barack Obama isn’t an actor? :O”

    They know that he’s black, a Democrat and an IslamoNaziFasciSocialiCommunist. I doubt that acting ability (or lack thereof) factors into it.

  •  You, sir, have grasped the Christ part of Christian, and have not gotten lost somewhere along the way past several other, more qualified but less qualifying, adjectives. (Real, True, Bible-believing, God-fearing, mix and match your favorites!)

  • MaryKaye

    I got to see the Secret Service protecting an ex-President a few years ago:  my department put up a big outdoors tent for a dedication ceremony attended by President Carter, and we unexpectedly got to see the Secret Service agents clinging to the tent polls to keep the whole thing from blowing away in a high wind.   They did a great job–very quick to act.  (I don’t suppose they were happy with us afterwards!)

  • Ken

    The only possible choice for Nicolae is Robert Redford. 

  • Persia


    But none of them look like a young Robert Redford!

  • aunursa

    At least Leo is the Robert Redford of our time.

  • That list makes me…incredibly full of chuckles.

  • Most of the names people are throwing around for Carpathia are too old – my first thought was Julian McMahon. Not sure if they’d want him since he already played Dr. Doom and he might now be too old himself, but I could totally see him in the role.