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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  • They don’t NEED to, they have enough money to have people do that for them!  Because of how not worldly they are!

  • Yeah, this is very much “I’ll get together with all the cool kids & listen to rock & roll & party hard forever, down in Hell.”

    Which is another peril of making up stories of arbitrary good & evil; you’ll make a heaven of your hell, & a hell of your heaven.

  • Hmmm…now this whole “Joss Whedon does Left Behind” is stuck in my head.  I swear we’ve done this mental exercise before, but I figure there are two ways to go about this–the serious way or the parody way.

    Serious way:

    Rayford: Nathan Fillion
    Buck: Enver Gjokaj
    Chloe: Jewel Staite
    Hattie: Christina Hendricks (or Amy Acker)
    Nicolae Carpathia: Tahmoh Penikett
    Tsion Ben-Judah: not sure.  Anthony Head?
    David Hassid: Fran Kranz
    Leon Fortunato: Alan Tudyk
    Bruce Barnes: Harry Lennix
    Amanda White Steele: Olivia Williams
    Annie Christopher: Eliza Dushku

  • Persia

    Enver might be able to pull off Carpathia better than Tahmoh Penikett, actually. Enver seemed to have more range.

  • banancat

    I’ve always viewed the fundagelical avoidance of the world as being on the same level as “Well, I don’t care that you didn’t invite me to your party because I didn’t want to go anyway!”  They’re so worried about not fitting in that they act like they’re just so superior to begin with.

  • Nicolae Carpathia: Tahmoh Penikett

    Oh, now. You can’t make Helo Agathon the Antichrist. There’s like, a law against that or something. :P

  • You hush.  He’s gorgeous, the right age, and he can play both evil and good.

    He’s perfect. 

  • It’s like Lex Luthor stealing forty cakes?

    And that’s terrible.

  • Starbeam

    I usually just see them called “Villain Sue”, alas. There are plenty of varieties now and “Sue” is considered a sort of catch-all (often gender-neutral) term.

  • phoenix_feather

    Lately I’ve been picturing Ryan Gosling as Nicolae Carpathia.  Although Neal Patrick Harris would probably be amazing too.  

    This is so ridiculous I’m still waiting for someone to jump out and reveal this whole movie as a hoax.

  • P J Evans

    Who was it who said ‘Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company’?

  • Lunch Meat

    I was TOTALLY thinking of Alan Tudyk as Leon Fortunato. You read my mind!

    (I’m pretty sure “Joss Whedon does X” is in the headcanon of at least one fan of any work. Just because it’s so fun to imagine.)

  • Lunch Meat

    Oh, and Mark Sheppard as Dirk Burton.

  • *thumbs up*

  • He IS gorgeous, I’ll give you that, but – he’s Helo. I mean, one of the few guys on BSG who had a conscience about the Cylons before it became fashionable for Laura Roslin to have one. :P

  •  But remember, Tim LaHaye has gone on record saying that Obama could not be the Antichrist, because the Antichrist can not possibly rise to power in an Important country like America, as scripture dictates that he will rise to power in some obscure country “no one” knows much about, “like Romania”

  • Alan Tudyk as Supreme Commander Leon? Well, he’s the kinda guy who could probably believably act as the butt monkey when called upon. 

  •  As many as four tens and terrible?


    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.

    My god… It’s the anti-NABA

  • Like so many other wonderful sayings, I think Twain.

  • Have you seen Season 4 of Castle?  :D

  • Makabit

    Barack Obama looks nothing like a young Robert Redford. 

    Then again, as I have stated before, I want Neil Patrick Harris to play Nicolae, and except for being blond, he’s not much closer.

  • Makabit

    “despite the fact it is very funny, Jesus getting shot down by a laser is not supported by my faith”
    I know what all those words mean individually, but I still have no idea what this statement means. It still makes me laugh, though.

  • Makabit

    “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.”
    He’ll forget. Bush was supposed to do that too. They never remember in time.

  • AnonymousSam

    To be fair, I was one of the crowd fearing that out of GWB. In the wake of the PATRIOT Act, anything, no matter how unConstitutional, seemed possible from that son of clay.

  • In one of the prequels, Leon tells Nicolae about how he got expelled from his Catholic university for strutting around campus in a cardinal’s vestments.  Completely ridiculous and over-the-top, but I bet Tudyk could make it sound utterly believable and hilarious.

  • AnonymousSam

    Completely off topic, but am I the only one who thinks Survivor is a distillation of all the worst traits of human behavior? It’s on the TV in the other room and all I can think is “intimidation, greed, lying, betrayal, corruption, misogyny, degredation and all glory to entropic processes. I have bingo!”

  • I believe the theory was, no lie, “C’mon. No one seriously expected Carter to still be around this long. These secret service guys cost taxpayer money!”

    (Only 7 presidents have had retirements much longer than 20 years, two of  them are the ones who are alive now, and a third is Gerald Ford. Of the 11 presidents who lived past 80, 7 were twentieth century presidents, and Ronald Reagan lived the second-longest of any president while suffering from a chronic, degenerative, life-shortening illness)

  • Noooo. But apparently he’s a bad guy? Dayum.

  • ohiolibrarian

     Presidents can’t all be William Henry Harrison.

  • Well, it’s not a spoiler, because the minute you see him, you know.  But yeah, cool character.  Worth a watch.

    (He’s also going to be in the new Superman movie, but no idea if he’s on the side of good or not-so-good.)

  • Steve Morrison

     It was Twain, all right. There’s a good resource site called Twainquotes(dot)(com), although I can’t link to it from here because Disqus.

  • Lindenharp

     My favorite expression of that sentiment is from a 13th c.French poem:

    “But in Hell will I go. For to Hell go the fair clerks and the fair
    knights who are slain in the tourney and in the great wars, and the
    stout archer and the loyal man. With them will I go. And there go the
    fair and courteous ladies, who have friends, two or three, together with
    their wedded lords. And there pass the gold and the silver, the ermine
    and all rich furs, harpers and minstrels, and the happy of the world.
    With these will I go, so only that I have Nicolette, my very sweet
    friend, by my side.”

  • Rae

    Funny you should mention Keanu Reeves, I’m watching Constantine on TV right now, but I can see that!

  • Rae

    I’m totally in favor of Nic Cage playing both Rayford and Nicolae! Think of the budget it’ll save!

  • Hm, the character he’s playing is called “Henry Ackerdson,” which is a new one on me, though I’m reminded by IMDb that in the recent animated movie Justice League:  Doom, that was the alias used by Metallo, who’s decidedly on the not-so-good side.

    That’s not the name typically associated with Metallo, though – usually it’s either John Corben, Roger Corben, or George Grant, depending on the version of the character. 

    So I’m not sure what that means.

    Interestingly enough, his BSG co-star, Alessandro Juliani, who played Gaeta, is also in the new movie.  Juliani was on Smallville as Emil Hamilton, a character who also appears in the new movie, but is being portrayed by Richard Schiff.

    (Looks at IMDb entry some more)  Wait…Nadira?  But no Az-Rel?  Hmmph.  At least it’s Faora this time, though hopefully she’s like the Faora from the comics, and isn’t just some pale imitation of Faora the way Ursa was.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Bank accounts aren’t of the world! They’re a gift from God to make handling God’s blessings of wealth easier! /snark

  • P J Evans

     The problem is that Alzheimer’s isn’t really a life-shortening illness. People usually die from something else first.

  • RavenOnTheHill

    Quick! Get this man a copy of the Evil Overlord’s Handbook!

  • AnonymousSam

    Peter Stormare played a pretty spiffy Satan too.

  • Deni zen

    When I read the books I always imagined Carpathia played by Josh Lucas, and oddly enough Leo Fortunato played by TV’s Frank from Mystery Science 3000. 

    Rayford Steele was played by David Morse (probably because of his role in the Langoliers where he played a different pilot on aboard a plane where half the passengers disappeared). I also imagined him with a beard. 

  • lawrence090469

    Fred, I love your blog. I read it every day. Your theology is what my theology was, when I still had it. I am an atheist now. Unlike some of my esteemed fellow travelers in the New Atheist movement, I know you are my ally and not my enemy.  

  • No, Rayford’s beard got raptured, remember?

  • Vermic

    The Whedon stable is fine and all, but what I really want to see is Left Behind as portrayed by the cast, or at least characters, of Community.

    You get Joel McHale as the snarky, frequently shirtless Nicolae Carpathia, and Jim Rash as his adoring toady Leon Fortunato.  Chevy Chase is the perfect fit for Captain Rayford Steele, the insensitive jackass who thinks he’s still under 40.  Danny Pudi is “Buck” Williams, whose reporting skills are matched only by his inability to relate to other humans.  Alison Brie is Chloe, Gillian Jacobs is Hattie, and Yvette Nicole Brown adds some much-needed depth to the character of Loretta.  Donald Glover plays Pastor Bruce because that way he gets another role with the last name of Barnes; also biblical exposition is much easier to sit through when it’s delivered in rap format.

    Ken Jeong will be Jesus.

  • Fanatic-Templar

     I want Arnold Swarzenegger as Nicolae, George Clooney as Rayford Steele, Chris O’Donnel as Buck, Uma Thurman as Hattie Durham, Alicia Silverstone as Chloe and Michael Gough as Bruce Barnes.

    And the movie should have a heavy emphasis on neon for its aesthetic.

  • Fanraeth

    I’m about to link to TV Tropes. In the words of the Doctor, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

  • Jenny Islander

    Re Christian asceticism: I recommend Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster for a pithy summary of how non-RTCs of the past tried to be in the world but not of it.  The lifestyle the book recommends would appall Rayford and Buck.

  • Nomuse

    Eh, why stop there?  We used to have a tradition of trying to cast a vehicle using only Looney Tunes characters.  (Evita — Elmer Fudd as Juan Perrone, Daffy as Che, and of course the only possible Toon who could carry off the dress and the dance, Bugs as Evita.)

    Only trouble is, I kind of see Foghorn Leghorn as both Ray and Buck.  For some reason I sorta see Egghead, Jr. as Chaim — he has that combination of well-intentioned earnestness, unworldliness, and intelligence. 

  • Matri

    I was going to suggest Wile E as Nicky, but then realized that would mean he’d be far more competent and evil than the book.

  • christopher_y

    Nicolae must be played by John Simm. The rest is negotiable.