Nicolas Cage‘s Left Behind, which we reviewed recently here, occupies that strange netherworld in Christian thinking where most Christian movies go to die: the forcedly-happy but increasingly-surreal land of Wish-It-Was. I want to train a spotlight on that land today because it is Christians’ desire to live there instead of the real world is what makes Christian movies so unendingly and cringe-inducingly awful. Worst of all, that desire reveals quite a few things about modern Christianity that aren’t really very loving or even complimentary about them as a group.
This movie should be a rank embarrassment–like most Christian movies would be if Christians as a group had an iota of shame. It should join every single Kirk Cameron effort and every single science-denying apologist-dribble of a movie made in the same folder where writers keep their crackiest space-princess fics, the ones they’ll never show anybody because oh my god it’s just too embarrassing to think about. And you know that every writer’s got one of those fics squirreled away somewhere that they’ve just got too much dignity and pride to reveal to anyone.
And the worst part is, Left Behind isn’t really even that bad compared to the other Christian movies I’ve seen.
That really is the worst part.
I mean, as I said last time, it sure isn’t awesome. It’s pedantic, poorly-paced, and who even knows how to discuss the narrative structure of a movie that entirely lacks narrative structure. There really isn’t a plot, and the stuff that happens in it is beyond ludicrous and unbelievable. Characters in this movie don’t act like people are supposed to act, and planes and control towers don’t work the way this movie thinks they work–and neither does society. On that note, I found some of the sexist and racist overtones offensive and uncomfortable. And aside from a heroically feisty performance from the actress playing the daughter, Chloe, and a few other standouts among the plane passengers, most of the acting could be generously termed “sub-par”–particularly that of Nic Cage, who really seems tranquilized for almost all of his scenes. So there’s a lot to criticize.
But all that aside, it really isn’t that inept of a movie compared to the others in the Christian-movie universe. I enjoyed this movie–as little as I did enjoy it–ten times more than I enjoyed the almost-completely-abhorrent God’s Not Dead, which we also reviewed at length across several posts not long ago. It’s a disaster movie wrapped up in a religious sermon, a shaking finger directed at audiences’ noses and a stern lecture about what heathens will face if we keep disobeying Christians’ admonitions to bend knee before it’s too late.
Indeed, like most Christian movies, this one is more of a sermon than anything else. The actor playing the Muslim passenger did an interview in which he openly expressed his hope that the movie would “plant a seed” in non-believers’ minds, which is Christianese for him hoping his movie will contribute to someone’s conversion one day. Variety reports that a large advertisement for the movie actually pretended to be written by Satan, asking Christians to please not bring non-believers to see it–to which one may only make two observations: first, that Christians sure do seem to know an awful lot about exactly what Satan thinks, and second, it’s interesting to note that the movie’s creators seem well aware of the fact that their movie is actually a religious tract rather than a story–like its brethren like God’s Not Dead.
Indeed, Christians are well aware of the marketing around these movies. The official website of Left Behind pushes this opportunistic idea nonstop, with numerous quotes from fans repeatedly suggesting that the movie be used as part of an overall campaign to convert non-believers.
It’s a very dishonest sermon, though. It claims to aim at non-believers and all of its marketing appears to reinforce that idea, but it’s about the least persuasive sermon I’ve ever seen. If this movie were aimed at non-believers, I’d expect it to be more persuasive than a campfire ghost story. Instead, it plays to every single trope that fundagelicals believe about the world. I’d also expect marketing and advertisements that asked non-believers to buy tickets and sit through its runtime, but no, everything I’ve seen has taken for granted that its sole target demographic is fundagelicals.
I wasn’t the only person who noticed that discrepancy. I went through every one of those quotes on the official site that I linked here, and I didn’t see anything from an actual non-believer who’d seen the movie and converted as a result. Hell, there is nothing there from non-believers who saw it and were now somewhat more inclined toward belief. I’d suppose that if anybody’d expressed that sentiment, the movie’s creators would be all over that testimonial like ugly on apes, but such declarations are curiously absent from the movie’s website. Now that the movie’s been out for a while, I’d have expected to have seen someone convert because of it, but no, nobody seems to have. I’d be pretty suspicious if I ever did run into someone making that claim at this point.
I’ve seen a number of reviews from other non-believers, as well, and not a single one of them involved a single whisper of breathless anxiety about being wrong about Christianity, or even a yearning desire to hear more about Christianity as a result of this movie. Almost to a person, they think about the same thing about the movie that I did: not 100% hideous, but rather silly and far-fetched with piss-poor acting, nonsensical pacing and plotting, and bizarrely offensive stereotyping. And definitely not even the faintest bit persuasive–largely because its entire plot is “OMG THIS WILL BE SOOOOOO SCARY Y’ALL! DO YOU BELIEVE NOW????”
That’s par for the course, though, with Christian movies; the people who make these little sermons preach beautifully to the choir, who understand and perceive all the movies’ little dog-whistles and talking-points, but everyone outside the choirloft is left wondering what all the fiendish, fervent admiration is about. That’s because non-believers don’t tend to understand the worldview of fundagelical Christianity and don’t buy into its same wishful thinking and wish-fulfillment fantasizing. And all the while, the believers can keep pretending that these odes to faith–which again are built entirely to suit them, to play to their ideals and their misconceptions about the world–are meant to convert anybody. Christians put their entire faith system into making these movies, to the extent of getting really grumpy if anybody involved is even rumored or suspected of not being a TRUE CHRISTIAN™–because these aren’t movies; they’re sermons, and there isn’t much that gets fundagelicals’ panties in a wad as much as the mere idea that one of their preachers isn’t totally gung-ho about something being preached.
This isn’t just a movie. It’s a reflection of their dearest, deepest, closest-held (and nastiest) beliefs and a statement about how they view the world and their place in it. So anybody who criticizes these bits of thin, lumpy gruel is seen as criticizing Christianity itself–and gets attacked appropriately. The only response to a sermon such Christians can accept is repentant tears and a sobbed Sinner’s Prayer. They literally can’t separate the message being preached from the medium preaching it–and they’d even never want to try.
A World Where Dreams Come True.
As I wrote about God’s Not Dead back then, these movies are reflections of what today’s fundagelical Christians really want the universe to look like: a universe where they win their battles, where their god really does stuff that can be materially measured and seen, where their Bible really does accurately depict reality, where miracles really do happen, where non-believers can be converted with an easy argument, and where the Rapture is a real live thing that could possibly happen.
On the face of it, the Rapture may well be one of the most nonsensical ideas to come out of a Christian movement marked by face-palmingly nonsensical ideas. For the uninitiated (both of you), the idea goes like this: Just before the shit hits the fan, Jesus will summon to Heaven all the living TRUE CHRISTIANS™. They’ll just vanish, leaving behind their clothing, and fly up into the air to join him. The world will go to Hell in a handbasket, culminating in a huge world war which Jesus will of course win. There’s a bit more to it than that, with a lot of arguing back and forth between Christians about exactly when the Rapture will start (well before the shit hits the fan? Or after? Or during), what form the fan-hitting will take and who’ll start it, whether or not children will get a free pass (some say yes, others no), and details like those. And oh my, the diagrams these people make! If you ever get a chance to peek inside a fundagelical’s Rapture folder, do it. You will thank me later for tipping you off about the diagrams.
Over the years, the Rapture has gone from a weird-ass fringe belief to something taken utterly for granted in fundagelical circles, with Rapture scares regularly pinging the religious world’s radar. Nowadays there is a Rapture scare in operation pretty much at any given time, with the current one being the last bit of the laughably inept so-called ‘Blood Moon’ scare.
With one debunked scare following the next, you’d think Christians would make the connection, but nobody ever accused them of having that kind of awareness. When I converted–as a result of the “88 Reasons” Rapture scare in the 1980s–I literally had no idea that there had ever been any others before that one. Finding out just how many there’d been was a major problem for me at the time; I was really disappointed that none of the older folks in my church had said anything to temper the younger parishioners’ over-excitement. Nowadays it takes a rather self-indulgent level of enforced ignorance to avoid coming into contact with previous scares, thanks to the internet and to increased attention paid to the various charlatans and conjobs in
the Christian entertainment industry ministry.
Of course, in movies like Left Behind, everybody is totally clueless about what’s happened when all the children and TRUE CHRISTIANS™ vanish. In fact, I don’t think anybody actually says the word “Rapture” at any point, though a preacher refers to the Bible verse about it. I found this reluctance to use the R-word jarring in the extreme, but I guess they did it to avoid connecting with the previous scares that their claimed target audience–non-believers–would remember. The problem is, I have a lot of trouble believing that if a Rapture-like event occurred, everybody “left behind” wouldn’t be frantically screaming about Rapture in the streets.
In that vein, Chloe, her brother, and her dad have been subjected to Mrs. Steele’s constant, unending proselytizing for ages now and not one of them seems to know about the Rapture; when the brother and Mrs. Steele vanish, neither Chloe nor Rayford (Nic Cage’s character, the pilot) seem to have the faintest idea what’s happening for quite a while. The pastor who alone of his congregation has been “left behind” knows, yes, but even he doesn’t use the R-word. Why not? It’s a curious and weird omission.
But if you think that omission is bad, what Left Behind does to society is even worse.
Look, we know that the Christians who buy into Rapture theology also tend to think that almost nobody in society is a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. The Bible goes out of its way to tell believers that nobody–not even believers–should feel safe in their election. Out of a city of millions, only the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are going–so that would mean what, a few tens of thousands adults plus the kids?
Would the loss of so few people really make society totally disintegrate?
Would riots and looting break out if people realized their kids were missing en masse? I don’t think so. I think parents would be looking for their kids, not stealing electronics and robbing lawyers. Left Behind acts like there’d be so many people gone that everything would fall apart, but by its own theology most of the rest of us would barely notice. It acts like a fairly sharp and skeptical character like Chloe can feel her brother vanish from her very arms and still get sent by the script all over town to look for him because she just can’t accept that he was teleported away–and still never connect the dots with the preaching her mother has been doing all this time.
No, the reason all that craziness breaks out is because Christians really believe, deep down, that only their presence is saving the rest of us from our own darkest urges. They want to gloat and feel smug about how things will go to shit once they and their civilizing influence are gone. Once Daddy and Mommy leave, Junior throws a house party, right? I realize they are ignoring with all their might evidence from secular nations that the fewer religious nuts a country has, the more functional and happy it is on a variety of measures, but non-Christians tend to be well aware of those correlations. Alas, those correlations exist in the real world. In Christian-Movie-Land, any country that doesn’t put “God” front and center will suffer hugely when Christianity falters.
“See? See? YOU NEEDED US,” they can say, pointing to this movie, “if we do say so ourselves.”
“You’ll see how much you need us once we’re gone.”
“You’ll get what’s coming to you, but by the time you realize how wrong you were, it’ll be too late.”
Yes. This sermon is actually a thinly-disguised revenge fantasy meant for Christians to revel in.
It’s a very ugly fantasy–the demonstration of a very broken psyche on display in the lewdest possible manner–and though the movie itself isn’t a critical masterpiece, seeing that fantasy marched across a screen for that runtime made me feel like I was reading some Nice Guy’s short story about his revenge on all those high school girls who rejected him long ago. It was exactly that obvious and disquieting to see this movie and think, Yikes, this is what they really think of us.
As this Christian says it so eloquently, Christians who get really into the Rapture are missing the whole point of loving one’s neighbor–and missing the whole point of their religion. It’s not a “Get Out of Fan-Hitting Free” card; it’s supposed to be about love and self-sacrifice (but what about those statements above sounds loving or self-sacrificing?). And one wonders exactly why they think that this would be the one time their god reached down and saved them from persecution and trouble. There’s an inherent narcissism involved in becoming a Rapture enthusiast. But in movies like this one, that troubling narcissism gets put front and center stage for everyone to see–and then it is celebrated.
I think if the Rapture really happened, most of the world wouldn’t even notice. As this forum’s members discuss, I don’t think there’d be enough Christians taken for anybody to really notice or for any social systems to break down. TRUE CHRISTIANS™ don’t seem like they’re in great abundance in law enforcement, medicine, education, or government. Moreover, even from that limited group of self-proclaimed TRUE CHRISTIANS™, by the rules that such Christians themselves have set forth about who would be going and who wouldn’t, even by Left Behind’s wonky theology and eschatology (that’s Christianese for “the study of the end of the world”), hardly anybody in that group would qualify.
But who cares about reality?
Christians would rather pat each other on the backs about this movie and nod sagely to each other about how it “makes you think,” feel happy that they’re ready to be Raptured or deliciously anxious about feeling un-ready, and discuss loftily how they hope it saves souls. And when it fails utterly to do so, they will blame us, not themselves, for that failure–all while leaping onto the next big trendy Rapture scare. If Jesus were real, would he turn over the projector like he did the money-changers’ tables? I think he would. Christians should be ashamed, not proud, of movies like these because of what they say about non-believers, about Christians themselves, and about the disconnect between the fundagelical worldview and reality.
We’re going to talk about that tendency of theirs to preach about love from one corner of their mouths while spewing fearmongering hate out of the other, but for now, I just want to say that the only thinking this movie made me do is about how glad I am to get far away from a religion that bought into this idea–and how sad I am for those still trapped in it. Living in fear while pretending to be joyous is one of the worst, most soul-crushing ways to go through one’s days that I can possibly imagine.
But more and more of us are finding out way out of that pit.