L.B.: Welcome to the Hellmouth

L.B.: Welcome to the Hellmouth December 8, 2003

I must apologize for the extended pause in our journey through the world of Left Behind. Dwelling in this abysmal novel is like working with lead paint — one needs the occasional break to avoid the dangers of prolonged exposure.

I have, as a kind of antidote, been re-reading Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This is a whipsmart book that I hope will serve as a prophylactic against the potential intellect-eroding effects of LaHaye and Jenkins’ stupefying work.

But why take the risk at all? Why expose myself and the readers of this blog to the potentially toxic foolishness of Left Behind?

Because LB is more than simply a wretched novel. It is a wretched novel with serious consequences. It is, among other things, an assault on the central beliefs of the Christian faith, as Mennonite theologian Loren L. Johns writes:

At the end of the day, this series is ultimately a rejection of the good news of Jesus Christ. I say this because it rejects the way of the cross and Jesus’ call to obedient discipleship and a new way of life. It celebrates the human will to power, putting evangelical Christians in the heroic role of God’s Green Berets. In this story, premillennialist dispensationalism meets American survivalism. This is a story about so-called Christian men who never really grew up, who still love to play with toys and dominate others, and whose passions are still largely unredeemed. Love of enemies is treated as a misguided strategy associated not with the gospel, but with the Antichrist. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have the right to offer any kind of interpretation of Christianity and of the end times that they wish. Ultimately, it is not their interpretation of the end times that troubles me so much as their interpretation of Christianity. It is devoid of any real theology, or substantial Christology, or any ethics that are recognizably Christian. This is a vision of unredeemed Christianity.

That’s dead on, but I think Johns is still too sanguine about L&J’s interpretation of “the end times.” Their twisted eschatology co-opts and corrupts all that the Gospels have to say about the kingdom of God. This is the very “pearl of great price” — not a peripheral piece of adiaphora.

But please don’t think of all this as a simple for-Christians-only intramural struggle affecting only the church and those within it. L&J present a political perspective that is every bit as corrosive as their theological views. And that political perspective is being read and absorbed by millions of Americans.

The political impact of L&J’s brand of dispensationalism is difficult to measure and difficult to overstate. It affects people’s attitudes toward religious pluralism, multilateral and international institutions, diplomacy and peacemaking. To give one specific example, adherents of L&J’s apocalyptic worldview are vocally opposed to the “road map” peace initiative in the Middle East. At a very basic level, this worldview opposes and undermines any long-term thinking, any sustained effort to make the world a better place — replacing the hope of redemption with a perverse longing for apocalypse.

As such, L&J ultimately are like any given set of villains from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They want to open the Hellmouth and bring about the end of the world. Stopping them, as always, begins with research.

So let’s send Xander out for donuts and get back to hitting the books.


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21 responses to “L.B.: Welcome to the Hellmouth”

  1. Once again, thanks for reading this so I don’t have to. You’re taking one for the team!
    And I remember very distinctly, back when I was reading a lot of fundamentalist books, a straightforward hostility towards those who believed the world could be made a better place, as though that were somehow conspiring with the Devil.
    It’s amazing just how cynical and hopeless so many fundamentalists are. Seems like that sort of mindset would drive someone to stay in bed all day with a bottle of scotch, waitin’ for the Rapture to make it all better.

  2. L&J’s brand of political Christianity always believes that evil is lurking in their opponents and that the lions are only a step away from, say, preventing a judge from sticking an idol of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse.
    They focus so much on the persecution of Christians in history that they ignore any triumph of Christianity, not to mention persecution BY Christians.
    And of course this leads them to view the Apocalypse as a creation of the Anti-Christ or human evil, when Revelations (which they purport to have read) makes it clear that the Apocalypse comes from God.

  3. You know, since there is a market for end times lit, perhaps someone such as yourself could try your hand at writing a work that does encourage a more accurate theology.
    Unless, of course, you don’t think there can be an accurate end times theology, becasue the end times, rapture, etc are not based in sound theology.

  4. Well, the end-time is certainly mentioned several places in the Bible, although understanding what is going on is more difficult. Making a plot out of it is probably not an especially good idea if you want to stay theologically sound. Personally though a giant ten-headed monster rising out of the sea might make a great fantasy book though.
    The Rapture on the other hand is pure dispensationalist crap.

  5. I have always found the end-times stuff to be deeply disturbing. And, as an atheist, tiresome, not least because many people have tried to tell me that I can’t possibly be “moral” if I don’t believe in any deities. I’ve pointed out to some–the few who seemed truly interested–that atheism actually is a prompt to more “christian” action, because I believe that this is the only life I get. Many believers see this as permission to be bad–there will be no retribution for my bad acts, which strikes me as a sorry interpretation of christianity and a number of other religions.

  6. One thing the religious right has really succeeded in implanting in the minds of Christians who consider themselves evangelical but not political is as follows:
    Usually, if you encounter someone who talks about the Antichrist being a real concept, especially someone who believes the Antichrist might be on Earth today, and you ask them “So what do you look for when you’re trying to figure out who the Antichrist is? What are the symptoms?” the first thing they say is “Well, you look for someone who says his goal is world peace.”
    So, just to hazard a guess, which political party do you think people who fear attempts at world peace would be repulsed from?

  7. One would think that they would welcome peace between Israel and the Arabs since, in theri hermeneutic, this is considered a prophetic step towards Armageddon, and hence the literal millenial reign of Christ. (“Israel’s walls lowering”=Israel disarming due to a false sense of peace.)
    Which do you think has been more responsible for US policy in the middle east….premillenial, dispensational eschatology of modern evangelicalism…or….the liberal jewish lobby?

  8. I’m not sure which frightens me more: that Messrs. LaHaye and Jenkins are pushing this dodgy theology onto the market, or that there are people who embrace it.
    Really, it sounds like an endless chorus of “I Me Mine” after a while.

  9. I believed (or half-believed) in this edn of the world theology when I was 13 and had just read the “bible” of this movement, The Late Great Planet Earth. I also read the New Testament straight through several times back then. One thing I thought a little funny was the fact that the passages used to prove the Rapture didn’t really seem very clear on the subject.
    I had eclectic tastes in those days and also read a book about Ezekiel’s flying saucer, a nifty little volume (which probably still exists in some book box in a closet at my parents’ house) showing that Ezekiel had had encounters with ET’s.
    The guy even figured out what the design of the spaceship must have been. I think the author probably stuck closer to the Scriptural text than did Hal Lindsay or the Left Behind writers. I’d suggest it as Fred Clark’s next adventure in extended exegesis, except that the believers in ancient astronauts (aliens built the Pyramids, detonated a nuclear device at Sodom and Gomorrah, etc…) don’t seem to pose much of a threat to anyone–they aren’t even after the schools to provide equal time for their version of history.

  10. At a supermarket in a rural community in Michigan I noticed copies of LB in a stack near the checkout. This is the kind of community with about sixteen people and the same number of mixed Protestant churches per square mile, where you would expect a book like that to be a hit.
    I made an imperceptible mark on the display’s front book.
    Three weeks later, when I was passing through town again, it was still there, untouched.
    These things are not exactly flying off the shelves. I would not be at all surprised if the sales figures are either completely fake, or if some form of organized purchasing/remaindering is going on to juice the numbers.
    The publishers and the right wing feel compelled to prove popularity via sales, in spite of the truth. Because if it’s not popular, it’s the fringe.

  11. …or maybe L&J are Willow at the end of Season 6, ready to destroy the world because they are consumed by their own grief and fear about life. In which case Xander has a different job.

  12. First off, thank you for jumping on this particular grenade. Someone very close to me has been reading these books, and I just didn’t have the stomach to do it. Your writing gives me much insight into what the hell she’s been talking about lately.
    And now a request: could you possibly collect all your L.B. writings into one place, so folks don’t have to go digging through the archives to find previous installments?

  13. Dear god.
    So that explains why the current Republican administration has been so completely unconcerned about any long-term ramifications of their policies…
    They don’t feel they have to!
    It doesn’t matter whether they destroy the environment, saddle our kids with massive debts, or any of the rest of it, because they think they’ll be part of the rapture and won’t be around to see the consequences.
    Who cares about tomorrow, kleptocracy tonight!

  14. Johnny Rev – just click on the “Left Behind” link at the bottom of the post. That will take you to an archive page containing just the Left Behind items. This works with any of the categories on the site (Iraq, etc.).

  15. Left out in this discussion is how horribly un-readable these books are.
    I tried to read the first one. The character development was nil. The redundancy of the prose stunk up the place. The predictability was predictable, and therefore more forgivable.
    The only reference to the Rapture I remember reading is one by Christ. He doesn’t call it the Rapture; he just says one day the woman washing clothes next to you will disappear, taken by God. Something like that. Nothing like the arcane set of rules described in these books. Nothing.
    “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
    When they claim they know what God is thinking, that’s the time to start looking for the door.

  16. What really worries me is the alliance between the most rabid Rapturists (called Christian Zionists) and the State of Israel. It’s enough to make a conspiracy theorist dizzy.

  17. As such, L&J ultimately are like any given set of villains from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They want to open the Hellmouth and bring about the end of the world. Stopping them, as always, begins with research. These are the wisest words I have read in a very long time and perfectly describe the best way of dealing not only with likes of L&J but all the fundamentalist or neocon propagandists out there. The most ironic thing is that it is often facts from a simple encyclopedia entry that can disprove all of their articles of faith. And I just do not understand why most people fail to check even the most basic facts.

  18. Eileen:
    …or maybe L&J are Willow at the end of Season 6, ready to destroy the world because they are consumed by their own grief and fear about life. In which case Xander has a different job.
    And so a lowly carpenter risks sacrificing his life to save the people he loves and the ideals he has set forth.
    Wait — dang, that sounds familiar. Hmmm.

  19. The Buffy analogy is perfect. These End Times cheerleaders are so invested in the End of Everything that they come across as bloodthirsty lunatics bent on seeing the world burning in that Lake of Fire they so love to tout as perennial comeuppance for disrespecting their childish worldview.
    I say stake them.

  20. As a relatively new Buffy fan who has recently finished a marathon of all seven seasons, I heartily agree with the Buffy analogy.
    As a Wiccan raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, where the Left Behind books were eagerly anticipated as they came out, and as a writer who’s read each and every one of them since the first was on the scene (I think I was in sixth grade at the time), I am SO glad someone is pointing out the flaws in these books.
    Yes, reading these books, I cried at certain “moving” moments – but I’ve always had a healthy (maybe overly so ;D) imagination, and one or two of the characters had been better developed and made more realistic in my imaginings.
    It’s sad when an 6th grader who’s not really into the whole Christianity thing can create more realistic characters and responses in their own mind. Hell, I probably could’ve written better articles than those of Buck’s that are quoted.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I was linked here from a comment to a Livejournal post about Bible-thumpers vs. true Christians, and even if I don’t believe in Christian theology, people like you and a small cluster of people I’ve found on LJ give me hope for the future of Christianity.
    Just start teaching one person at a time. The end times aren’t coming for a while (if indeed at all), you can take Christianity back with enough work. And here I will resist making a Clerks II joke.