L.B.: Global Weekly I

L.B.: Global Weekly I May 20, 2004

Via Eric Alterman I see that the cover story of the May 24 Global Weekly Newsweek is a long profile of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins by David Gates.

Gates does a good job in many ways, offering many insights into the Left Behind authors that the two men seem to have missed themselves. But he has one major stumble and a few points with which I want to quibble.

The first is the comic-book illustration that accompanies the online article (it's from the L.B. graphic novel. It portrays the chaos and destruction accompanying the story's Rapture-event in far more vivid detail than the book itself. (I just ordered a copy of this because I want to see how an illustrator tackles the difficult problem of translating this stubbornly un-graphic novel into a graphic novel.) The illustration really misrepresents the book — and especially the actions of the book's heroes and therefore of the authors' idea of what constitutes heroism — by highlighting the chaos and suffering that the book casually strolls past.

Gates attributes the popularity of the LB series to the chaos and fear that dominate our nightly news:

As the world gets increasingly scary, with much of the trouble centered in the Mideast — just where you'd expect from reading the book of Revelation — even secular Americans sometimes wonder (or at least wonder if they ought to start wondering) whether there might not be something to this End Times stuff.

Ah yes, chaos in the Middle East will remind people of the book of Revelation because John's apocalypse is all about the Middle East.

Except that it's not. Revelation, which was written on a European island in the Aegean, begins with letters to seven churches — in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea, for those keeping score at home. These churches were all in Asia Minor, specifically in western Turkey. Most of these cities are west of the Bosporus — west of Moscow and Kiev, about the same longitude as Joensuu, Finland. Yes, the book of Revelation talks a great deal about Babylon, which had been in the Middle East, but by the time it was written, the Babylonian Empire was no more. There was, however, the Roman Empire. If the book of Revelation is about any place, it is about Rome.

Gates here commits the cardinal error of journalists writing about LaHaye and Jenkins and their books. He assumes that the Bible must say something like what they say it says. He assumes that their apocalypse is based on John's apocalypse — and that if one reads the book of Revelation one will learn about things like the Rapture or about Gog and Magog. Because L&J say they read the Bible "literally," Gates assumes this is true. But no "literal" reading of the Bible would produce the kind of convoluted narrative LaHaye derives from leaping about through the scriptures, arbitrarily cutting and pasting a verse here, a chapter there, to cobble together a miasma that perversely interprets history as symbolism and symbolism as history.

"In an age of terror and tumult," Gates writes, "these books' biblical literalism offer[s] certitude to millions of Americans amid the chaos of their time."

"Literalism???" Aargh. You want "biblical literalism," look at St. Francis — a man who literally turned the other cheek, walked the extra mile and sold all he had to give to the poor. Of course, if you ask a premillennial dispensationalist like Tim LaHaye about such literal biblical imperatives from the mouth of Christ, he will explain that such teachings do not apply to our current "dispensation." The Sermon on the Mount, like most of Jesus' teachings, applies only to some future millennial kingdom, he will tell you — it's one of those passages that those of us living in the present age are free to dismiss. This is what passes for "biblical literalism"?

Imagine some idiosyncratic literary theorist who believes, say, that the key to reading Huckleberry Finn is understanding that its all a metaphor exploring the sexual relationship between Huck and Jim. Then imagine that everyone who interviews this strange theorist accepts his interpretation, repeating his assertions that this is the simplest, clearest and most common-sensical way of reading Twain's novel. That's pretty close to what Gates, like so many others, is doing here.

He does acknowledge, off-handedly, that some Christians may interpret the Bible a little differently, although he never explains how or why. And he even somewhat buys into LaHaye's know-nothing critique of the majority of theologians as intellectually elitist:

LaHaye's common-sense reading of the Bible is also tied up with a still-aggrieved sense of social class. "Those millions that I'm trying to reach take the Bible literally. It's the theologians that get all fouled up on some of these smug ideas that you've got to find some theological reason behind it. It bugs me that intellectuals look down their noses at we ordinary people."

And this:

Certainly LaHaye and Jenkins promulgate what might be called outsider theology. But they are outsiders: they grew up that way, and they're proud of it …

You know, outsiders — white, male North Americans. In LaHaye's populist scheme, it's perfectly acceptable to take millions from "ordinary people" without even bothering to give them well-crafted books in return. That doesn't make you an elitist. No, elitists are those smug intellectuals who study theology and try to make sense of the world.

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