L.B.: Today’s Gospel reading

L.B.: Today’s Gospel reading June 25, 2006

Left Behind, pp. 217-218

I refer to Left Behind and its many sequels and prequels as the Worst Books Ever Written because they're so consistently awful in so many different ways: theologically, politically, ethically, stylistically, all presented along with howling errors of continuity, logic and even basic geography. All of which combines to make these books not merely bad, but instructively bad.

The interwoven strands of diverse types of awfulness in Left Behind raise some interesting questions. Does the authors' selfishly apocalyptic politics arise from their self-centeredly apocalyptic theology? Or did they glom onto this peculiar American heresy in an attempt to provide biblical gloss for the laager mentality of their political/ethical views? That's kind of a chicken-and-egg question, but I suspect in this case that causation flows both ways.

Similarly, I suspect the books' horrible, wooden prose is both a cause and a consequence of the authors' stunted theological/ethical outlook. Consider this passage for a minor example:

Rayford couldn't wait to go to New Hope the next morning. He began reading the New Testament, and he scrounged around the house for any books or study guides Irene had collected. Though much of it was still difficult to understand, he found himself so hungry and thirsty for the story of the life of Christ that he read through all four Gospels until it was late and he fell asleep.

Here, as usual, LaHaye and Jenkins neglect to provide any particulars — "around the house," "any books or study guides," "much of it," "all four Gospels," "it was late" — fill in any of those blanks, supply just one or two well-chosen examples or details, and this nebulous paragraph might actually have seemed like the story of a real person.

Rayford, we are told, was "hungry and thirsty" and feasts on the New Testament. When a character is genuinely that hungry, the readers should be able to taste what he's eating. Or at least to identify what he is eating. Surely he must have encountered one or two things in particular in the Gospels that he took time to chew and to savor? But apparently not. It all seems to have been, to him, a tepid, flavorless porridge.

Apparently Rayford plowed through Matthew, Mark, Luke and John without finding anything notable, striking or worthy of remark. No saying or healing or parable or paradox pulled him up short. Nothing in particular made him stop and scratch his head. Nothing in particular confused or puzzled or angered him. Nothing in particular made his heart leap with joy.

I find it hard to believe he really read the same four Gospels I know, let alone that he read them with hunger and thirst. He simply read thems and then falls asleep.

Rayford starts with the Gospels in part because they're the first books one encounters in the New Testament. (Putting Matthew first was one of the debatable editorial choices made in compiling the canon. It's a great book, but kind of a slow starter, hitting the reader with all that genealogy before it gets any real momentum going. I'd have started with John's Gospel instead — there's an evangelist who knows how to hook a reader from the very first sentence.)

But we're told that Rayford also desperately wanted to know "the story of the life of Christ." He would have found a bit of that in the Gospels, as much as there is, but these books are not biographies. We can't tell whether or not Rayford noticed the difference between Gospel and biography. We aren't told what he thought of them at all — only that he finished them and promptly fell asleep.

This again illustrates the nexus of Bad Writing and Bad Theology. L&J don't provide any details, examples or particulars from Rayford's reading of the Gospels because such particulars are the sort of things that good writers provide, and they are not good writers. Such particulars may have made this passage more vivid and lifelike, but they could only be supplied by authors who had, themselves, experienced a vivid and lifelike encounter with the Gospels. That's not something that American evangelical Christianity encourages, opting instead for something more like Rayford's rapid, shallow reading.

For most Christians throughout most of the world and most of history, the Gospels represent the core of the faith. For contemporary American evangelicals, they seem more like something one has to plow through as quickly as possible, without comment or a second thought, before reaching St. Paul's epistles. Paul is, for such readers, much more didactic, much more propositional, and therefore much safer and easier to control.

That word — propositional — was a favorite term of the late Francis Schaeffer, the goateed guru whose influence on American evangelicalism can't be overstated. Schaeffer's writings were a prolonged fretting about what he saw as the decline of Western civilization — something he didn't clearly distinguish from Christianity itself. He traced that decline to, believe it or not, the Danish Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, whom he blamed for the corruption and denial of "propositional truth." Schaeffer never said so explicitly, but all of his complaints about Kierkegaard also seemed to reflect his feelings about the Gospels and about Jesus himself, who preferred parables to propositions.

Those in search of the safety, clarity and tame certainty of Schaeffer's "propositional truth" will always prefer sermons to stories. Thus American evangelicals opt for Proverbs over Psalms and Epistles over Gospels.

The aversion to the Gospels is even stronger in L&J's peculiar subset of American Christianity — premillennial dispensationalism. Most of Jesus' teachings, the PMDs say, do not apply to our current "dispensation," but only to some future time in Christ's millennial (literal) kingdom. Don't worry about the Sermon on the Mount — about turning the other cheek or considering the lilies and the birds of the air — because those don't apply to now or to us. They are, in this "dispensation," irrelevant.

PMDs are thus able to ignore or avoid nearly everything in the Gospels except for a precisely excerpted handful of apocalyptic passages, such as the "woes" of Matthew 24. In citing such passages, however, the PMD must be very careful, lest the reader acquire enough momentum to continue on to the off-limits second half of Christ's apocalyptic sermon in the following chapter, in which he speaks not only of a coming judgment, but of the basis for that judgment. You let people read about the Sheep and the Goats and pretty soon they'll start asking all kinds of awkward questions.

I couldn't help wishing that Rayford Steele had stayed awake just a little bit longer, turning another page to read the first few chapters of the Book of Acts. He is, after all, a new believer about to enter a new community of new believers, so this account of the early church might be instructive. But Rayford and his fellow End Times converts never seem interested in reading about the early Christians and their first-century kibbutz. They only seem interested in the timeline-and-checklist they imagine they find in the book of Revelation. If someone in this new community were to suggest having "everything in common" and "selling their possessions and their goods" in order to give to anyone as he had need they would almost certainly be told that this sounds too much like the Antichrist's agenda.

In the coming pages and chapters, Rayford will ask many questions about the Bible, but none about the four books he has just swallowed without chewing. He read the Gospels and went to sleep without a second thought. Even more than his reciting of the sinner's prayer, this is what makes Rayford Steele an evangelical American Christian.


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  • Andy

    Really, I don’t know how anyone could actually read all four Gospels in one night. Perhaps if you were a lawyer, accustomed to spending hours in a row reading dense documents. It’s not that the Gospels are particularly long, but I doubt I ever read much more than 10-15 verses before I have to stop and ponder something. And even if I did get through an entire Gospel in one night and moved on to the next one, the thoughts of, “Hey, wait, this is different than the previous book…” would start coming to me immediately.
    The evangelical approach to the Bible reminds me of the old saying, “Can’t see the forest for the trees.” An Evangelical can typically quote an astonishing number of individual Bible verses, but hardly any of them can actually tell you what the Bible says.

  • Andy

    Really, I don’t know how anyone could actually read all four Gospels in one night. Perhaps if you were a lawyer, accustomed to spending hours in a row reading dense documents. It’s not that the Gospels are particularly long, but I doubt I ever read much more than 10-15 verses before I have to stop and ponder something. And even if I did get through an entire Gospel in one night and moved on to the next one, the thoughts of, “Hey, wait, this is different than the previous book…” would start coming to me immediately.
    The evangelical approach to the Bible reminds me of the old saying, “Can’t see the forest for the trees.” An Evangelical can typically quote an astonishing number of individual Bible verses, but hardly any of them can actually tell you what the Bible says.

  • lisa

    Thanks for some quotes from the LB series, I’d never wanted to buy any of them (or touch them) but was wondering what they were like. I suppose that I’m not very shocked to find out that they are poorly written.

  • The Old Maid

    “A healthful mixture of fruit and vegetables”??? Are Ray and Chloe raw-food vegans, then?
    Yummy food’s a gift. Ecclesiates says so. :-)
    I’d say let it slide unless the authors do it again. Keeping in mind that some elements in L.B. are gnostic, Paul clashed swords with gnosticism even back as a young’un. His rant against “people who preach against marriage and eating meat” comes from that struggle. Gnostics believed that humans were a divine spark trapped in evil, disgusting Matter. Eating meat involved eating a more concentrated dose of evil, disgusting Matter, since the animal itself ate Matter while it lived. The lower the product on the food chain, the lesser the pollution/contamination. (They didn’t like marriage, either, since married people tended to — oh, horrors! — touch each other and bring more divine-spark humans into the world where they would be slimed by bodies of evil, disgusting Matter. As gnosticism didn’t die out for centuries, it seemed that preaching against marriage didn’t put a crimp in their population, much.)
    Basically, if L.B. does it again, think gnostics. If it’s just the once, it’s more “Afterschool Special”/Adam West’s Batman insisting that he will not take Robin out to fight crime until Robin buckles his seat belt.
    Oh, and lisa, welcome to the marathon. Newbie prayers are *extra powerful* for those who’ve read the rest of it.

  • Jeff

    Mark 12:29-31: The philosophy of Jesus summed up in two lines. And a pretty good philosophy too. “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” does nothing for me…
    That’s part of the standard Jewish prayer (the “Hear, O Israel” part is the single most important prayer a person is supposed to know).
    I suppose I might have to read the Gospels again myself. Last time I did, I realized I liked some of Christ’s teachings (“Be nice to people” resonates in any language, from any prophet), but the man (word chosen advisedly) was weird.

  • Jeff

    Mark 12:29-31: The philosophy of Jesus summed up in two lines. And a pretty good philosophy too. “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” does nothing for me…
    That’s part of the standard Jewish prayer (the “Hear, O Israel” part is the single most important prayer a person is supposed to know).
    I suppose I might have to read the Gospels again myself. Last time I did, I realized I liked some of Christ’s teachings (“Be nice to people” resonates in any language, from any prophet), but the man (word chosen advisedly) was weird.

  • Doctor Science

    Andy wrote: “I don’t know how anyone could actually read all four Gospels in one night”.
    To give L&J more credit than they probably deserve, that kind of binge-reading *does* happen when a person falls in love with a book, a writer, an idea, a genre — but the quality of that reading experience is best expressed by Jane Austen (as so many things are):
    She read with an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension, and from impatience of knowing what the next sentence might bring, was incapable of attending to the sense of the one before her eyes.
    (from Pride and Prejudice). And you also spend the next day at least wandering around in a kind of word-drunk daze, as your brain tries to process all the new information.
    If L&J were actually interested in writing about a conversion experience they do have material to work with. It’s an open question whether they themselves have ever had any such feelings, or whether they are just incapable of conveying them. As Fred has been showing all along, they are presenting the heady wine of religion as some pretty watery vinegar.

  • Doctor Science

    Andy wrote: “I don’t know how anyone could actually read all four Gospels in one night”.
    To give L&J more credit than they probably deserve, that kind of binge-reading *does* happen when a person falls in love with a book, a writer, an idea, a genre — but the quality of that reading experience is best expressed by Jane Austen (as so many things are):
    She read with an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension, and from impatience of knowing what the next sentence might bring, was incapable of attending to the sense of the one before her eyes.
    (from Pride and Prejudice). And you also spend the next day at least wandering around in a kind of word-drunk daze, as your brain tries to process all the new information.
    If L&J were actually interested in writing about a conversion experience they do have material to work with. It’s an open question whether they themselves have ever had any such feelings, or whether they are just incapable of conveying them. As Fred has been showing all along, they are presenting the heady wine of religion as some pretty watery vinegar.

  • Jesurgislac

    Bulbul: Besides, the very foundation of your logic is flawed: the Gospels are not works of mythology. They are not even biographies. As someone said, they were not written for the unbelievers to convert them, let alone entertain them. They were composed to record the memories of those who walked with Jesus, those who were THERE.
    That claim is itself part of the Christian mythology around the gospels. We actually have no idea if any of the gospels were even written within the living memory of any of the people who were alive when Jesus died. In one of the gospels, John, the writer claims to have been there: but textual evidence indicates that this is in fact the last-written gospel of the four.
    The gospels are, in fact – whatever Christians want to believe – a fascinating example of myth, legend, and philosophy. You’re right that they’re not biography, though: we have no idea if any of the various biographical details claimed for Jesus, from when/where he was born to how he died, are actually accurate. There’s no evidence for any person named in the gospels actually existing outside of the gospels, not even, in point of fact, for Pontius Pilate’s existence – and you’d think that the existence of a governor of Judaea would be a matter of record.

  • Jesurgislac

    Oops – I forgot Herod and his family. They’re named in the gospels and they definitely existed.(I discount “Caesar”, though – that could be any of the Emperors in the first century BCE/CE.)

  • Doctor Science

    There’s no evidence for any person named in the gospels actually existing outside of the gospels, not even, in point of fact, for Pontius Pilate’s existence – and you’d think that the existence of a governor of Judaea would be a matter of record.
    Not true at all. Josephus talks about Pilate a good deal, and he’s also mentioned by Tacitus, Philo of Alexandria, and at least one surviving inscription. (Pilate’s Wikipedia entry is a thorough summary). Josephus also talks about John the Baptist and James the brother (cousin in Catholic tradition) of Jesus, who was the leader of the Jerusalem congregation in the years after the Crucifixion.

  • Jesurgislac

    I meant evidence, Doctor – I don’t consider the writings of Josephus or Philo of Alexandria to be evidence. (The famous “inscription” is dubious – wishful thinking.) There’s no reference to a Pontius Pilate as governor of Judaea in any official record: Josephus was writing decades after the fact, and quite possibly (the earliest date for the compilation of Mark is AD 50) using the same sources/stories.
    It’s possible there was a governor of Judaea called Pontius Pilate, who just happened to fall out of the official records. It’s possible there was a Nazarene Jew called Jesus who was trying to reform Judaism. It’s even possible that Jesus was executed by the Roman governor. My point is: we don’t know. We never will, short of a time machine. If a Christian has faith that three days after Jesus died, he was resurrected in the body, walked and ate and talked with his friends for 40 days, and then went to Heaven, why should it matter that there is no historical evidence for any detail of the story one way or the other?

  • Doctor Science

    I don’t consider the writings of Josephus or Philo of Alexandria to be evidence
    But Tacitus also mentions Pilate — is he “evidence”?
    Your standards of what counts as “evidence” are hyper-restrictive, given that we’re talking about a period two thousand years ago. I’m not saying we have to believe every word of Josephus or Philo as, ah, “gospel truth”, but they didn’t write out of nowhere. Josephus’ “Jewish Wars” clearly isn’t fiction in the whole-cloth way “The Lord of the Rings” is fiction. The question is, is it more like “The DaVinci Code” (any resemblence to historical events is purely coincidental), Gore Vidal’s “Burr” (a mostly-plausible but fictionalized account), or is it like Churchill’s “The Second World War” (first- and second-hand account arranged to make the author look as good as possible)?
    I’ve also been persuaded by Donald Akenson (Surpassing Wonder), among others, that there’s no good evidence for *any* of the Gospels as we know them to have been written down before 69 CE. The only Christian source we have from the period before the Temple was destroyed is Paul.

  • Jesurgislac

    Josephus’ “Jewish Wars” clearly isn’t fiction in the whole-cloth way “The Lord of the Rings” is fiction. The question is, is it more like “The DaVinci Code” (any resemblence to historical events is purely coincidental), Gore Vidal’s “Burr” (a mostly-plausible but fictionalized account), or is it like Churchill’s “The Second World War” (first- and second-hand account arranged to make the author look as good as possible)?
    Or is it like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae? Or Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland? In both those instances, we can check the version of history given against other sources, and we know that they got some very basic stuff completely wrong. If we didn’t have those other sources, would we just take it as read that they got it right?
    “Sources” proving that the gospels are in any way historically accurate all tend to be kind of circular.

  • Doctor Science

    “Sources” proving that the gospels are in any way historically accurate all tend to be kind of circular.
    This is a needless overgeneralization, untrue, and a distraction from your main point. The gospels are on quite flimsy enough ground without leaping to say that absolutely *nothing* in them has an historical basis. Josephus, for instance, wrote about events much closer to his time than Holinshed or Geoffrey did, including events in which he had personally participated. That doesn’t mean that everything he says is true by modern historical standards, just that he (like Philo or Tacitus) had a POV which is itself historical evidence. And his evidence about early Christianity is particularly valuable because he was *not* Christian, so he mentioned the people who seemed to him to be important — that is, John the Baptist and James.
    Saying “the evidence is very good that John the Baptist was a real, historical person” is not at all the same as saying that “John the Baptist was just as he is depicted in the Gospels, and [most important] his relationship to Jesus was subservient, just as depicted in the Gospels.”
    I do not “believe” in John the Baptist in a religious sense, but yeah, I think he probably existed, and saying that there is absolutely no evidence for his existence is incorrect.

  • Cactus Wren

    The fruits-and-veggies reference was in the entry from last October 15, at http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2005/10/lb_leap_of_proo.html: “Late in the day, Friday, Rayford and Chloe reluctantly agreed they should eat, and they worked together in the kitchen, rustling up a healthy mixture of fruits and vegetables.” In response to which Fred snarks:
    The cataclysm that shut down transportation and communication systems apparently did not interfere with the magical delivery systems that cause fresh food and clean water to appear, ex nihilo, in our suburban American homes.
    He also refers to it as their “sullen meal of wilted lettuce”. Probably by now Rayford has resorted to potato chips and microwaved hot dogs. If such things even exist in Irene’s kitchen.

  • Cactus Wren

    I don’t know whether anyone’s yet linked to this article:
    “Ministry says Armageddon is near”
    http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/061906dnmetendtime.159937b.html
    A raging war will soon incinerate a third of the world’s population.
    “Two billion people will die,” said Mr. Baxter, whose fiery oration Saturday in Garland connected a homeland security measure, the Real ID Act of 2005, with Satan’s plan to enslave humanity.
    A mushroom cloud appeared on a monitor. And Mr. Baxter said something unexpected.
    “Can I pause for just a moment to tell you all something hilarious?”
    Mr. Baxter explained how he had asked his wife to read the manuscript of a novel he had written in which Chinese missiles destroy Dallas. His wife objected, though, and demanded that Dallas be spared, so Mr. Baxter sent the nukes to Houston.
    It seemed an odd joke, given that most of Mr. Baxter’s listeners expect nuclear holocaust, yet the audience still laughed. That, said several listeners, is the key to understanding Mr. Baxter and his thousands of followers.
    “Will there be suffering? Yes,” said Roger Thornhill of McKinney, who went to the rally with his 3-year-old daughter, MaryAnn.
    “But I’m not afraid, for me or my daughter, because I don’t think the end is really the end. I just live the best that I can and leave the rest to the Lord.”

  • Cactus Wren

    I don’t know whether anyone’s yet linked to this article:
    “Ministry says Armageddon is near”
    http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/061906dnmetendtime.159937b.html
    A raging war will soon incinerate a third of the world’s population.
    “Two billion people will die,” said Mr. Baxter, whose fiery oration Saturday in Garland connected a homeland security measure, the Real ID Act of 2005, with Satan’s plan to enslave humanity.
    A mushroom cloud appeared on a monitor. And Mr. Baxter said something unexpected.
    “Can I pause for just a moment to tell you all something hilarious?”
    Mr. Baxter explained how he had asked his wife to read the manuscript of a novel he had written in which Chinese missiles destroy Dallas. His wife objected, though, and demanded that Dallas be spared, so Mr. Baxter sent the nukes to Houston.
    It seemed an odd joke, given that most of Mr. Baxter’s listeners expect nuclear holocaust, yet the audience still laughed. That, said several listeners, is the key to understanding Mr. Baxter and his thousands of followers.
    “Will there be suffering? Yes,” said Roger Thornhill of McKinney, who went to the rally with his 3-year-old daughter, MaryAnn.
    “But I’m not afraid, for me or my daughter, because I don’t think the end is really the end. I just live the best that I can and leave the rest to the Lord.”

  • Ken

    I would not consider Left Behind to be the worst books ever written.
    I reserve that title for Salem Kirban’s 666, the Eye of Argon of Christian apocalyptic fiction.
    Similarly, I suspect the books’ horrible, wooden prose is both a cause and a consequence of the authors’ stunted theological/ethical outlook.
    Or they’re just bad fiction writers. (I was going to say “inexperienced”, but after — what is it — 16+ books!!!, they closed off that excuse.)
    However, I suspect a lot of it is due to a fundamental structural problem with the subject matter. Any Christian Apocalyptic fiction is going to be event-driven, with the events of the plot (defined by John Nelson Darby, Hal Lindsay, et al) set in stone. In an event-driven story, the other three elements of storytelling (setting, characters, and theme) tend to be secondary, supporting the events that are the core of the story.
    However, End Time Prophecy fiction is beyond event-driven. It’s “running the scenario on rails”, with no deviations possible from the detailed choreography of Rapture/Tribulation/Antichrist/Tribulation/Plagues/Tribulation/Armageddon/Second Coming. Every event has been predestined in detail, therefore the characters have nothing to do except watch it go down as-predestined, periodically breaking the fourth wall with idiot conversation about how such-and-such event fulfilled such-and-such verse in Revelation. That does not herald good writing.

  • boymedexam

    I wish everybody do his job like you do http://boymedexams.ifrance.com/

  • L&J would have read the Gospels more thoroughly themselves, I’m sure, but then they wouldn’t be able to churn out these pieces of garbage in 28 days…