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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