TF: Tribulation baggers

TF: Tribulation baggers June 7, 2010

Tribulation Force, pp. 229-231

Before Left Behind there was Hal Lindsey. His 1970s best-sellers — The Late Great Planet Earth and There's a New World Coming — were just as big a publishing phenomenon, selling millions of copies even without the aid of distribution through the mainstream outlets like Walmart and Barnes & Noble that helped boost sales of the Left Behind series.

Lindsey, a former tugboat captain turned prophecy expert at Dallas Theological Seminary, popularized premillennial dispensationalism and its insistence that Daniel and Revelation laid out a prophetic check list for the very near future. Lindsey's particular prophecies haven't aged well over the passage of time that he hadn't expected to continue passing. The end of the Cold War, which formed the basis for many of his predictions, makes his books today seem like a relic. (The 1980's: Countdown to Armageddon is, like most books with "The 1980s" in the title, now out of print.)

But Lindsey's runaway best-sellers remain influential. The broad outlines of what many people now "know" about the book of Revelation and what it teaches tends to be what Hal Lindsey injected into American popular culture. His books provided the template that subsequent PMD prophets have followed. Lindsey's assumptions and presumptions and wild guesses were absorbed as conventional wisdom that came to shape the "prophecy scholarship" of those who followed him.

CoverMarketing01 Tim LaHaye wouldn't likely classify himself as one of those who followed Lindsey into the Bible prophecy business since he was, to an extent, preaching about this stuff before Lindsey's books made a splash. But LaHaye's first books on the subject — The Beginning of the End (1972) and Revelation: Illustrated and Made Plain (1973) — were both published after Lindsey's late, great best-seller as part of the effort to cash in on the phenomenon he had started. The various cover-designs shown here to the right illustrate how LaHaye's publishers once sought to capitalize on Lindsey's success, and how Lindsey's publishers are now returning the favor.

It's difficult for LaHaye or any other supposed prophecy expert to acknowledge Lindsey's influence because doing so would undermine their pretense of a blank-slate approach to the Bible. PMD "scholars" base their claims of authority on this pretense — on the claim that they're simply reading the Bible without any presuppositions and finding in its pages the clear outline of their End Times check lists. They can't admit to the shaping influence of Lindsey or Scofield or Darby because to do so would be to raise the suspicion that they carried that influence with them in their approach to the Bible, finding there only a reflection of what they had been seeking.

The late great planet earth (book) In Tim LaHaye's case, I think, it's legitimate for him to claim that his prophecy framework was not shaped mainly by the template provided by Hal Lindsey. LaHaye cannot be accused of turning to Revelation and twisting what he found there to fit the pre-existing mythology provided by Lindsey. What Tim LaHaye has done, instead, is turn to Revelation to twist what he found there to fit the pre-existing mythology provided by the John Birch Society. LaHaye's eisegesis was not shaped by the popular speculation of some tugboat captain or some Seventh Day Adventists from the 1800s. His eisegesis was instead shaped by the fantasies of right-wing, segregationist, anti-communist whackjobs from the 1950s.

The fear-driven conspiracy theories of the John Birch Society are central to Tim LaHaye's ideology. He is, he says proudly, a student of the Illuminati. His word. Michael Standaert explores LaHaye's Bircher roots in detail in Skipping Towards Armageddon: The Politics and Propaganda of Left Behind. Standaert highlights this quote from LaHaye's 1992 book, No Fear of the Storm, republished and repackaged post-Left Behind as Rapture Under Attack in 1998:

I myself have been a 45-year student of the satanically inspired, centuries-old conspiracy to use government, education and media to destroy every vestige of Christianity within our society and establish a new world order. Having read at least 50 books on the Illuminati, I am convinced that it exists.

As we discussed recently, those books on the Illuminati included the works of William Guy Carr, whom LaHaye seems to regard as an authority and not as a paranoid anti-Semitic nutjob (he was, in fact, very much the latter).

Tim LaHaye has got to be enjoying the resurgence in popularity and influence of his John Birch ideology, now marketing itself as the "tea party movement." The influence of this rebranded Bircherism can be seen, for example, in the newly adopted platform of the Republican Party of Maine — a relentlessly goofy document that includes, among its many strange and delirious provisions, a call to "Repeal and prohibit any participation in efforts to create a one world government."

That platform shows not just the unlikely vitality of Bircher conspiracy delusions, but also Tim LaHaye's particular influence in shaping and promoting this ideology. Reality provides no basis and no motivation for the Maine GOP's platform, but it was not drafted and ratified because of reality. It was drafted and ratified in opposition to the policies of Nicolae Carpathia.

The World's Worst Books outline this political agenda, but even more than that they supply and nurture the mentality that makes this agenda attractive. The tea partiers imagine themselves to be the Tribulation Force. It's members are engaged in an elaborate Live Action Role Playing fantasy in which they have cast themselves as the righteous remnant battling against the satanic forces bent on one-world government, one-world religion, one-world currency and the Mark of the Beast.

While LaHaye's popularity and influence have grown enormously over the past 40 years, Hal Lindsey's fame and influence seems to have shrunk. He has become something of a fringe figure even in the PMD prophecy world. His own "prophecy scholarship" has led him to more of a pre-occupation with Israel and an ever-adapting string of theories about its role in the prophetic schemes he imagines.

LaHaye, by contrast, has never been particularly pre-occupied with Israel. Of all the pop-prophets of PMD, he seems the least interested in the day-to-day drama of the Middle East. Compare his attention to Israel with the much more intense focus of, for example, John Hagee or Jack Van Impe. If you want to keep track of the search for a pure red heifer or of the latest cock-eyed plans for rebuilding the Temple, then you can turn to Hagee or Van Impe or Lindsey or any of the many other prophecy experts tracking that sort of thing. But if you want to know instead how health care reform or cap and trade is related to the new world order of the coming Antichrist, then you turn to Tim LaHaye.

For LaHaye, the obsessive tracking of the Antichrist's OWG has always served as a proxy for the OWG of the socialist menace warned of by the John Birch Society. Same sermon, slightly different text. The Darbyite mythology was mainly just a convenient vehicle for promoting the Bircherite mythology. And a very successful one, as evidenced by both the Maine Republican Party platform and those new orange-and-black-cover editions of Hal Lindsey's books.

Yet Lindsey's influence on that Darbyite template can still be seen in the pages of the Left Behind series. Nicolae Carpathia's evil agenda is primarily the nightmare scenario of the Birchers, but parts of it still come from Darby as filtered through Scofield as filtered again through Hal Lindsey.

Thus we come to Nicolae's plan for a single global currency. This is a bit of an afterthought in the Left Behind series, perhaps because it makes little sense. The less attention paid to this aspect of Nicolae's agenda the less pressure there is for LaHaye & Jenkins to concoct an explanation for why Nicolae would want such a thing.

Everybody knows, of course, that this has to happen because everybody knows that Revelation teaches that the Antichrist will control global commerce through a single currency and the Mark of the Beast. And by "everybody knows," I mean that Hal Lindsey said so. This was a big theme in The Late Great Planet Earth. It's thanks to Lindsey's book that many Americans have an enduring fear of UPC labels and PayPal accounts. The Georgia legislature's recent consideration of a bill to "prohibit requiring a person to be implanted with a microchip" can be traced directly to the influence of Hal Lindsey's warnings about the Mark of the Beast.

(The link there goes to reporter Jim Galloway's description of the painful spectacle of a hearing on Georgia's bill which, as he says, "becomes much less funny when a truly tortured soul bears her torment." Read Galloway's entire post, then re-read that Republican Party platform from Maine. Both, in precisely the same way, would be very funny if they were fictional. But because both are actual true stories they are instead, in precisely the same way, heartbreaking and tragic.)

Thus we come to today's passage in which Buck — still on the phone with Steve Plank — learns that the Lindsey agenda is still on track. We first get another two pages in which Buck repeatedly insists — contrary to his behavior thus far in these books — that he is a principled journalist who cannot be swayed by perks, prestige or personal favors to cover or not cover a particular story. Steve, who was involved in the negotiations of at least two such quid-pro-quo arrangements by Buck so far, isn't buying it, but he eve
ntually tires of the argument (long after I did reading it) and
triumphs over his friend by playing the "I know something you don't know" card:

Remember your big-shot predictions about a new one-world currency? That it would never happen? Watch the news tomorrow, pal. And remember that it was all Nicolae Carpathia's doing, diplomacy behind the scenes.

I'm not really sure how this particular prediction of Lindsey's is supposed to fit in with the competing scheme offered by LaHaye and the Maine Republicans. Their desire for a global return to a single gold standard seems more like what Lindsey described than anything sought by the global commie-hippie-greenie conspiracy they oppose. I suppose it has something to do with the nefarious machinations of international Jewish financiers, but unlike LaHaye I don't have the stomach to plow through all of William Guy Carr's and Ron Paul's writings to try to make sense of that aspect of their conspiracy theory.

But this business about "a new one-world currency" also seems a bit shakier when considering the recent news from Greece. That country's debt crisis seems to have called into question the very future of the euro and the limited attempt at an international currency that it represents. At this point in history it can't be easy to remain terrified of an impending "one-world currency."

This isn't the first time that the European Union has caused problems for LaHaye and the rest of post-Lindsey Bible prophecy fandom. They all followed Lindsey in believing that the 10 nations of the European Common Market were the 10-horned beast of the book of Revelation. When the common market grew to include more than 10 nations, they simply adjusted to the claim that it was both the 10-horned and the 7-horned beasts from John's Apocalypse. Then they sat back to wait for the European Common Market to reach 17 members, at which point they expected Jesus to rapture them to heaven and start torturing the unbelievers left behind.

The European Union now has 27 members — a number difficult to reconcile with any permutation of horns, heads or wings from any given set of beasts in Revelation. The expansion of the European Union coincided with the end of the Cold War — a time that also brought on an even more troubling development for the post-Lindsey PMD prognosticators: the violent reassertion of separatist nationalism. It must have been hard to keep oneself fearfully confident of an impending one-world government while watching the Balkanization of the Balkans unfold. How do you manage to stay frightened of the coming OWG when even a unified Yugoslavia proves impossible to sustain?

Thus was the context for both the Birchers and the Lindseyites by the mid-1990s when the first of the Left Behind books were published. History and reality and the world itself were not cooperating with the nightmare conspiracies on which they had staked their ideologies and their entire sense of meaning. A one-world government is coming, both groups warned, even though no one seemed to want one and history seemed headed in the opposite direction. A one-world currency is coming, both groups warned, even though no one could figure out why anyone would want such a thing.

And this is where Tim LaHaye rode to the rescue with the World's Worst Books. As history and reality and the world itself appeared increasingly hostile to the very identity of the Birchers and the Lindseyites, LaHaye provided them a refuge in fiction.

It's pretty awful fiction, of course, but that doesn't matter. It doesn't have to be compelling or interesting or any good at all in any conventional sense. All it needs to do is whisper to them that they are right while reality is shouting that they are wrong. If you're listening to reality, that Maine Republican platform seems ridiculous. But if you're ignoring reality and instead listening to the fiction of Tim LaHaye, then it makes perfect sense.

Browse Our Archives