Dr. Sarah Hammond on Left Behind

Dr. Sarah Hammond on Left Behind November 30, 2012

Religious history scholar Sarah Hammond died last Thanksgiving, too soon.

I was not familiar with Dr. Hammond or her work until reading some of the tributes to her posted this week to mark the anniversary of her death. Here was the tribute from Provost Michael Halleran of William & Mary, where Hammond taught. Linn Tonstad remembered Hammond at Religion in American History and Sarah Morice-Brubaker mourned her loss at Religion Dispatches.

Writing at State of Formation this week, Kathryn Rey praises Hammond for “the ethic of critical empathy, which permeates her work”:

The worlds Sarah chose to study were not the ones in which she moved and operated. As an ardent Democrat, a female professor who held authority over men, and a lesbian, she had every reason to study people and events that empowered and vindicated her as a person.

But instead, she devoted herself to the study of evangelical Christian businessmen whose deepest values not only disagreed with hers but called her very personhood into question. Yet she dove into their world carrying no axe to grind, but with the empathy of one who had an abiding affection for those she studied.

That quality can be seen in Hammond’s assessment of the Left Behind series, which she saw as a useful window into the theology and culture of American evangelicalism. The following is a 2001 post by Hammond an academic forum, in which she encouraged her peers to take the series — and its readers — seriously:

Thanks to its Tom Clancy-esque potboiler prose, the series is an accessible gateway into what noninitiates might see as the arcane and remote history of popular premillennialism. Tim LaHaye’s Bob Jones roots and more recent engagement with therapeutic, suburban Protestantism are on full and ambivalent display, offering rich fodder for discussion both of conservative evangelicalism/fundamentalism and of religious readership in general.

Dr. Sarah Hammond, 1977-2011

For list members who haven’t read Left Behind and its successors, the books are techno-thriller versions of every fundamentalist child’s nightmare of being passed over at the Rapture. (In fact, there’s a kids’ series starring teenagers who blew their chance at the age of accountability. They find Jesus when they become Rapture orphans.) Theologically, the books offer the usual fare: pointed jabs at liberal churches whose Christianity consists in nonjudgmental do-gooding (all of whose stiff-necked members keep insisting that Revelation was never meant to be taken literally); philo-/anti-semitic anticipation of the “harvest” of Jewish converts; a strong anti-Catholic streak (a Pope in trouble with the Council of Cardinals for issuing dogmas that sound suspiciously Lutheran gets raptured, and the antiChrist appoints his successor as the head of the one-world religion); stern reminders, in the form of unraptured characters who had seemed like perfect Christians, that “head” religion is not the same as taking Jesus into your heart; elaborate analysis of biblical prophecies, down to identifying the antiChrist from a roster of candidates by his racial lineage. Readings from Paul Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More or Timothy Weber’s Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming may be useful — Boyer, especially, for the conspiratorial political context, since the antiChrist is based (where else?) at the U.N.

Culturally, Left Behind and its successors are a complicated and canny mix. The authors issue several pre-emptive strikes against the Elmer Gantry vein of mockery. All the main characters are upwardly mobile professionals, two of them Princeton- and Stanford-educated to boot. The New Class credentials are ambiguous. The explicit message is a thumb in the nose to fancy degrees and yuppie self-congratulation: after they’re saved, the characters realize how dumb they were when they thought they were so much smarter than everyone else. Yet LaHaye and Jenkins repeatedly underscore their heroes’ secular success, denying modern Menckens or Lewises any chance to sneer at Bible-thumping bumpkins. In the same vein, the writers are in love with up-to-the-minute technology, a perfect jumping-off point for a classroom challenge to the supposed anti-modernity of “fundamentalism.” To no small extent, these novels — like Clancy’s — are upscale boys’n’toys fantasies.

Boys’n’toys notwithstanding, gender is perhaps the most unresolved issue of all. (It would be great to get a demographic breakdown of the buyers.) LaHaye and Jenkins, building on the LaHaye duo’s pop psych, veer between essentialism and challenges to traditional gender roles that reveal how far feminism has diffused throughout the culture. It’s a Promise Keepers perspective, but that perspective is far from straightforwardly patriarchal. For the men of Left Behind, becoming Christians means getting in touch with their feelings and valuing family more than the rat race. The main female character is tough and assertive, challenges men who patronize her because of her gender, and becomes the CEO of a worldwide Christian co-op designed to evade the mark of the Beast. Sure, she agrees to submit to her husband. But the one time the issue comes up (at least through book 7), she tells him that the plan he wants her to obey is idiotic. He realizes that she’s right and he’s wrong, and doesn’t exercise his headship. Some “submission!” R. Marie Griffith’s, Christel Manning’s, and Brenda Brasher’s work on conservative Christian and Jewish women would be terrific supplements.

That’s perceptive, smart and kind. I’m saddened that we won’t get to read more and learn more from Dr. Hammond.

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  • BaseDeltaZero

    Except that the word ‘provinciality’, once stripped of the insinuation that being country folks causes ignorance, doesn’t actually mean jack shit. That’s where the ‘ignorance’ definition of ‘provinciality’ comes from, the belief that country folks are dumbshits as a rule.

    It means something more along the lines of ‘concerned only with the interests of one’s own group/local area’ – i.e. someone who thinks only about their own province.  There’s a certain association of this tendency with rural invididuals, and the word ‘provincial’ can mean ‘someone not from the capital/mainland’, but that’s not its only definition.

    I think “provincial” carries the connotation of insularity.

    True.  Though ‘insular’ is a direct insult to people living on islands, isn’t it?

    Not to mention that Clancy is a hypocrite on par with both L&J combined in that he’s written op-ed pieces criticizing violent video games while collecting tall dollars off the Rainbow Six franchise. 

    Really?  That’s… bold.  Because ‘Tom Clancy’ and ‘violent media’ seem pretty closely assosciated…

    Jack Ryan then becomes president by forcing the vice-president to resign and failing to prevent the assassination of the President, and although Clancy pretends he’s an independent, immediately begins ramming through Newt Gingrich’s program.  This gets approved by a Supreme Court all of whose members Ryan personally got to appoint.

    So, Jack Ryan pulls off a coup, essentially?

  • I think “provincial” carries the connotation of insularity.

    True.  Though ‘insular’ is a direct insult to people living on islands, isn’t it?

    Are you fucking kidding me?

  • Carstonio

    The language in Revelation is confusing because 13 says that everyone gets the Mark, and that it’s about commerce and not worship, whereas 14 says it’s only worn by worshippers.

  • EllieMurasaki

    So, Jack Ryan pulls off a coup, essentially?

    Technically no, I think. Scandal involving VP. VP fired. Ryan named VP. Terrorist attack on DC killing President, Supreme Court, and lots and lots of Congress; Ryan survived. The key bit here is the terrorist attack, which Ryan had nothing to do with; I’m pretty sure it can’t be called a coup if one has no control over or even foreknowledge of the removal from power of the people one will then replace.

  • I still found it AWFULLY convenient of Clancy to arrange that so Jack Ryan could fast-track to the Presidency. It’s that summary of the plot that convinced me not to read his later books.

  • Carstonio

    Once while channel-surfing, I caught a scene where Harrison Ford as Ryan is essentially chewing out the President. The latter embodied the stereotype that hawks have been pushing of Democratic presidents since Carter, of intellectuals as cowards. That alone would have discouraged me from reading Clancy’s books. I got the impression that Clancy’s idea of sound foreign policy amounts to the US being the world bully. Is that accurate?

  • Akili

    *pulls out her shiny Anthropology Privilege Badge* Because the first thing you’re taught when you study Anthropology (which I’m going to assume that she did) is that you do not judge. Because by judging another culture on your own belief system brings us to A) not really get to know the culture because we’re judging the hell out of it and people can see it B) kinda brings you back into the mighty whitey deciding how the others should live.
    Now you can have your own feelings on the people (it’s of course impossible not to), but you don’t put it into your findings. In fact the best things I was ever told was “keep two things to write in, one for your findings and another for your feelings on the findings.”

  • It kind of gets worse from there.

    After all, it’s not just the President, but practically the entire legislature that gets wiped out, so Ryan proceeds to make a heartfelt plea to the nation to please send replacement Senators… but not politicians, please, because politicians suck. He wants real people who have real jobs, who can come to Washington and fix everything over the weekend and then go back to their regular lives.

    Which, of course, they pretty much do.

    All of that said, I enjoyed the books quite a bit. It helps not to take them at all seriously.

  • And on a bonus tangent, the terrorist attack you mentioned is a pilot flying a large plane (I think it was a 747, though not at all fully loaded) into the US Capitol building.  Which kind of puts a different gloss on Condoleeza Rice’s infamous “No one could have imagined them taking a plane, slamming it into the Pentagon, into the World Trade Center, using planes as a missile.”  Clearly, it was quite imaginable.  (I happened to imagine it myself a couple of years earlier, from a completely different angle; it’s really pretty trivial.)

  • I think “provincial” carries the connotation of insularity.

    True.  Though ‘insular’ is a direct insult to people living on islands, isn’t it?

    I always heard both words as meaning “isolated; ignorant of the wider world,” due to the idea of people from a given province/island not really getting to see the world outside their province/island. Because ignorance tends to be seen negatively, the words have negative connotation. To my mind, though, the negativity was less insulting than that associated with “bumpkin” or “hick”, which seemed to me to connote stupidity associated with rurality, or “redneck”, which seemed to connote all that plus a willfulness to the stupidity and a bigoted outlook on others.

    Again, just the way I’ve heard them. Am not arguing for a particular usage; just offering a datapoint.

    The beginning of the argument in this thread about “bumpkin” reminded me a lot of when people claim that their use of N-word refers not to race but to behavior, as though the N-word had a non-racist history that they were reclaiming back from the bigots. Me, I always figured that there is a perfectly non-race-related and non-racism-birthed word for asshole, and that word is “asshole.”


    Rising Sun by Crichton is every bit as awful. Crichton recycles almost every cliche of pre-WW II Japanophobes….

    And also shares with Clancy’s books the idea of Asians as sexual deviants, if I remember correctly. Didn’t that book start out with the body of a Japanese woman who had been strangled, and the protagonists were trying to determine if it was murder made to look like botched erotic asphyxiation or just plain old botched erotic asphyxiation?

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     How about “Po’bucker”?  Can we still use that to refer to the hard-of-thinking?

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     In other words, they’re essentially serving Bane/the Lawgiver from the
    Ravenloft campaign setting, so, by extension, LaJenkins are probably a
    pair of Mulan clerics who somehow blundered their way into our world and
    got stuck.

    “If we could just convince the apocalypse-wanters to wear black hooded robes and refer to Jesus as “Bane” or “Cyric”, it’d only be a matter of time before some hoodlums in chainmail kicked down the door, slaughtered them all and took their stuff.

    Shit, I wonder how many XP Pat Robertson is worth?” — some wiseguy on RPG.net.

  • EllieMurasaki

    *frowns at UrbanDictionary* I’ma guess not.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    I think “provincial” carries the connotation of insularity.

    True.  Though ‘insular’ is a direct insult to people living on islands, isn’t it?

    Are you fucking kidding me?

    That’s an insult to the asexual.  CHECK Y9UR PRIVILEGE.

  • P J Evans

    He ain’t dead yet!

    Physically, no. Politically, oh yes.

  • I haven’t even heard the term “poor buckra” outside of Harry Turtledove’s TL-191 series these days.

  • P J Evans

    It’s that summary of the plot that convinced me not to read his later books.

    I read that one, and pretty much gave up on them at that point, or maybe with the next one. It’s the bigger (and less believable) disasters htat keep having to be even bigger and less believable, as he writes more.
    (I only have two on my shelves: Red October and Red Storm Rising. All the rest are, IMO, not worth much.)

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     The Church of the SubGenius uses “Po’Buckers” a lot.  Rev. Stang is from Dallas, which might help explain a few things about the church.

  • Lliira

     I think I know what’s going on in her description of the LB books as comparatively feminist. It’s the same way in which the Twilight books are comparatively feminist. In that culture — right-wing religious American culture — anything that assigns any value whatsoever to women seems feminist and even revolutionary. And when you’ve steeped yourself in that garbage long enough, Chloe being allowed to disagree with Buck without being killed horribly starts to look relatively feminist.

    This is a danger in studying one culture too long. You start to say things that are absurd to anyone not also acquainted with that culture, and start to give leeway to people who should have none because at least they aren’t as bad as they could be. I’ve experienced this myself. It’s something that happens often to historians, as well as anthropologists and sociologists.

  • Also, the danger of cultural relativism, I find, is that it’s easy to start dressing up excusing certain things in the cloak of anti-imperialism.

    As an example, in a group I was in once, a person criticized the revival of an Afghani cultural practice of letting teenage males (~14-18) be paired off with much older men (usually with some wealth or income). Another person, coincidentally in the very age group of the older men in question, managed to shut that down with “Well, we shouldn’t be imperialist about that.”

    It stuck in my craw at the time, and still does, because there’s no obvious way to counter that argument without getting very personal about it, but in my opinion the older man’s argument (based on what I knew of his self-described tendency to hang out mostly with much younger men) was simply self-serving.

  • Carstonio

    Elsewhere I’ve noticed defensiveness when child bridehood comes under criticism, and I can understand the feeling given the colonial history of such nations. While people who live in other cultures have just as much right to condemn the practice, they have a responsibility to understand the context and to address their condemnations with that understanding. Outsiders’ condemnations are likely to be taken as “Oh, those awful families selling their daughters into marital slavery” even when that’s not the critic’s viewp0int. I don’t blame a family for seeing child bridehood as more tolerable than the only other options, the daughter ending up raped or prostituted. At least in my case, the condemnation is really of those societies being man-oriented, where all roles for women involve being controlled, dominated or used by men.

  • Magic_Cracker

    I <3 "Shibumi" not only for it's parodic elements, but it also had some rather heart-pounding scenes … I'm thinking of the cave-crawl, specifically. I ended up stealing it for a Call of Cthulhu adventure.

  • In other words, they’re essentially serving Bane/the Lawgiver from the Ravenloft campaign setting

    I’ve long felt that Bane/the Lawgiver is one of the most plausible evil gods in terms of having actual worshipers rather than simply being placated. A God of Tyranny is very appealing to some people.

  •  > one of the most plausible evil gods in terms of having actual worshipers rather than simply being placated

    The god of torture in the Paksenarrion books worked for me in this vein, as well.

  • The god of torture in the Paksenarrion books worked for me in this vein, as well.

    IIRC, Moon based Paks’ world on a Forgotten Realms campaign she played in for years, so it had an expy for Bane as well as for Loviatar (the torture god) and Lolth (the spider goddess).

  • Joe smith

    I just re-read Shibumi (loved it as a kid) and I was surprised how well it held up.  Don’t understand the hate its getting. 

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I’ve not read the books — Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart, if it’s a grave sin to put oneself in a position of authority over something that you’re culpably ignorant of, how much of a sin is it to pan a piece of pop fiction that you haven’t actually read?

    I’m gonna say less than being a national politician who is incurious about the world. But the precise degree depends. Are you publishing your criticism or otherwise doing something that lends an air of authority to your opinions, or are you spouting off to a mate at the bar? Are you criticising the segments that you have read, or pretending that you’ve read the whole thing when you haven’t. Still, I’m going to say that it’s pretty unlikely to be a grave sin in almost any circumstances!

    I did end up reading “The Da Vinci Code” myself several years ago because I wanted to take the piss out of it with integrity :)

  • I am hoping the same best work from you in the future as well.