‘The Missing Christians’: Why are Rapture stories always so dull?

‘The Missing Christians’: Why are Rapture stories always so dull? February 11, 2014

One of my great frustrations with Left Behind and its sequels, as well as with its many precursors and imitators, is that none of them is anywhere near as exciting as it seems like such stories ought to be.

The book of Revelation is a vivid piece of literature. Say whatever else you like about John’s Apocalypse, but it’s not dull. Adopt the psychedelic imagery of that scripture as the shooting script for a movie and you ought to have something dazzlingly strange. Imagine “Julie Taymor’s Book of Revelation.” I’d pay to see that. Twice. Or the animated version from Ralph Bakshi. Or Tim Burton’s stop-motion recreation of the book. Or Terry Gilliam’s. Or David Lynch’s. (I’d pay to see a short film by Lynch based exclusively on Revelation 8:1.)

Part of the problem is that none of the people interested in portraying the story of Revelation are interested in the actual book itself. They’re telling a different story — the premillennial dispensationalist mythology of Rapture, Tribulation, Antichrist, etc., which is, at best, loosely inspired by the last book in the New Testament.

But even that ought to be an exciting story. Millions vanish, then a global dictator arises, followed by an escalating series of calamities — how can you turn that into something dull? Tim LaHaye’s embellishments to this mythology — grafting in all the conspiracy theories he learned as a member of the John Birch Society — make the story loonier and even less plausible, but while this Bircher crack-pottery may be bonkers, it also ought to provide the raw material for an entertaining story.

And yet it never seems to.*

I have a soft spot for Donald W. Thompson’s old Rapture movies — the Thief in the Night series — because he at least tried to make this story exciting. Yes, those movies are hobbled by inadequate budgets, casts and scripts, but Thompson knew which end of a camera was which, and even though his story was straining under the weight of his “message” for viewers, he mostly stuck with telling that story rather than only delivering that message.

Here’s a little something to make you better appreciate Thompson’s accomplishment: Christian Nightmares shares a link to “The classic 1952 Rapture film The Missing Christians in its entirety.”

This was produced by “Evangel Films,” an early project by the late Rev. Levi James Smith. (You can read Smith’s type-written account of the filming here.)

Before you click play on that video, I should warn you: This is bad.

You probably expect that, but this is far, far worse than you’re expecting. This is far, far worse than you’re expecting even if you take into account that it will be far, far worse than you’re expecting.

It’s addictively, compellingly bad. Watch the first five minutes and you may get hooked, unable to look away, and then you may wind up watching the whole thing — all 50 execrable minutes of it. And I don’t want to be blamed for costing you that nearly-an-hour of your life that you can never get back.

If you do wind up watching the whole thing, though, there are some pleasures of a sort to be found:

• All of the line-readings are awkwardly stilted and unnatural, but Norma’s mother and siblings are worth noting as especially bad. Watch how they shut down, completely, whenever they’re not speaking.

• The look of murderous contempt in the younger sister’s reaction shot at 7:12. (I’m tempted to nominate this film as a candidate for Mallory Ortberg’s Femslash Fridays, possibly because of that jawline.)

• The woman with the hat playing piano in church at 11:39. (This won’t be as interesting to the rest of you, probably, but a woman who sometimes played piano at the independent fundie Baptist church I grew up in had that very same hat.)

• The greaser/young Tom Waits at the right end of the row in that same church scene at 11:50 (sitting next to Mr. Slugworth from Willy Wonka).

• The off-camera people casting silhouette-shadows in the angel’s light around 12:15.

• When the angel lectures the sleeping Norma because she: “Sought satisfaction in worldly pleasures, in the company of pleasure-loving young people. You hardened your heart. You neglected the church for the frivolities of modern unbelievers” — which is almost exactly what the folks criticizing Donald Miller have been saying.

• The revelation of the angel’s face at 17:05 — gaah! Make it go away! Go back to Norma’s inappropriately erotic dreaming!

• The glory of the terrycloth Rapture at 19 minutes in.

• Norma’s scenery-chewing throughout, but particularly at 19:20: “They’ve gone to be with the Lord! And I … Norma Norton … am left behind! … As God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!

• The camera-pointer’s accidental decapitation of Rev. Wise’s church secretary, turning her unnecessary entrances and exits into weirdly gratuitous 1950s T&A shots and providing fodder for a scholarly film-crit essay on “The Male Gaze in the Films of the Rev. Levi J. Smith.”

• The point around 34:50 or so where the Rev. Wise seems either to be having a seizure or to be caught in an inescapable loop of double-takes.

• The round of inexplicable dramatic reaction shots that begins at 37:39, which recalls those round-the-table, pass-the-dutchie scenes in every episode of That ’70s Show.

• The way the climactic amplified retelling of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins anticipates Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

• The accidental reminder from this parable that “biblical marriage” is between one man and 10 women, just as God intended.

• The rejection of the foolish virgin, in this expanded re-imagining of this as a “Rapture” parable, who pleads with God to accept her because “I spent much of my time helping to improve the social conditions.” She is, of course, damned to Hell.

• The final embrace between mother and daughter, in which the camera lingers just a bit too long, catching the blinking and sidelong glances of the two women like the end of an episode of Police Squad!

So, yes, every aspect of this film is poorly done. The writing is terrible. The acting is worse than you can imagine. The camerawork and editing is horrifically clumsy.

But all of that awfulness turns out to be the movie’s only redeeming feature. Take away all of that delicious incompetence, replace it with capable acting and passable direction, and you’d be left with a relentlessly dull story. Once again, a Rapture-enthusiast has taken what ought to be an exciting, interesting story and rendered it into something bland, uneventful and dull, dull, dull.

Part of the problem here, as in Left Behind, is that the “storytellers” of Evangel Films aren’t nearly as interested in telling their story as they are in settling the score with their perceived enemies. These are the same enemies that haunt the sleep of Tim LaHaye — those sophisticated “liberal” Christians who refuse to concede the expertise of “Bible prophecy” experts. Just like Left Behind, The Missing Christians is a revenge fantasy in which those evil sophisticates are “proved” wrong and the righteous are proved right.

The Missing Christians can’t even be bothered with giving us an Antichrist. The villain of the piece, instead, is this story’s Bruce Barnes figure — the fiendishly evil Rev. Mortimer Wise.

“Rev. Wise is pastor of a modernistic church in this city and so much opposed to Christianity as we know it,” Ma Joad tells us in the opening exposition.

Her fallen daughter, Norma, reinforces this soon after: “He’s my type of minister. None of this old-time religion for me. Why, we have to be progressive! Rev. Wise doesn’t take any stock in this revival tomfoolery, and neither do I.”

Ma, of course, recoils from such language, as though she had been physically struck: “How I wish you had never heard Rev. Wise preach. I know he’s your pastor, but Norma, he’s so tainted with modernism. You do not believe in a born-again experience, nor a need of Christ. Rev. Wise doesn’t believe in the Bible as the inspired Word of God. He doesn’t know that the coming of the Lord is near.” (I think Erick Erickson may have been quoting from this movie in his recent post.)

The Rev. Wise himself confirms all this later, when we see him in his study, learning from Mrs. Stork (Store? Storm? … the one who looks like a young Margaret Thatcher) that his missing wife and daughter were last seen at a tent revival meeting. “Impossible! The very idea!” he recites. “Terrible. I am shocked beyond words. My wife knows that I have no place in my ministry for such moth-eaten stuff as evangelism and revivals.”

Later, Norma arrives to chastise the evil modernist preacher for deceiving so many into missing the Rapture: “Since you have deceived me and a multitude of other church people, I think I have a right to tell you just how I feel! You don’t realize how responsible you are, preaching to us Sunday after Sunday, as though we would live on this Earth forever.”

These folks never imagined, back in 1952, that people might still be watching this movie in 2014. They were certain — absolutely certain — that there would never be a 2014. Looking back, 62 years later, it’s hard to fault the Rev. Wise for not assuring his congregation that the Rapture would occur soon, in their lifetimes. Their lifetimes have come and gone. The man who portrayed the Rev. Wise and the woman who played Mrs. Stork and even Maggie Thatcher herself are all long gone, and yet the Rapture still tarries.

I suppose the woman who played Norma might still be around, but I have to wonder if she’s been able to maintain this same sense of urgent anticipation for the past six decades. I’d guess the sunk-cost fallacy and the human inclination to always believe that a stingy slot-machine must be “getting due” could keep that otherworldly fervor burning for a bit, but 62 years seems like a tall order.

Anyway, since this is a revenge fantasy, after all, the important bit here is that the Rev. Wise must be shown to repent and to recant, bewailing the prideful foolishness that kept him from just admitting what he surely must have known to be true all along — that the Rev. Levi J. Smith was completely right about everything and people like him, with all their sophistication and book-learning and such, were completely wrong.

“I am deeply ashamed of myself,” he says. “I have lived and taught a false philosophy. I have not believed the Bible. But now I am convinced the Bible is true.”

That is the greatest fantasy, the deepest desire, the wishiest wish of these filmmakers, just as hearing such cartoon “liberals” saying that is the greatest fantasy and deepest desire of Tim LaHaye.

This is where, if I were writing this script, I would have Norma, Wise and Stork band together as a “Tribulation Force” — a group of fearsome guerrilla fighters pledged to resist the Antichrist by any means necessary. Eventually, Wise would atone for his past sins by sacrificing his life for the others. “Wolveriiiines!” he’d cry, his bowtie now strapped around his forehead like Rambo’s bandanna, as the Antichrist’s modernist combat helicopters gunned him down.

But nothing that exciting can or does happen here. Instead they all just turn on the TV and watch as the newsman says, “People commonly known as devoted Christians are missing. In every instance, it seems that the very ones who were looked upon as extreme in their adherence to the so-called ‘old-time religion’ are now missing.”

“Looked upon.” The filmmakers — like nearly all Rapture storytellers — hate the way they’re “looked upon,” or the way they imagine they’re looked upon. And this film, like so many of these Rapture stories, is mainly their revenge fantasy on those who they believe have been looking upon them wrong.

As it turns out, that always makes for a really dull story.

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* The exceptions are when this story is adapted by people who are not, themselves, Rapture enthusiasts or “Bible prophecy scholars.” The Omen is campy fun. Good Omens is a hilarious romp. Are we ever going to get a Good Omens movie? I’m thinking the two Colins (Firth and Farrell) would be good in the leads, but I’m open to other suggestions.

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