Bad Theology makes for bad movies: ‘Left Behind’ is a story with no place for real humans

Bad Theology makes for bad movies: ‘Left Behind’ is a story with no place for real humans October 3, 2014

The reviews of the new Left Behind movie continue to pour in, and they are uniformly bad. The pacing, effects, dialogue and acting (poor Jordin Sparks) are getting savaged. There’s some tasty shadenfreude pie to be enjoyed in that, but it’s not surprising enough to be really interesting. The principle still stands: You can’t make chicken soup from chicken poop.

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Director Vic Armstrong and his cast (Nic Cage, Mrs. McFly, et. al.) were faced with an impossible task. This story just does not work. This story cannot work because it’s based on the theological nightmare of Tim LaHaye’s Scofield/Bircher fever dreams, and LaHaye’s theology is incoherent and nonsensical at every level.

When we speak of “theology,” many people just assume we’re talking about God and doctrine and stuff the Bible says. But God is far from the only character in the story of theology. Theology is the story of God’s relationship with humanity — with real human beings like you and me and everyone we know and everyone who ever lived. The parts of that story that pertain to God will always be, at some level, speculative — marked by assertions and contentions that can never be wholly proved or wholly falsified. But the other part of theology — the part of the story that tells us about humanity, about people — is something we can verify, measure, confirm or disprove, based on our own experience and our observations of the experience of others.

A movie based on Tim LaHaye’s theology is bound to upset biblical scholars who will be baffled by his contention that this is something that can be found in — rather than imposed on — the Bible. And it will confound systematic theologians who focus on the God parts of theology, appalling them with its horrific claims about the character and nature of God.

But set all that aside. You don’t need to be a seminary graduate to understand the theological problems with this story — you just need to be a human being. That’s the insurmountable problem for any attempt to make a movie based on LaHaye’s theological-sounding ideology. That movie will have to put human beings up there on the screen, but LaHaye’s theology and LaHaye’s story will not allow those human beings to act like human beings.

Humans who behaved like real humans would disprove LaHaye’s story at every turn. Humans who behave like real humans disprove LaHaye’s theology.

The most perceptive reviews of the new Left Behind movie recognize this. Set aside the disturbing picture this story paints of God as a deranged mofo who art in heaven. The real problem is that LaHaye’s theology cannot allow for humans to act like humans. And thus a movie portraying LaHaye’s theology cannot allow for actors to act.

Babies disappear on flying planes and parents object, but don’t tear around the aisles screaming or, say, look under the seats,” Michael Ordoña wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. That’s what substitutes for human nature in Tim LaHaye’s theology — what his theology requires human nature to be like. But when we see it portrayed on the screen we find it unbelievable, alien, and utterly false. We see that it cannot be true.

The story’s “lack of concern for the way people actually interact,” Ordoña says, “renders the film useless as entertainment, or as a conversion tool.” This story is inhuman. Therefore it is untellable. And unbelievable. We cannot believe it.

Bill Gibron of Pope Matters also objects to Left Behind’s obtuseness about humanity:

Oh, and did we mention the know-it-all investigative reporter, Buck Williams, played by Chad Michael Murray, a journalist savvy enough to find ripe stories in the most unusual of places but completely and utterly flummoxed by something, The Rapture, that has been discussed in the media ad nauseum for the last three decades? Indeed, Left Behind is a movie that acts like Praise The Lord and the Christian television network, 3ABN, never existed. As a source of constant cash infusion, the End Days have been a Christian TV fundraising favorite, and yet no one here can figure out what’s going on. Hell, Jay Baruchel, Seth Rogen, and their buddies were high on weed during almost all of This is the End, and even they figured out that God was giving humanity the big demonic send-off. The people in Left Behind remain sadly perplexed.

This highlights two separate problems for Left Behind. First, there’s Tim LaHaye’s ironic role in rendering his own “prophecies” impossible. These future events, he insists, will happen exactly as prophesied, but that prophecy requires that no one experiencing those events has any understanding of what is happening. Yet thanks in part to LaHaye and the 65 million copies of Left Behind he’s sold, that aspect of his prophecy can no longer be true.

That points to a deeper problem based on what we as humans know to be true about human nature. “The Rapture” and the premillennial dispensationalist nightmare of the Great Tribulation would inform those “left behind,” with clarity and certainty, that they were now living in Tim LaHaye’s horror-show universe. Even those unfamiliar with the particulars of “Bible prophecy” as charted out by LaHaye and John Hagee and Hal Lindsey would quickly come to appreciate the rules of this universe: There is a God and this — terrifyingly — is what that God is like.

The human response to that would be nothing like the human response that LaHaye “prophesies” — nothing like the human response his theology requires.

This is not speculation. We know this based on observation and experience. We know the various ways actual humans respond when they find themselves impotent in the face of arbitrary cruelty and injustice. Many people will try to Get With the Program — ascertaining the Rules as reliably as possible and aligning themselves with those Rules in order to escape punishment (whether from the Secret Police or from the Two Bobs and middle management). Others will try to game the system, rig the stats, suck-up to the new Powers That Be. And still others will refuse to accept their powerlessness — collecting monkey wrenches and studying the gears of the new machine for any way to disrupt it.

But no actual human being will ever agree to stick to a scripted fate that ensures their destruction. Rogen and James Franco’s stoner comedy understood this. Left Behind can never understand this. This Is the End was an unholy mess, but it showed us humans who were recognizably human. That makes Rogen and Franco better theologians than LaHaye and Jenkins.

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