Originally posted June 6, 2005.
Left Behind, pp. 101-104
I’ve previously joked about how the Left Behind series is “Pretrib Porno” because of its fetishistic appeal for followers of that kinky eschatology, And we’ve frequently noted how the characters’ names — Buck, Steele, Dirk — seem drawn from the adult section of the local video store. But there’s another sense, joking aside, in which these books truly are pornographic: they contain spiritually explicit scenes of graphic religious conversion.
Religious ecstasy, like sexual ecstasy, is difficult to portray directly in a work of art. It is too intimate, sacred and transcendent — and any portrayal that fails to respect that will seem reductive and cheap. A good artist knows when to fade to black (or, as in Dante’s “Paradiso,” to fade to white), when to suggest rather than to show, when implicit metaphor will be more truthful than explicit detail. Pornographers — be they sexual or spiritual — don’t care about such things. They neither acknowledge nor seek to convey anything transcendent in their subject, replacing transcendence with titillation. Their audience is never caught up in the mystery and ecstasy of rapture, only teased with the cheap thrills of a great snatch.*
The conversion scenes in LB, like all pornography, require the reader to overcome an instinctive reaction to look away when stumbling across such intimate scenes, choosing instead the trespassive thrill of voyeurism.
These scenes have something else in common with pornography: They take an event that is — or ought to be — primarily about love and portray it as something from which love is absent or irrelevant.
We have not yet arrived at the money shot of Rayford Steele’s big conversion scene, but these pages begin to lay the groundwork for it. Love is not a factor in any of this — not God’s love for Rayford, nor his love for God. Rayford seems, rather, to be motivated by fear and by a calculus of rewards and punishment.
Rayford lay there grieving, knowing the television would be full of scenes he didn’t want to see, dedicated around the clock to the tragedy and mayhem all over the world. And then it hit him. …
I should have known better, but I read that and hoped that what “hit him” was somehow connected to all that tragedy and mayhem “he didn’t want to see.” That Rayford’s little epiphany might include the idea that all this suffering involved others who were people just like him. That his utter self-centeredness — his contemptuous dismissal of others’ pain, others’ significance — was the sin from which he needed to repent lest it destroy him.
But no, what “hit him” was the idea that he and Chloe:
… had to find out how they had missed everything Irene had been trying to tell them, why it had been so hard to accept and believe. Above all, he had to study, to learn, to be prepared for whatever happened next.
If the disappearances were of God, if they had been his doing, was this the end of it? The Christians, the real believers, get taken away, and the rest are left to grieve and mourn and realize their error? Maybe so. Maybe that was the price. But what happens when we die? he thought. If heaven is real, if the Rapture was a fact, what does that say about hell and judgment? Is that our fate? We go through this hell of regret and remorse, and then we literally go to hell, too?
Irene had always talked of a loving God, but even God’s love and mercy had to have limits. Had everyone who denied the truth pushed God to his limit? Was there no more mercy, no second chance? Maybe there wasn’t, and if that was so, that was so.
But if there were options, if there was still a way to find the truth and believe or accept or whatever it was Irene said one was supposed to do, Rayford was going to find it. …
Contrast this attitude with the delightfully repetitive insistence in 1 John 4 that All You Need Is Love. “Fear has to do with punishment,” John writes, simultaneously summarizing and rejecting the central theme of Left Behind:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. …
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
I wish I could tell you that LaHaye and Jenkins were only presenting Rayford’s fear-driven response to God as an initial, immature stage of his spiritual journey. But throughout the books, this remains the essence of Rayford’s, and L&J’s, understanding of the meaning of our relationship with God.
Salvation is never a matter of “we love because he first loved us,” but is primarily seen as an escape clause from hell for those who accept or believe or do whatever it is that they do when they say the magic words. That magical utterance — not God’s love or mercy — affords the only limit to, the only shelter from, God’s all-consuming wrath.
It’s no wonder that Rayford does not respond with love toward the vengeful, arbitrary “God” of Left Behind. Love is something that such a God neither desires nor deserves.
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* The obscene wordplay here is not mine. “The Great Snatch” is the title of Hal Lindsay’s chapter on the “Rapture” in his 1970s bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth. This is the preferred translation among premillennial dispensationalists for the Greek word “harpazo,” which is usually translated “caught up” — as in 1 Corinthians 12:2-4: “I know a man in Christ who 14 years ago was caught up to the third heaven. … caught up to Paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.” The mysterious, ecstatic quality of this being caught up is reflected in the primary meaning of the word “rapture” — “the state of being carried away with joy, love, etc.; ecstasy.” If you want to understand the meaning of “harpazo,” you’re better off turning to Anita Baker than to LaHaye and Jenkins.