I remember reading the novels. I read them in the gym of the high school I taught in. Sometimes students would ask me about them, and I’d say they were about the end of the world. But I also sometimes wondered if people would think I was a fundamentalist, an end-of-the-worlder, a kook. Now that the new movie is out, friend of ILYBYGTH Daniel Silliman has offered a thoughtful essay about what it means to be a fan of Left Behind.
For those of you who haven’t heard, the Left Behind series blew a lot of minds when it came out in the 1990s. Fundamentalist writer Tim LaHaye and his colleague Jerry Jenkins set out to present another gripping fictional story of the end of the world. But not just any end of the world. Left Behind told the story of the way many American fundamentalists have come to interpret the Bible’s eschatology.
Since around the beginning of the twentieth century, many (but by no means all!) fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have embraced the theology of dispensational premillennialism. This interpretation of the Bible sets out a series of ages, or “dispensations.” Our current Age is set to expire sometime soon. When it does, this theology predicts, Jesus will lift all true believers to meet him “in the air.” This event will be known as the “rapture.” After the rapture, those who have been left behind will suffer through seven years of tribulation before Jesus returns in glory. Once Jesus and his angelic hosts have defeated the Antichrist on the field of Armageddon, a thousand years of peace and love will follow on earth, the millennium.
That’s a quick and dirty summary, but for our purposes, it will do. Tim LaHaye was not the first prophecy writer to fictionalize this story. As many evangelicals of a certain age will remember, an older generation of films such as A Thief in the Night told a similar story, in a similarly dramatic fashion.
But LaHaye’s Left Behind series took this Bible apocalypse into the mainstream. Millions of people read the books. And evangelical sorta-star Kirk Cameron made a series of movies to bring the message to even more fans. And now, for some reason, there’s a new movie version, this time starring Nicholas Cage.
For nerds like me, the interesting question is not whether the new film is good or bad. (Although I couldn’t find a single review that said it was good. Just bad, really bad, and “God-awful.”) Instead, I want to know what it can tell us about American religion. Specifically, I want to know why so many people gobble up these fundamentalist bedtime stories. Is America really that sympathetic to fundamentalism? Does some part of our national psyche still yearn for this sort of stern hellfire morality play?
Daniel Silliman tackles this question of audience. Take a few minutes to read his whole essay. In short, he demonstrates that we can’t really assume much about America based on its seeming never-ending appetite for Biblical apocalypses. Just because millions of people read these books, we can’t assume we know if those readers bought into the fundamentalist end-of-the-world story.
Some people, Silliman notes, will watch this movie ironically. That is, they will rush out to see the movie to see just how silly those Christians will get this time around. Like the infamous Snakes on a Plane, many movies become popular because of their badness.
But Silliman also gives some examples of people who seem to embrace the film precisely because they embrace the theological message. Just because the story seems outrageous to me doesn’t mean that other viewers are not watching it with very different attitudes.
In other words, we must be careful about assuming too much from this film. If it flops, we will not be able to say that America has turned its back on fundamentalist theology. And if it’s a huge box-office success, we won’t be able to say that America is still a fundamentalist fief.