Who “Gets” Left Behind

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.

Clarence Larkin's theological charts were very popular among the first generation of fundamentalists in the 1920s.

Clarence Larkin’s theological charts were very popular among the first generation of fundamentalists in the 1920s.

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.

Left Behind

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.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Bob Dylan Bible Apocalypse

From the fantastic website Letters of Note ILYBYGTH recently dug up a missive by Bob Dylan dating from his Fundamentalist Phase.

In this April, 1980 letter, Dylan thanks his friend for a new Bible.  It’s not clear from the letter what edition the gift Bible was, but Dylan said the new edition helped him understand the King James Version.

Dylan wrote from Toronto.  His audiences, he said, heard the call of “the Spirit of the Lord,” but they were more interested in lining up to see Apocalypse Now than to be “baptized and filled with the Holy Ghost.”

It’s news to me, but apparently any self-respecting Bob Dylan fan has long pondered the meaning of Dylan’s “Jesus Years.”  It seems between 1979 and roughly 1983, Dylan embraced evangelical Christianity and cranked out a few missionary albums, starting with “Slow Train Coming.”

The story goes something like this: in a drug-fueled crisis, with critics viciously panning his recent creative output, Dylan embraced the Word.  The meaning and sincerity of this period in Dylan’s life has been the subject of long debate among Dylan fans and other interested parties.  Some Jewish commentators have lamented Dylan’s apostasy.  Evangelicals have celebrated his recognition of their worldview.  But did he really mean it?  Some commentators conclude that Dylan blundered around his evangelical Christian faith just as he blundered through worlds of drugs and sex.  Others insist that Dylan later repudiated his Bible years as merely an unfortunate drug-fueled mistake.  Still others contend that Dylan represents the true power and healing grace of Biblical Christianity. 

A choppy documentary film about the “Jesus Years” seems only to have deepened the mystery and controversy.

Whatever fans and critics may conclude about the longevity of Dylan’s fundamentalism, this Toronto letter, at least, shows that for some stretch of time, Dylan talked the talk of evangelical Christianity.  His hopes for the Toronto crowds sound similar to those of any other fundamentalist preacher.

For ILYBYGTH readers, the meanings of Dylan’s fundamentalist years have different implications.  From one perspective, we can read Dylan’s conversion as an insight into the meanings of fundamentalist America.  When Dylan reached a late-1970s low, one of the preachers who understood his dark night of the soul, apparently, was Bill Dwyer of the evangelical Vineyard Fellowship.  At least according to documentary director Joel Gilbert, this Biblical outreach organization had become popular among the Southern California music scene, and Dylan fell into its outreach arm and embraced its apocalyptic message.

In this interpretation, the story demonstrates the often-surprising cultural power of fundamentalism.  Even in the midst of the famously Satanic rock-and-roll lifestyle, fundamentalism becomes a powerful cultural force.  Dylan and his associates were drawn to the inestimable power of Jesus’ saving grace.  It offered them a compelling personal, social, and cosmological message that made sense to them.  Fundamentalism, in this understanding, can hold its own among those most deeply immersed in the intensely hedonistic world of American celebrity.

Seen from another perspective, however, Dylan’s embrace of fundamentalist America can appear as nothing more than one drastic lifestyle choice at America’s all-you-can-take cultural buffet.  That is, Dylan clung briefly to fundamentalist Christianity just as he clung briefly to heroin, then later clung to fundamentalist Judaism.  Dylan chose Biblical Christianity, but other American celebrities fled from the intense despair of celebrity into the spiritual arms of yoga, veganism, Zen Buddhism, psychotherapy, or other anti-celebrity spiritual shelters.  In this reading, fundamentalist America is simply the rock to which a despairing Dylan clung.  It is not the bedrock of all American virtue, but rather just another option in an ultimately meaningless cultural panoply.  Dylan’s brief embrace of fundamentalist America only demonstrates, in this reading, the ways fundamentalism has lost its status as The One Truth.  Fundamentalism, in this reading, has become just another menu option for the spiritual thrill-seeker.

Whatever else it may mean, Dylan’s story can tell us something about the appeal of fundamentalist America to those outside its boundaries.  Whatever Dylan may have been experiencing as a crisis of the soul, when he reached out for the opposite, he found Bible-based evangelical Christianity.  To him­—and to generations of his fans and devotees—this kind of apocalyptic, Bible-based, aggressively proselytizing fundamentalist Christianity represented the opposite of everything he had stood for.  When his secular, hedonistic lifestyle led Dylan to an unsupportable personal crisis, he embraced fundamentalism as its shining opposite.

INTRO: God Hates . . . Figs? The Bible as America’s Book

If you log your required hours on Facebook, you’ve probably already seen this one.  The provenance of this photo isn’t clear, but it has been flying through many of the interweb’s tubes lately.  I got it from the site Stuff Fundies Like  The folks there speculate it must have come from an annual Peeps diorama contest.  Makes sense.  Who else would spend the time?

I’m including it not only because it’s hilarious, but because it helps me introduce ILYBYGTH’s newest thread: Why do fundamentalists care so much about what the Bible says?  For non-fundamentalist Americans, it seems like a bizarre fetish.  Why, after all, would we base our public policies on a group of texts from a relatively obscure bunch of herders writing their ancient prohibitions thousands of years ago in the dust and dismay of the Jordan River valley?  Why should the science curriculum in our children’s schools be influenced by the creation myth of one obscure group of ancient people?  The criticisms seem too easy to bother to make.  Perhaps we could similarly ban exploration of the North Pole since it will disrupt the operations of Santa’s Workshop?  Maybe a powerful faction of our government could get together weekly for ‘Fairy Breakfasts’ to discuss the use of the Tooth Fairy as a non-governmental supplier of dental care?

Yet unlike these other quaint myths, the Bible does play a significant role in guiding contemporary American politics and culture.  Those who indulge in snarky critiques of Bible believers—Peep-based or otherwise—are really the ones who have a fundamental misunderstanding of American culture.  Through the late twentieth century, according to Gallup polls, roughly one-third of Americans agree that “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally word for word.”  In addition, roughly one-half of Americans believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, though perhaps not literally true word for word.  In 2000, when asked, “Do you believe the Bible answers all or most of the basic questions of life, or not?” 65% of respondents answered yes.  The corollary is obvious: there is a strong public sentiment in the US of A that the Bible should somehow be included in all decisions, public and private.  A significant proportion of citizens do not find it odd to use this collection of ancient Hebrew writings to make twenty-first-century policy decisions.

Posts on this thread will explore the reasons for this widely shared belief.

  • First, ILYBYGTH will look at the history of the Bible in public life.  How has it been used as a textbook in American public schools?  What does it mean that one of the most pressing emergencies on November 22, 1963, a day seared into national consciousness, was to locate a Bible so that LBJ could be sworn in as the new President on Air Force One?
  • Next, posts will delve into reasons why fundamentalists care so much about it.  Why do fundamentalists insist that the Bible should be allowed to dictate public policy?  Why do they think the Bible must remain the guide, moreover, to our understanding of science and humanity?
  • Third, ILYBYGTH will look at the ways the Bible has been seen as a universal panacea.  Historically, fundamentalists have seen the Bible as a literally miraculous book.  The merest exposure to its pages, many fundamentalists believe, can convert the ignorant to fundamentalism.  Similarly, reading the Bible has been seen as an inoculation against all forms of spiritual danger and doubt.
  • And finally, at the end of all times, we’ll explore the end of the world, Bible style.  We’ll look into different readings of Bible prophecy and predictions of the apocalypse.  Such prophecies have tended to focus the fundamentalist mind on the tricky question of Biblical interpretation.  For most fundamentalists, one of the Bible’s unique powers is that its meaning is clear to all readers.  So how have so many earnest interpreters differed on such key questions as the end of all times?

Of course, this plan is subject to change and digression.  And new Bible questions are welcome from readers and commentators.  If you consider yourself a Bible believer, why do you think the Book has such supreme importance?  If you’re a skeptic, how do you feel about fundamentalist insistence on the Bible as the source of all knowledge and true wisdom?