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.

Reds Under the Bed? Christians Under the Couch!

Conspiracy sells.  Just ask Dan Brown.  But unwarranted anxiety about conspiracy also poisons our shared public life.

Source: The Guardian

Conspiracy hunting used to be a sport dominated by conservatives.  Think Joe McCarthy waving his sweaty lists of communist infiltrators.  In recent years, though, politicians and commentators have found a new subversive threat: the Religious Right.  A new book by former GOP functionary Mike Lofgren, for instance, warns of the ways his Republican Party was infiltrated and taken over by “stealthily fundamentalist” religious conservatives.

This kind of “paranoid style” has a long history in American public life.  Witches were fiendishly difficult to detect in seventeenth-century New England.  Scheming Catholics worried nineteenth-century WASPs.  Communists emerged as the primary subversive threat in America’s twentieth century.

Leaders of the Religious Right have often worked up convincing conspiracies of their own.  As historian William Trollinger has described, this tradition started with the first generation of American fundamentalists in the 1920s.  One of the most prominent leaders of that Scopes generation, William Bell Riley, finally blamed evolutionary theory on a far-reaching plot of “Jewish Communists.”

In 1926, as I describe in my 1920s book (now in paperback!), one of the new grassroots fundamentalist organizations, the Bible Crusaders, announced the root of the evolution problem.  “Thirty years ago,” the Bible Crusaders revealed,

“five men met in Boston and formed a conspiracy which we believe to be of German origin, to secretly and persistently work to overthrow the fundamentals of the Christian religion in this country.”

A generation later, writing in the magazine of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, one evangelical writer shared his experience with the famous progressive educator John Dewey.  This writer told a cautionary tale of secularist conspiracy, with a story of Dewey’s eighty-fifth birthday party in 1944.  Our evangelical witness had been invited to the celebration, the other guests unaware of his theological commitment.  Celebrating the life of the prominent progressive educator, the guests proudly recalled their efforts to transform America’s schools from Christian institutions to secular training centers.  “A generation has passed since that birthday gathering,” reported the evangelical spy to the MBI readership,

“and the plan has been immeasurably advanced by a series of court decisions that have de-theized the public schools.  As a result, American state-supported schools are as officially secular and materialistic as are their counterparts in Communist countries.  Are we awakening?”

Such warnings shouted by Christian conservatives have occasionally attracted enormous audiences outside of religious circles.  In the 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth became a runaway bestseller.  With his co-author Carole Carlson, Lindsey spun a premillennial dispensationalist reading of the Bible into a riveting tale of international conspiracy.  In the premillennial dispensational interpretation, popular among some conservative evangelical Protestants, the Antichrist will return in the guise of a savior, combining governments into a massive superstate.  What seems like secular salvation is quickly revealed as the ultimate cosmic conspiracy, dedicated to binding all of humanity to a Satanic anti-religion.

Image source: Wikipedia

These themes saw another burst of popularity in the late 1990s, when Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins repeated Lindsey’s feat.  LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ Left Behind series fictionalized Lindsey’s tale, again turning a conspiratorial interpretation of the apocalypse into beach reading for millions of Americans.

These Christian conspiracies have not been without cultural cost.  Though LaHaye and Jenkins carefully included a righteous Roman Catholic Pope among their fictionalized true Christians, other Christian conspiracy theorists, like William Bell Riley, have been too quick to implicate anyone outside of their circle of conservative evangelical Protestantism.

The dangers from conspiracy theorizing are not limited to the conspiracies imagined by conservative Christians.  Overheated accusations about the threat from subversive groups have long posed a profound danger to our public life, as any blacklisted Hollywood writer or interned Japanese-American could attest.  The threat is not limited to false conspiracies.  Satan may not have inspired Salem’s witch troubles, but historian Ellen Schrecker has argued that the communist-hunters of the 1950s often targeted real communist conspirators, if in a clumsy and overly aggressive way.

Similarly, Lofgren’s ominous warnings are not spun of whole cloth.  Lofgren warns vaguely of the “ties” of many leading Republican politicians to extreme positions such as Christian Dominionism.  This theology, associated most closely with the late Rousas John Rushdoony, wants to establish Christian fundamentalist control over American political life.  As Lofgren emphasizes, such thinkers approve the need to act “stealthily.”

Lofgren did not make this up.  Dominionism exists.  Prominent Republican politicians such as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann really do work with groups who support such notions.  But the way Lofgren and other commentators discuss such threats from the Christian Right distort the public discussion over the role of religion in the public sphere.  As with warnings about President Obama’s connections to the “terrorist professor” Bill Ayers, this kind of conspiratorial rhetoric encourages a no-holds-barred approach to politics.

After all, as Lofgren intones, the “‘lying for Jesus’ strategy that fundamentalists often adopt” gives anti-fundamentalists a reason to punch below the belt in their culture-war battles.  If they did not, the warning goes, they would be helpless before the wiles of the Christian Right.  This is the primary danger of such breathless exposes as Lofgren’s.  They build a shaky and fantastic argument upon a foundation of authentic examples in order to convince the convinced.  Activists swallow the outlandish examples without demur.  Such true believers do not consider the real complexities of their opponents, but rather paint a simplistic and terrifying image to shock and motivate their own side.

As with the real communist movement, the real world of American conservative Christianity is not such a simple place.  Nor is it so headline-grabbingly power hungry.  Consider a recent leadership poll by the National Association of Evangelicals.  This organization, an umbrella group for conservative evangelical Protestants, asked just over one hundred of its leaders if the United States constituted a “Christian Nation.”  Sixty-eight percent said no.  One respondent told the NAE, “I hope others will learn to love Christ as I do, but that will happen more authentically through the Church and individual Christians sharing the Good News and demonstrating the person of Christ through our words and actions.”

This kind of statement from a conservative Christian does not sell books.  What does sell is a cherry-picked catalog of statements by Christian leaders revealing their plans to take over American politics and public life.  It was easy enough in Cold War America to discover evidence of a world-wide subversive communist movement.  But as America learned from Senator McCarthy’s outlandish claims, there is a danger in stripping down the image of subversives to cartoonish bogeymen.

I am not a conservative Christian myself.  I do not hope to apologize for the excesses of some conservative Christians.  Indeed, I believe denunciations of the schemes of conservative Christians have some basis in fact.  But when they serve only to encourage anti-fundamentalists to fight dirty, they do more harm than good.  When such conspiracy-hunters ignore the complexities and ambiguities of their targets, they attack more than their real enemies.  They smear innocent bystanders and poison the political life of the nation.

Forget the Zombies, It’s a Bible Apocalypse

Kirk Cameron as Buck Williams

Ask Kirk Cameron.  One of the most compelling parts of a Biblical worldview is its clear explanation of the future.  And that future isn’t too rosy, at least for those outside of the charmed circle of Biblical Christianity.

How are those of us outside this circle to understand this prophetic tradition?  We might start by trying to understand the ways some conservative Protestants read the Bible.  After all, if one believes in an inerrant Bible, one is encouraged to interpret its words in the most obvious sense.  The dangers, in this tradition of Bible interpretation, come when readers exalt their own understanding higher than the words of Scripture.

And the most obvious interpretation of some Biblical books, such as Daniel and Revelation,  is that they are prophecies of what is to come.

One of Clarence Larkin’s dispensational charts (1919)

Through a few quirks of history—though, of course, no Bible Christian would likely consider them accidental—one interpretation of these prophecies has come to exert an outsized influence on conservative evangelical Protestant belief in 20th­­- and 21st-century America.  This interpretation, burdened with the cumbersome name “dispensational premillennialism,” has become the dominant form of understanding Bible prophecy among the subset of evangelicals who call themselves small-f fundamentalists.

For those like me–outside of this tradition but trying to understand it–it is well worth our time to read some of the terrific academic histories out there.  The late Paul Boyer, of my alma mater, wrote a wonderful introduction to prophecy belief for outsiders.  Writing from closer to the tradition, Timothy Weber also offered a great guide to the history of this theology.  George Marsden also included a helpful introduction in his now-classic history of fundamentalism and American culture.

However, none of these terrific academic studies has reached the kind of audience that the prophecies themselves have claimed.  Just as the Bible’s continuing popularity must tell us something about the nature of popular religious belief in Fundamentalist America, so the popularity of rapture theology must hold some lessons.

In 1970, Hal Lindsey authored a runaway bestseller explaining this interpretation of the end days.  The Late Great Planet Earth sold millions of copies.  The book explained the themes of dispensational premillennial theology in an engaging and convincing way.  Lindsey and co-author Carole Carlson mapped the predictions of Daniel and Revelation onto world events of the 1970s.  As had generations of prophecy writers before him, Lindsey insisted that the world was entering the last days described to John in his Revelation.

A generation later, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins repeated this feat with their Left Behind series.  Beginning in the late 1990s, this fictionalized apocalypse told the story of end times, as understood by dispensational premillennialists.  The series sold millions of copies, and soon spun off an empire of related products, including a kids’ version and the movie starring Kirk Cameron.

What does the wild popularity of these books and their apocalyptic messages tell us about Fundamentalist America?  One danger would be to assume that all of the millions of readers embraced the theology of rapture and Biblical apocalypse.  It seems unlikely that all the readers of these books included themselves in the roll of Bible believers.  Just as the popularity of Harry Potter does not imply an increase in the belief in magic, so the popularity of these books does not necessarily mean a huge bump in belief in this apocalyptic tradition.  Nevertheless, conservative evangelical Protestants since the 1920s have argued for the importance of this particular way of understanding the Bible.  These books helped cement that understanding in the popular imagination.

For many readers, whether or not they buy into the entire theology, The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind books tell THE Biblical story of the last days, not just one interpretation.

For those of us hoping to understand the nature of Fundamentalist America, the books are worth reading.  As long as we avoid the trap of thinking that these books are the last word in what conservative religious people really think, this vision of the nature of reality can go a long way to decoding some traditional shibboleths of the Fundamentalist tradition, such as the dangers of the United Nations and the importance of a strong Israel.

In each case, the politics of today and tomorrow have been explained thousands of years in advance.  As Revelation explains, the Antichrist will appear as the savior of humanity.  He will unite nations into one humanitarian global government.  All will appear obviously to the good.  For dispensational premillennialists, this prophecy provides fodder for an unyielding campaign against internationalism.  In the United States, this tradition has fueled an intense animosity toward organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations.  Again, we must not assume too much.  Not every conservative anti-internationalist has based his or her opposition on Biblical prophecy.  But among those who do, that opposition takes on more weight than simple policy considerations.  The fight against internationalization becomes, for some Bible believers, a literal cosmic battle of Good vs. Evil.  Understanding those roots will guide us in understanding the sometimes-puzzling international policies of some religious conservatives.

As reporter Buck Williams of the Left Behind series might explain, doubt and skepticism must end with the Rapture.  After that, the only option left for a dedicated Tribulation Force is to fight tooth and nail against the scheming Evil of Carpathia and His Global Community.

Further reading:

  • Timothy Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism, 1875-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979);
  • Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992);
  • George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006);
  • Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, The Left Behind Series (Tyndale House, 1995-2007);
  • Hal Lindsey and C.C. Carlson, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970).