Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins

I picked this one up on a lark at one of the library’s used book sales. Buck a book the first day. Buck a box of books the second day. Phenomenally popular in some circles, phenomenally panned in others, I thought I’d give it a read and see what sense I could make of it.

In case you don’t know, Left Behind is the first in a sixteen-book series LaHaye and Jenkins wrote—all of them novels—and all of them based on the end time mythology believed by some Evangelical Christians. The Rapture, The Tribulation, the Mark of the Beast—all of that stuff. Left Behind deals solely with the Rapture itself—millions of people all over the world disappearing in the blink of an eye (evidently swept off the Heaven by Jesus)—and the lives of those left behind who have to make sense of the loss. And I want to deal with the novel on three different levels.

First, there’s the writing.

It’s not awful. Given the subject matter and some reviews I’ve heard of it, I expected it to be absolute dreck, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it on par with other popular pulp fiction I’ve read. The prose is not rich, it doesn’t thrill you with its imagery or metaphor, but it doesn’t distract you with its clumsiness and it keeps the story moving forward.

Next, there’s the plot.

There are 468 pages in the edition I have. And until page 458, I was wrestling with the idea that I might go ahead and at least read the next volume, if not all sixteen of them. How did they manage to lose me just ten pages shy of the end? Let me try to explain.

The story is mostly about a handful of people—an airline pilot, his daughter, a journalist, an assistant pastor—who all got left behind because their faith was lacking in some way, and about how they find their ways back to Christ as they realize that world events are starting to follow the prophecies they see in Revelation. The rise of the Antichrist is a big part of that, and in this novel the Antichrist is:

“Nicolae Carpathia.”

“Carpathia like the—?”

“Yes, like the Carpathian Mountains. A melodic name, you must admit. I found him most charming and humble. Not unlike myself!” Again he had laughed.

“I’ve not heard of him.”

“You will! You will.”

Buck [the journalist] had tried to lead the old man. “Because he’s…”

“Impressive, that’s all I can say.”

“And he’s some sort of low-level diplomat at this point?”

“He’s a member of the lower house of Romanian government.”

“In the senate?”

“No, the senate is the upper house.”

“Of course.”

“Don’t feel bad that you don’t know, even though you are an international journalist. This is something only Romanians and amateur political scientists like me know. That is something I like to study.”

“In your spare time.”

“Precisely. But even I had not known of this man. I mean, I knew someone in the House of Deputies—that’s what they call the lower house in Romania—was a peacemaker and leading a movement toward disarmament. But I did not know his name. I believe his goal is global disarmament, which we Israelis have come to distrust.”

This is our first glimpse of the man who would later be revealed as the Antichrist and, given the novel’s subject matter, the alarm bells should already be going off. The identity of the Antichrist is never really a mystery to the reader, although the characters struggle somewhat to puzzle it out. But what really stands out to me is how much I’m initially on board with Carpathia. Global disarmament. World peace. Sounds good to me. And it seems like he might have a better shot at that with all the evangelicals whisked off to heaven.

You see, as I worked my way through the novel and Carpathia moved farther and farther along the path outlined for the Antichrist in Revelation, I kept trying to harmonize his actions and those of the people around him with reality as I understood it. That, to me, would have been a much more interesting novel—a story in which the events of Biblical Armageddon took place, but in a way that was logical and consistent with the way humans actually conduct themselves on planet Earth. I thought that would have been really clever, and I kept trying to read this novel that way. Picture a series of events that secularists would interpret as natural and beneficial and that evangelicals would interpret as sinister and evil. The authors could have kept their readers guessing as to what was really going on until the very end. But as I finally deciphered ten pages away from the ending, LaHaye and Jenkins couldn’t write that novel. No one could. Because the events of Biblical Armageddon depend entirely on the suspension of reality. They couldn’t happen any other way. And if you aren’t willing to abandon reality, then nothing that happens is this novel will strike you as plausible.

For example, at a press conference, Carpathia is asked what he thinks is behind all the disappearances mainstream society has not yet interpreted as the Rapture. He refers to a hypothesis of one of his scientist friends:

“Dr. Rosenzweig believes that some confluence of electromagnetism in the atmosphere, combined with as yet unknown or unexplained atomic ionization from the nuclear power and weaponry throughout the world, could have been ignited or triggered—perhaps by a natural cause like lightning, or even by an intelligent life-from that discovered this possibility before we did—and caused this instant action throughout the world.”

Um, excuse me? Come again? The fictional press corps is evidently ready to swallow that mumbo jumbo, but one intrepid reporter asks why, if that is so, the disappearances affected some people and not others?

“At this point they are postulating that certain people’s levels of electricity made them more likely to be affected. That would account for all the children and babies and even fetal material that vanished. Their electromagnetism was not developed to the point where it could resist whatever happened.”

If this was the real world, who would take any of that seriously? Especially a world where all the fundamentalist Christians are gone. The average understanding of real science across the world would have jumped several points. A person’s level of electricity? What does that even mean?

And there’s more stuff like that that this Antichrist does, things that don’t make any plausible sense in the real world, and can only be rationalized if you believe they need to happen because the Bible says they must. Things like a pact between United Nations members to guarantee Israel’s borders, an agreement by all nations to give their nuclear weapons to the U.N., moving the U.N. headquarters to Babylon, and the establishment of one currency, religion and language for the entire world. Think about the real political situation in the world today. These things are not just implausible, they are ludicrous. But LaHaye and Jenkins must make them happen because they are writing a novel about the prophesized end times. And how do they do that? How do they make that all work?


That’s why it took me so long to figure it out. I kept thinking there would a rational explanation for things, that I was reading a psychological thriller—like The Exorcist—where there are two interpretations of events—one embraced by the believers and one by the non-believers, and the authors would heighten the tension by walking the razor-thin wire between the two interpretations, never letting on to the reader which interpretation was the right one. Was Carpathia the Antichrist trying to take over and enslave the world? Or was he the leader of a broad secular movement, working against religious interpretations of reality and towards co-existence and peace among all peoples?

“You think Carpathia is this Antichrist?”

“I don’t see how I could come to any other conclusion.”

“But I really believed in the guy.”

“Why not? Most of us did. Self-effacing, interested in the welfare of the people, humble, not looking for power or leadership. But the Antichrist is a deceiver. And he had the power to control men’s minds. He can make people see lies as truth.”

That last bit LaHaye and Jenkins mean literally. What finally pushes me over the edge is the scene where Carpathia murders someone in front of a room full of people, and then hypnotizes them all into believing some madman had rushed into the room and shot the victim. There’s no going back after that. Carpathia has literal magic at his command. It’s what he needs to make the Bible story actually happen, but it’s also the point where I lose all interest.

And finally, there’s the worldview.

It’s pretty black and white.

As someone observes shortly after the Rapture occurs:

Everyone we know who’s gone is either a child or a very nice person.

Of course they are. We all know that only true Christians are good people. All those secularists and Jews and Muslims—they’re all working for Satan. The authors really write about non-believers like all they know about them are the stereotypes. Here one of the main characters, Rayford Steele (the airline pilot) thinking about his wife’s belief and his lack of belief (the bold type is emphasis I have added):

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. Would it mean admitting that he didn’t know everything? That he had relied on himself and that now he felt stupid and weak and worthless? He could admit that. After a lifetime of achieving, of excelling, of being better than most and the best in most circles, he had been as humbled as was possible in one stroke.

As if non-believers are consciously denying some truth that is readily apparent to them. As if they believe they know everything. The atheist clichés are thick as thieves in this novel, and there isn’t a single character who has a prayer to survive with their non-belief intact with LaHaye and Jenkins calling the shots. Rayford’s dialogue with Bruce Barnes (the assistant pastor) and his inner turmoil as he struggles with his own lack of belief is a treasure trove of these tropes.

I believe God’s purpose in this is to allow those who remain to take stock of themselves and leave their frantic search for pleasure and self-fulfillment, and turn to the Bible for truth and to Christ for salvation.

Frantic? Most people who are serious about searching for pleasure and self-fulfillment are pretty disciplined about it. There’s no other way to find it.

It doesn’t make any difference, at this point, why you’re still on earth. You may have been too selfish or prideful or busy, or simply you didn’t take the time to examine the claims of Christ for yourself.

Or perhaps you were unconvinced by the utter lack of evidence?

He needed forgiveness of sin and the assurance that one day he would join his wife and son in heaven.

What sin does he need to be forgiven of? Not thinking the right magical thoughts?

He confessed his pride. Pride in his intelligence. Pride in his looks. Pride in his abilities. He confessed his lusts, how he had neglected his wife, how he had sought his own pleasure. How he had worshipped money and things.

Oh, the horror. The horror!

Indeed, much later in the novel when every major character seemed to be turning into a born again Christian, I scribbled in the margin:

This story needs an atheist who, resigned to acknowledge that the God of the Bible is real, still wants nothing to do with the S.O.B.

At first I thought Rayford’s daughter Chloe was going to be that character. Here she is arguing with her father shortly after the “disappearances,” when those “left behind” are still trying to make sense of them. Rayford and Chloe were both part-time Christians before the Rapture, and now Rayford is coming to understand what has really happened.

“Chloe, I think the Christians are gone.”

“So I’m not a Christian either?”

“You’re my daughter and the only other member of my family still left; I love you more than anything on earth. But if the Christians are gone and everyone else is left, I don’t think anyone is a Christian.”

“Some kind of a super Christian, you mean.”

“Yeah, a true Christian. Apparently those who were taken were recognized by God as truly his. How else can I say it?”

“Daddy, what does this make God? Some sick, sadistic dictator?”

“Careful, honey. You think I’m wrong, but what if I’m right?”

“Then God is spiteful, hateful, mean. Who want to go to heaven with a God like that?”

“If that’s where your mom and Raymie are, that’s where I want to be.”

“I want to be with them, too, Daddy! But tell me how this fits with a loving, merciful God. When I went to church, I got tired of hearing how loving God is. He never answered my prayers and I never felt like he knew me or cared about me. Now you’re saying I was right. He didn’t. I didn’t qualify, so I got left behind?”

Chloe’s conundrum was also mine for a while. I wanted the authors to explain to me what the critical difference was—why some people who thought they were Christians were raptured and why others who thought the same thing weren’t. The closest they come to providing an answer is in that earlier dialogue between Rayford and Bruce. In it, Bruce explains that he thought he was covered because he believed and found solace in the Bible verses that said if he confessed his sins and was faithful God would forgive him and cleanse him. Even though:

I knew other verses said you had to believe and receive, to trust and abide, but to me that was sort of theological mumbo jumbo.

And later, he stresses:

But we are to receive his gift, abide in Christ, and allow him to live through us.

These are clearly the key ideas, the description of the difference that saved some and caused the others to be left behind. Believe and receive his gift. Abide in Christ. Allow him to live through you. Sounds good. But I don’t have any idea what they really mean. The rest of Bruce’s dialogue provides some clues, but they are all so childish, so parochial, that it’s hard to take them seriously. With the benefit of hindsight, Bruce laments, he knows that he was left behind because he did such abominations as not tithing to the church, not sharing his faith with others, seeing movies when he was supposed to be witnessing, reading things he was not supposed to read, and looking at magazines that fed his lusts. Well yeah, Bruce, doing shit like that, I can see why God left your sorry ass behind.

And being left behind is evidently a very bad thing in this narrative world that LaHaye and Jenkins have created. As Bruce laments at the end of this dialogue:

There is no doubt in my mind that we have witnessed the Rapture. My biggest fear, once I realized the truth, was that there was no more hope for me. I had missed it, I had been a phony, I had set up my own brand of Christianity that may have made for a life of freedom but had cost me my soul. I had heard people say that when the church was raptured, God’s Spirit would be gone from the earth. The logic was that when Jesus went to heaven after his resurrection, the Holy Spirit that God gave to the church was embodied in believers. So that when they were taken, the Spirit would be gone, and there would be no more hope for anyone left.

This, of course, is totally consistent with the evangelical worldview. The only good people on the planet are the true Christians, so when they are gone, the world will inexorably slip into darkness and chaos.

The news was full of crime, looting, people taking advantage of the chaos. People were being shot, maimed, raped, killed. The roadways were more dangerous than ever. Emergency units were understaffed, fewer air- and ground-traffic controllers manned the airports, fewer qualified pilots and crews flew the planes.

People checked the graves of loved ones to see if their corpses had disappeared, and unscrupulous types pretended to do the same while looking for valuables that might have been buried with the wealthy. It had become an ugly world overnight, and Rayford was worried about his and Chloe’s safety.

And this, for me, is ultimately the most unbelievable part of the entire story. If only the truest of true believers had been swept off to heaven, then there would still be BILLIONS of people left on earth who were fundamentally good people, who would want to see the world move on the way it always had. I certainly would. Contrary to the authors’ opinion of the ungodly, most of them aren’t looking for someone else to save them. They are working hard, day in and day out, to save the world from itself. Maybe, since the world population would be slightly more secular than before, they would actually find ways to make things a little better. Chaos would certainly reign for a day or two after the Rapture incident, but cooler heads would prevail.

But not in this novel. There can be no positive atheists in this morality play. For God is real and the atheists are just plain wrong.

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