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Monday, September 03, 2007


Left Behind, anyone?

Now here's something interesting. You know those Left Behind books? Bestsellers in America, written by two premillenarian dispensationalists - that is, fundamentalist Christians who believe that there's going to be a Rapture where all the good people are lifted up to heaven, leaving behind only the bad ones, to whom all manner of bad, Apocalyptic things are going to happen? The Left Behind books are a story of what happens after the Rapture (nothing nice, unless you get with the theological program), basically a religious revenge-fantasy thriller series.

The Slacktivist blog, written by an evangelical Christian who doesn't believe in the Rapture, and disapproves of revenge fantasies on the grounds that Jesus probably meant it when he said things like 'Judge not lest ye be judged' and 'Blessed are the peacemakers', has taken such exception to them that it's proving an almost line-by-line critical analysis. I've never seen such detailed reviewing: it goes through the book page by page, quoting sections, discussing the writing, reflecting on the message, considering the implications and arguing with the writers. It's fascinating to watch, an impassioned, detailed analysis that puts astonishing amounts of time and energy into the longest review in the world.

In brief, the blog writer calls the books 'evil', and goes into a lot of detail about why. The basic points are that the books substitute vengeful triumphalist fantasies for supposedly Christian virtues like love and forgiveness, that they're misogynist, callous about human suffering and self-flattering. Another point, and a worrying one, is that they support a worldview in which care for the environment or the infrastructure, and a desire to avoid war, are seen as bad things: the end is coming, and the worse things get, the more we'll hasten the end, so the sooner we can get into heaven, hence it's good to start wars and pollute. To quote a couple of passages:

That word -- "peacemaker" -- practically screams Antichrist ... For those not initiated into the cabalistic logic of PMD [premillenarian dispensationalist] prophecy freaks, this seems counter-intuitive. Peace, after all, is generally regarded by Scripture as a Good Thing. Peace is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). The Messiah is described as the "Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6-7). Peace is often spoken of by God's angels, including the heavenly host of the Christmas story in Luke 2 (cue Linus), who sing, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." ... But none of this matters to the prophecy nuts who are convinced that the Antichrist will be a man of peace. And since they believe that the most important thing for Christians to do is to be on the lookout against the Antichrist, and vigilantly opposed to his evil ways, they believe that Christians must oppose anyone who speaks of, pursues, or tries to make, peace.

This is one of the most astonishing and dangerous aspects of the popularity of the End Times heresies promoted by people like LaHaye and Jenkins. It is one of this biggest reasons why this matters -- deeply, truly, seriously matters.


This eagerness, this enthusiasm for apocalypse, is theologically malodorous, but it is also politically dangerous. Here again are L&J and their 50 million readers cheering for entropy, celebrating calamity, wars and rumors of war as the confirmation of their desires, and railing against peace and progress as setbacks to this consumation for which they devoutly wish. They believe that things must fall apart and the center must not hold, because even now the beast is slouching toward Jerusalem.

They want this to happen. And, whenever they can, they vote for it.

I haven't read the Left Behind books, and I don't think I'm going to - for one thing, with this site up and running you hardly need to, and for another, the Rapture is not something I personally think likely to happen, so the spiritual message of the books is not likely to ring many bells with me. (Though here's a very compassionate and intelligent article.) But it's a curious idea, and, at least as presented in these books according to Slacktivist, on a par with the way religions sometimes tilt.

A few years ago, I went on a holiday to Venice and spent a fair amount of time looking around the churches and museums. And it left a profound impression: for at least some of its life, in some of its incarnations, Christianity has been a dark faith. Venice, of course, is Catholic, and most of the art was medieval. Crucifixions you can expect in any church, and Stations of the Cross art you can expect in many Catholic ones, but Venice didn't stop there. Reliquaries were on all sides, each containing part of a saint's corpse; display cases with more than a dozen brown, fragile arm-bones or hands from saints; pieces of the flagellation post with little gold figures whipping a little gold Christ; beautifully painted eight-panel strip cartoons showing the martyrdom of this saint or that, involving intestines being wound round a block or an upside-down man being sawn in half from the crotch upwards... Depictions of gruesome death and actual fragments of dead people were in all the sacred places. Christianity was manifesting here as a death-cult as grisly as anything the Aztecs could have dreamed up; the Way, the Truth and the Life were getting much less wall-space than martyrdoms and relics.

This is an accusation that's often levelled at Catholicism: that it's a morbid religion. Standing in front of some of those Venetian display cases, I'd find it hard to argue. But it's interesting to see that an extreme version of Protestantism can wind up in a similar condition, though a kind of reversal takes place: Slactivist argues that the problem with the Left Behind position is that it's based, not in excessive interest in death, but in excessive fear of death:

L&J [the authors, LaHaye and Jenkins] are not interested in resurrection. Resurrection is something that happens to dead people, and L&J don't want to die. Death scares them. And that, more than anything else, explains what rapture-mania is all about.

Christianity is about death and resurrection, not about the denial of death. Not about "Jesus coming back to get us before we die."

The result is a faith that prefers war-making to peacemaking, destruction to construction, because they'll hasten an end that will spirit believers up to Heaven without them having to go through the process of dying. That's also a pretty dark faith. It's a case of extremes meeting, as is often the way.

(I should say here and now that I'm not saying anything about premillenarian dispensationalists in general; I don't know any, but I'm sure there are good, kind and pious people among them, as there are in every faith. I don't much like the attitude of these particular authors as described in Slacktivist, but that's only two people, not the whole denomination.)

Anyway, have a look at the site. It's an intriguing example of educated but non-academic close analysis, funny in many places, and quite possibly an important social docmument. (To begin at the beginning, you have to read from the bottom up, as most recent posts are at the top.)

Despite not being the least bit religious, I'm fascinated by religion and theology. (Or maybe my lack of religion explains my fascination? I don't know.) I've read a lot of mixed reviews on these books and I've drawn the conclusion that they follow the same lines as the street preachers you get in Cambridge every now and then.

Essentially their message is that it doesn't matter if you're a good, kind, decent human being. As long as you're not the same kind of Christian as them, you're going to Hell. It's fear-mongering no difference from the kind that went on centuries ago in Europe, when the Church sold indulgences to absolve you of your sins and pave your way into Heaven.

I agree that Christianity in some incarnations is a dark faith - and it seems that some people use that aspect of it to create fear in their followers. (I know I'm generalising.) I'm sure this is something that happens in all religions in some form or another, but it seems only to be prevalent in Christianity.
What about Islamic fundamentalists? I hesitate to side with the kneejerk warmongers who are wildly demonising the entire Islamic faith, but I think that group of fundies has a pretty blood-and-sulphur set of beliefs as well...

For my money, it's not really religion that's the problem. Some people have dark souls, and rather than using their faith to enlighten them, darken their faith to match. Being a good person is difficult, and sometimes it's just easier to use your faith to justify your faults rather than to purge them. A sad thing, and sometimes a dangerous one.
I grew up in an eschatalogical church and yes, these are attitudes one frequently sees. Not only is there a total lack of concern about issues such as environmental degradation, overpopulation, poverty, etc. (because Jesus will be here any day now to set things right, so why bother?), but many people express actual glee at any bad news. They're happy when there's another war in the Middle East because it validates their view that Armageddon will be here soon.
Yikes. Hope you're not too distressed by the whole experience. :-)

You'd know more about this than me, because you've got personal experience, so do you think I'm right to assume that the main problem is that in cases like this, personal vices get given a free pass by corrupted religion? Glee at bad news sounds like the desire to have someone else sort everything out - ie laziness - coming out in a profoundly warped way. (As in, 'Yay, bad news, that means it'll all be sorted out soon!')

I ask partly because I'm thinking of a comment that shocked a lot of people, quoted in this article (http://www.talk2action.org/story/2007/2/8/04932/02745) -

'The best thing about the Left Behind books is the way the non-Christians get their guts pulled out by God.'
-- 15-year old fundamentalist fan of the Left Behind series

My first reaction was horror as well, but thinking about it and trying to be charitable, I wonder if that's just a fundamentalist formulation of standard, horrid-little-boy adolescence. He's not allowed to play Grand Theft Auto, so he's indulging his distateful, but developmentally normal, appetite for mayhem wherever he can find an outlet. Which, in this case, is the Left Behind books. If that were the case, it might explain their success: a socially sanctioned outlet for violent impulses must be very appealing to people whose behaviour is normally tightly constrained.

What do you think?
What about Islamic fundamentalists? I hesitate to side with the kneejerk warmongers who are wildly demonising the entire Islamic faith, but I think that group of fundies has a pretty blood-and-sulphur set of beliefs as well...

Ah yes, I concede ^-^ I think what I meant (and probably forgot to actually say, lol) is that it seems this kind of attitude is better documented in Christianity. And even that's a terribly inaccurate statement, given the current global climate and anti-Islam state of mind. Maybe it's always just a case of "my God is better than yours."

Re the 15-year-old Left Behind fan - I wonder if his real intention was simply to shock? In the same way a 15-year-old might, under other circumstances, brag about drinking, drugs or sex.

Or is it more inline with kingm's comment - certain people are looking forward to Armageddon
because it will prove their beliefs right?
'Re the 15-year-old Left Behind fan - I wonder if his real intention was simply to shock?'

You could well be right. It would be, like my theory that he enjoyed it because it was his only permitted outlet for violent impulses, entirely normal behaviour for his age - and he might even have been doing both, enjoying mayhem and trying to shock his interviewer. Double whammy! I always incline to think that human nature rules ideology rather than the other way around.

It would be a more benevolent interpretation than thinking that he really truly does want most of his species eviscerated, anyway. But then, he might only sort-of want it, even if he's convinced he believes. Slacktivist points out quite a few occasions in the books where the authors, despite professing a literal belief in the book of Revelations, then write as if they have to be metaphorically interpreted, suggesting that even they don't entirely believe everything they're saying - or at least, not with all of their minds. One of the qualities of authoritarian thinking, which I was talking about in the article about fantasy below, is that it's highly compartmentalised and can sustain a high degree of cognitive dissonance...
I'm working my way through Slacktivist's posts - very fun, interesting reading. It's fascinating how the authors of the series have tried to take Revelations and translate it literally into fiction. One assumes (one having not read Revelations or Left Behind) that there are aspects they've either had to leave out or mould to fit the storyline.

Faith is an interesting thing. You can't prove or disprove matters of faith, so it's probably easy to say you want all non-believers disembowelled by God, knowing nobody will be able to successfully prove it couldn't actually happen.
The U.S., especially in the "bible belt" states, is as fundamentalist as any Islamic state. They could tip into Taliban-like behavior any day and it scares me.
For the real skinny on how and when and by whom the much ballyhooed "pre-trib" rapture delusion came into being, indulge yourself in the 300 pages of "The Rapture Plot" - the most detailed, the most documented, the most breath-taking assemblage of facts anywhere. I bought my copy at Armageddon Books online. But please don't reveal the name of the 19th century plotter - whose "mother of all revisionisms" was totally unknown before the above book came along. If pre-tribism can survive this bombshell, it deserves to! Clara
I also call "shenanigans," a bit, in the way these books get classified as "best-seller" -- churches and religious bookstores buy them in bulk to resell (I think I got that right) which is not the same as Mr. Average Mainstream American Joe–times-several-million walking into the Barnes and Noble and picking up a bunch of copies because it's so durn popular.

Sorry, that bit bugs me. These books are always portrayed as something "sweeping the nation," and they're just not.
Ah, I didn't know that. I suppose it's possible that you could still argue that they're 'sweeping the nation' if you concede that the church is pushing the broom. :-)

I need a major religion to push my books. Any world leaders reading this, I'm open to offers...
Well, I've given it to three people so far, and one is a Baptist? I know, I know, needs work.

*starts cult*
Yay! Pass the book around, friends! Listen to the Blessed Anthrophile!

Seriously, thank you. :-)
Wouldn't do it if you didn't deserve it. :-)
I've been reading the Left Behind entries on the Slacktivist blog for quite some time. I find them immensely entertaining. I worked at a Big Box Bookstore for several years, and I had to shelve the Left Behind books. They sold pretty steadily, so it's not just church bookstores that they were coming out of. I've been genuinely curious about the books, but averse to having to endure that much bad prose, so I'm grateful that I have this blog to do it all for me. ;)

I've never really understood the whole "Screw the future, Jesus is coming!" attitude that so many fundies seem to have. It strikes me as not unlike letting the dishes pile up in the sink while your parents are on vacation, on the basis that Mom will wash them when she gets back. If you honestly believe that humanity was designed by God to be the stewards of creation, shouldn't you be doing a little more . . . stewarding?

I think it's more a case of using religion to justify political points of view, since environmentalism (in the US, at least) is seen as the domain of Those Godless Liberals.
Yeah, it's too bad how often religion can be used as a justifier of things with which it has nothing to do. Gives the phrase 'justification by faith' a whole new meaning...
Protestantism, too, had its origins in blood and gore: the Church of England used to have copies of Foxe's Book of Martyrs in each church, and it was phenomenally successful, especially for its grotesque woodcuts of Protestant martyrs. I've seen 16th-century copies and the pages with horrific pictures always show the most wear -- crumbs in the spine, smudges, handwritten captions. The dark aspect of Christianity is, as either you or another commenter already pointed out, a part of human nature.
Interesting point; I'm sure you're right. I'm not saying anything in particular against Catholicism; most of my family is Catholic or lapsed Catholic. It's just the religion where I happen to have seen the goriest art.

What kind of captions? What do people say?!
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