The Trials of the Tribulation
Jan 07, 2000 05:08 PST
From the Atlantic Monthly:
J A N U A R Y 2 0 0 0
The Trials of the Tribulation
In the "Left Behind" novels things get very bad -- the planet is invaded
by "200 million demonic horsemen," for example, and that's before
Armageddon and the Last Judgment
by Michael Joseph Gross
JERRY B. Jenkins jokingly refers to himself as "the most famous writer
nobody's ever heard of." Until 1995 the most noteworthy of Jenkins's 120
books were his ghostwritten or as-told-to autobiographies of Nolan Ryan,
Hank Aaron, Orel Herschiser, Mike Singletary, and Billy Graham. Then
Jenkins came into his own, with a series of Christian sci-fi thrillers
that imagine the events of a seven-year period of Tribulation following
the Rapture of the Saved, inspired by the New Testament book of
Revelation. Left Behind, Tribulation Force, Nicolae, Soul Harvest,
Apollyon, and Assassins have sold some 10 million copies for Tyndale
House, a publisher of religious books, and among them have spent four
years at the top of the best-seller lists. (Assassins appeared on the
New York Times best-seller list frequently last fall, and often trumped
Thomas Harris's Hannibal.)
Although Jenkins writes every word of the books, Tim LaHaye, a
"lifelong student of prophecy and end-times events," receives credit as
co-author, because he checks Jenkins's writing for prophetic accuracy.
In 1998 Jenkins and LaHaye launched a series of special "Left Behind"
books for children aged ten to fourteen. A CD of music inspired by the
books, called People Get Ready, has been moving fast at the evangelical
ForeFront Records. Six more adult novels will be written before the
series ends, in 2003, with The Glorious Appearing, in which Jesus Christ
returns. And a movie based on the first book is scheduled for release
sometime late this year.
The Web site "Left Behind -- The Movie" states,
Our most important goal is to produce a movie that is accessible and
understood by the average moviegoer. Not everyone who sees this movie
will be Christians, and we want to produce an exciting film for them as
well. Be assured, however, that the core message of the books and of
Scripture will remain in the film.
Envy not the movie's screenwriters, John Bishop and Chris Auer. Even a
bare-bones summary of the wickedly funny, constantly twisting plots of
these six novels, which total more than 2,500 pages, requires sweeping
elision, not to mention considerable risk of blaspheming the Holy
Spirit. But here goes: The series begins high above the earth, in a
Boeing 747 en route to London, piloted by Captain Rayford Steele. The
handsome, married, unsaved Steele is enjoying a moment of adulterous
fantasy when the object of his affection, a flight attendant named
Hattie Durham (to be fair, he's thinking about her smile), comes
screaming into the cockpit.
Breathless, Hattie tells Rayford that dozens of passengers have
disappeared from the cabin, leaving behind only piles of clothing and --
depending on vanity and physical health -- "eyeglasses, contact lenses,
hairpieces, hearing aids, fillings, jewelry, shoes, even pacemakers and
surgical pins." Rayford takes a peek at first class, "where an elderly
woman sat stunned in the predawn haze, her husband's sweater and
trousers in her hands. 'What in the world?' she said. 'Harold?'"
Rayford turns the plane around, lands in Chicago, and makes his way home
to the western suburb of Mount Prospect, where he discovers that his
wife, Irene, and son, Raymie, both born-again Christians, have
evaporated. His daughter (and fellow religious skeptic), Chloe, an
undergraduate at Stanford, flies home to join him. They take their grief
and confusion to Irene and Raymie's New Hope Church, where they learn
that "Jesus Christ returned for his true family, and the rest of us were
left behind" -- this from the pastor, Bruce Barnes. The pastor was left
behind because, he says, his pre-Rapture faith was "phony"; he didn't
believe that "Jesus [is] the only way to God." Rayford converts
immediately; Chloe follows shortly thereafter. (The second-chance period
for reprobates following the Rapture is the series' most noteworthy
contribution to Christian theology.)
As one might expect, the Rapture leaves the world in chaos. An obscure
Romanian politician named Nicolae Carpathia arises to become the most
powerful leader on the planet. His popular message of unity -- "We must
disarm, we must empower the United Nations, we must move to one
currency, and we must become a global village" -- eventually wins him
control of all government, media, and institutional religion. He is
named the sexiest man alive by People magazine. He appoints a new Pope.
("A lot of Catholics were confused, because while many remained, some
had disappeared -- including the new pope, who had been installed just a
few months before the vanishings. He had stirred up controversy in the
church with a new doctrine that seemed to coincide more with the
'heresy' of Martin Luther than with the historic orthodoxy they were
Meanwhile, the star journalist Cameron "Buck" Williams, who was on
Rayford and Hattie's fateful flight, persuades the editors of his
Newsweek- look-alike employer to assign him the Carpathia beat. As a
quid pro quo for Hattie's having helped Buck get an Internet connection
so that he could e-mail his editors from the plane just after the
Rapture, Buck introduces Hattie to Carpathia. She quickly becomes
Carpathia's personal assistant and lover.
Through Hattie, Buck also strikes up a friendship with Rayford Steele,
whose Christian explanation for the disappearances gives Buck a
"constant case of the chills," because it "tied everything together and
made it make sense." Buck converts, and he, Rayford, Chloe, and Pastor
Bruce Barnes figure out that Carpathia is the Antichrist. This is bad
news for Hattie, who soon becomes pregnant with Carpathia's illegitimate
child. Yet when she considers solving the problem by getting an abortion
(in "a church that had been retrofitted into a testing laboratory and
reproductive clinic"), her Christian friends do everything they can --
including killing a man -- to stop her.
As the number of believers has continued to grow, the main characters
have coagulated into a "little group inside the group, a sort of Green
Berets" of believers, called the Tribulation Force, to wage holy war
during the coming tribulations. These will include a "wrath of the Lamb
earthquake"; a meteor strike; maritime disasters; global darkening;
plagues of fire, smoke, sulfur, and demon locust-scorpions; and an
invasion by 200 million demonic horsemen who will kill a third of the
Through a series of coincidences Buck and Rayford find themselves on
Carpathia's payroll, Buck as the publisher of Carpathia's propagandizing
newsmagazine Global Community Weekly, and Rayford as Carpathia's
personal pilot. These are very stressful jobs. Rayford would like to
kill Carpathia, as would Buck, but neither one gets a clear sign from
God that he's been chosen to pull the trigger.
In the sixth book, Assassins, Carpathia convenes a "Global Gala" in
Jerusalem. (Teddy Kollek Stadium is festooned with banners reading
"Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Utopia" and similar messages;
there are lots of prayers to "the great one-gender deity"; and a
noon-to-midnight party is thrown in the Holy City's "hedonist
district.") Rayford and Buck are there. Buck stands around wishing that
he could "pop Nicolae between the eyes, even with a slingshot." Rayford
does him one better: he brings a loaded gun. After Carpathia's chief
deputy introduces "the man God chose to lead the world from war and
bloodshed to a single utopian community of harmony, your supreme
potentate and mine," Rayford takes aim, prays hard, and ...
THE "Left Behind" phenomenon is an outgrowth of apocalyptic theology,
the strand of Christian eschatology whose end-time scenarios focus on
judgment and retribution. Another Christian eschatological tradition,
called millennialism or millenarianism, focuses on restoration and
regeneration -- a thousand-year period of blessedness preceding the end
of the world.
The contemporary American version of apocalypticism is indebted for its
particulars to the writings of the Englishman John Nelson Darby, who
broke from the Anglican Church around 1830 to found a sect called the
Plymouth Brethren. His thirty-two volumes of collected writings
(including a memoir titled Personal Recollections of many Prominent
People whom I have Known, and of Events -- especially those Relating to
the History of St. Louis -- during the First Half of the Present
Century) describe a view of history called dispensationalism, which
segments God's relationship to humanity into periods of time during
which we are subject to different divine laws and different criteria for
salvation. According to Darby, the current dispensation began with the
Crucifixion; the next will begin with the Rapture of the Saved, leading
to a seven-year period during which the Antichrist will rule the earth;
and then will come Armageddon and the Last Judgment. This, Darby wrote,
is the literal truth of Revelation. Darby's dispensationalism was
adopted by the fundamentalist C. I. Scofield's First Reference Bible,
and is the standard reading of Revelation among those Christians who
believe in biblical inerrancy, including Billy Graham and Hal Lindsey
(author of The Late Great Planet Earth). It is also the historical time
line of the "Left Behind" books. That Tim LaHaye's scriptural study
Revelation Unveiled, published last year as a companion to the "Left
Behind" series, does not credit Darby in its bibliography is a measure
of the degree to which Darby's ideas have been absorbed by
fundamentalists as the plain sense of Scripture.
For almost 2,000 years the cultural context for such detailed
apocalyptic scenarios seems to have involved intense oppression, whether
real or perceived. Revelation was written by John of Patmos during the
reign of Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96). Scholars debate the question of
whether Revelation's first readers suffered violent persecution or
physical deprivation or both. There is no question, however, that those
Christians suffered intense cultural oppression. Domitian required all
subjects to worship his image and to address him as "Lord and God" --
and surely Christian resentment of this fueled Revelation's fiery
visions of Babylon's destruction and Jerusalem's glory. Countless
Christian communities since then have found spiritual solace and
political power in Revelation's promise of a new world coming, with
mixed results. (America's nineteenth-century abolitionist movement was
strongly millenarian; David Koresh's cult in Waco was strongly
Revelation's inspirations have been similarly spectacular in literature,
including Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, John Bunyan's The
Pilgrim's Progress, T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland, and Nathanael West's
The Day of the Locust. For sheer rhetorical power (and, one must admit,
priggishness), however, it's hard to beat D. H. Lawrence's Apocalypse,
which let rip a ferocious indictment of Revelation's symbolic power
among working-class English Christians. "Down among the uneducated
people you will still find Revelation rampant," Lawrence wrote,
belittling his own background.
It is very nice, if you are poor and not humble -- and the poor may be
obsequious, but they are almost never truly humble in the Christian
sense -- to bring your grand enemies down to utter destruction and
discomfiture, while you yourself rise up to grandeur.
Lawrence believed that the English proletariat's dreams of revenge were
rooted in the class resentments of first-century Christians.
By the time of Jesus, all the lowest classes and mediocre people had
realised that never would they get a chance to be kings, never would
they go in chariots, never would they drink wine from gold vessels. Very
well then -- they would have their revenge by destroying it all.
"Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of
devils." ... -- how one hears the envy, the endless envy screeching
through this song of triumph!
It's easy to giggle along with Lawrence; it's equally easy to see how
mean these passages are. And it's important to ask where this kind of
vitriol comes from. Why, if the uneducated people were so pathetic, did
Lawrence expend his vital energies (in his last book) stomping on them?
One reason was to prove that he was not one of them -- a motive given
urgency by his inescapable knowledge that he had at least begun as one
of them. (You can't choose your relatives.) Another, more laudable
reason might have been to defend the Modernist life force of which he
was a prophet. Yet the way to defend one's beliefs is to live them, not
to hurl eggs at people who pose you no real threat. What did it matter
if "mediocre people" fantasized about being top dogs? For his last
battle Lawrence could have done much better.
Lawrence's class-based critique of Revelation junkies does not apply to
the makers and consumers of the "Left Behind" phenomenon, which is
produced and received (at about $20 per hardback) in an atmosphere of
some class privilege. But his condemnation of the envy that animated
English lower-class readings of Revelation does apply to the phenomenon
itself. Envy, not of money (of which "Left Behind" folks appear to have
plenty) but of cultural status (of which they are bankrupt), fairly
oozes from every page of these books. And it has very real social
consequences: it sharpens the destructive habit of enmity between the
once- and the twice-born.
"Left Behind" offers no strong alternative to the world's definition of
what matters; it merely appropriates and baptizes worldly standards.
Everyone in the books is above average. The characters' brains and
physical beauty are sometimes described with clumsy cultural references
that demonstrate little more than Jenkins's aching, futile desire to be
"with it": one character looks "as if he had come off the cover of a
Fortune 500 edition of GQ." Buck is "Ivy League" educated; Rayford,
despite his simplistic conversation, is described as an "erudite
reader." The Tribulation Force drives a snazzy Range Rover loaded with
gizmos (cell phone, "citizen's band radio," and "a CD player that plays
those new two-inch jobs"). Everyone is online, and the Tribulation Force
proselytizes on two separate Web sites. One, maintained by a messianic
Jew named Tsion Ben-Judah, is strictly theological ("ten times more
popular than any other [site] in history"); the other, maintained by
Buck, is an underground newsmagazine called The Truth ("ten times the
largest reading audience he had ... [at] Global Community Weekly"). And
the leading believers get treated like stars. A young Jewish convert
(David Hassid) is amazed that Rayford knows Tsion Ben-Judah personally.
"Shoot," Rayford says, "I can probably get the kid an autograph."
THERE is real pathos in details like these, as there is in Jenkins's
calling himself "the most famous writer nobody's ever heard of."
Published interviews with Jenkins amplify his conflicted desire for
worldly fame. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune in 1998, Jenkins described
the pleasure of seeing his books prominently displayed at Barnes & Noble
stores. "I always take a little picture," he said. An interview for a
Tyndale House advertisement in Christian publications offers even odder
evidence of Jenkins's hunger for fame:
[Jenkins] tells how he might see someone on an airplane reading the
book, and he'll ask what it's about. The person will try to describe the
story. At some point Jerry will say, "People tell me I look like the guy
on the back cover." The person will look and say, "Yes, you do, sort
of." And then Jerry will say, "Well, I really am the author" and relish
the response. (Once someone said, "Glad to meet you, Mr. LaHaye"!)
Why would Jerry B. Jenkins want to be famous? In The Frenzy of Renown:
Fame & Its History, Leo Braudy points out that Emperor Augustus made the
Roman state "the only place where personal dignity could be conferred."
Then Christianity came along "to define an arena for individual nature
well beyond the political," and "dignity was conferred not in the
service of Rome, but in the service of God." (Render unto Caesar, and so
forth.) The empire socialized the desire for personal recognition; the
Church spiritualized it. Still, the Church and the Empire each also
retained some vestige of the other's power. The Catholic ecclesiastical
structure can still slake the human thirst for worldly recognition
within a community of the faithful; for Catholics, salvation has always
had to do with actual physical interaction among believers.
Protestants, in contrast, have only their Bibles to keep them warm.
Their church hierarchies are more various (in many evangelical and
fundamentalist churches they are almost chaotic), and their salvation
depends more heavily on an abstract relationship with the Truth,
revealed through Scripture. These facts can't help creating a conflicted
relationship between Protestants and the culture at large -- a
heightened sensitivity to culture's world-shaping power and a fear of
words and images that do not point back to the Word.
This fear is what makes Jenkins desire fame. His books suggest that he
fears being left behind by a secular, global, technological culture
bereft of Christian messages, and the popularity of his books confirms
that he's not alone in his fear. Jenkins fights fear with fiction, by
Christianizing the world. But the "Left Behind" phenomenon has been
swept up in worldly culture, even enraptured by it. ("Our most important
goal is to produce a movie that is accessible and understood by the
average moviegoer.") This must be a terrifying experience, because now
the fear doubles: Jenkins is a Christian at war with secular culture,
but his toy soldiers use a $100,000 Range Rover as their tank. No wonder
Rayford Steele is the Antichrist's personal pilot.
Jenkins and LaHaye have done a masterly job of using conservative
Christian media networks to purvey their message, build their image, and
make their fortune. But the great throng of their fans, and even the
authors themselves, are painfully aware that they are out of the loop.
The harder they try to be culturally relevant, the more ridiculous they
become, the further they fall from relevance, the more intensely they
are exiled -- not only from cultural legitimacy but also from the
spiritual power of their own beliefs.
Jenkins and LaHaye estimate that about 2,000 people have been born again
as a result of reading the "Left Behind" books. Sadly, however, the
books also tempt their audience to feel self-satisfied derision toward
those who don't share their views. And in a society where the kinds of
people who read the series have considerable political influence, such
derision is dangerous.
As the demon locusts descend on the earth, Rayford is giving the
business to a couple of stupid nonbelievers. One of the chumps asks
where that sound is coming from, cueing Rayford to deliver one of his
best Clint Eastwood lines: "One of your last warnings. Or another trick
by the fundamentalists. You decide."
Stiff-necked cultural elites get to roll their eyes at those crazy
fundamentalists; believers bloated with righteousness get to snort and
whoop at the wacko liberals. Whether we roll our eyes or guffaw,
however, we are laughing so hard that it hurts. Such is our cultural
Michael Joseph Gross lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He has
written about religion and popular culture for The Nation and Salon.
-- William P. Sulik --
"Let the reader, where we are equally confident, stride on with me;
where we are equally puzzled, pause to investigate with me;
where he finds himself in error, come to my side;
where he finds me erring, call me to his side.
So that we may keep to the path, in love, as we fare on
toward Him, 'whose face is ever to be sought.'"
-- Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity 1.5