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Born-Again Rapture

[ From the review:

… it would be hard to overemphasize the awkwardness with which [LaHaye/Jenkins] blend[] folksy humour, treacly sentiment and religiously justified bloodbaths. The Left Behind books have been energetically condemned by mainstream reviewers in the United States — not least by more orthodox Christians, who have been as offended by LaHaye?s manglings of biblical tradition as they have by his uncompromising sectarian zeal. Nevertheless, the series?s visions of beleaguered yet plucky evangelists speaks powerfully to the many millions of believers whom secular as well as religious ideologues have been mobilizing since the late 1970s. President Bush — whose endorsement by the Christian Right in 1999 and 2000 was brokered in part by the ?renowned prophecy scholar? Tim LaHaye — might be acting as an astute political operator when he professes not to believe in the theory of evolution, to be conducting a showdown between good and evil and all the rest of it.

–BL ]

May 6, 2004 | Times Literary Supplement [UK]

by Christopher Tayler

[ Review of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Glorious Appearing (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House, 2004) ]

Glorious Appearing is the climactic twelfth instalment of the Left Behind books, a series of apocalyptic fantasies by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins that have been appearing since the mid-1990s. LaHaye, an evangelical pastor and ?nationally recognized speaker on Bible prophecy?, looks after the theology and is credited with having ?conceived? the novels, while Jenkins does the writing and provides the secular thrills. Chases, high-tech espionage and improbable acts of violence are important ingredients of Jenkins?s narrative style, but, unlike Tom Clancy, whose heroic depictions of the right wing of the Republican Party are tempered by a definite flair for suspense, LaHaye and Jenkins are not primarily concerned with entertainment. They are concerned with bringing their readers the word of God, which, as they see it, has very precise implications for public policy. And they have been tremendously successful. Sales of the Left Behind books and their numerous spin-offs have long since topped the 55 million mark, easily outstripping the work of such ?end times? writers as Salem Kirban, Grant Jeffrey and David Wilkinson, and making Jenkins and LaHaye by far the most popular ?inspirational? fictioneers in the United States.

Left Behind (1995), the first book in the series, begins on a 747 bound for Heathrow. Rayford Steele, the pilot, is guiltily dissatisfied with his wife, who has recently become a born-again Christian. As he wonders whether or not to make a pass at Hattie Durham, his attractive flight attendant, more than 100 of his passengers abruptly dematerialize, leaving behind their possessions, clothes and, in a few cases, ?hairpieces?. The pilot of a passing Concorde reports similar disappearances, though on a lesser scale, and it soon becomes clear that, all over the world, millions of people have vanished instantaneously. Every child on the planet is gone; so is every foetus. Heathrow has been closed, so Rayford flies back to Chicago, where such is the destruction caused by the mass disappearance of pilots and drivers that the landscape, we?re bathetically told, ?would appear tacky for months?. There is also an extra-long queue for taxis, but Rayford snags a ride home, to find his wife and son have disappeared, too.

The speed with which most of the characters adjust to this turn of events is scarcely less eerie than the events themselves. At first their general bafflement also seems strange, since the doctrine being dramatized here has been trumpeted so widely that even the most rigorously secular Americans would find it difficult not to be aware of it. This is the doctrine of the Rapture, one of the premillennial beliefs more or less pioneered by the English preacher J. N. Darby during the 1830s and later enshrined by C. I. Scofield in the notes to his Scofield Reference Bible (1909). In the Darby?Scofield interpretation, a sentence in 1 Thessalonians — ?And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air? — refers not to the Second Coming but to the ?rapturing? of Christians justified by their faith, who will be transported to Heaven immediately before the seven-year reign of the Antichrist. This heterodox teaching, with its emphasis on the worldly sufferings in store for the profane, later found a mass audience through such popular guides to the fast-approaching apocalypse as The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) by Hal Lindsey, which sold some 40 million copies. Since all true believers have been ?raptured?, however, most of the people left behind in Left Behind seek a rational explanation for the disappearances. Californians blame them on extraterrestrials, while Rayford initially wonders whether ?some gas, some malfunction? might have caused his passengers to evaporate.

With the help of Bruce Barnes, an assistant pastor who has also been left behind (chiefly, it seems, because of his stingy offerings in the collection plate), Rayford figures out what’s going on. Not surprisingly, he immediately becomes a fiery born-again Christian — the first of many conversions described in detail throughout the series. LaHaye and Jenkins like people to accept Jesus Christ as their personal saviour. Their dislikes, which are more wide-ranging, are expressed in the ominous activities of the Antichrist. As it happens, the series?s other hero, Cameron ?Buck? Williams — so-called because he?s forever bucking authority — is well placed to observe the Antichrist?s opening moves, since Buck, who was one of the passengers on Rayford?s 747, is an ace newshound employed by ?the prestigious Global Weekly?. Dealing resourcefully with the closely observed difficulties of travelling and sending emails after the Rapture, Buck returns to New York and persuades his Editor to send him to an imminent monetary conference, where a little-known politician soon catches his eye.

The politician in question, who has recently become President of Romania, is called Nicolae Carpathia — ?a melodic name?, as one of his admirers points out. Carpathia is ?handsome as a young Robert Redford?, ?blonde and blue eyed, like the original Romanians, who came from Rome, before the Mongols affected their race?. A smooth-talking man rationalist, he is a campaigner for peace and an ardent admirer of the United Nations, where, thanks to the work of a mysterious crew of international moneymen, he is about to be offered the post of Secretary-General. Carpathia has a few demands that must be acceded to before he will agree to take on the job: total global disarmament, the creation of a UN army, the relocation of UN headquarters to Babylon, and the establishment of a one-world currency and religion. These conditions are unanimously met by the world’s politicians (the White House is occupied by a weak-minded Democrat), and Carpathia swiftly ushers in a calamitous ?New World Order?.

Over the next eleven volumes of the series, Rayford, Buck and their ?Tribulation Force? combat the Antichrist?s global tyranny while converting as many people as possible. It is made clear that the God worshipped by LaHayeand Jenkins considers abortion to be wrong, has it in for gay people and feminists, and opposes most forms of government regulation, especially gun control. By the end of the Antichrist?s rule, ?the private sector?, or ?what was left of it?, is in a state of terminal disarray. God also takes a hawkish line on the final status of East Jerusalem, but his apparent concern for the territorial integrity of the Jewish State is motivated by a passionate hostility to the Jewish religion. LaHaye and Jenkins pay obsessive attention to what one of their heroes calls ?the Jewish question?, meaning the question of God?s plans for the Jewish people, and the authors describe thousands of ?Jewish evangelists? putting their trust in ?the One they had pierced? during orgiastic scenes of mass conversion. At the end of the series, the small number of Jews who have persisted in their faith are vengefully consigned to the Everlasting Fire, along with Catholics, Muslims, Hindus and other devotees of ?aberrant religion?.

?Bible prophecy is history written in advance?, we?re told again and again in the Left Behind books, and in the course of the series, the mystical torments described in Revelation unfold in literalistic detail. Seas turn to blood, darkness veils the earth, and venomous locusts torment the unbelievers. This makes it increasingly difficult to account for the continuing apostasy of most of the world’s population. In Glorious Appearing, one of the characters wonders about this, while recalling the still-recent episode in which ?200 million demonic horsemen? wiped out one-third of the people on the planet. Are unbelievers insane? ?No, she decided, they were self-possessed? — self-possessed? — ?narcissistic, vain, proud. In a word, evil?. But, even as she thinks this, the forces of evil are gathering on the outskirts of Petra, where the ?Trib force? and ?the Jewish remnant? are preparing for Christ?s return by watching Baptist preachers on DVD. Christ, the believers surmise, is ?gonna kill a bunch of people?.

In an apocalyptic scene, the Antichrist?s swarthy legions advance, brandishing their weaponry. ?And then, as if God had thrown the switch in heaven, light.? Christ descends on a horse and makes ?magnanimous comments about Himself?. At his every word, ?tens of thousands of Unity Army soldiers fell dead, simply dropping where they stood, their bodies ripped open, blood pooling in great masses . . . . It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin?. This operation is repeated several times at different locations, in order to conform to the various prophecies marshalled by LaHaye, and in consequence the cast spend most of the book chasing their Lord around the Middle East in armoured vehicles, exchanging pious greetings on mobile phones. The Antichrist, the smells-and-bells False Prophet and Satan himself are exquisitely punished, the sheep and goats divided. Then Christ?s millennial reign on earth begins.

It would be easy to make fun of Jerry B. Jenkins for thinking that ?the spoils of war? means bomb damage, or for having a Jordanian member of the Tribulation squad operate under the codename ?Camel Jockey?. But it would be hard to overemphasize the awkwardness with which he blends folksy humour, treacly sentiment and religiously justified bloodbaths. The Left Behind books have been energetically condemned by mainstream reviewers in the United States — not least by more orthodox Christians, who have been as offended by LaHaye?s manglings of biblical tradition as they have by his uncompromising sectarian zeal. Nevertheless, the series?s visions of beleaguered yet plucky evangelists speaks powerfully to the many millions of believers whom secular as well as religious ideologues have been mobilizing since the late 1970s. President Bush — whose endorsement by the Christian Right in 1999 and 2000 was brokered in part by the ?renowned prophecy scholar? Tim LaHaye — might be acting as an astute political operator when he professes not to believe in the theory of evolution, to be conducting a showdown between good and evil and all the rest of it. But, as Joan Didion put it in a recent essay on the Left Behind phenomenon, ?the kind of dream that can be put to political use . . . can also entrap those who would use it?.

Thanks to Popi and Tom Natsoulas for passing on this review. –BL

Religion

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