I tried. I really did. In my continuing quest to plumb the mind of the fundamentalist evangelical Christian (FEC for short), I tried to read Glorious Appearing, the 12th and final installment of the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Commercially, the series is what we call a “publishing phenomenon” selling more than 60 million copies and generating spin–offs, like a children’s series, video games, graphic novels, and devotional resources.
Those of us who aren’t FECs (does that make us feckless?) and who comprise the group the FECs most want to help (the un–saved and un–born again) have a tendency to dismiss this stuff outright. But in doing so, we commit the very sins we most often accuse FECs of committing: we read only those books which reinforce our pre–existing point of view and foreclose the possibility of being affected by their insights; we make no effort to listen closely to their sermons or to read their materials with a discerning eye. Instead, we reduce them to caricatures: morbidly obese simple–minded Americans with southern drawls and big cars.
But it doesn’t lie in our mouths to protest the caricatures they’ve deployed against us (whoever us is) unless we’re willing to do some serious listening – or reading, as the case may be. And so I picked up a copy of Glorious Appearing and read a fictionalized account of the end of time when Jesus would return to earth, defeat the armies of the Anti–Christ, and suck into heaven all those who gave themselves to Him before it was too late.
I tried to finish the book. I really did. It’s almost 400 pages long and I made it to the mid–200′s (wanted to stick around for Jesus to arrive). So if this is the 12th book in the series, then that makes 4800 pages of slogging before we can witness the end of time. But Holy Crap! If I had to read 4800 pages of this drivel, then screw the Rapture. I’d rupture first.
So why the allergic reaction?
1. I’m a literary snob. I have an English lit. degree from Victoria College and it’s forever impaired my ability to read pulp fiction.
2. I’m a theological snob. I have a theology degree form Vic’s sister college (Emmanuel) and it’s forever impaired my ability to read anything that uses “blood” and “Jesus” in the same sentence.
So first let’s put the literary snob to work.
Glorious Appearing has two distinct voices, probably because it has two distinct authors (and no editorial effort to blend the two). Both voices come from the Keebler cookie–cutter fiction factory where cardboard characters (the Jenkins effect) are mixed in a batter of tedious sermonizing (the LaHaye effect), then drizzled in a glaze of awkward sentences and topped with a generous sprinkling of clichés.
There are a few distinctive characters. For example, there’s a rabbi. We know he’s a rabbi because his name is Chaim. There’s a tech guy named Chang. We know he’s a tech guy because … well … his name is Chang and everybody knows that Orientals are good with computers. There’s the Anti–Christ. We know he’s the Anti–Christ because he has anger management issues and was probably abused as a child.
Of course Middle–Aged Black Woman makes an appearance so that the Left Behind series maintains enough cultural diversity and political correctness to penetrate every conceivable demographic in the US. We know she’s MABW because she doesn’t speak the same stilted English as all the White, Jewish, Arab and Chinese characters. Instead, she says things like: “‘Bout three blocks from you, I reckon” and “How we all gonna fit in your cellar, anyway?” You just know that somewhere in the background the authors are itching to write in a watermelon and a stolen pair of Nikes.
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyways): Jesus is white. We know he’s Jesus because his hair is snow white, he comes from the sky, rides a white horse, and wears a white robe. If Jesus were a woman, this would be a tampon commercial.
That’s about all there is by way of character development.
Now let’s sample the top 10 sentences from Glorious Appearing:
10. “His neck was stiff, and he had the feeling he would be unable to stand or even roll into a crawling position if his life depended on it. If someone didn’t find him soon, his life would depend on moving yet again. But that simply wasn’t in the cards.”
9. “The resistance thinks they own the surface above where we even now reside, but their options are gone. They have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.”
8. “He had had them rounded up, put in death camps, starved, tortured, beaten, humiliated with psychological warfare—you name it. That any survived was a miracle. That many became believers was something else … Apparently God’s going to play this one out for all it’s worth.”
7. “Abdullah had been put through the rigors of military training to where he was certified to fly jets of almost any type. Did his friends really think all Jordanians were so childlike and stupid that they would entrust a young man of limited mental capabilities to pilot fighter–bombers worth tens of millions of dinars? It was laughable.”
6. “The army had apparently underestimated the riders’ ability to stay aboard their mounts as the horses managed the steep terrain, and everything slowed to a halt. Those on the plain below kept coming, causing a traffic jam of biblical proportions.”
5. “Eleazar Tiberius, not that much older than Tsion had been but a much bigger, rotund man, had become a wonderful ally.”
4. “The Lord and His white–clad heavenly army hovered over them, and despite the trip, everyone appeared fresh and clean and none the worse for wear.”
3. “What was happening on the dirt ramp and the wood stairs dwarfed mass tragedies due to fire in crowded buildings.”
2. “He was no medical student, but he could tell something had sliced his carotid artery—no small problem.”
And now for the number 1 sentence from Glorious Appearing. (Remember that whenever Jesus speaks, his words kill the unbelievers):
1. “Rayford watched through the binocs as men and women soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin.”
Now let’s put the theological snob to work.
While it’s easy to be snobbish about the merits of the writing, it’s more difficult to keep my nose stuck in the air on matters of believing. In fact, my first observation is a caution against theological snobbery. My observation has to do with “tone.” The Glorious Appearing features characters who engage in easy banter, who feel free, who believe in their rightness, and who are beset by regimented monolithic forces that have no access to their enlightened (and privileged) point of view. But isn’t this how we think too? Isn’t this the story of liberal education and culture in the West? Isn’t this the story of M*A*S*H, CSI, and the Matrix? And don’t we treat FEC as a regimented monolithic force? I think it’s important to acknowledge that we all seek out ways to affirm the centredness of our own point of view.
Why do we have this in common with FECs? Maybe it’s because we share with them a meta–narrative that lurks just below the surface – the meta–narrative of the Protestant Reformation, a story of conflict and secession that we have replicated in ever–smaller groupings of believers. Now, even where two or three (Protestants) are gathered, one will worry that the other two have formed an unthinking power–wielding regimented group bent on imposing its will. Or maybe it’s a response that runs deeper than our common Reformation heritage. Maybe it’s a deeply embedded social response that we’ve inherited from our Neolithic tribal ancestors – the vestiges of an ancient survival mechanism. Or maybe it’s a socialized egocentrism that’s necessary for the formation of a healthy group identity. Enough speculation. I offer these considerations only to support a word of caution against being flippant as I catalogue some of the theological themes which emerge form a reading of Glorious Appearing.
The Authority of Scripture
The Book quotes scripture at length – to such an extent that God should be acknowledged as a co–author and mailed royalty cheques. This is understandable, but it makes for a tedious read. The characters love their Bible. They love to read the Bible. They love to memorize long passages from the Bible. And they love to recite their biblical memory exercises ad nauseam.
The Importance of Prophecy
The truth of prophecies about the end of time (Daniel, selected apocalyptic passages from the Gospels, and the Book of Revelations) is affirmed by a syllogistic reasoning. The Prophets (especially Isaiah) foretold the coming of Christ. Christ came. The NT writers (also prophets) foretold the return of Christ at the end of time. Therefore … The problem is: the people writing about Jesus had the early Prophecies squarely in front of them and so were able to “write them true” retroactively. Ironically, that is precisely what the characters of Glorious Appearing do. So, for example, the troops of both God and the Anti–Christ are amassed. They’re armed to the teeth with all the latest in hi–tech weaponry. But Anti–Christ and Jesus both show up on horses. Why? Because that’s what a guy named John foretold as he was writing his tract 2000 years ago. In another scene, Anti–Christ sets out on a journey by horseback, then loads his horse into a plane and sends it ahead, gets in a Humvee, drives almost to his destination, gets back onto his horse, and enters the city on horseback. Why? Because John said he would in the Book of Revelations. Prophecy can make travel so inconvenient!
The Literal Truth of Scripture
On several occasions the book explicitly affirms the importance of scripture’s literal meaning. We’ve seen this above with Anti–Christ’s horse. But there’s a problem. There are some passages of scripture that defy even the most trenchant literalists. The rabbi Chaim worries about one such passage. It keeps him awake all night. Finally he has Chang hack into the world’s media centre (controlled by Anti–Christ – or maybe CNN) and broadcast to the world’s believers a little reflection on biblical exegesis. Yes, sometimes it is symbolic. The passage in question comes from the Book of Revelations. When Christ appears, there’s supposed to be a sword coming from his mouth which he uses to slay the unbelievers. Chaim explains that it is a symbolic passage. Christ doesn’t really stick a sword in his mouth. The sword is the Word of God. Here’s the symbolic interpretation: when Christ speaks, unbelievers who hear his words will drop dead – literally. This accounts for the superheated blood/exploding people passage I quoted earlier.
There is one thing Chaim doesn’t explain: how do you decide when to toggle from literal to symbolic modes of interpretation? This problem isn’t unique to FECs. In fact, it’s a problem that vexes every text–dependent religious system. Roman Catholics have answered the problem with the magisterium which stands as an equal and independent authority whenever scripture is silent or ambiguous. Liberal Protestants have sometimes created a magisterium all their own, looking to the epistemology which underlies scientific method, and to contemporary philosophical efforts to ground an ethic. Chaim appeals to common sense.
Again, the book elicits a problem which extends far beyond the purview of fundamentalism: if interpretive method can draw out the plain meaning of scripture, then that plain meaning should be accessible to anyone. Nowhere is the desire for accessibility more celebrated than in the notion of a personal Saviour. When Jesus finally addresses the believers, each hears his/her own name and perceives the Saviour’s speech as a personal talk. But at the same time there are references to the importance of scholarship as a tool to affirm what people have already discovered through a plain reading of the text.
This ambivalence between scholarship and unmediated reading is not surprising amongst FECs. Ever since the Scope’s Monkey Trial, the media have portrayed fundamentalists as backward yokels. The response has been to create a sophisticated network of scholarly institutions to advance the FEC point of view. There’s Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and the Dallas Theological Seminary, and most recently the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. You almost get the impression that scholarship is a form of image management as much as a pursuit worthy in its own right.
But this ambivalence is not unique to FECs; all religious thinkers face it. If their work is too heavily footnoted, some complain that it’s inaccessible or elitist. If, on the other hand, it relies too heavily on personal anecdotes and down–to–earth illustrations, others complain that it lacks credibility.
Drawing together all the themes mentioned above – the authoritative force of biblical prophecy interpreted literally with no external aids save common sense – and we have a recipe for what is arguably the most dangerous movement of our time – Christian Zionism. This movement is driven by the belief that the Jewish people, and Israel, are essential players in the events preceding the imminent return of Jesus. There are practical short–term consequences: 1) While FECs are numerically a minority group within the US, they have developed an pro–Israel lobby in Washington that has shaped US foreign policy in the Middle East. 2) Because Israel must be protected at all costs, FECs applaud the escalating militarization of the Middle East, a development which is consistent with biblical imagery. 3) It has become easy to deploy end–times imagery to characterise Palestinians and, by extension, all of Islam, as an army of darkness. This wouldn’t be the first time Scripture was used to promote racist policies.
However, if we take Glorious Appearing as a parable about the nature of history (or one version of it), then it stands as a cautionary tale for the long–term consequences of Christian Zionism. Jews take heed. The fulfillment of a FEC world view requires the conversion of Jews. At least a third of the world’s Jews must acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah before he will come again. This creates a huge level of anxiety amongst FECs who want to hurry things along. The characters exhibit a frustration at obstinate refusal and this emerges as violent fantasy:
“Frankly, he carried a bit of resentment, even disgust, for those who had waited this long.”
“More important than discussing the timing of Messiah’s return, however—which I can summarize in a sentence: I believe He will be here before midnight, Israel Time—is the spiritual state of my fellow Jews around the globe. If you have never listened before, lend me an ear this day. This is your last chance, your final warning, my ultimate plea with you to recognize and accept Jesus as the Messiah you have for so long sought.”
“Chang couldn’t help praying silently that just one of those bolts of lightning would find that tip and roast the enemy where he sat.”
If you can’t increase the rate of conversion, why not decrease the number of Jews? In the long run, do Jews really want support from these people? It seems a wee bit like a Faustian arrangement.
In The End …
It is the literary snob who passes judgment. All writing has in it the possibility of being an aesthetic gift to the world, adding something of beauty where there was none before. It is the aesthetic which drives all my reading. That accounts for the fact that I dive into works that my peers find difficult or pointless. I never tire of Genesis and Exodus, 1 Samuel and John – the storytellers. I read Chaucer and Shakespeare for fun. And as Frye has demonstrated by example, even scholarly works can convey an aesthetic sensibility. (I remember reading about a poet who chopped up fragments of Frye and delivered them at a poetry reading.) No matter the content, I’ll read anything as long as it’s well–written – the Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, Margaret Atwood. But without that aesthetic something, then the Word is dead.
I tried to read Glorious Appearing. I really tried.