Fictional Christians and Real Christians

The "Left Behind" books

Fictional Christians and Real Christians

The "Left Behind" books

Fictional Christians and Real Christians
New books dissected over email.
June 22 2000 3:56 PM

The "Left Behind" books

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Dear Randall,

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So LaHaye and Jenkins are anti-Semitic? Perhaps. LaHaye's comments certainly have that flavor. But I would be reluctant to lay that epithet at the feet of the Religious Right or fundamentalists in general. Even in evangelical circles, LaHaye's views would sound controversial and, to be honest, ignorant.

In the "Left Behind" series, the intellectual leader of the church is Tsion Ben-Judah, a rabbi commissioned by Israel to study the marks of Israel's coming Messiah and who discovers that, once he really explored the prophetic passages with an "open mind," the Hebrew Bible points to Jesus as Messiah. (My favorite part is that his conclusions are broadcast live to a billion people--we need to allow LaHaye, a Bible conference speaker, to have his fantasies.) So 2,000 years of rabbinic tradition are reduced to "being closed-minded." But this has more to do with simplistic thinking than anti-Semitism. All non-Christians are treated as not very bright and easily fooled.

I am uncomfortable with what is behind your statement, "At the same time, the only good Jew for most fundamentalists is a converted Jew. They refuse to recognize the validity of Judaism on its own terms." Unless I read my Bible wrong, I think Jesus and certainly the apostle Paul would have a problem with "Judaism on its own terms" if it does not recognize Jesus as Messiah.

Remember, the purpose of the Tribulation Force in these books is not to fight the Antichrist. That's God's job. They are to make more Christians. They pray, organize, and weep about it--often. The Christian faith is fundamentally evangelistic. Essentially the gospel is "good news" that needs to be broadcast and explained, which these characters do over the Internet. While even many Christians are uncomfortable with their Great Commission and its inevitable tensions with other faith claims, LaHaye and Jenkins are not troubled in the least--and they are right. Christianity is an evangelistic faith--"first for the Jew, then for the Gentile" (Romans 1:16; cf. Acts 1:7-8). That is enough for some to warrant labeling Christianity "anti-Semitic," but not for fellow Christians surely. (For more on the issue of evangelizing Jews, click here  and here.)

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Now to your comments about the "triumphalism and smug self-righteousness in the "Left Behind" books." Don't all orthodox, historic Christians think they are on the winning side? After all, we are celebrating something at the heavenly banquet. And to be fair, the characters in the "Left Behind" series do more weeping for the lost than high-fiving each other for being on God's winning team.

I believe the "smug self-righteousness" applies more to the authors than to the characters in their books. It is hard to be "self"-righteous when God is propping you up with miracles and torturing your enemies with many plagues. But LaHaye and Jenkins are guilty by oversimplifying God and the world we live in. We do not have to look too deeply for how they feel about mystery and nuance when they name the Antichrist-sponsored new world religion "Enigma Babylon One World Faith."

Overall, I feel we have strayed a little from the books themselves, and I would like the chance to clear up some confusion that the uninitiated may have after encountering these books.

First, not all Christians who treat Scripture as authoritative and inspired find in the book of Revelation a timeline for the end times. Christianity Today has recently run both long ("Apocalypse Now," by J. Nelson Kraybill) and short ("Is Revelation Prophecy or History?" by David Dockery) versions of articles explaining that the mainstream evangelical interpretation of the last book of the Bible is that the talk of dragons, beasts, seals, and judgments were coded references to first-century Rome while also providing perennial wisdom and information to the church about the final days.

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Which means that most evangelical leaders would be surprised when a member of the Christian Tribulation Force is not interested in the potential assassination of the Antichrist because he knows it "won't happen for another year" according to the Bible. Talk about a loss of dramatic tension! In fact, LaHaye and Jenkins are shrewd enough not to have the book's Bible teachers explain too much about the future even though they already know what will happen.

Second, evangelicals are not as "anti-world" as the books suggest. After the rapture, government agencies, media operations, and major corporations are mostly unaffected, which suggests that not many Christians populate these offices. Most of the disappeared seem to be housewives, pastors, retirees, coaches and athletes, and kids. This gives a false picture. The majority of U.S. congressmen meet in weekly Bible studies and prayer groups; the same is true for federal judges and many corporate CEOs. Active, devout Christians who affirm the historic orthodox Christian faith permeate every sphere of society.

Yes, dispensationalism flirts with cultural despair, but as several insightful people have pointed out in "The Fray," this has not resulted in a withdrawal from politics or cultural engagement. It does mean, though, that we tend to frame the debates as moral battles against evil. The art of compromise or the notion of "good enough" does not come easily for us.

My last observation is to note how frustrated evangelicals must be with the church, as evidenced by the popularity of the "Left Behind" books. What are we to make of the fact that, in these novels, the church is so much more effective after all the Christians are removed? The U.S. church has been static statistically for decades. After the "Left Behind" rapture, the church explodes all over the world, led by Jewish evangelists. We hear no ecumenical debates over esoteric doctrines. God is not debated; he is encountered. We hear of no churches or even the markings of everyday church life, but only of home Bible studies and clandestine action teams. Will it be so easy to suffer through "Stewardship Sunday" after this?

Your friend,

Michael G. Maudlin

P.S. Dostoyevsky is a fundamentalist in the same way many would consider you and I fundamentalists. He had dogmatic, conservative religious views (many of which we would want to distance ourselves from) but nonetheless was able to get beyond simple dualistic thinking, which was my point. If your question was "Can simple-minded folk who engage in black-and-white thinking write great novels?" the answer is probably no. If your question was "Can people who hold passionately to highly sectarian views of the Christian faith write great novels?" the answer is yes.

This week, a discussion of the "Left Behind" series, by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. Randall Balmer is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of American Religion at Barnard College and the author of Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America. Michael G. Maudlin is the executive director of editorial operations forChristianity Today.