God as Action Hero

The "Left Behind" books

God as Action Hero

The "Left Behind" books

God as Action Hero
New books dissected over email.
June 21 2000 11:15 AM

The "Left Behind" books

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Dear Randall,

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You remember correctly. I was not raised with anxieties about being left behind or even about burning in hell, for that matter. The biggest religious debate in our home was whether we had to go to church or could stay home and watch the Sunday-morning Tarzan movie. But God found a way to get me into the kingdom, and the path was one of love and nurture, not escape from judgment.

Still, "fear of judgment" stands as a tried-and-true means of getting people saved, a tactic even Jonathan Edwards was not above using. What is ironic about the novels is that so many characters get converted because of the impressive accuracy of biblical prophecy, which probably will not be as effective a strategy when applied outside a system not totally controlled by fundamentalist authors.

There is no getting around the fact that the biblical God judges as well as loves. Our contemporary sensibilities shudder at the violent images in Scripture where God commands every man, woman, child, and beast killed in some passages in Joshua and Judges, but it is Holy Writ nonetheless. (I was greatly helped by "When God Declares War," an article in Christianity Today by Dan Reid and Tremper Longman III.) At least in the "Left Behind" books, it is God who directly causes the carnage of judgment, through earthquakes and angels, and does not ask his saints to use their Uzis.

But we are God's. That is the consequence of being the deity. He made us, he can judge us, he can toast us. I remember watching Bill Moyers' Genesis shows a few years ago, where scholars and clergy talked about the stories of Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Joseph. While the insights were profound, the participants kept explaining where God fell short there or wasn't fair here. They judged God, arguing for their new and improved version. I think that is backwards. If God exists, then we have to take him as he is and conform ourselves to his designs. This brings up something LaHaye and Jenkins get right: Their God is an active character in the stories. They know what it means for God to be called Sovereign.

Our comfort is that our God loves us. And anything that God does that seems to fall short character-wise simply cannot be. God gave us, and modeled for us in Jesus, our sense of justice, fairness, love, compassion, goodness. When he seems to violate these ideals, it can only be that we do not understand something deeper still that would reveal his actions to be grounded in love and goodness. What I see as a violation now, I will applaud when I "see" fully in heaven. At least that would be my counsel to the fearful boy lying awake in his bed.

As for your question regarding who is reading these books, I would add another question, How are they reading them? The National Enquirer loves religious stories and plasters Billy Graham on its cover every so many issues. America is still one of the most religious countries in the world (despite the Supreme Court's attempt to separate prayer from football), and so it should hardly be surprising to have a religious best seller. But what I don't see are prophecy conferences popping up around the country or nonfiction prophecy books joining their fictional brethren on the New York Times list. Which makes me wonder whether people are simply being entertained by all the blockbuster action (after all, how many books nuke the world's major cities in one chapter?) and not taking notes in the margins of their Bibles.

"Can fundamentalists write good fiction?" you ask. Certainly Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy qualify in many senses as both fundamentalist Christians and good novelists, but I have a feeling you were intending the adjective "American" be applied in your question. Larry Woiwode and Walter Wangerin Jr., come to mind, though that doesn't mean fundamentalist Christians buy their fiction. Fiction as a category is still fairly new in Christian bookstores, following the phenomenal success of Frank Peretti's This Present Darkness in 1989. We will have to wait and see what emerges.

Your friend,
Michael G. Maudlin

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.