When I was in 4th year of secondary school I did a few week’s work experience at my local library. One day I was doing something monotonous with a pile of newly-donated books in a section of the library that was otherwise empty, and passed the time by flipping through a few of them.
One of the donations was a large boxed set of a book series I had never heard of before– the Left Behind books, starting with an initial instalment of the same name. I read the first few chapters out of curiosity, and found the premise somewhat intriguing. Millions of people disappearing around the globe! Chaos and destruction!
But there was also something distinctly strange about it. Parts of the plot didn’t make sense, and at the end of the chunk I got through the book veered off into expositing about a branch of Christianity I had never heard of and couldn’t understand. I kept an eye out for it on the shelves, intending to read more, but as far as I know the librarians never put it up for borrowing.
It occurs to me that the scenario I just described is probably exactly what authors Tim LaHaye and Terry B. Jenkins intended when they created the series, except their version would have ended with me coming to some sort of religious revelation. If I had actually read the rest of Left Behind and gone on to research its purpose and origins, it likely would have accelerated my movement toward atheism instead.
There’s a good chance you’re at least vaguely aware of what these books are about, but in case you’re as clueless as I was during those radical teen years: the Left Behind series is an account of the End Times and the second coming of Jesus, as foretold by an interpretation of the Bible called Premillenial Dispensationalism (the “premillenial” bit refers to a future 1000 years of peace that’s supposed to come at the end of the process, not the year 2000). A major component of this set of beliefs is that the end of the world will begin with God’s faithful being physically spirited off to heaven in the blink of an eye– in other words, the rapture– leaving those left behind to contend with seven years of warfare and chaos as the anti-christ attempts to take over the world. Once this period of tribulation is over, Jesus will return to establish God’s kingdom on Earth/gruesomely murder the forces of evil with his magic voice (yes, that actually happens in the last book).
If this differs wildly from any interpretation of Christianity you grew up with/practice now/have ever heard of before, you’re not alone. Premillenial Dispensationalism (hereafter abbreviated to PD so I don’t have to keep trying to spell dispensationalism) tends to be included in fundamentalist versions of the religion that are on the more extreme end of the spectrum, and as far as I can tell it’s a mostly American Evangelical phenomenon.
And yet the world of rapture-based entertainment is surprisingly large, if the Left Behind multimedia empire is anything to go by. As well as the sixteen main books there are three spin-off series, one of which is 40 instalments long, four movies not counting the recent Nic Cage one, two video games, comic books and audio dramas that were broadcast on Christian radio. These ideas may not be mainstream in the same way that Catholicism or the larger protestant sects are, but they’ve clearly got a bigger following than you might assume.
But my intention with these posts isn’t so much to talk about Left Behind’s religious or political views. What I’m interested in is how those religious and political views make it worse than it would have been on its own. As a secular thriller Left Behind would be slapdash and amateurish, but because the book has to follow the outline of a not terribly coherent prophecy extracted from an infamously weird part of the Bible the story makes absolutely no sense and twists itself in all kinds of awkward ways, some of which we’ll see just from a small sampling of the first few chapters. It’s frequently asserted in some quarters that popular culture is being inundated with agenda-driven products aimed at an uncritical echo chamber; Left Behind is what that actually looks like.
RAYFORD Steele’s mind was on a woman he had never touched. With his fully loaded 747 on autopilot above the Atlantic en route to a 6 A.M. landing at Heathrow, Rayford had pushed from his mind thoughts of his family.
Go ahead and read those two sentences again. Take a moment to process them, if you need to. Notice that our rugged hero is called Rayford Steele, and that he’s piloting his fully-loaded 747 while fantasizing about a woman he wants to bone. Has there ever been a more freudian paragraph in all of fiction?
This might seem like a bit of a weird way to open a novel that will feature planes dropping from the sky and mass devastation consuming the globe in just a few chapters, middle-aged men contemplating adultery generally being the purview of distinctly less exciting novels written by English professors, but the reason for Ray’s wandering mind (and the curiously upfront assertion that he has not actually gone through with his fantasies) becomes more apparent just a few sentences later.
Over spring break he would spend time with his wife and twelve-year-old son. Their daughter would be home from college, too. But for now, with his first officer dozing, Rayford imagined Hattie Durham’s smile and looked forward to their next meeting.
Hattie was Rayford’s senior flight attendant. He hadn’t seen her in more than an hour.
Ray is daydreaming about a younger woman’s smile. This is some racy stuff, people.
In writing this character, LaHaye and Jenkins were walking a bit of a tightrope. In order to miss out on the rapture and be titularly left behind he had to be a sinful man who doesn’t subscribe to the very particular brand of Christianity that they believe offers the key to heaven, but at the same time he couldn’t be so bad that their very devout audience would be completely repelled by him, and thus he’s presented as standing on the precipice of the most ridiculously sanitised affair in literary history.
The book goes on to explain that Ray has recently started to feel distant from his wife, in part because she’s joined a smaller church that he finds too intense and forthright. Our hero, it’s important to note, isn’t an unbeliever; he’s perfectly fine with the idea of Christianity, as long as it’s the fairly casual brand that most Christians around the world practice. Unfortunately, that isn’t the kind of Christianity that gets you into heaven in this book’s worldview.
Besides, Hattie Durham was drop-dead gorgeous. No one could argue that. What he enjoyed most was that she was a toucher. Nothing inappropriate, nothing showy. She simply touched his arm as she brushed past or rested her hand gently on his shoulder when she stood behind his seat in the cockpit.
Hold on, I think I need to take a cold shower.
Eventually Ray stops dreaming about all the hot eye contact he’s going to get up to with Hattie, and goes into a bit more about his wife’s religious kick. This is where I probably should have realized that the book was aimed at a particular audience, because it does a very poor job of explaining what the Rapture actually us.
Lately she had been reading everything she could get her hands on about the Rapture of the church. “Can you imagine, Ray,” she exulted, “Jesus coming back to get us before we die?”
“Yeah, boy,” he said, peeking over the top of his newspaper, “that would kill me.”
He hadn’t meant to offend her. He was just having fun. When she turned away he rose and pursued her. He spun her around and tried to kiss her, but she was cold. “Come on, Irene,” he said. “Tell me thousands wouldn’t just keel over if they saw Jesus coming back for all the good people.”
She had pulled away in tears. “I’ve told you and told you. Saved people aren’t good people, they’re just forgiven.”
And the characters start talking like robots, but I think that’s a problem that goes beyond the book’s religious nature.
In a way he had envied her confidence, but in truth he wrote it off to her being a more emotional, more feelings-oriented person. He didn’t want to articulate it, but the fact was, he was brighter-yes, more intelligent. He believed in rules, systems, laws, patterns, things you could see and feel and hear and touch.
SOON YOU’LL LEARN YOUR LESSON YOU FILTHY MATERIALIST
Also wow, what an asshat.
Next to a window in first class, a writer sat hunched over his laptop. He shut down the machine, vowing to get back to his journal later. At thirty, Cameron Williams was the youngest ever senior writer for the prestigious Global Weekly.
Cameron Williams (or “Buck”, as his colleagues call him for reasons too stupid to go into) is our second viewpoint character, and as soon as we’re introduced to him we head off down a strange diversion that doesn’t initially seem to have anything to do with the rest of the story.
A year and two months earlier, his January 1 cover story had taken him to Israel to interview Chaim Rosenzweig and had resulted in the most bizarre event he had ever experienced.
Chaim Rosenzweig was Global Weekly’s Newsmaker of The Year (which seems to imply the magazine is this setting’s version of Time), winning the award due to a bioengineering process he developed that can turn deserts into fertile land. This is conveyed to us via a very long, stilted conversation in which Buck’s co-workers stand around telling each other things they already know.
Rosenzweig’s formula was fast making Israel the richest nation on earth, far more profitable than its oil-laden neighbors. Every inch of ground blossomed with flowers and grains, including produce never before conceivable in Israel . The Holy Land became an export capital, the envy of the world, with virtually zero unemployment. Everyone prospered.
The prosperity brought about by the miracle formula changed the course of history for Israel. Flush with cash and resources, Israel made peace with her neighbors. Free trade and liberal passage allowed all who loved the nation to have access to it.
These two paragraphs contain so many implausibilities, I’m not sure where to start.
I don’t know off the top of my head how much arable land Isreal would be able to support with an invention like this, but I’m going to go ahead and guess that it would be the tiniest sliver of a fraction of what the United States or Russia currently possess in real life. And yet somehow, growing lots of flowers and grain made it the richest country in the world. I guess at some point wheat became more valuable to the world economy than oil. Is there a global food shortage happening?
Having acquired all of this money, Isreal then goes on to bring peace to the middle east. Again, I don’t have the deepest understanding of the conflicts surrounding Isreal’s existence, but I assume the problem isn’t that it doesn’t have enough farms.
Buck had not even asked the old man to reveal the formula or the complicated security process that protected it from any potential enemy. The very fact that Buck was housed by the military evidenced the importance of security. Maintaining that secret ensured the power and independence of the state of Israel.
Why would it matter if someone else got the formula? It’s a new type of fertilizer, not the blueprints for a nuclear bomb. This only makes sense if you assume that Isreal’s neighbours are suffering a severe food crisis, and the government is keeping them docile by dangling the promise of aid over their heads.
The book then veers erratically into more worldbuilding exposition, explaining that the entire world has moved to using three global currencies, which includes all of Africa adopting the yen for some reason, ahead of a planned move to a one-world currency at some point in the future (this book was written in 1995; the introduction of the euro four years later must have made LaHaye and Jenkins’ heads spin).
Meanwhile, Russia became increasingly belligerent after the dissolution of the USSR and started obsessively building up its military, for no apparent reason. And then one day they launched an all-out attack on Isreal, expending more or less every component of their military apparatus, basically out of jealousy. But, miraculously, every Russian plane and helicopter was struck from the sky and all of the missiles and bombs failed to go off. When the dust settled there wasn’t a single Isreali casualty, not even from accidental collateral damage.
If you’re currently wondering what the fuck any of this has to do with the plot or why the book is spending so much time on it, the answer is that it’s a component of the rapture timeline that LaHay and Jenkins set out to present. Before the end times party begins, Russia will attempt to destroy Isreal and will be thwarted by divine intervention. Why would Russia do that? Why would they send their entire airforce and all of their nuclear weapons to take out a country smaller than many American states? Doesn’t matter. It’s (supposedly) part of the prophecy, so it has to be here.
Strangely, none of this seems to have had much of an impact on the world. The blatantly supernatural nature of Russia’s surprise defeat doesn’t seem to have inspired much in the way of a reaction. We get no mention of Russia being destroyed in a nuclear retaliatory strike by the USA or of World War III raging across the globe, both of which would assuredly happen if something like this took place in real life.
Daylight revealed the carnage and exposed Russia ‘s secret alliance with Middle Eastern nations, primarily Ethiopia and Libya .
I think Buck’s definition of “middle eastern” might be off by a few thousand miles or so. And yes, Ethiopia getting dragged into this nonsense is also part of the prophecy.
All of this military carnage did have one important effect: it made Buck believe in God, although he didn’t go the additional mile of accepting Jesus Christ as his lord and saviour, so he gets to stick around and be Left Behind while all of his more devout friends are off rapturing.
Before we leave Buck and get back to Rayford and his Ned Flanders-esque libido, I want to highlight one sentence in particular. I’ve said before that if you introduce a character who’s supposedly awesome at some particular skill, then unless you yourself are that good in real life, you must never actually show them demonstrating their skill.
Buck is introduced to us as a talented and respected journalist. We get one glimpse at his writing. Here it is:
To say the Israelis were caught off guard, Cameron Williams had written, was like saying the Great Wall of China was long.
Next time: the rapture happens.