If I were to ask you to name the five most popular novelists in America, I suppose you might rattle off three of them before hesitation set in. John Grisham? Right. Tom Clancy? Of course. J.K. Rowling? Good. And the other two?
How many of you would venture the names Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins? They are the authors of the Left Behind series, which, according to the leftbehind.com Web site, has sold millions upon millions and appeared on the bestseller lists of the New York Times and USA Today. I tend to believe all this self-promotion because of the gentle handling given the series last fall by NPR's "All Things Considered." For a radio program with a mindset this liberal to treat Christian apocalyptic pulp fiction as a publishing phenomenon without venturing a word of criticism, sarcasm, or even mild irony means that Left Behind is truly newsmaking stuff.
The saga, currently in its eighth installment, begins with the Rapture, the fulfillment of the prophecy, purportedly in the Book of Revelation, that right-minded Christian believers will be snatched off the earth and, still carnate, be united with God, while those without a personal relationship with Jesus will face the Apocalypse with all its attendant horrors. Since a lot of tolerably moral people don't have such a personal relationship, LaHaye and Jenkins are able to confect four sympathetic characters--an airline pilot and his daughter, a celebrity journalist, and a minister--frail enough spiritually to have been left behind but virtuous enough to fight the Antichrist in the few remaining years of the world's existence. Left Behind is Christian literature that functions as an international espionage thriller: Pilgrim's Progress in the guise of The Marathon Man.
I seek no quarrel with the idea of the Rapture or even with the authors' interpretation of it. In fact, I found LaHaye's lengthy, nonfictional exposition of this subject on the Web site to be a completely sincere and often interesting analysis. But when religious teaching comes packaged as entertainment, the packaging affects the teaching. So how does Left Behind, the most popular literary Christian entertainment in America today, come across as a thriller?
As an unresisting imbecility. It fails to provide any of the elements that a thriller must have to thrill.
A good thriller needs verisimilitude of background so that the lurid events in the foreground can compel belief. Therefore, the author must display a certain knowledge of the world, or at least the world in which the heroes move. (Think of the etiquette of gambling casinos on display in the James Bond series or the erudition about everything from campanology to advertising agencies in Dorothy Sayers's Peter Wimsey books.) Judging by their novels, LaHaye and Jenkins know nothing of anything except Scripture. For instance, their arch-villain, a Romanian politico, addresses the UN General Assembly and wows it, not with his simple-minded speech but by translating it, as he goes along, into nine languages. (So what ever happened to headphones and simultaneous translation?) Then, by way of tribute, he lists--in alphabetical order-- the name of every represented country. "He...never once hesitated, stammered, or mispronounced a syllable. Buck [our reporter-hero] was on the edge of his seat as the speaker swept through the t's and reached 'Uganda! Ukraine!'"...etc. For this feat alone, the demonic Romanian is appointed secretary general. I suppose if he had memorized a few pages from the phone book, he would have been made president of the World Bank. This is only one of dozens of absurdities scattered through the books.
A good thriller needs at least superficially interesting, or at least distinguishable, characters to root for. But all of Left Behind's heroes, male or female, pilot or minister, scientist or news-bureau chief, sound exactly alike, never evincing a single idiosyncrasy that would make them appear truly human.
A good thriller has to be told in fluid, flexible prose. The simple declarative sentence monotony that LaHaye and Jenkins employ is mind-numbing and thrill-killing.
The plot of any thriller must constantly advance, sometimes in little increments, sometimes in sudden leaps. But the plot strategy of the saga's first two volumes (I must confess I couldn't drag myself beyond volume 2) is a teeter-tottering one: the villain does something headline-grabbing and the heroes get together and review its apocalyptic implications. Then the villain does something else and the heroes discuss. Evil deed. Discussion. Evil deed. Discussion. On and on, back and forth.
So, if this series is such a bust as writing, as storytelling, as sheer entertainment, why has it become a bestseller?
The authors have succeeded in using the theological ideas of the Rapture and the Apocalypse to press all the right paranoiac American buttons. The forces of evil, at least in the early books, proceed not by overtly supernatural means but by winning over, sometimes taking over, institutions that strike terror in the heart of all-American know-nothingness: the United Nations, the Catholic church, the Jews (a people, of course, not an institution, but nonetheless perceived as a malign, conspiratorial institution by some who will take Left Behind to heart). LaHaye and Jenkins are certainly not overt anti-Semites. How could they be? According to the way they read Revelation,
God's ultimate kingdom can only be achieved after the conversion of the Jews, so the authors have to have, ultimately, kindly intentions toward God's chosen people. But the authors' perception of the Jews as a great people gone wrong streaks the books with a queasy, forced amiability teetering on contempt, like a hotel manager forced to accept Jews after the state has overruled his gentiles-only policy. Consider that the Romanian Antichrist is first able to come to international attention when a great Israeli scientist-statesman, Chaim Rosenzweig (an echo of Chaim Weizmann?), becomes his admirer and conduit into international circles, even introducing him at the UN. This Rosenzweig is so brainy a scientist that he has invented a formula that causes deserts to bloom, and so savvy a political thinker that he has become an adviser to presidents. Yet he is completely taken in by the Antichrist, even though the latter has nothing material to offer Israel or anything to recommend himself except the aforementioned powers of memorization. But it is probably necessary, within the overall design of the series, to have the material and intellectual forces of Israel (represented by Rosenzweig) back up the Antichrist before the forces of enlightened goodness (represented by our Christian heroes) save the Jews from their own disbelief in Christ.
The Catholic church takes its lumps, too. The latest pope is raptured but that is because he had stirred up controversy in the church with a new doctrine that seemed to coincide more with the "heresy" of Martin Luther than with historic orthodoxy. A cardinal more representative of his church dares to tell our journalist-hero that he doesn't take the Apocalypse literally, and of course opposes the doctrine of salvation through faith alone. Since our heroes believe just the opposite and it is precisely these beliefs that enable them to fight the Antichrist, the reader knows just what to think of this red hat in the service of the Scarlet Woman of Rome.
But the most severe condemnation-by-implication is of the United Nations, which practically hands itself over to the Antichrist and becomes the arm of his will. And what is his will? A world government, a world capital called New Babylon, a world army, and a world religion--all the usual suspects placed at the service of Satan's minion. In a country like ours, where fear of centralization and government interference has led to bombings, mass slaughter, and the creation of various thug militia-groups, how could the Left Behind series fail?
Dismissing it as entertainment, can we take Left Behind seriously as a parable about the Rapture? Even as that, it can't compare with Michael Tolkin's seductively mysterious movie, The Rapture (1991). While LaHaye and Jenkins set their scene in an America that is as devoid of reality as a bad comic strip, Tolkin gave us a Los Angeles so convincingly in the grip of technology that it makes sense for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to appear on TV before they ravage the earth. While the characters of Left Behind are all square-jawed, shoot-from-the-hip, overgrown Boy Scouts, Tolkin's heroine, desperate to be liberated from her sterile hedonism but too lacking in faith to wait for God to accomplish things at his own pace, is a marvelous embodiment of the pilgrim soul. The Rapture projects a mysteriousness that can at least momentarily convince the most hard-headed skeptic that great forces are at work behind the scenery of this world, while Left Behind, with its flat, affectless prose, strives to make a rich, ambiguous book, John's Revelation, into something as literal and useful as that car owner's manual you keep in the glove compartment.
Is good popular Christian fiction by now an impossibility? The Rapture, like the novels of Graham Greene, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, the films of Eric Rohmer and Robert Bresson, is highbrow, idiosyncratic, modernistic. Have we reached the point at which the Christian world-view can be rendered with dignity only by the most refined Christian artists for the most educated audiences? The musical tradition of dramatizing Christian themes and stories for a fairly wide audience extends into modern times with Britten's Ceremony of Carols, Menotti's Amahl, Poulenc's Christmas Motets. But where are the recent novels, plays, movies, or shows with overtly Christian stories aimed at the masses? It's been half a century since C.S. Lewis's wonderful Narnia books instructed and entertained children without any of LaHaye's narrative-jamming preachments. Will the greatest popular Christian fiction of the twentieth century turn out to be a series written for children by an Oxbridge don? In any event, the accolade certainly doesn't belong to Left Behind.…