BEAM ME UP : A Repackaged Apocalypse
Alleva, Richard, Commonweal
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. …