The following is the first of a three-part series.
A flaw at the heart of End Times fiction gravely weakens its credibility as Christian literature. Its stock characters lack the degree of interiority required for convincing narratives of encounters with the transcendent. The formulaic style of characterization eviscerates Christian experience. This deficiency is especially evident when we compare the rich and memorable portrayals of Catholics in the novels of, say, Georges Bernanos or Graham Greene or Walker Percy. Indeed, it is deeply ironic that the best-selling Christian fiction of all time fails to communicate the phenomenological truth of Christian experience, to evoke the distinctive textures of Christian spiritualities.1
End Times fiction has been at the heart of the boom in Christian publishing that began in the 1990s.2 Since the late Jerry Falwell, fundamentalist leader and activist, observed of the first novel in the Left Behind series, “In terms of its impact on Christianity, it’s probably greater than that of any other book in modern times, outside the Bible” (Falwell), this series alone can boast sales of over 65 million books (Chapman 4). And when we combine this statistic with that of other popular End Times novel cycles, such as those by James BeauSeigneur, Neesa Hart, and Mel Odom,3 it is evident that, today, this fiction has a presence in American culture far greater than that of any other Christian genre. Yet, this most prominent Christian fiction, which claims to speak for “true Christians” (LaHaye & Jenkins, Left Behind 200), cannot accommodate the very subjectivity required for the transcendent experience that defines its own type of Christianity.
The ambitious religious themes of End Times fiction – interactions with divine and satanic powers, the Rapture of the “True Church,” the events of the Tribulation, the transfigurative force of salvation, the glory of Christ’s Second Coming – should have inspired a fresh discourse of Christian spirituality that pushes language to its limits, radically new forms for investigating religious consciousness, something comparable to the literary experimentation of high modernism.Yet, End Times fiction has proved to be one of the most artless and aesthetically conservative genres, predictable and doctrinal to an extreme.
This fiction may be antagonistic toward secular humanism and the theologies of liberal Protestantism and its “watered down Protestants” (Kirban 1970a, 85), yet its language, which ranges between the trite and luridly sensational, quite evidently lacks the dynamism that often drives adversarial writing. The genre’s instantly consumable prose suggests a complacent assumption that the experiences of spiritual rebirth and salvation, of encounters with divine power and other supernatural forces, can be adequately conveyed in conventional language. “’I think we’re in for something really big!,’” says the Christian hero of Pat Robertson’s The End of the Age (401), when he sensesthe imminent descent of the New Jerusalem. Such an expectation, one might think, would have called forth language commensurate with the impending experience of transfiguration, not a forgettable banality.
And when the Christian hero of BeauSeigneur’s Acts of God enters the Millennial Kingdom, he compares his old mode of existence with his new exalted one: “’It’s a little like going up in an airplane, and you don’t really notice the air pressure changing until your ears pop, and then suddenly you can hear better. Well, it’s like my whole life was under that pressure and now finally my ears have popped’” (430). One might say the prose falls somewhat short of evoking the spiritual transports of a Millennial Christian.
Speech devoid of any subtext or psychic charge is just one of many symptoms of the hollowness of the Christians who populate End Times fiction. Another is the absence of the sense of an individual’s religious haecceity; the genre constructs characters who merely conform to or deviate from some ideal Christian type. (The novels notably lack the petit fait vrai, that small, specific detail – the quirk or foible, the particularity of vernacular or dress, the physical defect or cherished possession – that helps constitute a character’s individuality; all too often, we are given characters without characteristics.)
Critics have observed that End Times novels, in which courageous Christians resist the regime of the Antichrist and planes crash when their pilots are raptured, resemble popular action or disaster movies. Bruce David Forbes remarks that “In a sense, the Left Behind books are just another Arnold Schwartzenegger movie in written form, with explicit religious imagery added” (25). And if the comparison with Hollywood action films had any merit, then there would not be much to say about the absence from this fiction of spiritually complex and psychologically developed Christian characters.
However, the comparison, when not just a casual figure of speech, is based on a transcoding error. The End Times genre is not subject to the narrative constraints of a 120-minute viewing experience. The novel cycles can exceed 1000 pages (Left Behindweighs in ataround 7,000), which favors a tempo that, far from the speedy montage of the action movie, is often slow, not to say tedious, with large segments devoted to Christian sermonizing, Bible-talk among the characters and their endeavors to interpret the supernatural events of the End Times (a far cry from the minimal dialogue that distinguishes Schwartzenegger’s Terminator films). In fact, these novels are only intermittently animated by cinematic-style spectacle and fast editing, which is to say that we cannot resort to the claim that action-filled, plot-driven narratives are to blame for the cast of bloodless stereotypes used to portray Christians.
Why has scholarship overlooked the paradox that Christ-centered End Times fiction fails to construct a vivid and credible Christian subjectivity? First, much criticism has been preoccupied with how the genre constructs a right-wing subjectivity, revealing how it endorses principles associated with the Christian Right, notably, neoliberalism, ultranationalism, antisemitism, antifeminism, and homophobia.4
Second, Christian critics have censured End Times fiction, but on exegetical grounds, arguing, in particular, that the rapture theology of its authors is the result of a misreading of Scripture.5 Nevertheless, Christian readers should be offended by a genre that, unable to rise above preconceived and cliché-ridden accounts of spiritual experience, represents Christians through characters that are mere emblems of Chrisitianity. So, how should we account for this inadequacy?
End Times fiction is governed by a fundamentalist theology that imposes severe limits on the literary expressionof Christian subjectivity. This theology inhibits the narration of the spiritual and psychological development of the genre’s Christian heroes, such that their experiences of the transcendent will strike the reader as weightless and unconvincing. Specifically, I shall argue that the orthodox fundamentalist doctrines, reproduced by End Times novelists, flatten fictional characters and hence enervate the drama of transfigurative moments in the life of the Christian.
These doctrines are antithetical to the genre’s narratives of salvation and encounters with the divine insofar as they permit only existentially thin and undiscerning accounts of the most profound of Christian experiences. So, while, to be sure, Jerry Jenkins is no Walker Percy and James BeauSeigneur no Marilynne Robinson, we cannot ascribe End Times fiction’s cast of hollow Christians simply to the novelists’ lack of literary skills; rather, the problem will be seen to be integral to a genre built on fundamentalist dogma.
The Fundamentalism of End Times Fiction
Since the 1970s, fundamentalists have been counted as a subset under the vast umbrella of evangelicalism. As George Marsden famously observed, “a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something” (1).6 However, Marsden’s formulation, though correct, overlooks the fact that fundamentalism itself is an umbrella term, given the doctrinal differences between denominations (e.g., Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God, Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) and between its large, well-funded institutions of study (e.g., Dallas, Princeton, Fuller, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminaries, Moody Bible Institute, Bob Jones University, Wheaton College),7 to say nothing of how doctrinal differences also divide ministries, generations, and regions. Most critics will be familiar with controversies between premillennialists and postmillennialists,8 and disagreements over dispensationalism as a method for decoding biblical prophecy. Furthermore, fundamentalists significantly vary in their tolerance of non-fundamentalist beliefs, ranging, for example, from outright rejection of ecumenical movements to amenability to interfaith dialogue (Smith).
The type of fundamentalism that drives End Times fiction is largely orthodox and has the majority of adherents insofar as it proceeds from: (1) Bible-based hermeneutics, specifically, adherence to the truth of the five “fundamentals” or core doctrines, tabled in 1910 and held to be indispensable to “true” Christianity, i.e., the inerrancy of Scripture, the Virgin Birth, the substitutionary atonement, the Resurrection, and the authenticity of miracles. (2) Dispensational Premillennialism, the eschatology to which most fundamentalists subscribe (Saxon; Burton) and which divides history into seven divinely administered epochs or “dispensations,” the last (the Millennium) to be preceded by a rigidly ordered sequence of End Times events: the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Second Coming, Armageddon, and, finally, Christ’s reign on earth.9 (3) A Christian Right agenda, which, since the late 1970s, calls for intervention in the public sphere against the practices of abortion and homosexual marriage, and advocates for prayer and the teaching of Creationism in schools.10
The late Tim LaHaye (1926-2016), fundamentalist leader and self-declared “prophecy scholar,” advised his coauthor, Jerry Jenkins, on how to plot the Left Behind novels so that their narrative structure strictly complied with the tenets of dispensational premillennialism. Moreover, he combined this prophecy of the End Times with an Arminian account of grace11 – “salvation is a matter of the will” (epilogue to Kingdom Come 356; see aslo Left Behind 199) – and with Christian Zionist thinking. Unlike some of his fundamentalist peers, he also believed in a “second chance” for salvation after the Rapture (Left Behind 214, 299, 418).
And while most fundamentalists already subscribed to this mix of doctrines (thanks largely to Hal Lindsey’s best-selling End Times work, The Late Great Planet Earth), it does not exhaust fundamentalism as a theology. All the same,in the context of End Times fiction, this fusion of ideas has proved highly marketable: a theological formula that is easily adaptable to the quick-read stories at which Jenkins excels.
Furthermore, in what looks like commercial opportunism, the publication of the Left Behind books (five of which appeared between 1999-2000; see also Roberston 156) coincided with fundamentalist excitement about the end of the millennium, to say nothing of the authors exploiting the millenarianism that has for decades energized American popular culture (Boyer; Sandeen).12 So, LaHaye and Jenkins, along with other End Times novelists, succeeded in reaffirming the most popular strain of fundamentalism, but at a cost: a literary rendering of Christian subjectivity that is so shallow and tenuous it cannot give a convincing account of religious experience.
In The Rapture: Who Will Face the Tribulation?, LaHaye introduces the biblical hermeneutics that guide the Left Behind series: “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, but take every word at its primary, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context clearly indicate otherwise” (238). This interpretive method promotes a doctrinal absolutism that prohibits any reading of Scripture that generates interpretations other than those yielded by a largely literal reading.
Such a mandatory reading practice polices the Christian subjectivity of LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ characters, who always and necessarily learn their Bible on strictly fundamentalist terms. The exploration and multiplication of the meanings of Holy Scripture, which can prove so spiritually enriching (think of the Midrashic tradition of exegesis), is forbidden, condemned as heretical.
One element of fundamentalist theology that ought to favor a developed subjectivity in End Times fiction is the doctrine of a personal relationship with Jesus. If salvation in the Hebrew Bible occurs at the level of the ethnos, embracing the nation of Israel, for fundamentalists salvation is an individualized matter: we are saved “one soul at a time”; to be “born again” is experienced as a deeply individualized transaction.13 Now consider the following passage from Glorious Appearing, the twelfth novel in the Left Behind series, which is clearly meant to educate the reader about the true believer’s personal relationship with Jesus:
It should have been no surprise, [Enoch] decided, that Christ would supernaturally make personal to every believer the truth of His coming, as if He had come for each individually [….] Enoch’s jaw dropped. Sitting there in the brilliance of God’s glory, his Savior Jesus had spoken directly to him by name. “Did you hear that?” he said, and the three dozen plus kneeling around him dissolved into tears. “He used my name.” “He used my name,” a young man said. (211-12)
Consider also the description of this climactic encounter with Jesus at the end of The Christ Clone Trilogy. Decker Hawthorne, BeauSeigneur’s newspaperman hero, finds Christ standing before him, just after the latter’s descent from heaven on a white stallion:
Decker was drawn to look deeper and as he did, he realized that the love of the man was the source of the light around them.
“Well done,” Jesus said.
Decker buried his face in Jesus’ shoulder and wept. “I’m so sorry,” he said.
“I know, Decker. I know,” Jesus said as he wept with him. “All is forgiven,” he said, stroking Decker’s hair, still holding him in his arms. (Acts of God 417)
In each case, the prose fails to convey the momentous experience of unmediated contact with the divine; “Enoch’s jaw dropped” and Decker “wept” clearly miss the mark. Surely, a direct encounter with Jesus would prove to be a profoundly transfigurative, not to say self-shattering, moment. However, because the genre’s theological principles impede or discourage the development of characters as existential beings, allowing for little more than mass-media stereotypes (the sympathetic pastor, the intrepid journalist, the devout housewife),14 sentimental kitsch must substitute for sublime experience.
Recall that, at its inception, Protestantism renounced priest-mediated ritual in favor of an immediate appeal to the heart and conscience of the individual believer. This radical change amounted to a reorientation inwards, an opening up of the space of interiority, a reconstitution of the religious subject as an introspective being – in short, a hypertrophy of the inner life. Therefore, it is all the more disappointing to find that characters in End Times fiction exhibit only the most rudimentary level of inwardness.15 The problem is that the theology that governs the genre resists exploration of the arduous and complex processes by which one becomes a religious self.
The argument that follows is not pursued from a single critical perspective; rather, it eclectically draws on the work of diverse theologians and novelists. Their ideas are not always compatible, nor need they be, for the strategy is simply to adopt other Christian viewpoints that enable us to see, by comparison, how fundamentalist doctrines and dispositions impede the subjective development of the Christians of End Times fiction.
In these stories of the pre-Tribulation Rapture, those “left behind” must choose between faith in Christ as their Savior or allegiance to the regime of the Antichrist. So, if like the authors of End Times fiction one is a fundamentalist Christian, the stakes could not be higher: each person “left behind” stands on the brink of an eternity in heaven or hell. Yet these same authors cannot rise to the literary challenge of communicating the drama and gravity of salvation or damnation. Consider the following account of the conversion of the journalist Buck Williams, one of the four principal heroes of the Left Behind series:
Buck backed up against the door [of the washroom…] remembering [pastor] Bruce’s advice that he could talk to God the same way he talked to a friend. “God,” he said, “I need you [….]” And as he prayed he believed. This was no experiment, no halfhearted attempt. He wasn’t just hoping or trying something out. Buck knew he was talking to God himself. He admitted he needed God, that he knew he was as lost and sinful as anyone [….] When he finished praying, the deal was done. Buck was not the type to go into anything lightly. As well as he knew anything, he knew there would be no turning back. (Left Behind 446-47; my emphases)
The reader might have expected that the description of an encounter with God would stand out from the surrounding sentences; that a pronounced shift in literary register would distinguish the spiritual experience from the character’s practical business. Instead, Jerry Jenkins knocks out a paragraph of vapid, easy-to-read prose.16 Even if we read the passage as though crafted in free indirect discourse (e.g. “the deal was done”), it is still devoid of drama, altogether without moment. Jenkins forestalls any expectation of communication with God as an experience deeply marked with awe by having a pastor advise that Buck “could talk to God the same way he talked to a friend.”17
So much for God as Mystery and apophatic transcendence or for the multitude of biblical passages that envisage trembling before the power, glory, and holiness of the Almighty.18 Indeed, the pastor’s advice almost trivializes the act of prayer by enabling such an informal mode of address. In a discussion of “the inwardness of prayer,” P. T. Forsyth (1848-1921), the distinguished evangelical theologian, wrote, “We do not start [to pray] on equal terms, march up to Him, as it were, and put our case” (5). He insisted that prayer is a spritually arduous undertaking: “Prayer is the assimilation of a holy God’s moral strength….To feed the soul we must toil at prayer. And what a labour it is! ‘He prayed in an agony.’ We must pray even to tears if need be” (4).
Yet, the characters of End Times fiction typically lack the depth, the degree of inwardness, needed for the spiritual labor of prayer. Jenkins also bypasses the need to explore and expand upon Buck’s spiritual transfiguration or the operation of grace simply by telling us four times that Buck “knew” the significance of his experience. These shortcomings can be attributed to the fundamentalist doctrine of unconditional faith-based redeemability, which lies behind the account of Buck’s conversion and which is central to the End Times genre.
Next, here is Ernest Angley’s description of a born again experience in Raptured:
The saints gathered in the altar; someone knelt beside Nancy, giving her instructions on how to become saved. With tears streaming down her cheeks, Nancy cried out to the God of Heaven for Christ’s sake to wash away her sins. At last she felt the burden of sin roll away. Never in all her life had she felt so happy and free at heart as she shouted the praises of God for saving her soul. (42)
No panoply of literary resources here; the language fails to rise above the level of the denotative. The work of grace that enables such conversions should be recounted in language equal to the transfiguration, but Jenkins, Angley, and others fail to relay the extraordinary nature of the event. Their doctrine-driven writing disregards the complex nature and depth of subjectivity needed for a persuasive account of the salvation experience because: (i) salvation through faith alone necessarily operates outside of psychology, culture, and ideology; (ii) the doctrine of sola fide overlooks the contradictions, absurdities, ambiguities, and instabilities that complicate human subjectivity. What then remains for characterization is just a generic type of person, such that any vivid, compelling account of spiritual transfiguration is not possible.
Consider the post-conversion words of Bradley Benton, the “left-behind” protagonist and White House Chief of Staff in Neesa Hart’s End of State: “’All we have to do is believe. And if you can’t believe, ask Him to help you believe. If He could love me, if He could forgive me, after the way I’ve lied about my faith to my friends and my family, then He will forgive anyone’” (260).19 And one Corporal Bill Townsend, “a devout Christian” in Mel Odom’s Apocalypse Dawn (17), tells Goose, the novel’s protagonist, “’Life comes down to two choices [….] You believe or you don’t believe. God will test you because He loves you’” (198). Indeed, as Goose subsequently reflects, “believing was the only choice a man with even a glimmer of faith could do” (199).20
End Times fiction’s model of redemption amounts to an easy believismthat precludes what is absurd and paradoxical about faith. So, as a challenging alternative to this model, recall Kierkegaard’s meditations on the type of faith shown by Abraham, when the latter was confronted by God’s “absurd” demand that he sacrifice his son Isaac: “And all the while he had faith, believing that God would not demand Isaac of him, though ready all the while to sacrifice him, should it be demanded of him.
He believed this on the strength of the absurd, for there was no question of human calculation any longer” (Fear and Trembling 141-42). (Kierkegaard conceded that such a form of faith is almost impossible: “I cannot carry out the movement of faith: I cannot close my eyes and confidently plunge into the absurd” (140).) In a discussion of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Rowan Williams adopts a “Barthian theological perspective” to remind us that a simultaneous recognition of truth and falsehood is the expected condition of the person who has faith. Faith is not the acknowledgement of a simple consonance between what I think/believe and the truth of God, but the twofold acknowlegement of the incalculable gulf between the truth of God and my own subjectivity along with the inseparable commitment of God to the self-deceiving and helpless heart. (11-12)
The model of the conversion process in End Times fiction discounts the role of (lifelong?) endeavor in nurturing and consolidating Christian subjectivity,and understates the angst and ardor often experienced in the pursuit of salvation. So much for “work[ing] out your own salvation with fear and tembling” ( Phil. 2:12), fighting the good fight of faith (2 Tim. 4:7), wielding the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:10-18), “resist[ing] unto blood, striving against sin” (Heb. 12:4). As pastor Bruce Barnes explains to Rayford Steele, the airline-pilot hero of the Left Behind series: “’It’s really quite simple. God made it easy. That doesn’t mean it’s not a supernatural transaction or that we can pick and choose the good parts […]. But if we see the truth and act on it, God won’t withhold salvation from us’” (LaHaye & Jenkins, Left Behind 200).
And just here, we may again quote Kierkegaard, this time for his cynicism about the easy piety of Copenhagen’s bourgeois Christians, whence his remark that “In the olden days […] faith was a task for a whole lifetime because it was held that proficiency in faith was not to be won within a few days or weeks” (Fear and Trembling 120). Flannery O’Connor had a realistic understanding of the difficulty of achieving faith in today’s liberal, post-Enlightenment culture. She claimed to be writing for “those politer elements for whom the supernatural is an embarrassment and for whom religion has become a department of sociology or culture or personality development” (Mystery 207).
Accordingly, in this secular humanist context, she maintained, “It is much harder to believe than not to believe” (Habit 354), and she saw her literary challenge as one of forging a style that would render the supernatural intelligible to a skeptical readership.21
End Times fiction is permeated by a strain of thinking that Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously identified as “cheap grace.” That is to say, in this fiction salvation does not depend on enduring discipleship, unflagging devotion, and spiritual exercise, but only a voluntary act of faith. In Left Behind, Rayford Steele learns from the recorded words of the story’s spiritual authority, Bruce Barnes, that “’If you accept God’s message of salvation, his Holy Spirit will come in unto you and make you spiritually born anew. You don’t need to understand all this theologically. You can become a child of God by praying to him right now’” (215).
In BeauSeigneur’s In His Image, a believer responds to a skeptic’s question about “get[ting] into the kingdom of God” saying, “’God is no farther from any of us than our willingness to call upon him’” (222). On the other hand, Christian spiritual autobiographies (famously, John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners) usually teach us that a sinner’s reconciliation with God is an arduous struggle, that his/her repentance may not be wholly sincere, that conversion may not be irrevocable, leaving the supplicant susceptible to backsliding.
Evidently, the authors of End Times fiction assume that God’s forgiveness is unconditional, that is to say, secured once and for all and without further cost or commitment. So consider an alternative Christian account of the matter. In a discussion of Bonhoeffer’s views on forgiveness, the theologian L. Gregory Jones has observed: “The person ‘hopes’ for God’s mercy; he or she cannot presume it. If it becomes a presumption rather than something that must be hoped and prayed for under the reality of God’s judgment, then the action loses its quality of repentance and becomes a cheap and venal grace” (28).
To counter this “presumption,” Jones explains genuine forgiveness as “costly,” that is to say, a way of life “embodied” in such concrete practices of Christian community as discipleship, commitment to the church, ongoing repentance. Forgiveness requires “the deepest inward concentration” on service in the world as Christians (13).
In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer accused Germany’s Lutheran Church of adopting an undemanding view of grace that required of its members little more than assent to doctrine, while they continued to live a secular bourgeois life. He argued that it was this “cheap grace” that facilitated the Church’s capitulation to Hitler’s regime (58-59). He understood that cheap grace has a narcotizing effect on the Christian sensibility: it induces complacency and self-righteousness; it creates a caricature of the Christian. In our own century, we have seen how around 80% of America’s evangelical community voted for administrations (those of Bush and Trump) defined by their ultranationalist and militarist policies and anti-democratice tendencies.
This cohort constitutes much of the Christian Right, a phenomenon that some Christian observers have explicitly identified as “fascist” (Hedges; Sölle), and its politics are echoed in End Times fiction. Suffice to add here, in the spirit of Bonhoeffer, this fiction’s assumption of an easily conferred grace has reinforced the self-righteousness of far-right Christians, anesthetizing their minds against the spiritual and ethical self-questioning that could have served as a counterforce to the imperialist violence and authoritarian disposition of the governments they elected to office.
An Anthropology of Sin
Fundamentalist anthropology understands humans as sinners by nature, but with the potential to be forgiven. This is reflected in End Times fiction in a flattening of character into just two stereotypes: the sinner and the saved.(Even for characters whose faith is uncertain, ultimately no other identity matters.) Thus, moral complexity of character has a minimal presence in End Times novels. Indeed, when the consequences of committing or not committing to Christ’s Church are believed to be eternal, the exploration of fictional characters beyond the sinner/saved binary becomes almost as redundant as character exploration in morality plays. Hence, End Times characters are nearly always devoid of the idiosyncrasies and neuroses that complicate subjectivity; they are too stereotyped ever to surprise the reader with inconsistent behavior or senseless action or an unexpected utterance.
In Nicolae, the third book in the Left Behind series, the now-converted Rayford Steele, quoting from Isaiah and Romans, observes, “’The Bible is clear that all of our righteousnesses are like filthy rags. There is none righteous, no, not one…. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. In the economy of God, we are all worthy only of the punishment of death’” (316).22 And Marcus Dumont, Hart’s left-behind reverend, observes, “’No one deserves grace. That’s what makes it grace. God is a God of righteousness and purity and holiness. There’s no one on earth who can meet His expectations.
Only through the blood of Christ can we hope to be clean enough to have fellowship with a holy God’” (270).23 The fundamentalist idea of humans as essentially sinners is one of the key topoi of End Times fiction and it yields characters chiefly defined as either those who choose to obey the biblical injunction to believe that Jesus died for their sins or those who choose to reject it.24 And while the power to choose between these options appears to respect human will and initiative, the theology necessarily devalues other possibilities for self-determination and thus severely limits the significance of human agency.Moreover, so dogmatic are End Times novelists in warning readers of the cost of remaining a sinner (as seen in their obsessive focus on retribution), they foreclose on the possibility of expressing any empathy with, or understanding of, the damned. The latter, largely stripped of subjectivity, frequently are rendered as no more than generic reprobates, having no function other than to graphically illustrate, for the reader’s edification, the price paid for not accepting Jesus as Savior.
In Embodying Forgiveness, L. Gregory Jones, alluding to Paul’s letter to the Romans (6:1-11), cogently states the transfigurative effects of sincere repentance: “Christian forgiveness requires our death, understood in the specific form and shape of Jesus Christ’s dying – and rising. For we participate in Christ’s dying and rising, we die to our old selves and find a future not bound by the past” (4). Surely a Christian novelist has an obligation to convey the elevating nature (the “rising”) of spiritual rebirth. However, the fundamentalist antihumanism of End Times fiction, which resists any aggrandizement of the human, places far more weight on our essential unworthiness and indebtedness, we undeserving recipients of grace, even in the context of spiritual regeneration. Consider the following passage from Left Behind, when Rayford prays for forgiveness:
“Dear God, I admit that I’m a sinner. I am sorry for my sins. Please forgive me and save me. I ask this in the name of Jesus, who died for me. I trust in him right now. I believe that the sinless blood of Jesus is sufficient to pay the price for my salvation. Thank you for hearing me and receiving me. Thank you for saving my soul.” […. ] Rayford wanted to talk to God more. He wanted to be specific about his sin [even though] he knew he was forgiven [….] He confessed his pride. Pride in his intelligence. Pride in his looks. Pride in his abilities. He confessed his lusts, how he had neglected his wife, how he had sought his own pleasure. How he had worshiped money and things. When he was through, he felt clean. (216)
A regeneration of the spirit, a reconciliation with God no less, has just occurred but the narrator dispatches the experience almost in telegrammatic shorthand: “[H]e knew he was forgiven,” “he felt clean,” “’I am sorry for my sins.’” (“Sorry”? Could the language of repentance be any more superficial?) And note that the process of repentance is compressed into the timespan of an assigned task, hence “when he was through.” So, just when the language should register a magnification of humanity (an intimation of prelapsarian being, grace as divine empowerment of the favored individual), a general stinginess of tone prevails, which reflects a theology that just cannot relinquish the belief that first and foremost humanity is a tainted species.
Hart’s Reverend Marcus “felt crushed by the realization of how unworthy and undeserving of God’s mercy he was [….] [H]e screamed into the carpet as he poured out the pride and arrogance that had driven him for so long” (73). In these excerpts, the cardinal sin of pride finds its counterweight in the virtue of humility, yet it is precisely this kind of binarism that yields stereotypes as opposed to psychologically complex, richly ambiguous characters.
Paul Maltby is Professor of English at West Chester University. He is the author of Christian Fundamentalism and the Culture of Disenchantment. (University of Virginia Press, 2013), The Visionary Moment: A Postmodern Critique (State University of New York Press, 2002), and Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).
1. In view of the many criticisms I shall level at this genre, I should signal my awareness that it merits a measure of respect, if only for its ambition to address a range of concerns – salvation, piety, transcendence, human life sub specie aeternitatis – that most secular fiction ignores.
2. End Times fiction has a much longer history. Crawford Gribben has identified Sydney Watson, a British author, as “the father of the genre,” who established its “basic contours and the stock characters and events” (82). Watson’s novels include Scarlet and Purple (1913), The Mark of the Beast (1915), and In the Twinkling of an Eye (1916).
3. The novel cycles of Hart and Odom are literally spin-offs of LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ Left Behind series and commissioned by the same publishers. Hart’s End of State trilogy looks at the Rapture and Tribulation from the perspective of Washington DC politics, Odom’s Apocalypse tetralogy from that of the U.S. military. Many of the same characters from LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ books appear in Hart’s and Odom’s.
4. For neoliberalism see Strombeck; Chapman ch.5. For ultranationalism see Schaeffer 2010, ch.8; Frykholm 2004b, 168-77; Urban. For antisemitism see Ariel; Mleynek. For antifeminism and homophobia see Chapman ch.7, ch.8.
5. See DeMar; Olson; Reasoner; Rossing; Stevenson; Veith.
6. “Fundamentalist” often functions as a pejorative, largely derived from a hostile mass media, which connotes bigotry, intolerance, ultra-conservatism, and hickville backwardness, and which has the effect of stigmatizing and “othering” a large cohort of Christians. Hence, many Bible-believing Christians reject the label “fundamentalist” in preference for “conservative evangelical.”
7. In the 1960s, disputes between evangelical divinity schools heated up when Fuller Theological Seminary removed Biblical inerrancy from its statement of faith, while inerrancy remains the first statement of faith of Princeton, Gordon-Conwell, and Dallas Theological Seminaries. Another dispute centered on the possible salvation of the unevangelized.
8. Postmillennialism, which flourished in the 19th Century in conjunction with the Social Gospel, is the eschatological belief that through the church humans, rather than Christ, will usher in the Millennial Kingdom of peace and perfect community. However, after World War One, this belief was largely supplanted by premillennialism, which, lacking faith in the redemptive potential of “man-made institutions,” postulated the any-moment return of Christ, who would implement His millennial reign on earth.
9. Dispensationalpremillennialism was a doctrine developed in the 1830s by John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), an Irish-born leader of the Plymouth Brethren, and widely promulgated through the best-selling Scofield Reference Bible (first edition 1909), and subsequently through prophecy conferences, bible colleges, and radio and television preaching. Leading proponents of the doctrine include the late Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Jack Van Impe, and John Hagee. Among the principal institutions involved in the dissemination of dispensational premillennialism are Dallas Theological Seminary and Bob Jones University. According to a survey of evangelical leaders, conducted by the the National Association of Evangelicals in 2011, “65 percent identify with premillennial theology, 13 percent with amillennial and 4 percent with postmillennial. Seventeen percent responded ‘other’” (National Association of Evangelicals). But premillennialists disagree among themselves as to whether believers will be raptured before, during or after the Tribulation, while J. Gresham Machen, a representative leader of the fundamentalist theologians at the Princeton Seminary, wrote in the 1920s that premillennialism is “a false method in interpreting Scripture” (qtd. in Weber 34). Moreover, many dispensationalist theologians (e.g., Todd Magnum, Darrell Bock, Craig Blaising) identify as “rapture agnostics,” refusing to affirm the rapture as doctrine (Middleton).
10. Of course, not all fundamentalists should be classified as “Christian Right.” Unlike their Baby Boomer and Generation X forebears, many Millennials who belong to fundamentalist churches are committed to progressive causes. Consider, for example, the anti-Trumpist Red Letter Christians, organized by Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne, who combat racism, protest gun violence, support immigrants, and belong to ministries that affirm LGBTQ rights. On their website, they claim to be “taking the words of Jesus seriously” (Baptiste). See also Maltby 2013, 108-109.
11. LaHaye rejected predestination and maintained “Calvinism […] comes perilously close to blasphemy” (LaHaye 2004).
12. In a landmark study, Ernest Sandeen argued the bold thesis that “it is millenarianism which gave life and shape to the Fundamentalist movement” (xv).
13. Apropos being “born again” in the context of the doctrine of a personal God, see Left Behind 395-96. In his novel The Second Coming, Walker Percy’s narrator succinctly observes that “born-again Christians…had no use for anything, liturgy or sacrament, which got in the way of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ” (158-59).
14. Pat Roberston’s Antichrist often comes across as a comic-book super-villain. Here he is responding to a defector from his regime: “’You miserable little traitor! You know no one can resist me! I will crush you like a grape and feed your body to the birds. I will have vengeance!’” (363).
15. This is not to suggest that in order for a novel to succeed it must always give us characters with deep and richly complex inner lives. Certainly, a good many accomplished secular novels offer characters who are little more than stereotypes, for example, satirical works by Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley, or William Burroughs and Kurt Vonnegut. However, End Times fiction, whose themes embrace redeemability and spiritual plight, surely has an obligation to create characters with a degree of interiority that is sufficient to be explored.
16. For a similar narration of another conversion scene see Left Behind 215-16.
17. For Kierkegaard, “[I]n this world, God and I cannot speak together; we have no language in common” (Fear and Trembling 141).
18. See Exod. 3:6; Deut. 2:25; Is. 8:13; 66.2; Ps. 2:11; 33.8; 34.11; 111.10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10; Hos. 3:5; 11:10.
19. See also 69, 165, 230, 240.
20. See also 258, 333, 341, 440.
21. Ron Hansen, a Jesuit novelist, observes, “We cannot call a fiction Christian just because there is no irreligion in it, no skepticism…for such a fiction, in its evasions, may have also evaded, in Karl Rahner’s words, ‘that blessed peril that consists in encountering God.’ A faith-inspired fiction squarely faces the imponderables of life, and in the fiction writer’s radical self-confrontation may even confess to desolation and doubt” (Stay 25-26). The reader of Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies gets a dose of desolation and doubt in the angst of Clarence Wilmot, the Presbyterian minister and one of the novel’s four protagonists, when he “felt the last participles of his faith leave him” (Beauty 5); “It was a ghastly moment, a silent sounding of bottomlessness” (6); “Without biblical blessing the physical universe became sheerly horrible and disgusting” (7).
22. See also Left Behind 200, 396; Soul Harvest 131-32; 666 284.
23. See also 68, 73, 170, 171.
24. LaHaye has written, “there are only two kinds of people on earth: Christians and unbelievers” (Beginning 9).