A few days ago, my better half started reading Left Behind. For … some reason?
For those of you not up to speed on rapture-themed literature, the Left Behind series paints a picture of what might happen after the Rapture, when all believing Christians are taken up into heaven to escape the period of tribulation when the anti-Christ will rule the world and bring about a reign of bloody terror. Now, cards on the table time — I don’t believe in the rapture. It’s just one theory of God’s plan for the end of human history–full knowledge of which rests with God alone. While I don’t want to get side-tracked about eschatology, I will say the rapture seems to rely on the idea that those who are righteous are spared suffering (we get plucked out before all the bad stuff goes down after all). That’s problematic on a number of levels–good people do suffer and does not the story of a God who achieved victory only after great pain and death suggest perhaps there is something redemptive in suffering? In other words, I think the rapture (which is a wholly modern belief) gives into to modern cultural assumptions that unpleasantness is to be avoided and the righteous are rewarded with divine protection. But I digress…
Lets also not get into everything that bugs me about the series as a student of literature–whether that be its depiction of women (all of whom must fall on one extreme of the virgin/whore dichotomy), shoddy prose, or fixation on 90s-era geopolitics (seriously, who is under the delusion that the UN actually has any power?). Too easy a target, and what does it edify anyone to pick on such low-hanging fruit — also a book that’s nearly 20 years old. Why am I wasting time on this again? Oh, yeah…we’re getting a new movie version this summer. Oh, Nick Cage, shouldn’t you leave strange Christian movies to Kirk Cameron?
However, there is a point that I want to make, and a criticism which might be worthy of our reflection. And that is babies. Specifically, raptured babies.
On the one hand, we might be grateful that the Left Behind authors took it as a given that innocent children would be taken up in the rapture. Presumably this is a good thing? But they also quite explicitly take that to its logical conclusion. ALL children and infants disappear from the world. Babies are taken from inside pregnant wombs. From this one new mother’s perspective–THIS IS THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES AND HORROR!! And yet, the book presents it a coldly logical thought experiment: we believe children go to heaven if they die before the age of accountability … so all children and babies will get rapture … we believe unborn babies are fully people … ergo fetuses would be raptured as well. The only emotion that comes into play is a sort of “your children are in heaven now … that doesn’t make you happy?”
To contrast, check out this trailer for the upcoming HBO rapture drama, The Leftovers, where the first thing the writers do to invoke a sense of horror is to show the terror of a young mother whose infant son suddenly disappears. I’ll admit–I could barely watch it. But at least the horror of it was emotionally honest. Whereas our Left Behind authors seem more interested in carrying out a thought experiment than engaging with the actual human condition. At one point the team who converted to Christianity after the rapture reaches out to (I guess older?) children whose parents were raptured. Not to, you know, care for lost and frightened children. But to make sure they get “saved” before the end.
Which brings me to my big beef with the Left Behind books. They are BORING. Full confession time, I couldn’t get through the first book but I watch the movie, and I read all the plot summaries on Wikipedia one really depressing afternoon (I did the same with the Twilight novels … I may have a wikipedia problem). Characters run around reciting proof-texts from the Bible, rather than engaging in actual dialogue. The series is SIXTEEN BOOKS’ worth of pedantry as the authors try to convey a literal interpretation of scriptural texts which defy such interpretation (for example, we have to make sure exactly 75 days pass between Jesus’s re-appearing to defeat the antiChrist and the 1000-year reign of Christ on Earth … for some reason?). I’ll give this to the horrific end-times movies I watched in my youth — they were at least dramatically compelling enough to scare the devil out of you! Seriously, watch the Thief in the Night too late and I dare you not to have nightmares!
Whatever school one want to embrace for the end times (insofar as I have any concrete theory beyond “God Wins”, I probably fall into the Augustinian amillennialist camp), can’t we at least assume that the story of God bringing about the end of human history will be IMPRESSIVE? DRAMATIC? INTENSE? Can we assume the reason why they end of time is conveyed in poetic images in scripture is because it will defy our frail human understanding? This is the Easter season, when we celebrate once again the greatest story ever told. The story of a God who took on human flesh and then gave of himself and died on our behalf and, defying all expectation, rose again triumphant! To paraphrase the great Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Dogma is the Drama”–tell a person this story and they might not believe you, but they may at least concede that it is a story one would be proud to believe.”
I do not fault the evangelistic impulse that led to those unfortunate Left Behind books (even if the authors and I might have our theological conflicts). But if we are going to go out and share the Good News of the Easter Gospel, can’t we at least make sure it is *Good”? We have nothing to be ashamed of. So if we’re going to tell stories of our faith, lets make them stories that people will be proud to believe. Really, that shouldn’t be too hard.