Left Behind: Epilogue
As always we have a comment of the week. This week that "honor" goes to scripto for his concluding remarks:
A-fucking-men. Let me know next week if God wins.
An interesting thought, but it doesn't matter if god wins because everyone in this book is a loser. Thanks for the great concluding remark, scripto! As for the rest of you, if you want to win again, you'll have to wait for the next edition in Drek's Book Club.
Now that we've added the final comment of the week, where does the score stand? Well, the breakdown, including the handful of ties, is as follows:
Ken Houghton: 13
Mister Troll: 3
Anonymous Spambot: 1
And so, by quite a margin, Scripto comes out in the lead with the most comments of the week! Congratulations, Scripto! You're either really dedicated, or as much of a loser as I am- take your pick! In honor of your victory, you've earned the right to my annotated copy of Left Behind or another prize (within reason) of your choosing. Likewise, Ken, for your second place you get a post on a topic of your request, or a guest slot on Total Drek. Just let me know, you guys! And for everyone else who tried, thank you very much. All the comments, even the ones that didn't win in a week, really helped to keep me going during this excruciating process.
At this point, we should take a final look at the dramatis personae, the inventory of "characters" that we've racked up over the course of the book:
In an order determined by when they appeared and/or when I noticed them...
Rayford Steele: Airline captain. Husband of Irene Steele. Possible former gay porn star. Ditherer. No longer attracted to Hattie. Bad father. Cries a lot. Lying hypocrite. Christian.
Irene Steele: Wife of Rayford Steele. Born-again Christian. Not perfect, just forgiven. Reader of marriage books. Cleans obsessively. Likes egg in her coffee. Bakes really silly cookies. Likes butter churns.
Cameron "Buck" Williams: Reporter. Known for "bucking tradition and authority."
Chris Smith: Airline co-pilot. Worked with Rayford Steele. Father of two. Husband. Killed himself.
Chloe Steele: Daughter of Rayford Steele. Student at Stanford.
Chaim Rosenzweig: Israeli chemist. Kinda freaky. Friend of Buck's.
Raymie Steele: Son of Rayford Steele. Taken in the rapture.
Dirk Burton: English guy Buck knows. Graduated from Princeton. Kinda gullible.
Joshua Todd-Cothran: English finance guy. May have the nickname "duck lips." Killed by Nicolae Carpathia.
Jonathon Stonagal: American ultra-rich dude. Involved in international monetary cabal. Has ties to duck lips. Killed by Nicolae Carpathia.
Marge Potter: Steve Planck's secretary. Matronly.
Lucinda Washington: Fiftyish black woman. Raptured.
Ken Ritz: Pilot. Profiteering on the rapture. Actually quite polite. Fired for being too careful. Believes in aliens.
Juan Ortiz: Global Weekly international events editor.
Jimmy Borland: Global Weekly religion editor.
Barbara Donahue: Global Weekly financial editor.
Nigel Leonard: Employee of the London exchange.
Alan Tompkins: Investigator at Scotland Yard. Friend of Buck. Kind of a chickenshit. Blown up by an evil conspiracy car bomb.
Bruce Barnes: Visitation Pastor at New Hope Village Church. Likes to be mysterious.
Vernon Billings: Pastor at New Hope Village Church. Likes video tape. Raptured.
Eric Miller: Reporter. Rival of Buck's. Able to climb stairs really fast, but not as fast a runner as Buck. Kinda a douche.
Gerald Fitzhugh: President of the United States. Talks like a moron.
Stanton Bailey: Publisher of the Global Weekly.
Carolyn Miller: Wife of Eric Miller.
Alex Phonecompany: Friend of Buck's. Works at the phone company.
Scott M. Otterness: Random U.N. guard. Carries a .38 police special loaded with hollow-point rounds. Kinda feeble minded.
Billy Cenni: Allegedly a Detective Seargeant in the NYPD. Possibly an undercover agent for the antichrist. Or... somebody.
If you were counting, that's a total of 31 named characters in the first book alone. Given that Left Behind is 468 pages long, that's a new character every 15 pages or so, and that mean doesn't even begin to capture the fact that two of those characters appear for the first time in the final chapter. Granted, the authors clearly intended this book to be the first of a series and so may have been setting the stage but, just as clearly, they don't have the discipline to wait for opportune times to introduce characters. It's also worth noting that six of the characters above- that's just shy of 1 in 5- didn't survive the book. And that's amazing because, with all that bloodshed, you'd think there'd be some shred of suspense or even action to be found but, alas, not so much. Odds are, that's because pretty much all of the characters who died were very peripheral and, as often as not, died immediately after being introduced. Whatever purpose such a "literary" choice might have served, the authors' decision did dilute the impact of all those fatalities rather a bit.
Now, I've been referring to our mysterious authors for some time, but who are they exactly? Well, now that we're at the end, allow me to enlighten you with the aid of the "About the Authors" section...
Page 469- Line Booger:
Our first author is Jerry B. Jenkins, who insists on placing a link to his website right there in the text. He also mentions that he's the former vice president for publishing at the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. And then we have this...
Page 469- Line 5-7:
His writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Reader's Digest, Parade, in-flight magazines, and many Christian periodicals. [emphasis original]
Yikes. In-flight magazines? Because those are typically fascinating. Then again, maybe that's how Left Behind managed to simulate the trapped-on-a-plane boredom so effectively? Anyway, he wanders on for a bit talking about how he's written all these other books in the Left Behind series. And then he lets this drop:
Page 469- Line 19-21:
Left Behind was nominated for Novel of the Year by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association in both 1997 and 1998. [emphasis original]
And I find this interesting for two reasons: (1) there are few enough Evangelical Christian novels published in a year that something as awful as Left Behind could be nominated for "best novel" twice in a row and, (2) even with that relative lack of competition, it still didn't win. I like to think that means that even the other evangelicals- perhaps especially the other evangelicals- privately know it sucks, even if they won't say it in public. Anyway, after a bit more rambling, Jenkins decides to wrap up in a classy way:
Page 469- Line 30-31:
Speaking engagement bookings available through firstname.lastname@example.org.
And that's interesting because it mind-bogglingly implies that he considers Left Behind to comprise a good advertisement for his services as a speaker. Right. Sure.
Page 470- Line 1-3:
Dr. Tim LaHaye is a noted author, minister, counselor, television commentator, and nationally recognized speaker on family life and Bible prophecy. [emphasis original]
Ah. Right, so, the theological nightmare that was this book is his fault then. Good to know.
Page 470- Line 9-11:
Dr. LaHaye is a graduate of Bob Jones University and holds M.A. and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Western Conservative Theological Seminary.
Good to see he's been educated in a philosophically diverse environment.
Page 470- Line 11-16:
For twenty-five years he pastored one of the nation's outstanding churches in San Diego, which grew to three locations. It was during that time he founded two accredited Christian high schools, a Christian school system of ten schools, and Christian Heritage College.
Which is all somewhat ironic to me in that he sure loves the word "Christian," despite the fact that it is manifestly apparent that he has no idea what it means. Anyway, he goes on about the books he's written and some family details I won't reproduce, and then we're into the last few pages which are all used to try to sell more Left Behind merchandise. This merchandise includes- I shit thee not- a video titled "Have You Been Left Behind?" which is described as, "Based on the video that New Hope Village Church's pastor Rev. Billings created for those left behind after the Rapture. This video explains what happened and what the viewer can do now." It's a book, it's a multimedia experience, it's a money-making extravaganza! And that, ladies and gentlemen, brings us to the back cover of Left Behind. There is, really and truly, no more book to be read.
Now, this has been a loooong trip and at this point I have studied this book in great, excessive details. As such, I think that I have learned a few lessons, and I'd like to share these lessons with you now as a sort of wrap-up.
Lesson One: The focal figure in the authors' religion seems to be the anti-christ, or the devil
This may sound harsh at first, but I want you to stick with me for a moment. Consider, for example, the dramatis persona. Over the course of the book we are never given a description of Buck, or Rayford, or Chloe, or Bruce, or pretty much any of the other key characters. We do learn that a character is left handed, but only in passing as a way to cast suspicion on his death. The thing is, there are two characters about whom we do have good descriptions: Hattie and Nicolae Carpathia. In Hattie's case I'm prepared to chalk the comparative extensiveness of the description to simple wish-fulfillment: maybe one or both of the authors wish they'd had a chance with someone like Hattie when they were single. I don't really know that, however, and won't speculate further on the matter. In the case of Carpathia, however, we know a LOT. We know who he resembles, how he speaks, how he dresses, how he moves, what kind of jewelry he wears, and so forth. More than anyone else, he is the focus of this book. And that's really significant, because of who is not the focus, and by that I mean Jesus.
I mean, think about it for a second: the authors are extravagant in their use of "Christian," the book is "Christian fiction," the characters are obsessively wondering if they should become "Christian," and that word constantly harks back to the figure of Jesus Christ. Now, without arguing over whether Christ was the son of god or just a guy with some interesting notions,* one would expect that knowing what Christ said, what he taught, and how he lived his life would be key to someone becoming, and living as, a Christian. One might expect that at the end of a book of "Christian fiction" we would have a fairly good idea who Christ was and what he wanted us to do. Yet, this is not the case. We hear endless, loving descriptions of all the terror and torment that awaits us in the tribulation and, indeed, in the afterlife if we refuse "Christ," but we don't ever really get a description of what Christ is. Certainly there are half-hearted allusions to how much happier we'll be once we accept Jesus, but we're never given a reason why. It's as though the focus of the authors' religion isn't on Christ, from whom they take its name, but on the anti-christ, who supposedly embodies all the things that Jesus is not. In a bizarre twist, the authors define christianity as the absence of the anti-christ in much the same way that we define darkness as the absence of light. And this brings us to the next lesson:
Lesson Two: The motivation of this faith isn't the attainment of grace but the fear of punishment
If one defines a religion in terms of an absence, as in the absence of evil, rather than a positive, such as the presence on some kind of grace or set of beliefs, then one runs the risk of focusing on fear rather than love. In other words, the authors' faith is based on avoidance- of death, of sin, of evil- but doesn't point us in any particular direction. This may sound a bit odd coming from an atheist, whose religious persuasion is defined at a terminological level by an absence rather than a presence, but that doesn't make it less true.** Yet, even if my "faith" is rooted in an absence, it nevertheless directs attention back to real people. If this world is all that exists, then it matters a whole lot how I treat people and what I do, because this is my only shot and there are no second chances. My awareness of my mortality, and of the passage of time, only makes my wife and other loved ones all the more precious. The authors, however, condemn this type of thinking and admonish us to turn our attention obsessively to the absence in their hearts, the absence that the undescribed and unknown Jesus will supposedly fill just because you ask him to, and without the need to actually have any idea who or what he is. At heart, this means that the only thing the authors can use to motivate belief is fear and, ultimately, it is a fear of hell and tribulation that they introduce and cure with the same theology. In the words of Bree Sharp, this religion is "venom and vaccine swirled."*** But if the religion is focused on absence, and seems to be lacking Jesus himself, then what is it that Christians are supposed to do? This brings us to our next lesson...
Lesson Three: This religion is basically a pyramid scheme
Consider for a moment how our characters behave in this book. Upon becoming Christians, their immediate interest isn't to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and tend to the sick, but to convert more people. Indeed, one of our more significant, albeit peripheral, characters, Bruce Barnes, is left behind in part because he didn't work hard enough to convert others. And while we don't get to it in this book, the reality is that's all anybody ever does. In the last two books of the series, when the anti-christ is defeated and Christ returns to reign for a thousand years, Buck suddenly realizes that the children born during the tribulation have to be led to Christ before the end of the thousand years or they will go to hell. And so he and Chloe start a ministry. Let me say that again: even once Jesus has finally won and is standing before us in the flesh, the only thing Buck can figure out to do with his time is to tell people about Jesus. And that isn't an accident, but rather artifice, because at heart that's all this brand of faith has to offer. It's all about spreading, all about "preaching," and utterly vacant of any purpose or payoff beyond that. And if such an emphasis seems to be purposeful, it is only because preaching can have meaning in a world of diversity. But in a world where LaHaye's bible prophecy has literally come to pass, where Jesus is literally on a throne in Jerusalem, the idea of devoting one's life to preaching the word of Jesus makes about as much sense as spending your life preaching the reality of gravity. If even after Jesus wins the authors can't justify the point of their type of Christianity with something more meaningful than to create more Christians, one is forced to wonder why we should bother with Christianity at all. But, hey, that's why they have the lash of fear ready at hand, because the only thing worse than spending eternity constantly telling each other how awesome Jesus is, would be getting ceaselessly tormented for failing to constantly tell each other how awesome Jesus is. How inspiring. Regardless of its inspirational value, however, that brings us to our next lesson...
Lesson Four: The authors hate humanity
It may sound as though I'm suggesting that the authors hate people on an individual or group level but that isn't really what I mean. For the record, I do not think that the authors are any more misanthropic than the typical Christian.**** No, what I mean is that the authors hate humanity- the quality of being human. Their story makes it clear that they do not approve of dedication to one's work, pride in one's performance, learning, or most of the other aspects of being a member of homo sapiens that most of us would agree are good. In point of fact about the only thing they do seem to approve of is a decidedly inhuman denial of everything except the commitment to god. A person is only good, in their view, to the extent that their every action is dedicated to furthering god's wishes. I suppose this makes sense because, really, the only way to justify the authors' simultaneous contentions that god is good but, nevertheless, will condemn you to hell for all eternity for not casting the right magic spell, is to assume that from the get-go all humans deserve hell. This is what we call "original sin," and it's arguably the only way to satisfy the authors' basic claims and remain internally consistent. Yet, the authors take this to an even more absurd extreme than most denominations- not just taking the perspective that humans can do good but that this good is overwhelmed by the extent of our initial burden of sin,***** but actually arguing that we are incapable of doing good on our own in the first place. And this is, frankly, a very difficult perspective to sell in a novel because we, as the readers, want to identify with the characters, but that's awfully difficult to do when the authors are falling all over themselves to make it clear how crappy we all are. And that brings us to our next lesson...
Lesson Five: When writing a novel to present the virtues of your religion, make certain that your religion's virtues- if indeed it possesses any- make it into the novel
Please understand, at the moment I am not arguing that the authors' religion is entirely devoid of virtues. It may indeed provide a cornucopia of benefits for many of its adherents. Likewise, it's abstractly possible that if I were to convert to it I would find myself to be enormously happier.****** Yet, however possible these things are, it's nevertheless the case that no virtues actually make it into Left Behind. Think about it for a moment: before he converts Rayford is an asshole who ignores his wife and children and mistreats his coworkers (i.e. Hattie). After he converts, Rayford is a self-righteous asshole who continually pesters others and often finds himself crying in misery because the rest of the world doesn't agree with him. Before she converted, Chloe was a vaguely spunky, fleetingly intelligent young woman. After she was an overly emotional appendage of her father. I'm not saying that converting made them worse, but it surely didn't make them any better. In fact, based on a reading of Left Behind, a naive observer would be forced to conclude that the sole reason to become Christian is to avoid going to hell, which does not seem to be the message the authors want to give. And that's what's so pathetic about the whole situation. This book is non-stop uncontradicted propaganda. It's like a Chick Tract for the literate and indulges in about as much subtlety. The authors have the freedom to stack the deck and give us a whirlwind tour of what makes their religion so awesome. And they utterly and completely fail. I really cannot stress enough what a severe error this is- having read this book I am, if you can believe it, even less likely to convert than I was before. This is damned near the sort of book I would write if I wanted to secretly smear Christianity.******* Basically, if your own propaganda doesn't even reflect positively on you, your image problems are not something you can blame on the opposition. And this brings us to the next lesson...
Lesson Six: The christianity of this book is very unlike typical christianity
It's very easy to fall into the authors' trap by coming to think of christianity in their terms, but this would be an error. Most christians and, indeed, most forms of christianity are not as mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly, pointless or stupid. This is not to say that I approve of mainstream christianity, but by and large most christians are good people and most strains of christianity do not run into logical contradiction quite so immediately or so thoroughly. Hell, around chapter 23 of this series I discovered that someone else has done an equally thorough analysis of Left Behind, save his effort is more thoughtful and less snarky. You can find his effort indexed here but the really interesting thing is that he both identifies as an evangelical christian, and thinks that this book sucks. Whenever I have been critical of christianity in this series, it has always been aimed at the authors' version, because real christianity- while not in my view true- is immensely more loving of its adherents and humanity in general. And this brings us to our last lesson...
Lesson Seven: If you write a novel to extol your religion's virtues, make sure that said novel is at least entertaining.
I said it when we started this project and, having gone through the book with you, I renew my comment. The primary flaw of Left Behind isn't its poor theology or even disagreeable message. No, the primary flaw is that it is boring. Quite aside from whether you agree with its message or not, ignoring whether you are a Christian, a christian, or a heathen of some stripe, this is simply a godawful clusterfuck of a novel. Its characters are unsympathetic and irritating. The events are strained and disconnected from any sort of logical stream or necessity. Its conspiracies are poorly drawn and its heroes not very heroic. Frankly even its language and copy-editing are almost indescribably poor. We've probably all heard the expression, "If the ladies don't find you handsome, they should at least find you handy." Well, in this case, we might paraphrase it as, "If the readers can't find your book inspiring, they should at least find it interesting." And sadly Left Behind fails at even this modest goal. And folks, let's face it: I've read all of Battlefield: Earth- I am not that difficult to entertain. Now, one might argue that I have never written a book that sold a million copies, and so it's a bit presumptuous of me to criticize. Fair enough, but I would respond that I have also never written a book that tells the majority of mankind that everything they believe is a lie and that they're totally evil. When you presume to lecture the entire planet on why they're wrong about everything, you should be prepared for a bit of a response. I may not be a successful fiction writer, but I know a bad book when I read it, and they don't come much worse than this one without entirely abandoning basic syntax.
And that about says it all. For better or worse, I have read Left Behind, I have provided my reaction to it, and y'all have come along for the ride. I would like to simultaneously thank you, and extend my deepest sympathies. So, where to from here? Well, next week I will post an index for the series so that it's a bit easier to navigate, particularly given the failure of the "Left Behind" tag to really work for a series this f-ing long. And then, some weeks after that we will start the next volume in Drek's Book Club, which looks to be "The Overton Window," provided through the generosity of Jonas Wisser. Regardless of whether you stick around for the next effort or take this opportunity to break away, let me just say that if y'all are any indication, I will be in great company in the unlikely event that I am ever Left Behind.
See you next time.
* You know my take on this one.
** I should note that atheism, at heart, is a religion in much the same sense that aunicornism is a religion.
*** It's a nice lyric, but I should note that venom is treated with anti-venom, not with a vaccine.
**** And you can interpret that however you want.
***** Essentially the "god as loan shark" model of sin.
****** I can hardly write that without laughing, given that such a conversion would essentially mean sacrificing my intellectual and personal integrity, as well as likely ending my marriage, none of which I have even the slightest intention of doing.
******* Of course, I would never do such a thing. It's dishonest, for one, and for another, judging from Left Behind, they don't need my help.
Labels: Left Behind