From: Randall Balmer
To: Michael G. Maudlin
Subject: Our Hellish Father
Posted: Wednesday, June 21, 2000, at 7:46 a.m. PT
The statistics you cite are impressive indeed: over 15 million copies! I'd love to see a demographic profile of who's buying these books. Are all of them evangelicals or fundamentalists? It's quite plausible, of course, because (as you know) evangelicals make up anywhere from 25 to 46 percent of the American population, depending on what survey you consult. Or are the buyers non-evangelicals? I suspect that there's merely a sprinkling of the curious among the faithful. In that way, the sales of the "Left Behind" series recall the popular success of Hal Lindsey's The Late, Great Planet Earth, which the New York Times anointed the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s--though some, I'm sure, would quarrel with the categorization "nonfiction" in the case of Lindsey's book!
Now on to the more vexing question about the God that LaHaye and Jenkins portray. If you'll allow me to wax autobiographical for a moment, I spent roughly the first three decades of my life with the vengeful, judgmental God of the "Left Behind" series. I recall lying in bed awake at night, worried that the Rapture might take place and that I wouldn't be ready or that the people I loved wouldn't be taken into heaven, that they'd be "left behind" to face the terrible judgments of the Tribulation. I fretted for hours about the notion of eternity, time utterly without end. The classic sermon illustration--and one that Garrison Keillor has also cited--was that if a bird circled the world and took a sip from a body of water at each pass, by the time that body of water was dry (the Atlantic Ocean, Lake Wobegon, etc.), eternity would have only begun. Imagine spending all that time burning in the fires of hell because God had judged me and found me unworthy of heaven!
Yet, at the same time, I was supposed to love this God, who I increasingly experienced as distant, judgmental, and demanding. I sang "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" in church, and I was admonished to cultivate intimacy with this God, who was my "Heavenly Father." As I thought about it, however, it became evident to me that this Heavenly Father seemed less loving than my earthly father. I couldn't imagine that my dad would ever consign me to damnation, no matter how much I had enraged or alienated him.
This is the God that LaHaye and Jenkins write about, based on their slavishly literalistic reading of the book of Revelation. It is a God of judgment, austere and demanding. There's not much about the "Left Behind" God that would make me want to follow him, much less love him. Evangelical Christians insist that Jesus is God incarnate, but they gravitate to this wrathful, triumphalist God of Revelation rather than look at the Jesus of the gospels. What a pity! The Jesus I encounter in the gospels is anything but triumphal. He is the Man of Sorrows. He is anything but judgmental--witness his encounter with the adulterous woman. He is gracious and forgiving. He has little patience with those who think they have God all figured out. He hangs out with fishermen and tax collectors and ne'er-do-wells, the dregs of society--scoundrels like me.
And I love him. I love him madly.
Well, my friend, that's far more than you cared to know, I'm sure. As I recall, your experience of coming to the Christian faith was far different from mine, so I'd like to know how LaHaye's and Jenkins' God strikes you. Was that the image that brought you into the fold? (I suspect not--and what does that do for the ostensibly evangelistic intent of the "Left Behind" series.) You characterize the authors as "intensely biblical." I would probably agree, although I might amend that to "narrowly biblical"; it seems to me that their focus is almost exclusively on Revelation and other "prophetic" passages in the Bible. In my opinion, they miss the forest for the trees.
You raise a fascinating question about character development in the series. Another, more general way of framing it would be: "Can fundamentalists write good fiction?" You've read more of the books than I have, so I would ultimately have to defer to your judgment, although I'll offer a general comment. I think it's very difficult for fundamentalists to write good fiction because most fundamentalists are, in the end, dualists--that is, they see the world in bipolar categories: good vs. evil, black vs. white, right vs. wrong. Their characters, then, tend to face dualistic choices. If your options are always absolute, with no room for ambiguity, then you have no real character development.
I tend to think that applies to life as well.
From: Michael G. Maudlin
To: Randall Balmer
Subject: God as an Action Hero
Posted: Wednesday, June 21, 2000, at 8:15 a.m. PT
You remember correctly. I was not raised with anxieties about being left behind or even about burning in hell, for that matter. The biggest religious debate in our home was whether we had to go to church or could stay home and watch the Sunday-morning Tarzan movie. But God found a way to get me into the kingdom, and the path was one of love and nurture, not escape from judgment.
Still, "fear of judgment" stands as a tried-and-true means of getting people saved, a tactic even Jonathan Edwards was not above using. What is ironic about the novels is that so many characters get converted because of the impressive accuracy of biblical prophecy, which probably will not be as effective a strategy when applied outside a system not totally controlled by fundamentalist authors.
There is no getting around the fact that the biblical God judges as well as loves. Our contemporary sensibilities shudder at the violent images in Scripture where God commands every man, woman, child, and beast killed in some passages in Joshua and Judges, but it is Holy Writ nonetheless. (I was greatly helped by "When God Declares War," an article in Christianity Today by Dan Reid and Tremper Longman III.) At least in the "Left Behind" books, it is God who directly causes the carnage of judgment, through earthquakes and angels, and does not ask his saints to use their Uzis.
But we are God's. That is the consequence of being the Deity. He made us, he can judge us, he can toast us. I remember watching Bill Moyers' Genesis shows a few years ago, where scholars and clergy talked about the stories of Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Joseph. While the insights were profound, the participants kept explaining where God fell short there or wasn't fair here. They judged God, arguing for their new and improved version. I think that is backwards. If God exists, then we have to take him as he is and conform ourselves to his designs. This brings up something LaHaye and Jenkins get right: Their God is an active character in the stories. They know what it means for God to be called Sovereign.
Our comfort is that our God loves us. And anything that God does that seems to fall short character-wise simply cannot be. God gave us, and modeled for us in Jesus, our sense of justice, fairness, love, compassion, goodness. When he seems to violate these ideals, it can only be that we do not understand something deeper still that would reveal his actions to be grounded in love and goodness. What I see as a violation now, I will applaud when I "see" fully in heaven. At least that would be my counsel to the fearful boy lying awake in his bed.
As for your question regarding who is reading these books, I would add another question, How are they reading them? The National Enquirer loves religious stories and plasters Billy Graham on its cover every so many issues. America is still one of the most religious countries in the world (despite the Supreme Court's attempt to separate prayer from football), and so it should hardly be surprising to have a religious best seller. But what I don't see are prophecy conferences popping up around the country or nonfiction prophecy books joining their fictional brethren on the New York Times list. Which makes me wonder whether people are simply being entertained by all the blockbuster action (after all, how many books nuke the world's major cities in one chapter?) and not taking notes in the margins of their Bibles.
"Can fundamentalists write good fiction?" you ask. Certainly Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy qualify in many senses as both fundamentalist Christians and good novelists, but I have a feeling you were intending the adjective "American" be applied in your question. Larry Woiwode and Walter Wangerin Jr., come to mind, though that doesn't mean fundamentalist Christians buy their fiction. Fiction as a category is still fairly new in Christian bookstores, following the phenomenal success of Frank Peretti's This Present Darkness in 1989. We will have to wait and see what emerges.
Michael G. Maudlin