LaHaye and Jenkins'
Sorce: MSN Slate (http://slate.msn.com/code/BookClub/BookClub.asp?Show=6/20/00)
God as an Action Hero by Michael G. Maudlin,Randall Balmer
Randall Balmer is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of American Religion at Barnard College and the author of Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America. Michael G. Maudlin is the executive director of editorial operations for Christianity Today.
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
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
"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