Saturday, July 17, 2004

Left Behind: Evangelical Pop Culture

Nicholas D. Kristof, a liberal columnist of the New York Times, is appalled by the popularity of the Left Behind series of best-selling novels based on a fundamentalist Christian belief, which "have sold more than 60 million copies worldwide":
If the latest in the "Left Behind" series of evangelical thrillers is to be believed, Jesus will return to Earth, gather non-Christians to his left and toss them into everlasting fire:

"Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches and a yawning chasm opened in the earth, stretching far and wide enough to swallow all of them. They tumbled in, howling and screeching, but their wailing was soon quashed and all was silent when the earth closed itself again."

These are the best-selling novels for adults in the United States, and they have sold more than 60 million copies worldwide. The latest is "Glorious Appearing," which has Jesus returning to Earth to wipe all non-Christians from the planet. It's disconcerting to find ethnic cleansing celebrated as the height of piety.

If a Muslim were to write an Islamic version of "Glorious Appearing" and publish it in Saudi Arabia, jubilantly describing a massacre of millions of non-Muslims by God, we would have a fit. We have quite properly linked the fundamentalist religious tracts of Islam with the intolerance they nurture, and it's time to remove the motes from our own eyes. ("Jesus and Jihad," July 17, 2004)
Kristof's criticism of a common double standard -- objecting to intolerance in fundamentalist Islam and yet failing to see the same thing in fundamentalist Christianity -- has a very good point. One possibility that he does not explore, however, is that the cause and danger of the Left Behind series' commercial success may have more to do with American politics than a strictly religious sort of intolerance that glorifies believers and damns infidels (which has probably existed since the dawn of religion). Look at the official website of Left Behind, and you'll find an offering such as the following:
This Week's Prophecy Club Articles
  • World Court Rules Against Israel —- A look at the International Court of Justice ruling calling Israel's security barrier illegal.

  • A Fence and a Falling Wall —- Consulting editor Mark Hitchcock provides his view on recent events in Israel.

  • The Curtain Will Fall —- A letter from the director of the International Christian Zionist Center, a European who is a staunch defender of Israel, on the role of America.

  • Senate Debates FMA —- A look at the Senate debate on the Federal Marriage Amendment, which started on Monday.

  • Prophecies Fulfilled in the Church Age (part 1 of 8) —- A Bible study based on Tim LaHaye's Prophecy Study Bible.
Join the Prophecy Club to read these articles and more!
Without Washington's support for Israel, I doubt that the worldview like this would have become so widespread.

Another possibility that Kristof does not consider is that the Left Behind series has done so well because it has been read by more than the core audience of Christian fundamentalists, as Melani McAlister suggests:
The Left Behind books are remarkably popular not only with the fundamentalists who form their core readership, but also with many more casual readers who pick up the books when they see the highlighted displays at Wal-Mart, or visit the special sales section at, or perhaps who have seen the ads "Read the Future" and "" blazoned on the side of one of the cars at NASCAR races in recent years. As one scholar describes it, "In office settings, these things are being passed around like Stephen King novels or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue." 9 Indeed, as each new installment races to the top of the hardcover charts, paperback versions of earlier books in the Left Behind series continue to dominate the paperback lists. 10 In addition, the series has spawned two movies, no fewer than five soundtracks, calendars, mugs, and an impressive line of screensavers and e-greetings. 11 What we are seeing, then, is a remarkable mainstreaming of evangelical pop culture, one in which nonevangelicals seem to be willing to read overtly proselytizing messages, as long as they are delivered in a readable genre. (Melani McAlister, "Prophecy, Politics, and the Popular: The Left Behind Series and Christian Fundamentalism's New World Order," The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.4, [2003], p. 775)
Why such a wide appeal? In part, McAlister argues, because the Left Behind series -- "not your father's fundamentalism" (p. 782) -- exhibits impressive techno savvy and effectively draws upon the images of science fiction in both the novels, their marketing, and merchandise inspired by them:
These images draw on the look and feel of popular action and sci-fi movies: weapons, anxious people fleeing a scene, or images of nightmarish post-nuclear-war style devastation that are familiar to anyone who has seen Terminator or Mad Max. The e-card/screensaver for Apollyon is a perfect apocalyptic cliché: in the background, a destroyed building, with only the half-standing outline of the structure left. Strangely orangish clouds dominate the sky; fires burn on the street. In the foreground, a large, almost distended image of a man's face—he is middle-aged, probably white, and his eyes are bulging, fearful. (McAlister, p. 786)
Indeed, the image is not out of place as a poster for a sci-fi disaster film from Hollywood. Last but not the least, the Left Behind series, unlike fundamentalism in the past, projects "an emergent evangelical racial liberalism" (McAlister, p. 775), the racial liberalism that is surprisingly expansive and flexible and yet clearly limited by the novels' self-consciousness about it and the Christian fundamentalist political vision of Israel, which McAlister analyzes incisively:
[I]n the 1990s, with the rise of the Promise Keepers and other new parachurch organizations, evangelicals began to talk more extensively about crossing racial barriers, and did so in ways that brought discussions of racism into the heart of white evangelism. Perhaps it should not be so surprising, then, that [Tim] LaHaye and [Jerry] Jenkins put the white characters who form the core of the Tribulation Force through their multicultural paces. At various times, they work closely with at least two African-American male characters, one set of Chinese Christians, a Native American woman, two Arabs, and uncountable numbers of Israeli Jews. The plot consistently presents racial liberalism as the norm for the characters, and implicitly for the readers as well.

In the fourth book, for example, the first of two important African-American characters is introduced into the plot. Floyd Charles is a young physician who helps save Buck's wife Chloe when she is pregnant, injured, and on the run from the forces of the Antichrist. Dr. Charles is soon making regular visits to the Tribulation Force's safe house; he eventually ends up living there, and in the process, falling in love with a woman in the group, Hattie. When Floyd reveals his feelings for Hattie to Rayford, who functions as the Tribulation Force's leader, Rayford expresses deep concern. This concern, however, is not framed as an issue of race; the fact that Floyd is black and Hattie is white goes unmentioned in their discussion. Instead, Rayford is worried that Hattie is simply not a good enough person for Floyd, since she is both unconverted and remarkably selfish. Though Floyd conveniently dies before he can even declare his love to Hattie, much less act on it, it is nonetheless remarkable that the Left Behind series would present an interracial relationship as so utterly noncontroversial (what is controversial is falling in love with a nonbeliever). It says volumes about the ways in which white fundamentalism has changed its self-presentation, both within the community itself and in terms of its public voice on issues of race.

But though LaHaye and Jenkins have obviously made a conscious decision to bring African Americans into close proximity to the core characters, the novels register a particular self-consciousness about this fact, one that at times borders on self-parody. On several occasions, for example, Buck or Rayford make what the authors seem to think are rather cute jokes that play off the parallels between the concept of brothers in Christ and the trope of African-American men as "brothers." At another point, an older and uglier stereotype appears: when Rayford and Floyd are in trouble, Rayford asks the other African-American male character, T. M. Delanty ("T."), to help him by trading cars with Floyd. T. has never met Floyd, and Rayford explains that he can recognize Floyd because of the vehicle he is driving, and the fact that he "looks a lot like you." A few pages later, LaHaye and Jenkins have T. refer back to this apparent reality—that black men basically look alike—as useful in carrying out an escape plan. This character is forced, in other words, to testify in favor of the subtle racism of the books.

The global racial and religious politics of the novels are even more complex, and equally problematic. As the Tribulation Force expands its global reach —- over the course of the series, more and more of the action is set in New Babylon, Iraq, where the Antichrist has set up his headquarters —- the white American members run into diverse believers all over the world. In one novel, an Israeli Jew who has also converted to Christianity gets a friendly lesson on avoiding stereotypes from a Native American woman named Hannah Palemoon (The Mark, 215); later in the series, the young Chinese man, Chang, moves to the forefront of the action as he battles with his father over his Christian beliefs. And soon Chang's sister Ming becomes a leading character, and her emerging romance with a Korean believer is followed enthusiastically.

These international characters are among the most popular on the fan sites, and it is here that one gets the strongest sense of a worldview in which multiculturalism, albeit of a rather limited type, is the presumptive norm. One female fan, for example, has written a series of stories on a fan Web site about a young man named Jonathan Palemoon, who she describes as Hannah Palemoon's younger brother. On the story site, she listed among her character's strengths his "family and his heritage," and his martial arts skills. Early in the series, the African-American man "T" was frequently listed by contributors to the message boards as their favorite; since the last few books were released, Chang, the young computer hack with parent problems, has been widely embraced. 41

The internationalism of this multiculturalist vision is precisely of a piece with the stark doctrinal narrowness of the stories: anyone can convert, but conversion to (born-again) Christianity is of course necessary to be recognized by God. This has been the source of concern for a good many Jewish and Israeli commentators, who have pointed out that the fundamentalist love of Israel comes at the price of a belief in the massive conversion of Jews at the end of time —- 144,000 Jewish "witnesses" recognize Jesus as the Messiah and join with the non-Jewish believers to fight the Antichrist. As Gershom Gorenberg has argued, this seeming embrace of Jews and Israel is merely instrumental at best. At worst, it is vicious: Israeli Jews exist to testify, in the end, to the truth of Christianity. 42 But these views about conversion are, of course, entirely consonant with the larger fundamentalist view of the "narrow road" to heaven. When conservative Christians insist that Jews and Muslims and all others must be converted in order to see God, this is perhaps best understood less as racism or anti-Semitism, per se, than as the logical conclusion of the novels' severe doctrinal conservatism.

Arabs and Muslims, however, fare particularly badly, though they are also subject to a version of the deadly love offered to Jews. In 2002, the news media reported a rather extraordinary series of anti-Muslim slurs by fundamentalist leaders: Falwell's infamous declaration on 60 Minutes that "Mohammed was a terrorist," and Pat Robertson's warning on his Christian Broadcasting Network that Muslims are "worse than the Nazis." 43 Yet in the Left Behind series, Arabs and Muslims are woven into much more complicated cultural tapestry. On the one hand, there is the demonic Pakistani who is the Antichrist's head of security (and who joins a virtual Rainbow Coalition of evil, including the Antichrist himself, Romanian Nicholae Carpathia; his "right-hand man," the Italian-American Leon Fortunato; and the leader of the abominable One World Faith, the former Catholic U.S. bishop Peter Matthews; and later the Chinese security expert Walter Moon). Yet there have been over the course of the series, several moments in which Islam and/or Arabs figured importantly. In the most recent novel, there is a fairly long scene in which a group of Chinese Muslims prove themselves to be hold-outs against the Antichrist and are thus about to be executed. The tenets of Islam are summarized briefly but respectfully. Just before they are about to die, a group of the Muslims convert to Christianity and thus assure their assent to heaven (Remnant, 282–97).

In the earlier novels, two key Arab characters emerged, both of whom are Muslims who convert after the Rapture. Both are presented as highly positive individuals. One, "Al-B" or Albie, is described as a native of Al Basrah, Iraq, which in later novels is glossed as simply "north of Kuwait." He plays a key role in many of the novels' most daring rescues and escapes. The second is Abdullah Smith —- "the name looks weird," his friend Mac explains, "but he has his reasons" (Apollyon, 333). Abdullah is a Jordanian pilot, and is almost always named as a favorite character on the fan sites. One young person has even taken his name as her nom-de-web, and he is often featured in fan fiction as well. In fact, Abdullah is one of the central characters of the entire last half of the series. As one of the pilots who can ferry the Tribulation Force members back and forth between the United States and the Middle East, he is key to the plot. But he is also figured as a good friend to several of the male characters at the heart of the story, particularly Rayford Steele.

Abdullah is one of the tough men of action who provide the story's emotional center; he is laconic but has a rough and earthy sense of humor that allows him to trade friendly insults with another pilot, a white American named Mac. When Abdullah first appears, his broken English is presented as the source of "friendly" amusement for the readers and other characters (Apollyon, 353, and Assassins, 136). Later, as he becomes more central to the Tribulation Force, he and Mac trade the kind of ethnic jokes that are supposed to be the staple of locker-room and battlefield bonding: he makes fun of Mac's "Texan" talk and calls him a "cowboy"; Mac returns by calling him a "camel jockey" (Remnant, 350–53). Here, as with the African-American characters in the earlier novels, LaHaye and Jenkins exhibit a genuine but awkward embrace of diversity and yet a none-too-subtle racism. Abdullah is warmly welcomed into the fraternity of Christian believers, but he must consistently perform as a (racially) marked man.

The more subtle but perhaps more important signifier within the world of Left Behind is the fact that Abdullah is located as Jordanian, not Palestinian. In fact, there are no Palestinian Arabs ever mentioned in a series where much of the action takes place in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. There are Arabs, presumably, in the masses who gather to hear the Antichrist when he speaks in Jerusalem, but in those moments, it is Jews and Israel that matter: Israeli Jews are central doctrinally, and they are key characters in the novels, as they convert, provide leadership to other believers, and, in the most recent novel, find themselves gathered and protected in the city of Petra, as the Antichrist marshals his forces. (On the other hand —- and surely this is not incidental —- there are no American Jews in Left Behind.)

So it is that the mapping of characters' identities is also a mapping of the space of Palestine/Israel, precisely because the very notion of "Palestinian" is made invisible, impossible. There are Muslims and there are Arabs in Left Behind, but there are few Arab Christians and there are no Palestinians. Within the logic of the series, Palestinians cannot convert like Abdullah or Albie and they cannot resist like the righteous Chinese Muslims, because they are simply outside the representational possibilities of the Left Behind world. Dick Armey's suggestion that Palestinians should be removed from the West Bank and Gaza, and Pat Robertson's insistence that Israel should never compromise one bit of land, are enacted within the novels as wish fulfillment: there is no Palestinian problem on the evangelical map. (pp. 788-792)
So, Kristof is not wrong to see "ethnic cleansing" in the Left Behind series, but what escapes his attention is the fact that the "ethnic cleansing" that it promotes is predicated on Christian Zionism's narrative of Israel. Therefore, it seeks to be -- and, to a large extent, it is -- racially liberal toward converts from all faiths, nations, and races -- accounting for its popularity -- except those who defy the political and theological plot of the novels: Palestinians and American Jews.

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