What will probably be this year’s biggest book-publishing event took place a few weeks ago. It wasn’t the latest thriller by John Grisham or the sixth Harry Potter book; it was Glorious Appearing, the final installment in the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
The mainstream media, which usually ignores happenings in the Christian publishing world, took notice this time. But, as usual, they got matters of Christian faith and practice wrong.
Writer Joan Didion, as Wheaton literature professor Alan Jacobs noted, regards Left Behind as “the key to unlocking the hidden agenda of the Bush administration . . . ” — reasoning, if that’s the word, that since the president’s “preferred constituency” has made Left Behind a best-seller, they must be trying to turn what’s in the book into reality. Bush’s Christian faith only deepened Didion’s suspicions — talk about conspiracy theories.
It doesn’t take much to see the flaws in Didion’s logic. But as Jacobs points out, it’s possible to read and even enjoy a book without subscribing to its tenets. What’s more, apart from the fact that Christ will return and that “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess,” orthodox Christian beliefs about the Second Coming are all over the lot. The uniformity that Didion sees is the stereotype conjured up by her overheated imagination.
Amy Johnson Frykholm, a cultural studies professor at Colorado Mountain College, draws a similar conclusion in her new book, Rapture Culture. She credits the Left Behind series with fomenting a “new engagement with the world” among American Christians.
This is nonsense. The civil-rights movement, the pro-life movement, the pro-family movement, and other forms of engagement predate these books by years. As reviewer Stephen Prothero put it, it’s not as though Christians “had their heads buried in the sand before LaHaye and Jenkins joined forces.”
Mistakes like Didion’s and Frykholm’s are possible because of abysmal ignorance of religious truth among many reporters. If these folks were familiar with their subject, they’d realize that, ironically, the beliefs reflected in the Left Behind novels are more likely to produce cultural withdrawal than cultural engagement.
That’s because, as Jacobs wrote in the Boston Globe, this viewpoint takes the position that cultural and social trajectories only travel in a downward direction. Societies will continue to deteriorate until the “only option for redemption is the Second Coming.” If that’s true, then attempting to renew culture is, at best, futile and, at worst, opposed to God’s sovereign purposes.
In fact, taken to its logical extreme, bad news for the culture becomes good news for the Christian, since it’s seen as hastening Christ’s return. That’s one of the problems with this eschatology, because it can often lead to Christian indifference.
Thankfully, most Christians don’t think that way. They understand that Christian hope and love of neighbor, the basis for our engagement, are not in tension with one another. They are manifestations of the same truth: that in God’s good timing, this world will be remade into what God intends it to be.
None of this is hard to figure out — that is, of course, if your goal is to report fairly. Most journalists, however, when it comes to the Christian faith, sadly prefer unfair characterizations.
For further reading and information:
Alan Jacobs, “Apocalyptic president?” Boston Globe, 4 April 2004.
Joan Didion, “Mr. Bush & the Divine,” New York Review of Books, 6 November 2003. (Available only to subscribers, or purchase for $4.00).
John Wilson, “The Horror!: Joan Didion encounters evangelical Christianity,” Books & Culture, 13 November 2000.
Stephen Prothero, “Marketing the Messiah,” Washington Post, 18 April 2004, BW09. (Review of Rapture Culture and Shaking the World for Jesus.)
Charles Colson and Ellen Vaughn, Being the Body (W Publishing, 2003).
Register today for the Wilberforce Forum’s Certificate in Christian Worldview Studies.
Alan Jacobs, A Visit to Vanity Fair (Brazos Press, 2001).
Sacha Zimmerman, “Ugly as Sin,” New Republic, 29 April 2004.