nthposition online magazine

The novel, Left Behind

by Michael Standaert

[ opinion | bookreviews ]

"the moment at which Jesus became the hero of a novel, of a 'prose poem,' he also became fictional. The old estate broke. Jesus lost his divinity, became only an inspiring fantasist."
James Wood, The Broken Estate

A question I often ask myself, and one that others ask me as well, is: Should you really be making so much of the Left Behind novels? They are simply works of fiction. They are just novels after all. Right?

Having read 13 of the Left Behind novels, a popular series of 15 books selling around 70 million copies since the mid-1990s, I can certainly say the books are very novel-like. On the surface they seem to embrace all the elements novels contain: characters, plots, settings. They tell stories of past, current or future events. They claim to offer much in the same fictional substance as science fiction or thriller genre fiction, and in many ways they do. But below these veneers, there are important questions we should ask ourselves: Are these fictional and novel-like Left Behind books, in fact, novels at all? Can we call them novels, in the traditional sense? Or are they pseudo-novels, a form of manipulation of the novel for other means? Does it even matter how they are defined? Does the political coloring of an individual reader determine if that person sees the books as novels or not?

The place to start when contemplating these questions is where the books themselves come from. Tim LaHaye, the architect of the Left Behind series, if not their sole writer, has been one of the most influential activists of the Religious Right for the past three decades. LaHaye has been extremely successful in breaking down American conceptions about the barriers between Church and State, and in bringing churches across the country into political alliance with the Republican Party. LaHaye has been among the leading activists in building coalitions between what has become the socially conservative Religious Right and politically conservative business-minded, free-market Republicans. He has been one of the leading advocates of moving creationism and intelligent design into the public debate, as well as a constant vocal opponent of the secular public school system. Besides this, LaHaye has been influential in defining how his fellow travelers see feminists, homosexuals, and forging the path toward the popularity of painting a stereotypical representation of what 'liberal' means. All of this has been aided by blending these messages with right-wing conspiracy narratives and theories developed in the 1950s through groups like the John Birch Society, which themselves tap further back into such anti-Semitic conspiracy theories as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. His is an all-out war against what he sees as the secular path towards damnation, not necessarily for individuals, but for American society as a whole.

LaHaye and those who follow the line of belief he does certainly have every right to those beliefs, to construct and deconstruct their worldview. Freedom of belief and the dissemination of those beliefs is an inalienable right we are granted. Yet, since LaHaye's main purpose is to proselytize, not only in his specific Protestant fundamentalist religious sense, but in a far-right political sense, it is key that we not fall into the trap of simply viewing these books the as 'Christian' fiction thrillers they are marketed as. It should also be stated that throughout his career LaHaye had taken no interest in fictional forms until the early 90s when he came up with the idea of the Left Behind books. Before this, all of his works were non-fictional, didactic screeds against modern secular society. After coming up with the idea to fictionalize the ideas of dispensational premillennialism, or the theology of the Rapture, the rise of an Antichrist, and seven-year period of tribulation before the coming of Christ, LaHaye was in need of a co-writer to fulfill his mission. Based on his other writings, I tend to believe that if LaHaye would have tried to write the novels himself, they would have been so overtly didactic and political that they wouldn't have made it past the editor's desk.

So LaHaye found Jerry Jenkins, a prolific writer of mass-market biographies and family-friendly pulp fictions, to fill that need and smooth out the wild-eyed edges. Jenkins has been largely successful in this, able to insert the right amount of pop-culture into the narratives of the Rapture culture. Yet in this agreement, Jenkins is not free to do his own creative will, nor, we should say, does he seem to mind this. LaHaye reportedly hands over a 250-page outline for each book to Jenkins, and considering the books run about 400 pages, we have to believe that LaHaye's input is quite significant. In this agreement, LaHaye can be seen as the puppet master over writer Jenkins. Below that, Jenkins himself is the puppet master of the characters in the books. This shows greatly in the novels, where characters are subservient to both the prophetic outline LaHaye has provided, as well as how Jenkins has to fit characters into that story in order to have them move around the plot like human characters do. Under this heavy-handed authority, both by LaHaye at the top, and Jenkins at the second layer, characters are created that do not have individual souls or free wills of their own, characters that are not allowed to explore freely what makes their individual characters unique. Overall, there is little difference between characters other than that they are on the side of Good or on the side of Evil. Their actions, thoughts and motivations are one-dimensional. There is no postmodern murkiness, at least on the surface. What these layers of authority achieve is not literature (for lack of a better term), but a paint-by-numbers, soulless, and morally didactic blueprint of right-wing political and religious ideologies masquerading as fiction. The characters are subservient to all the above. It does make sense to view the Left Behind books this way, as LaHaye himself views the Bible as a literal paint-by-numbers guide to past, current and future history, and rejects any view of allegorical or metaphorical interpretation. Furthermore, up to as many as 60 per cent of Americans take the accounts of the Bible as literal. It is also odd how writers (and readers) see the Bible as completely literal and non-fiction, while they very modernly pick, choose, rework and deconstruct that 'literal' Bible into seemingly fictional structures, or allow themselves to consume them as readers. That's quite postmodern of them.

Again, I am not attempting to discredit the beliefs of LaHaye and Jenkins in this essay. They have obviously made their leap of faith. More importantly for the purposes of this writing is how they convince others to make that leap with them. They have done this largely through usurping the novel's traditional make-up and using it to deliver a straight-on attack against secular society which they have branded in a caricatured and stereotypical way. I would say exactly the same thing about a leftist activist who created a series of novels in this way, except with the roles reversed. With the exception being satire. Satire is probably a different beast, however, since this form often relies on one-dimensional characters to create a point; though with the knowledge that the reader has come across a writer whose tongue is firmly planted in his cheek. I've often thought that if you read the Left Behind books as satire, they are much more entertaining. But maybe that's just my prejudice. The problem with this is they were not intended as satire, a fact that leaves a hollow pit in the stomach of the reader who realizes this, realizes he is on the 'enemy' side. For I am on that enemy side, the side of evil described by these books. Most of you reading this probably are as well, as is most of humanity outside the line of premillennial dispensationalist beliefs of LaHaye. I wouldn't mind really being on a 'fictional' enemy side except for the fact that these books reflect the reality of belief for millions of people and the fact that the subjects and circumstances of the books tread closely to political and societal realities and culture clashes which are alive every day.

What is hard to do is to make sense out of the fact that millions of readers take these books as resembling what novels are supposed to be, that millions of people enjoy the books as fiction. Part of this I believe has to do with the numbers who take the Bible as literal mentioned in the paragraph above. Part of this has to do with the fact that mass-market fiction itself is in such an abysmal state, where one-dimensional characters are the norm; characters that are not round, either psychologically developed through style, or materially described so they are full of motivations, contradictions, anomalies and falsehoods, both to the readers and themselves. I'm not saying this simply out of aesthetic prejudice. I'm saying it more out of concern that novels constructed in this manner, especially with these levels of religious authority as imposed by LaHaye and Jenkins, are possibly not what we would call novels at all. Any thought that they are debases the very idea of the novel. They could more appropriately be described as anti-novels, or novels in drag. In their essence, they mock, parrot and detest the very act of the individual creative process that takes place when a novelist sits down to write for a year, two years or possibly many more. They are stripped of any allegorical or metaphorical reading on the one hand, and on the other they create a fictionalized Jesus in a way that reduces the Jesus of faith and turns him into simply the 'hero' of a novel. We could also say similar things about many mass-market novels of course, except that those pulp fictions written for the market are usually not coming from religious activists with the intent of using the fiction genre to get greater reach for their ideas. I should say I would have the same problems with authoritative fictions of this type coming from the Left as well. I should also say I have no qualms with fiction dealing with political themes from any quarter, as long as the novels are not subservient to a political aim or are written by political operatives using fiction.

One of the other problems in general is that many books are being branded with the names of writers who in fact don't write much, or any, of the books themselves. I've thought for a while that whoever has written the book should have their name in bold, and the celebrity should be the person 'with' that author. Here we have the case of brand 'LaHaye' with Jenkins as the writer. Would the books have even made it through the slush pile without Jenkins fictionalizing LaHaye's ideology? A similar thing has been happening with others, mainly on the Right, as far as I can tell. For one example, Oliver North has a series of politically right-wing fictional titles with his name on them and that of a co-writer, a relationship with works in the same way as the LaHaye-Jenkins relationship. Beyond this, there is the familiar occurrence of many non-fiction accounts and autobiographies of famous people not being written by those people themselves, written by co-writers or ghost writers. We see this every day. The publishing industry and the complicit readers that purchase these books happily accept this charade. This happy acceptance leads to such easy juntas as has happened with the Left Behind series.

The fact that the Left Behind books are branded as 'Christian' is also problematic in its own right. By labeling them as such, they paint a generalization of what 'Christian' fiction might be. These books, after all, are extremely violent and sectarian. Not only does the 'Antichrist' figure in the books personify 'Evil' and wreak bloody havoc on humanity as the chief representative of Evil, the militant 'Christ,' himself as the ultimate hero of history and the representative of all that is 'Good,' is equal to the 'Antichrist' in the amount of destruction he brings upon the earth. Is that a 'Christian' representation, an accurate portrayal of how 'Christians' see future events to unfold? It's not exactly a hopeful message, but many people do believe in it, not all of whom are 'Christians'. In fact, most mainline Christians reject this message.

So how does the 'Christian' publishing industry get away with misrepresenting not only their message of hope for the future, but also the figure of 'Christ' as perhaps as equally destructive as his polar opposite, the Antichrist? I would argue that there has been little outrage about the books from Christians, at least on a very public level, mainly because the books do serve a purpose for Protestant evangelical Christianity, as well a wider group of political 'Christians' whose religion has become more Republican than that of any one church. A new and specifically nationalist American religion, the Religious Right, has been established, but has so far failed to recognize it needs it own churches under that banner. The Left Behind books have been called one of the greatest modern proselytizing tools at the disposal of those who actively seek to convert their fellow citizens to 'come to Christ.' This is certainly legitimate, though I would argue that it undermines the very nature of 'fiction' since it has other, grander purposes besides simply telling a story. Be that as it may, the important thing to realize is that the Left Behind books are not simply proselytizing for a particular form of 'Christianity' but for a conservative political ideology as well, this 'Church of the Religious Right' which has no official churches. Both those purposes, converting minds toward a religious doctrine as well as a political doctrine, trump the doctrine of the novel as an exploration of character.

In those hands it simply becomes a tool.