Left Behind: 1. At the End of Time

CTheory Books: Left Behind

LEFT BEHIND

Religion, Technology, and Flight from the Flesh

Stephen Pfohl

1
At the End of Time

At the end of time Rayford was born again. Alleluia! This was the end of time laced with uncertainties and worry, time marked by anxieties of the flesh. This was also the advent of a new time — time that was crystal clear and predestined, time that followed a tightly scriptured path.

Rayford settled in front of the television and popped in the video. ‘Hello,’ came the pleasant voice of the pastor Rayford had met several times … ‘My name is Vernon Billings, and I’m pastor of the New Hope Village Church of Mount Prospect, Illinois. As you watch this tape, I can only imagine the fear and despair you face, for this is being recorded for viewing only after the disappearance of God’s people from earth.’

‘That you are watching indicates that you have been left behind. You are no doubt stunned, shocked, afraid, and remorseful. I would like you to consider what I have to say here as instructions for life following Christ’s rapture of his church. That is what has happened. Anyone you know or knew who had placed his or her trust in Christ alone for salvation has been taken to heaven by Christ.’[1]

The man left behind with his television, videotape, and VCR is Rayford Steele, a central character in the Left Behind books, perhaps the most successful publishing venture of all time. Rayford is an airplane pilot. In the opening pages of Left Behind he is piloting a fully loaded 747 from Chicago to London. But the pilot’s mind is elsewhere. Rayford’s mind is on the “drop-dead gorgeous” senior flight attendant, Hattie Durham, “a woman he has never touched.” Rayford is, however, thinking about touching Hattie, imagining the flames of an impassioned affair. “Maybe today. Maybe this morning, if her coded tap on the door didn’t rouse his first officer.”

Such thoughts were new to Captain Rayford Steele. He “used to look forward to getting home to his wife. Irene was attractive and vivacious enough, even at forty. But lately he had found himself repelled by her obsession with religion. It was all she could talk about.” It was not that Rayford was against religion. God was okay with him and he even occasionally enjoyed church. “But since Irene had hooked up with a smaller congregation and was into weekly Bible studies and church every Sunday, Rayford had become uncomfortable.” What happens next makes him even more uncomfortable. “Not sure whether he’d follow through with anything overt, Captain Rayford Steele felt an irresistible urge to see Hattie Durham right then.”[2] He opens the cockpit door. Hattie is there and pulls him toward her. But it is not romance that greets Rayford. It is something far more amazing. The attractive senior flight attendant is clearly terrified. She informs her captain that dozens of people have suddenly disappeared throughout the cabin. Not only that, where once the missing passengers sat buckled into their seats, there was now only rumpled piles of clothing, eyeglasses, jewelry, contact lenses, hearing aids, pacemakers, dentures and dental fillings, shoes, and even surgical pins.

The twelve novels in the apocalyptic Left Behind series begin with a depiction of the Rapture. In the “twinkling of an eye,” believers the world over — people who had genuinely accepted Jesus Christ as their savior — are suddenly transported into heaven. Also “caught up … to meet the Lord in the air” are all children under the age of twelve. Even fetuses disappear mysteriously from pregnant women’s wombs. CNN repeatedly shows slow motion footage of a woman’s belly going from roundly pregnant to nearly flat. Cars crash and planes collide as their operators dematerialize. People vaporize in the workplace. Others disappear before the eyes of family members or friends. A groom is “snatched up” while placing a ring on the finger of his beloved. Nearly everyone vanishes from a memorial service in an Australian funeral home, including the corpse. The world plunges into chaos. But for those left behind, this is merely the beginning.

This is also merely the beginning for mass market of readers who have to date purchased more than 63 million Left Behind novels. While the first several volumes had initial print runs of between 150,000 to 200,000, The Indwelling, the series’ seventh book, and all subsequent volumes, rose to the top of best-seller lists compiled by The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. Volume eight, The Mark, opened with an initial run of 2.5 million. Prerelease sales totaled 2.4 million copies eight weeks before the book’s release. Desecration, the tenth book, was the biggest selling work of fiction in the United States in 2001, remarkably topping book sales at Barnes and Noble, Wal-Mart, and Target. Even more remarkable is that fact that Tyndale House, the publisher of the Left Behind series, reports that over a third of the books were sold by Christian bookstores, not included in the surveys that translate into mainstream best-seller lists.[3] In addition to twelve novels, the Left Behind series now also includes prequels, films, DVDs, graphic comic novels, a video game, and a host of related commercial spin-offs.

Overall, one in eight Americans have read the Left Behind books “and they are a favorite with American soldiers in Iraq.”[4] LaHaye and Jenkins have also produced twenty-two volumes of Left Behind: the Kids, a children’s version of the story. The books follow the lives of four teenagers, each, in one way, linked to the plot and characters in the original Left Behind novels. “In truth, the four kids were entwined in a web of connections they knew nothing about. Only the events of that night [of the Rapture], mainly the event late in the evening, Chicago time, would push them together, a strange mix of most different people and personalities.”[5] Judd, “the runaway,” steals his father’s credit card and leaves home. At the time of the Rapture he is aboard the London-bound plane piloted by Rayford Steele. Judd’s teenage libido is in full gear when he catches a glimpse of Hattie Durham, the hot flight attendant. Vicki, “the rebel,” wears black boots, short skirts, and flashy tops. She is at odds with her sister and mother and her recovering alcoholic father too, each of whom is enthralled by the End Times sermons of the preacher at New Hope Village Church. Vickie stays out late, gets “stoned” the night the world changes, and sneaks back into the bedroom she shares with her younger sister. When she awakens, her family and other true Christians residing in her “trailer trash” environment have gone to heaven.

Lionel, “the liar,” is the son of Lucinda Washington, a devout Christian, an African American woman journalist and colleague of Buck Williams at Global Weekly. Lucinda and her husband Charles moved their family from Inner City Chicago to the suburbs to give their kids a better chance at life. Lionel begins his journey through End Times struggling with the accusations of his cousins that he is “acting white.” To appease his fervent Christian parents, Lionel takes after his uncle Andre — a “secret heathen” — and fakes belief in Jesus. Ryan, the skeptic, is a friend of Raymie Steele. Like Rayford, Raymie’s father, Ryan begins his story as anything but enthusiastic about religion. This, like everything in the world, changes “in the twinkling of an eye” and the four teens soon find themselves battling for God against the forces of the Antichrist, much like their Tribulation Force adult counterparts in Left Behind.

The blockbuster popularity of Left Behind is a big event in several realms — literature, consumer culture, and religion. In this essay I consider how Left Behind is eventful in yet another realm — the realm of global techno-power. The Left Behind books read like fast-paced religious techno-thrillers. According to The New York Times, the series “combines Tom Clancy-like suspense with touches of romance, hi-tech flash and Biblical references.”[6] Weaving together several interrelated plots, the novels’ apocalyptic story unfolds across the globe and is interspersed with numerous sermons, prayers, and discussions of arcane biblical passages. The books are also jam-packed with images of technology.

The central plot in Left Behind involves a prolonged struggle between the Antichrist and the Tribulation Force. As a biblical figure, the Antichrist rules the earth for the seven years between the Rapture and the Glorious Appearing (Jesus’ second coming). The Tribulation Force is composed of a small band of left behind Christians. They set up headquarters in the New Hope Village Church in a suburb of Chicago. From there they battle the global forces of the Antichrist, trying to save as many souls as possible during the earth’s final days. Nicolae Carpathia, the Antichrist, reigns over “the most technologically advanced regime in history.” The courageous Tribulation Force parasites off Carpathia’s technological empire, deploying a wide array of hi-tech devices — computers, cell phones, televisions, video cassettes, the internet, ready-for-anything SUVs, state-of-the-art jet planes, surveillance devices, and the latest in all kinds of digital gadgetry — to combat the seductive allure of the Antichrist and his dreaded “Beast System” of global social control.[7]

In depicting technology as a resource for combative believers, the Left Behind series departs from existing conventions in “rapture fiction.” Most previous works had “portrayed technology as the devil’s work.”[8] Nevertheless, the rebellious Tribulation Force is put in a paradoxical situation when attempting to turn the Antichrist’s technological advantage against him. The series’ Christian heroes are keenly aware that omnipresent technologies of televisual enchantment and surveillance are dangerous weapons in the Antichrist’s arsenal of power. Nevertheless, “to resist him they must use his own tools against him. The Tribulation Force takes regularly to the airwaves, knowing that they are playing on borrowed time and on borrowed bandwidth.”[9]

Although the Antichrist deploys a demonic mixture of technology and false religious rhetoric to control people the globe over, for those battling on the side of God, technology becomes an instrument of redemption and a weapon against evil. This is evident in the following exchange between Cameron “Buck” Williams, the heroic Tribulation Force journalist, and Donny Moore, a technological wiz-kid and committed Christian.

‘Donny,’ Buck said gravely, ‘you have an opportunity here to do something for God …’

‘I don’t want any profit off something that will help the church and God.’ …

‘Fine. Whatever profit you build in or don’t build in is up to you. I’m just telling you that I need five of the absolute best, top-of-the-line computers, as small and compact as they can be, but with as much power and memory and speed and communications abilities as you can wire into them.’

‘You’re talking my language, Mr. Williams.’

‘I hope so, Donny, because I want a computer with virtually no limitations. I want to be able to take it anywhere, keep it reasonably concealed, store everything I want on it, and most of all be able to connect with anyone anywhere without the transmission being traced. Is that doable?’

‘Well sir, I can put together something for you like those computers that scientists use in the jungle or in the desert when there’s no place to plug in or hook up to… And I can add another feature for you, too.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Video conferencing.’

‘You mean I can see the person I’m talking to while I’m talking with him?’

‘Yes, if he has the same technology on his machine.’

‘I want all of it, Donny. And I want it fast. And I need you to keep this confidential.’[10]

The Left Behind books and the historical social phantasms they suggest are symptomatic of dominant material and imaginary tendencies driving technological enactments of power on a global scale. These tendencies are shared by many of America’s most influential social institutions and leaders. If for no reason but this, the books and their consumption demand the serious attention of scholars concerned with making sense of human history in the early twenty-first century. For those of you who have little or no knowledge of the Left Behind phenomenon, this may seem a surprising statement. Despite their enormous success, the Left Behind books remain virtually unknown to most present-day scholars of culture, history and power.

The astounding sales figures for the Left Behind books are less surprising for those with an eye on the religious beliefs of contemporary U.S. citizens. Indeed, in response to a Newsweek poll of December 2004, 55% of those sampled, including 83% of all evangelical Protestants, indicated belief in the literal accuracy of the Bible. Two years earlier, when polled by CNN/ Time, 59% of all Christians, and 77% of “born-again” fundamentalist and evangelicals, replied “yes” to the question, “Will events in the Book of Revelations occur in the future or not?” Moreover, when asked by Newsweek in October 1999, whether the world will end in an “Armageddon battle between Jesus Christ and the Antichrist,” 45% of all Christians and 71% of evangelical Protestants answered affirmatively.

Historians Paul Boyer and Mark Noll present related findings. Boyer estimates that “upwards of 40%” of all Americans “believe that Bible prophecies detail a specific sequence of end time events,” while Noll indicates that approximately one-quarter of U.S. church goers are “full-fledged end time believers.” Noll also notes that around 50 percent of those attending church make use of biblical symbolism to interpret news about events such as “holy wars,” major earthquakes, or tsunamis.[11] For Kevin Phillips, author of American Theocracy, all this suggests that, in “contrast to the secular and often agnostic Christianity in Europe, Canada, and Australia,” a large and politically influential minority of Americans share beliefs that resemble in key ways “the intensity of seventeenth-century Puritans, Presbyterian Covenanters, and earlier Dutch or Swiss Calvinists.”[12]

In what follows, I read the unprecedented popularity of the Left Behind series as symptomatic of a unique American historical coupling of otherworldly Christian religious beliefs and long-standing desires to blast technologically free of the flesh. This technological blast-off suppresses — or disavows — the reality of our systemic human animal connections to living energetic matter. Left behind is the possibility of more mindful material and spiritual attention to the realities of our global historical positioning within the general economy of life itself, reverence for our energetic relations to each other and the rest of the natural/ historical world.[13] This is a short sociological story of dominant aspects and dangers of our culture’s fateful religious and technological flight from the flesh. It focuses on the Left Behind novels because the popular or populist religious imagination underlying these texts is fatefully interwoven with key aspects of American culture’s vision of itself as a transcendent force for good in a relentless global struggle against evil.

Notes

[1] Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1995. pp. 208-209.

[2] Ibid. pp. 1,2,3.

[3] Bruce David Forbes, “How Popular are the Left Behind Books … and Why? A Discussion of Popular Culture,” in Bruce David Forbes and Jeanne Halgren Kilde, eds., Rapture, Revelation, and the End Times: Exploring the Left Behind Series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. pp. 7-8.

[4] Morris Berman, Dark Ages America: The Final Phases of Empire. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006. p. 4.

[5] Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, Left Behind: The Kids, Vol. 1, The Vanishing. Wheaton, Illinois, Tyndale House Publishers, 1998. p. 62.

[6] Excerpt blurb from the New York Times included in Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Assassins: Assignment: Jerusalem, Target: Antichrist. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999. p. i.

[7] Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Apollyon: The Destroyer is Unleashed. Wheaton, Illinois, Tyndale House Publishers, 1999. p. 61.

[8] Amy Johnson Frykholm, Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. p. 124.

[9] Glenn W. Shuck, Marks of the Beast, p. 115.

[10] Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Nicolae: The Rise of the Antichrist. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1997. pp. 45-46.

[11] The data reported here are cited in Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. New York: Viking, 2006. pp. 102, 253, 106. See also, Paul Boyer, “When U.S. Foreign Policy Meets Biblical Prophecy,” Alternet, February 20, 2003, www.alternet.org/story/15221/ ; and Mark Noll, The Old Religion in a New World. Grand Rapid, Michigan: Eerdmanns, 2002.

[12] Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy, p. 101.

[13] My use of the term general economy is a sign of my debt to Georges Bataille. My ideas about energetic materiality indicate my engagement with the work of Teresa Brennan and Anthony Wilden. See, Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Vol. 1 Consumption, R. Hurley, trans. New York: Zone Books, 1988; Teresa Brennan, Exhausting Modernity: Grounds for a New Economy. New York: Routledge, 2000; Anthony Wilden, The Rules are No Game: The Strategy of Communication. New York: Routledge, 1987.

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