Left Behind: 6. Reading Left Behind: the Fascinations and Fear of End Times

CTheory Books: Left Behind

LEFT BEHIND

Religion, Technology, and Flight from the Flesh

Stephen Pfohl

6
Reading Left Behind

The Fascinations and Fear of End Times

Who reads the Left Behind books? Under what circumstances are they read? And, what do readers make of these apocalyptic texts? The best answers to these questions are found in Amy Johnson Frykholm’s Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America. Frykholm’s work is based on in-depth interviews with persons who have read the novels. In addition to a “snowball sample” of thirty-five readers, most of whom are located in the Southeastern United States, Frykholm’s research involved visits to churches and homes, as well as Bible study and Sunday school classes, where the Left Behind books were being discussed.

Amy Johnson Frykholm’s parents each converted to evangelical Christianity during childhood. In Rapture Culture Frykholm describes how her own early life was shaped by evangelical church and family culture. When later drawn to feminist understandings of gender, Amy found herself unable to combine feminism with evangelicalism without being judged negatively by fellow church members. This led Frykholm to break with evangelicalism. Knowing that most consumers of Left Behind were ardent evangelicals, Amy struggled with how best to present herself when interviewing readers. At first she revealed little about her own religious background. This proved awkward when conversing with people for whom speaking about Left Behind represented an occasion for “witnessing.” Frykholm soon adopted a different tactic. “With some hesitation,” she declares, “I decided to try a new approach. At the beginning of the interview, I offered my own story in evangelism and separation from it. I expressed vulnerability and tried to reassure the interviewee that I had no intention or desire to denigrate readers of Left Behind. To my surprise this speech opened up the conversation.”[1]

Frykholm’s honesty enabled her to gain considerable insight into the reading practices of those who consume the Left Behind texts. When analyzing how people made sense of the books, guided by Eve Sedgwick’s method of “reparative reading,” Frykholm remained open to surprises (good and bad), attempting to avoid premature ideological or theoretical closure. Frykholm discovered that readers typically read and discuss the books in social networks, rather than as individual consumers. In the “church homes” they share with fellow believers, readers recount how discussing the novels strengthened their connections to others. Conversing about the books also allowed readers to express their views on various theological issues, with the books occasionally serving as an alternative source of religious authority, enabling readers to challenge the perspectives of their own clergy. Most clergy, it appears, are far less familiar with Left Behind than church members.

Whether uniting and dividing families, Frykholm found that reading Left Behind is inevitably a social act, mediated by the context in which reading and discussing the books takes place. This is not to deny the sensuous, emotionally charged, or even autoerotic pleasures that readers sometimes experience. Frykholm discusses this as well. Nevertheless, reading Left Behind ritually contributes to a collective religious sensibility that reinforces believers’ shared evangelical convictions. Nonbelievers also affirm social connections when reading the books. Although sometimes confused, or even irritated, by the dispensational pedagogy embedded within the texts, nonbelievers typically read Left Behind to connect with a believer who gave them or recommended the books.[2]

The churches observed by Frykholm where members exchanged and talked about the Left Behind books were varied. They ranged from a small white Presbyterian church in rural South Carolina to a large multiethnic and internationally oriented church located in its own strip mall, along with offices for a variety of local and global ministries. After reading Left Behind books, parishioners in the small South Carolina church started a Revelations bible study group. This helped members acquire a biblically informed understanding of the events portrayed in the novels. Discussing Left Behind also deepened people’s connections with each other as fellow church members and family. At the larger “international” church, energetic forms of worship were adorned by the sounds of a guitar, drums, trumpet, and singers. Prayerful words and song lyrics were projected on a large screen. This was a decidedly different church environment, but here, too, reading the Left Behind books was a collective enterprise, a ritual of social connectedness, blurring the boundaries between church and home.[3]

Most readers reported that the books affected them powerfully, although the meaning people made of the novels was neither uniform nor homogeneous. While often strengthening their existing beliefs, reading Left Behind also aided readers to better “visualize” mysterious biblical images, particularly those in the enigmatic Book of Revelations. Hence, in conjunction with other devotional technologies of Christian “world making” — prayer, Bible study, worship, listening to Christian music, tuning into Christian radio and television — reading Left Behind helped make the Bible come alive in believers’ everyday lives.[4]

Other readers described their experience of the novels as simultaneously fascinating and fearful. For such people, the books provoked anxiety and doubt about salvation and whether they, or their loved ones, might be left behind. Reading the books was also an occasion for people “to castigate themselves for failures of courage, to fantasize about a life of adventure, to secure themselves in their evangelical faith, and to teach themselves how to handle various struggles in their own lives.”[5] For other readers, the novels were infused with utopian impulses, even a desire to be raptured. As “dynamic objects” of interpretation, the Left Behind novels also frequently serve as guides for Christian action in a world where the Rapture could take place at any moment. For many readers the novels also promoted an urgent “need to witness to their neighbors, unsaved family members and friends. Witnessing — sharing their faith with others is the most potent form of action they can imagine.”[6]

Promoting a desire to witness has long been an important aspect of dispensational theology and practice. “For dispensationalists, the truth of rapture and tribulation, of an apocalyptic future, has always been, in part, about evangelization. If the rapture is coming soon, then the unsaved need to know about it. They need the opportunity to accept Christ or reject him.”[7] Witnessing, however, may take different forms. For some of Frykholm’s readers witnessing was a silent act, a gesture as simple as purchasing, carrying around, or reading the Left Behind books in public. Small acts such as these may also lead to conversation, providing “an opening, a casual and non-threatening way to present their faith to others.”[8] Giving or sharing copies of the books with others is another common form of witnessing. Many people with whom Frykholm spoke gave copies to friends and family members. Some even gave them to strangers. One woman described buying “like twenty copies at the bookstore” and sending them to “everyone.”

An advertisement distributed by Tyndale House Publishers recounts how, after giving a copy to her stepdaughter, one reader actually purchased and gave away an astounding 500 additional copies. Tyndale House also claims that Left Behind has “brought thousands, perhaps millions, of people into the Christian faith.”[9] Nevertheless, while underscoring the books’ role in strengthening believers’ faith, Frykholm found little evidence (in either interviews or a sample of testimonial letters provided by Tyndale House) that reading actually led to conversion. As such, the “books do not seem capable of persuading the unpersuaded into a position more amenable to faith. The more powerful effect seems to be on the believer who finds his or her life profoundly touched and feels deeply and passionately the need to share the message.”[10]

Notes

[1] Ibid., p. 10.

[2] Ibid, pp. 40-65.

[3] Amy Johnson Frykholm, Rapture Culture, pp. 40-41.

[4] Ibid., pp. 132-137.

[5] Ibid., p. 103.

[6] Ibid., p .136.

[7] Ibid., p. 154.

[8] Ibid., p 157.

[9] Ibid., pp. 155, 164.

[10] Ibid., p. 159.

Next Chapter –>