Left Behind: 9. In the Beginning

CTheory Books: Left Behind

LEFT BEHIND

Religion, Technology, and Flight from the Flesh

Stephen Pfohl

9
In the Beginning

It is important to recognize that the treacherous figure of the serpent in the opening pages of Genesis and the closing pages of Left Behind — the “exalted servant” of the Word, who sins by imagining itself as evolving alongside the Word in history — represented something else entirely to the neighboring peoples of Mesopotamia, against whom the monotheistic peoples of the Word distinguished themselves. For the other so-called pagan peoples of Mesopotamia, human existence came into being as a gift of nature and the serpent was a symbol of the divine gift-giver, the Great Mother. Nature — the cosmic serpent that gave birth to the world — was revered as the source of all life, the womb of life, the web of energetic materiality from which humans came and to which we returned. All of creation, including human animal creation, was believed to owe its life to this sacred serpent, the matrix of life in which all humans, animals, rocks, minerals, and vegetables participated. “The snake was first of all a symbol of eternal life (like the moon), since each time it shed its skin it seemed reborn. It represented cosmic continuity within natural change — spiritual continuity within the changes of material life.”[1]

This, of course, is not how the Bible and the Left Behind novels imagine the story. In these books the story is told in reverse. The Bible recognizes no Great Mother of life, no sacred serpent from which we come and to which we return. For the Bible the serpent is pictured as evil. It tells us that the serpent envies the Word. The Bible also tells us that the serpent sins by rebelling against the dictates of the Word, seducing a woman, Eve, to do likewise. According to the Bible, “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him.” (The Gospel of John 1: 1-3) This is what distinguishes the people of the Bible from the animists they had once been and from their neighbors. The Bible denies the sacredness of living energetic matter and serpentine ways of the flesh.

The people of the Bible, people of the Word, rely on orderly transcendental technologies of the Word in their battle against the chaotic forces of Evil. They make use of everything in sight to glorify the Word’s triumph over time and the mortal body. The people of the Word no longer believe that life comes into being as a maternal gift of nature, for better or worse. For them life comes only from the Word. In the beginning, they say, God created heaven and earth by speaking. Before God spoke, “the earth was a formless void” and there “was darkness over the deep.” Then from God’s mouth came the Word. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light… God said, ‘Let there be a vault through the middle of the waters to divide the waters in two.’ And so it was.” Then God spoke again and dry earth came into being, then seed-bearing plants, the lights in the sky, and every kind of living creature, whether in water, air, or on earth.

Then “God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image and likeness, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild animals and all the creatures that creep along the ground.” The serpent creeps along the ground. God made man master of the serpent, and gave him dominion over the rest of creation as well. And to facilitate man’s mastery, God gave man the power of naming, the power of using words, “and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name.” (Genesis 1: 1-26; 2:19) “Next would come … famine and death by plagues until a quarter of the population of the earth that remained after the Rapture was wiped out.” Rayford’s “universal cell phone vibrated in his pocket… Thank God for Technology, he thought.”[2]

None of this is exactly true. Despite strong biblical words about these matters, we humans are never really at a word’s distance from nature, naming nature from above. We are, instead, situated within the relational fluxes of living matter, an immanent aspect of nature’s own energetic history. Traces of this awareness, long suppressed by those who adhere to the literalness of the Bible, are revealed in the etymology of key words used in the Bible itself. In Genesis, the term used to depict the “formless void” that is brought into order by God’s Word finds its roots in the ancient Hebrew phrase, tohu-wa-boho. This, in turn, is related to the word tehom, a term associated with the ancient Mesopotamian serpent goddess Tiamut. The name given by Adam to the “first woman,” Eve also carries resonances of the ancient serpent goddess. The Hebrew word for Eve is Hawwãh. It means “mother of all the living.”[3]

To follow this serpentine path of words — the meaning of which has become distorted in the history of literal interpretations of the Bible — is not to preach the gospel of secular humanism, so virulently opposed by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. It is, instead, to reconnect with a more holistic and material spiritual vision where “gods were not shut off from the human race in a separate ontological sphere” and where “divinity was not essentially different from humanity.”[4] It is to be attentive to the immanence of sacred revelations in the flesh, not simply to those that come from outside natural history in the shape of words alone. It is to recognize that we are participants in nature’s sacred evolution, even as we productively carve out a time and place for ourselves within nature by means of technology. Technology is a parasite. It is also a constitutive cultural practice, a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. Technology cuts into, creates systemic boundaries within, and feeds off the energetic materiality of nature. Technology transforms the general economy of life into a network of restrictive economic games, games of survival at any cost, games of I win and you lose. This in itself doesn’t make technology good or bad, but it does make technology tragic. Technology is a tragic, if absolutely necessary, aspect of our human condition.

The tragedy of technology is that it temporarily differentiates its users from the rest of nature. It punctuates our relationship to nature, making the remainder of living energetic matter appear as nothing but a context or environment for who we are and what we do. Language, the technology of words, plays a part. Language is, perhaps, the most fundamental technology. Words are both a technology and a type of information. As informational technologies words are selective. Words code the varieties of living energetic matter that they seek to describe and render useful from a human point of view. As informational technologies words operate to productively differentiate their users from the world of nature from which human linguistic practice draws its energy.

From the technological perspective of words, nature becomes a referent, something outside us, a thing toward which our language points or directs attention. To declare “In the beginning was the Word” is to tragically misunderstand the living energetic matter of which we are a part. It is to recognize energetic matters, but only from the perspective of information, only from the perspective of technologically coded variety, only from the perspective of the parasite. This is the fundamentalist tragedy of onto-theology. It appears (in history) to technologically separate us from the world of which we are materially a part. This is alienation, a not so original sin. From the perspective of living energetic matter — our serpentine mother, matrix and host — things are infinitely more complex, and more real. That is, things are more real than that which is given to us by technology. Things are more real than the word. The world is more real than the word; and more fleshy, sensuous, and varied.

Technology productively transforms our relationship to nature from the inside out. Under the instrumental spell of technology, nature is ritually transformed from the source of life itself, appearing now to our eyes as if a resource destined to be gathered for useful human purposes. This does not mean that technology, no matter how artificial, no matter how tragic, is ever really outside of nature. It is not. No parasite is. No parasite exists independent of its host. No technology exists independent of the energetic matter upon which it depends. For better or for worse, cars are nature too. So are computers, televisions, air conditioners, game plans, smart bombs, corporate organizational structures, hypnotic media practices, Botox parties, and pills that alter our moods.[5]

This is true as well for the Left Behind books. As technologies of the Word, they are dependent — as is the Bible, the “God-given” text that inspires their authors — upon a complex and fleshy historical dance of energetic materiality. In the unfolding of this dance, the Word may play a leading role, but it never comes first, nor does it have the final say. The Word may periodically banish the serpent, but the serpent returns to devour the Word; or, better yet, the serpent returns to make the Word laugh. Then, the serpent eats its own tale and the tragic story begins again, if in a slightly different register. Both the Bible and the Left Behind books are inspirational technologies of the Word. As such, each bears the scriptural scars of all linguistic technologies — of all ritual, social, and religious visions of transcendence. This is to acknowledge the complexities of wisdom lodged in the flesh, rather than to honor fundamentalist dreams of rising above the body and paying homage to the Word alone.

To refuse this acknowledgement is perilous. Nevertheless, such a refusal is a core feature of that “lack of tragic awareness” concerning technology which Glenn Shuck posits as “the central tension of the Left Behind novels.” In LaHaye and Jenkins’ apocalyptic tale, flesh and blood make a glorious appearance at the End of Time. Here we find bodies cowering in fear; bodies assaulted by the Wrath of the Lamb; bodies ripped open, made to suffer and bleed; lustful bodies with sinful desires in need of religious sexual repression; spiritually abandoned bodies left behind by the skyward flight of the Word. Left Behind conjures an envy-driven phantasm of the Word’s revenge against the flesh as wave after wave of righteous violence fuels the series’ tale of final judgment. Pushed aside are whole other planes of sacred technological imaginings of the body — imaginings that are at once immanent and intimate, charming and joyful, Christian and otherwise. This displacement constitutes an intense blind spot, not only in the novels, but also in the fundamentalist, dispensationalist, and political worldviews articulated by the books’ authors; and also a blind spot in readers who most identify with the story’s rapturous plotline and phantasms.

This is particularly unfortunate insomuch as many of the novels’ key themes resonate significantly with other contemporary political and religious critiques of the unholy emergence of new global networks of power. The Left Behind novels imaginatively depict the network-based subordination of local economies and cultures to “a new world order” of global currency flows and rule by technocratic elites. The books also speak, if in a densely coded manner, to fears and anxieties of people living within the Beast of Global Empire. Here, people steeped in otherworldly religious beliefs see through a glass darkly at best. Here, those who believe in the Word are challenged, not merely by secular humanism, but by two other global forces as well. The first involves the technologically bolstered forces of empire — a strange amalgam of greedy corporate, state, and military vectors of hyper-masculine power. The second force is more life affirming and hopeful. This involves the insurrectional challenge of indigenous people the globe over, people long colonized — religiously and economically — by Trinitarian technologies of terror — by the cross, and the crown, and the sword.

In Left Behind the dictatorial Global Community bears all the prophetic signs of empire. It enforces its will to power by a ruthless combination of mesmerizing mass media idolatry, the debasement of rational language, and the calculated cultural orchestration of deception, anxiety, and fear. These things are backed up by omnipresent technological surveillance and the threat of preemptive military action. But rather than imagining global exploitation in terms of actual historical technologies of power — corporate-state-military domination, gendered hierarchy, and a continuing coloniality of power — the novels reduce world history to a transcendental struggle between good and evil, an otherworldly battle between the forces of God and Satan. And, rather than imagining just social change in terms of embodied resistance to and transformation of existing social institutions, Left Behind beseeches readers to look for apocalyptic signs of End Times and to be raptured from the flesh.

Resonating with many of the critiques offered by the Left Behind novels, but troubled by the flight from the flesh that the books envision as a solution, I ask you to consider a different sort of ethical-religious engagement with global technologies of power. Rather than fleeing the world by a fundamentalist embrace of transcendental technologies of the Word, I propose addressing the malaise of the new global order with a power-reflexive approach to social institutions, including institutions of religion. This approach begins with a tragic awareness of the limits of even the best of technologies. It involves something like a sensuous and earth-bound attunement to the material and spiritual effects of technology’s power — attention both to what technology gives us and to what it takes away. To be power-reflexive about technology is to be vigilant about the complex ways in which we are attracted to, or repulsed by, specific technological arrangements of people and things. It is also to recognize that all technologies owe a debt to the sacredness of the living energetic matter from which we are born and to which we return.

The transcendent technological writings of LaHaye and Jenkins ask us to see the world with prophetic eyes cast upward toward heaven, and to read the world’s history as signs of End Times to come. By contrast, I conclude with sacred words of a different sort — a meditation on apocalyptic dangers prepared by members of the Iroquois Nation and presented to a U.N. Conference on Indigenous Peoples. This meditation approaches questions of technology with animated spirituality and reverence for living energetic matter. Entitled A Basic Call to Consciousness, the document warns about what is really being left behind as Christian prophecy believers prepare for the Rapture.

In the beginning we were told that human beings who walk about on the Earth have been provided with all the things necessary for life. We were instructed to carry a love for one another and to show a great respect for all beings of this Earth. We were shown that our life exists with the tree life, that our well-being depends on the well-being of the Vegetable Life, that we are close relatives of the four-legged beings.

The original instructions direct that we who walk about on Earth are to express a great respect, an affection and gratitude toward all the spirits, which create and support Life… When people cease to respect and express gratitude for these many things, then all of life will be destroyed, and human life on this planet will come to an end… The Indo-European people who have colonized our lands have shown very little respect for the things that create and support Life. We believe that these people ceased their respect for the world a long time ago… The way of life known as Western Civilization is on a death path on which its own culture has no viable answers…

The majority of the world does not find its roots in Western culture or tradition. The majority of the world finds its roots in the Natural World, and the traditions of the Natural World, which must prevail… The majority of our peoples still live in accordance with the traditions which find their roots in Mother Earth… We must all consciously and continuously challenge every model, every program, and every process that the West tries to force on us… The people who are living on this planet need to break with the narrow concept of human liberation, and begin to see liberation as something that needs to be extended to the Natural World. What is needed is the liberation of all things that support Life — the air, the waters, the trees — all things that support the sacred web of Life.[6]

Notes

[1] Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. pp. 58-59.

[2] Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Nicole: the Rise of the Antichrist, pp. 108-109

[3] See, John A. Phillips, Eve: the History of an Idea. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984; and Pamela Norris, Eve: A Biography. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

[4] Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. New York: Ballentine Books, 1993. p. 9.

[5] For elaboration of these ideas, see, Stephen Pfohl, “New Global Technologies of Power: Cybernetic Capitalism and Social Inequality.”

[6] “A Basic Call to Consciousness: The Hau de no sau nee Adress to the Western World,” in Akwesane Notes. Rooseveltown, New York: Mohawk Nation, 1978, excerpted in Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991. pp. 191-193.

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