Taken in Evangelical America
In the evangelical Christian apocalypse, there has to be a morning after. In fact, that is where many of the end-times, “Rapture” epics begin. One day, the world wakes up and multitudes have disappeared. Suddenly without pilots, planes crash. Cars sit empty in the middle of highways, the drivers’ clothing draped in paper-doll repose on the seats. Husbands and fathers (mostly husbands and fathers) wake up to find their wives and children missing. God has removed from the planet those specific individuals who have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. Evangelicals have vacated the premises. As important, evangelicalism is basically gone, its chief adherents and expositors taken to their heavenly reward.
This is the Rapture. It is an abiding absence. Viewers and readers of end-times stories do not see it happen, yet its perpetual trace informs the long vamp that follows: a glimpse of what the world would be like without the presence of God’s faithful, when God permits Satan to operate without restraint. End-times stories proselytize, and they also fortify proselytizers. For the unbelieving audience member, civilization’s descent into evil invites one to the vacancy: wouldn’t you like to avoid all of this by accepting Jesus? For believing audience members, the invitation is connected to a social absence, predicated on committing oneself to effective missionizing: wouldn’t you like your loved ones to avoid all of this with you? Viewers and readers are constantly being thrown back on absence, trying to imagine worlds without, worlds after.
Growing up evangelical in the 1980s and 90s, I knew this genre well. One could not participate in evangelical culture without knowing it, and as I matured, it became the first aspect of my religious upbringing about which I remember feeling embarrassed. In my early post-evangelical life, I recounted this most entertaining aspect of my home culture, in eye-rolling detail, to others—a trump card to play during the “you think your childhood was peculiar” portion of social gatherings.
It was so liberating, in those days, to leave the end-times tales behind. It surprises me, in 2020, to find myself returning to them.
The end-times genre reached its zenith with Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’s best-selling Left Behind (1995), but scores of end-times books and films circulated prior to Left Behind, in the evangelical spheres of my youth. They borrowed heavily from Hollywood action-adventure scripts, even though their invitation to audiences to imagine themselves out of, rather than into, the action, contrasted with Hollywood’s projects. Wasn’t projecting oneself into the drama of action stories part of the fun? Besides, like most young people, I had a tough time imagining absence, especially my own. And I was not sure about the virtue of my absence from the post-Rapture world. Did I really want to avoid all of this?
I had been taught that “the world”—all things secular, which was all that was nonevangelical—was hostile to Gospel truth and, therefore, to me. But I saw little evidence of this hostility in my day-to-day life, inhabiting as I did a world that was flush with evangelical Christianity: middle America during the heyday of the Christian Right. I was supposed to feel embattled. I did not—largely thanks to the long cultural arms of powerful evangelicals who claimed we had no reach. Presumably, since I had been “saved” at the age of five, I would not be one of those left behind after the Rapture. But what if I were? Imagining myself present on a post-Rapture earth allowed me to speculate my way into that embattled world I had been told existed—where the cost of being faithful was truly high, where I would not be swaddled safely in evangelical culture.
The Rapture stories always left this possibility open. In most of the sagas, those left behind are not all damned—a notable departure from the scant biblical passages that allude to a rapture event, which do not suggest that anyone gets a second chance. As Christian rocker Larry Norman sings in his plaintive Rapture ballad “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” “there’s no time to change your mind / the Son has come, and you’ve been left behind.” But acceptance of Jesus after the Rapture is a possibility in the stories, a necessity, in fact, if the stories are to have heroes.
The erstwhile “nominal Christian”—Christian in name, not in heart—is therefore a useful, recurring character in the scripts. He is usually a minister who, pre-Rapture, had been proclaiming the evangelical Gospel, but who had not really believed it. Post-Rapture, he realizes he accidentally had been preaching the truth the whole time (he is also an African American in a few versions, which suggests a good deal about white evangelicals’ view of the semi-authenticity of black Christianity). Such nominal Christians have a second shot at sincere faith in the post-Rapture world. They are the carriers of the truth—the facilitators of post-Rapture conversions and the centers of resistance to Satan’s growing forces. As the spiritual battle against Satan increasingly becomes physical, the price for many of these characters (again, African Americans disproportionately represented) is often martyrdom.
That would be me, I used to think. Like anyone who harbored old Puritan anxieties, I perpetually wondered if my childhood conversion was real. The post-Rapture world provided the ultimate test of my authenticity. It felt like a more intelligible, concrete test than my hard-to-imagine Rapture absence would have been, because I’d finally get to be present in a literal struggle against evil. If I had been left behind during the Rapture because of a false childhood conversion, what better confirmation of my true salvation than my bold defense of the Gospel in an actually hostile world, perhaps unto a martyr’s death?
If the screenwriters thought such a death would make young evangelicals wish we’d all been ready for the great escape, they miscalculated how well they had sold the evangelical persecution narrative. I didn’t relish the feeling of persecution, but the experience of it seemed to me to punctuate an authentically Christian life. I was built for it. A post-Rapture earth was, finally, a place where I could have a clear and present mission. And a young evangelical was nothing, absent a mission.
What would my mission be? What would others need that I could provide, and what would be the obstacles I would face as I tried to help others see the truth and to keep myself on the true path—for real this time? What was really missing, once the faithful were taken?
In genres that traffic in supernatural phenomena, audiences will suspend disbelief on all sorts of matters, but when it comes to character motivation, we are rightly less forgiving. We need to witness people reacting believably to hard-to-believe events. My greatest plausibility issue with these stories, as a young evangelical, was not the fact that millions of people suddenly had disappeared. The greater challenge for me was imagining a world in which (a) rudimentary investigations would reveal that it is only born-again Christians who are missing; and (b) despite the previous point, nearly every remaining human would fail to put two and two together and recognize the veracity of an evangelical worldview.
There had to be a believable morning after. End-times storytellers always flubbed this. One reason was their failure to acknowledge their own faith’s massive cultural imprint. Due to the didactic nature of the genre, an end-times account must portray itself inside itself. There has to be a point at which a small remnant of people uncovers the true reason for the mass disappearance , but they must do so as if Rapture stories are virtually unknown in the broader culture. The storytellers usually handle this by having some character sift through a vanished relative’s closet and find a dusty videotape, on which a preacher uses scripture to explain what has happened, what will happen, and what those seeking God should do in the meantime. If you’re watching this, I’m gone … but let me explain to you what is happening.This is why we were taken … here is what you should do.
It is a gnostic trope, common to Hollywood adventure-mysteries, and fairly central to religion as well: secret knowledge transmitted through arcane sources, only accessible to those who are willing to look for the truth in places outside the mainstream.
But Americans do not live in a world in which evangelical accounts of the last days are buried in moldy closets on dusty analog tapes. We live in a world where they are bestsellers, their authors are wealthy and well-known, and they have so much cultural currency that popular parody versions exist (for example, The Simpsons “Thank God It’s Doomsday” episode). And we have been living in this world a long time. The “hidden truth” aspect of end-times epics only works if audiences already believe that evangelicalism, despite its commercial success and hyper-visibility, is nonetheless invisible to outsiders.
This narrative misstep is a function of a more serious and revealing failure: the storytellers’ utter misconstrual of nonevangelicals and their motivations. Because Rapture stories are really post-Rapture stories, taking place entirely inside the world of those left behind, audiences get a window into evangelical views of the Nonevangelical Other. In the stories I remember, this meant, essentially, the Nonreligious Other. (Religious Others, such as Muslims, figured into the plot as pawns of secularist (usually white) Western forces. Satan’s chief officers were Nonreligious and had names and faces; Religious Others had neither.)
In evangelical culture and their end-times stories, two nonreligious character types prevailed. On one hand, there were the scientific materialists. We young evangelicals had been led to believe that the tyranny of empiricism gripped most of our faithless neighbors. People did not believe our message because they only believed what could be measured and observed with their senses. They possessed too narrow a notion of what counted as “evidence” to accept a story like ours, which involved the non-evidentiary, the supernatural.
Heirs to doubting Thomas, the scientific materialists are a longstanding foil to believers in things unseen, and they indeed make appearances in the end-times epics. However, it is difficult for scientific materialists to be the chief antagonists, because the Rapture itself provides the very sort of material evidence such people presumably seek. I was very curious about this as a young person; the few people I knew outside of my evangelical worldview struck me as mostly reasonable folks. Indeed, I was led to believe that reason, narrowly conceived, was their obstacle. Wasn’t the sudden absence of millions of born-again Christians undeniable material evidence of the evangelical truth? After the Rapture occurred, why wouldn’t the people who were swayed only by the evidence of their senses finally be led to the truth by their senses?
In fact, this is often what happens in the stories. In addition to the “nominal Christians” who realize the accidental veracity of the evangelical Christian message post-Rapture, evangelicalism’s principal post-Rapture converts are thoroughgoing empiricists, and it is largely their empiricism that sets them free. They are the ones who follow the evidence to the hidden videotapes, the Bible passages, the real story. It is no accident that Buck Williams, the hero of Left Behind, is a journalist. On assignment in Israel just before the Rapture, Buck witnesses an aerial attack on the nation, apparently perpetrated by an alliance of powerful countries. Inexplicably, all of the jets explode in midair before they can fire a missile, and Israel is saved. Knowing the evidence of his eyes defies all earthly explanation—leaving unearthly, “biblical” explanations as the most sensible alternative—Buck soon realizes that most of his journalistic confreres, who dismiss the obvious miracle, are not as committed to the “facts” as he thought. It is no accident that Buck’s search for the “real” story leads to his exile from the mainstream media. Buck discovers that, despite all the talk of journalistic integrity and a commitment to verifiable truth, his guild seems unwilling to acknowledge stories that include physically-verifiable miracles. After the Rapture, when the Anti-Christ consolidates all media outlets, transforming them into a propaganda wing for Satan, it is more of a logical conclusion than a stunning twist. Buck, a real seeker of truth, must go underground. The Anti-Christ’s war is first and foremost an info war.
The Rapture stories thus not only separate evangelicals from nonevangelicals. They also separate the nonreligious wheat from the chaff—the authentic from the inauthentic empiricists. The latter serve as the true stewards of Satan’s Post-Rapture dominion. They also are the storytellers’ answer to the question of why the Rapture does not lead to mass conversions, despite providing material evidence in support of the evangelical message.
Rapture storytellers are no students of Michel Foucault, but they execute an odd species of genealogical critique—one that delights in unearthing the value-laden nature of systems and discourses that purport to be “neutral.” In Rapture stories, it turns out that most Nonreligious Others’ rejection of the faith has never been about material evidence. These Nonreligious Others only care about, and only respond to, power and passion. In fact, “Nonreligious” is a slight misnomer. Despite their secular façade, these secular people are actually religious, in their own way. They possess dogmas to which they cling as tightly as any fundamentalist, all evidence to the contrary. They have an eschatology, an idea of where humankind can and should be headed. They are committed to a set of presuppositions about how the world works. But their commitment to those presuppositions is not itself subject to critical inquiry. Their own presuppositions are not even subject to something so rigorous as the scientific method—especially their presuppositions regarding the scientific method. Supposedly objective discourses, like those of scientific communities, are useful only as rhetorical tools to provide such people with an authoritative cover for intensely subjective, power-grabbing agendas—ones that usually destabilize heteronormative, patriarchal social orders, ones that always exalt (or seem to exalt) the human individual as the singular locus of value.
In Vanished, the 1998 end-times film produced by Texas megachurch minister John Hagee, a journalist interviews a character named “Professor Thornton,” a sociologist from Oxford, after the Rapture has occurred, to hear his explanation of the event:
[the Rapture] is simply the next step in the social evolution process […]. This step in evolution was the final ones humans needed. And what has just occurred all over the world was not physical evolution. It was spiritual. Don’t you understand? We … are … gods!
The professor’s explanation is barely coherent, to say the least. And natural scientists might chuckle at Hagee’s choice to place such ridiculous metaphysical leaps in the mouth of a social scientist (not, you know, a “real” scientist). But Hagee does not count on his audience splitting disciplinary hairs. Complete with bowtie and coat, Freudian beard, and British accent, this avatar of higher learning tips the religious hand of the academy: the proponents of science and evolution have always been crypto-priests, and their methodology has been geared—from the outset, undeterred by contrary evidence—toward the apotheosis of humankind. Hagee prefaces the scene with Thornton by telling his audience that, after the Rapture occurs, “the one thing that will not be believed is the truth.”
Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins take Hagee’s axiom one step further. Nicolae Carpathia is Left Behind’s Anti-Christ—essentially Satan incarnate. Like any serviceable Anti-Christ, he is a charismatic world leader who makes huge promises, most of which involve restoring society to its lost grandeur. He mesmerizes audiences with his speeches, and he has little patience for those who do not go along with his vision of a unified world order. As the story unfolds, audiences see increasingly chilling examples of Carpathia’s secret ambition and preternatural power over people. The 2000 film version of Left Behind effectively renders the moment when, having gathered many major world leaders in a dark board room to announce his consolidation of power, Carpathia shoots and kills two men who dare to protest his authority. Immediately after he kills the second man, he begins to recount the murders to those assembled. With feigned sorrow, he tells the room that one of the victims rushed the guard, stole his gun, killed the other man, then turned the gun on himself. This is obviously false, and most who just witnessed the murder are initially stunned. But as Carpathia raises his hand like a hypnotist over them and repeatedly whispers, “terribly sad,” they gradually signal their acceptance of Carpathia’s revised account by repeating, in a crescendo of whispers, “terribly sad, terribly sad….”
As a young evangelical, I found these varieties of villainy and willful ignorance truly unbelievable. No one I knew behaved like Satan’s minions and dupes did. No one I knew would respond to events like those people did. I was pretty sure Oxford professors were not in the business of literally divinizing humans, however much they may have overestimated human capacities. No one immediately rejected the evidence of their senses in favor of a more enticing claim. No one would watch a person murder another person, then simply go along with the murderer’s quick, self-exonerating re-narration of his act. No large group of governing authorities would let anyone, let alone a major world leader, behave as if they were above any and every law. I bought the miracles, but I could not suspend my disbelief in the philosophical anthropology that staged the disbelievers. I had little material evidence in my own experience for such behavior.
But it is now 2020. During the past few years, material evidence has become more abundant. I have witnessed American evangelicals’ rhetorical acrobatics, as they stand by a leader who embodies nearly everything they once purported to oppose. The ironies range from simply strange to sobering. The same people who believed that the Anti-Christ would shift his power to Jerusalem, ultimately to assume the position of God in the rebuilt Temple complex, are suddenly fine with their leader shifting his diplomatic seat to Jerusalem. The same people who, during the Cold War, tended to worry over a probably-Russian Anti-Christ (see Carpathia’s accent in Left Behind), and the subservience of American rule of law to international authorities, are suddenly worried about neither Russia nor (certain) international authorities. I have heard the silence of the people I called my own, who taught me that, during the last days, the special forces of the Anti-Christ would secretly round people up, rip them from their families, and whisk them away to God knows where. I was taught that even “good” people would do nothing—that some might even find ways to justify it. I have watched the people I called my own chant for a man who regularly says things that are demonstrably false, seemingly delighting in the falsity. I have watched the same populations who ate up Left Behind and its board room scene support a man who claimed, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
So, once again, I find I am a kind of believer. The end-times epics were not telling me what sort of bait would lure the Nonreligious Others out of their minds; they were telling me what would lure evangelicals out of our minds. The Rapture stories postured as a warning to evangelicals of the fraudulence and vulnerability of secularism. Since secular people were bereft of a substantial moral center—since they all worshipped not the god of truth, but the gods of their own whims and desires—anything and anyone could mislead them. It need not even be an argument—just the right buzzwords, the most glittering promises, designed to kindle their basest fears, made by the sufficiently authoritarian man.
From the vantage of 2020, I realize now with frightful clarity what this genre was communicating to me about the people I called my own. It was not that end-times authors had failed to consider what people would believe as they constructed their villains. In search of their antagonists, they had begun where all writers must: with themselves. A storyteller only can create the villain who lives within—the shadow self, the disowned self. The character is their own. This genre’s antagonists demonstrate how vulnerable and volatile evangelicalism turns out to be, at least in its white American incarnation—how bent by and toward power, how bereft of a substantial moral center, how susceptible to appeals to its worst anxieties and prejudices (Carpathia says to his opponents, in the board room scene, “so small, so easily manipulated”). When the Oxford sociologist in Vanished rattles off terms like “evolution” and “science,” as if dog whistles constitute arguments, Hagee is telling his viewers, this is the sort of appeal that would work with us. When Left Behind’s Carpathia kills two men and successfully denies it to a room of nodding witnesses, LaHaye is telling us, this is the type of person who would win our hearts.
I am afraid the storytellers knew themselves. And they knew their audience. Having left behind the gods whom these storytellers proclaim, I believe, more than I ever did, in the profound human brokenness to which they bear witness. It is the morning after, and I wake to find myself in the drama. I dust off those closeted books and videotapes of my younger days, and I receive their prophecy. This is what is happening. This is why we were taken.
Ryan Harper is a faculty fellow in Colby College’s Department of Religious Studies. He is the author of The Gaithers and Southern Gospel: Homecoming in the Twenty First Century (University Press of Mississippi, 2017) and My Beloved Had a Vineyard, winner of the 2017 Prize Americana in poetry (Poetry Press of Press Americana, 2018). Some of his recent poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Spoon River Poetry Review, LETTERS, Jelly Bucket, La Presa, Cimarron Review, Chattahoochee Review, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere.