Spaceship Jesus Will Come Back and Whisk Us Away
But what is this unknown something with which the Reason collides when inspired by its paradoxical passion, with the result of unsettling even man’s knowledge of himself? It is the Unknown. It is not a human being, in so far as we know what man is; nor is it any other known thing. So let us call this unknown something: the God. It is nothing more than a name we assign to it.
– Philosophical Fragments, Søren Kierkegaard
Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series of sixteen novels (so far!) represents everything that is most deranged about religion. If I had to choose companions to take my chances with in a lifeboat, and the choice boiled down to picking Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, or Christopher Hitchens, I’d pick Hitchens in a heartbeat. At least he wouldn’t try to sink our boat so that Jesus would come back sooner. He might even bring along a case of wine.
The Left Behind novels have sold tens of millions of copies while spawning an “End Times” cult, or rather egging it on. Such products as Left Behind wall paper, screen savers, children’s books, and video games have become part of the ubiquitous American background noise. Less innocuous symptoms include people stocking up on assault rifles and ammunition, adopting “Christ-centered” home school curricula, fearing higher education, embracing rumor as fact, and learning to love hatred for the “other,” as exemplified by a revived anti-immigrant racism, the murder of doctors who do abortions, and even a killing in the Holocaust Museum.
No, I am not blaming Jenkins and LaHaye’s product line for murder or racism or any other evil intent or result. What I am saying is that feeding the paranoid delusions of people on the fringe of the fringe contributes to a dangerous climate that may provoke violence in a few individuals. And convincing folks that Armageddon is on the way, and all we can do is wait, pray, and protect our families from the chaos that will be the “prelude” to the “Return of Christ,” is perhaps not the best recipe for political, economic, or personal stability, let alone social cohesion. It may also not be the best philosophy on which to build American foreign policy! The momentum toward what amounts to a whole subculture seceding from the union (in order to await “The End”) is irrevocably prying loose a chunk of the American population from both sanity and their fellow citizens.
A time-out for disclosure is in order. I knew Jerry Jenkins quite well many years ago, and we worked on a baseball book project together, with me trying—and failing—to get his book made into a movie. I liked Jerry and he was kind and decent. I also have known Tim LaHaye for years, and some thirty years ago we shared the platform at several fundamentalist events. Both men always treated me well. This may come across as maudlin BS to some people, but I mean it when I say that if I weren’t convinced that their hugely “successful” work is about as innocuous as tossing gasoline and lighted matches into a nursery school, I’d never say a word about them. I’m betting that they mean well. It seems to me that they also have no idea what they have helped unleash. You can be very decent and very blind.
That said… the evangelical/fundamentalists—and hence, from the early 1980s until the election of President Obama in 2008, the Religious Right as it informed U.S. policy through the then dominant Republican Party—are in the grip of an apocalyptic Rapture cult centered on revenge and vindication. This End Times death wish is built on a literalist interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Too bad.
This weird book was the last to be included in the New Testament. It was included as canonical only relatively late in the process after a heated dispute. The historic Churches East and West remain so suspicious of Revelation that to this day it has never been included as part of the cyclical public readings of scripture in Orthodox services. The book of Revelation is read in Roman and Anglican Churches only during Advent. But both Rome and the East were highly suspicious of the book. The West included the book in the lectionary late and sparingly. In other words, the book of the Bible that the historical Church found most problematic is the one that American evangelicals latched on to like flies on you know what.
Given that Revelation is now being hyped as the literal—even desired—roadmap to Armageddon, it’s worth pausing to note that it’s nothing more than a bizarre pastoral letter that was addressed to seven specific churches in Asia at the end of the first century by someone (maybe John or maybe not) who appears to have been far from well when he wrote it. In any case, the letter was not intended for use outside of its liturgical context, not to mention that it reads like Jesus on acid.
The evangelical/fundamentalist literalistic “interpretation” of Revelation is symptomatic of a larger problem: make-it-up-asyou-go-along biblical interpretation suited to hyping whatever the evangelical/fundamentalist flavor of the moment is, in a desperate effort to keep religion relevant. But taken out of the context of being part of a worship cycle, the Bible became something like an extremely sharp butcher knife in the hands of children running around a garden. There’s nothing wrong with the knife per se, but context is everything. Enter semiliterate American evangelical/fundamentalist rubes armed with multiple “kitchen knives” and imbued with a frontier “no bishops or kings!” suspicion of any tradition, scholarship, or hierarchy that might moderate their wild-eyed personal “interpretations” of scripture and their burning desire to make a buck.
The Left Behind series is really just recycled evangelical/fundamentalist profit taking from scraps of “prophecy” left over from an earlier commercial effort to mine the vein of fearsome End Times gold. A book called The Late Great Planet Earth was the 1970s incarnation of this nonsense. It was written by Hal Lindsey, a “writer” who dropped by my parents’ ministry of L’Abri several times.
Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth interpreted Revelation for a generation of paranoid evangelicals who were terrified of the Soviet Union and communism and were convinced that the existence of the modern State of Israel was the sign that Jesus was on the way in our lifetimes, as Lindsey claimed. According to Lindsey, Revelation was “speaking” about the Soviet Union and imminent nuclear attacks between the Soviet Union and the United States. When Mikhail Gorbachev became president of the U.S.S.R., Planet Earth groupies claimed Gorbachev was the Antichrist, citing the references in Revelation to the “mark of the beast” as proof because Gorbachev had a birthmark on his forehead!
After everything predicted in the book came to nothing, Lindsey rewrote and “updated” his “interpretations” in many sequels, in what must have been some sort of record for practicing George Orwell’s idea of “doublethink” via editorial revision of ever-changing “facts.” Trying to follow the prophecy party line eventually got confusing, even for the Lindsey followers, and Lindsey faded into well-deserved obscurity.
This would be amusing, if not for the lives touched by this crazy nonsense. For instance, a good friend of mine was dragged—at age five—to Alaska, where his parents huddled in an “End Times” commune, a place chosen to be out of the way of major cities so that when the bombs fell, his family (and some fellow “pilgrims”) could await the Lord’s return in safety. My friend’s life was almost destroyed by suffering through years of a cruel and bizarre lifestyle in which his family was reduced to eating their goats and bear meat hunted (with the many guns kept by the members of this particular cult) on the “mission’s” garbage dump. Of course, school was not a big concern since Jesus was on the way! Discipline was harsh so that everyone could be found “pure of heart” at the Lord’s imminent return. After five or six years of this, my friend’s miserably duped parents dragged themselves back to a neighborhood near ours where it happened that Genie and I got to know their utterly dislocated and severely damaged children, one of whom grew to become a close friend of ours.
According to Jenkins and LaHaye, who have taken over the Hal Lindsey franchise of apocalypse-for-fun-and-profit and expanded it into a vast industry, the “chosen” will soon be airlifted to safety. The focus on the “signs” leading up to this hoped-for aeronautical excursion is understandably no longer the defunct U.S.S.R. but the ripped-from-the-headlines gift that keeps on giving: the Middle East.
The key to understanding the popularity of this series (and the whole host of other End Times “ministries” from the ever weirder Jack-the-Rapture-is-coming!-Van-Impe to the smoother but no less bizarre pages of Christianity Today magazine) isn’t some new or sudden interest in prophecy, but the deepening inferiority complex suffered by the evangelical/fundamentalist community.
The words left behind are ironically what the books are about, but not in the way their authors intended. The evangelical/fundamentalists, from their crudest egocentric celebrities to their “intellectuals” touring college campuses trying to make evangelicalism respectable, have been left behind by modernity. They won’t change their literalistic anti-science, anti-education, anti-everything superstitions, so now they nurse a deep grievance against “the world.” This has led to a profound fear of the “other.”
Jenkins and LaHaye provide the ultimate revenge fantasy for the culturally left behind against the “elite.” The Left Behind franchise holds out hope for the self-disenfranchised that at last soon everyone will know “we” were right and “they” were wrong. They’ll know because Spaceship Jesus will come back and whisk us away, leaving everyone else to ponder just how very lost they are because they refused to say the words, “I accept Jesus as my personal savior” and join our side while there was still time! Even better: Jesus will kill all those smart-ass Democrat-voting, overeducated fags who have been mocking us!
Nietzsche talked about “everyday being oneself” and not belonging to “the herd,” but we want to belong. We have to belong! We want to find the purpose, be it Jesus, or the study of the biological/ evolutionary origins of religion, or blogging on left-wing sites and reading all those responses from people just like us. We can’t change that desire to belong to the winning side. But some evangelical/ fundamentalists not only wish to be proved right; they also want revenge.
The bestselling status of the Left Behind novels proves that, not unlike Islamist terrorists who behead their enemies, many evangelical/fundamentalist readers relish the prospect of God doing lots of messy killing for them as they watch in comfort from on high. They want revenge on all people not like them—forever.
Knowingly or unknowingly, Jenkins and LaHaye cashed in on years of evangelical/fundamentalists’ imagined victimhood. I say imagined, because the born-agains had one of their very own, George W. Bush, in the White House for eight long, ruinous years and also dominated American politics for the better part of thirty years before that. Nevertheless, their sense of being a victimized minority is still very real—and very marketable. Whether they were winning politically or not, they nurtured a mythology of persecution by the “other.” Evangelical/fundamentalists believed that even though they were winning, somehow they had actually lost.
Most of that sense of lost battles is related to the so-called culture wars issues in which evangelical/fundamentalists did not fare so well, from the legalization of abortion to gay rights. But rather than admitting that they were often losing the arguments, or had come across as so mean (or plain dumb) that few outsiders wanted to be like them, they blamed everyone else, from the courts to organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the New York Times, and the “left-wing media.” Just about any scapegoat would do to deny or disguise the simple fact that fewer Americans wanted to follow the evangelical/fundamentalist Church Ladies into their gloomy cave (and/or the never-never land of the Rapture) and park their brains there.
I used to be part of the self-pitying, whining, evangelical/fundamentalist chorus. I remember going on the Today Show with host Jane Pauley back in the late 1970s (or early 1980s). I debated with the head of the American Library Association about my claim that our evangelical/fundamentalist books weren’t getting a fair shake from the “cultural elites.” We Schaeffers were selling millions of books, but the New York Times never reviewed them. I made the point that we were being ignored by the “media elite,” which was somewhat ironic, given that I had been invited to appear on Today to make that claim.
I dropped out of the evangelical/fundamentalist subculture soon after that Today appearance (years later I was back on Today in my secular writer incarnation, being interviewed about a book of mine on the military/civilian divide, but I decided not to mention that I’d been on the show about thirty years before in what seemed like either another lifetime or an out-of-body experience.
Others carried on where I left off, pushing the victimhood mythology to the next generation of evangelical/fundamentalists, and they have cultivated a following among the terminally aggrieved based on ceaselessly warning them about “the world.” For instance “An Evangelical Manifesto,” a document put together by yet another self-appointed evangelical/fundamentalist “leadership group” (in 2008), was widely circulated in evangelical/fundamentalists circles. It put forward the idea of the evangelical/fundamentalist battle with the dangerous forces of secularism, claiming that “Nothing is more illiberal than to invite people into the public square but insist that they be stripped of the faith that makes them who they are. … If this hardens into something like the European animosity toward religion in public life the result would be disastrous for the American republic. … [The] striking intolerance shown by the new atheists is a warning sign.”
The evangelical/fundamentalist authors of this document were claiming that fundamentalists were being stripped of their political power. Worse, we’d soon find that America would be just like— heavens!—France! They made this case during the Bush presidency!
A host of evangelical/fundamentalist Cassandras tour college campuses reinforcing their followers’ perennial chip-on-the-shoulder attitude by telling fearful evangelical/fundamentalist students to hold fast against the secular onslaught. They tell their student listeners (and those students’ even more worried parents) to not let “those people”—professors, members of the Democratic Party, moderates, progressives, and such ordinary American men and women as Jews, gays, and members of the educated “elite”—strip them of their faith. Hundreds of books by many evangelical/fundamentalist authors could be consolidated into one called How to Get Through College with Your Fundamentalist Faith Intact So You Won’t Wind Up Becoming One of Them.
Sometimes right-wing paranoia takes an ugly twist. A website maintained by James Von Brunn, an avowed racist and anti-Semite well known to the netherworld of white supremacy—and the assassin who killed a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in June of 2009—said that Brunn tried to carry out a “citizen’s arrest” in 1981 on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, whom he accused of “treason.” When he was arrested outside the room where the board was meeting, he was carrying a sawed-off shotgun, a revolver, and a knife. Police said he planned to take members of the Fed hostage.
“Mainstream” (in other words, slightly less nutty and less violent) religious-right Republicans have been saying the same thing as Brunn about the Fed for years, particularly the so-called “dominionists” who believe it’s their job to reestablish God’s dominion on earth. They preach Old Testament–style vengeance and loony gold-standard “economics” from many “respectable” pulpits. They also hate America (as it is), want a revolution in the name of God, and espouse “pro-life” beliefs, anti-gay hate, racism, and far-right Republican politics. They take the Republican anti-government propaganda to the next step and say that even paying taxes is “unconstitutional.” I know them well.
I knew the founders of the dominionist movement—people like the late Reverend Rousas John Rushdoony, the father of “Christian Reconstructionism” and the modern evangelical/fundamentalist home school movement. Rushdoony (whom I met and talked with several times) believed that interracial marriage, which he referred to as “unequal yoking,” should be made illegal. He also opposed “enforced integration,” referred to Southern slavery as “benevolent,” and said that “some people are by nature slaves.” Rushdoony was also a Holocaust denier. And yet his home school materials are a mainstay of the right-wing evangelical home school movement to this day. In Rushdoony’s 1973 book, The Institutes of Biblical Law, he says that fundamentalist Christians must “take control of governments and impose strict biblical law” on America and then the world. That would mean the death penalty for “practicing homosexuals.”
Many evangelical leaders deny holding Reconstructionist beliefs, but Beverly and Tim LaHaye (of Concerned Women for America and the co-author of the novels we’re talking about in this chapter), Donald Wildmon (of the American Family Association), and the late D. James Kennedy (of Coral Ridge Ministries and a friend of mine before I left the movement) served alongside Rushdoony on the secretive Coalition for Revival, a group formed in 1981 to “reclaim America for Christ.” I went to some of the early meetings.
The New Atheists have played into the evangelical/fundamentalist’s hands. Each side fans the flames of victimhood. “An atheist can never be president!” says one side. “A Christian never gets a fair shake in the New York Times!” claims the other. Each side is led by opportunists claiming to speak for a beleaguered minority.
Indeed, Dawkins needs the evangelicals and they need him. As the authors of An Evangelical Manifesto wrote, “striking intolerance shown by the new atheists is a warning sign.” Conversely, how would Dawkins’s followers use their Scarlet A pins to open their conversations if America weren’t full of evangelical/fundamentalists? The fundamentalists in both camps need to claim they are hated. The leaders push their followers to fear each other to maintain their identity—and lecture fees.
But getting back to the Apocalypse—since all the good God-fearing folks are going to be forced to be Europeans anyway, why not end it all now? Jenkins and LaHaye’s “I told you so” to all those “elites” who aren’t like “us” comes packaged as ultra-violence. The promotional copy for one of the books in the Left Behind series— Shadowed—promises plenty of killing: “After God intervenes with a miracle of global proportions, the tide is turned on international atheism!” Those Europeans the evangelical/fundamentalist leaders warned all “Real Americans” about are about to get theirs!
If you want to know what it means to turn the tide on “international atheism,” here’s an example from Glorious Appearing, in which Jesus slaughters unbelievers.
The riders not thrown leaped from their horses and tried to control them with the reins, but even as they struggled, their own flesh dissolved, their eyes melted, and their tongues disintegrated. … [T]he soldiers stood briefly as skeletons in now-baggy uniforms, then dropped in heaps of bones as the blinded horses continued to fume and rant and rave. Seconds later the same plague afflicted the horses, their flesh and eyes and tongues melting away, leaving grotesque skeletons standing, before they too rattled to the pavement.
Many evangelical/fundamentalists can’t get enough of this garbage. They’ve been sucking it up since the early 1970s, and now, in the Left Behind books, the message has gone viral. The video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces was developed by a publicly traded company, Left Behind Games. The player controls a “Tribulation Forces” team and is invited to “use the power of prayer to strengthen your troops in combat and wield modern military weaponry throughout the game world.” The game blesses religious violence. It’s the Americanized version of some Islamic sheik drumming hate of the infidel into young minds in some dusty Pakistani madrassa. It’s legal evangelical Jihad training, a fantasy foreshadowing of the all-too-real killings of abortion doctors and others hated as “anti-Christ.”
The expanding Left Behind entertainment empire also feeds the dangerous delusions of Christian Zionists, who are convinced that the world is heading to a final Battle of Armageddon and who see this as a good thing! Christian Zionists, led by many “respectable” mega-pastors—including Reverend John Hagee—believe that war in the Middle East is God’s will. In his book Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World, Hagee maintains that Russia and the Arabs will invade Israel and then will be destroyed by God. This will cause the Antichrist—the head of the European Union—to stir up a confrontation over Israel between China and the West.
Perhaps, in the era of Obama, Hagee will do a fast rewrite and say that President Obama is the Antichrist, because the same folks who are into Christian Zionism are also into the far, far loony right of the Republican Party represented by oddities like Sarah Palin. These are the same people who insist that President Obama is a “secret Muslim,” “not an American,” and/or “a communist,” “more European than American,” or whichever one of those contradictory things is worse—not like us anyway, that’s for sure.
Christian Zionists support any violent action by the State of Israel against Arabs and Palestinians because the increasingly brutal State of Israel is, in the fevered evangelical/fundamentalist mind, the nation presently standing in for Jesus as avenger on evildoers everywhere, by which they mean Arabs and others not like us. Christian Zionists are yet another reason why I and countless other Christians, including many of the more moderate evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox are hesitant to be labeled “Christian.” Who wants to be confused with some of the most dangerous and stupid people in the world: nuclear-armed, paranoid evangelical/fundamentalist Bible thumpers rooting for Armageddon and worrying in paranoid “official” documents about being forced to become like “the Europeans”? (Just a thought: does that make high-speed rail service a tool of the Devil?)
Perhaps I’m not alone when I say that it would be tempting to walk away from trying to follow Jesus, if for no other reason than to avoid the constant hassle of having to explain what I’m not.
© 2009 Frank Schaeffer. This is an excerpt from his latest book, Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism), published by Da Capo Press.