Apocalypse Will Be Televised

From Harper’s The Apocalypse Will Be Televised
The Apocalypse Will Be Televised
Armageddon in an age of entertainment
Posted on Friday, March 11, 2005. Originally from November 2004. By Gene Lyons.
SourcesDiscussed in this essay:

Glorious Appearing, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Tyndale House Publishers, 2004. 399 pages. $24.99.

Assassins, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Tyndale House Publishers, 1999. 413 pages. $14.99.

Nicolae, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Tyndale House Publishers, 1997. 415 pages. $14.99.

Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Tyndale House Publishers, 1995. 468 pages. $14.99.

The Rapture Exposed, by Barbara R. Rossing. Westview Press, 2004. 212 pages. $24.

* * *

But when a Man’s Fancy gets astride on his Reason, when Imagination is at Cuffs with the Senses, and common Understanding, as well as common Sense, is Kickt out of Doors; the first Proselyte he makes, is Himself, and when that is once compass’d, the Difficulty is not so great in bringing over others; a strong Delusion always operating from without, as vigorously as from within.
—Jonathan Swift,
A Tale of a Tub

After living in the Bible Belt for more than thirty years, I’ve learned several things about our fundamentalist Christian brethren: First, theirs is an embattled faith, which requires an ever evolving list of enemies to keep its focus. It includes Satan worshipers one year, “secular humanists” the next. Panic over backward masking on phonograph records yields to fears that supermarket bar codes harbor the Mark of the Beast. Some years back, Procter & Gamble was forced to deny widespread rumors that a moon-and-stars logo on boxes of soapsuds symbolized corporate diabolism. More recently, purging school libraries of Harry Potter’s witchcraft has emerged as a cause. As if the real world weren’t scary enough, chimerical threats must be found. It often appears that no form of occultism is too arcane or preposterous to provoke alarm.

I’ve also learned that fundamentalist Christianity’s spiritual entrepreneurs are never more dogmatic than when they are ignoring, if not contradicting, the essence of Jesus Christ’s teachings. The basic con is to insist upon the historical and scientific accuracy of every syllable in the Bible—then to analyze its symbolism, unveil hidden acrostics, and decode secret messages known only to initiates. The Book of Genesis is reduced to a biology text, and Daniel becomes a crystal ball. Thus are delivered the comforts of certitude and the enchantments of sorcery in a single beguiling package.

This is not to suggest insincerity. As Swift noted in A Tale of a Tub, his 1704 satire of religious extremists (by which he meant Catholics and Presbyterians), the successful propagandist is most often his own first victim. But it does begin to explain the huge commercial success of the Left Behind series of eschatological thrillers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, a twelve-novel extravaganza combining a blandly paranoid worldview with crackpot theology to produce a form of biblical infotainment seemingly irresistible to a reported 42 million readers. (This is apparently a cumulative sales figure; the number of individuals slogging their way through the series is much smaller.)

* * *

Forget all that sentimental gibberish about blessed peacemakers, turning the other cheek, and loving your enemies. If there are references to the Sermon on the Mount among Left Behind’s roughly 1 million words, I failed to find them. Depicting the “End Times” as an action/adventure melodrama similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator films, the books portray midwestern suburbanites and born-again Israeli converts as Warrior Jesus’ allies in an apocalyptic struggle against a U.N.-anointed “World Potentate,” who looks “not unlike a younger Robert Redford” and speaks the language of science and liberal internationalism.

Yet the media’s response to all of this nonsense has been remarkably polite. In America, of course, with commercial success comes a degree of cultural respectability. If millions of consumers succumb to a childish revenge fantasy that takes the Christ out of Christianity and treats the Bible as a cosmic Daily Racing Form, we dare not scoff at the merchandise. Indeed, the religious right is the biggest beneficiary of the “political correctness” it affects to deplore. Views H. L. Mencken once derided as the “idiotic hallucinations of the cow states” now command respect more or less proportionate to their market share.

So it is that the authors find themselves consulted regularly on matters ecclesiastical by publications ranging from the New York Times to Entertainment Weekly. A 2002 profile in Time magazine pronounced Dr. LaHaye an “influential theologian.” (Academic titles are very big among graduates of Bob Jones University.) “Within a few hours after we met for the first time,” its author enthused, “LaHaye gave me advice about my career, my love life and my salvation—and yet his questions didn’t feel intrusive. He’s that genuine.”

Genuinely deluded is perhaps closer to the truth. Written as the sidebar to a classic newsmag cover story about the “trend” toward apocalyptic melodrama in post-9/11 America, the Time profile did mention LaHaye’s attacks on Catholicism as a “false religion,” but it soft-pedaled his zeal for the granddaddy of nutball conspiracy theories: the “Bavarian Illuminati.” Adepts believe that this shadowy cabal of European-Jewish bankers and secret fraternities such as Skull & Bones has stage-managed world events since the late eighteenth century. (Some contend that America was betrayed into sin when George Washington was secretly assassinated and an impostor named Dr. Adam Weishaupt assumed the presidency.) In his 2002 book The Rapture, LaHaye indignantly defended himself against a John Birch Society critic who accused him of being in cahoots with the Illuminati. To the contrary—LaHaye pronounces himself an avowed enemy of what he calls the “satanically-inspired, centuries-old conspiracy to use government, education, and media to destroy every vestige of Christianity within our society and establish a new world order.”

* * *

“How fading and insipid,” Swift wrote, “do all Objects accost us that are not convey’d in the Vehicle of Delusion?” And indeed, such preposterous views haven’t prevented LaHaye from advancing in the world. As an ecclesiastical go-getter, he has few peers. A co-founder, along with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, of the Moral Majority, LaHaye now heads something called the Tim LaHaye School of Prophecy, at Liberty University in Virginia. Another of LaHaye’s visionary projects is the secretive Council on National Policy, which functions as a sort of theological popular front of evangelical preachers and politicians on the far right. And his alliance with Jerry B. Jenkins (writer of the Gil Thorp comic strip, former editor of the Moody Bible Institute magazine, and author of more than one hundred quickie books, including celebrity “autobiographies” of Billy Graham and Orel Hershiser) has turned LaHaye into a best-selling novelist.

As the careers of such disparate authors as Ayn Rand and D. H. Lawrence demonstrate, eccentric ideas are no impediment to writing novels. Almost any worldview compatible with sanity, in the medical sense, can serve as the scaffolding of readable fiction. Orwell wrote about what he called “good bad books,” arguing that “intellectual refinement can be a disadvantage to a story-teller, as it would be to a music-hall comedian”; what is necessary are strong convictions, an interest in individual human beings, and a powerful instinct for narrative. We’re all capable of suspending disbelief for the sake of a good story. So how seriously should we take the dust-jacket blurbs from reviewers who compare the Left Behind series to the work of pop-fiction luminaries like Tom Clancy and John Grisham? Or, to put it another way, can anybody not infatuated with LaHaye and Jenkins’s theological views read the novels for pleasure?

The answer, I fear, is no. On a purely mimetic level, the novels scarcely exist as realistic or even as allegorical fiction. These are novels for people who don’t read novels. Far too much of it is sheer didacticism: the characters don’t converse so much as they preach. “If I am right,” airline-pilot-turned-holy-warrior Rayford Steele says,

and we can set the beginning of the Tribulation at the time of the signing of the treaty between the nation of Israel and what was then known as the United Nations, we are perilously close to and must prepare for the next ominous and dire prediction in the Tribulation timeline: The Red Horse of the Apocalypse. Revelation 6:3-4 indicates that it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword. In my mind, this is a prediction of global war. It will likely become known as World War III. It will be instigated by the Antichrist, and yet he will rise as the great solver of it, the great peacemaker, as he is the great deceiving liar.
This will immediately usher in the next two horses of the apocalypse, the black horse of plague and famine, and the pale horse of death. These will be nearly simultaneous—it should not surprise any of us to know that global war would result in famine, plague and death. . . .
No, I don’t reckon it should surprise us, although I have a little trouble picturing the Antichrist—this smooth-talking, Robert Redford look-alike—riding any horse, much less a real one. (The series is full of horses; some spectral, others real. Jesus and the Antichrist, for example, ride flesh-and-blood animals; the 200 million avenging horsemen of Assassins, however, the sixth novel in the series, are ghostlike creatures visible only to believers. Distinguishing among them must keep the scholars at the Tim LaHaye School of Prophecy very busy.)

Readers who find the foregoing a bit tedious, moreover, should be warned that Steele’s speech, delivered as a sermon to his fellow “Tribulation Force” commandos in their underground bunker in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, occupies several pages, and that there are scores like it throughout the series. There is also an enormous amount of repetition and little plot suspense, since biblical prophecy invariably proves to be correct. Once saved, our heroes are incapable of error. No sooner do the scriptural coordinates indicate that the worldwide “wrath of the Lamb” earthquake is due—something the heathen geologists quoted in the secular press say can’t happen—than dogs begin to run in circles, and Rayford sees an “entire eighteen-story building, filled with hundreds of employees, [crash] to the ground in a mighty roar and a cloud of dust.”

We’re told that the carnage horrifies the Tribulation Force heroes, but it actually seems to leave them feeling awfully smug. The climax of Nicolae, the third novel in the series, comes when Rayford Steele, whose day job is flying the Antichrist’s jumbo jet, beholds New Babylon in ruins and seethes through clenched teeth, “Let me be the first to tell you: You have just seen the wrath of the Lamb!” All the sophisticates, you see, have been mocking each prediction and explaining away every miraculous event as a freak of nature, a mass delusion, or an attack by space aliens.

Anybody who really wanted to set the proverbial cat among the Tribulation Force’s symbolic canaries would have directed the faithful to Matthew 24:36, in which Christ warned his disciples on the Mount of Olives not to distract themselves searching for signs of the Second Coming because “no one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Indeed, the entirety of Matthew 24‒5, dubbed the “Olivet Discourse” and deemed by LaHaye “the prophetic clothesline on which every other Bible prophecy ought to be hung,” appears to warn against precisely the sort of spiritual hucksterism practiced by End Times entrepreneurs. Jesus repeatedly cautioned against false prophets and narrated four parables, among them the tale of the foolish virgins who missed a wedding banquet after allowing their oil lamps to burn out before the bridegroom returned to summon them. “Therefore keep watch,” Christ warned, “because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” Lest the message be misunderstood, it’s also repeated in Acts 1:7. Asked by his disciples when he would restore the kingdom to Israel, Jesus responded: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”

* * *

Few traditional Christian doctrines could possibly be clearer: the Bible was never intended as a horoscope or a Ouija board. In the Left Behind novels, however, the Book of Revelation is treated as a sort of divine airline schedule. The action begins high over the Atlantic Ocean, where three of God’s chosen happen to be enroute to London on a 747 piloted by the aforementioned Rayford Steele, who’s got the hots for flight attendant Hattie Durham because his wife, Irene, has turned into what used to be called a “Jesus freak.” (LaHaye has said that the idea for the series came to him in a moment of divine inspiration when he noticed a young stewardess flirting with an airline captain wearing a wedding ring.)

Would it fade, [Irene’s] preoccupation with the end of the world, with the love of Jesus, with the salvation of souls? Lately she had been reading everything she could get her hands on about the rapture of the church. “Can you imagine, Rafe,” she exulted, “Jesus coming back to get us before we die?”
A believer in “rules, systems, laws, patterns” who thinks he’s smarter than most people, Steele, the lukewarm Christian, cannot. Also aboard is Cameron “Buck” Williams, of Global Weekly, the brilliant journalist whose nickname derives from his penchant for “bucking” authority. Like Rayford, he’s a self-styled brainiac, a smug Ivy Leaguer (“Don’t start calling me a Christian. Deist is as much as I’ll cop to”) who deems himself too sophisticated for God. Buck’s just back from Haifa, where, in the course of interviewing Dr. Chaim Rosenzweig—Global Weekly’s “Newsmaker of the Year” and the noted scientist whose magical elixir has caused the desert to bloom, thereby turning Israel into the richest nation on earth—he witnessed the “Russian Pearl Harbor,” an all-out attempt to annihilate the Jewish state. But the sneak attack failed. Propelled by forces unknown, the entire Russian Air Force, ICBMs and all, exploded in the sky. “Anything atomic and explosive erupted high in the atmosphere. . . . Miraculously, not one casualty was reported in all of Israel.” Buck idly wonders if a prophecy in Ezekiel 38‒9 had anything to do with it, but he puts the thought out of his mind.

Scholars of the End Times genre may see the “Russian Pearl Harbor” business as an oblique tribute to Hal Lindsey’s 1970 bestseller, The Late Great Planet Earth. Ironically, given American fundamentalism’s historic ambivalence about Jews, it was the 1948 founding of Israel, coming as it did near the end of the millennium, that gave the End Times prophecy industry a boost. Hence Israeli Jews play a strange role in the Left Behind series, existing to be converted or slaughtered. As God’s chosen, they are to be protected from harm until the battle of Armageddon, at which point they must either accept Jesus as their Messiah or die.

Suddenly, high over the Atlantic a miracle takes place: “Only thing I can compare it to,” another pilot tells Rayford, “is the old Star Trek shows where people got dematerialized and rematerialized, beamed all over the place.” Indeed, all over the world, millions of born-again Christians have vanished into the mystical ether—leaving behind their clothing, their eyeglasses, even their dentures—along with every child under the age of twelve. Airplanes are crashing, automobiles are veering driverless and out of control, and fetuses are disappearing from their mothers’ wombs, as the born-again and the unborn alike are abruptly “raptured” to heaven.

More about this curious doctrine, concocted in the nineteenth century by a Glasgow evangelist named John Darby, in due time. All Buck knows is that he needs to contact his editor, which requires patching his laptop to the in-flight phone and leads to the following inane exchange:

“Listen, beautiful Hattie, are we or are we not looking at the end of the world as we know it?”

“Don’t patronize me, sir. I can’t let you sit here and vandalize airline property.”

Half the passengers on the airplane have dematerialized, and all this officious bimbo can think about is company policy? When Buck does manage to reach his editor (the fact that none of his journalist colleagues has been raptured is the closest thing to a joke in the entire series), he’s assigned to write about worldwide currency reform and an intriguing United Nations wunderkind named Nicolae Carpathia.

Now, there’s your liberal media bias in action: there aren’t enough milk cartons on earth to picture all the missing kids, and the hot scoop is some joker from Romania promising universal peace. Designated People magazine’s “sexiest man alive,” Carpathia is also pro-choice, advocates high taxes on oil for the sake of the environment, speaks six languages with equal facility, and talks glowingly of a “new world order.” Lest readers miss the clues, the authors lay the foreshadowing in with a trowel, when Rayford Steele consoles his second wife after Carpathia insults her:

“Hon, do you see no irony in your being offended by the man we’re convinced is the Antichrist? . . . You expect common courtesy and decency from the most evil man in the history of the universe?”

“. . . When you put it that way,” she muttered, “I suppose I am being oversensitive.”

There’s a scene in Nicolae in which Buck Williams, by now a so-called tribulation saint and married to Rayford Steele’s daughter, hears on CNN radio that Nicolae the Antichrist has nuked Manhattan. (Although, of course, the godless media don’t put it that way.) Fleeing Chicago, Buck sees a mushroom cloud rising near O’Hare airport. Thinking fast, he drives across the median, whips into a Land Rover dealership, plunks down a company credit card, and drives off—“carefully,” we’re told—in a “beautiful, new, earth-toned Range Rover.” Scolded by his dutiful suburban wife for reckless spending, he explains his decision, sounding like nothing so much as the gospel version of Chuck Berry’s “No Money Down”:

“Chloe . . . look at this rig. It has everything. It will go anywhere. It’s indestructible. It comes with a phone. It comes with a citizen’s band radio. It comes with a fire extinguisher, a survival kit, flares, you name it. It has four-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, independent suspension, a CD player that plays those new two-inch jobs, electrical outlets in the dashboard that allow you to connect whatever you want directly to the battery.”
(One can’t help but wonder if it also comes with a nifty “research” expense deduction on the authors’ tax returns.) Even the most rudimentary realism is beyond the LaHaye-Jenkins team’s imaginative reach. World War III has begun, the city is under nuclear attack, and car salesmen are sitting around the showroom writing up contracts and—somewhat improbably—accepting credit cards.

Before long, in the name of peace, World Potentate Carpathia has also dropped megaton devices on London, Montreal, Toronto, Mexico City, Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington. The “wrath of the Lamb” earthquake has exterminated one quarter of the world’s surviving population. Yet the Tribulation Force warriors experience no difficulty zipping all over the world by Learjet, keeping in touch by cell phone, spreading the Gospel over the Internet, and tracking Nicolae Carpathia’s schemes on CNN.

Psychologically speaking, the series makes the average Harlequin romance look like Madame Bovary. Consistent with fundamentalist preoccupations, the only sins are sexual, and no sooner does Rayford Steele understand that his wife and sons have been raptured off to heaven than he’s cured of Hattie Durham fever at once and forever:

He knew Hattie was not a bad person. In fact, she was nice and friendly. But that was not why he had been interested in her. It had merely been a physical attraction, something he had been smart enough or lucky enough or naïve enough not to have acted upon. He felt guilty for having considered it.
As to whether Hattie is short or tall, blonde or brunette, slender or zaftig, readers haven’t been told; only that she’s “drop-dead gorgeous” (an unfortunate cliché, under the circumstances) and much younger. And now that Rayford is a Christian, he’s duty-bound to save Hattie’s soul, even after she becomes Nicolae Carpathia’s mistress—and especially after she becomes pregnant. (God can exterminate millions on a whim, but it’s crucial that nice, friendly Hattie not abort the Antichrist’s baby.)

* * *

It’s not until Glorious Appearing, the twelfth and final novel in the Left Behind series, that the comic-grotesque aspects of this whole rapture business become simply disturbing. Here are our heroes, zipping around the Holy Land on ATVs, when G.I. Jesus finally materializes in the sky, mounted on a white horse and costumed like a professional wrestler:

He wore a robe down to the feet so brilliantly white it was incandescent and bore writing, something in a language wholly unfamiliar to Rayford and something else he easily understood. On His robe at the thigh a name was written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. Jesus was girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow. His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace.
Exactly why Jesus has selected this outfit for a horseback-riding expedition is puzzling; perhaps he’s mounted side-saddle, like a nineteenth-century gentlewoman. The armies of heaven, also on white horses, follow, though their role in the battle ends up being superfluous. The Antichrist’s black-clad legions ride horses, too, possibly because they explode so satisfactorily. No sooner does Jesus speak than the carnage begins. Carpathia’s legions begin to fall dead, “their bodies ripped open, blood pooling in great masses.”

Seeking a better view of the action, Rayford abandons his ATV for a Hummer, “riding shotgun,” which, write Jenkins and LaHaye in something less than a Proustian reverie, “transported him back to college when he and his fraternity brothers would compete to call the favored seat, sometimes as much as twenty-four hours before a trip.” Meanwhile, the slaughter runs on for close to eighty gleeful pages:

Rayford watched through the binocs as men and women soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin. . . . Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ.
The glory of Christ, mind you. Blood is described roaring through the Holy Land in rivers five feet deep. At one point, the Antichrist’s Humvee sinks up to its axles in a swamp of blood-mud. Dressed in black and sneering like Ming the Merciless in an old Flash Gordon serial, Carpathia eventually flees toward Jerusalem. “This One who flits about in the air quoting ancient fairy tale texts and forcing sycophants to mindlessly run along worshipping Him,” he vows, “will soon meet His end.”

As in every action/adventure flick for rent at Blockbuster, it’s obligatory that Mr. Big survive until the final showdown. But we all know how this story ends. Our heroes’ need to array themselves against the mighty armies of the Antichrist on the battlefield at Armageddon is never explained; not only is the entire event being televised worldwide like some cosmic Super Bowl but everything’s foreordained to happen precisely as it does happen (as we’re repeatedly assured by the scholarly Dr. Rosenzweig, whose timely conversion has turned him into Tribulation Force’s number one Jew for Jesus). God finished this screenplay a very long time ago, and there aren’t going to be any rewrites. “Lucifer, dragon, serpent, devil, Satan,” the archangel Gabriel commands, “you will now face the One you have opposed from time immemorial.” After which Jesus adds, “For all your lies about having evolved, you are a created being.”

Evolved? It all comes down to that? God is going to straighten Satan out about evolution versus creationism on Judgment Day? Apparently so. There will also be happy political consequences in getting rid of all the skeptics, unbelievers, and adepts of rival faiths. Rayford wonders if, just maybe, with only believers “left in the United States . . . would there be enough of them to start rebuilding the country as, finally for real, a Christian nation?”

* * *

How seriously the rest of us need to take a primitive revenge fantasy like the Left Behind novels is hard to say. While daydreaming about Armageddon, most readers, I’m guessing, are also signing off on thirty-year mortgage notes and keeping their life insurance up to date. Intellectually, the “rapture racket,” as Barbara R. Rossing calls it in her lucid and passionate book The Rapture Exposed, owes its origins to nineteenth-century turmoil over Darwinism. A professor of the New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, Rossing argues persuasively that certain people are attracted to Darby’s “dispensationalist system with its Rapture theology because it is so comprehensive and rational—almost science-like—a feature that made it especially appealing during battles over evolution during the 1920s and 1930s.”

Today it reads like very bad literary criticism, although it’s admittedly tempting to admire the sheer ingenuity of a biblical “system” that turns Beelzebub into a “peacenik” and Jesus Christ into a bloody-handed avenger. The Rapture, one of LaHaye’s fifty non-fiction books, is densely packed with charts, tables, graphs, and lists of biblical citations that, if rearranged in the proper order, constitute thunderous proof that Christ’s Second Coming will be a two-stage event—first the “rapture,” then the killer Lamb of Revelation on the rampage. There’s even a diverting passage in which, making a great show of scholarly objectivity, LaHaye comes close to revealing his own hocus pocus. He concedes, “No one passage of Scripture teaches the two phases of Christ’s second coming separated by the Tribulation.” But, he adds, “no one passage teaches against the pre-Trib view,” either. Of course, the Bible is likewise silent on the Treaty of Versailles and the designated-hitter rule.

By no means are all, or even most, evangelical Christians comfortable seeing their faith turned into fortune-telling. Rossing quotes an array of contemporary theologians who reject what one disapprovingly describes as “this perverse parody of John 3:16: ‘God so loved the world that he sent it World War III.’” As noisy zeal overwhelms more reasonable voices, however, the Left Behind hubbub strikes me as symptomatic of the degraded state into which American Puritanism has fallen. In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the runaway religious bestseller of the seventeenth century, Christian’s allegorical journey to the Celestial City involved an essentially inward quest. His encounters with the Giant Despair and Mr. Worldly-Wiseman forced him continually to search and re-search his mind and spirit for evidence of Satan’s wiles. LaHaye and Jenkins convert what was once the spiritual and psychological drama of salvation into escapist melodrama, Puritan self-examination into messianic narcissism. Satan is the Other, basically anything you fear and don’t understand. The books are pagan tribalism writ large, complete with soothsayers and magic spells. All of history has conspired to turn suburban Americans into apocalyptic superheroes. The end is near, and dude—you’re, like, the star!

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