Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, The Left Behind series, Tyndale House Publishers, 1995-2004
There is a trend afoot to lash out violently at the apparent dominance of “cosmopolitan” culture. This was vividly seen in the violent attack in Paris, traditionally a citadel of cosmopolitanism, on the freewheeling, anti-clerical publication Charlie Hebdo. But of course this lashing out has played out time and again in recent years in various Middle-Eastern contexts (e.g. ISIS) and now – fueled by the frustrations and anger engendered by an austerity-driven economic regime of endless globalization — in a broad European context with the rise of conservative nationalism and neo-fascism and in an American context with Donald Trump. Which is to say that, in general, the ideal of a cosmopolitan world in which everybody is a “citizen of the world” has given way to an unhappy reality in which rich, ruling urban elites define cosmopolitanism to their own ends and so hatred for anything seen as “cosmopolitan” (e.g., urban, multi-cultural, politically progressive) grows beyond the core of racists and chauvinists who always hate anybody who is different or “other.”
Curiously, what might well be the most violent and blood-drenched attack on cosmopolitanism of all – at least in the fantasy terms of Freud’s concept of wish fulfillment – has largely by-passed the attention of cosmopolitan culture. This is something of a surprise, as it is on the soil of literature, and American literature at that, that this horrifically bloody attack – culminating in the mass global slaughter of all who might be called cosmopolitan (both in the best and worst terms of the word) — has been made.
This American literary soil on which so much cosmopolitan (and other) blood has flowed is, specifically, the Left Behind series of Christian fundamentalist novels. Its 12 novels, published between 1995 and 2003, have sold over 65 million copies worldwide. The ninth volume in the series, Desecration, was the best-selling book in the world in 2001 and a feature length film based on the series, released in late 2014 and starring no less an actor than Nicholas Cage, attests to the series’ continuing appeal.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Left Behind – and that’s likely many since, though several of the titles reached number one on The New York Times® Best Sellers list, few people who actually read the New York Times (or anything like it) also read such novels — a synopsis follows:
At the beginning of the first novel, Raymond Steel, captain of a passenger plane with a regular route across the Atlantic, is flying a 747 to London. His marriage hasn’t been going well of late because his wife has become obsessed with religion and no longer spoke of anything else, which he finds repulsive. Steele, who believes in god but not so strongly, is very frustrated by this and has even been considering the possibility of having an affair with a beautiful stewardess who has been acting very friendly towards him. Suddenly however a number of passengers disappear and all that remains of them are their clothes, contact lenses, rings, and so on. Few know why or how this has happened. Steele however thinks that he might know the answer: ever since his wife has converted to Christianity she’s always been talking about how, at the Second Coming of Christ, God would bring his believers to himself — not those who were only Christians of convenience, but those who belonged to him with their whole heart. From his wife he’d also learned that this event, which in the Bible is called the “Rapture”, would inaugurate the seven year long “tribulation” that, according to the Revelation of Saint John, would bring various catastrophes such as earthquakes, famines and wars. During this time the world would be governed by the Antichrist. In these novels, however, the events that this biblical text only sketchily describes are not only given far more detail, but are situated in a contemporary context.
Those, such as Raymond Steele, who were left behind, have then a choice. Either they can convert to Christ, or they can listen to the reassuring, leftist, multicultural, ecumenical speeches of one Nicolae Carpathie. Carpathie was an unimportant Romanian politician who, in the course of the confusion and chaos which followed the Rapture, quickly became General Secretary of the UN (in reality, he is the Antichrist).
The remainder of the story follows the adventures of a small group of Christians — true Christians, not liberal Christians or Catholics — who decide to fight against the Antichrist and tell the people the truth as opposed to the official, Satanic propaganda of the UN. This group, which is named the “Tribulation Force”, includes Steele, who “finds” Jesus (i.e., as his one and only saviour) after the Rapture. Our heroes try to foil the plans of Carpathie who, besides being backed by the UN and the EU, is also backed by bankers, Israeli leftists (seduced by his “peace” plans) and the President of the United States, who has betrayed his own nation to be a part of Carpathie’s world government (that president is of course a Democrat — one of the authors of the book, Tim LaHaye, is a highly placed operator in right-wing Republican party circles). In a world full of unrepentant sinners, the Tribulation Force has only limited success. This means that in the last two novels of the series, in which the authors describe the Battle of Armageddon, the Tribulation Force is very small in comparison with the huge army of the Antichrist, the so-called “Unity Army.”
That the Battle of Armageddon is fought outside of Jerusalem, and that the “Jewish Remnant” is one of the most important groups with the Tribulation Force (all members of the Jewish Remnant, of course, have accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior), again emphasizes how important Jews are in this story. Such an attitude about Jews is perhaps a little unexpected in novels that two American fundamentalist Christians wrote as such fundamentalists have traditionally been as hostile to Jews as any other group of Christian-descended reactionaries. But their current relationship with Jews is more complicated than it would appear at first glance. Largely this is because of the important role the state of Israel plays in the fundamentalist belief in “premillenial dispensationalism.” First promulgated by the 19th century Anglican priest John Nelson Darby, this interpretation of the biblical Apocalypse believes that, in the “end times,” the state of Israel will be born and then repeatedly saved by the intervention of God until, finally, in the battle of Armageddon, most Jews will be killed when Israel is destroyed by an international confederation led by the Antichrist, which is when Jesus will physically return to earth in order to defeat the Antichrist. That some of Darby’s predictions have come true (e.g., the birth of the State of Israel, its surviving attacks by larger nations) convinced many fundamentalists that his version of the End Time is the true one, and therefore many of them became obsessed with Israel as the chain of events which lead to the return of Christ is seen to depend on the existence of a Jewish state on the holy land which must survive a catastrophic attack.
This isn’t, however, to suggest that these fundamentalists suddenly like Jews: at the end of the Tribulation, after all, every Jew will either be killed or converted to Christianity. We can, however, at least thank Darby’s prediction for keeping the powerful engine of American fundamentalist Christian propaganda from targeting Jews who, after all, have traditionally been targeted as the quintessence of stateless cosmopolitanism. Indeed, the signs of cosmopolitan decadence (e.g., abortion, gay marriage, pre-marital sex, doubting scripture, all aided and abetted by intellectuals embedded in the universities) are considered so general that it becomes clear from the beginning of the first novel that these fundamentalists have problems with everybody who doesn’t belong with the whole of their being to Jesus (which is to say, their fundamentalist version of Jesus). Thus, the issue goes far beyond the many problems they might have with, let us say, a transgender conceptual artist with a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies living in Manhattan off an inheritance from a rich Jewish aunt. It also extends to anybody who has any taint of cosmopolitanism, such as a member of a liberal Protestant church who doesn’t accept a literal interpretation of the Bible, or those who renounce cosmopolitanism as thoroughly as they do, but in the name of the wrong religion. Thus, the reader can read numerous times how self-satisfied agnostics, non-fundamentalist Christians, and Muslims also realize how they’ve made a great mistake and find their faith in Jesus.
Nonetheless, it is when we read in the last novel of the fate of those people who don’t accept this fundamentalist version of Jesus – cosmopolitans, believers in the wrong god, or those who believe in the correct god but in an incorrect way — that we come to see the Charlie Hebdo massacre writ large, indeed global. Titled “Glorious Appearing: The End of Days”, the beginning of the novel continues the description of the Battle of Armageddon, which had begun in the previous novel. The Antichrist’s army (the Unity Army) is easily defeating the much smaller Tribulation Force and prepares for the final assault on Jerusalem, which is the last refuge of the believers. But then the sky opens up and Jesus appears on a white horse, his eyes burning like fire, wearing a robe that is a blinding white, on which is written KING OF KINGS, LORD OF LORDS. And Jesus spoke such that all could hear him: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End, the Almighty.” (204). “And with those very first words,” write LaHaye and Jenkins, “tens of thousands of Unity Army soldiers fell dead, simply dropping where they stood, their bodies ripped open, blood pooling in great masses…” And Jesus continued to speak: “I am the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Amen…the Lion of the tribe of Judah,” with further horrible consequences for the soldiers of the Antichrist: “With every word, more and more enemies of God dropped dead, torn to pieces. Horses panicked and bolted. The living screamed in terror and ran about like madmen—some escaping for a time, others falling at the words of the Lord Christ…for miles lay the carcasses of the Unity Army ,” and, three pages later, we learn “that sword from His mouth, the powerful Word of God itself, continued to slice through the air, reaping the wrath of God’s final judgment (208)…”. Almost twenty pages later Jesus is still speaking, and the massacre of the nonbelievers continues (the scene alternates between the battle and a description of how believers such as Raymond Steele are experiencing bliss in the presence of Jesus), as we can read in pages 225 and 226, where the soldiers of the Antichrist “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,” and on page 249 the massacre is still continuing, as we learn that “the great army was in pandemonium, tens of thousands at a time screaming in terror and pain and dying in the open air. Their blood poured from them in great waves, combining to make a river that quickly became a great swamp.”
Finally, on page 288, the battle is more or less over and Jesus begins “His final triumphal entry toward Jerusalem. During his first visit to earth He had ridden into the city on a lowly donkey, welcomed by some but rejected by most. Now He rode high on the majestic white steed, and with every word that came from His mouth, the rest of the enemies of God–except for Satan, the Antichrist, and the False Prophet–were utterly destroyed where they stood.”
At the very end of the novel, after each and every nonbeliever is either killed or cast down into hell, Jesus welcomes the believers into God’s Kingdom on Earth, and so is founded the ideal state.
And this leads us, curiously, to a sequel novel to the series — Kingdom Come: The Final Victory (2007) — that represents LaHaye’s and Jenkins contribution to the tradition of utopian literature. In this novel, as the first part of the liner notes state: “Jesus Christ has set up his perfect kingdom on earth. Believers all around the world enjoy a newly perfected relationship with their Lord, and the earth itself is transformed.”
Of course, as a result of this violent wish fulfillment, this total negation of the postmodern panic in all of its aspects, it will be a world free of all who would read or write for publications other than Christian fundamentalist ones. There then will be no one in this 1000 year kingdom to deconstruct the Word made flesh or analyze the situatedness of the contemporary American fundamentalist Christian. Nor will there be anybody to ruminate on Thomas Frank’s analysis in his seminal work (What’s the Matter with Kansas?) about the great backlash that began with the “silent majority’s” hostility to the counter-culture of the 1960s and has progressed to anger over “everything from [school] busing to un-Christian art” — and middle America’s precipitous economic decline — transforming once progressive states such as Kansas into hotbeds of rightwing politics and Christian fundamentalism. Indeed, all who would be inclined to make such analyses will be lying in a sea of blood with their entrails exploded out of them, their souls cast down to hell.
Or so it would have seemed, based on all that which has been presented to the readers of the series up to this point. But it turns out that this radical negation of cosmopolitanism isn’t as complete as we’d been led to believe. From the second portion of the liner notes to “Kingdom Come: The Final Victory” — after the part about Jesus setting up the perfect Kingdom on Earth — we learn that “evil still lurks in the hearts of the unbelieving. As the Millennium draws to a close, the final generation of the unrepentant prepares to mount a new offensive against the Lord Himself—sparking the final and ultimate conflict from which only one side will emerge the eternal victor.”
But wasn’t “eternal victory” what was already achieved at the end of the 12th and “final” novel in the series? Didn’t the liner notes to that novel promise us that “thousands of years of human history stained by strife, death, and sin come to an end when the King of Glory returns to earth?” Hadn’t all the unbelievers and sinners died hideous deaths or been cast down to hell?
Perhaps, as the French philosopher Jacques Derrida might have concluded, the simple reversal of the existing metaphysical opposition of good and evil, even when it is done by (the patriarchal) God himself, will not necessarily challenge the framework and presuppositions that govern the opposition. Or, as another French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre might have put it, even “devout” Christians — and their favorite bestseller authors — might not be able to keep the appointment that they’ve made with themselves in the Kingdom of Heaven.
More practically, however, we might turn to Aristotle and hope that these novels can serve the same cathartic function that he attributed, in his Poetics, to tragedy. Which is to say, we can only hope that the ultra-violent end of the series cleanses these Christian fundamentalists of some of their anger, hatred, and distaste for Jews, intellectuals, homosexuals, feminists, and whomever else they consider “cosmopolitan.” At least to the extent that they will not literally, as opposed to figuratively, feel the need to see how “for miles lay the carcasses” of their enemies.