Having sold over 70 million copies worldwide since their 1995 inception, Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series, currently 15 novels strong, is an account of biblical apocalypse in our time-based on the New Testament book of Revelation-and has been called "the most widely experienced religious teaching ... among adults who are not born again Christians." Standaert argues that, by literally demonizing huge swaths of the population and, no less importantly, the liberal agenda (public health care, for example, is portrayed as a tool of the devil), the series is less fiction than it is militant fundamentalist propaganda, advocating the elimination of non-believers and the establishment of an American-and ultimately a global-theocracy. Standaert has done his homework, exploring the wealthy and well-connected network of like-minded Christians who, taken as a group, exert a vast influence over American society and politics through foundations, universities, radio stations, Web sites, book clubs, publishing houses, political lobbying and activist coalitions. Tracing connections between all the players in overwhelming detail, however, slows the book's momentum, potentially turning off even those sympathetic to Standaert's assessment. Despite this, his book is an important look at the premilennialist movement, illuminating the potential for such a group to evolve into the kind of violent religious factions that the U.S. and others are struggling to stamp out across the globe.
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Two years ago, in the mingled rural-urban city where I live, I noticed two bumper stickers on one car. The first read: I Brake For God. The second, and more interesting, said: HLLBBCKWHVHSWRDNT. Aside from the commercial use of a lipogram, what stood out was the pride and confidence behind this Christian announcement. People here take their religion seriously. That same summer I heard the delightful anecdote of a Presbyterian acquaintance whose son had been rejected by a Christian girl because she wanted to go out with someone who shared her beliefs. It made me wonder about the hand that could draw such fine lines in a closely knit community where farm equipment crawls down city streets towards one garage or another. People talk freely about how cell phones can be set to vibrate so they wont disturb their owner during a church service. On their last day of classes, students calmly tell professors that they dont need to keep their English textbooks because they have the only book that matters. Some add that the professor will of course be going straight to hell for what theyve talked about during the semester. Tim LaHaye, as quoted in Skipping Towards Armageddon, says [t]he literal interpretation of the Bible is the foundation stone of prophetic truth . . . As we have seen, the lack at any moment of the awareness of our Lords return often leads to a carnal life. Those students, like the owner of the bumper stickers, figured all this out ahead of their not-likely-to-be-saved neighbours.
Michael Standaerts examination of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins Left Behind novels, as well as the faith-based structure they come out of and support, is important reading for those who wonder how fundamentalism moved from the margins to the centre of the U.S. government, determining that countrys social policies, and equally important, its purpose in the Near East. In disentangling the threads which unite Christian organisations, lobbies, and institutions, and displaying how George W. Bush (among others) benefits from and is influenced by the money and constituents the Tim LaHaye Ministries, his Pre-Trib Research Center, and his Family Life Seminars bring in and control, Standaert has done an impressive job. He reveals the insular pinball world of prophecy literature interpretations, pulpit jeremiads, and the promises made by premillennialist spokesmen in evangelical radio and television . . . . He starts and ends with personal stories related to his research, and maintains a personal, at times angry, voice as he interweaves the history of the Rapture and dispensational premillennialism-which stem from literal interpretations of the Bible, specifically the Book of Revelation-with the fate of nonbelievers when the Rapture occurs, the figure of the Antichrist (candidates include John Kennedy and Europe), a history of anti-Semitic texts (the case is made that the Left Behind books are anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and harshly disposed towards any nonbeliever), and much else.
Since the appearance of the first Left Behind book in 1995, the series has sold at least 60 million copies, indicating that many people are buying them for group reading purposes as well as for private pleasure. LaHaye reportedly received a $42 million advance from Bantam Books for a new series called Babylon Rising, Standaert says, and this indicates that the financial profits to be made by exploiting belief in the Rapture and the Tribulation (what Pre-Trib is short for) for Christian fundamentalists is clearly more than what can be gained from the redemption through Jesus Christ preached in the New Testament. Those profits have to be made fast if skies raining blood can occur before the end of the business day, and as long as there are wars and unrest, especially in the Near East, then LaHayes financial outlook is rosy. Standaert quotes a prominent evangelist who spoke at the 1984 Republican convention: Therell be no peace until Jesus comes. Any preaching of peace prior to this return is heresy. Its against the word of God. Its anti-Christ. An elderly Catholic woman I know spoke with a conviction borne of fear that the Devil is walking the land. When George W. Bush talks about evildoers and an axis of evil, as well as the never-ending war on terror, this is not only rhetoric; its text that can be found in many fundamentalist works. As Standaert sees it, Marxist Socialism, German Nazism, and Italian Fascism are recent examples of catastrophic millennialism. What they all contain is a reliance on militant language and portraying everything outside their ideology as evil or so directly opposed to their worldview that they must be destroyed. The free shedding of someone elses blood in the war against non-believers is just part of the movement towards salvation, and if it helps speed up the arrival of the Rapture, then thats all to the good.
Standaerts arguments would have come across more smoothly if his book had been proofread or copy-edited. The number of mistakes is astonishing: names are incorrect, words are dropped out of sentences or extra ones inserted, punctuation and spacing are erratic, book titles are not always capitalised, and on a different level, information is repeated from chapter to chapter, as though Standaert didnt trust readers to remember anything. The lack of an index is a serious deficiency when reference is made to many groups, individuals, and topics. Hopefully, in future printings Soft Skull will work to remove the errors. Those blotches aside, Skipping Towards Armageddon is a needed gathering together of paper and Internet sources that clearly brings out LaHayes hollow, hateful, and spiritually corrupt attempt at mass-marketing conspiracy and fear . . . Standaert deserves credit for wading through hate-filled publications and interviews without losing his professionalism. He has produced a book which can be read easily (barring the irritating use of endnotes), and which will appeal to general readers.
Tim LaHaye is eighty this year. He may wish for the Rapture to occur before he dies of mundane causes so that he can be whisked off to his version of heaven, where he will have a vantage point from which to see his enemies and the non-believers (if theyre not interchangeable terms) destroyed by God-as he and Jenkins depict it in their books-with balls of fire, earthquakes, locusts, and so forth. Although its possible he would despise every Church Father-LaHaye calls Augustine a Greek humanist-he may feel something akin to Tertullians anticipated pleasure over what he would see when he assumed his own privileged place in heaven:
. . . that last day of judgment, with its everlasting issues; that day unlooked for by the nations, the theme of their derision, when the world hoary with age, and all its many products, shall be consumed in one great flame! . . .Which sight gives me joy? which rouses me to exultation?-as I see so many illustrious monarchs, whose reception into the heavens was publicly announced, groaning now in the lowest darkness with great Jove himself, and those, too, who bore witness of their exultation I shall have a better opportunity then of hearing the tragedians, louder-voiced in their own calamity . . . of beholding the wrestlers, not in their gymnasia, but tossing in the fiery billows; unless even then I shall not care to attend to such ministers of sin, in my eager wish rather to fix a gaze insatiable on those whose fury vented itself against the Lord.
As for the driver with the bumper stickers, secure in the promise she took from the Bible, she didnt worry about tempting fate as she made a left turn on the red light.
Jeff Bursey (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada