Why do the new versions of the Left Behind books have covers looking like science fiction?
On Sunday while my wife was shopping, I wandered next door to a Christian bookstore (yes, it’s the kind of Christian bookstore that’s open Sunday afternoons). Inside, I found a few surprises.
First, many books in the nonfiction section made the doctrine-wonk side of me very happy.
Second, in the fiction section, I found more fantasy books than I might have expected. (Has anyone else noticed the same? Or would you need to actually visit such a bookstore to check?)
Third — they’ve redone the Left Behind series. For every three books in the 12-volume end-times franchise, Tyndale has released a compilation, each with shorter, likely less memorable titles like Evil’s Edge. So instead of 12 wide-margins-with-largeish-text books, you get four paperbacks.
Alas, ‘tis another case of the covers likely being cooler than the contents. Left Behind contained many supernatural and sci-fi elements, for sure, being set in a seven-year Tribulation during which technology advances, and God is revealing His wrath (but primarily mercy, the authors often hasten to explain) through horrific plagues. Yet often the authors seemed to rush through minor things such as meteor strikes and attacks from demonic locusts, to get to what seems to them to be the real action: planning a conference, or getting home before a woman has a baby.
Why skip the most interesting parts of the end times? Perhaps partly that was because of a sparse writing style: dialogue, not descriptions, seemed to be Jerry Jenkins’ forte. And still the series, for what it was, mostly worked. Other Christian end-times books — such as my frequent target The Third Millennium — make the Left Behind novels look like literary masterpieces.
But while TTM’s author chased after fantastic elements for their own sake, jumping genres and splashing unorganized fantasy glop all over, many of Left Behind’s fiction failures came from being so fearful of fantasy — even when Scripture is fantastic! — that the results became dull.
A boring ‘Kingdom’
In 2007 I wrote a three-part series for Spec-Faith, in which I guessed why Left Behind’s authors had shied away from the fantastic — even an especially awesome Biblical event:
Jenkins’ series dared not to speculate upon, at least to the extent that I would have, the weird and utterly incredible, seemingly indescribable, events that might occur upon Christ’s physical return to Earth. And why not? Probably because to do so — to picture the new things God might do at such a time that are not directly forecast in Scripture — would generate outrage among readers, who are convinced that the Left Behind series does, or should, only rarely speculate on future miracles that aren’t forecast in Scripture, and nothing further whatsoever.
But Kingdom Come, the very last book (really) of the Left Behind series disregarded even the previous novels’ sparse attempts to include fantastic, sci-fi and supernatural elements.
The storyline’s bulk is taken up with ripped-from-Scripture descriptions of the restored Temple […] and then a bunch of dialogue and goings-on within an absurdly acronymed children’s ministry, inordinate levels of attention given to the nation of Egypt’s bad attitude and the need for a name change, some romance here and there, and, perhaps worst of all, chapter-length accounts of Bible stories with no speculation at all beyond anything anyone could learn from the Bible itself.
Kingdom Come presented such a boring world, it may have even turned me to an opposite end-times view. (I hope it didn’t also turn some readers away from the real hope of the New Earth!)
In part 3 of that series, I suggested that a novel set on an Earthly kingdom under Christ’s rule …
calls for in-depth imagination and speculation — something Jenkins has not done. And it’s likely he could never do this anyway, given that, on the surface, such things seem insane and un-Biblical and many of the Left Behind series’ audience members would go mad. For certain people, perhaps, only a Cliffs-notes-style barebones summary of nearly exactly what the Bible says about the Millennium, no more, no less, will be accepted; and speculation beyond what Scripture has told us is forbidden. (This is partly why, in Kingdom Come, cameo appearances by saints such as Joshua and Noah result only in long, dull rehashes of anything you could have ever find out about them already in Sunday school.)
Biblical fidelity, while bending reality
So how to resolve either issue: chasing fantasy or miracles for their own sake, or being so skittish about them that even in descriptions of Christ’s return, one doesn’t dare to dream bigger?
Here’s what I would say to TTM’s author Maier — well, actually I’d start with this: “Doctor, first, I’m sorry, I can’t help saying this, but remind yourself” (in the voice of DeForest Kelley) “Self, I’m a doctor, not a fantasy writer!” Then, assuming we’d covered that truth, I’d suggest: “Jesus Himself did miracles with a point. If He wasn’t flagrant with His supernatural displays for His public then, why would He start in the end-times? Shouldn’t our stories’ fantasy have a point?”
And to Jenkins I would suggest: “It’s okay to write fantasy. Read some Lord of the Rings or even Harry Potter to appreciate how other authors handle the fantastic. Blending real fantasy with the Christian concepts of a millennial Kingdom, especially with an epic war against Satan at the end, you could have done so much better. You may have kept it ‘safe,’ sticking to only what you believe the Bible says about the kingdom, but haven’t you missed the spirit? And maybe even not glorified God as much as you could, and not helped others long for the After-world?”
(Next week: bad Christian books get worse when they break real-world rules — Biblical truth.)