In just one week the new Left Behind film1 comes to theaters.
I’ve already explored my complex relationship with the novel series and my old fandom of the whole franchise. I do recognize that many Left Behind fans take the fantastical fiction far too seriously, maybe because they don’t understand the limits of Bible-based speculation. And lately I’m also among the first to disclaim the series’ view of the end times. I no longer believe the “pre-tribulation” view of “the rapture” is the only available option. And in fact I see severe problems with the Christian belief that Jesus Christ will snatch his people out of the world before his actual Second Coming.2
All that aside, this time I’m here to say: Actually the series is still kind of awesome.
Disclaimer: Not just the novels
Of note: I have a unique perspective on Left Behind (hereinafter LB to describe the whole series). I haven’t read the books in several years. And in fact I may have only read the final volumes only once apiece. After Armageddon and Glorious Appearing released, I switched to enjoying repeats of the LB story by listening to the dramatic audio series by GapDigital, a group of chaps in Chicago — I actually once toured the studio — who arrange epic sound mixes for thriller movies, only without the movies. The dramatic audio (DA) series was adapted by Chris Fabry (who’s now a radio host), and director/engineer/producer Todd Busteed (who’s now a race/marathon announcer, though GapDigital is still around).
So thanks to the DA series I can likely ignore the flaws that I’ve also seen in the LB novels.
Yes, the LB novel series writing style has been described as dull, sparse, and surprisingly unexciting even about subjects such as potentially planet-splitting comets. For example, Jerry B. Jenkins was the brain behind the fiction, and he would sometimes write things like, “Bullets riddled the fuselage” and end with a period. Yes, I know authors should supposedly avoid using exclamation points, and if you believe that, then read period as a metaphor, not a punctuation mark. Bullets would riddle the fuselage — quite often because there was a lot of flying and thus a lot of fuselages — and the characters would react in period-like fashion.
But in the DA series you didn’t “hear” “bullets riddled the fuselage.” Instead you heard “PAPWING-PWING-PWING-PWING,” often in surround sound, then your heroes would be yelling and scrambling and firing off Whedon-esque snappy dialogue.3 The LB books mentioned almost in passing that demon locusts from the pit chanted the name of their evil master, Abaddon. The DA has them snarling it aloud by the thousands: “AH-BAD-ONN!” It’s exciting stuff, worthier of the scale and suspense of a pre-trib, post-rapture apocalypse.
So sometimes when I wax nostalgic about the LB series, I’m not seeing words on a page; I’m hearing actors’ voices (the DA actors were amazing) and sound effects and synth score.
This brings me to my first praiseworthy point of three. (I’ll continue the series next week.)
1. The story is fantastical
I said this at CAPC and I’ll say it again: “I just wish more evangelicals realized Left Behind is still just end times fantasy and could have fun with it anyway, rather than taking it all so seriously.” Now that sounds more negative, as if I’m a critic who derisively claims, “Well, that’s just fantasy.” Not my intent. LB is cool fantastical, and has all the hallmarks of such.
- Millions of people vanish from the world. (This is a wholly original evangelical notion.)
- “The most evil of all Evil Overlords”4 rises to power.
- A secret society opposes him.5
- They join with other secret societies from diverse nations all over the world.
- World War III. Four horsemen. Plagues galore. Miracle-workers.
- Counterfeit resurrection. Satan. More Satan. Then full-on mid-dystopia. Yes, the LB series was exploring pre–, mid–, and post-dystopian storytelling before it was cool.
- All keep fighting until the return of the King to set everything right and bring paradise.
2. Characters are vivid
Here’s where I defend Jenkins a little bit, because you can’t really fault a creator for doing something he absolutely intended to do. Some people want to write something brilliant and then accidentally write a pathetic parody of their own grandiose idea. Others know exactly what will sell, who they are writing for, and what they’re doing. I would put LB in the latter category. Its authors wanted to make potboiler thrillers with Bible verses and that’s just what they made. If you open the books expecting otherwise, you’re gonna have a bad time.
But more often than you expect — after my recommended lower expectations — even the books rise up and surprise you (without the benefit of actors, synth score and soundscape).
I’m still benefiting from pilot Rayford Steele’s honest exploration of how a godly Christian should behave when he’s recruited to fly the Antichrist’s super-plane. The Beast hasn’t yet been Satan-ized, but what should Rayford do? The answer: He acts as the professional that he is. Even while serving the Antichrist, he can glorify God in his vocation. (Later he also finds a chance to use a bug on the plane, giving readers a sneak peak at the evil goings-on.)
Rayford gets his own excellent story arc between books 5 and 7 when the story raises some intriguing questions: Can a faithful believer assassinate the Antichrist if he can justifiably claim “the prophecy made me do it”? Slight spoiler here, but folks who complain about (or applaud) the cleaned-up world of Christian fiction should take note of how Jenkins explores and ultimately resolves this question. Rayford, the professional pilot and “good” Christian, sinks into depression, fits of outrage against his allies, and assassination plotting. Spoiler: the story does get him off the hook for Antichrist-murder. But he is forced to be a fugitive and face his own deep-seated sins — even though he did end up contributing to the fulfillment of biblical prophecy (as the authors understand it).
Some character may seem flat, especially given the writing style. But overall they sound and act different, have their own agendas, and do have color, even if the reader must fill in the lines. That’s more than I’d expect from simplistic thrillers. And for critics sick of uniformly white Christian novel characters: later I’ll explore diversity.
3. Worldbuilding is decent
The TVTropes people offer one understandable criticism about the series: that it presents a “cozy catastrophe.” Well, some of that was only in the first book, and here I have to grade on a curve: up until then previous attempts to fictionalize “the Rapture” were even worse. It’s not like Christians often fictionalize real-world consequences of massive catastrophes. And if it was only Christians who did this poorly, there wouldn’t be a trope for it.
But overall LB successfully conveys that sweeping sense of flying about the whole planet and landing in strange airports with passports and hotels and disasters and bad guys and the whole caboodle. Folks laughed at the Americanized version of Israel in earlier novels. Yet I think the author(s) took this criticism to heart and put more research into the later installments.6 Israel got more Israeli, African nations got more African, European chase scenes got that Bourne Identity vibe, and all of them got worse as the story became mid-dystopian.
Personally I wished for more worldbuilding in the novel series. In the DA when you went to New Babylon, capital of the Antichrist’s evil world-empire, you could “hear” more fancy city and bureaucracy thanks to all the little atmosphere tricks and background tracks in the soundscape. In the book series you only heard, I think once, that the evil capital has golden spires like those Sunday-school pictures of heaven (in America, that is). But again I think this was a conscious choice of the author(s). They didn’t want lots of description anyway.
- The one with Nicolas Cage. ↩
- In short: The “rapture” belief, whether it’s pre-trib or any other –trib, takes Scripture passages about the final bodily resurrection of believers such as 1 Cor. 15 — the “last trumpet” — snatches them from context, and applies them to an event that is not the final bodily resurrection of believers. The Bible only speaks of a single event when “the mortal puts on immortality” and death’s sting is forever over (1 Cor. 15:53-54). The “Left Behind” view of “the rapture” is forced to read this text non-literally — or ignore it — to suggest some time of death and suffering after the “last trumpet.” ↩
- In some ways the DA for “The Kids: Left Behind” pushed the snappy dialogue even further. ↩
- As the LB TVTropes page calls him. You won’t believe the scholarship that went into classifying all the tropes in LB. ↩
- If this sounds like the Order of the Phoenix, see here. ↩
- We’ll touch on this again when exploring characters’ ethnic diversity. ↩