Sunday, May 16, 2004

Rubbish: It’s All Paul’s Fault


It is, I think, on the whole, a mistake to refer to LaHaye and Jenkins as Christians. If by Christians, you mean people who follow the teachings of Jesus.

Now, this might sound a bit simplistic, but let’s have a book like the Bible. Many of the Old Testament books describe the coming of the Messiah, the most important Jewish figure of all time; and the New Testament, tells the story of this Messiah followed by a bunch of letters his followers sent to each other. Which part would you give the most authority and credence to?

I’m thinking that what the Messiah said would be the tops. If Jesus said it, it’s better than anything anyone else said. Shit, he’s the Son of God and the rest of those folks are his followers. They thought what he said was so all-fired important that they followed him, not the other way around. So, if Jesus comes and says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these,” (Mark 12: 30-31) I’m guessing this would take precedence over Old Testament commandments to hate homosexuals and to put witches to death.

Maybe that’s just me.

No, what LaHaye and Jenkins and their type of religious person believes isn’t the wholesome, loving message that Jesus brought, but rather a grab bag of Levitican strictures, a end-of-the-worldview made from the kaleidoscope mixing of the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation, and a self-righteousness straight out of Thomas Aquinas. (This early church father wrote: “That the saints may enjoy their beatitude more fully, a perfect sight is granted them of the punishment of the damned.”)

As you read the Left Behind series, you can take one of two views or positions. You are LaHaye and Jenkins’ primary audience made up of other like-minded people, those who believe that God will physically take them up into the heavens when Judgement Day nears. For easy reference, just look for this bumper sticker. In that case, you will be raptured away and able to watch with great interest the coming plagues, wars, famines, destruction, and death that will haunt those you’ve known here on earth. Or you will be one of the poor suckers left behind here on earth.

We follow four of these slobs left behind as they get right with God and get ready for the ultimate showdown. Luckily, they can apparently redeem themselves by becoming Tribulation Martyrs. See, all that’s needed for you to prove you really do love Jesus is to die for him, that’s all. It’s so easy.

The depths to which the authors despise those who are not like them is made abundantly clear throughout the book. Why didn’t pilot Rayford Steele’s daughter get raptured up to heaven? Well, she was attending some liberal arts college out there on the pagan West Coast (probably being crammed full of communism, witchcraft, and lesbianism). Her education made her skeptical of premillennial dispensation theory. Here’s a couple decent rundown sof the theory from two ministers. In a nutshell, the Bible is innerrant, there are seven periods of mankind, and the book of Revelation is a precise blueprint of what will happen at the end of the world (which doesn’t stop people from interpreting it how they wish apparently). So smart people are not going.

As listed throughout the Plotting review, Jenkins and LaHaye try so hard to cram every event into their peculiar reading of Biblical prophecy that they manage to completely disregard common sense, geopolitical reality, substantive arguments against their belief strictures, and basic knowledge. You know, the kinds of things you might learn with an education.

Others among the left behind include reporter Buck Williams (skeptic), his antagonistic competition at his magazine, Verna Zee (lesbian), senior flight attendant Hattie Durham (slut), the soon to be newly named Pope (Catholic), and the population of Israel (Jews).

What’s most striking about the difference these books have with other extreme religious groups is that most Christian churches are interested in gaining new members. Even the more idiosyncratic offshoots like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe only 144,000 people of everyone ever to live on the earth will go to heaven, still try to gain converts (and risk losing their own place in line in doing so). Not so with this particular faith. The ethos of the Left Behind books seems to be exclusionary. They’re more about who doesn’t get to make it to heaven, who doesn’t believe like them. There’s a palpable sense of “we’re on the right side, the winning side” sown throughout the books, a gloating of the most unchristian kind.

And this kind of mentality leads to a horribly inhumane manner of living and believing. For example, none of these so-called “Tribulation Saints” (Rayford, Buck, Chloe, etc.) ever seem to grieve for or care about anyone outside their immediate circle. In the first book, when there are multiple plane crashes all over America, Rayford wonders how on earth he’s going to get home with all the hassle of tragedy around him. Walking across the runways to the terminal, the smoke of many downed airplanes and presumably burning people filling the air, he tells Hattie Durham “We ought to be the last off the ship and first to volunteer for emergency duty.” This doesn’t lead him to actually stop and help out with this emergency duty going on all around him; he just trudges into the terminal to find a telephone.

In the same scene, Buck tries to figure out how he can “beat the new system.” That is, he began trying to figure out the fastest way to get through the crowds without hassle. Granted, these are the actions of two men prior to being born again, so maybe we should cut them some slack and then judge them by how they behave once they find Jesus. After all, Christians aren’t perfect, right? Just forgiven.

In Tribulation Force, when a Nike factory inhabited by a militia group opposed to Nicolae Carpathia is bombed by him and the hospital across the street is hit too, Rayford wades through all the corpses surrounding him only to find the dead body of Bruce Barnes. Now, surely it’s a human urge to want to find your own loved ones, to make sure they’re all right, but it is just as inhuman to take no notice, to not even recoil in sadness, at the mass death around you. After a hospital is bombed, think of maternity wards, pediatric centers, all the other dead people. Rayford doesn’t ask, doesn’t think, doesn’t grieve. Any expression of sadness regarding the mass destruction and death is reserved for one person, his friend.

Later, in Nicolae, as millions die in the bombings of New York, London, San Francisco, Mexico City, Chicago, and Montreal, never once do any of the characters sit and weep in stunned silence. In fact, no characters seem at any point to ever express any emotion about anyone outside their own particular group of friends, church members, and families. This ignoring of casualties extends even to minor characters who don't express any outrage when the city of Chicago is basically leveled. Buck calls his father in California who almost seems peeved that no one’s bombed where he lives yet.

Oddly all the battling, all the bombing seems to take place at airports. And even though America is being torn apart by war, regular life seems to go on. The rest of America's airports stay open and there doesn’t appear to be any sense of panic in any of the characters.

Maybe you like me can remember a certain feeling you had on September 11th. There was fright, sorrow, outrage, plain rage, horror, and a whole host of other emotions surging all at the same time. That was 3,000 people dying. In this WWIII scenario, millions die, the city of New York is leveled by an atomic blast. No one stops what they’re doing hardly.

Personally, I’m fairly certain that not too many Americans would accept the destruction of many of our major cities without comment. At one point, a flight crew for the Antichrist's plane is described as knowing enough not to giggle when the news cameras are rolling. Because after having multiple cities in North America bombed and millions killed, I’m sure most people are trading quips and knock-knock jokes.

It’s a telling reflection on the authors, both of whom seem to be obsessed by the end of the world, that mass death is just part of the plan. Look at their oeuvre and every book, every single one of them is based around the idea that the world is going to end and it’s going to end really really soon. And that end is going to be really really cool with lots of tragedies. There is an almost palpable sense of glee when discussing what events will transpire before the return of Jesus. One character mentions how millions of Jews who didn’t accept Christ will be slaughtered. Ho hum, all in a day’s work for the Lord.

It is totally without irony that these people refer to their message as the good news. They say that only because of God can you be saved, that all are wretched and sinful, that the world is about to be wracked by wars, famine, death, persecution, that anyone who believes differently will spend all of eternity burning in hell. Sounds like good news to me.

And it’s not that Christianity doesn’t have a happy end to the story (for believers who, according to whoever’s telling it, believe correctly), it’s that the focus of so many of the type of people who are fans of the books, the focus of those who author such books, is not on Jesus' message of love, tolerance, hope, faith, good works. No, it’s on the rather strict tenets of Paul and the Old Testament. If you don't elevate all the other people in the Bible over Christ, then these books tell you you are not a true Christian and you are going to hell.

Part of what makes such a belief system possible is Paul. According to the story, Paul used to be a guy named Saul who persecuted Christians, then one day God spoke to him on the road to Damascus and he converted, changed his name, and started talking up how great Jesus was. Note that in this story, Jesus is already both resurrected from the dead and has gone up to heaven. Paul never actually meets Jesus. But suddenly he’s a spokesman. The letters of Paul to various Christian churches all over Asia Minor make up the bulk of the New Testament. It’s Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians that makes the nonsensical Rapture idea so key to this belief system.

It is safe to say that Paul, having never met Jesus, doesn’t really seem to grasp the message entirely. Jesus seemed to have an ethical system for living which involved good works. Of all the writers in the whole Bible, Paul uses the word “faith” more than any single one of them. To Paul, it was far more important that someone had faith in Jesus than that they proved this faith by doing any good deeds. In fact, he specifically denigrates good deeds as just a proud display when compared to how wonderful your own (untestable, unprovable, useless to everyone else) faith is. In this respect, the characters of Left Behind fit entirely into this Paulist ethos. They pray a lot, they make many claims of being right with the Lord, yet never outside of preaching in their church and praying out loud and quietly do they do anything that might be considered a good deed. They never pitch in to help the victims of the war, they never pray for all the dead around the world in the war, they never express even a scintilla of sorrow unless they know the dead person themselves.

By the same token, the letter of James, widely regarded to have been written by a man the Bible calls the brother of Jesus (Matthew 13: 55), features these lines:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

It sounds like James — you know, Jesus’ brother — is talking directly to Paul and those who believe like him. Yet in all the three books of the Left Behind series that I’ve read, this idea is wholly absent. Paul gets quoted a lot. Not as much as Revelation, mind you, but he’s next in line. Faith by itself is dead, Jesus’ brother said, a man you’d think maybe had some personal one-on-one time with Jesus.

But in all of the Left Behind books we are never treated to any real good works by these so-called Christian Tribulation Saints. Maybe they loan someone their car, put up a friend for the night, make someone else dinner, but I think the message is a bit bigger picture than that.

For my understanding, conservative believers in what they call Christianity are far more Paulist than Jamesian. They are narrow-minded, selfish, judgmental, exclusionary, concerned more with looking out for number one than looking out for their souls. They don’t spend all that much time busying themselves with helping the poor or doing any of the good deeds James recommends. Instead, they holler loudly about their faith, try to force others into living by standards they’ve decreed, push their religious interpretation at every chance they get, and cry “persecution” if anyone calls them on it.

The annals of liberation theology and such left-leaning Christians tends more toward James’ view that faith by itself is nothing, just empty words and posturing. It is no wonder then that these rightwing (so-called) Christians find themselves filled with visions of a vengeful god ready to sweep down and smite the unrighteous.

What’s so strange about this vengeance routine that this kind of self-styled Christian harbors is that they make themselves out to be some kind of victim. 99% of the U.S. Congress are self-avowed Christians, notably excepting Joe Lieberman (Jew) and Dennis Kucinich (New Age). There are no self-described atheists in any national offices in this country. People still react with what almost amounts to shock when I tell them I’m an atheist. Several states have laws that prohibit atheists from holding elective office. Yet, these folks believe Christians are persecuted.

When Rayford delivers a eulogy/sermon for Bruce Barnes, he takes great pains to point out the portion of Revelation that deals with the Wrath of the Lamb. That is an essential feature of this belief system. There are punishments and fire and brimstone waiting. In focusing so much on the hell awaiting those who are not like them, these people have made their own hell on earth.

It’s no wonder they can’t wait for the end of the world.

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