Entertainment

Lusting after the Apocalypse

Are Cineplexes the new churches?

By Catherine Rolfsen 20 Dec 2005 | The Capilano Courier

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Alone in the darkened, flickering oval office, President Gerald Fitzhugh hunches desperately over his desk. Outside, missiles strike the already smouldering landscape. World War III has begun, America is under siege and a biological weapon has been released on the population. Staring up at the screen and anxiously picking at their popcorn, are teenaged girls in puffy jackets and hoop earrings. Backlit by the on-screen explosions and unnoticed by their mesmerised parents, restless children careen down the aisles.

This isn't a Friday night showing of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, and the moviegoers are not crowded into a downtown Cineplex. Rather, close to a hundred of them are sitting on stackable chairs in the expansive foyer of East Vancouver's Harvest City Church, and the object of their attention is the world premiere of the apocalyptic Christian thriller, Left Behind: World at War. You would never know the difference, until underground freedom fighter Buck Williams (played by none other than Growing Pains' Kirk Cameron) heroically strides onto the screen. He is there not to suggest a brilliant military defence, but instead, has come to save the president's soul. "Time is running out and I don't want you to go to hell," Buck pleads. "Confess your sins and turn away from them, and put your faith in Jesus Christ."

This film is a recent release in an ever-expanding Christian apocalyptic media market beginning to impact the mainstream and raising more than a few eyebrows. It is a spin-off of the wildly popular Left Behind book series masterminded by American fundamentalist preacher Tim LaHaye. This month, the fourteenth Left Behind title debuted at number six on the New York Times best sellers list, adding to a reported collective sales total of over 62 million copies for LaHaye and co-author Jerry Jenkins. With numbers like that and packed churches such as Harvest City, it is no wonder that consumers and commentators are starting to take notice of the world of Left Behind.

The Left Behind book series is a fictional portrayal of the end of days happening in our time, not as the result of disease or terrorism, but at the hand of God. It all begins with The Rapture: a much-anticipated event when born-again Christians vanish from Earth, bound for heavenly rewards. They leave behind unbelievers to battle the tribulations of war, famine and disease, not to mention the Antichrist, until Jesus eventually returns to straighten things out.

Story genesis

The first book starts out with know-it-all narrator Rayford Steele piloting a commercial jet, when mysteriously, all the Christian and child passengers vanish into thin air leaving behind diapers, empty clothing and a reeling remnant of heathens. Returning to an Earth plunged into chaos, Rayford discovers that his pious wife is gone and quickly pieces together the divine act. Realising the error of his godless ways, he (along with his spunky daughter Chloe and intrepid journalist Buck Williams) forms the "Tribulation Force." This crew of renegade Christians scrambles to spread the gospel truth to the world while heroically defying the Antichrist (who is easily identified as a cosmopolitan, European, pro-choice, pro-environment former UN secretary-general).

The reader is constantly reminded of the prophetic message embedded in the text, as characters open the Bible to explain the events unfolding around them. Compensating for the tedium of a pre-ordained plotline, LaHaye and Jenkins jam their narrative with high-tech weaponry, sand-storming humvee rides and conversion experiences as those left behind either accept Jesus, are deluded by the Antichrist, or become a casualty of God's wrath. In Glorious Appearing, the chronologically last book, Christ finally appears in a manner typical of the series, slaying the Antichrist's followers through the sheer power of his Word:

Rayford stood atop the seat of his ATV, his attention divided between the Lord on the clouds and the Unity army breaking for cover across the sandy plains. As the words of Jesus trumpeted throughout the earth, they could not be avoided. He could not be ignored. […]

As Rayford slowly made his way down to the desert plains, though he had to concentrate on missing craters and keeping from hitting splayed and filleted bodies of men and women and horses, Jesus still appeared before his eyes- shining, magnificent, powerful, victorious.

And that sword from His mouth, the powerful Word of God itself, continued to slice through the air, reaping the wrath of God's final judgement. The enemy had been given chance after chance, judgement after judgement to convince and persuade them. To this very minute, God had offered forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, salvation. But except for that now-tiny remnant of Israel that was seeing for the first time the One they had pierced, it was too late."

Silver screen evangelism

If the above seems cryptic, that is because it is impossible to explain the Left Behind books without delving into their theology. LaHaye's vision stems from a highly debated method of scriptural interpretation known as premillennial dispensationalism. This belief system maintains that the Bible (and particularly its last and most apocalyptic book, Revelation) holds an encoded timeline for the end of the world as we know it and the return of Jesus Christ to usher in a millennial kingdom on Earth.

"The next thing that is scheduled, so to speak, to happen is what we call the catching away of all believers. Sometimes people call that the Rapture," explains Gordon Conner, Pastor of the Greater Vancouver Baptist Church. The Rapture, although never specifically named in the Bible, is a key belief for many evangelical Christians, promising that Christ will take them to heaven before the suffering of the earth's final years.

"Then ushers in a period of time of seven years. Part of it is called Tribulation; the last three and a half years are called Great Tribulation. Upon the earth, first of all, there will be a world government established. One key leader will come forth that will be able to rally the world around him," explains Conner. "He will make some treaties with Israel. At the three and a half year mark, he will break those treaties with Israel."

Antichrist astray

It is this tribulation period that has sparked the imagination of centuries of Christians. Although they take a spectator seat in heaven during the Tribulation, critical to the action is the nation of Israel, understood to be God's chosen people who have yet to accept Jesus. In the Left Behind books, the Tribulation Force engages in last-ditch evangelism to reveal the path to Christ, and Jews by the thousands begin to convert. The Antichrist does his best to lead them astray, however.

"There will be the workings of a one-world religion, and during the last part, [the Antichrist] will try to establish himself as the object of worship, as being God. At the end of the tribulation period, at the end of those seven years, the Lord Jesus returns and sets foot upon the earth," explains Conner. "There will be a battle that takes place. Satan is destroyed. This Antichrist individual is also destroyed. The Devil is cast into a bottomless pit for a thousand years. That enters into a period of time called the millennium, which we believe is a literal thousand-year reign."

With the ultimate battle between good and evil as their plot, it is no wonder that the Left Behind books are page-turners. Conner, an avid fan, concludes that LaHaye's theology is fairly accurate, but hesitates to endorse the second chance to accept Christ that LaHaye has non-believers enjoy during the Tribulation. "My concern is that a lot of people will read that and say, 'Okay, I'm not going to believe this stuff right now. But, when all my Christian friends are gone, then I'll believe it.'"

Movie revelations

That's the least of the criticism that the Left Behind series faces, much coming from within the Christian community. Not all evangelicals subscribe to LaHaye and Jenkins' biblical interpretation. Darrell Johnson, a professor at Vancouver's Regent College, has written his own book on Revelation. Although Johnson says he enjoys the drama of the Left Behind series, he has some serious worries about the authors' theology. "It does concern me that people could uncritically accept the series as a faithful exposition of what scripture teaches us about the end times."

Namely, he worries that LaHaye and Jenkins do not take into account the historical context of Revelation in their efforts to decode the text in terms of present-day events. "Even if the book were a crystal ball, which I don't think it is, it would have to have made sense to those who received it," points out Johnson. "If it's only about what's going to take place in 2012 or something, then what relevance did it have for the people of that time?"

To understand the challenge that biblical scholars face in their search for meaning and relevance, consider the following visions from Revelation 19:

I saw heaven wide open, and a white horse appeared; its rider's name was Faithful and True, for he is just in judgement and just in war. His eyes flamed like fire, and on his head were many diadems. Written on him was a name known to none but himself; he was robed in a garment dyed in blood, and he was called the Word of God.[…]

I saw an angel standing in the sun. He cried aloud to all the birds flying in mid-heaven: 'Come, gather together for God's great banquet, to eat the flesh of kings, commanders, and warriors, the flesh of horses and their riders, the flesh of all, the free and the slave, the small and the great!'[…]

The beast was taken prisoner, along with the false prophet who had worked miracles in its presence and deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshipped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the lake of fire with its sulphurous flames. The rest were killed by the sword which came out of the rider's mouth, and the birds all gorged themselves on their flesh."

Blood-soaked imagery

This blood-soaked imagery is the inspiration of Glorious Appearing's final showdown between Christ and the Antichrist. But Johnson insists that, rather than being a literal play-by-play of some future end of days, the battle described in Revelation was won nearly 2,000 years ago through Jesus' sacrifice. The above vision simply serves as a reminder to oppressed people throughout time and place of the eternal victory of good over evil. Johnson laments the doomsday connotations that have been ascribed to the term apocalypse (which literally means unveiling), insisting, "Apocalyptic literature is the most hopeful of all literature in the Bible."

All of this may seem like theological nitpicking best left to scholars and pastors, but the consequences of an apocalyptic interpretation of Revelation extend far beyond churches. Johnson, an American citizen, says, "It concerns me that it shapes American foreign policy more than we want to admit."

Barbara Rossing is one Christian scholar who isn't afraid to admit it. "The Rapture is a racket," she accuses unapologetically in her 2004 book The Rapture Exposed. In this bold study, Rossing outlines how the theology of the Left Behind series represents a very real danger because of its promotion of ethnocentric mentalities, irresponsible environmental ethics and a militaristic political agenda in America.

The most disturbing example she gives is in the realm of Middle East politics. Premillennial dispensationalists believe that the Bible names the rebuilding of Israel as a necessary precursor for Christ's return. So was born an American fundamentalist movement known as Christian Zionism, which unilaterally supports the expansion of the modern state of Israel. This alliance between Christian and Jewish Zionists is deeply ambivalent, however, as the former also believes that Christ will not return until the great suffering of Israel and the eventual conversion of his chosen people. Besides their obvious offensiveness to Jews, Rossing points out that such groups look forward to "tribulation and war in the Middle East, not peace plans."

Bush's mission

How far up the political ladder this extends is questionable. George W. Bush, an evangelical Christian, frequently uses the polarised rhetoric of good versus evil, and was recently reported to have claimed that God commanded him on his missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, Bush has never spelled out his personal beliefs in regards to biblical prophecy, and his administration's strategies for peace in the Middle East certainly acknowledge the necessity of negotiations with Palestine. But high profile Christian fundamentalist groups, such as the Moral Majority, have consistently opposed peace plans in the troubled region.

What can a fantasy series like Left Behind really have to do with these politics? LaHaye is a key founder of the Moral Majority. It is, therefore, worth questioning whether his books may function as a mouthpiece for fundamentalist causes. Rossing argues that the series' fictional world serves as a way to promote an all-too-real agenda to its readers. "LaHaye has created a powerful platform for influencing mainstream America through his fictional characters' perspectives on a whole range of conservative political issues including anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality, anti-environmentalism, militarism, and Middle East policy, as well as opposition to the United Nations."

LaHaye doesn't deny that the Left Behind series is meant to promote more than a good story, explaining in a PBS interview that after writing over 50 non-fiction books, he turned to fiction in hopes that his message might reach a wider audience. "If you're going to fish, you have to fish where the fish are. And I saw this army of millions of people out here reading fiction so I thought, 'Hey, why can't we use fiction?'"

Apocalyptic economics

LaHaye claims the idea came through divine inspiration. Whatever its genesis, the results have been phenomenal, tapping into a previously latent market for apocalyptic Christian fiction. The series has engendered many spin-offs including a kids series in which child protagonists "find faith and fight the evil forces that threaten their lives," a military series written from the perspective of an end-of-days battlefield, and a forthcoming video game which promises to provide "Christians and non-Christians alike with opportunities to consider matters of eternal importance through the thought provoking content in our games."

And of course, there is Friday night's film. Harvest City Church is one of 23 in BC and thousands across North America that were scheduled to preview Left Behind: World at War on the weekend of October 21 before its DVD release the following Tuesday. LaHaye and Jenkins have had no part in the development of this or the two previous Left Behind films, which are produced by Canadian Christian filmmakers Cloud Ten Pictures. In conjunction with Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Cloud Ten is experimenting with an innovative new "straight to church" distribution system which takes its cue from The Passion of the Christ's tremendous success with church communities.

By bypassing the big screen, the evangelical producers of Left Behind: World at War hope to send a message to Hollywood that there is a market for Christian entertainment. "If this takes off, and we are convinced it will with the support of pastors, youth pastors and outreach ministries, the studios are telling us they will want to incorporate this entirely new delivery vehicle into their distribution model," says producer Peter Lalonde. "But here's the gem of it all: they will have to start making movies that pastors will play in their churches."

Evangelical mogul

Churches converting to Cineplexes? Hollywood taking a page from the Good Book? It's an ambitious aim for a film that probably wouldn't cut it in a theatrical release. But it is certainly part of a larger trend linking tinsel-towners and bible-believers. Disney courted church leaders to drum up a Christian support base in anticipation of the this month's release of C.S. Lewis' religiously themed The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and plans have been announced for a big-budget dramatization of Paradise Lost, John Milton's epic poem chronicling the fall of man.

Marketing to Christian groups is a smart move: evangelical mega-churches springing up across the continent are a natural vehicle for the spread and promotion of a product. The alliance of art, entertainment and faith is nothing new. But the over-the-top special effects of Left Behind: World at War and the Left Behind website's slick product line call into question the slippery relationship between ministry and marketing. Where does spreading the word of God end and the reaping of profits begin?

For LaHaye, there appears to be little tension in his dual roles of evangelical and media mogul. "The contagious spirit is a writer's dream, where a person reads a book and then they've got all these friends they want to read the book. That's great for sales, and it's great for carrying on the ministry." LaHaye eagerly seeks to expand the Left Behind series' reach beyond its evangelical base: its website urges fans to "share their experience with someone they know" and boasts that readers include Catholics, mainline churchgoers and atheists.

'A martial messiah'

If these claims are true, and non-evangelicals are reading the Left Behind books, what is the mass appeal of such apocalyptic fiction? A number of scholars have theorised the success of the Left Behind series in terms of today's cultural context. Some point to the good-versus-evil motif of Christ's battle with the Antichrist as a reflection of the mentality of a nation at war. "We're looking for a much more martial messiah. In part, it's a response to 9/11 and the war in Iraq," Boston University's Stephen Prothero says in a recent Beliefnet article. Prothero is the author of American Jesus, which traces the historical development of American ideas about Christ and argues that during wartimes, images of a militant Jesus tend to gain popularity. This would explain why the Christ of the Left Behind books would rather slice and dice his enemies than turn the other cheek. In a world full of bad guys, readers are happy to be reminded that they've got the number one warrior on their side.

Perhaps the popularity of end-times narratives also correlates with our culture's collective fears. Rebecca King, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto's Centre for the Study of Religion, explains how a landmark work of Christian fiction, Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth (1971), reflected the contemporary worries of the first generation confronted with the possibility of mankind's self destruction through nuclear war. King suggests that such fiction may respond to the possibility of a manmade apocalypse by affirming that, "the end of the world will occur as an act of God." The Left Behind series reminds readers that they are in God's hands, not at the whim of an unpredictable world.

Left Behind's website makes its own case for its psychological relevance in a nation mired in a war on many fronts. "Reading the Left Behind series has been a haunting experience, especially since September 11, with the war on terror, the struggles between the U.S. and the United Nations, and the war in Iraq and its aftermath. Add to that the violence in Israel over the past two years with the current tensions over the 'roadmap to peace' and you get a sense that events described in the Left Behind series seem quite plausible."

Doomsday thinking

It is not just premillennial dispensationalists who share this fearful focus on doomsday. Relentless coverage of hurricanes, earthquakes, and the spread of avian flu have all sparked the public imagination and prompted spin-off stories warning of the next big one. Unsurprisingly, countless contemporary movies reflect our apocalyptic transfixion. The Left Behind books and films aren't far removed from such secular media. The major difference is in their offer of an uncomplicated explanation for the world's problems and reassurance for those who believe it. At Harvest City Church, the film is over. But before the teenagers trickle out, grandfatherly Pastor George Johnson takes the stage to pray and to reflect on the film. We live in a dangerous world, he explains, and we know that we are heading towards a time of even greater chaos and destruction. If the movie sparked any further questions, he suggests picking up the Left Behind book series and offers the refuge of the community at Harvest City. As they get up to leave, it is impossible to judge the reactions of audience members to the film or to Pastor Johnson's speech. But whatever their inner beliefs, there they stand as testimony to the potency of the Left Behind worldview. Judging from such successes, it looks like LaHaye and Jenkins' mix of apocalyptic fiction is here to stay- whether or not we are.

Catherine Rolfsen is a Vancouver-based writer with a Master's degree in Religion and Modernity.

 [Tyee]

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