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The Sins of Left Behind

If you're not familiar with the Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, count yourself lucky. The novels, intended as a dramatization of the premillennial dispensationalist worldview espoused by LaHaye, Jenkins, and other fundamentalists, present a scenario in which millions of people disappear, "raptured" to heaven to spare them from a coming period of tribulation in which the world's population rapidly descends into violence, narcissism, betrayal, and acts of terror. And those are the traits of the good guys. The novels follow the travails of journalist Cameron "Buck" Williams, who first becomes interested in the disappearances as a mere curiosity, and Captain Rayford Steele, an airline pilot whose wife and young son were taken.

If you have read the books, Slacktivist's Left Behind takedown series is one of the best antidotes. Fred Clark, aka Slacktivist, has been going at it for more than a decade, spending his Fridays examining the bad writing and bad theology, skewering LaHaye and Jenkins' monstrosity a few pages a week. Sometimes Clark reruns old posts; this week's The Visitation Pastor—originally posted November 25, 2005—is an example.

In the novels, Bruce Barnes was the visitation pastor for New Hope Village Church in suburban Chicago, the church where Rayford Steele's wife had worshipped. Though senior pastor Vernon Billings—the man responsible for preaching and teachinghad been raptured, Barnes had been left behind. In their choice of who is taken and who is left, Jenkins and LaHaye appear to be making a subtle point about their theology: Getting the doctrines right is far more important than spending time with those who are sick and dying. I may need to write a separate post to detail just how far that view is from traditional Christianity. And that's without getting into how far the rapture doctrine itself stands from traditional Christian teaching.

But LaHaye and Jenkins are not fans of subtlety, so it might be mere coincidence that they chose the visitation pastor to be left behind. At any rate, Barnes gives his own reasons why he didn't receive his "get out of tribulation free" card:

I was lazy. I cut corners. When people thought I was out calling, I might be at a movie in another town. I was also lustful. I read things I shouldn’t have read, looked at magazines that fed my lust.

That explanation is breathtakingly shallow. Barnes was left behind because he occasionally skipped work and looked at dirty magazines. Perhaps it's a failure of imagination on the part of Jenkins and LaHaye, or perhaps they simply don't have a grasp of the meaning of the word sin. There are so many ways they could have turned Barnes into something more than a one-diminsional stock character.

What about something like this:

I was lazy. I cut corners. When people thought I was out calling, I was secretly taking classes at a seminary out of town. I was jealous of Pastor Billings; I wanted to be in the spotlight, the one everyone looked to for answers. Now I am that person, and I'd rather go back to visiting the sick.

That approach, at least, would give us a Bruce Barnes who had grown and matured. Of course, he'd probably have to be written out of the book, because Left Behind has no place for a mature pastor with a modicum of compassion.

Or how about this:

I was lazy. I cut corners. Sure, I spent time in the hospital, but I didn't care about those people. I didn't sit down and listen to their stories. I popped into the room, said a trite prayer and few empty platitudes, then moved on to the next. And to be honest, I don't miss those days at all. We've got more sick and dying people today than ever before, but don't expect me to pray with them. I'm done with that phase of my ministry.

This version of Bruce Barnes would perhaps be less of a stretch for LaHaye and Jenkins. He's still the same shallow, narcissistic person he was before the "rapture", but he's got new job responsibilities that are more in line with what fundamentalists expect from their pastors.

Here's a more risky approach:

I spent so many days praying with sick people, I started to question the whole rapture doctrine. I mean, if God has promised to spare his followers from suffering during the tribulation, why wouldn't he ease the pain of burn victims, cancer patients, victims of abuse? Why would he leave people to suffer for months or years from wasting diseases? Why would he let children die?

Eventually I came to believe that God either couldn't do anything about their pain and suffering, or didn't want to. And then the rapture happened. A god who could whisk millions of people away in an instant to spare them from future suffering could have done better than to turn a blind eye to all the suffering we've already seen. So I can no longer call myself a believer. I can't worship a god who has spent all these years ignoring our prayers, but who suddenly woke up and changed everything in the twinkling of an eye.

This Bruce Barnes probably asks too many questions that fundamentalists LaHaye and Jenkins would not be comfortable leaving unanswered—and answering them is not an option; these questions have no good answers—but this Bruce Barnes would certainly add depth to the book. He could even plausibly fill in the details of rapture theology for Williams and Steele while not believing it himself.

Instead, LaHaye and Jenkins give us someone who might be comfortable sitting down to tea with Adolf Eichmann as portrayed in Hannah Arendt's landmark Eichmann in Jerusalem, the book that introduced the phrase "banality of evil". Eichmann, according to Arendt, was not a particularly bad person; he was just a guy who did terrible things while trying to climb the career ladder. The Bruce Barnes of Left Behind was not a bad person either; he was just a guy who sometimes skipped work and looked at dirty magazines. Evil surely can't be more banal than that.

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