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-- The Gospel According to Mark 13:32.
Time is running out . . . When I read those portentous words, which introduce the jacket copy for my anthology Revelations, there came the inevitable moment of doubt, the cynic inside me rising to object: Of course it is. That's what time does. It just keeps on ticking; and, as that book sought to show, we somehow—often despite ourselves—survive.
But as the clock winds on toward triple zeroes—the Year 2000—our cultural appetite for destruction seems ravenous. Disaster is in again, and the bigger the bang, the better—for both prophets and profits.
In the slender yet substantial Questioning the Millennium (Harmony, hc, $17.95), Stephen Jay Gould contemplates the curious history of things millennial with gentle but no-nonsense pragmatism. His subtitle—"A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown"—says it all, and his ruminations are a much-needed cold shower for the fever of millennial doomsayers.
Gould's essays respond to three enduring questions: What is a millennium, and how was the Biblical millennium—the post-Tribulation reign of Christ on Earth forecast in the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine—interpreted as a measure of the "end" of human history? When does the present millennium end, and the next one begin (since it doesn't happen on January 1, 2000)? And why do calendars and other measures of time matter? In the closing, and most compelling, revery, Gould considers the arbitrariness of a thousand-year cycle, the practical impossibilities of calendars, and the miraculous chronological calculations of an autistic savant—his son.
While Questioning the Millennium is a handy guide to resolving calendrical arguments—and to maintaining a sense of humor and perspective as the nines rolls into zeroes—Richard Abanes's End Times Visions: The Road to Armageddon? (Four Walls Eight Windows, hc, $25.95) is a hand-wringing exposé of the mortal and spiritual peril of end-times thinking. Abanes, an avowed "former cult member" and "familiar voice on Christian radio," writes with righteous conviction about the apocalyptic obsessiveness of psychics, seers, militias, madmen, and religious hucksters—from the unfortunate William Miller (whose Millerite movement was founded, and then foundered, upon repeated miscalculations of the date of the world's end) to this generation's most renowned and financially rewarded fearmonger, Hal Lindsey. Although at times sensationalistic, End Times Visions debunks the fuzzy logic of Biblical and secular prophecy, and proves a rather sad commentary on the corruption of Christian thinking by those with ulterior political and financial motives. Yet its essential question—why the prospect of a coming end-time should dictate the lives (and, indeed, deaths) of so many people today—remains unanswered save in a final summation that considers the curious links between fear and faith.
As is often the case, a better answer is found in the fiction of our time—or, as some would have it, the fiction of our end-time.
Religious themes have powered many of the significant apocalyptic novels of this generation, from Stephen King's The Stand to Elizabeth Hand's Glimmering, but it may come as a surprise that the end of the world is now the pre-eminent subject of Christian fiction. In years past, the prospect of Armageddon was usually limited to Christian prophecy texts such as the Criswellish I Predict (1970) and What in the World Will Happen Next? (1974) by Salem Kirban and, of course, Hal Lindsey's megaselling The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which, despite scheduling the Rapture for 1981, remains the most popular religious text of our time. Until this decade, only Kirban (in his clunky 666) and a few other evangelicals ventured outside the realm of "non-fiction" and into quasi-science-fictional entertainments based upon scriptural visions of The End.
The inevitable transition of the prophecy genre into fiction was signalled by Pat Robertson's disastrous disaster novel The End of the Age (1995), but it has been perfected by the astonishingly popular "Left Behind" series by Tim La Haye and Jerry B. Jenkins, which premiered in 1995 with Left Behind (Tyndale House, tpb, $12.97). La Haye is a veteran evangelical doomsayer whose The Beginning of the End (1972) was revised in its 1991 edition to delete the suggestion that the 1990s were the End Times (he now seems to favor the years 2028 to 2038). With three other installments to date— Tribulation Force, Nicolae: The Rise of the Anti-Christ, and this year's Soul Harvest (all Tyndale House, hc and tpb, prices vary)—the "Left Behind" series reportedly has two million copies in print, and has crossed-over from the Christian and family bookstore circuit into the secular mass market.
This is by no means a literary accomplishment: Left Behind is stodgily written horror and science fantasy that veers into the dogmatism of a preachment—which, of course, it is. The series is based on the tenets of premillennial dispensationalism, a theoretical—and highly subjective—construct of Biblical prophecies (and, on occasion, scriptures lifted out of context) that was explored in Michael Tolkin's disturbing motion picture The Rapture. Dispensational wisdom holds that the End Times will be signaled by a "Rapture" in which true Christians will be transported to Heaven, leaving friends and family behind for a seven-year time of Tribulation in which the Antichrist rules the Earth, denying food and shelter to all those who do not accept the Mark of the Beast. Christ and his host will then return to Earth to confront and defeat the Antichrist, bringing on a golden age of peace—the Millennium. (A competing theory—historic premillenialism—holds that there is no Rapture and that Christians will not escape the Tribulation, thus spawning most Christian survivalist movements.)
The hero of Left Behind is everymanish Captain Rayford Steele, who pilots a 747-load of passengers over the Atlantic while contemplating an attractive flight attendant who lacks his wife's annoying religious mania: "God was OK with Rayford Steele. Rayford even enjoyed church occasionally. But since Irene had hooked up with a smaller congregation and was into weekly Bible studies and church every Sunday, Rayford had become uncomfortable. Hers was not a church where people gave you the benefit of the doubt, assumed the best about you, and let you be. People there had actually asked him, to his face, what God was doing in his life." Before you can say—Repent!—it's Rapture time. And since, for Rayford Steele, God was merely "OK," he finds himself . . . left behind. Joined by ace investigative reporter Cameron "Buck" Williams, Steele learns the error of his ways—and the truth (usually literal) of all things Biblical—while witnessing the rise of the One World Government and, in time, of the Antichrist.
The novel reads like a curious time machine, with the genuine feel of having been written in the fifties (indeed, the female lead is named . . . Hattie?).
Central to its emotional core is an intense nostalgia for what we have lost, not through the imposition of God's judgment but through the complex and increasingly amoral existence that preceded our fall. La Haye and Jenkins recognize, if only instinctively, that their story is powered by the desire for some imaginary past that is simpler and, of course, lacking in moral ambiguity. But they also recognize the redemptive power of an otherwise bleak take on the New Testament: Those left behind have a kind of reprieve, a last chance, to make things right, with themselves and with their God. It is here that Left Behind seems, at first glance, curious; for its heroes are not the hardshell believers who were lifted to Heaven in the Rapture, but instead the passive, the weak-kneed, and, indeed, the sinful. If Rayford Steele, a genuinely good man, is denied Heaven because of his straying eye and occasional tip of the bottle, then surely we, the readers, are damned; but La Haye and Jenkins do not imagine our fate with smug self-righteousness—instead, their characters are cannily constructed to cause the readers to identify with them in their search for meaning and, in time, faith. Although this is not great fiction, it is effective evangelism—although directed, in most part, to the choir.
The "Left Behind" series is now a marketing machine, with audiocassette versions and a separate, four-book young adult series called Left Behind: the Kids. (Tyndale publicity includes the curious report that: "While dealing with topics that, on an adult level, may seem frightening and incomprehensible, Jenkins and LaHaye's new juvenile series offers an entertaining, challenging, and compelling message for young people.") And, yes, a motion picture is in the works. A competing multimedia extravaganza is offered by the ministry of legendary "walking Bible" and apocalypse maven, Jack Van Impe: Apocalypse: Caught in the Eye of the Storm is a novel by Peter and Paul Lalonde (Prophecy Partners, hc, $19.99) as well as a direct-to-video motion picture with a compact disc soundtrack. The Lalondes are best known for their television program This Week In Bible Prophecy, and their prophecy texts include The Mark of the Beast (1994). Apocalypse portrays another dispensationalist vision of the end, but with a slicker, more contemporary touch. Television reporters Bronson Pearl and Helen Hannah are covering the world's final war when the Rapture whisks believers heavenward. Soon the Antichrist appears (in the form of the European Union president), and the reporters—who are lovers—must face the time of Tribulation and, of course, save their very souls.
Clearly central to these dystopic fictions are tropes and themes common to countless sf novels: the cautionary imperative; almost pleasurable depictions of mass destruction; post-apocalyptic survival; the outlaw caste with access to forbidden knowledge; pursuit by a totalitarian regime; and, of course, redemption through evolution (in this case, spiritual). Although often unwittingly cruel, these novels do echo with hope despite their reliance on fear as their most persuasive force.
There is no hope, nor love, to be found in the allegedly Christian sf novel Solar Flare by Larry Burkett (Northfield, hc, $18.99), which instead offers a pathetic political manifesto. In the novel's first half, Burkett, the founder of something called "Christian Financial Concepts," eschews the Biblical and cranks out the tedious tale of Professor James Hobart, a tarnished academic who predicts a world-changing solar flare—which, after much derision, actually occurs, sending the planet into pre-industrial revolution chaos. But the solar flare is not our enemy, oh no: it's the Democratic politicians and the liberal news media and, of course, the poor, huddled masses who live in the inner cities. Xenophobia is rampant in these pages, with the good guys wearing Anglo-Saxon names and voting Repulican, and the baddies being hyphenated Americans and others who believe in such negligible notions as civil rights.
Order is restored, with Burkett making his intentions clear: "In areas where the military already had been mobilized, control was reestablished quickly. There was no ACLU present, no federal courts to interfere, and no politicians vying for votes—only the police and the soldiers, and when they saw someone in the streets carrying a weapon, they shot first and asked questions later, if possible." Apparently he misplaced his copy of the Ten Commandments, along with the rest of his Christianity, somewhere in those mutual funds and other financial concepts. Shame on Larry Burkett, and shame on Moody Bible Institute, whose subsidiary published this piece of hate.
Kenny Love's Millennium Eve (Mys-Tech Books, P. O. Box 291, Crockett TX 75835, hc, $24.95) is a far more pleasant, although downright loopy, fable with Biblical underpinnings. In the final days of 1999, the first female president confronts an android conspiracy to annihilate humanity on January 1, 2000. The androids, it seems, have been visited by the angel Gabriel, who has taught them the Bible—which scientists had excluded from their database. Betrayed by the knowledge that man is not the true Creator, the androids decide that they are the means for enacting the final judgment of Revelation. Although the least conventional of these novels (Love even uses "foul" language!) Millennium Eve curls into the expected political posture: "Liberalism had finally seemed to achieve its dreaded results. . . . Beginning with the passive 'free love' movement of the '60's right through to the physician-assisted suicides and pro-abortion movements of the '90's. Life had reached its rooftop with nowhere else to go . . . " Destruction seems the appropriate payoff for our sinful society, but, unlike his peers, Love lifts his finger from the trigger, declining to wreak havoc on civilization and forestalling the arrival of the End Times. Despite his penchant for constant italicization, unknown words ("contrastly"), and gosh-wow sf slang, there is something to Love's story that is sadly lacking from the likes of Solar Flare, and even the "Left Behind" books: the notion of metaphor. It is ironic and yet inevitable that one of the better religious novels in recent years should take the form of a satire. But David Prill's Second Coming Attractions (St. Martin's Press, hc, $22.95) takes the high road; it eschews the easy, and increasingly lame, born again-bashing of TV comedy in favor of a sly inquisition of the marketing of Christianity set in the Holy Hollywood of inspirational filmmaking. Leviticus Speck, son of religious film legend Noah Foster Speck and heir apparent to Good Samaritan Studios, gazes into the abyss of the nineties and finds that most troublesome of demons gazing back at him: ambiguity. Leviticus realizes that the whitebread wholesomeness of his father's films no longer plays in Peoria, but he cannot stomach the grotesque and graphic anti-abortion propaganda that a competitor—the aptly named Blood of the Lamb Films—proffers in the Lord's name.
Enter young Nicholas Puckett, a wannabe screenwriter who has penned The Fetal Detective, a pro-life noir told from the perspective of an unborn, but hardboiled, avenger. The film offers financial salvation for Good Samaritan; but Leviticus, whose faith is real—and thus troubled—wonders: Is it spiritual salvation?
Although primed with wicked humor, Second Coming Attractions is defiantly honest to its characters—and to Christianity. Prill's punches, when they come, are legitimate ones, not cheap shots; and his novel manages to entertain while offering a challenging discourse on the twining of religion and the anti-abortion movement. There is no mass destruction here, only subtle and sometimes painful skewers into the ways we think about, and experience, religion today.
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