I was drawn to Lahaye’s book primarily because I wanted to gain a glimpse into what evangelical Christian fiction would be like. I expected it would be read like most propaganda; offering an educational view into the core philosophies of the movement it advocated for, but in its prioritization of ideology offering little in the way of compelling narrative, character development, or plot. In this case, I was absolutely correct.
Left Behind begins a few hours before millions of devout Christians and ‘innocent’ babes mysteriously and suddenly disappear. The world descends into chaos, with those left behind struggling to understand what happened. Focusing on the search by an airline pilot and his daughter, the solution arrived at is that the Biblical stories of the ‘end times’ described in the Book of Revelation are coming true. Parallel to, and intertwined with the disappearance story is the parallel rise of a mysterious but compelling East European politician to a position of unprecedented global power.
Warnings aplenty are offered. ‘Sunday Christians’ are left behind. The surviving converts are convinced that they must aggressively proselytize to save whomever they can within the time they have left. Of course, the messages here for Christians in the real world are obvious: anything less than total commitment to evangelical Christianity might pose the risk of eternal damnation.
The pilot, a married father who was tempted to have an affair with a stewardess, is plagued with guilt. The stewardess, meanwhile, who is less stricken, succumbs to the charms of the man pointed to as the Anti-Christ. Here the woman is the weaker sex, and the similarity to the Adam and Eve story – with its tale of temptation, failure, guilt, and punishment – is clear. The pilot, of course, finds evangelical Christianity, and converts his daughter, who joins a burgeoning ‘action group’ called the Tribulation Force.
An accomplished, analytical and critical journalist converts to Christianity almost purely it seems by the emotional force of the pilot’s argument (and the wiles of his daughter). A description of his past exploits allows Lahaye to tell some backstory of how Israel has become a global power, and rescued from a Russian military attack by apparent miracle. Here, too, we see how even clever, cynical liberals can be brought to Christ by the virtue of conviction, power of belief, and the innocent and unintentional allure of Christian heterosexual innocence and purity.
Lahaye’s book has some solid portions. The backstory element is interesting, and descriptions of the journalist’s activities are generally plausible. The characters are not well-developed, however, with their decisions rarely being very well set-up or explained, but clearly being driven by the need to carry a particular plot turn to fruition. Attempting to make sense of a confusing and deeply symbolic text, Lahaye incorporates some elements that are so fantastic as to challenge even the most well-suspended disbelief. A reader might be willing to consider that millions of people disappear simultaneously, but as miraculous dropping of hundreds of Russian jets from the skies of Israel (without, of course, harming any Israelis), the utter and complete willingness of global leaders to hand over control of their military forces to the United Nations, and the folding of the world into three financial zones within the very near future taxes the imagination of the most forgiving readers.
As I read Left Behind, I couldn’t help but consider how it compared to The Turner Diaries (which I have reviewed on this blog), a similar attempt at prophetic fiction by an adherent to a significantly different set of beliefs. Perhaps because the author of The Turner Diaries knew that their prophecies were very unlikely to come true, and because they were not tied to a pre-existing narrative, this work is a more compelling story than Left Behind. To my mind, that’s saying something. The only reason I can offer for the success of Left Behind is the large constituency of evangelical Christians searching for entertainment that reinforces their values, their ethics, and their understanding of texts they believe to be prophetic. As far as I know, there is not an overwhelming number of texts that blatantly and unashamedly appeal to this market.
The book was eventually adapted into a feature-length film, in which Kirk Cameron appears as one of the stars. I can only imagine how the film struggles to give the characters a little more depth, or whether it is carried along as well by the need for message over believable plot.