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May 20, 2005

Filed under: culture»religion»books»leftbehind

Damned if you do

Every week, I look forward to Fred's Left Behind Friday over at Slacktivist. I enjoy it partly because it is always fun seeing horrible Christian apocaliterature torn apart by someone who knows the subculture and picks up on the little inhumanities, but mostly as sweet revenge. See, I've read the first couple books in the Left Behind series. I got bored one summer, grabbed them off of Gnutella (what were they doing on filesharing anyway? Isn't it a sin to steal books?) and churned my way through them. So I have first-hand experience with Jenkins and LaHaye, and I'm going to share what I found so that you don't have to satisfy your curiosity the same way.

Let's get it out of the way: the books are awful. Really, really terrible stuff. It's one thing to have an ideological viewpoint, and it's another to simply have no fictional writing ability in the slightest. Jerry Jenkins (the primary writer--Tim LaHaye is the "religious consultant," another travesty all together) combines these two flaws into a nexus of Suck unequalled through known history. I like to think of it as a tiny black hole that he keeps in his back yard, where it sucks up wandering pets and small children into its event horizon and in return generates page upon page of hysterical fascist prose.

It hurts me to say this, but Left Behind is honestly worse than Ayn Rand, who was previously my benchmark for terrible fiction. At least with Rand you can pick out a decent pulp story if you skip most of the dialogue and the misogynistic rape scenes. Her writing functions fairly well as a comic book or as a movie, where time and space restraints would carve out only the barest essentials. In contrast, Left Behind could never be improved in any medium. This is too bad, because the first book has potential. Oh, I know: if you read the Slacktivist's coverage of the book, you'll see where he's caught all kinds of psychosis just in the first 80 pages. But if you're not paying such close attention (perhaps because you're having so much trouble reading Jenkins's traffic jam prose), the Rapture scenario can hold your attention momentarily. You may start to anticipate where a better writer could take this material, someone like Garth Ennis (or Stephen King, who basically wrote the same book but without the holes in The Stand). Worse, you may hope that Jenkins's reach simply exceeds his grasp, and perhaps he plans to tell such a gripping story, but simply lacks the talent to make it run smoothly.

Ha! At that point you have fallen into his trap. As soon as Jenkins manages to bring the characters together, through a series of increasingly unlikely devices, the book goes from being an adventure story to a 300-page scripture lesson, and it never eases up for the remaining 11 books (and one prequel now). The characters simply become observers, plodding through the same simple plot structure over and over again:

  1. Read scripture and interpret it in tortorous Fundamentalist logic as a prophecy, usually involving the Antichrist,
  2. Observe the predicted events as they occur, without actually doing anything to alter the disastrous consequences,
  3. Mourn how the unbelieving hordes were cruelly slaughtered or abused because they would not listen,
  4. Go to step 1.
3600 PAGES OF THAT. The only subplot in the first book that didn't fit this progression, as far as I can remember, is the disturbing romance between Cameron "Buck" Williams (the Greatest Investigative Reporter In The World, as Fred calls him) and the college-age daughter of main character Rayford "Ray" Steele (yes, everyone in the book has an ultraphallic name. I don't even want to think about the significance.) Because this is the work of a sub-literate Evangelical hack, you can see it coming a mile away when "Buck" and the daughter (Chloe, a name I thought was only used in bodice-ripping romance--hm...) meet on an airplane and exchange extremely tame flirtation followed by Bible verses. Personally, I recoiled in horror and then continued reading with a sick fascination. You can't help but wonder: how are these uptight, conservative lunatics going to depict romance in their post-Rapture world? When you're a writer who ideologically opposes dancing, drinking, physical expressions of affection, and particularly premarital, sexual expressions of affection, how do you write a courtship plotline?

Not that I found out. After the first book, I tried to struggle through another, but it was just too much for me. Which, in a way, is too bad: did you know there's a whole genre of this stuff? I could have been set for new reading material for life. Rapture porn is one of the leading Christian subgenres, romance novels for the righteous. They're even taking over new genres now. One of Jerry Jenkins's pet projects (apart from his terrifying Left Behind for Kids books, coming soon to an rural elementary near you) is the trio Soon, Silenced, and Shaken, three science fiction novels that chronicle a double agent working undercover to save the Christian minority in a dystopian future. Christians in the minority? A rational, secular government that suppresses fundamentalists? Maybe to the intended audience that's a dystopia. After reading Left Behind and realizing that these books sell millions of copies, it's starting to sound pretty good to me.

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