Left Behind as Evangelical Pornography


An earlier version of this paper was delivered at an academic conference and some revisions were made at the behest of a reader for a journal publication that never materialized. For more information about the provenance history, see here.

This paper is primarily concerned with the books, although some of the revisions deal briefly with the film adaptations. I include it at a film blog because the definitions influence my thinking about some, though not all, “Christian” films that are now being released more frequently.


For most readers who are not evangelical Christians (and for many of us who are), the representation of reality in the Left Behind series can come across as oddly distorted. I have adopted the term “Evangelical Pornography” to describe the Left Behind franchise because its methods of representing its characters, particularly those who differ from its target audience, fit the description of what psychoanalyst Louise Kaplan calls a “perverse strategy” (123).

A perversion, according to Kaplan, is a psychological strategy that simultaneously attempts to gratify and hide a desire by acting it out while hiding its true meaning. Kaplan uses this definition to explore her thesis that perversions are “as much pathologies of […] role identity as they are pathologies of sexuality” (14). She focuses, of course, on gender as a primary factor in creating role identity, and hence concludes that the perversions (and pornographies) of women are substantially different from those of men. “A perversion,” Kaplan writes, “is a central preoccupation of a person’s existence” (11). Male perversions use some “manifest form of ‘kinky sex’ to prevail over . . . otherwise devastating emotional states” (10). Because females have different emotional states born of different emotional fears growing out of different sociological roles and expectations, their strategies for appeasing inner demons will be attached to different content.

I would like to extend Kaplan’s analysis and categories to sociological and psychological roles grounded primarily in people’s conception of their own religious identity. While authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have argued that the Left Behind books are evangelistic (and hence have non-Christians as their intended audience), they have acknowledged in interviews what the books’ publication and marketing history bears out: the series is most widely read and championed by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians (Larry King Live). I would argue that the success of these books is largely because they serve a Kaplanesque pornographic function—they allow readers to simultaneously gratify and hide a desire.

Furthermore, I contend that the consumption of these books becomes a perverse strategy. The protagonists become a fetish object used to create the illusion of a superior-inferior (dominant-submissive) relationship between the reader and the fetish object—in this case people in the readers’ own lives that are symbolically represented by characters in the text. Kaplan says of fetishism that it “exemplifies the perverse strategy [because] the fetish is designed to divert attention from a whole story by focusing attention on a detail” (123).

In deciding how effectively Kaplan’s terminology can be applied to Left Behind, the reader must ask certain questions not just about what work the books do, but also about what emotional or spiritual states require that sort of work. To be more precise in using Kaplan’s terminology, what shameful or painful emotional states are being simultaneously indulged by and hidden in the Left Behind series? Key passages and scenes show that unraptured characters engage in ritualistic self-humiliation, constantly thinking and proclaiming that their raptured friends and family members were “right” and that they, the left behind, were unworthy of their Christian friends and loved ones.

Kaplan says that a person creates a perverse scenario because “it protects him from becoming conscious of some wishes and fantasies that would otherwise frighten or humiliate him” (124). The frightening wishes and fantasies that would humiliate the readers of Left Behind if openly acknowledged seem fairly easy to extract: a fear of sexuality born out of an ascetic legalism, a latent anger at loved ones for not converting and thus forcing the Christian family member to deal with the fear of eternal separation, and a feeling of resentment at the world for making the evangelical or fundamentalist reader feel ignored and marginalized.

To understand this latter feeling, a brief overview of evangelicalism and fundamentalism is in order. While no synopsis can do justice to the diversity of developments within American Protestantism, it is possible to paint a broad picture which will help contextualize and explain the Left Behind phenomenon. Today the term “fundamentalist” is often used to denote any politically conservative Christian, while its counterpart, “evangelical,” is the fashionable preface to denote a self-proclaimed Christian rather than a social or ethnic one. While these generalizations have some basis in fact, they tend to obscure the fact that evangelical was itself originally a pejorative term—a curtailment of the phrase “neo-evangelicals” that fundamentalists used (and evangelicals appropriated) to describe the more moderate coalition that inherited and emerged from the attempts at fundamental coalitions of the 1920s (Marsden 62).

George Marsden describes the roots of fundamentalism growing out of a schism in Protestantism about how to respond to the challenges of its cultural dominance provided by Darwinian science, urbanization, and secularization. Marsden writes:

Protestants’ apparent cultural dominance rested on a strong base of the wealthiest and the oldest American families and institutions. Protestants had been the first to settle almost everywhere in the American colonies and so naturally their heirs held most of the positions of power and influence…. It is hardly surprising… that the prevailing moral values of the civilization reflected this heritage. (11)

Marsden also clearly outlines that the rise of fundamentalism was first and foremost a reaction against and an attempt to separate from liberal theology that it saw as accommodating secularization (56). For example, he cites Curtis Lee Laws as one of the first to coin the term” fundamentalist,” when he wrote in The Watchman-Examiner to describe those who were ready “to do battle royal for the Fundamentals” (qtd in Marsden 57).

leftbehindkidsThis context is designed to explain the sense of disenfranchisement felt by many conservative Christians. As the Laws quote shows, political and social activism is nothing new for conservative Christians. I would argue, however, prior to the ascent of Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition in the 1980s and 1990s, the dominant mood of the Christian community was one of dismay at the loss of perceived privileged status as the dominant worldview of the country. For that reason, I think it is easy to see the portrayal of Christian persecution the post-apocalyptic world as being allegorical rather than prophetic. That Bibles are banned from public school in Left Behind: The Kids is not meant to be a prediction of post-apocalypitc secularization for the benefit of secular readers but a lament of current secularization to be recognized by Christian readers. That Buck Williams loses his job almost immediately after converting to Christianity can be viewed as a fictional parallel to the sort of anti-Christian prejudice that Rams quarterback Kurt Warner related as accepted fact to a Christian audience but shied away from when picked up by the large media networks.

The historical context also reveals that much of the anger in fundamentalism is directed at moderate or socially liberal Christians. The Laws quote, for example, presupposes a class of Christians who are not ready to do “battle royal” for the fundamentals, and its attitude towards them is mirrored in Left Behind’s attitude towards the nominal Christians whose refusal to share their raptured brethren’s separation from the world results in their failure to share in their pre-tribulation escape from it. It is in this attitude towards others that are less separatist than those who are raptured that Left Behind is most deserving of the label “fundamentalist.”

leftbehind3How does this historical rift between fundamentalism and evangelicalism manifest (or hide) itself in a Kaplanesque “perverse strategy”? To answer that question, we must begin to summarize and look closely at some of the scenes in Left Behind. Works in the Left Behind series are composed of loose episodes built around central characters. The climax of individual volumes usually focuses around a sermon, dialogue, or experience that prompts one of the central characters to acknowledge a previous failing and commit himself or herself to a “true” theological understanding. Epiphanies are combined with a denunciation of one’s previous willful ignorance. Within both the adult and youth series are a number of what I call “touchstone” scenes: scenarios or incidents that are mentioned prominently in more than one volume. While in much postmodern literature or film this style of revisiting the same events from different perspectives is done to underline the subjectivity of individual perception, there is a uniformity in the reiteration (and retelling) of these scenes in Left Behind that underscores rather than extending their most overt themes.

Two of the most often referenced scenes are that of Rayford Steele, the protagonist of the adult series, coming home after the rapture and confronting the empty bedroom containing the relics left behind by his raptured wife and the story of an adolescent soccer player at an Indonesian missionary school who commits suicide after every other player on the field is raptured before his eyes. The former scene is described in detail in the adult Left Behind series and witnessed (secretly) by one of the protagonists of the children’s series. It is worth quoting at some length:

At the end of the hall he paused before the French doors that led to the master suite. What a beautiful, frilly place Irene had made it, decorated with needlepoint and country knickknacks. Had he ever told her he appreciated it? Had he ever appreciated it?

There was no alarm to turn off here. The smell of coffee had always roused Irene. Another picture of the two of them, him looking confidently at the camera, her gazing at him. He did not deserve her. He deserved this, he knew, to be mocked by his own self-centeredness and to be stripped of the most important person in his life.

He approached the bed, knowing what he would find. The indented pillow, the wrinkled covers. He could smell her, though he knew the bed would be cold. He carefully peeled back the blankets and sheet to reveal her locket, which carried a picture of him. Her flannel nightgown, the one he always kidded her about and which she wore only when he was not home, evidenced her now departed form.

His throat tight, his eyes full, he noticed her wedding ring near the pillow, where she always supported her cheek with her hand. It was too much to bear, and he broke down. He gathered the ring into his palm and sat on the edge of the bed, his body racked with fatigue and grief. He put the ring in his jacket pocket and noticed the package she had mailed. Tearing it open, he found two of his favorite homemade cookies with hearts drawn on the top in chocolate.

What a sweet, sweet woman! he thought. I never deserved her, never loved her enough! He set the cookies on the bedside table, their essence filling the air. With wooden fingers he removed his clothes and let them fall to the floor. He climbed into the bed and lay facedown, gathering Irene’s nightgown in his arms so he could smell her and imagine her close to him.

And Rayford cried himself to sleep. (53-54)

It is not a coincidence that this scene lies at the center of the Left Behind franchise. It contains the ritualistic elements of self-abuse that evidence an antipathy or even outright hostility towards the characters that feeds the readers’ desire to see their hurt, shame and rejection at the hands of their own loved ones who reject Christianity acknowledged and punished. The high degree of remorse is inextricably linked to an acknowledgement of the moral purity and superiority of the departed family member who is analogous to the reader. In two of the paragraphs the main character says he did not “deserve” his Christian wife, in two he expresses a lack of appreciation for the domestic qualities (needlepoint, home decoration, cooking) which not-so-subtly links her moral superiority to a middle-class, social conservatism.

There is also a strong undercurrent of sexual tension in the above passage. Granted the “flannel nightgown” acts as a reminder of domesticated sexuality which is unappreciated and juxtaposed with the more dangerous (spiritually and emotionally) temptation of sex for pleasure offered by non-spouses. Later, in the children’s series, part of Vickie’s transformation from teenage slut to born-again Christian will be symbolized by her acquiring the wardrobe of Judd’s mother–another chaste dresser. The fact that the coffee is what “rouse”s Irene also suggests an underlying insecurity about Rayford’s own ability to satisfy his spouse.

More suggestive than the parody of copulation that fills the end of the scene (Rayford hugging the nightgown on the bed) are the connotations of “mocked” and “stripped” in the second paragraph. Both have strong sexual undertones, and both imply an element which at first seems missing from the scene but that is nevertheless central to its emotional power: an audience.

imagesThere is an element of performance in Rayford’s emotional flagellation that is prompted by the symbolic reminder in the previous sentence that his wife has been (and indeed still is) “gazing” at him. The concept of a male gaze is nothing new to feminist criticism: it is the axiom that the point of view or perspective of the audience is an inferred masculine view and that its object is the female body. The female body is objectified because the viewer is invited not to identify with the subject but rather with a surrogate viewer (or maybe even a surrogate participant who is acting upon the subject.) Rayford has the fe-male gaze turned upon him; he becomes the object in a fantasy construction in which the reader is invited to identify with the surrogate viewer, his wife, both symbolically in the picture and presumably from heaven.

These elements become ritualized throughout the series as the central post-rapture experiences are told and retold in post-conversion “testimonies.” The scenes that are told in greatest detail are not those where the characters convert but where they acknowledge their own sins prior to conversion. The central elements are an acknowledgement of the characters’ unworthiness of their raptured Christian friends and family (the reader surrogates) and a testimony to the raptured Christians’ (unheeded) efforts (always made in love) to convert or serve the unappreciative sinner. There is very little evangelical mention of the gospel; God’s saving work is not accomplished through Christ on the cross but through contemporary Christians showing His love to unbelievers.

leftbehindkids3Extending this thematic formula to Left Behind: The Kids is fairly simple. While in much of the best literature readers are invited to identify with the protagonists (and thus face realities they might not otherwise consider) here, as in the adult series, the readers are invited to identify with the raptured siblings or parents of the kids “left behind.” Thus the attitude invited is one of superiority and vindication: those who symbolize people in the lives of Christian adolescents and parents who teased, ridiculed, or disobeyed them are symbolically and ritually chastened and humiliated for the entertainment of the Christian audience.

When I call Left Behind: The Kids “kiddie porn,” I mean it in a dual sense. First, it is evangelical porn intended for children’s consumption, encouraging the child reader to retreat to a fantasy world rather than face complex realities. Second, it is evangelical porn with children as the subject matter, inviting adult readers to participate in a fantasy world where rebellious, arrogant, and mocking adolescents come to acknowledge the moral superiority and sincerity of their parents. After the parents become raptured, the infantile fantasy of “they’ll be sorry when I’m gone” is reversed. The children have to admit as part of their repentance process that their parents and pastors were both ideologically correct and morally uncompromised. There is, in short, a secondary audience: Christian parents, and the message the series sends to them is that their children’s lack of faith is not their fault. Thus the series is “kiddie porn” in the second sense, and LaHaye’s and Jenkins’s dedication, “To our own kids,” could be read as somewhat ironic.

Both target audiences are catered to in the first volume of the children’s series where the character Judd, a sixteen year-old white male with one sibling, is portrayed as being unilaterally at fault for all of his family’s conflicts. After having forged his father’s signature to obtain an illegal credit card, Judd buys a plane ticket to London. While on the plane, he recalls steps his parents have tried to take to deal with his rebellion, including a father-son trip which Judd sabotaged: “[His trip] was also supposed to be a time for him and his dad to bond—whatever that meant. Dad had tried, Judd had to give him that, but there had been no bonding” (11). In another example, Judd recalls how his younger brother, Marc (another reader surrogate) was mocked and ridiculed by Judd for his attempts at sibling love:

One day, after school, his little brother came into his room.

“What do you want?” Judd asked Marc.

“I just wanted to ask you a question. Are you still a Christian?”

Judd lied. “Of course,” he said. “What’s it to you?”

“I was just wonderin’ because it doesn’t seem like you’re happy or acting like one.”

“Why don’t you get out of here and mind your own business!”

“Will you be mad at me if I pray for you?”

“Don’t waste your breath.”

“You’re makin’ Mom cry, you know that?”

“She shouldn’t waste her tears either.”

“Judd, what’s the matter? You used to care—“

“Out! Get out!”

Marc looked pale and tearful as he left. Judd shook his head, disgusted, and told himself Marc would be a lot better off when he outgrew his stupidity. I used to be just like that, Judd thought. What a wuss!” (13).

Like Rayford Steele, the protagonist of the adult series, Judd’s post-rapture conversion comes with a repentance not so much of his sins against God but against his family, a confession not so much of his own faith but of his family’s irreproachable conduct towards him. He finds his family’s abandoned clothes, and his response is a miniature version of Rayford Steele’s:

They loved him so much, cared for him, worried about him. And look how he had treated them. He held their clothes close to his chest and closed his eyes, realizing he had gotten just what he deserved (138).

In volume two of Left Behind: The Kids, this conditioned response will resolve itself into rote characterizations of his pre-rapture life that acknowledge the sincerity of both parents and sibling:

Though he knew he had had every chance and could have been in heaven with his parents and brother right then, everything in him still fought to blame somebody else. But whom could he blame?

His parents had been wonderful examples to him. Even his little brother had recently asked Judd if he still loved Jesus (3).

Nor is this attitude towards one’s former life unique to Judd. Vickie, the fifteen year-old daughter of a trailer-park couple admits both before and after the rapture that her parents’ behavior has been above reproach since their conversion and that her rejection of Christianity is based solely upon her own need to feel morally superior:

Vickie didn’t understand herself. Often she asked herself why she had to be so mean, so angry. It was obvious that this . . . this thing, whatever it was, was working. Her dad was a new man. He never missed work, was always on time, got promoted, had more friends. He was always sober. He looked happier. The only sore point in his life, besides his smoking, was Vicki. She could see him getting more and more frustrated with her, and she had to admit her goal was to make him explode in anger. Why? So she wouldn’t feel so bad about herself (67).

After the rapture of her parents, Vickie, like Judd, takes full responsibility for all of the problems in her pre-rapture family:”I saw big changes in their lives […] but actually I hated it,” (8-9) she says. Later she admits, “Her mother was right […] she simply didn’t want to change” (17), and again: “She saw what a fool she had been, what an ungrateful rebel. […] She had not wanted to admit that her parents had really changed, but it was obvious to everyone, herself included” (71).

Thirteen year-old Lionel Washington finds himself unraptured despite his immediate family’s devout Christianity. Lionel tells his drug-addicted and alcoholic uncle that God “uses the people who love them to show them His forgiveness” to which his uncle replies, “Well, I can’t deny my family has done that” (40). He also reminds his twelve year-old friend, Ryan Daley, that Ryan had heard the truth from Raymie Steele (Rayford’s son) and is, hence, without excuse for his own unraptured state.

The previous quotes are designed to demonstrate the prevalence of a spiritually masochistic theme that runs through the Left Behind series. To understand that masochism as pornographic, however, requires that we accept it as symbolically representing the consumers’ anger at another rather than at himself. Self-flagellation, emotional and physical, is, after all, not a recent innovation in Christian narration. Might Rayford’s castigation of himself be seen as a latter-day example of puritanical self-abasement? Jonathan Edwards writes in his “Personal Narrative”:

I have often since I lived in this town, had very affecting views of my own sinfulness and vileness; very frequently so as to hold me in a kind of loud weeping, sometimes for considerable time together [….] My wickedness, as I am in myself, has long appeared to me perfectly ineffable, and infinitely swallowing up all thought and imagination; like an infinite deluge, or infinite mountains over my head. I know not how to express better, what my sins appear to me to be, than by heaping infinite upon infinite, and multiplying infinite by infinite [….] When I look into my heart, and take a view of my wickedness, it looks like an abyss deeper than hell. (475)

leftbehindrayfordIs Rayford’s self-excoriation different from Edwards’s or, for that matter, from Paul’s who says he counts all things but dung (Phil 3:8)? One could point out that both Paul’s and Edwards’s laments are products of post-conversion reflection, while Rayford’s precedes his own acceptance of the gospel. In fact, the film version of the bedroom scene culminates not with Rayford stripping but with his smashing a bedroom mirror with his wife’s Bible. More telling for me, however, is the extent to which the self-derision of the characters in Left Behind is focused on their treatment of departed Christians rather than their rejection of God. It is not God, but Rayford’s wife, Irene, who appears to him in a confirming vision in the Tribulation Force film.

This theme of self-chastisement is especially prevalent early in the respective series, when the reader is more apt to identify with the raptured family members than the left behind protagonists. As the children’s series progresses, a bit of a transfer takes place. The kids continue to maintain a subordinate relationship with the departed that is ritually reinforced through the periodic repetition of their “testimony.” This process is repeated when they hear the testimonies of new Christians. Each reinforces the same basic themes—how they were intolerant of (and inferior to) the respective Christians in their lives. For example a woman with a Jewish-Christian husband tells the kids in Volume 4:

I believed I was the most open-minded and tolerant person in the world until Isaiah converted to Christianity […]. I was mortified. I was angry. I refused to discuss it. I would not attend with him. Our marriage was nearly on the rocks, and yet I could not deny the change in him. No matter how I treated him, he loved me and forgave me and treated me kindly. (135)

The kids’ subordinate relationship to previous Christians remains, but it is increasingly supplemented with a stance of superiority towards their living, post-rapture acquaintances that remain unconverted. This is especially true as the kids return to school and face systematic political and social opposition that attempts to marginalize them. They find themselves, in short, in a position oddly similar to that of contemporary Christian readers suffering from (perceived or real) persecution. The clear superiority of the Christian kids to their non-Christian contemporaries in the areas of courage, compassion, love, and above all, integrity, allow the readers to identify with their situation when they are interacting with non-Christians. This compartmentalized identification allows the series to simultaneously gratify the reader’s desire to be flattered while alternately allowing him to feel unfairly persecuted.

Take for example the following quotes from Volumes 4-5, when the kids return to school and form a junior “Tribulation Force” (a secret cadre of Christians designed to spread the gospel):

  • Did Judd need an education, or would he be wasting his time in class while the world hurtled out of control? (4:13).
  • I’m being straight with you because you talk that way to people. I wish someone had talked to me this way before it was too late (4:77).
  • Bruce swore them to secrecy and said the only others who knew how he felt were four adults who formed a sort of inner circle within the church (4:107).
  • Anyway, if Bruce is right […] we’ll have only seven years to live. Why would I want to spend half that time in school? To learn what? The world is going to hell, and we’d be sitting in class, trying to prepare for a future that doesn’t exist (5:2).
  • Judd and Marc and Marcie used to play games on it and surf the Net. Judd enjoyed all the chat rooms, though his parents warned him about the worst ones. Those didn’t even tempt him now (5:28).
  • “I never want to stop telling what Christ has done for me,” Bruce said. “I will never again be ashamed of the gospel of Christ. The Bible says that the Cross offends. If you are offended, I am doing my job (5:51).
  • Judd shrugged. He was no match for an intellect, a presence like Mr. Shellenberger. Judd had considered hiding his belief, but he wouldn’t have been able to live with his cowardice (86).

Because the world of Left Behind is one in which legitimate human authority has been taken away, it offers to new or marginal Christians a path to instant leadership without the hard work of discipleship or transformation. There is a condescension in the attitude of the above quotes towards both the world and, if one looks closely, towards politically or socially moderate Christians. The Christian who does not evangelize to the point of offense is “ashamed” or “a coward.”

School is pointless. Governments and organizations are never used of God and are increasingly hostile towards Him. Transformation in and of the world is increasingly eschewed in favor of a separatist impulse. Transformation is relatively pain-free and backsliding is limited to rebellious acts that are the product of easily identifiable (and repentable) sinful attitudes, and seldom does the habitual nature of sin present a problem. Judd is “not even tempted” by things that had enthralled him before. Any sexual temptation between the two teenagers who live together with no parental supervision is swept aside with an assurance that Vickie thinks of Judd as “a brother” and feels it is “way too soon” to even contemplate such a thing as a romantic or sexual relationship.

With the smugness, however, there is also an undercurrent of guilt. In fact, guilt trips seem to be the primary mode of persuasion throughout the series. Are you offending people with the gospel? Do they ridicule you and ostracize you? Is the emotional temptation to stay silent strong? Just imagine how guilty you will feel if you don’t do this. Guilt, more than even fear, is the driving motivation in the kids’ life, and the vast majority of their actions seem to be a self-inflicted penance for their former treatment of their parents and siblings.

If there is a problem with the Left Behind as evangelical pornography metaphor it is that any theory or metaphor that conceptualizes contradictory impulses—in this case the desires to cater to and hide shameful impulses—is impervious to contradictory evidence and hence unfalsifiable. For that reason, a pornographic reading of Left Behind could be seen as an example of what Eve Sedgwick calls a “paranoid” reading in her essay, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction is About You.”

In this essay, Sedgwick argues that a hegemonic “hermeneutics of suspicion” (5) characteristic of much criticism (including her own) has stifled contemporary critical practice by privileging “paranoid inquiry” (6) and dismissing “reparative” (8) reading strategies as “naïve, pious, or complaisant” (5). Sedgwick describes paranoid theory as “anticipatory” in its “imperative” to avoid “bad surprises” (9) and its insistence that “bad news be always already known” (10). She sees reparative positions as focused on positive affects—as pleasure-seeking, “ameliorative” (22), and open to “surprises” (24). She concludes that paranoid reading has its place but that it should be balanced with reparative reading.

Can a reparative reading of Left Behind be productively paired with a more critical, pornographic one? Certainly there are surprises in Left Behind and acknowledging them, rather than undermining the claim that Left Behind is performing specific cultural work, may help explain the franchise’s popularity by explaining its broad appeal. Two possible surprises deal with the somewhat unexpected treatment of groups that would not be expected to be portrayed favorably in eschatological fiction: Catholics and Blacks.

leftbehindbruceGiven the history of political activism and patriotism that are intertwined with both American fundamentalism and evangelicalism, it is understandable that the Antichrist’s rule in Left Behind is acted out primarily in a political context. Nicolae Carpathia begins his rule as secretary general of the United Nations. Traditionally, attempts to find contemporary antecedents for the Antichrist have often exacerbated tensions between Catholics and Protestants by conjecturing, as Jonathan Edwards does in his Notebooks on the Apocalypse, that Rome is the New Babylon and the Catholic Church is the Beast. Edwards called Revelation 17:18, “the plainest of any one passage in the whole book . . . a key to the whole prophecy” (120). After describing a woman with the beast, the author of Revelation gives the explanation, “The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” Edwards clearly felt that “great city” was Rome, and that the Protestant Reformation signaled the end of that city’s “rule.” Later Edwards writes of Revelation 16:3, “all the men in this sea died as to popery.”

It is somewhat surprising, given the historical proclivity of anti-Catholic bias in eschatological thought, that the sitting Pope is among the elect who are raptured in the Left Behind series. Granted, Catholic readers may not be especially comforted by the fact that the raptured Pope is replaced by a figurehead puppet of the anti-Christ and that the raptured Pope is said to have bewildered some traditional Catholics with teachings that seem close to Protestantism. Even so, if my central presupposition is correct and Left Behind is addressed primarily to an evangelical audience, then part of the message being addressed to this audience is that the modern conception of those who will be saved is more ecumenical than many pre-twentieth-century strains of fundamentalist or evangelical thought. Wells and Woodbridge, point out, for instance, that the threats of modernism and secularism tended to obscure the differences between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews (14). A reparative reading of Left Behind might situate it as part of an evangelical trend that obscures denominational differences in favor of allegiance to a monotheistic God.

American evangelicalism has had a particularly difficult time categorizing and incorporating African-American Christianity. George M. Marsden writes, “Because of racial segregation that isolated them from their white counterparts, they seldom used the term ‘evangelical,’ and their experience is usually regarded as a distinct type in itself” (46). The casting of Clarence Gilyard and T.D. Jakes as the pastors of the church where Rayford’s wife and child attended, suggest that the vision of evangelicalism presented by the series is multicultural. A skeptic might point out that neither character is ethnically identified in the text of Left Behind and wonder whether this casting was an attempt to expand the market for the film. One might also wonder whether a racially mixed church, pre-rapture, in the upper-middle-class Chicago suburbs is a credible representation of reality. Even so, if an underlying point of Left Behind is that it projects how evangelicals and fundamentalists wish to see themselves, it is worth noting that they wish to see themselves (and to actually be) racially diverse. The final scene of the Tribulation Force movie underscores this point; the new church being formed by post-rapture conversions contains a mix of races.

Of course the need to represent the pre-raptured church and not just the post-rapture church as racially diverse can also be seen as the product of just the sort of shameful desire that Kaplan says must be both acted out and hidden. What makes this particular desire shameful is the fact that evangelicals may recognize on some level that we are currently failing to break down racial boundaries and that we often find it easier to imagine a racially harmonious church than to create one.

Given Sedgwick’s warning that paranoid readings have stifled critical inquiry, perhaps the most important question left to ask is, what is the purpose of choosing such an incendiary label like “evangelical pornography” to describe Left Behind? Like much that serves a pornographic function, Left Behind caters to multiple, often contradictory, desires and self-conceptions. My point here is not that the negative desires and self-conceptions are the real ones that describe and define evangelicalism. What I would argue is that seeing and owning our baser instincts is the first step towards confronting and conquering them.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Phil 4:8).The clause that introduces this list, however, is often dropped or forgotten when the verse is cited. It is: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true.” Paul calls on Christians to balance their contemplation of the lovely with their contemplation of the true, even if that truth can be painful.

In Left Behindimages (1), as in much Christian fiction, the objects that are portrayed seem to be represented in such a way as to gratify the consumers rather than challenge them. The role of the constructed reader flip-flops seamlessly, as it does in much pornography, between that of the victim wronged by the object of pornography and the victorious and vengeful corrector of past injustices. Pornography often reveals a deep-seated anger or hostility in the heart of the consumer which, combined with his feelings of powerlessness, creates a need to manipulate, punish, and humiliate the perceived sources of that treatment.

It has been my argument that much of the success of Left Behind has been because its evangelical readers feel exactly that sort of anger at and powerless over those loved ones who reject their own Christianity as well as at those non-Christians who have mocked or marginalized them. The response has been to create a fantasy world where those loved ones who have injured “me” are humiliated and forced to repeatedly acknowledge their own inferiority to “me,” while those strangers who have hurt me are placed in fantasy scenarios where roles are reversed and my arguments are clearly superior, my thinking always awarded the last word. While it may be comforting to imagine such a world, it is worth thinking on whether our comfort is worth the price we pay when we purchase it by stereotyping and caricaturizing those who threaten or disrupt it.

One Reply to “Left Behind as Evangelical Pornography”

  1. epaddon

    I have no great fondness for the Left Behind series because (1) I don’t agree with its pre-trib Eschatology and (2) I think its poorly written and suffers from the fact that it is overly padded. I could have liked it even while disagreeing with its eschatology if it had been competently written and also given us some more authenticity in its technical details and also giving us characters who were more flawed in their pre-Rapture behavior. But that said, this treatise that uses a loaded term like “pornography” to justify the weight of its paranoid pretentions is a nice reminder of what happens when critics spend too much time in the ivory towers of elitist thinking.

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