Left Behind, Tim LaHaye & Jerry B. Jenkins

Living Books, 1995, 342 pages, US$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-8423-4270-2

I can confirm the rumours: I was seen reading Left Behind on OC Transpo buses in October 2006.

You may ask why someone like me, devoid of any churchgoing sympathies, would want to read one of the biggest religious bestsellers of the past decade. The answer would be something like “know your enemy”. Or, at least, being able to discuss the phenomenon from a first-person perspective. I may not care all that much for the American evangelical movement, but my loathing for people who feels comfortable dismissing books they haven’t read is even worse —especially when it’s so easy to find a copy.

A bit of historical background may be useful for those few who don’t know anything about the “Left Behind” series: Starting in 1996, this twelve-book epic describes the “End Times” following the Rapture. As the first volume begins, a small portion of the global population has simply disappeared, provoking no end of questions and theories. What our characters come to understand during this first episode is that this is indeed the End Game and many adventures lie ahead. Our four series protagonists are introduced in this volume, along with an Antichrist named “Nicolae Carpathia”. The book concludes with the formation of a “Tribulation Force” vowing to fight evil, make the world safe for Jesus and keep the readers entertained for the next eleven novels.

The “Left Behind” series has since grown into a gigantic franchise, with 40+ million copies sold. Aside from the dozen original novels, there are now three prequels, two spin-off series, a teen adaptation, audiobooks, a graphic novel, a video game and even three movies starring Kirk Cameron. Media empire? I report: you decide. The series has certainly attracted its share of controversy, becoming yet another subject of contemplation in the endless debate about religious fundamentalism in the US. Reading it is almost a political statement. Lambasting or dismissing it seems almost de rigueur in the well-meaning secular circles I frequent.

But never mind the controversy: What about the book? you ask. Is it any good?

Well, no.

But that doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting.

Like it or not, the Rapture is a big fun idea. Science Fiction itself has used it a number of times, sometimes literally (Heinlein’s Job), sometimes not (Robert Charles Wilson’s The Harvest, still fascinating fifteen years later) but often in a jokey, quasi-satiric fashion. Seeing true believers take on the subject has an added interest. What if the devout just disappeared? How would people react to the sight of people going poof in the air? For all of its faults, Left Behind is most enjoyable when it deals with the repercussions of this scenario. Intriguingly, it suggests that children (from conception to about six years of age) get a free pass to Heaven: Pregnant women find themselves with flat bellies (though what happens to the non-foetus part of their pregnancy is left unmentioned), maternity wards are emptied and there’s a curious lack of reaction from befuddled parents. More confusingly, it also suggests that the Catholic pope is also taken along for the ride, which raises questions of doctrine I’m not even equipped to touch. On the other hand, the novel stays quiet about what happens in non-Christian nations, an oversight that is probably corrected in the latter novels.

But whatever enjoyment I took from the novel was derived from the more explicit Science Fiction details. As a thriller, Left Behind is limp by design: though the characters are flawed in interesting ways (they were left behind, after all), LaHaye and Jenkins are holding their punches for latter volumes. It doesn’t help that the geopolitical background of the story is less than convincing. Not only does it feature a scientist who can magically hydrate deserts or a divine miracle in which Israel escapes a massive Russian nuclear attack (!!!), it also presumes that when the Antichrist will come waltzing in, he will be able to seize control of the world through the UN without anyone else objecting. (On the other hand, the inevitable scene in which the Antichrist is revealed to be, well, the Antichrist, is pretty well-done in an over-the-top fashion.)

But that still leaves me struggling to find something better to say about the book than “Eh, some good fantasy bits.” If I can find some interest in the series, then it may not be any surprise to find that the true believers would enjoy it as more than a think-toy. Yes, I could rant on and on about the nonsense of the novel, the poor writing and the rise of militant evangelism as exemplified by this series, but why bother? These points were made elsewhere. As for me, I’ll simply find a way to marvel at how some SF bits can unite both science-fiction fans and fundamentalist Christians.

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