The End is Always An Arm's Length Away
Spending my weekends in the End of Times section at the local bookstore is becoming a habit for me. Pouring over not only Tim LaHaye's popular Left Behind series but also any other work of fiction (Christian or otherwise) listed under apocalypse, rapture, post-apocalyptic or the end. The apocalypse haunts my book shelves, my waking hours and my dreams these days. If I am not reading about the end, I am watching cinematic ends including zombies, angels and the hot monster-stalking brothers of Supernatural. My Netflix queue is a bit scary and my movie watching partner any day now is going to declare apocalyptic burn out. The end is always an arm's length away at my house.
This apocalypse obsession is currently focused on LaHaye. My relationship with LaHaye is completely one-sided. He has no idea that I even exist but he would probably be content to know that I now own several of his books both fictional and theological. I would like to say that LaHaye has been a peripheral figure in my mind since my high school days and the popularity of his Left Behind series among the young (and not-so-young) evangelical set. In 1998, I even started reading the eponymous first book, "a novel about earth's last days" and didn't get further than piles of clothing lying haphazardly on an airplane. In 2010, I finally finished the 468 page book I started twelve years ago as well as LaHaye's new venture in fiction with Craig Parshall, The End (2010) series. Moreover, I now am the somewhat proud owner of several Left Behind:The Kids books, two Left Behind films and multiple theological works "unveiling" Revelation and explaining how we are actually at the end of days. Why might you ask would I spend my limited time and energy on evangelical pulp fiction? (If you ask this, then you possibly don't know me well.)
This can partially be blamed on my students and my Apocalypse in American culture class, but that is a bit disingenuous on my part. Granted, I did assign interviews with Tim and Beverly LaHaye, excerpts from The Edge of the Apocalypse and excellent analysis from Amy Johnson Frykholm's Rapture Culture. Yet, the real reason is that I have become a bit obsessed, in a scholarly way, with LaHaye's end of times theology from Rapture to the Glorious Appearing, which includes tribulations, destruction, more destruction and a vast majority of humanity being wiped out in inventive yet terrible ways. His Revelation Unveiled sits on my desk with a cover bent from use because of his charts that depict timeline and explore the essentials differences between pre-millennialists, a-millennialists and post-millennialists.
Part of my effort is to understand the theology that LaHaye has spent much of his life popularizing. The other is to attempt to understand the appeal of the sixteen book series that sold 65 million copies and even made it to the top of the New York Times bestselling list. Left Behind, the book, turns fifteen this year, and LaHaye is still writing and preaching his approach to the end of times. The plot of the first book includes the rapture of true Christian believers, international intrigue, intrepid reporters, converted Christian skeptics and the appearance of the anti-Christ in the form of the Romanian Nicolae Carpathia. The Left Behind books follow the melodramatic saga of the Tribulation Force to the Glorious appearing of Jesus and eventually to the millennial kingdom. The series also includes three prequel books that follow Rayford Steele (the pilot), Buck Williams (the journalist) and Carpathia before the Rapture.
Fifteen years later, LaHaye and Parshall's The Edge of the Apocalypse provides a different and sometimes more disturbing narrative. Joshua Jordan, a former military man and now weapons designer, saves New York City from nuclear destruction using his Return-To-Sender defensive shield developed by his private company. In the early pages, Jordan's wife, daughter and son face nuclear annihilation, but Jordan saves the day. However, Jordan is not hailed as a hero but rather he is called in front of a Senate Committee for hostile questioning and maligned by the liberal media. LaHaye's favorite threats are still present: globalization, one world currency and the dangerous nature of peace. But, Jordan, a skeptic married to beautiful church-going wife, is not concerned with the end of the world but rther the end of the American nation. The patriotic hero fears that the government will steal his top-secret weapon and leave America unprotected from enemies that pretend to be allies. The edge of the apocalypse, then, is not for the global world but the particular American population, who cannot trust their government to protect them. The cynical Jordan, however, is one step ahead of the reader, and he organizes a small group of powerful capitalists, including one woman, called the Roundtable. The small cabal hopes to illuminate the government's diabolical plans and protect the nation at all costs.
What proved most striking to me was the intimate relationship between the American nation and the end of the larger world. LaHaye and Parshall's America was the redeemer nation, the model, and when America failed, so too would the rest of the globe. LaHaye and Parshall uplift a small band of Christian patriots to take back the nation if the government no longer protects its citizens. The book ends with Jordan contemplating how to work against our national government and deciding his group could lead the way to revolution. Perhaps, the reader is supposed to think, people like Jordan could save our nation from itself. This vision of the nation and the world bears some similarity to Left Behind but the larger tale appears more ambivalent about the end of a nation and its people.
Yet, the call for small groups to defend the nation and antagonize government proved a little too similar to the white supremacists that I study as well. They can't trust government either, the end is near and they guarantee that they are ready for it. The Edge of the Apocalypse conveys a similar meaning. At least with Left Behind, the violence did not erupt until after the Rapture. With Edge, the end of the book, and the possible end of the nation, no longer has the guarantee, and its end feels nearer and closer. The Edge haunts my dreams and waking hours, and maybe my obsession with LaHaye is to place that book in perspective. Or maybe, it is my attempt to see how America's fate became intertwined with the apocalypse more largely.