I suppose to an extent we should all be thanking the embarrassing pile of fail that is the Left Behind series. Without it, this blog would certainly not exist, and where would we all be then?! (Note: I, for one, would be off doing productive things, and that would be just silly.)
Now, many other, more talented bloggers have done a better (and funnier) job of critiquing LB than I ever could, so I won’t dwell on it for too long. There’s no point in beating a dead horseman of the apocalypse, after all. However, since it is the most popular book about the Rapture and has actually made its way into popular culture (The Simpsons did a parody of it, and The Simpsons=Popular Culture.), I feel I owe you at least a summary of the awfulness that is Left Behind.
Hmm, where to begin? I guess I’ll just dive right in. Left Behind not only failed to make me want to be a Christian; it managed to do the complete opposite. To this day, these remain the only books that have ever actually made me want to become a Satanist. (I don’t mean an atheist who calls themselves a Satanist to make a political point. I mean that after reading these books my actual response was, “Wow, God sucks. I’d rather worship Satan.”) Naturally this bothered me a lot. Even though I don’t believe in a Satan per se, he’s supposed to represent of all the suckiness in the world–like wars and famine and unicorns dying at the hands of evil wizards–and I really don’t like any of those things.
Luckily, I figured out pretty quickly why I felt this way. It wasn’t because I woke up one morning liking wars and famine and dead unicorns. It wasn’t even because the Satanists were glamorized and made being evil look super cool. No, it was because the Satanists are the only decent human beings in the entire book series. The Christian protagonists–the ones you are supposed to sympathize with–are awful people. Not just flawed characters. Not even antiheroes. The Christians in these books are just flat-out horrible human beings, and you’re supposed to admire them for it.
This isn’t the only problem, of course. The Left Behind books get a lot of other things wrong too, but most of those things I can forgive. After all, there are plenty of books full of terrible prose, uninteresting plots, and flat characters that I will still willingly choke my way through. No, what really ruined Left Behind’s apocalypse for me wasn’t the awful technique; it was the authors’ completely skewed sense of what makes a character likeable, let alone an exemplar of morality.
If there’s one thing I’ve gained from my shiny B.A. in English, it’s the knowledge of how important it is to back up your arguments with textual references. (Actually, that’s the only thing I gained from my B.A. in English, so I like to take advantage of it whenever possible.) Therefore and thusly, take the following two scenes from The Rising.*
*Note: Don’t actually read The Rising. It’s the first book chronologically but the thirteenth book Jenkins wrote, and by this point he’d realized he could get away with publishing whatever the hell he wanted without worrying about silly things like, say, having a plot.
Anyway, within ten pages of each other, we find two different characters meeting groups of Christians and Satanists for the first time. First, 10-year-old Rayford Steele is visiting his friend Bobby’s Christian family for dinner, where Bobby’s parents invite Ray to say grace.
“Well, um, okay.” Ray bowed his head and closed his eyes, folding his hands over his plate. “God is great; God is good. Now we thank him for our food. Amen.”
The little sisters laughed aloud, and Bobby couldn’t stop a guffaw even with his palm pressed to his mouth. … “That’s how you pray for a meal?”
Mr. stark cleared his throat. “How about your father, Raymond?”
“All right. Is that how your father prays over a meal?” …
Ray wanted this conversation over. What in the world was with these people? “Do you want me to pray like my father prays? I can.”
Mrs. Stark set down a bowl she had apparently meant to pass. “Yes, that would be nice.” Everyone closed their eyes again.
“For what we are about to receive,” Ray said, “may we be truly thankful. Amen.”
“Amen!” the girls chorused.
Ray got the impression that Bobby and his parents were again amused but had decided not to humiliate him further.
Unfortunately, that is not the end of the humiliation, as Bobby spends four more pages grilling Ray about how he prays and where he goes to church, making a crack about how he prays in “made-up sing-song prayers.” I’m surprised Ray didn’t run out and join the first church he found after such a warm, accepting welcome.
Contrast that to this passage 10 pages later, when the Marilena, the Antichrist’s future mom, meets a group of Satanists for the first time.
[Marilena] allowed someone to take her coat. She knew [her husband] had to be as disconcerted as she at the overdone friendliness of everyone’s welcomes–smiles and handshakes all around.
[Viviana Ivanosa stood up and began the meeting.]
“Our numbers seem to grow every week,” she said, smiling. “Welcome, welcome, especially to our newcomers.” With that she resolutely looked directly into the eyes of at least six people, as if to prove she was aware of each she had not seen before. …
Viviana returned to the first newcomer. “Please tell us your name and why you’re here.”
Viviana spends the next few pages trying to make everyone feel welcome and being incredibly patient while Marilena’s husband rudely scoffs at her beliefs. Unlike Mr. Stark, who couldn’t be bothered to remember Rayford’s name, Viviana makes an honest effort to know and include everyone. I think we’re expected to read this as insincere, but I have a hard time finding evidence for that elsewhere in the series. I think Viviana legitimately believes in her cause and wants to share it. Of course, Viviana and the other Satanists go on to allow some horrible things in the name of their deity. But so do the Christians. The difference is that the Satanists are kind and caring in their everyday interactions. The Christian characters are self-absorbed and stuck-up.
You might think I’m generalizing based on those two passages, but things like this happen all the time. I can’t emphasize enough how often you see the good guys acting like jerks:
- The main character, a grown-up Rayford Steele, looks down on his coworker Hattie for being a slut because of that time they *almost* had an affair. (It takes two people to have an affair, Ray…) (Book 1)
- The other protagonist, Buck Williams, bullies a gay coworker. (Books 2-3)
- A Christian side-character makes a crack at Hattie for having left her fiancé for another man, even though he knows that said fiancé has just murdered Hattie’s son and tried to murder Hattie. (Book 4)
- Then there’s Rayford again, making fun of a girl who’s been enveloped in a supernatural darkness and is terrified of being blind. Isn’t that a riot? ‘Cause, like, remember that time in the Bible when Jesus came across a blind man and totally made fun of him? That’s totally in the Bible, right? Right? (Book 8)
What does the Left Behind God think of all this assholery? It’s hard to tell. God is so busy pummeling the planet with comets, flaming hail, devastating earthquakes, and supernatural monsters that attack Non-Christians, he doesn’t have much time to care about little things like keeping his eye on the sparrow or making sure his followers aren’t total dicks.
Meanwhile, the ‘bad guys’ continue to be perfectly polite. Nicolae Carpathia, the Antichrist and my future husband in an alternate universe, spends most of his time talking about bringing people together and restoring peace in the wake of a supernatural disaster.
And yes, yes, of course the bad guy is going talk about peace. The problem with this series is that he then goes about actually bringing people together and restoring peace. You only need to compare it to any other post-apocalyptic society (I think specifically of the chilling YA novel Life as We Knew It) to see that LB’s post-Rapture world has an amazingly intact infrastructure. The protagonists gripe about how useless Carpathia is, but they completely disregard the fact that he’s doing a supernaturally fantastic job at keeping the world running.
This odd lack of evil continues for about 800 pages. By the third book, the authors seem to realize that they need to make their Antichrist do something bad, so they have him bomb some random people. But even this is not so much evil as completely baffling. He already controls the world and the media, so why is he bombing his own people? I don’t know. No one really knows. Everyone in the book just sort of treats it like this is totally normal and ok.
After this harrowing if utterly pointless attack, the Antichrist calls his cabinet to a secret meeting where he announces his master plan to … dun dun dun … fund social services in third world countries!!!
What? I don’t … I don’t even… What?!
The books only get worse from there.
So …… I could go on and on, but, as I said, it’s been done before. Instead I’ll leave you with links to some excellent blogs that critique Left Behind in much more humorous detail:
Mouse’s Musings — Mouse writes about the Left Behind Kids’ series (which is just as horribly done as the adult books, only there are more of them). Snark abounds!
Right Behind — “What ‘Left Behind’ should have been.” Inspired by Fred Clark, written by fans, and every bit as fantastic as the LB series is terrible.
Slacktivist at Patheos — Each Left Behind Friday, Fred Clark posts his take on a ridiculous passage in the LB series (of which there are many). He’s currently about halfway through Book 3, Nicolae: Rise of the Antichrist. To start at the beginning (which I recommend), go here!
PS – The comments are often the best part and well worth the time it takes to read them.