Left Behindism and The Ineffective Church
The Left Behind book series was originally penned some 20 years ago. However, I was “left behind” during the height of its popularity and did not read the books until quite recently. I ran across a mass-market edition of the first book while searching for texts connected to my research on American Folk Religion. I considered it a necessary addition to my research library and willingly parted with the $.50 required to make the battered copy of the mega-bestseller my own.
I must admit, Jerry B. Jenkins is a talented writer; Left Behind is easy and entertaining fiction. Granted, it is uneven at times and would benefit from additional editing here and there but overall the first book in the series is a fine example of what popular fiction is all about. I can remember when the series first hit the bookstores; many of my friends and acquaintances claimed they were unable to put the books down and could hardly wait for the next installment.
I don't begrudge the success of LaHaye and Jenkins but I do wish they had written a theologically sound series. On top of the defeatism inherent in Left Behind, it is strange to find fundamentalist Christians make heroes out of people who thumbed their nose at Jesus and so were left behind during the rapture. That these worldlings then find they have a second opportunity to be born again also strikes me as curious and is something I failed to pick up on during many years of dispensational indoctrination in my youth. In any case, the books and the movies alike actually provide people with an excuse for rejecting Jesus Christ. After all, why not live a worldly life of sensual pleasure until the rapture comes. Once that happens you will have irrefutable proof that the claims of Christianity are genuine. Then, you can receive Christ as Savior and go on to live an exciting life as a member of the Tribulation Force until Christ's Glorious Appearing. According to Left Behind, it won't really matter in the long run which side of the rapture you end up on. You can receive Christ as savior regardless. Besides, Satan is in control and the kingdom of God will not be realized until Jesus comes back to physically kick butt and take names.
This is the real damage done by the Left Behind series. The books reinforce the idea that there is nothing we can do to make things better in this life. Left Behind reassures us that Satan rules the world and Christians should expect defeat at every turn. Now, I know, LaHaye and Jenkins toss in a few disclaimers reminding their audience that God is sovereign even though Satan always wins in this age. But I think they do that so they will not appear unorthodox. In any case, LaHaye and Jenkins' fictional series is effective at promoting a doctrine of defeat primarily because most Christians will read popular fiction or Hal Lindsey style “prophecy books” while avoiding (like the plague) any and all sound theological tomes. Your typical professing Christian abhors the phariseeism and religiosity they claim these theological works represent. For them, Christianity is a relationship with Jesus - and everyone knows relationships live and die according to one's emotional response to the liaison.
When confronted with their eschatological errors, these Christians marshal a list of Bible verses and quotes from their favorite authors as a first line of defense. This barrage of “facts” need not represent a coherent argument. It is as if the mere recitation of disjointed dispensational concepts are convincing enough. It reminds me of something C. S. Lewis wrote in his book The Discarded Image: “on the lowest intellectual level, people who find any one subject entirely engrossing are apt to think that any reference to it, of whatever quality, must have some value. Pious people on that level appear to think that the quotation of any scriptural text, or any line from a hymn, or even any noise made by a harmonium, is an edifying sermon or cogent apologetic” (Cambridge University Pres Edition, page 205). Thus, Left Behind and books of that caliber need not develop a logical, biblical, argument as long as they frequently reference (in isolation) key scriptural texts and the oft repeated catch phrases of the dispensational ghetto.
It seems clear the poison of Left Behind has befuddled much of the North American Church. Everyone is concerned about the current state of affairs but people either believe there is nothing they can do about it (“it will only get worse til the rapture”) or they are confused about what action they should take. Defeatism is easy to identify as Left Behindism but I think confusion concerning the right course of action is likewise symptomatic of an influence emanating from an eschatology of defeat.
In the first place there are too few believers who understand the concept of bringing their arena of activity under the Lordship of Christ. Even among those who embrace this teaching it is difficult to find examples of success in walking it out. Lots of folks calling themselves “Reformed” espouse the doctrine of God's authority over all aspects of life but they spend most of their time parsing and re-parsing Paul's epistles for the sake of displaying their robust belief in God's concern for the intellect. I too believe intellectual pursuits are part of the kingdom package but no one ever nurtured their wife and children in the faith, planted a garden, built a hospital, ran a business, organized a political campaign, formed a neighborhood emergency preparedness coalition and so on, simply by thinking about it. I seem to recall someone once saying that faith without works is dead (James 2:20) and it is my belief that action-less faith is often sluggishness brought on by long immersion in Left Behindism.
Why do we do it? Why do we take on the character of the Christian Ghetto when we say we believe every corner of life is the rightful domain of king Jesus? Because it is hard to swim against the flow. It is hard to find other Christians who have accepted the whole kingdom package. These days it is not so difficult to find homeschoolers or Christian “preppers” or Reformed (fill in the blank) congregations, but connecting with believers who understand and accept the principle of bringing our sphere of influence under the authority of Jesus remains difficult. And so we flounder.
The Bible tells us a three cord strand is not quickly broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12) and the realization of the kingdom of God requires a corporate obedience. Many of us find ourselves lacking like-minded fellowship and we become discouraged in the fight. Nonetheless, we have a duty to bring our field of responsibility under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Perhaps it is your visible obedience to the dominion mandate (Jeremiah 29:4-7) that will bring other kingdom minded believers out of the woodwork. The world is going to hell in a handbasket all around us and the only way out of the mess is long term obedience to King Jesus. That obedience starts with you the individual and moves out from there. Everything under your control must be carried out as unto the Lord. Then, according to the talent and opportunity given you by God, you should labor to extend your sphere of influence: added responsibility at work, starting a business, organizing neighborhood associations, and so on. In this way, through the God glorifying efforts of millions of Christians, the rule of Jesus Christ is realized on Earth.
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