Left Behind – Tim LaHaye & Jerry B. Jenkins (Review)

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Suddenly, without warning or explanation, people are missing. All across the world – from beds and cars and aeroplanes – people are just gone. The clothes they were wearing are left piled behind them; any vehicles being driven have crashed.

Humanity is in shock, struggling to deal both with the aftermath of the disappearances and the resultant chaos. Some think aliens are behind it all, others blame bizarre meteorological phenomena or electromagnetic buildup. Only those who have studied the Bible know the real truth: the Rapture has occurred, God has called his faithful into heaven, and the apocalypse has begun. 

I quite enjoy both apocalyptic and Christian fiction. One is exciting, and the other has a rare flavour of simplicity and sincerity. The Left Behind series falls into both categories, so I thought it would be my kind of thing, or at least entertainingly bizarre. Regrettably, I was wrong on both counts.

The book focuses on the experiences of two middle-aged, middle-class, culturally-Christian, straight, white, American men. This is apparently sufficient to explore a global phenomenon that would raise questions about identity and faith. It’s a lazy choice, and one that reveals the authors’ target market and underlying assumptions. The premise – a specific religion’s apocalypse comes true – cries out for a wider range of characters and cultures to be displayed, but this book is almost defiantly bound within a specific context.

This limited worldview extends to the overall narrative as well as character choice. It’s very American in the same way that low-budget action films are; the world outside the US is seen as a lawless wasteland where everyone is openly corrupt and acts of loud and horrific violence are commonplace. “Provincial” is probably the best word to cover it – provincial and wary of outsiders.

There’s always a risk, when reading Christian fiction, that it comes with a side-order of retrogressive right-wing attitudes, but that’s not as much the case as you might think. Diversity is absent rather than frowned upon – a couple of telling comments suggest that the overall paradigm is not that inclusive, but characters of different races, creeds, and sexualities are conspicuous by their absence. Israel features, both technologically advanced and yet somehow barbaric, although it is glossed over; There is one somewhat-key Jewish character, and they are something of a stereotype, but it’s a Mel Brooks comedy stereotype rather than a Protocols of the Elders of Zion one. All female characters are beautiful, somewhat shallow, and easily-led by powerful male characters.

Again though, this is all relatively low-key; there are countless books not associated with apocalyptic creeds that are equally narrowly-focused and exclusionary. I mention it only because the subject matter is often twinned with particular social attitudes, and I’m not sure if the highly-specific cross-section of society shown, and the attitudes that bleed through, are deliberately chosen or just in the authors’ blindspots.

Left Behind should be an action story – it starts with several plane crashes, it’s about a world controlled by shadowy power brokers, and lots of people wind up dead. Oddly though, there’s no actual action. The meat of an action story involves violence, high drama (car chases, etc.) and sex. All of those items are absent from this book. Instead, in places where you would expect wrestling for the gun with one bullet left, motorcycles flipping end-over-end, and sultry temptresses, there are long passages explaining biblical prophecy.

It’s absolutely relevant to the subject matter, but it’s not exciting. What you’re left with is the connective tissue of an action-adventure, plus earnest preaching. And it is very earnest; this book was at least partly, and almost certainly mostly, written to proselytise.  A lot of space is given to explaining what will happen in later books, and the focus clings closely to prophecy, regardless of what is happening in the narrative. We get lots of description of characters watching news reports of things that link to Revelation, even though they aren’t relevant to that character at all.

Perhaps my biggest gripe with the book is the antichrist. Firstly, when he first appears and is very obviously the antichrist, nobody notices. I get that the antichrist is meant to be a deceiver, but when someone appears immediately after the Rapture and demands that all earthly power is relocated to Babylon, that should raise some eyebrows. It does not. Not even the people glued to the Bible and actively watching out for prophecy seem alarmed.

Secondly, he doesn’t do anything evil until the very end, and that’s a cartoonishly unnecessary evil act that benefits him nothing and is there solely to wrap up the book. For most of the book, he’s doing things that are objectively good – preventing war, fostering international cooperation without seeking power, ending famines. Until he goes all murder and mind control-y in the final few pages, he has a positive impact, but you are meant to find him terribly evil just because he is associated with the UN. I – in company, I believe, with the vast majority of humanity – don’t have the visceral horror of the UN that is needed to give the narrative weight. By the time he starts doing worrying (still not evil) things, the impact is lessened because the book has been trying to worry you with the gruesome spectres of diplomacy and friendliness for far too long.

There’s not a massive amount of plot – most of the book is concerned with the Rapture’s immediate aftermath, the conversion of a couple of key characters, and some prophecies coming to pass. It is the first book of a long series though, so hopefully the sequels have a better dramatic structure. The resolution of Left Behind feels rushed and unsatisfying, pulling threads together to end the book rather than because they were reaching a resolution.

The biggest issue (craft-wise) with this book is that is boring. The danger doesn’t seem dangerous, the evil doesn’t seem evil. The book tries to make the stakes matter by talking about atmospheres of evil, but you can’t just say that and expect it to work on the reader. I understand the problem the authors are facing: to make a book about sin and corruption work, you’ve got to sell the sin and corruption – they’ve got to be tempting, evocative, sweetly horrifying. Doing that, however, conflicts with being the sort of virtuous person who writes a book to convert the sinful.

I genuinely do like religious fiction, and I have zero issue with people presenting their faith through fiction or otherwise. But this book is an odd one. It’s not a story with religious elements, it’s not-great preaching disguised as a story. Leaving aside the prophetic and religious elements, the book is built on an understanding of the world – people, politics, conversation – which is not just flawed but over-simplified as well; society and the people within it simply do not function in the way the authors think.

I know people who see this series and the beliefs it grows from as a danger, a moral hazard. That’s not the impression I get. The book is filled with half-formed ideas and built on a shaky foundation of Cold-war attitudes. It contains an approach to the divine that I find truly alien. It doesn’t seem dangerous though; just ill-informed and clinging to an ideal that has never existed.

I could talk about this book for ages, and there’s loads of stuff I haven’t covered, but to round this review out: I was disappointed by this book. It wasn’t interesting, and it wasn’t persuasive. To some extent that’s a good thing, as a persuasive book about an apocalyptic creed would start to be dangerous. As it is though, Left Behind is just somewhat tedious. I am unlikely to read the sequels.

Buy it here.

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