Sunday, June 10, 2012

Religion in American Popular Culture (Part 4): Christian Novels

I shall become your apostle whether you like it or not. I shall construct you and your life and your teachings and your crucifixion and resurrection just as I wish [1].

In 1678, Reformed Baptist preacher John Bunyan published his famous allegorical work The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, a work which, despite its sectarian Protestant overtones, has nevertheless captivated readers across many wide-ranging branches of Christian denominations. One of the earliest known examples of the Christian Novel, Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegorical narrative illustrating through metaphor many aspects of the religious life of devotion (in essence a novelizing or dramatization of the New Testament epistles) by way of the story of Christian, an Everyman character who embarks on a perilous journey from his hometown, the City of Destruction, to the Celestial City where he seeks the culmination of the salvation and escape from judgment he found along the way. The narrative is notable for the way it takes abstract theological doctrines and issues and concretizes them for the reader, making abstract concepts more real by turning them into people and obstacles that the protagonist encounters within the confines of the secondary world. The story is related in the form of a dream experienced by a nameless wanderer who makes a brief appearance at the very beginning: “As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep, and as I slept I dreamed a dream [2].”

This allegorizing technique was used by the medievalist and novelist C.S. Lewis in his famous series of novels The Chronicles of Narnia [3], which followed in the tradition that was in many ways pioneered by Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, illustrating key religious and theological concepts and teachings by way of creative storytelling whose plotlines, themes and characters parallel a number of items of Christian faith. Prior to Pilgrim’s Progress, the technique was utilized by poets rather than novelists, prominent instances being Dante’s Divine Comedy (1321) and Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667)[4]. Both these epic poems dramatized, with creative license, doctrines relating to the afterlife (prime fodder for satiating peoples’ imaginations with added details) and the Fall of Adam and Eve, respectively [5].

The distinctive art form known as the Christian Novel represents the religious devotee’s desire to “dream,” to cognitively move beyond the “wilderness of this world” to experience a fuller and more complete narrative that goes beyond the familiar texts of canon scripture and satisfies gaps left in the imagination by that familiar canon. The “dream” of Bunyan can thus be viewed as a metaphor for religious escapism through the medium of fiction, an escapism for which there is a fine line between enhancement of a religious worldview and what many might lampoon as “spiritual pornography [6].” In this sense Dante’s Divine Comedy was not much different from Boccaccio’s bawdy Decameron.

The enhancement of traditional, over-familiar faith texts that religious fiction novels offer is analogous to the particular kind of enhancement known as etiology. Deriving from the Greek word aitiologia (“giving a reason for”), etiology refers to the study of why things occur, including the reasons underlying why things are as they are and behave as they do. For example, an etiological myth seeks to explain the rationale for names of places or peoples, and/or to create a mythic history for those places and peoples [7]. In other words, etiological supplements provide fodder for filling in gaps in knowledge and for satisfying conceptual difficulties in the process of imagination. A great deal of fan fiction falls easily into the category of etiological supplements. And of course, Christianity and the Bible hold a massive fan fiction base larger than any others combined (especially in America), and in fact have for centuries.

Dimestore Apocalypses

The more enigmatic and mysterious a particular portion of Scripture comes across, the more likely it is to receive fan fiction treatment in the interests of fleshing out tantalizing details not disclosed in canonical scripture. This explains the great popularity and success of Christian novels that deal with the “end-times” as described by the major prophetic books of the Bible, such as Daniel and Revelation. Take, for example, the Christian concept of the Antichrist, a figure who is mentioned in only one verse in the whole Bible (I John 2:18), but who nevertheless has utterly fascinated believers and nonbelievers alike for the last two thousand years, likely due to the equation of “Antichrist” to the “Beast” in Revelation and the “Man of Perdition” in Daniel. As religious historian Bernard McGinn remarks, “What is most significant about Antichrist’s appearance in literature has been the attempts to probe the motivation (and at times even the psychology) behind ultimate human evil . . . It is probably no accident that novels and novellas, where motivation and character development are so important, display the most interesting Antichrists [8].” A great deal of these fictional accounts, certainly the ones we are primarily concerned with here, are the brainchild of religious believers seeking to present a doctrine they view as theologically accurate in a compelling, contemporary way which will not only titillate believing readers, but also draw in potential converts who would not normally pick up a Bible or a Bible commentary.

The wave of Christian end-times novels that have flowed into the Christian subculture for the last fifty years serve a dual function: they are a way of making sense out of the failing of Jesus to return, and they feed off the certainty that he is still coming back. What believing connoisseurs of these novels are actually doing is the former. What they say they are doing is the latter. What seems to be clear upon reflection is that the function of these novels and movies about the Christian end of the world is to psychologically fill in glaring gaps; according to the beliefs which fundamentalists have hammered home to them in church every week, the Second Coming ought to be happening at any time now. In fact, it should have happened before now. Needless to say, it is not happening. So what is the next step? In their imagination, they are able to visualize the apocalypse happening, and this largely suffices. The imagination serves to soften and soothe the wound of disappointed expectation.

A striking example of this psychological function is seen on the back-cover blurb summary of evangelist Ernest W. Angley’s 1950 novel Raptured, a novel which is clearly and unambiguously fantastical in nature: “With God’s help, determine for yourself whether the days of rapture are fact or fairy tale! Read about real people, in real situations, in this remarkable, inspiring book [9].” One finds this technique again with Jim Grant’s novelization of the 1972 evangelical horror film A Thief in the Night: “After reading A Thief in the Night, there is only one question you need to answer: Whose place would I want to be in? – Patty’s or Jim’s?”[10] By way of background, Patty in this story is the hapless character who, due to her lack of salvation, “had discovered too late that the loving God, who had allowed the world to go on as He had just so that as many as would could come to Him, had finally called a halt and moved into the next phase. She had discovered that the straight way was the only way. And now she was straight in a crooked world [11].” This indulgence in blurring the lines between reality and fantasy is seen to an even greater extent in Salem Kirban’s 1970 novel 666, a novel in which photographs and actual newspaper clippings are interspersed throughout the text to lend it a subliminal realism. In the introduction to his novel, Kirban writes, “This book . . . is a novel. Therefore much of it is fiction. However, it is important to note that very much of it is also FACT [12].”

There have been enough failed predictions within most adults’ lifetimes that many of them must have experienced disappointment, but the power of fiction is such that it eases the frustration. Seeing the vicissitudes of the Tribulation play out on the page via the imagination may not be as good or satisfying as the real thing, but wounds of disappointment and yearning are salved nonetheless.

“The secularization of the sacred apocalyptic myths,” writes Conrad Ostwalt “has been completed in Left Behind [13].” The Left Behind series of novels, conceived in the early 1990s by evangelist Tim LaHaye and written by Jerry B. Jenkins, is arguably the most popular and influential set of Christian novels of the last hundred years [14]. Called “The great Christian apocalypse of our day” by Bible scholar Robert M. Price [15], the Left Behind series represents the culmination of a long, struggling (often awkwardly-handled) tradition among Christian writers to dramatize or novelize the apocalypse. Total sales of the books have surpassed 65 million copies, and since the release of the first book in 1995 [16], the venture has spawned a multimedia franchise that includes three movie adaptations (all starring popular evangelist Kirk Cameron), a spin-off series aimed at younger readers entitled Left Behind: The Kids, comic books based on the novels, three video games, and radio dramas that in many ways mimics George Orwell’s famous War of the Worlds radio drama.

The wild popularity of the series demonstrates that evangelical culture has become extremely proficient and competent in adopting secular standards to improve the Christian message. This is made all the more fascinating when one considers the extremely literalist standpoint with regard to theological doctrine that the authors of Left Behind assert and from which the storyline and concept is derived. As Robert Dreyfuss notes, “[LaHaye’s] books depict a fantastical, fictional version of what he and his followers think is in store for the human race . . . If the Bible (Revelation 9:1-11) says that billions of six-inch long scorpionlike monsters with the heads of men, ‘flowing hair like that of women’ and the teeth of lions, wearing crowns and helmets, will swarm across the globe gnawing on unbelievers – well, that’s exactly what LaHaye says will happen [17].”

Secular, mass-market novels in the horror genre that borrow elements from religious apocalypses adopt an ostensibly different approach than the material written primarily for Bible believers. For one thing, secular treatments of biblical themes in general display more flexibility, more comfort and ease at using creative and artistic license with sacred texts. The Omen series of novels and films, which appeared in the 1970s and marked the beginning of a tidal wave of secular novels that incorporated religious end-times elements, is a great example of this. Stephen King’s apocalyptic blockbuster The Stand (1978; revised, restored, expanded, 1991) was another significant contribution to this trend, one of the best examples of highly selective adaptation of scripture.

Interestingly enough, however, an analysis of these secular mainstream novels finds that there is not as great a divide between them and their more religiously-oriented counterparts as one might initially expect. For example, The Omen was originally conceived by evangelical Robert Boyd Munger, who intended the film to serve as an evangelistic scare. As Bible scholar Robert M. Price points out, “The producers even took on Hal Lindsey as a consultant, but he dropped out when he saw the project going off in what he deemed unscriptural directions [18].” Hal Lindsey, of course, is the infamous author of The Late Great Planet Earth , the single bestselling title of the 1970s [19]; his evangelical influence on the first stages of the film’s production is retained in a few isolated but still eye-raising bits of dialogues. For instance, in David Seltzer’s novelization of the screenplay, a Catholic priest frantically pleads with Ambassador Thorn, the story’s main protagonist and unwitting abettor of the child who will become the future Antichrist: “You must accept Christ as your Saviour. You must accept him now [20].” However, there exists a decidedly anti-Catholic bent among many Christian end-times prophesiers, and Lindsey is no exception. Catholics, of course, are portrayed as heroes in The Omen series. Thus, while one can still detect some evangelical influence, it is for the most part drowned out in the final product.

Another peculiarity worth pointing out is the fact that that in Gordon McGill’s novel version of The Final Conflict (the third installment in the series), Jesus is reborn just as the evil Antichrist character Damien Thorn expected and tried to plan for by attempting to kill every infant boy in Britain. Damien cannot get to his target, however, because Jesus is born without any birth records among Gypsies living in the countryside [21]. In the movie version of The Final Conflict, this premise is changed completely. As it turns out, Jesus returns miraculously to earth as an adult, just as the fundamentalists expect. It is rather apparent that an individual or group exerted religiously-motivated pressure on the screenwriter to alter the originally-planned ending.

The Stand by Stephen King is an example of an apocalyptic novel that delivers to readers real, genuine suspense. Unlike in LaHaye’s series, in which every jot and tittle of the Book of Revelation is dramatized, the characters here do not immediately understand what is happening to the world. Some only suspect that what is described in Revelation might be playing out, but they are not played out blow-by-blow, heightening the mystery:
The Antichrist, that’s what I think. We’re living out the Book of Revelation right in our own time . . . how can you doubt it? “And the seven vials were opened . . .” Sure sounds like the superflu to me.

Ah, balls, people said Hitler was the Antichrist [22].
By contrast, there is no real suspense element at work in LaHaye’s series, because he has simply mapped the biblical apocalypse out literally and invited his readers to grab their proverbial popcorn and watch it come to life. Additionally, because LaHaye and Jenkins attempt to track the Bible as accurately as they imagine the Bible is guiding them to, it becomes easier for their audience to accept their narrative in a literal way, subconsciously believing in its truth based on the Bible’s teaching that what they read is how events are going to unfold, while consciously recognizing the novels as fiction. This process of assimilation is prodded on by the authors’ incorporation of constant obtrusive preaching in the form of various characters explicating to each other exactly how they know what is in store for them based on their readings of biblical prophecy.

Of course, fundamentalist Christians are the primary audience LaHaye and Jenkins have in mind, but no doubt they are also interested in attempting to save the unconverted through the vehicle of a bestselling fiction novel series. The Left Behind series ostensibly serves the same intended function of Pastor Rick Warren’s massively popular book The Purpose-Driven Life [23]. Both were written for fundamentalist audiences for whom the dogma contained in both must have been familiar territory, and yet The Purpose-Driven Life was billed and heavily advertised as a book filled with great new insights, new and profound epiphanies that could be effectively employed as a convincing evangelistic tract. The same mindset underlined the emergence of the Left Behind franchise, which has developed into a full-blown example of pop culture “Wal-Mart evangelism” that seeks to scare general fiction readers into salvation in the checkout aisle.

NOTES

1. Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1960), 478.

2. John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678; reprint ed., New York: Signet Classics, 2002), 11.

3. C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: A Story for Children (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1950); Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1951); The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952); The Silver Chair (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1953); The Horse and His Boy (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1954); The Magician’s Nephew (London: The Bodley Head, 1955); The Last Battle (London: The Bodley Head, 1956).

4. John Milton, Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained (1667, 1671; reprint ed., New York: Signet Classics, 2001); Dante Alighieri (1321), The Divine Comedy: The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso, trans. John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 2003).

5. Modern Christian writers, in addition to writing novels, have also imitated the epic poem genre, most notably Calvin Miller’s blank-verse epic poem The Singer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), an allegory of the life of Christ.

6. For example, see Fred Clark, “L.B.: Explicit Content,” The Slacktivist (blog) 6 June 2005. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2005/06/06/lb-explicit-content/ (accessed 10 June 2012).

7. See Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga & History, trans. W.H. Carruth (1901; reprint ed., New York: Schocken Books, 1964), 25.

8. Bernard McGinn, Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), 263. See also Nathan Dickey, “The Literate Antichrist: A Dilemma for Christian Eschatology,” The Journeyman Heretic (blog) 22 March 2011. http://journeymanheretic.blogspot.com/2011/03/literate-antichrist-dilemma-for.html (accessed 10 June 2012).

9. Ernest W. Angley, Raptured: A Novel on the Second Coming of the Lord (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1950), back cover blurb.

10. Jim Grant, A Thief in the Night (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), back cover blurb.

11. Ibid., pp. 83-84.

12. Salem Kirban, 666 (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1970), 11.

13. Conrad Ostwalt, Secular Steeples: Popular Culture and the Religious Imagination (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), 96.

14. For my critical analysis of the series, see Nathan Dickey, "The Subcultural Apocalypse: A Critical Analysis of the 'Left Behind' Series," The Journeyman Heretic (blog) 14 June 2011. http://journeymanheretic.blogspot.com/2011/06/subcultural-apocalypse-critical.html (accessed 10 June 2012).

15. Robert M. Price, The Paperback Apocalypse: How the Christian Church Was Left Behind (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), 271.

16. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1995).

17. Robert Dreyfuss, “Reverend Doomsday,” Rolling Stone 19 January 2004, 45.

18. Price, The Paperback Apocalypse, 241.

19. Hal Lindsey and Carole C. Carlson, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970).

20. David Seltzer, The Omen (New York: New American Library, 1976), 60.

21. Gordon McGill, The Final Conflict (New York: New American Library, 1980).

22. Stephen King, The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition (New York: Signet, 1991), 888.

23. Richard Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).

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