Oh, Lord, make me pure, but not just yet

by John Holbo on October 4, 2004

Following up John Quiggin’s follow-up to my first post on Silenced and Left Behind-style tribulit generally, a couple quick links and thoughts.

First, as a commenter reminded me, the Slacktivist has a long series of insightfully barbed posts adding up to a close reading of the first 66 pages of Left Behind. Start at the bottom and work up.

Second, Maud Newton has an interview with Chris Lehmann, including a link to a Lehmann essay in The Revealer. Actually, it’s part three of three on religious themes. It’s about author Joel “The Last Days” Rosenberg. I’ll just quote the last bits:

And at one point, as I am talking with Rosenberg, GOP strategist Grover Norquist drops by to congratulate Rosenberg on the new novel. When I greet Norquist, he announces that things have never been better: “We’re winning on all fronts.” I gesture over to Rosenberg and offer the mock protest “But he thinks the end of the world is coming.” At which point, Rosenberg mildly avers: “Not just yet.”

Maybe that answers John’s question about who is going to feed the cat.

I am still torn between thinking these silly novels are mostly harmless, apart from being badly written, and suspecting they are seriously pernicious – the worst of both worlds when it comes to cynical political calculation and severe cognitive dissonance. (To be fair, I don’t know whether the Rosenberg book is badly written. I have now empirically verified, by means of valid samples, that LaHaye and Jenkins are execrable stylists.)

You might wonder how I can doubt these novels are pernicious in effect if not authorial intent, in light of Norquist’s cynical glee. (No doubt the government will be easier to drown in a bathtub after the Rapture erodes the tax base.) The trouble is that I still look to my own case and notice I, too, enjoy consuming books and movies in which morality is entertainingly oversimplified and even seriously distorted. I enjoyed reading The Stand in high school (hence all the heavy-handed references in my first post.) Apocalyptic clashes between Good and Evil put the Fun back in fundamental. It’s fun to conceive of Evil as a lurking, malignant, external thing. “Mum, dad, don’t touch it. It’s EVIL.” But Time Bandits never confused me about metaethics. I never believed Evil has a definite spatial location.

But maybe it’s different when people actually have religious convictions – about Apocalypse, in particular. Then Apocalypse will not be potential fairy tale material but as real as a stone in the road. Folks who believe some version of the story will insist the version that gets told should reflect their sincere convictions. Whatever the way the best-seller then gets told tells you what these folks’ true convictions are.

But I – and lots of other people – seem capable of enjoying, for example, cop buddy actions films without becoming seriously delusional about the ethical propriety of callously blowing the bad guys up and away. You leave the theater, turn off the DVD, that nonsense slides off, leaving nary a moral slick on the soul. (Well, maybe a very small one.) I have my true beliefs about how cops should act. I enjoy them acting badly in movies, while somehow being stipulatively ‘the good guys’. It’s complicated obviously. In part I’m just letting my id run around wearing a superego hat. Lord knows why it loves to do that, but it does. I have my real morality, on the one hand, and my just-for-fun cop movie morality, on the other. It’s like the real one seen through a funhouse mirror of genre. (Brian? Care to take up the cudgels of imaginative resistance to morally deviant fictional worlds?) Why shouldn’t Christians have their sincere religious convictions and their just-for-fun religious convictions?

If only William James had added another chapter to his fine and nuanced treatments of ‘conversion’, ‘saintliness’, ‘mysticism’ and so forth: Bruckheimeresque religious experience. Oh, Lord, make me pure, but not for the next 90 minutes of thrills, spills, chills and kills.



des von bladet 10.04.04 at 12:56 pm

The perniciousness of a book is its means of vilification.

– Captain Vienna

Which is to ask or enquire what consequences your potential unfavourable judgement might have? Personally, I wouldn’t attempt to do anything at all, and I have accordingly spared myself the trouble of having an opinion. (It is OK, I have plenty of others.)


des von bladet 10.04.04 at 12:58 pm

My stairs, they are haunted: “The nuisance of a book is its means of vilification.”


mona 10.04.04 at 3:20 pm

…and when all tv productions shall bear the mark of Jerry Bruckheimer, thou shalt know that the end is nigh…


MQ 10.04.04 at 3:29 pm

If there was a large, active religious cult whose central belief was that God had decreed maverick cops should run around town executing supposed criminals right and left, we would all take the Lethal Weapon series a bit more seriously.


Doctor Memory 10.04.04 at 3:45 pm

There’s a Giuliani joke somewhere inside of mq’s response, desperately trying to claw its way to the surface. Nonetheless, I agree: it would seem like the political dimension is a rather important distinction between Lethal Weapon and Left Behind: even nominally tough-on-crime folks generally don’t let on that Dirty Harry informs their personal view of urban policy, but it’s dog-bites-man news in this country that a large wing of the Republican party does base their policy planning on the imminence of the rapture (among other eschatological waypoints).

…which is not to say that the books are pernicious in and of themselves: the symptom-vs-cause relationship looks pretty clear. But raising a stink about them every once in a while is politically useful anyway, since it viscerally reminds people who would otherwise happily ignore it that, yes Virginia, several of your neighbors expect to be bodily raptured to heaven sometime in the next ten years, and they’re voting accordingly.

There is a distinct left-wing counterpart to Apocalit, and a lot of it goes under the radar disguised as Science Fiction. Recent examples that come to mind instantly are Octavia Butler’s “Parable” books, Robert C. Wilson’s “Chronoliths”, etc etc…


Seth Gordon 10.04.04 at 4:44 pm

If the author of Christian America: What Evangelicals Really Want is to be trusted, most evangelical Christians are a hell of a lot more moderate than the televangelists who purport to lead them. Maybe the vast majority of the people who buy Left Behind are reading it as Lethal Weapon-style exaggeration for the sake of entertainment.

I would say more on this topic, but I have to head out to my local sukkah for lunch. Leviticus 23:42 and all that.


bellatrys 10.04.04 at 5:51 pm

Well, the problem of quasi-real values in art, and how society and individuals both should react to them, is an ancient one, and not a simple one. Socrates first seems to address it in the Ion, and Plato takes it to further extremes in the Republic, coming down against fiction very strongly as something that messes with your ability to interact with the real world, giving lots of examples as well as metaphors, such as the distorting effects of mirrors, by arguing that by presenting the gods as lecherous bums and heroes like Achilles as whiny brats, you ran the risk of inculcating in people a contempt and cynicism for everything, for instance.

Then you have the modern view, always invoked in the 80s heyday of the glorification of slaughter – “chill out, it’s *just* a movie!”

Against these both, with Tolkien, Lewis, and the ancient philosopher Maximus of Tyre, some of us would argue that art can be a way of safely handling things that you wouldn’t deal with in RL, and that it’s possible for people to write, and to enjoy, situations that ethically will violate those norms that they hold, without being automatically damaged or contributing to evil – that not all lit/art has to be “good for you” no matter what your view of “good for you” is (ie the LB people think that LB *is* psychic vitamins, not psychic poison, and that Star Wars is dangerous because it isn’t “true.”)

Yet, still, it does have the potential of making the pernicious seem reasonable and attractive, and so has to be dealt with thoughtfully and responsibly. Triumph of the Will – the Allies’ rx was Platos: “Ban it!” No one here thinks (I hope) that Riefenstahl’s work is morally neutral, or that it’s “just a movie” and has no effect. (I hope no one here buys that oversimplification: if it were true, corporations would not pay highly to have their products placed in movies, using them as giant advertisments, for one, and fads would not follow films.)

But those of us who are Free Speech advocates who *do* take the rhetorical power of art seriously, giving it respect, nevertheless think that the answer to misuse of freedom of speech is more thought and talk, not trying to hide everything dangerous from vulnerable minds. Make the rational mind strong, encourage critical thought, and aesthetic analysis, and you make readers less vulnerable to demagoguery, whether hidden in fiction or openly as via Clear Channel.

Thus I think that LB *is* pernicious. It would be better if we had a world where it wasn’t a best-seller. The answer to it is for Evangelical Christians like Slacktivist (and others too) to face it head on, and expose what’s wrong with it, revealing the solipsim, moral cowardice, strenght-worship and hate that it rests on. (I loved a bent LaHaye trying to explain in a letter why it was really about love, to slaughter all Non-Christians, after Kristof demolished the ethos in NYT and linked it to the “crusade” mentality of the Iraq war.)

The worst thing for society has been the extension of Godwin’s Law to anything tacky and plebian, maintaining a radio blackout on pop culture and the best thing has been that trend in academics to take pop culture seriously, to the screaming fits of “culture vultures” like Buckley etc.


Another Damned Medievalist 10.04.04 at 7:13 pm

This is one reason I tend to push people towards Sherri S. Tepper, Terry Pratchett and even, for those who feel that their fiction need be Christian, Charles Williams (Thanks to the Cranky Professor for introducing me to Williams in grad school). Of course, I may burn for it.


HP 10.04.04 at 7:37 pm

Can I get all abstract for a second while I have the ear of actual philosophers? It seems to me that the belief that “a comfortable chair is pleasant to sit in” is an entirely different species of belief from, say, “the wicked shall be punished and the righteous spared.” And perhaps that is a different belief from “I am among the righteous.”

What frightens me w/r/t apocolit is that a significant proportion of the population are unwilling to accept that various fundamentally different phenomena are all described as “belief.” Therefore, they must accept the fact of divine judgement in exactly the same way that they accept the fact of comfortable chairs. If they fail to do so, their religion is meaningless. Of course, these two species of belief are irreconcilable, so it requires a lot of effort and will power to maintain the illusion that they are reconciled.

I don’t think that the LB audience necessarily “believes” the apocalypse is as real as a stone in the road (certainly not in the same way that a paranoid fantasist believes his delusions); I think they try really hard to believe it. And I think that effort, and the mental habits it engenders, is what makes it unlikely that these people would be able to apply critical thinking to unrelated areas of their life–like, say, politics. It is much easier to use faith as a blanket strategy for dealing with life, the universe, and everything, than to cordon religion off into its own little “faith ghetto” against a larger world run by reason.


Nicholas Weininger 10.04.04 at 10:55 pm

Following up on doctor memory’s comment: as an extreme example of left-wing tribulit I nominate John Brunner’s _Children of the Thunder_.


The Eradicator! 10.05.04 at 4:30 am

One pertinent sociological fact about many of the LB fans which should not go unremarked: many of them are stone batshit crazy.

Serious, yo.


rdb 10.05.04 at 5:23 am

national review online: Rod Dreher: Red-Heifer Days

… April 11, 2002
As it turned out, during the three years of waiting for the heifer to reach the ritually mandated age of sacrifice, white hairs popped out on the tip of her tail. This bovine was, alas, not divine. But now there’s a successor, and rabbis who have examined her have declared her ritually acceptable (though she will not be ready for sacrifice for three years). She arrives at a time when Israel is fighting a war for survival with the Palestinians, who are almost entirely Muslim, and a time in which Islam and the West appear to be girding for battle with each other, as Islamic tradition predicts will be the state of the world before the Final Judgment.


Kimmitt 10.05.04 at 10:04 am

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my in-laws, very nice people, gave me a copy of Left Behind as part of their ongoing conversion effort. It’s not really fantasy to these folks, more, ah, speculative fiction.

Comments on this entry are closed.