by Kenneth R. Morefield

For most readers who are not evangelical Christians (and for many of us who are), the representation of reality in the Left Behind series can come across as oddly distorted. I have adopted the term "Evangelical Pornography" to describe the Left Behind franchise because its methods of representing its characters, particularly those who differ from its target audience, fit the description of what psychoanalyst Louise Kaplan calls a "perverse strategy" (123).

A perversion, according to Kaplan, is a psychological strategy that simultaneously attempts to gratify and hide a desire by acting it out while hiding its true meaning. Kaplan uses this definition to explore her thesis that perversions are "as much pathologies of […] role identity as they are pathologies of sexuality" (14). She focuses, of course, on gender as a primary factor in creating role identity, and hence concludes that the perversions (and pornographies) of women are substantially different from those of men. "A perversion," Kaplan writes, "is a central preoccupation of a person's existence" (11). Male perversions use some "manifest form of 'kinky sex' to prevail over . . . otherwise devastating emotional states" (10). Because females have different emotional states born of different emotional fears growing out of different sociological roles and expectations, their strategies for appeasing inner demons will be attached to different content.

I would like to extend Kaplan's analysis and categories to sociological and psychological roles grounded primarily in people's conception of their own religious identity. While authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have argued that the Left Behind books are evangelistic (and hence have non-Christians as their intended audience), they have acknowledged in interviews what the books' publication and marketing history bears out: the series is most widely read and championed by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians (Larry King Live). I would argue that the success of these books is largely because they serve a Kaplanesque pornographic function—they allow readers to simultaneously gratify and hide a desire.

Furthermore, I contend that the consumption of these books becomes a perverse strategy. The protagonists become a fetish object used to create the illusion of a superior-inferior (dominant-submissive) relationship between the reader and the fetish object—in this case people in the readers' own lives that are symbolically represented by characters in the text. Kaplan says of fetishism that it "exemplifies the perverse strategy [because] the fetish is designed to divert attention from a whole story by focusing attention on a detail" (123).

In deciding how effectively Kaplan's terminology can be applied to Left Behind, the reader must ask certain questions not just about what work the books do, but also about what emotional or spiritual states require that sort of work. To be more precise in using Kaplan's terminology, what shameful or painful emotional states are being simultaneously indulged by and hidden in the Left Behind series? Key passages and scenes show that unraptured characters engage in ritualistic self-humiliation, constantly thinking and proclaiming that their raptured friends and family members were "right" and that they, the left behind, were unworthy of their Christian friends and loved ones.

Kaplan says that a person creates a perverse scenario because "it protects him from becoming conscious of some wishes and fantasies that would otherwise frighten or humiliate him" (124). The frightening wishes and fantasies that would humiliate the readers of Left Behind if openly acknowledged seem fairly easy to extract: a fear of sexuality born out of an ascetic legalism, a latent anger at loved ones for not converting and thus forcing the Christian family member to deal with the fear of eternal separation, and a feeling of resentment at the world for making the evangelical or fundamentalist reader feel ignored and marginalized.

To understand this latter feeling, a brief overview of evangelicalism and fundamentalism is in order. While no synopsis can do justice to the diversity of developments within American Protestantism, it is possible to paint a broad picture which will help contextualize and explain the Left Behind phenomenon. Today the term “fundamentalist” is often used to denote any politically conservative Christian, while its counterpart, “evangelical,” is the fashionable preface to denote a self-proclaimed Christian rather than a social or ethnic one. While these generalizations have some basis in fact, they tend to obscure the fact that evangelical was itself originally a pejorative term—a curtailment of the phrase “neo-evangelicals” that fundamentalists used (and evangelicals appropriated) to describe the more moderate coalition that inherited and emerged from the attempts at fundamental coalitions of the 1920s (Marsden 62).

George Marsden describes the roots of fundamentalism growing out of a schism in Protestantism about how to respond to the challenges of its cultural dominance provided by Darwinian science, urbanization, and secularization. Marsden writes:

Protestants’ apparent cultural dominance rested on a strong base of the wealthiest and the oldest American families and institutions. Protestants had been the first to settle almost everywhere in the American colonies and so naturally their heirs held most of the positions of power and influence…. It is hardly surprising… that the prevailing moral values of the civilization reflected this heritage. (11)

Marsden also clearly outlines that the rise of fundamentalism was first and foremost a reaction against and an attempt to separate from liberal theology that it saw as accommodating secularization (56). For example, he cites Curtis Lee Laws as one of the first to coin the term fundamentalist, when he wrote in The Watchman-Examiner to describe those who were ready “to do battle royal for the Fundamentals” (qtd in Marsden 57).

This context is designed to explain the sense of disenfranchisement felt by many conservative Christians. As the Laws quote shows, political and social activism is nothing new for conservative Christians. I would argue, however, prior to the ascent of Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition in the 1980s and 1990s, the dominant mood of the Christian community was one of dismay at the loss of perceived privileged status as the dominant worldview of the country. For that reason, I think it is easy to see the portrayal of Christian persecution the post-apocalyptic world as being allegorical rather than prophetic. That Bibles are banned from public school in Left Behind: The Kids is not meant to be a prediction of post-apocalypitc secularization for the benefit of secular readers but a lament of current secularization to be recognized by Christian readers. That Buck Williams loses his job almost immediately after converting to Christianity can be viewed as a fictional parallel to the sort of anti-Christian prejudice that Rams quarterback Kurt Warner related as accepted fact to a Christian audience but shied away from when picked up by the large media networks.

The historical context also reveals that much of the anger in fundamentalism is directed at moderate or socially liberal Christians. The Laws quote, for example, presupposes a class of Christians who are not ready to do “battle royal” for the fundamentals, and its attitude towards them is mirrored in Left Behind’s attitude towards the nominal Christians whose refusal to share their raptured brethren’s separation from the world results in their failure to share in their pre-tribulation escape from it. It is in this attitude towards others that are less separatist than those who are raptured that Left Behind is most deserving of the label “fundamentalist.”


4 pages

© April 2005. Graciously reprinted from www.kenmorefield.com.

 
 

Culture | Religion | Prose | Poetry | Events | Participate | About Us | Partners | Bookstore | Archives

© the matthew's house project. developing local conversations about religion and culture.