Of course there’s going to be another adaptation of the Left Behind series of Christian apocalypse novels. Of course it’s going to star Nicolas Cage. And Chad Michael Murray. And Ashley Tisdale.
Every time evangelicals make a foray into the mainstream film scene, it comes back to the same old story. Rapture, world burns, liberals didn’t listen. It’s not a new story, but then again it is. Premillenialism is a theological tradition promoted most fervently by turn-of-the-century American fundamentalists. It interprets Revelation–no, not entirely literally–but with a good deal of immediacy and relevance to the institutions and culture of its present. Famed nineteenth century evangelist D.L. Moody was the most well-remembered mouthpiece of premillenarian ideas (though it never really consumed his message as much as his critics like to think that it did). It’s where you get ideas like the rapture as a supernatural event where God “beams up” his faithful and leaves the rest to have a pretty hard time of it as the world cracks up.
The problem is that what plenty of Christians, including plenty of evangelicals know–that premillenialism is a fairly recent theological construction, that none of the church fathers held to anything remotely similar to this view, and that our views on these matters are more profoundly shaped by a series of sci-fi adventure novels than anything that came before–is relatively unknown by American seculars. This film will be met with thunderous derision from our urban centers and in defiance our suburban and rural communities will come out in droves. Again, the premillenial vision of the apocalypse will come to dominate the country’s opinion of Christian theology.
The true, on-the-ground relationship between premillenarian theology and the twenty-first century evangelical church is a great deal more muddy than we’ve been led to think. Growing up in a Southern Baptist congregation (in Texas no less) these themes were always there, but never taught in a straightforward manner. The Left Behind series was popular, though I never had the desire to read it. I remember watching a B-movie called “Revelation” in my youth group when I was in junior high. I remember being pretty terrified by all the violence and end-of-the-world stuff. However, after talking to my parents I realized that any of that vision was by any means the final word on first-century prophecy, and a lot of its implications really didn’t square with our abiding faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed, the only time any premillenial views were expressed were in fringe activities by young and inexperienced pastors. They mostly occurred at youth camps and meetings, typically as parts of pre-packaged ministry guides, and always as an incentive to “get serious” about faith. I do not remember one time when it was actually preached from the pulpit.
Premillenial theology has shaped the doctrine some streams of evangelical Christianity, but these are almost invariably the most marketed, publicized forms of evangelicalism in the country. Televangelists like John Hagee or Benny Hinn are the severer photo-negative of prosperity gospel preachers like Joel Osteen. Like all successful televangelists, they tell the people what they want to hear. Some folks want to hear “your faith will make you rich!” Others want to hear that God favors their politics and since he will eventually wipe the smugness off of the faces of his enemies, there’s no need to figure out how to live with people that disagree with you. Flights of premillenarian fancy do just that.
These preachers were known as hacks in our traditional Southern Baptist churches. Nobody watched TBN, the local Christian television station. Everyone knew them as latter-day reincarnations of Jim and Tammy Faye. All the end of the world stuff was always on the fringe, nibbling around the edges of our awareness, but never found its way into teaching or doctrine. By High School, I did not believe that God was going to literally throw locusts down on us to bite people, and said so. But that did not pose any theological problems within my church. One thing about the evangelical church that folks don’t really understand is that it tolerates opinion.
Premillenarian media has had a decidedly negative impact on evangelicalism as a whole. I would like to strike it from the record completely if I could. But alas, I cannot–nor can I float above it by some appeal to enlightened, scientific common sense, since my own beliefs depends upon the extraordinary claim that a man rose from the dead. Still, there is such a thing as bad doctrine, and it remains alive, still very much a part of southern religious culture, (though it does not give anyone license us to paint all evangelicals as conservative paranoiacs and country-fried zealots.)
As we all laugh merrily along with Bill Maher at all the religious fools that “Oh my god, actually believe this stuff!” and watch Nic Cage’s career burn in the fires of hell, let us take a moment to turn our attention to the past ten to twenty years of popular American film and ask ourselves whether our reasonable nation is really free from a similar apocalypse complex. 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, The Divide, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Road, The Book of Eli, Battle: Los Angeles, The Walking Dead, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Watchmen, The Happening, I Am Legend, War of the Worlds, Children of Men, The Core, Deep Impact, 28 Days Later, Fight Club. Is secular culture really above flights of end-of-the-world fancy in which post-apocalyptic villains (conservatives, gun-nuts, any who is not an environmentalist) get their due at the hands of an earth-shattering calamity? Does it not feel oddly refreshing to see the world burn as a result of its sins and the righteous cleansed through the fire of its judgment, or the possibility of a good social order rising from the ashes of the old? Are computer-generated visions of environmental calamity not regularly reeled out by the Discovery Channel to vindicate our present-day scientist prophets? Matthew 7:3, people.