Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America

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9780195159837: Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America

In the "twinkling of an eye" Jesus secretly returns to earth and gathers to him all believers. As they are taken to heaven, the world they leave behind is plunged into chaos. Cars and airplanes crash and people search in vain for loved ones. Plagues, famine, and suffering follow. The antichrist emerges to rule the world and to destroy those who oppose him. Finally, Christ comes again in glory, defeats the antichrist and reigns over the earth. This apocalyptic scenario is anticipated by millions of Americans. These millions have made the Left Behind series--novels that depict the rapture and apocalypse--perennial bestsellers, with over 40 million copies now in print. In Rapture Culture, Amy Johnson Frykholm explores this remarkable phenomenon, seeking to understand why American evangelicals find the idea of the rapture so compelling. What is the secret behind the remarkable popularity of the apocalyptic genre? One answer, she argues, is that the books provide a sense of identification and communal belonging that counters the "social atomization" that characterizes modern life. This also helps explain why they appeal to female readers, despite the deeply patriarchal worldview they promote. Tracing the evolution of the genre of rapture fiction, Frykholm notes that at one time such narratives expressed a sense of alienation from modern life and protest against the loss of tradition and the marginalization of conservative religious views. Now, however, evangelicalism's renewed popular appeal has rendered such themes obsolete. Left Behind evinces a new embrace of technology and consumer goods as tools for God's work, while retaining a protest against modernity's transformation of traditional family life. Drawing on extensive interviews with readers of the novels, Rapture Culture sheds light on a mindset that is little understood and far more common than many of us suppose.

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About the Author:


Amy Johnson Frykholm teaches Literature, Cultural Studies, and Religion at Colorado Mountain College.

From The Washington Post:

Jesus is hot. And at least among scholars, Jesus lovers are too. While experts in American religion have in recent decades shifted their gaze from Protestants to practitioners of Buddhism, vodun and other hip faiths, scholarship on evangelicalism is enjoying something of a revival today. Two new books aim to contribute to this resurgence by exploring evangelicals and mass media. What happens, their authors ask, when the Messiah becomes the message?

Rapture Culture, by Amy Johnson Frykholm, examines the Left Behind fiction of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. The latest in a long line of blockbuster books for the born-again crowd, this apocalyptic series has sold more than 40 million copies from its debut in 1995 to the publication earlier this month of its 12th offering, Glorious Appearing. Loosely based on the biblical book of Revelation, these novels open with the rapture, when true believers are stolen away to heaven, leaving cars, contact lenses and unbelievers behind. Then come seven years of tribulation, brought on by a fiendish Antichrist who glories in famines, earthquakes and the proverbial wars and rumors thereof. In the end, Jesus makes his much-anticipated appearance and, with a fervor seemingly meant to avenge for each and every lashing doled out in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," slices and dices his way through millions of evildoers.

But the plots of these bloody thrillers are not Frykholm's concern. Her interest instead is how readers interpret them. It's a wonderful idea -- we know very little about the effects on readers of pious fiction -- but unfortunately Frykholm, who teaches religion, literature and cultural studies at Colorado Mountain College, does not quite pull it off.

Rapture Culture began as a dissertation at Duke University, long a hotbed of postmodern theory, and most readers will find far too much once-trendy po-mo lingo here for their taste. The first sentence of the book lovingly invokes the Russian cultural studies saint Mikhail Bahktin, and over the ensuing pages the author trots out all manner of postmodernist clichés, some palpably false, some undeniably true, but none particularly enlightening.

When Frykholm moves beyond theorizing in general about texts ("written anew with each reader") and their meanings ("malleable and unstable") to analyzing the reception of the Left Behind series in particular, she is more helpful. Her main claim, likely influenced by Bahktin's "dialogics," seems to be that readers interpret these books not as solitary individuals but in groups (at home, in church, at work). So far, so good. But in the end she tells us what we already know (or suspected): that the stories comfort some and annoy others, that readers interpret the novels through their own ideological lenses, and that non-evangelical readers think less of the series than evangelicals do. (Apparently Frykholm herself is in the former category, since she cannot resist the temptation -- irrelevant to her project -- to declaim that the LaHaye-Jenkins books are patriarchal, anti-Semitic and homophobic.)

Finally, Frykholm also gets at least one important matter badly wrong. The rapturous reception of the Left Behind novels suggests, she writes, "a new engagement with the world" among U.S. evangelicals, who presumably had their heads buried in the sand before LaHaye and Jenkins joined forces.

To her credit, Heather Hendershot knows that this is a bunch of hash. In Shaking the World for Jesus, she places the Left Behind narratives inside the much broader story of evangelical engagement with popular culture. Far from Luddites, evangelicals were early adopters of the holy trinity of 20th-century technologies: radio, television and the Internet. And here Hendershot argues that, despite their undeserved reputation (born at the infamous Scopes trial in 1925) as anti-modern rubes, evangelicals have actually embraced for decades "any 'modern' means that could be used to spread the Gospel."

A professor of media studies at Queens College, City University of New York, Hendershot focuses on three of those means: publishing, television and films. (She also includes, for reasons that are never made clear, an utterly unrelated chapter on a decidedly un-evangelical gay and lesbian church in Dallas called the Cathedral of Hope.)

What most intrigues Hendershot about the $4-billion-per-year "Christian lifestyles industry" is how the evangelicals in it negotiate the injunction to be "in the world but not of it." There is a clear divide, she finds, between aggressive Bible thumpers, who are not quite in the world, and their more ecumenical brethren, who are too seamlessly of it. Uncompromising proselytizers such as the Christian rock singer Carman win high marks for scruples but low marks for effectiveness. (You won't find his "Addicted to Jesus" on MTV, or his licks on the lips of non-Christians.) On the other hand, more nuanced believers, such as the pop singer Amy Grant (of "Baby, Baby" fame), gain a place on Wal-Mart's shelves only at the cost of soft-pedaling their faith.

Neither Frykholm nor Hendershot is an evangelical, but both seem disappointed that evangelical media are so bad at making new Christians. "I searched in vain," Frykholm writes, "for a person who could testify to a life changed through the reading of Left Behind." And Hendershot, rather than analyzing with care the tendency of evangelical media to preach to the choir, seems content simply to lament it. Neither author seems to notice that this same tendency is rife in virtually all didactic entertainment, from Michael Moore's films to Rush Limbaugh's radio schtick. Why should evangelical media be any different?

Decades ago the sociologist Peter Berger contended that worldviews perpetuated themselves (and the societies in which they were embedded) through "plausibility structures" that sustained in the minds of believers the reality of those perspectives. Churches and religious institutions do much of this work, but so does the Left Behind publishing firm, Tyndale House, the evangelical girls' magazine Brio and Billy Graham's World Wide Pictures. Although evangelicals often raise funds for their forays into mass media by promising to make converts, the real purpose of those raids may simply be to hold on to believers already made through procreation or proselytizing. Even religious traditions that prize sudden transformations in tent meetings must labor to keep the hearts and minds of the Christians they have birthed and baptized. And evangelical media, whatever we may think of their politics, or the virtues of alchemizing atheists into Christians, play an important part in doing just that.

Reviewed by Stephen Prothero


Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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