Title: Left Behind
Author: Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins
Written: first published 1995
Published: (unclear, after) 1998
Left Behind is Christian speculative fiction that builds on the idea of the rapture followed by seven years of tribulation. This first book in a series of twelve focuses on the initial rapture and immediate aftermath. For those of you unfamiliar with the terms, it’s the idea Christ’s followers will be snatched up instantaneously, right before an apocalyptic period of great turmoil which will end with the battle of Armageddon and Christ’s restored rule on earth.
This blog isn’t the place for theological discussion, but I think it’s important to note that even the authors have admitted this is an iffy area of scripture. Even when taken literally, there’s a lot of room for interpretation on the specifics of end time prophecies and in many cases whether the prophecies in question actually refer to the end times or simply a time of great hardship. But it’s an interpretation that makes for dramatic storytelling.
For metaphoric purposes, the rapture and tribulation work as parallels to death (which can come suddenly and without warning) and hardship (particularly under a controlling regime). I went through a period of fascination with various apocalypse films during middle school, and in a burst of nostalgia, stopped midway through the book to watch the four Thief in the Night films on YouTube. While essentially PG as far as language and violence go, that series is still one of the most conceptually terrifying things I’ve seen. I was struck on my most recent viewing by the similarities between the regime in the film and the repression from Reading Lolita in Tehran which I reviewed a few weeks ago.
I bring up Thief in the Night because it was an inspiration for the Left Behind series, and while hokey in a way distinct to films of the 1970s, I still like it a lot better. More on that in a moment.
If I take it purely as a thriller, Left Behind struck me as rather mediocre. It takes about a hundred pages before it starts to get interesting. And despite lots of potential for action, most of the book seems to involve waiting in lines, phone tag, meetings, and arranging meetings. The plot structure and sentences are often clunky; many times several scenes were used to do what could easily been done in one. And way too much time was spent on characters thinking about their feelings. I really have no problem with head hopping as long as the thoughts reveal new information, but too much of it was redundant. Actions and scenes that might have been dramatic, even heart wrenching if they had simply been played out, were bogged down by detailed descriptions of obvious thoughts like a character crying because he was really sad.
There are some explosions and enough drama that they might pull a decent film out of this. So I am curious enough now to watch the movie, one of them at least. The story is often preachy, but it is Christian speculative fiction so at least that’s relevant to the genre and plot.
Thief in the Night is also preachy with slow bits. I think what elevated it to awesome in my preteen mind was the protagonist Patty outwitting a soldier, stealing his gun, then staring down the next soldier until he drops his. The first two films pass the Bechdal test, but aside from that, there’s a general sense of gender equality. Women are presented as equally competent, equally strong, equally spiritual but also equally flawed and devious as their male counterparts. Left Behind on the other hand has an underlying thread of misogyny. It’s not just that the book is told between two alternating male viewpoints, but the three main women portrayed fall into stereotypical female roles: the good wife, the ditzy but attractive flight attendant, the educated but cold college girl/daddy’s girl. I could write an essay detailing the subtle and not so subtle gender imbalance, but I think this particular incident sums it up:
Our young male protagonist, ace newspaper reporter Buck, warns Hattie the not-so-bright flight attendant that she should avoid meeting an attractive but potentially dangerous man, not because people connected with the man have died or disappeared or that he was at the center of dangerous political entanglements but because he didn’t think Hattie was “that kind of girl”.
There’s nothing openly critical of women as a gender, and towards the end, there was some hope of character growth. So perhaps later books get better. But particularly with the abrupt ending, I’m not inspired to continue.
I can understand how certain moments could speak directly to someone having their own spiritual crisis, so please don’t think I’m knocking anyone who found the books inspiring or encouraging. While the end times details are iffy, many other aspects are theologically or at least Biblically sound. But I feel a measure of concern when a good Christian is portrayed as someone with a hyper focus on end times prophecy; hyper focus on any aspect or portion of the Bible to the point of downplaying or ignoring other parts is generally not a healthy sign.
This was my attempt to write a short review, and it is the sort of book you could write books about dissecting. So I give it a solid 3 out of 5. The writing could be much tighter, but at least I wasn’t bored.