March 9, 2020

The Hollow Christians Of End Times Fiction, Part 2 (Paul Maltby)

The following is republished from Religious Theory. It is the second of a three-part series. The first can be found here.

End Times fiction’s unrelenting focus on human sinfulness and unworthiness, a focus that reflects the defining tenet of fundamentalist anthropology, leaves out of account the doctrine of the Imago Dei. For example, the doctrine is cited only once in the entire Left Behind series. Yet, the Bible is insistent that humans are made in the image of God. And even allowing that what it means to be made in God’s image is a matter of theological dispute, an inherently divine property or proclivity would function as a counterforce to sin.

As Saint Paul recognized, sinfulness does not eliminate the inherent dignity that follows from being created in God’s image: “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:9-10). If End Times fiction was premised on an anthropology that, in tension with innate depravity, recognized intrinsic values conferred by grace, its Christian heroes would have a more substantial and compelling presence on the page.

While LaHaye embraced the Arminian view of humanity’s freedom to choose reconciliation with God, his fiction shifts the real locus of control away from humans towards God. As pastor Bruce Barnes explains:

“[The Bible] also says we can’t save ourselves. Lots of people thought they could earn their way to God or to heaven by doing good things, but that’s probably the biggest misconception ever [….] The Bible says that it’s not by works of righteousness that we have done, but by his mercy God saved us. It also says that we are saved by grace through Christ, not of ourselves, so we can’t brag about our goodness [….] When we tell Christ that we acknowledge ourselves as sinners and lost, and receive his gift of salvation, he saves us. (Left Behind 200-201)

Here the role of human agency in the process of salvation is drastically limited to a willingness to commit to faith in Christ as Savior; other agential factors are forcefully discounted. This shrinking of the redemptive power of human action is yet another factor in End Times fiction’s thinning out of the subject.

End Times novelists judge men and women vis-à-vis fundamentalism’s harsh totalitarian God, who first and foremost demands of humanity unqualified obedience, devotion, and reverence. This emphasis on a super-eminent, all-controlling God implies as prideful and profane those secular desires and projects that give meaning to human life as something existing in its own right, irrespective of God’s authority. (In his anti-humanist screed, The Battle for the MindTim LaHaye has denounced the “self-centered, self-sufficient man” on the grounds that “man is not autonomous, but dependent on God” (70).)

Ultimately, End Times novelists understand righteousness as complete self-abasement before God. Hart’s Reverend Marcus recalls, “’The morning after the Rapture, I fell on my face before God and surrendered my pride and self-serving nature’” (166).  Consider also the experience of Rayford Steele at a prayer session with the Christian resistance group known as the “Tribulation Force” :

As Rayford knelt there, he realized he needed to surrender his will to God [….] [He] felt so small, so inadequate before God, that he could not seem to get low enough. He crouched, he squatted […. ] The overwhelming sense of unworthiness seemed to crush him, and he slipped to the floor and lay prostrate on the carpet [….] He had never felt so vividly in the presence of God [….] Rayford wished he could sink lower into the carpet, could cut a hole in the floor and hide from the purity and infinite power of God. (Tribulation Force 240-41)

But to describe Rayford as prostrate, as feeling he cannot sink low enough in obeisance, hardly amounts to communicating the sense of reverential fear of one who “had never felt so vividly in the presence of God.” An encounter with the “purity and infinite power of God” surely is an experience of such disorienting magnitude and intensity as to threaten the integrity of the self, except there is not much of a self to threaten. It is not surprising, therefore, when, just a few sentences later, and without so much as a shift in register, Rayford and his prayer-companions begin discussing the mystery of who sent Rayford’s daughter, Chloe, some flowers!

The theocentric disposition of End Times fiction favors images of Christians lying face down in the presence of God (cf. 1 Cor. 14:25) and, in general, extols humbling self-abnegation over secular forms of self-realization (through, say, intellectual pursuits or community projects), which simply fail to stimulate the theocentric imagination. Of course, even the acknowledgment of one’s utter worthlessness before the grandeur of God could, if creatively managed, afford an opportunity for a rich literary rendering of a profound spiritual experience. However, given the theocentric attitude of the fiction, the human perspective is not ultimately what counts; delving into the psyche seems futile.

The totalitarian God of fundamentalism, a deity who demands unconditional obedience from humanity, has been transferred wholesale to End Times fiction. Indeed, it is the pervasive presence of this invigilating, ever-judgmental God that largely explains the genre’s vindictive disposition, its obsession with punishment and the gruesome torments of nonbelievers. God’s wrath, as illustrated on page after page by the horrors of the Tribulation,carries more weight than God’s mercy. Under the terms of this grim regime, salvation is often understood more as a juridical transaction, that is, the reward for those who bow before God’s authority, than as a transfiguration by which the self is sanctified and elevated to a new mode of being. Thus, once again, the reader in search of an arresting account of the most significant spiritual experience available to Christians will feel shortchanged.

In a discussion of divine judgment, Daniel M. Bell Jr. challenges the orthodox understanding of the sacrifice of Christ in economic terms; that is to say, the substitutionary atonement understood as a debt paid for human sin against God, as compensation paid to satisfy divine justice. Instead, he continues a line of argument, recently developed by David Bentley Hart, that accounts for the sacrifice in “aneconomic” terms: “God became human as a gift that exceeded every debt, that exploded the very calculus of debt and retribution and set in its place an aneconomic order of charity that recovers life in the mode of donation and lavish generosity. In Christ, we are done with judgment of God; in Christ we reach the end of judgment” (213).

To cite Bell is not necessarily to agree with his account of the aneconomic significance of Christ’s death; however, it serves as a foil to help us see the sternly judgmental theology, the“calculus of debt and retribution,” that governs End Times fiction. In the world of the latter, humans are subjected to a regime of totalized judgment and harsh reckoning; its Christian heroes display little awareness of a cosmic order infused with the gift and bounty of God’s goodness, little if any consciousness of “divine plenitude and superabundance” (213).

The intrinsically revolutionary nature of Christianity was conveyed by Paul’s famous pronouncement in his letter to the Romans that, “[Y]e are not under the law, but under grace” (6:14). As Jacob Taubes argued in The Political Theology of Paulthis epistle is “a political declaration of war on the Caesar” (16); it established Christianity in a subversive relation not only to the Mosaic law but also to the law of Imperial Rome, and projected a new Christianized  world order. Creston Davis and Patrick Aaron Riches identify Christians transformed by these spiritual conditions as “theopolitical revolutionary subjects” (24). They explain this identity by invoking the concept of metanoia (a radically transformative and penitential change of heart) vis-à-vis the “Event” (i.e., the kenotic in-breaking of Christ):

Metanoia is the total re-centering of being by (re)turning to being-as-gift, which is belonging to the Event. The metanoic (re)turn to the Event is the mode whereby the subject is formed, and not the subject alone, but the subject in common faithfulness with the whole community of the Event. It is radical, sudden, painful, and breaks open the self at home with the ego.” (26-27)

Whether or not we agree with this collectivist view of salvation, at least it conveys an impression of the depth, urgency, and extraordinary nature of a revolutionary Christian subjectivity. However, End Times fiction conveys no such impression; after all, given its authoritarian disposition, fundamentalism is not quite comfortable with a subject that is insurrectionary to the core.

The Christian rebels of the End Times may be mobilized by the prospect of Christ’s sudden irruption into History but, at the same time, orthodoxy demands first and foremost a submissive mentality, unquestioning obedience to divine authority. (The theologian Dorothee Sölle coined the term “christofascist” to describe the “blind obedience of authoritarian strains of Christianity” (xv, xix).) In the end, the genre must compromise: it gives us theocratic foot soldiers, God’s “Green Berets” (Left Behind 420), rather than theopolitical revolutionary subjects.

A revolutionary impulse clearly permeates the End Times genre, which is explicitly antagonistic towards secular humanism and modernity, and whose heroes operate as rebels against the world government of the Antichrist, seeking to replace it with a theocratic regime. And yet the reader will encounter nothing like a revolutionary subjectivity in this fiction. For example, descriptions of the Tribulation Force, in the left Behind series – “[S]triding four abreast, arms around each other’s shoulders, knit with a common purpose, [they] faced the gravest dangers anyone could face and they knew their mission […] their goal nothing less than to stand and fight the enemies of God” (Left Behind  468; see also Tribulation Force ix) – make these rebellious Christians sound more like a team of intrepid heroes in a fantasy action movie.

Their revolutionary consciousness only amounts to strategizing in their fight against the Beast Regime and discovering the momentous truth that the Bible prophesied God’s plan for the End Times. In the context of the Eschaton, revolutionary consciousness should convey its potential for spiritual transfiguration but, under the genre’s theocentric constraints, the reader must settle for the assurance that the End Times heroes are God’s unwavering righteous servants, who will soon enter the Millennial Kingdom.

Finally, consider the principal conversion scene in Pat Robertson’s The End of the Age. “‘So, now, Carl,’ [Pastor] John Edwards said…., ‘are you and Lori ready to meet Him when He returns?’ ‘Jack,’ [Carl] answered, ‘you know very well that we aren’t ready. But we wantto be. Will you tell us what to do?’” (208; my emphases). Of course, by definition, pastors have a duty to provide spiritual guidance to their flock. Yet, the marked tendency of End Times novelists to depend on pastors and other spiritual leaders to fulfill this role (e.g., Bruce Barnes and Tsion Ben-Judah in the Left Behind series, Marcus Dumont in Hart’s series) largely exempts them from a focus on the inner lives of their Christian heroes; the arduous, soul-searching business of moral decision-making is offloaded from the protagonists onto their pastors. Protracted spiritual struggle with the risk of an uncertain outcome (what Augustine called tentatio) could develop and add depth to the interior lives of the genre’s Christians; however, that uncertainty is precluded in End Times fiction because it recreates the authoritarianism of fundamentalist ministries, whose members readily submit to the directions of their pastors.

Insofar as End Times fiction is governed by a doctrinal absolutism, it should come as no surprise that its authors favor the omniscient narrative viewpoint of the third person. As plots relentlessly progress toward the Eschaton, doctrine supplants subjectivity when all that counts is whether a character is righteous or unrighteous. That which is volatile and capricious in human psychology is suppressed; in particular, the psychodynamics of the inner life are non-existent (a feature reflected in the genre’s denotative, didactic, and decathected prose). The voice of authority is invariably that of the dogmatizing pastor, to whom the protagonists must ultimately defer. The End Times novel serves not as a vehicle for exploring the subjectivity of its Christian characters but as a pulpit for expounding Holy Scripture.

According to Harriet Harris, the doctrine of “plenary verbal inspiration,” that is, the belief that “all of the words of scripture are God’s own words,” was developed “partly in order to combat the subjectivism that [fundamentalists] see in liberal approaches to the Bible”; hence, “Antisubjectivism[has] become a prominent feature of fundamentalist apologetics” (308-309, 304). Fundamentalists harbor a suspicion of subjectivity in general, seeing an introspective focus on individual experiences and feelings as a diversion from the objective standard of Scripture.

To cede too much subjectivity to humans is to allow them too much autonomy of thought. Subjectivity may generate perspectives and forms of cognition that rival the “transcendent truths” of the Bible. But this anti-subjectivist bias works against the development of characters capable of spiritual and mystical experience. Pat Robertson’s narrator condemns the New Age “psychics and gurus who take direction from demons” (192), while, in Salem Kirban’s 666, education in the regime of the Antichrist notably includes “mystic meditation” (188). The Tribulation Force is composed of Christian militants, not contemplatives endowed with a capacity for deep spiritual insights.

Moreover, these characters display almost no aesthetic sensitivity; in this genre, recognition of the beauty and wonders of the Creation is virtually non-existent; rather, aesthetic experience is almost always mediated through attributes of divine power, such as “glory,” “majesty,” and “magnificence.” In short, lacking the potential for rich spiritual experience and largely deficient in aesthetic appreciation, the inner life of End Times fiction’s characters is meager relative to that of characters in non-fundamentalist Christian fiction. As an example of the latter, suffice here to recall David Kern, the young protagonist in John Updike’s story “Pigeon Feathers.”

David’s aesthetic appreciation of a dead pigeon’s feathers enables a concluding epiphany, a spiritual insight into nature as the work of God’s creative design: “And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him” (149). Updike’s hero is spiritually empowered by an independent, active mind, which can access redemptive knowledge that is not dependent on the revealed Word of God. Consider also the mystical experiences of the heroine in Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy. Hansen, a devout Catholic, gives Mariette, a postulant, greater access to the divine through rapturous trances than through her understanding of the Bible.

Such a priority, which is inconsistent with fundamentalism’s doctrine of sola scriptura, endows Mariette with a spiritual fervor not found in the characters of End Times novels. Mariette tells a sexton that “In prayer I float out of myself […] I have lost my body; I don’t know where I am or even if I am now human or spirit [….] And when I have gotten to a fullness of joy and peace and tranquility, then I know I have been possessed by Jesus and have completely lost myself in him. Oh, what a blissful abandonment it is!” (128). But fundamentalist theology denies the legitimacy of this kind of mystical experience.

Thus, the late Ray Yungen, author and contributor to the fundamentalist website Lighthouse Trails Research, insisted that God does not endorse mystical experience because “a trance state [is] outside of God’s sanction [….] Besides, nowhere in the Bible are such mystical practices prescribed” (Yungen). And the late Ken Silva, an ordained Southern Baptist Church minister and founder of the fundamentalist Apprising Ministries website, dismissed mysticism as the practice of “subjectivists” that “misleads Christians” because “our personal, spiritual experiences are unreliable” as opposed to “God’s self-revelation through the Scriptures” (Silva).

According to Calvin, “There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty” (43). However, in fundamentalist thought, the putative innate faculty of the sensus divinitatis meets with the same fate as mysticism; to propose such a faculty assigns too much cognitive power to the subject at the expense of the extrinsic truth of Scripture. Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88), the Swiss-German theologian, argued for a grace-given innate spiritual sensorium on the grounds that revelation cannot be purely extrinsic but, like an encounter with a work of art, it must resonate with something already deep within us.

If Christ is to be perceived as He actually is, natural vision will not suffice; we can only see Him through our spiritual senses. The latter are necessary for the perception of divine splendor. Hence, Balthasar quotes K. Neuhaus, “’the natural eye does not see the Kabod [i.e. glory]. In order to perceive it, in the natural eye there must emerge the supernatural glance’” (Glory 35). Yet, while End Times fiction will often feature spectacles of divine splendor, such as the “Glorious Appearing,” or Christians in direct communication with the divine, its characters evince nothing remotely like the kind of perception that is enabled by a spiritual sensorium or the sensus divinitatis. The divine is always instantly comprehensible to those who encounter it and, as will be evident from passages already quoted, the language used to describe such encounters is as literal as that used for any corporeal form of perception.

In distinct contrast to this fundamentalist insistence on the extrinsic authority of Scripture as the most dependable and principal means of knowing God, we should note Kierkegaard’s appeal to the “infinite passion of inwardness,” which alone, he maintains, brings the individual into a direct or “non-alienated” relation with God:  “The existing person who chooses the objective way now enters upon all approximating deliberation intended to bring forth God objectively, which is not achieved in all eternity, because God is a subject and hence only for subjectivity in inwardness” (199-200).

Subjectivism need not mean self-absorption or narrow introspection. Kevin Vanhooser reminds us of Karl Rahner’s attempt to ground theology in human subjectivity: “[T]he turn to the subject need not be a turning in upon oneself” but, rather, “the realization of humanity’s capacity for receiving God’s self-communication” (171). Here the claim is that human nature is defined by this capacity, this interior faculty for “hearing” God’s message, a “transcendental openness” (Rahner) to the experience of God’s revelation in everyday life.

Paul Maltby is Professor of English at West Chester University. He is the author of Christian Fundamentalism and the Culture of Disenchantment. (University of Virginia Press, 2013), The Visionary Moment: A Postmodern Critique (State University of New York Press, 2002), and Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

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