Posted in Christian fiction
March 23, 2020

The Hollow Christians Of End Times Fiction, Part 3 (Paul Maltby)

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

End Times fiction must be distinguished from other literary genres by its conspicuous absence of local color, its lifeless mise-en-scène and, in particular, writing that relays no vivid impression of the natural world. The relevance of this deficiency to the genre’s hollow Christians becomes evident when we consider how our relationship to the natural world contributes to the construction of subjectivity. Though that relationship may be highly variable and contingent, ranging from the bioregional identity that develops from life in a particular habitat to a sense of planetary citizenship and the responsibilities that entails, it nevertheless plays an important part in the constitution of ideas of self and home.

However, fundamentalist theology largely erases this dimension of subjectivity as a consequence of its non-sacramental view of the natural world. This theology reads Genesis as propounding a model of humanity’s relationship to nature as one of dominion (rather than stewardship), whence nature is reduced to a divinely bestowed resource awaiting exploitation.  It insists on a radical discontinuity between nature’s doom and humanity’s destiny that is largely based on biblical prophecy: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away” (Rev. 21:1, a verse routinely cited in End Times novels). This doctrine enables the view, so prominent in End Times fiction, that as long as the church can be redeemed, nature can be left to its apocalyptic fate.

Hence, the nonchalant tone, at the end of LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ Kingdom Comewith which we are told that, “Fire from the heavens and from within the earth ignited the globe and in a flash it was incinerated and blown into tiny flaming particles that hurtled through space” (350). In 1000, Kirban’s sequel to 666, we read that “To purify this earth, so tained with the scars of sin, God sets it afire with a fervent heat” (14), a prophecy Kirban corroborates with reference to 2 Peter 3:7, 10. In Left Behind, pastor Bruce Barnes, citing the “sixth Seal Judgment,” prophesies, without a hint of regret, that God’s wrath “will come in the form of a worldwide earthquake so devastating that no instruments would be able to measure it” (312), while in RapturedAngley impassively describes the hail and fire that destroy the earth’s flora (190; cf. Rev. 8:7) and the meteorite that turns the sea to blood and kills off marine life (191; cf. Rev 16:3). This view of nature as dispensable, which underlies the genre, turns humans from earthlings into resident aliens, and in the process strips subjectivity of its ecological dimension.

In End Times fiction, knowledge of salvation comes only from God’s revealed Word and cannot be derived from our understanding of “sin-corrupted” nature. (Indeed, we learn that after the Rapture God has left control of the world to Satan (Left Behind 229) Hence, it is instructive to contrast this fiction’s fundamentalist tendency to desacralize nature, and in the process diminish human subjectivity, with ecotheological ideas that sanctify nature and by extension enrich subjectivity. Some ecotheologians have revived the nature discourse of the medieval Christian mystics, for whom religion meant the experience of being at one with the Creation.

In this tradition, nature itself supplies the symbols of God: “life-giving wind,” “water of life,” “light.” In her “ecological theology,” Sallie McFague follows in the tradition of Christian sacramentalism to propose that “the world […] is the sacrament of God, the visible, physical bodily presence of God” (182). To live in a world that is “God’s body,” as opposed to a creation that is the work of an extrinsic deity, is to encounter the divine in concrete forms, to be open to the experience of “immanental transcendence” (194). And while End Times fiction envisages the “saved” portion of humanity as “raptured” beyond the created world, which is to say that salvation is a matter of removing humanity from nature rather than restoring or “repristinating” nature, ecologically disposed theologians hold that Christianity should not teach withdrawal from a degraded world but provide hope for its renewal.

Norman Wirzba, believing in divine immanence, argues that “God’s redemptive purposes are worked out in the creation rather than apart from it” (19). Jürgen Moltmann appeals to “the ecological wisdom of the Bible” (xii), whence one should seek to “discover God in all the beings he has created” (xi). And if salvation takes place in the creation, then we should shift some attention from End Times fiction’s dispensationalist focus on time to an ecotheological focus on space. In short, the fundamentalist idea of nature as just a stage for the drama of salvation history is replaced by the ecotheological idea that nature is the very place where salvation occurs. At the very least, the argument can be made that spiritual subjectivity flourishes when humans come to understand and revere their place in the “creation community” or ecocosm of human and non-human life-forms.

In her essay “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” Flannery O’Connor argued,

“[T]he chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox Christian and the novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe. He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural. And this doesn’t mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater.” (175)

O’Connor’s focus on the natural follows from her belief that “every mystery that reaches the human mind, except in the final stages of contemplative prayer, does so by way of the senses” (176). Hence “The novelist is required to open his eyes on the world around him and look” (177). For O’Connor, the Christian writer has a duty to reveal how mystery is embodied in the concrete, sensuous world of the natural. In a similar vein, Richard Kearney cites the vivid nature imagery of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” as the “micro-theology” of a poet who “recorded God’s grace in small and scattered epiphanies of the quotidian” (157).

The fundamentalist emphasis on a redemptive relationship with God that is directly personal and unmediated is conducive to a non-sacramental view of the physical world: a denial that grace may be channelled through nature, that is, through elements, creatures, or the landscape. And just here it is illuminating briefly to note Balthasar’s alternative ideas about the relation between nature and grace.

He argued that divine truth assumes encounterable forms in “creaturely nature” (13). Hence, he called for “preliminary philosophical work” that will enable us “to see in the natural realm a breadth, abundance, and multiplicity that will prepare us to appreciate fully the work of grace, which uses this whole plenitude to exhibit itself and, in so doing, permeates it [nature], forms it, elevates it, and gives it its ultimate efficacy” (14). For Balthasar, the Christian can apprehend the operation of grace by virtue of its being consummated through the rich abundance and variegated forms of nature.

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead offers an eminent example of how a sacramental theology is conducive to the creation of a spiritually developed character. John Ames, the book’s protagonist, is a Congregationalist minister, much of whose everyday experience is sacralized by a hyper-awareness of the flow of grace through the natural world. In one of many letters to his son, he writes, “I wanted to talk about the gift of physical particularity and how blessing and sacrament are mediated through it. I have been thinking lately how I have loved my physical life” (69). Hence, in scene after scene, Ames encounters the most mundane of experiences as deeply religious by virtue of the sacramental power he finds in them.

A game of baseball with his brother on a hot day is linked with baptism and anointment when the brother, instead of drinking a glass of cool water, pours it over his own head, then recites Psalm 133 and its invocation of the sanctifying power of “precious oil upon the head” (64). When Ames observes his wife and son blowing bubbles at the pet cat, he senses “the celestial consequences of [their] worldly endeavors” (9). He remarks on “that little incandescence you see in people when the charm of a thing strikes them,” and links the observation to Proverbs 15:30: “The light of the eyes rejoiceth the heart” (53).

And he recalls an excursion to a fire-gutted church, where his father found him a charred biscuit, whose ashy taste, “might resemble the bread of affliction,” an association that invests the moment with eucharistic significance (95). Robinson’s writing is most vivid whenever it enriches the consciousness of Ames as he registers divine grace at work in the natural world.

End Times fiction’s understatement, not to say neglect, of the rich textures of Christian spiritualities is partly a consequence of fundamentalism’s theocentric attitude: God-consciousness developed at the expense of Creation-consciousness. In his exploration of biblical metaphors of Creation stewardship, theologian Douglas J. Hall argues, “Orientation towards God too easily becomes an alternative to world orientation, rather than a way of qualifying and deepening one’s awareness of and involvement in the life of the world. Theocentric faith manifests an abiding suspicion of all forms of Christianity that demonstrate a too direct interest in this world” (105). And with a focus on North American evangelicals, Hall proceeds to note that, “God-affirming/world-denying forms of Christianity” give rise to a “Docetic Christ, clearly enough identified with Theos but hardly made flesh, hardly Anthropos” (106).

In End Times fiction, the suffering and humiliation of the Incarnated Christ, the Christ of this world, has far less presence that the otherworldly warrior Jesus, who descends from heaven on a white horse. “Jesus still appeared before [Rayford’s eyes] – shining, magnificent, powerful, victorious. And that sword from His mouth, the powerful Word of God itself, continued to slice through the air, reaping the wrath of God’s final judgment” (LaHaye & Jenkins, Glorious Appearing 208). Empathy for a bleeding, crucified Christ who suffered in this world would do far more for the spiritual formation of End Times fiction’s protagonists than the gloating reception of the weaponized Christus Victor who returns from heaven to usher in the Millennial Kingdom.

In his Temple sermon, Jeremiah exhorts the Jews to be just in their dealings with “the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” if they wish to dwell in proximity to God (Jer. 7:6-7). This redemptive communitarian ethics, derived from a covenantal injunction, has no counterpart in End Times fiction, where the only way into the Kingdom is through “justification by faith alone.” This radical shift from justice to justification is reflected in the absence from the fiction of any concern with social struggles and civil rights, with neighborhood and public welfare. End Times protagonists have only the most tenuous relation to community. (Indeed, beyond evangelizing, a character’s ethical responsibility to others is virtually a non-issue in this fiction, which is a deficiency given that fulfillment of this responsibility, according to many theologians, enriches the religious self.)

This fundamentalist disposition reflects Martin Luther’s doctrine of the “two kingdoms,” the spiritual and the secular, whose separation, he insisted, must be strictly maintained. The first duty of the pious Christian is to pursue spiritual reform within the religious  realm, while the pursuit of social reform should be confined to the secular realm, insofar as social reform, Luther insisted, was the business of government, not the church.  Such thinking has led many fundamentalist denominations to abdicate from civil rights struggles (other than the fight for “the rights of the unborn”) and, hence, undervalue how emulating Jesus in his “being for others” (Bonhoeffer) enables one’s formation as a Christian. George Omega, the protagonist of Kirban’s 666complains about the mainline Protestant churches, where “there was more social concern and less soul concern” (249); churches that “have watered down the message of man’s sin and God’s redemption and have replaced it with a social gospel that attempts to cure the ills of society” (7).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, alluding to Luther’s “two kingdoms,” critiqued this rigid separation of Christian ethics from social justice as “thinking in terms of two spheres”: “[T]he one divine, holy, supernatural and Christian, and the other worldly, profane, natural and unchristian” (Ethics 66, 62). This separation, he argued, has the pernicious effect of excluding the social realm from Christ’s influence and authority. In short, an ethic of social disconnectedness in End Times fiction attenuates the subjectivity of its Christian characters, who live with an undeveloped sense of social obligation.

Dispensational premillennialism, the eschatology that shapes the plot structure of End Times fiction, contributes to the hollowing out of the genre’s Christians. As noted above, this doctrine reads Scripture as prophesying an End Times schedule of events: the Rapture, the Tribulation and the rise of the Antichrist, the Second Coming, Armageddon, and the Millennial Kingdom.The doctrine’s fundamentalist adherents see major political events, such as the Cold War or war in the Middle East, through its biblical lens (Boyer 175).

But faith in this prophecy reduces the intrinsic value of any long-term, secular-historical developments (civil rights, class struggle) by marginalizing them vis-à-vis the history of cosmic spiritual war. Hence, any subjectivity that may have evolved within the dynamics of secular history is largely disregarded unless it can be aligned to one of the two sides in the clash between the Church and Satan.

The narrative structure of this fiction is designed to correspond with the divinely planned timetable of final events, largely as revealed to the Apocalypticist, John of Patmos. This means that all characters are slotted into a prefabricated plot, whereby human action (other than choosing a side in the cosmic spiritual battle) becomes largely inconsequential in the face of the vast eschatological forces.Such a context is less conducive to developing the subjectivity of characters than when they must navigate an open-ended reality.

Moreover, these characters lack depth partly because of the abstract nature of their circumstances; that is to say, they must function within a purely speculative (prophesied) scheme of history. If these Christians had some concrete, embedded relation to the empirical history into which the events of the End Times irrupt – for example, the social marginalization and low-wage economy that will be familiar to much of the readership (the economic left behinders) – they might have a more vivid presence on the page. However, given that the purpose of this fiction is to propagate the doctrine of dispensational premillennialism, its characters have been exclusively conceived to illustrate that doctrine. (To be sure, many of the genre’s protagonists are specified as journalists or TV newsmen, but their investigative skills chiefly count for having prepared them for the challenging task of decoding the signs of the impending End Times.)  

The sides in the cosmic spiritual battle that overarches End Times narratives are starkly defined in absolutist terms: Good versus Evil. But such a black-and-white morality leaves no significant space for ambiguity or irony.  Therefore, even when protagonists struggle with faith, the genre predetermines only two possible outcomes: either the character eventually comes out on the side of God or the side of Satan. And it is precisely this reductionist moral schema that contributes to the melodramatic characterization: a character, albeit ultimately, can only be right or wrong, righteous or unrighteous.

We sometimes encounter an End Times hero (nearly always a man) who harbors doubts about God’s benevolent purposes or existence, yet the reader can be sure that, as the genre’s formula and doxology dictate, he will eventually be converted to belief in the essential goodness and inevitable triumph of (fundamentalism’s) God.

Surely Christ’s return, “His Glorious Appearing,” must constitute such a supernatural rupture in history that it would explode all categories of thinking, shatter the norms of human understanding. In an essay on the “Christ Event,” Alain Badiou writes, “‘Event’ means that the established figures of discourse are powerless to declare it. In the framework of established discourses, there is no naming process available for an event” (30-31). A thoughtful literary recounting of how such an event could induce a deep shock to the psyche would push language to its limits or, at least, encourage an introspective focus on a radically disrupted mind. Yet, note the following responses to the parousia in Glorious Appearing:

To see Jesus, clad in white, riding the white horse, and speaking with the authority of the ages, and knowing that He was slaying the enemy in the Holy Land at the same time… [author’s ellipses] it was just too much to take in. Enoch believed that Jesus was the lover of his soul, and seeing Him return on the clouds, knowing He was there to set up His thousand-year kingdom reign, completed Enoch somehow. (206)

Something about Jesus’ appearing struck Rayford so deeply that he was glad no one else was around. He would not have been able to utter a sound. There were no words for the thrill, the magnetism, the overwhelming perfection of the moment. (207)

One cannot blame the trite prose, the striking absence of any aura of the extraordinary, simply on the limits of Jenkins’ literary skills; consider also that the kind of writer who is fixated on the objective truth of divine sovereignty will be less likely to cultivate the type of prose that must struggleto communicate the phenomenological truth of a subject’s experience. The latter kind of prose is what distinguishes the fiction of non-fundamentalist Christian writers, such as Updike or Robinson or Percy, from that of fundamentalist Christian writers.

Updike and the others clearly have doctrinal affiliations but their prose is more than just a medium for evangelization; rather, they pursue their spiritual truths through the minds of their protagonists, a challenge which requires a good deal of literary and linguistic resourcefulness. Conversely, Jenkins’ hurried writing conveys no sense of the spiritually transfigurative nature of Christ’s return.But then it is not Enoch’s or Rayford’s or any character’s experience that matters; what matters is the theological perspective, Jenkins’ principal purpose being to propagate the truth of biblical prophecy.

The reactions of his characters are proforma, given that they have been created primarily to validate a doctrinal truth. The human perspective has a small claim on the reader’s attention in the face of the apocalyptic force of the unfolding dispensation. Indeed, in the pages that immediately follow these passages (209, 211-12), it is the voice of Jesus that prevails, as heard in a lengthy sermonizing monologue.  

One can easily lose sight of the simple fact that the characters of End Times fiction are defined in the macrocosmic context of (quite literally) world-shattering events. The genre has no interest in exploring the transfigurative potential of the random micro-event. Ron Hansen commends Jesus’s story-telling method of the parable for its power to “skew quotidian reality,” thereby enabling us “to find in our paltry circumstances occasions for surprise, revelation, and self-transcendence” (Stay 21).  Non-fundamentalist Christian authors like Hansen, Updike, and Robinson, have productively worked with “paltry circumstances” in order to expose their protagonists to the numinous power of the ordinary. (Updike famously spoke of his “duty” to “give the mundane its beautiful due” (xvii).)

Finally, a symptom of this fiction’s hollow characters is that the End Times violence, for which the genre is notorious, chiefly affects only the bodies of nonbelievers; the spiritual torments of the latter are generally ignored. Thus, in BeauSeigneur’s Acts of God, nonbelievers flee at the sight of Jesus’s glorious return, experiencing “such pain throughout their bodies as they had never felt before. And looking down, they watched as blood began to seep from their pores, and in mere minutes their flesh wrinkled and […] began to literally rot away” (410). And in the same context and with the same excitement of apocalypse pornography, The End of the Age recounts how “Pieces of flesh began to fall from the [Antichrist’s] soldiers’ bones.

Their eyeballs began to rot in their sockets. Their internal organs slowly began to turn to mush, and they fell, gushing blood, one after another” (397). The violence may be supernatural in origin but its spiritual impact cannot be registered when the individuals concerned are never more than anonymous infidels, the objectified targets of divine wrath.In contrast, consider the spiritual dimension of violence in O’Connor’s fiction (though, granted, she is not writing in an eschatological context). Here, the violence is often inflicted by “agents of grace” on sanctimonious protagonists in contexts that facilitate the spiritual development of the latter. (O’Connor was repelled by the pride and complacency of Christians who, in a secular-humanist fashion, had faith in their own powers of redemption.)

Recall the experience of the self-righteous grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” who, having just witnessed the brutal murder of her family and is herself about to be shot by the same killer, has an epiphany that signifies her spiritual rebirth. This prompts the killer to remark, “’She would of been a good woman […] if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life’” (133).  According to O’Connor in Mystery and Manners, “[V]iolence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace” (112). Indeed, under an introspective focus, a single, familiar act of violence in her fiction carries more of a spiritual charge, registers a far greater impact on a character’s psyche, than all the meticulously detailed, ostentatiously gruesome, and supernatural forms of death inflicted on unbelievers en masse in End Times fiction.

Fundamentalism understands humans as essentially sinners in thrall to the devil, so that salvation depends on (i) recognizing that only Jesus can save them and (ii) their repentance of their sins. Accordingly, for fundamentalists the stakes could not be higher: an eternity in heaven or hell. Hence, End Times fiction, one of the most assertive and militant of literary genres, struggles to coopt the terms by which we understand salvation. Openly acknowledging their proselytizing agenda, the authors of the Left Bhind series employ a vast infrastructure of websites, book clubs, radio shows, and ministries to reinforce the redemptive message of their books; in the words of Tsion Ben- Judah, the spiritual leader of the Tribulation Force, the converted must “evangelize with the fervor of the apostle Paul and reap the great soul harvest that is ours to gather”(330).

But this agenda contributes to the hollowing out of the subjectivities of the books’ characters in two ways. First, the fiction stages a dispensationalist model of history, not to explore the subjective experience of those who find themselves trapped in the violence of the Tribulation period, but chiefly to teach readers about biblical prophecy. As LaHaye puts it, End Times novelists are “sincerely attempt[ing] to use fiction to cast light on prophetic truth” (Kingdom Come, 356).  

Indeed, the novels abound with lengthy discussions of Revelation and other New Testament writings, such that the novels themselves can substitute for Bible study classes. Second, the characters function not as psychologically credible beings, but chiefly to instruct the reader as to whom counts or does not count as an exemplary Christian, that is to say, a redeemable subject. Surely, any literary reflection on the question of human redeemability should engage in nuanced and probing analyses of the complexity of the human psyche: its contradictions, instabilities, and cognitive limitations.

Yet, the authors of End Times fiction, their fictional protagonists, and most of their readers are so convinced of the truth of Jesus’s declarations  –  e.g., “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6) – that such analyses are minimal, if not complacently ignored. Faith in Jesus’ words inclines fundamentalist novelists towards indoctrination rather than exploration of subjectivity beyond the parameters of redeemability. O’Connor insisted that Christian fiction should not provide us with answers but “leave us, like Job, with a renewed sense of mystery”  (184). For her, the best art was not didactic because “a work of art is a good in itself.” Hence, “[t]he artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists” (171).   

There are several reasons why End Times fiction is read. Christians may read it to validate their belief in biblical prophecy or, as Amy Johnson Frykholm has shown, to affirm their membership of a faith community (2004a, 40). (I would add that the horrendous punishments meted out to non-believers serve to ratify the righteous status of the genre’s Christian readership.) Others simply enjoy the adventures of the Tribulation Force and other crusaders in the world of a future apocalypse in the spirit of a Christian type of science fiction.

But readers who come to this best-selling of all Christian literary genres in search of a vivid and compelling sense of Christian spirituality will be frustrated. After all, as I have tried to show, the genre’s narration of spiritual experience is necessarily slight and perfunctory given the pressure of fundamentalist doctrines that tend to attenuate subjectivity or place it under suspicion. Ideally, End Times fiction would exploit its novelistic resources to provide insights into Christian spirituality that are not accessible to non-literary discourses. However, constrained by fundamentalism, this fiction generates characters who lack the depth of subjectivity, the moral complexity and singularity needed for it to measure up to other types of Christian fiction. Hence, by the standards of the latter, there are no End Times novelists of any literary distinction.

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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