Before Left Behind
Would you know how to discern these signs, there are myriads of books upon the market today which will help you.
—Sydney Watson, Scarlet and Purple
Exactly at eleven, someone emerged from the vestry and passed up the rostrum stairs. A moment later the man was standing at the desk. Many instantly recognized him. It was the Secretary of the Church. A dead hush fell upon the people. … "He has come, and we, the unready, have been left behind … My wife has gone … My daughter, too."
—Sydney Watson, The Mark of the Beast
"Now I know, dear Abraham," she presently cried, "How it is that Jehovah is allowing our Rabbis … to be led to dates that prove the Messiah is coming soon? Now I know why God has allowed our nation to be stirred up,—the Zionist movement, the colonization of Jerusalem and its neighbourhood, and all else of this like—yes, it is because the Christ is coming."
—Sydney Watson, In the Twinkling of an Eye
It's hard to write something new about the end of the world. Senses of endings are so basic to thinking about time and mortality that ideas of personal and global apocalypse recur throughout the history of civilizations. Norman Cohn, in The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), famously compared medieval millennialism to fascism's 1,000-year Reich and the perverted utopias of the Communist Bloc. Today, however, it appears that millennial aspirations have outlived their exploitation by medieval sect-masters and tyrannical governments. If a recent series of opinion polls are to be trusted, millennialism's new spiritual home lies not in "Old Europe" but deep in the American South, where the astonishingly successful Left Behind series enjoys its most fervent following.1
What is interesting about much of the comment on the Left Behind phenomenon is the assumption that this market did not exist before the publication of the series' first novel. Indeed, a great deal of media discussion has assumed that the series' fictionalizing of apocalyptic interests was entirely without precedent. The opposite is the case. Rapture fictions have been a feature of Western evangelicalism throughout the 20th century, and end-times novelists have repeatedly rewritten the apocalypse to take account of changing social and political concerns.
The genre appears to have been born 90 years ago, when a British writer named Sydney Watson turned his attention to the creation of an apocalyptic trilogy, Scarlet and Purple (1913), The Mark of the Beast (1915), and In the Twinkling of an Eye (1916). Watson was the author of books such as The Lure of a Soul ("demonstrating the dangers of Spiritualism"), Escaped from the Snare (on Christian Science), The Gilded Lie ("a Story illustrating the dangers and subtleties of 'Millennial Dawnism'"), and Plucked from the Burning ("a startling story, dealing with Ritualism and Romish Practices in the Church of England"). But it was his rapture trilogy that achieved the widest impact. Published as the world moved into its most expansive and technologically advanced war to date—the ironically millennial "war to end wars"—Watson's novels established the narrative contours and stock characters of the rapture genre.
His influence resonates through succeeding narratives. Over half a century later, when Dr Frederick A. Tatford, the former director of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, published his own rapture novel, he explicitly noted the importance of Watson's legacy, acknowledging that The Clock Strikes (1971) would be "on similar lines to The Mark of the Beast, but with a more modern setting."2 When Russ Doughton directed his famous rapture movies—A Thief in the Night (1972) and its successors —he alluded to Watson's fiction in providing his faithful remnant in the tribulation with the possibility of death by guillotine. But similar executions also feature in Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' The Mark (2000). There can, it seems, be no escaping Watson's shadow: "let's call a blade a blade."3
Of course, when both authors and audience share a basic commitment to dispensational theology, it becomes extremely difficult to develop new contours in plot. A narrative paradigm has been established by biblical exegesis, and no author who takes his market seriously would dare to challenge its fundamental conventions. But the Left Behind novels, emerging from the evangelical subculture during a period of immense change, do make a determined effort to reinvent the genre.
LaHaye and Jenkins plot their novels in a post-Cold War world. The Russian threat has disappeared, and the Left Behind novels take account of contemporary geopolitical crises to negotiate America's new apocalyptic "other." The Antichrist—now a Romanian—is too charismatic to be a Communist. His reign, consolidated through the machinery of the United Nations, nevertheless subverts the nation state.
The collapse of national sovereignty is a staple of end-times fiction. Watson's Antichrist, following a long-established exegetical tradition, was a Jew. But Watson writes that tradition into the cultural context of early 20th-century Britain, exploiting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to suggest that Britain's distinctive political identity was under serious threat. "The peoples of all the world" associated Britain with the "two thoughts of safety and liberty," but Britain in the tribulation would be ruled by a Jew from his palace in Babylon.4
Almost a century later, LaHaye and Jenkins dramatize similar fears of international bodies. When the Romanian Antichrist seizes control of the UN, opposition to his one-world internationalism comes from the American president, Gerald Fitzhugh, "a younger version of Lyndon Johnson" and "the greatest friend Israel ever had."5 But Fitzhugh cannot trust his military. As his top officers increasingly align themselves with the Antichrist's one-world program, the president finds his only allies in the "surprisingly organized" "patriotic militia forces."6 But their resistance is futile. The Antichrist's UN destroys British and American resistance in a brief nuclear war.
Equally fascinating is the manner in which the novels negotiate the end of the other Cold War, the hostile standoff between the competing branches of Western Christendom. Throughout the rapture novel tradition, Roman Catholicism has been given a negative press. Watson's heroes were "ultra-protestants" adhering to a "Moody and Sankey religion."7 The motives of their enemy were undisguised: "Romanism boldly declares its aim to win, or coerce Britain back into her harlot fold."8 LaHaye and Jenkins certainly moderate this mood. In Left Behind, the Pope is among the raptured, though perhaps only because he has embraced Luther's "heresies"; but, in later novels, the rapture seems to have also involved entire Catholic congregations whose evangelical credentials are in no way signaled. Such rapprochement is tempered, however, as the novels identify the replacement pope as the Antichrist's false prophet. In the aftermath of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, the Left Behind novels seek to have their cake and eat it.
But perhaps it is in characterization that the Left Behind novels show their greatest affinity with the Watson tradition. Watson's trilogy established the trope of the loyal church leader surprised to find himself left behind. In The Mark of the Beast, Watson describes how the church secretary of one of the most prestigious churches in London discovers that he remains after his wife and daughter have been taken. His fate parallels that of Left Behind's Bruce Barnes, who discovers, despite his Bible college training and years of pastoral service, that he had never really been born again. Rapture novels consistently use these situations to present the failed leader's conversion to evangelical faith and dispensational literalism.
But these stock similarities pale beside the most overt example of Left Behind's literary borrowings. Watson's In the Twinkling of an Eye features as its protagonist a 30-year-old bachelor journalist named Tom Hammond. His career in crisis, Hammond is offered the opportunity to launch his own paper, which quickly establishes itself as the most successful in the world. Hammond editorializes in a column called "From the Prophet's Chair," in which his growing interest in biblical prophecy develops. Buck Williams, in the Left Behind series, is also a 30-year-old bachelor journalist who launches his own internationally successful news portal and uses it to display his growing interest in biblical prophecy. Perhaps there is something to be said for narrative economy.
What is interesting about the Left Behind novels, therefore, is not that they are new—it is that they are not quite new enough. Seen in the context of the tradition from which they have emerged, it becomes apparent that the series is acutely conscious of its genre. At best the novels are deeply intertextual; at worst, it might even be claimed, elements of their fictions are explicitly derivative.
So why read Left Behind? Perhaps, if for no other reason, because the series sheds light on the condition of contemporary evangelicalism. It is not enough for readers merely to lament the scandal of the evangelical mind—or, indeed, the scandal of the evangelical purse—that the success of the series might be seen to represent. The novels resonate with current fears, even as they demonstrate a profound continuity with the concerns of Sydney Watson's audience nearly a century ago.
"Nothing could have been scripted like this," Buck Williams muses, as he grapples to come to terms with the disappearances of the raptured.9 But he, a writer, should have known better. It's not easy to say something new about the end of the world.
Crawford Gribben teaches in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. He is the author of The Puritan Millennium: Literature and Theology, 1550-1682 (Dublin: Four Courts, 2000) and co-editor of a forthcoming collection of essays on evangelical millennialism in 19th-century Britain and Ireland (Paternoster).
1. See the poll results displayed on www.leftbehind.com.
3. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, The Mark (Tyndale, 2000), pp. 84, 170.
4. Sydney Watson, The Mark of the Beast (London: W. Nicholson & Sons, 1915; reprint, Edinburgh: B. McCall Barbour, 1974), pp. 97, 58.
5. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Tribulation Force (Tyndale, 1996), pp. 357, 370.
7. Sydney Watson, In the Twinkling of an Eye (London: W. Nicholson & Sons, 1916), p. 263; Sydney Watson, Scarlet and Purple (London: William Nicholson & Sons, 1913; reprint, Edinburgh: B. McCall Barbour, 1974), p. 54.
8. Scarlet and Purple, p. 147.
9. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind (Tyndale, 1995), p. 79.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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