A dozen years ago, I wrote an article, “No End In Sight”, for First Things, in which I wrote, perhaps with a dash of sarcasm: “Only two more Left Behind books to go and we’ll finally know how the world ends. I can hardly wait. I feel fortunate that I live at a time when someone finally figured out what the Book of Revelation really means.” I noted that the novel, The Remnant: On the Brink of Armageddon, which was the most recent Left Behind book at that time (it was #13, and three more followed between 2003-2007), had a first printing of 2,750,000 copies. “That’s a serious number of people learning the secrets of the Book of Revelation,” I wrote, “Unfortunately for them, the secrets are stale, recycled, and false.”
Four years ago, Christian Post reported that Cloud Ten Pictures, the company that produced the first Left Behind movie in 2000, starring Kirk Cameron, had finally settled a lawsuit with Tim LaHaye—creator and co-author of the mega-selling novels—that was based on LaHaye’s claim that “the producers made a lower quality film than the contract demanded.” That is funny in its own right, since LaHaye (b. 1926), a high profile Fundamentalist pastor based in San Diego who has authored or co-authored some fifty books, should know that it’s impossible to make a good Rapture movie—or so it appears, based on all available evidence (including the three previous Left Behind movies).
But LaHaye was persistent, saying, “My dream has always been to enter the movie theater with a first-class, high-quality movie that is grippingly interesting, but also is true to the biblical storyline – and that was diluted in the first attempt, but Lord willing, we are going to see this thing made into the movie that it should be.” And so LaHaye had agreed, in 2010, to allow Cloud Ten Pictures “to make a Hollywood version of the New York Times bestseller series.”
Two nights ago, I took two friends to the opening night of the Left Behind “reboot,” the so-called “Hollywood version” of the series. I can safely say, with my right hand on a Bible and a stiff drink in my left, that the new movie is not first-class, high-quality, grippingly interesting, or true to the biblical storyline. It’s so bad that Nicholas Cage—apparently the “Hollywood” in “Hollywood version”—looks embarrassed to be in the film, and I’m guessing that Cage has rarely felt embarrassed about much of anything. It’s so bad that a part of me wishes I’d gone to the horror flick, Annabelle, so that I’d stop having nightmares of a blank-eyed Cage (who plays slimy airplane pilot Ray Steele) uttering lines with all the conviction and sincerity of a DoD spokesperson: “It’s about the truth. Focus on the truth.” Okay, here’s the truth: the first Left Behind movie with Cameron is a much, much better film, if only because Cameron and the rest of that cast appeared to be trying. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, “This is the way the Left Behind series ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” And that, honestly, isn’t fair to sincere whimpers everywhere.
The movie is being promoted as a “faith-themed movie,” which is like saying Annabelle is “a doll-themed movie”: it’s meaningful for those who are in on the central premise, but confusing or annoying to everyone else. True, the film did challenge my faith, but in all the wrong ways. Thirty minutes in, I wondered, “If there really is a loving God, would he allow movies this badly written, acted, directed, and produced to exist?” And, an hour in: “If this movie were played in an empty forest, would the trees die from direct exposure to excessive cinematic stupidity?” But, at the end, I did utter a short prayer: “Thank God, it’s over!”
Here’s the plot: people in New York City sit around and talk for quite a while and some of them get on a plane to London; a bunch of them disappear into thin air, thus upsetting those “left behind”; chaos erupts on earth and on airplanes and certain people have strained conversations about God and the Bible; some more stuff happens; and then one character, gazing upon a burning New York City, says, “So this is what the End looks like”; and another character responds—gaze squarely fixed on potential sequels: “This isn’t the End; this is just the beginning.”
My apologies for not yelling, “Spoiler Alert!” You cannot spoil something that’s already quite rotten.
Of course, I had a pretty good idea what I was in for. Raised in a Fundamentalist home, I watched my first Rapture movie, A Thief In the Night, in junior high, and I read numerous books about the Rapture, the Book of Revelation, Gog and Magog, the Whore of Babylon, black helicopters, and the Mark of the Beast while in my teens. Released in 1972, A Thief In the Night had the distinction of being somewhat unique and edgy for a “Christian film,” and while it was painfully cheesy, it took a serious stab at capturing a sense of impending doom, one-world-government tyranny, and serious spiritual conflict. The early ‘70s were a perfect time for gospel-laced doom-and-gloom movies, books, and music, as evidenced by the use of Larry Norman’s Rapture-ballad, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” (sang by American Idol winner Jordin Sparks for the new Left Behind film), Hal Lindsey’s mega-million best-seller, The Late, Great Planet Earth (1970), and a number of lesser known but notable books.
One of those other books, The Beginning of the End, was authored by Tim LaHaye, and it was published by Tyndale House Publishers, the same publishing house that published LaHaye’s Left Behind series three decades later. The unoriginal but tangled nature of American “bible prophecy” was further revealed (get it?) by the first Rapture novel of the ’70s, Salem Kirban’s 666, which was published by, yes, Tyndale House Publishers in, yes, 1970. Even more interesting are the many significant similiarities in plot and characters between Kirban’s novel and the first book of LaHaye-Jenkins series, which was published in 1995. But it doesn’t stop there: another Rapture novel, also titled Left Behind, and was also published in 1995, by Harvest House Publishers, authored by husband-wife team, Peter and Patti Lalonde. And it was Peter Lalonde and his brother, Paul, who founded Cloud Ten Productions and produced the first three Left Behind movies, and it was Paul who wrote and produced the newest Left Behind movie.
In other words, the same small group of people keep writing the same books and producing the same movies, repeatedly, as if hoping that God will finally say, “Okay, fine, I’ll give you the Rapture just so you’ll stop with all the dreadful books and movies!”
So why bother? Why waste time and money seeing this movie and reviewing it? Last Sunday, a lady in my parish told me that one of her good friends, a Catholic, was promoting the Left Behind movie on her Facebook page and telling people how excited she was about the film. “What is a simple way of explaining to her,” she asked, “why the movie isn’t compatible with Catholic teaching?” That harkens back to why I wrote my first book, Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”?: because far too many Catholics have little or no idea of how contrary to Catholic teaching—and to Scripture, it should be noted—is the “left behind” theology (the more fancy term is “premillennial dispensationalism”). As I told ZENIT back in 2003:
My book has three major goals: to provide needed historical and theological context to beliefs about the end times, to critique the errors of the “left behind” theology, and to present a Catholic perspective on general eschatology, salvation history, the Church, the Kingdom and interpreting Scripture.
More details are available in my article, “Five Myths About the ‘Rapture’ and the ‘Left Behind’ Industry”. I will simply note here that LaHaye has made it clear, from the start, that the Left Behind books had one major goal: to explain how the world is going to end, very soon, based on a certain interpretation of the Bible, with a fixation on the Rapture, “the most important event in the history of mankind.” So it’s important to point out that in the “left behind” theology the Rapture is not the same thing as the Second Coming, that the “left behind” theology is based on a very flawed belief about the work and mission of Jesus Christ, and that the “left behind” theology is not, in fact, biblical, never mind historical, traditional, or orthodox.
In fact, it promotes a sort of escapism that, frankly, makes a mockery of an authentic Christian understanding of suffering and of the witness of the martyrs. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “According to the Lord, the present time is the time of the Spirit and of witness, but also a time still marked by ‘distress’ and the trial of evil which does not spare the Church and ushers in the struggles of the last days. It is a time of waiting and watching” (par 672). And I’m quite certain the “waiting and watching” has nothing to do with suffering through a Left Behind movie.
In sum, the genius of the popularization of the “left behind” theology lies in its repeated claim that it is the “Christian” understanding of things, when no Christian prior to the 1830s believed in it, and the vast majority of Christians—including most Protestants—do not believe in it today. It is, in short, quite distinctly American (although originating in Great Britain), overwhelmingly Fundamentalist (though embraced by certain Evangelicals and Pentecostals), and certainly anti-Catholic (although that aspect is often downplayed or softened).
Finally, the new Left Behind movie is supposedly about The End of the World, but it may actually mark the end of Rapture movies. Yes, it concludes with the obvious hope that several sequels will follow (just as the Left Behind books, originally meant to be a trilogy, turned into a 16-volume slog that seemed, well, Endless), but it’s hard to believe that such a tepid, dull movie—without likable characters, compelling story lines, or discernible production values—can turn into a franchise. And considering that this movie only covered a very short time frame—eight hours or so—it’s going to take about 666 movies to depict the rise of the antiChrist, the seven years of tribulation, the plagues and famines, the Second Coming, the 1000-year-long earthly reign of Christ, the final battle with Satan, and the final, last, ultimate judgment.
If I were Tim LaHaye, I’d consider another lawsuit. Or even consider returning to the Catholic Church, in which he was baptized as a child. After all, Catholics still manage to make good movies on occasion.
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