Fundamentalist mind siege and psychic terrorism
[ politics - october 05 ]
Katrina. Rita. Indonesia. London. Madrid. Gaza. Iraq. Sudan.
In the past year or so, the real world has been battered by natural disasters, terrorist attacks, war, and famine. Even as you read the prequels to the Left Behind series, you're drawn into a fictional world revealing the dark side of life and the coming judgment for those who reject God's redemption.
This vague and fear-filled quote is the lead from the latest monthly ‘Left Behind’ email newsletter from Tyndale House, publishers of the fictionalized accounts of the ‘End Times’, the Left Behind novels, written by Jerry B Jenkins and constructed by Tim LaHaye, one of America’s leading politically active fundamentalist preachers of the past 30 years. The first in a three-novel prequel series to Left Behind, The Rising: Antichrist is Born,  came out in early 2005; while the second, The Regime, is due out later this autumn. Since first appearing in the mid-90s, the series has sold over 70 million books, mostly in the United States.
The only other publishing phenomenon that compares to the success of the Left Behind novels in the past decade is the Harry Potter series, which had sold an estimated 250 million copies worldwide before the release of the sixth book in the summer of 2005. The Da Vinci Code has sold somewhere around seven million copies in the US and 15 million worldwide. But where both these books have a worldwide reach, the Left Behind novels are more specifically American. Before the release of the final book of the regular series, The Glorious Appearing, the Left Behind series had sold over 60 million copies in less than 10 years in the US, with another 20 million in spin-offs, mainly comic books and teen versions of the adult series marketed toward children.
Around the age of 10, in about 1984, I often had a feeling of dread that nuclear apocalypse would strike at any moment. My town, I’d found out, was among the top 10 cities to be hit in a Soviet first strike because of the Rock Island Arsenal in the middle of the Mississippi River. I vaguely knew that high-precision firing mechanisms were made there, along with tank turrets and other parts extremely important to the American military machine. For this reason, among others, I developed an acute paranoia about this catastrophic occurrence: Nuclear annihilation. A fascination and interest in military matters extended far beyond GI Joe and into the realm of survivalist tactics and even studying how to survive a nuclear winter.
For hours I would draw intricate pictures of underground bunkers, much like the tunnels used by the Vietcong in Vietnam, but with rooms for schools, hospitals, barracks, parking for tanks and silos for missiles. I shudder when I think about it now. I would browse books about the military and weaponry when I should have been outside enjoying the fresh air - fresh air which could have been my last. On long road trips with my parents, I would sometimes find myself staring out the window and wondering where a mushroom cloud would appear. I am often curious why I was burdened with a sensitivity toward this apocalypse when others of my age around me didn’t seem to harbor the same fears and fascinations, or at least didn’t let on. I later brushed this off as Cold War paranoia manifested in my growing little mind and, as puberty hit, forgot about most of these private terrors. The melancholy of these thoughts touched me deeply, and I believe are still with me today in many ways.
From my reading of the entire Left Behind series, I believe these psychic Cold War fears are similar to those formed by concepts such as ‘The Rapture’ and the Left Behind books’ theology. The “mind siege”, as Tim LaHaye calls it, is perhaps better described as “psychic terrorism”, especially when marketed toward children. Yet while I was reading the adult version of Left Behind series, I sometimes couldn’t help but wonder if Jerry B Jenkins was perhaps one of the most brilliant satirical writers alive. If someone were to write a satire of the beliefs of dispensational premillennialism, they would be hard pressed to render it better than the current Left Behind series.
The Left Behind books, like Roland Emmerich’s 1996 alien apocalypse movie Independence Day, are much more entertaining if viewed as satire. However, Emmerich’s 2004 environmental apocalypse movie The Day After Tomorrow was less tongue-in-cheek, though so equally absurd in its dire predictions that NASA scientists denied requests to consult on the film. In many ways, these far-left visions of apocalypse are just as politically expedient as their right-wing brethren. In this case, however, environmental catastrophe is physically more pertinent than premillennial apocalypse, though I believe the use of such propagandistic efforts to bring attention to global warming and environmental degradation cheapens the science and spreads the seeds of hopelessness, fear and anger in the same way as premillennial apocalyptic visions cheapen religious belief and lead to fear and despair. No, neither of these examples are satire. They are much more serious than that.
A similarly named 80s movie, The Day After, painted a vision of apocalyptic nuclear holocaust after a Cold War exchange between the USSR and the US, and was often blasted by right-wing critics as a propaganda tool for left-wing pacifists. According to Victor Goodpasture, former president of the right-wing group Young Americans for Freedom in Lawrence, Kansas (the town fictionally obliterated by a mushroom cloud in the first scenes of the film), The Day After was merely another “left-wing political maneuver that failed.”  The right-wing Cold War movies Red Dawn predicted a surprise Soviet invasion - without the use of nuclear weapons - of the heart of America, the small town of Carbondale, Colorado. The Day After probably gave me more nightmares and contributed more to a nihilistic hopelessness than any other film I saw during my childhood; Red Dawn had the affect of increasing an early interest in paranoid survivalism, commando tactics and other means to battle the Communist foe. I wish someone had made me watch Dr Strangelove much sooner than I did.
From reading the Left Behind series, watching the movies, and researching the premillennialists, and after seeing the influence the ideology had on my landlord David, who I’ll mention in a moment, I can’t help but wonder what psychological impact this vision of the world has on children exposed to it.
In the mid-90s, around the time the Left Behind novels first made their way onto bookstore shelves, I was living in the small town of Carterville, in Southern Illinois. I was renting a room for about $50 a week from a middle-aged man named David; he occupied the second story and I had the bottom half of the house. I was enrolled in two heavy and demanding classes, Existential Philosophy and Russian Realist Literature. Their reading lists helped fill my small room with stacks of books. Upstairs, David had his own course of study which he told me about every time I ran into him. Part of my rent went toward an evening meal; I became something of a captive audience for him and, for the first time in my life, came into contact with the all-encompassing worldview of dispensational premillennialism.
According to Thomas Ice, a steering committee member of Tim LaHaye’s “Pre-Trib Research Center” and author of The Truth Behind Left Behind, premillennial dispensationalists believe that that the Bible is “God’s inspired, inerrant revelation to man”, and through that revelation the Bible “provides the framework through which to interpret history (past and future)” to be “interpreted literally and historically (past and future).” The dispensations of premillennial dispensationalism are the different “ages, or epochs of history through which His creatures (men and angels) are tested” and that “Jesus Christ is the only way to a relationship with God.” Furthermore, “only genuine believers in Christ are open to the teachings of the Bible” though what genuine is has been left undefined. Here are the following points verbatim:
· “God’s plan for history includes a purpose for the descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - that is, Israel. This plan for Israel includes promises that they will have the land of Israel (biblical land of Israel),  will have a seed, and will be a worldwide blessing to the nations. Many of the promises to a national Israel are yet future; therefore, God is not finished with Israel.
· God’s plan from all eternity also includes a purpose for the church; however this is a temporary phase that will end with the Rapture. After the Rapture, God will complete his plan for Israel and the Gentiles.
· The main purpose in God’s master plan  for history is to glorify himself through Jesus Christ. Therefore, Jesus Christ is the goal and hero of history.” 
This gives a good overview of how premillennialists view the world, through their convoluted interpretation of what they deem as literal scripture, especially in how they view history as both past and pre-ordained future. The eschatological framework they have constructed lets them view the world in this way: all future is known in this construction; only the time frames, or dispensations, are hidden. This helps account for much of the fascination premillennialists have with watching current events and imagining them within the framework of God’s master plan. How this master plan is thought to be revealed by these believers is probably one of the most arrogant of religious assumptions in the Christian world. For who would claim to know the mind of God?
It is that clock watching, the magnetism with which these beliefs attach themselves to current events, which gives this ideology much of its power. Katrina. Rita. Indonesia. London. Madrid. Gaza. Iraq. Sudan. Scared yet? For my landlord, clock watching was his life.
David had a bad back and was in immense physical pain daily. He needed a walker to get around the apartment, and a mechanical lazy-boy lifted him to a standing position when he had finished watching television. He hardly ever changed his clothes. Besides spending his money on generic cigarettes and his green stamps on staples like milk, canned goods and frozen food from Aldi, most of his savings went toward buying apocalyptic Christian books and videos. Other than a collection of old Hollywood videos, all I ever saw him watch besides Christian television on his basic cable service was Jeopardy and the evening news, which he followed intently. A bombing in Israel? The Apocalypse is coming soon, he would say. Russians interfering in Iraq? The End is very near. Virtually any story that surfaced in the news had relevance for David as signifying that we were living in the End Times. The endless parade of images across the screen, the stories of murders, wars and rumors of wars, the “identity” politics of feminism, abortion, homosexuality, all the corruption and lack of hope in the world signaled one thing for David: The Day of Doom. This is one of the major seductions of being attuned to the eschatological time bomb of “Revelation”: the sense that believers are in the front-row seat for the End of Time. The other major seduction is that the only escape hatch will be the Rapture of those “true believers” (another quite arrogant construct), followed by the destruction of this corrupted, fleshy world and the dawning of the new and glorious spiritual kingdom of Christ - the Millennial Reign of Jesus and the return of the triumphant Raptured to this newly-created utopia.
And as if this wasn’t enough, all the moral decay in the world is due not to the actions of individuals dealing with their own destinies or of larger social forces and societal inequities crashing into one another, but to a secretive and widespread conspiracy enacted by shadowy forces in international banking, by satanic global leftist elites, distant foreigners, apostate Catholics, fanatical Muslims, and demoniacal Jews. Through the last hundred years, conspiracy theories like those promoted through the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, The Turner Diaries and McCarthyism communist conspiracy narratives have united with the premillennial interpretations of Revelation based on the writings of John Darby. These, in turn, have been woven into how the founding myths of American exceptionalism are understood to produce a paranoid vision of America’s place in the world.
There are striking similarities between what is depicted in Protocols of the Elders of Zion and The Turner Diaries and what is insinuated in the Left Behind books, mainly in regards to anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Islamism and the depictions of race. The sleight-of-hand portrayed in the Left Behind books about imminent future events (this knowledge of historic-future) is on par with those of The Turner Diaries, but instead of race war we are presented with a war between the forces of the “Global Community” led by the Antichrist character Nicolae Carpathia and the “believing Christians” who, we are led to believe, are those who believe only in the premillennial dispensational view of the world outlined above. In that Global Community is a wide variety of suspects worth eliminating, according to the Left Behind books: Jews, Catholics, Muslims, as well as the usual suspects of liberals and humanists, atheists and any other group portrayed as outside this worldview. These enemies - we can call them this as they are depicted as such in the books themselves - are portrayed as evil, subhuman and not worth the earth they stand upon. There is one significant difference here between the Left Behind books and the racist conspiracy narratives: the ultimate slayer, the ultimate instrument of genocide in this case, is Jesus Christ himself. This configuration of Christ as the “hero” in this massacre fits into a Christian fundamentalist context as opposed to the white-supremacist and largely secular one of the Turner Diaries.  Much of the ideology LaHaye uses is complexly intertwined with conspiracy theories such as those used in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Instead of “international Jewish bankers”, the Left Behind books simply drop “Jewish” out of the phrase, and we are left with shadowy “international bankers”. For anyone familiar with the old conspiracy phrase, “Jewish” certainly springs to mind. By combining all this with the maze of interpretation that is the Book of Revelation, LaHaye delivers the narrative in a Christian context, or at least a premillennialist Christian one, and injects it with hints of Christian nationalism of a specifically American nature.
Often while watching the nightly news with David, I would find myself perplexed by the intense connections he made with events happening on the screen and events which he said fit into this prophetic scheme, all of which revolved around Jews, Israel and the Second Coming of Christ. Where did these connections, basically presumptions about current and future events, come from? Where did he learn, for example, that all the violence then happening in Israel was a harbinger for events that signaled the end? What interested me most about David’s beliefs wasn’t so much that he harbored them, but where they developed. Obviously, to draw so many conclusions from daily news reports, there had to be some overarching narrative besides the Bible which fed these assumptions. Conspiracy theories have long floated about, but their traction has often been suspect, open to ridicule, and limited to the few unless disseminated actively by groups who can use them politically. (Extremist Muslims and various anti-Semitic groups and governments in the recent past have used the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.) Here, in David, those conspiracy theories - mixed with a militant Christian fundamentalist religiosity fixated mainly on interpreting the Book of Revelation as a guide to the future - had become whole, ingrained and personalized. These ideas were alien to my own core beliefs, which I considered were also fundamentally Judeo-Christian,  though concerned with personal and individual morality, rather than a mass movement or mass reality constructed for spiritual and political power. That they largely spoke to people’s fears and alienations rather than their hopes and aspirations also made me wonder where their influence lay.
After researching the material surrounding LaHaye and the premillennialists, it became clear that much of the dissemination of these ideas has been due to a relatively small number of people and comes from a relatively marginal segment of Protestant fundamentalist theology. The power of this narrative - which feeds its dissemination - is that it is inherently tied to the fears, hopes, paranoias, beliefs and myths of American society as a whole. A radical, militant ideology is packaged and branded to play off these fears and paranoias, and to swallow millions of potential consumers.
Once this relatively small segment of society had penetrated those fears, hopes, myths and the like, the memes established by their efforts multiplied and were reinforced by continued and relentless marketing and dissemination through a growing fundamentalist Christian media structure. Book clubs, political activist groups, Church groups and prophecy seminars work as spokes to the wheel of the Left Behind and premillennialist ideology. What is fascinating, and frightening, is how LaHaye and others like him have successfully tapped into those social manias to create a complex political and social force which traffics in fear.
While I was downstairs reading complicated and not easily digested books where absolutes are questioned and truths murky - books by Soren Kierkegaard, Mikhail Lermontov, Albert Camus, Leo Tolstoy, Jean Paul Sartre, Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Martin Heidegger - David was upstairs leafing through books like the latest works by Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, Arno Froese, Ed Hindson, Mark Hitchcock, John Walvoord or Jack Van Impe which lay everything out in detail, often as absolute truth. It was a parallel universe of modernism v. fundamentalism, a house divided in miniature. The division between these worldviews - the absolutism of the fundamentalist and the skepticism of the rationalist - couldn’t have been greater.
On a number of occasions David would force a book into my hand and later quiz me about my beliefs. I often told him that I didn’t believe in the literal word of the Bible, especially the Revelation, but had taken it as allegorical. Parting from what the literalists believe, I had always thought the Bible is a great and complex piece of literature, often paradoxical and not very easily understood. From over 12 years of parochial schooling, I’d gained a wide understanding of the Bible and faith, but I’d also gained an understanding of the theory of evolution and of science, something that doesn’t jive well with those who take the Bible as the literal word of God.
One way to judge a cultural movement is by the art it produces. So far, all we see from the later end of this one is paranoia-based, mass-market thrillers and soulless Christian rock music. This may be because Art is not as large a concern to them as is using “the word” as an instrument of evangelism and political propaganda. It is also so prominent largely because major publishers, Christian and secular, tend to rely on marketing gadgets and celebrity names instead of looking at writing ability and intrinsic artistic worth. Such is the case with “brand LaHaye” and his co-writer Jerry Jenkins. Turning LaHaye loose to write his own work of fiction based on his interpretation of the Revelation would likely have been a disaster. Instead, by watering it down with Jenkins writing, Tyndale House was able to present a slightly more tolerant face to LaHaye’s usual divisive rhetoric. In 1993, journalist Edward Plowman, a longtime writer for Christian publications, derided Christian publishing as “grist for ghosts, grinding away for people long on reputation but short on time, self-discipline, or writing ability.”  In its hunt for biblical literalism and political expediency, Christian publishing has ignored powerful works of allegorical and mystical Christian spirituality. CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien had deep Christian beliefs and used them to create great works of fiction. Compared to them, the Left Behind series is a hollow, hateful and spiritually corrupt attempt to mass-market conspiracy and fear. And it succeeds very well.
There is other contemporary art, a sort of paranoid neo-Americana surrounding the Rapture, besides novels and music. Bumper stickers proclaiming “In case of Rapture, this car will be driverless” are countered by the humor of other bumper stickers asking “In case of Rapture, can I have your car?” There are the paintings in houses of some Rapture Bible Belt believers showing scenes of disappearance or post-Rapture horror in which those left behind look to the sky to find where their loved ones have gone.
Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant interest in Revelation has traditionally been expressed through high art, comments Bob Hodgson of the Institute for Biblical Scholarship at the American Bible College. Stained glass windows, paintings, allegorical and mystical poetry have all been depicted with Catholic renderings of the Revelation. Historical critical methods of literary interpretation, not systematic theology, have defined the Apocalypse in Catholicism for centuries. “It’s a complicated process,” says William Pottier, a theologian at Mount St Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, “opposed to looking at it as a kind of code you need to crack, which is how prophecy people read it.” 
It is, perhaps, unfortunate that Revelation is the last and final book of the Bible. The complex scaffolding Left Behind builds around a singular interpretation of this badly placed final book, wrapped with paranoia and fear more appropriate for an issue of the Cold War era “Red Menace” rag Christian Crusade than the present day, isn’t an innocuous phenomenon. Believers in the premillennialist interpretation of the Revelation have, for one striking example, parted with large sums of money for such ventures as adopting settlements in the Israeli controlled but disputed West Bank, thinking they are helping fulfill prophecy, when in reality they are helping to scuttle any hope of peace and a two-state system for Palestinians and Israelis. Looking toward a warm and fuzzily destructive apocalypse while harboring naïve views of a mythical American exceptionalism free from moral corruption tends to choke any sense out of the present reality in regards to the actual people in places like Israel they may be affecting. Because of a warped reading of history, combined with a yearning for the realization of apocalyptic “imminent future events”, there is a great disconnect from the reality unless it conforms to the delusional worldview constructed on a complex framework of interpretation of prophetic biblical passages. Interpretation is a key word here.
LaHaye and other writers of premillennialist fiction and non-fiction would like readers to believe their writings are based on what is literally written in Biblical prophecy, that current events mirror scriptures written millennia ago, that the current Israel and Iraq confrontations can be read like a news ticker slowly scrolling across the pages of the Bible. Meanwhile, these philosophies can lead believers to ignore pressing social and moral issues closer to home such as poverty, environmental degradation, racial inequality, or adequate public education due largely to an absence of hope in the earthly reality of life and a grand hope for mass eternal salvation in death.
It is also this type of disconnect which could lead more militant believers to act when history fails to match the insular pin-ball world of prophecy literature interpretations, pulpit jeremiads, and the promises made by premillennialist spokesmen in evangelical radio and television empire.
1 In this most recent novel, we find out that the Antichrist character Nicolae Carpathia has been born form the combined sperm of two Romanian intellectual, homosexual lovers and the egg of an ambiguously lesbian mother. [Back]
2 John H McCool, Department of History, University of Kansas. The city ABC blew up, October 12, 1983. [Back]
3 The Biblical ‘Land of Israel’ - depending on when Israel was at its greatest expansion - stretches from the Sinai in what is now Egypt all the way to the Euphrates in present-day Iraq. [Back]
4 My italics included here. [Back]
5 The Truth Behind Left Behind, by Thomas Ice, pp 179-180. [Back]
6 Though these aren’t mutually exclusive, at least on the white supremacist side. Most white supremacist groups in America are strictly Christian and adamantly so (though some reject Christianity as well), and even more specifically they are Protestant adherents, especially where this mixes with the Christian Identity movement. [Back]
7 I went to parochial school from kindergarten through high school; besides daily religion classes I attended church weekly. [Back]
8 Insight on the News. Larry Witham, August 14 2000. ‘Ghostwriting haunts Christian publishing’. [Back]
9 National Catholic Reporter. Teresa Malcolm, June 15, 2001. ‘Fearful faith in end times novels’. [Back]