The Mean Spirit

And I beheld an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, "Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth..."(Revelation, 8:13)IF NOTHING ELSE, the Book of Revelation is one of the great page-turners in history. We meet giant locusts with gold crowns atop their human heads and bizarre beasts with eyes everywhere and the countenances of a lion, an eagle, a man, and a calf. The four horsemen of the apocalypse, of course, forever thunder through our imagination, as do the dreaded things that come in sets of seven: seven seals, seven trumpets, seven angels. Jesus appears, too, saying "I am Alpha and Omega and have the keys of hell and of death." His eyes burn with flame "and out of his mouth" comes "a sharp two-edged sword." The imagery is glorious, the fury of the seven-year destruction horrifying, and, judging by two millennia of disagreement, the Book can be used to prove just about anything you want to believe.It's no surprise that within evangelical culture there is a grand tradition of apocalyptic films, books, and radio plays inspired by that singular work. The top books on the Publisher's Weekly religion best-seller list right now and for the last four years have come from the most popular Revelation novelization effort ever, the Left Behind series. The latest installment, Apollyon, has been climbing the New York Times list, which doesn't even tabulate sales in the majority of Christian bookstores.Upon reading the books, though, the question that comes to mind is not why hasn't Spielberg optioned these yet, but, rather, why is anyone reading them at all? The books are painfully dull and utterly devoid of supernatural imagery. The only thing you find in abundance are tepid chase scenes written by hacks and monotonous moralistic lectures about saving your soul. Every few sentences prove how little the authors understand the world around them. So, why does anyone read them? Evangelical Christians surely have access to other moral tales, and there's no religious reason that they should choose to spend their money on these.One answer may be that the apocalypse is not just another crackerjack story. For many in America, but particularly evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, the story of the end of the world is the mechanism by which they can look at themselves and those non-believers who surround them. And that vision of things has changed in the 30 years since a strange, low-budget film about the end times found its way to nearly every evangelical church basement in America. That odd movie, A Thief in the Night, was a vision of terror, to be sure, but, in marked contrast to Left Behind, it was suffused with love and understanding, too.You won't find much of that these days. While predicting the apocalypse may be a constant, the way evangelicals think about it has undergone a massive overhaul. The progression (or regression) is the move from rural towns to the halls of power. It's the expansion of the evangelical sphere of concern from the very local (my friends, my church) to the national and global (my president, my international policy). It's a move from a complex view of the individual to an oversimplification that identifies everyone as either good-believer or bad-heathen. It's also a change in sentiment towards the unbeliever from sadness, caring, and invitation to triumph, judgement, and dismissal. It's a chilling mutation, and has entrenched evangelical Christianity in an antagonism to secular America that borders, at times, on cruelty.DID IT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY? Did relations between evangelical Christians and those who believe differently have to become so strained, so mean? Probably. And not because we are so different. It may be easy to imagine that fundamentalist and evangelical Christians have a genealogy that's irreconcilably distinct from that of secular Americans, that their beliefs and worldview come directly from an ancient biblical past and that whatever they believe today, they have always believed. Except, of course, it's not true. Evangelical Christianity is an entirely modern and largely American phenomenon, and its beliefs about how one should live in the world change all of the time. It also may be easy to view the disagreements between evangelical and secular Americans as rooted in the social upheaval of the '60s. That's not true either.For a lot of evangelicals the '60s were actually a wonderful time. Sure, they hated the sex and drugs, but many realized that some radicals were speaking their language: redemption through love, the rejection of material pursuits for deeper spiritual meaning, even an imminent apocalypse. Heck, Jesus sure looked and acted a lot like a hippie. Before they learned they were in a culture war against the '60s radicals, evangelicals found that their identity was one of many that open-minded Americans could seamlessly assume. The tens of thousands who joined the Jesus Freak movement did not think they were rejecting their hippieness, but taking it to its natural conclusion.But even those evangelicals completely turned off by social radicalism, those who saw absolutely no connection between hippies and the faithful, still believed, for the first time in close to a hundred years, that they could and should start trying to convert the world. Since the end of the grand revivals of the 19th century, evangelicals stopped trying to save the souls of strangers, let alone the soul of a nation. That all changed in the late '60s and early '70s.Now evangelicals, like so many others, dream of transforming the world. These were not the frowning squares in dark ties who wanted their kids to grow up, cut their hair, and get a decent job. Evangelical Christians have developed a revolutionary vision for America that is, by definition, not conservative. They don't want to conserve American culture, they want to destroy it and replace it with a Bible-and-God-centered one. There's ample evidence that this first flurry of renewed missionary zeal was filled with sure-headed optimism. They had a message that the rest of us clearly needed to hear. (We were screaming for it, we just didn't know that we were.) America would soon be reclaimed for God. And once evangelical fervor took hold on our soil, it would be easy to spread it around the world.It's important to remember that in the late '60s and early '70s, evangelical Christians didn't know yet who they were in the American public sphere. They didn't know they were right-wing (most voted Democrat until 1980); they didn't know they were our country's moral conscience (most were content to let Caesar worry about what is Caesar's); they didn't know that they would soon be infamous for judgement rather than admired for love. Like gays, women, Latinos, and so many others, evangelical Christians were just beginning to raise their voices and ask to join the chorus of American public life. Like so many others in that period, they first spoke using the language of love, inclusion, and welcoming.IGNORED BY THE SECULAR WORLD, A Thief in the Night (1972) is as popular as movies get among evangelicals. Shown for years on 16 mm film in countless church basements and now rented on video at Christian bookstores or broadcast on Christian TV, the film has been seen by tens of millions and, many say, almost every born-again Christian in America is familiar with it. It's been the number one video rented at Christian bookstores for every year that records have been kept.It's almost shocking that A Thief In The Night has not become a camp cult favorite in college dorms. Shot in 1972, the film offers an Iowa version of long-haired '70s hipsters. The sideburns are especially thick, the bell bottoms surprisingly wide. There are plenty of muumuus. All of this, and everyone is talking about the destruction of the Earth by the antichrist.A Thief tells the story of Patty, an attractive young woman who wanders around with her slutty friend, Diane, meeting boys and ignoring the ubiquitous true-believers warning her that the rapture and tribulation are fast approaching, that she better accept Jesus or face unimaginable torment. She eventually marries a beau who almost dies from a cobra bite. When his life is saved through the power of prayer he accepts faith, while she remains doubtful. One day, she wakes up and her husband has disappeared along with everyone she knows who has accepted Jesus. Before long, the UN takes over the entire world and chases our young hero through the woods. (Is that a VW van they're driving?) Everyone in this small town must be adorned with the mark of the beast, a "666" expressed in computer code and tattooed on the hand or forehead. Patty refuses and the film ends before we know if she will live or die; if she will embrace Jesus or the beast.At several points in the film, as in all apocalyptic dramatizations, someone explains exactly what will happen during the end-times. (Excessive detail appears to be intrinsic to the genre.) First there will be a rapture in which Jesus will come, "like a thief in the night" and take everyone who believes in him straight to heaven. After the rapture comes the tribulation, during which the antichrist will form a single world government and force everyone to wear his mark. There are a certain number of weeks of war, then a set period of famine, then plagues, followed by earthquakes. Things keep going from bad to worse, and anyone who missed out on the rapture but becomes a believer during the tribulation will really get it. At some point, the antichrist will die and be reborn during a satanic mockery of Jesus's own rebirth. After seven years, three-quarters of the people on Earth will be dead. Then, Jesus will come back, slay the antichrist, and sit in judgement of the few poor souls left alive. Those who still defiantly refuse to believe in him will be cast into a lake of fire. All believers get to stay as Jesus transforms our world into heaven.Patty hears all this but doesn't know what to believe. The movie allows us to sympathize with her confusion. Her character is kind, sweet, and honest, and the believers she meets seem earnest but are nowhere near as likable. The movie takes us to the church she was raised in, with its minister who thinks the Bible is just a bunch of good stories and interesting metaphors. How could we possibly fault poor Patty? She just accepted what her awful pastor told her. The film's persuasive tactics mirror those of Patty's saved friends: things will go a whole lot better if we just open our hearts to God. Still, it's a difficult decision, the film acknowledges, especially for someone raised in doubt.Much of A Thief is spent showing the despair and loneliness of those left behind after the rapture. Once the Christians have disappeared, some people turn to opportunism, eagerly welcoming the beast; others cry over their bibles, wishing they had paid better attention; and many, like Patty, just walk around lost, not knowing what to do. Almost everybody comes through sympathetically, especially Patty, but even some of the antichrist's own henchmen, too. This is a portrait of regular people who don't know what to do and happen to make the wrong choice.A Thief was made just an instant before the major shift in evangelical thought which allowed for political and social activism. For the first three quarters of the 20th Century, most evangelicals would never promote one political agenda over another precisely because of the imminence of the apocalypse. They were taught to prepare for the coming of Jesus, which would happen so soon that partisan squabbles were entirely irrelevant. The landmark events which called forth a politicized evangelical Right all happened after A Thief. Roe v. Wade in 1973, the Reverend Jerry Falwell's creation of the Moral Majority in 1979, and the presidency of Ronald Reagan signaled and pushed forward a new conservative Christian agenda that has only recently matured. As the evangelical sphere of influence has grown, so has its sphere of concern. Content no longer to address friends, family, and fellow parishioners, many evangelical Christians now -- as the impeachment process most recently revealed -- see themselves as moral arbiters of our national life and international policy.Perhaps more chillingly, as evangelical Christians have left a small arena in which they personally knew everyone they were concerned about and entered the political arena and national stage, they have naturally begun dividing the rest of the world into broad categories: with us, against us; pro-family, anti-family. Of course, there have always been evangelical Christian bigots, homophobes, and others who practice intolerance, but they typically focused their wrath and attention on people they knew or who lived close by, not against vast vague national groupings.THE TROUBLING NATURE of this shift emerges as the gentleness of A Thief gives way to the spitefulness of the Left Behind series. Left Behind, the first book, begins on a trans-Atlantic 747 flight. Captain Rayford Steele is startled to discover that dozens of his passengers have suddenly vanished. Radioing to other planes and air traffic towers, he discovers that millions of people have disappeared all over the world. Planes are falling out of the sky, the book jacket tells us, "vehicles, suddenly unmanned, careen out of control... People are terror-stricken as loved ones vanish before their eyes."The series follows the adventures of Captain Steele, his lovely college-age daughter Chloe, and her boyfriend, identified as the world's leading journalist, Buck (because he always "bucks" authority) Williams. The three quickly realize that the disappearances are nothing other than the rapture of Jesus. They become believers and band together to battle the inevitable rise of the antichrist. On cue, Nicolae Carpathia, the charming president of Romania, takes over the UN and then the world. Before long, he plunges the Earth into all-out war. Buck and Steele infiltrate CarpathiaÕs leadership and try to find ways to undermine him.This all seems to have the makings of as fun and fast-paced an airplane read as any other book with puffy letters on the cover. There's powerful evil battling a tiny force of good in adventures that take us all over the world. There's even a bit of romance as we watch Chloe and Buck fall in love. Sadly, though, the books are terrible. They fall well below the standards set by Crichton and Grisham, or even their imitators. For one thing, the pacing is all wrong -- endless expository scenes in which nothing happens followed by equally endless chase scenes during which nothing is at stake. Somehow, whenever something truly dramatic happens -- all of New York destroyed, the death of Steele's best friend -- the narrators make only passing mention of it. And the characters are horribly thin, even for pulp. After reading four of the volumes, you would have trouble giving a deeper description of any of the people in the book aside from the two-adjectives-and-a noun we're given upon introduction: "strong, loving pilot"; "brilliant, maverick journalist"; "wary, searching college student"; "charming, evil antichrist."So, why is this tepid book so popular among evangelical Christians? Perhaps it's because it lets them relish their own salvation. When the rapture and tribulation come, they get to be in heaven while all the people who used to scoff at them are experiencing hell on Earth. Even more, the evangelicals will be proven right, definitively, scientifically, absolutely right. All smug heathens will have no choice but to admit that.It is this triumphant vengeance and contempt throughout these books that mark them as so different from A Thief in the Night. There is no character like Patty, a non-believer who is suffering and whom we can care about. Every sympathetic character in the Left Behind series quickly becomes born again. Those who don't believe in Jesus are depicted simply as morons. It's hard not to root for their inevitable destruction. Christianity is not drawn as a difficult faith which reasonable people might struggle with -- as in A Thief. Rather, it's the only obvious truth and anyone who doubts that is just being willful. Just as in the earlier movie, the Left Behind books are filled with explanations of the timeline of tribulation. Here, though, the tone is righteous anger, not sadness. When we learn about the suffering that all non-believers will experience, we're told quite flatly that they rejected God's unending love and must be destroyed.Left Behind has abandoned the small-town rural roots of evangelicalism and of A Thief. The globe-trotting Steele and Buck do not spend much time worrying about converting friends and family or worshipping in a local church. They're after bigger game. Every few days, they meet with presidents, world leaders, even the antichrist, himself, and spout their newfound creed. If A Thief is small, local, caring and sad about the apocalypse, Left Behind is grand, global, contemptuous. The apocalypse describes the worst sort of horror being visited upon those who do not believe in Jesus' divinity. As A Thief shows, it's possible for an evangelical to feel pity and sorrow for those who must suffer that torment. That Left Behind celebrates this same misfortune suggests that many who enjoy the books look around at their non-Christian fellow countrymen and see people worthy only of wrath.THIS SAME SHIFT in evangelical culture can be charted in the album "People Get Ready," which contains 12 songs, from 1969 to today, with apocalyptic themes. While none were written for the Left Behind series, this compilation was released in conjunction with the books.Like A Thief, those songs, written in the late '60s or early '70s, are filled with sad feelings for those who will be left behind by the rapture. None more so than the 1969 song, by Larry Norman, "I Wish We'd All Been Ready." The song, as it happens, is played throughout A Thief. Norman's song -- later performed by contemporary Christian groups like dc Talk, is a slow, sweet elegy for those too blind to accept Jesus in time. We hear of "A man and wife asleep in bed/She hears a noise and turns her head, he's gone," and after a sorrowful pause, Norman sings, "I wish we'd all been ready." For Norman, with his mournful strings and plaintive voice, it's clear that those who don't accept Jesus are not to be hated, but to be pitied for succumbing to an oh-so-avoidable tragedy. Included, of course, is the Temptations song "People Get Ready," a gentle, optimistic tune celebrating just how eager Jesus is to welcome everybody: "Don't need no ticket, you just thank the lord." When considering those who donÕt come to Jesus and are doomed to suffer the apocalypse, we are told to "have pity on those whose chances grow thinner."The 1973 song "UFO" by Geoff Moore could never be written today. It has the wonderful lyric "If there's life on other planets, and I'm sure that He must know/Then He's been there once already, and died to save their souls." But the line that no evangelical would concede today is the surprisingly honest "You will be afraid to tell your neighbors, they might think it's not true/But when you open up the morning papers, you will know they see it too." This is a touching admission of the insecurities of the true believer, too shy to proclaim his faith. Today's songs betray no such concerns, rather they celebrate the singer's correctness and the doubting neighbor's worthlessness. There are no words of love or welcome, just cocky dismissal of an opponent who needs to be humiliated and disproven. Particularly chilling is the concentration camp imagery called forth in Crystal Lewis' 1996 "People Get Ready," which has no relation to the earlier song: "We'll be divided right and left /For those who know You and those who do not know."The apocalyptic vision -- the timeline of rapture and the tribulation horrors -- has not changed much at all in the past 30 years. What has changed is how evangelical Christians react to the promise of apocalypse. There seeems to be some sort of new and even fiercer culture war on the horizon, and it's disheartening to learn how much goodwill has been lost. One might prefer that the Christian Right, when they imagine the horrific demise of a non-believer, feel some bit of sadness. But if they already thrill at the prospect of such destruction in the near future, how can they possibly care about anyone else today?NO GROUP IS GOING to stop fighting for the America it most believes in. Progressive women will not give up on an America with free choice for abortion. Gay people will not straighten themselves out or accept an America in which homophobia runs rampant. It is just as certain that evangelicals will not stop praying and calling out for an America rooted in their vision of Biblical morality -- one that does not allow for abortion or homosexuality. So, if no one is going to give any ground, is there any chance that we might find a way to disagree peacefully and, dare it be said, lovingly?If we ever have a hope for a kinder future, it seems that the one group that could help lead us there is, surprisingly, the evangelicals. Like everyone, they're relatively new at public outrage and condemnation. They have a much longer tradition of offering a loving and welcoming hand. At the very end of the Book of Revelation, after all the killing and destruction, comes a quieter and sweeter voice:"And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely."No one is going to stop demanding that everyone else change. No one is giving up their vision of an America in which everyone shares a few core (and correct) beliefs. But, so long as we're all asking everyone else to be more like we are, perhaps we can learn from the Bible, or more precisely, from at least one part of Revelation, the one that teaches how to offer a gentle, compassionate hand. We can learn to feel for those who have the misfortune of not believing what we know is right. This might not change too many minds, but it will make it a lot more pleasant to live in the America we have while we're all waiting for the America we'd prefer. If Left Behind shows how easy it is to demand, impatiently, that others recognize how right we really are, it also shows how much rancor that approach creates. A Thief in the Night reveals a different path. Its makers were just as certain of their truths; they hoped just as strongly that everyone would embrace what they believed. But they were kind-hearted, and they accepted that some people will never do the right thing. Maybe we can learn from them.Adam Davidson writes for FEED and other publications. He lives in Chicago.REQUIRED TAG: This article originally appeared in FEED, an online magazine at www.feedmag.com.

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