I read these Christian evangelical novels so you don’t have to. But maybe you should read one.
Evangelical novels are not a niche market. This Present Darkness, by Frank Peretti, is included among PBS's “America’s 100 most-loved books,” selling over five million copies. The Shack, by William Young, sold over ten million copies. It was the top paperback trade fiction seller on The New York Times Best Seller list for almost two years. The Shack is currently published in forty-one languages (Silliman). The Left Behind series has sold 65 million copies. Desecration, book nine in the series, was the best-selling book in the world in 2001.
They are not quality literature, and I don’t judge them by their literary merit, but by their relationship to Christianity. First, I’ll summarize each book; then I’ll say in what way each conveys a different but equally disturbing picture of Christianity.
The story is fairly straightforward. Mack’s youngest daughter, Missy, is kidnapped and murdered. In deep despair and religious alienation, he receives a note from Papa, his wife’s name for God. Mack goes to the shack where Missy was murdered, and there he meets God. God, it turns out, is a large black woman who recalls the stereotype of a southern mammy, a warm good-hearted maid who cared for children in the south. The Holy Spirit is an Asian woman who shimmers, whose boundaries are never quite clear. Jesus wears a construction worker’s belt, and—no surprise—is a carpenter.
Some theologians have objected to this portrayal of the Trinity since Peretti’s God emphasizes that there is no hierarchy among them. Each has his or her own role, and together they make a whole (Roach). This is not my objection.
By the end of the weekend with God, Mack is restored to wholeness, “The Great Sadness,” has lifted, and he is ready to get on with his life. The conclusion also introduces some doubt about Mack’s experience. It turns out that on his way to the shack he was in a serious automobile accident and in a coma for several days. It was while in a coma that he had his encounter with God. Mack’s friend Willy actually (so the novel says) wrote the book. The protagonist is thus curiously at a double remove from the events of the book. In this regard the novel deserves praise. Its actual author, Young, suggests that an account can be fictional while stating a deeper truth. Fiction isn’t a lie; it’s a suspension of disbelief.
So what’s the problem with the book?
God is a grief counselor. His job is to help Mack feel better about himself. This view of God is no surprise. This seems to be what most Americans expect of God. The philosopher Charles Taylor writes that in the modern era there has been a “revision downward of God’s purposes for us,” so that now there are “no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing.” People seek spiritual fulfillment not in transcendence over self, but in the realization of their best selves, and they want that realization to happen now (Taylor, p 18; Silliman, p 35).
Mack doesn’t go to God pleading for fulfillment. Both share the assumption that this is what God does. That Mack might, four years after Missy’s death, be concerned with the grief of other parents who have lost their children that he might share his loss so that others could learn from his experience: possibilities like these are not considered. Nor does he seem more open to other teachings of Jesus, such as love of neighbor. The relationship between God and Mack is strictly personal, as though Mack were seeing a therapist. Not even the comfort of a reunion between Mack and Missy in the afterlife plays much of a role. It’s all about how Mack can be fixed now.
This Present Darkness
This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti has sold over four million copies and remained on the Christian Booksellers Association’s top best sellers list for over 150 consecutive weeks after its release. More troubling than its popularity is that many people seem to have taken This Present Darkness as their Bible.
Christians are reading it more fervently and enthusiastically than the Bible. They are recommending it to their friends, not because they believe it makes interesting reading, but because they believe that it is a meaningful, contemporary expression of Christianity. (Boogaart)
In one respect Darkness is the opposite of The Shack. Shack is all about one man’s relationship with God. Darkness is about the battle between good and evil. Individuals don’t really count; they are defined by whom they are possessed. The world is divided into the forces of good, represented by various angels, and the forces of evil, represented by various devils. They seem to operate autonomously. God and Satan never appear.
The plot line is simple. The Universal Consciousness Society, a front for the Omni corporation, is planning to take over Whitmore College, a small liberal arts college in a bucolic setting with at least one evil professor who teaches postmodernism. Among the good guys are a newspaper editor and the minister of a tiny church. The list of bad guys is long and eclectic: animal rights advocates (pp 21, 65), parapsychologists (pp 191), religious liberals (p 69, 71), followers of Eastern religions (pp 90, 315), hypnotists and meditators (p 94), the United Nations (p 165), psychic healers and proponents of holistic education (p 314), Jungian psychologists (p 314), atheistic scientists and evolutionists (p 314), and of course post-modernists (p 39). Abortionists are not mentioned; evidently, they are beyond the pale. Were the book published today, transsexuals and critical race theorists would surely find a place.
What’s wrong with it?
The first thing that’s wrong with Darkness is that it’s a terribly violent book that baptizes violence when it is employed by the angels.
The blade came down again, passed straight through Lucius’s head, shoulders, torso. The air filled with boiling red smoke. . . . The shed blood of Jesus has defeated you. (pp 364, 369)
Jesus didn’t shed his blood so that others could shed yet more blood (or demon blood-smoke). Jesus shed his blood as an act of non-violent resistance. Jesus taught us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), and to practice non-violence. His willingness to be crucified rather than to take up arms against the Romans was the ultimate act of civil disobedience. There is not a hint of this core Christian teaching in Darkness. You can’t interpret the Bible in terms of a Stephen King novel and expect to come out with a teaching compatible with Christianity.
More subtle, but at least as troublesome, is the book’s division of the world in two. Compromise is unimaginable; there is no point in talking, and there is no common ground. The forces of evil and goodness rule the world, forever at war until the apocalypse. Not only is the world divided into the forces of light and darkness, but darkness is so resistant to argument or persuasion that reason is pointless. Bloodshed in the name of Jesus is not the last resort but the only resort.
If The Shack was about the healing of one man, Darkness is about an eternal conflict in which individuals are subordinated to one of two abstract forces that will forever, until the end of time, seek to overthrow the other. It’s appropriate that the battle takes place in a little college town, for the values of liberal education are simply a veil, a distraction from the eternal conflict. Or so the book would have it. And if the evil Omni corporation is defeated in its attempt to possess liberal education this time, the next attempt is not far away.
Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days
Left Behind by Time LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins is what’s called a franchise: 16 novels, 4 movies, and several video games. Books seven and eight in the series (The Indwelling and The Mark) reached number one on the New York Times best-seller list. Book number ten (The Remnant) began at number one on the Times best-seller list. Roughly 65 million copies have in sold in over forty languages, though only in America has it become a publishing phenomenon.
Evangelical novels are among the most popular books in America, and they are written to appeal to the average reader. As Michelle Goldberg puts it,
On one level, the attraction of the Left Behind books isn't that much different from that of, say, Tom Clancy or Stephen King. The plotting is brisk and the characterizations Manichaean. People disappear and things blow up.
Of all three books, only Left Behind had me wanting to finish the book to see what happens. It wasn’t until after I finished it that I realized that I had only begun. Fifteen more books to go until the Antichrist is finally destroyed and heaven reigns. I hope the reader has more endurance than I.
What’s different about Left Behind is that it both assumes and teaches a particular evangelical doctrine called rapture. The term nowhere appears in the Bible. The concept is vague, but at least I now understand the bumper sticker that was around a few years ago. “In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned.”
Rapture is an eschatological concept held by many American evangelicals. It says that at the end of days all Christians will rise "in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air." (First Thessalonians 4:17 is the usual Biblical source, but its meaning is obscure. The ancient Greek [1 Thessalonians 4:17] term rendered as rapture is harpazō [ἁρπάζω], means “we shall be caught up,” or “we shall be taken away.” It is an ambiguous reference and slender reed upon which to rest such an ambitious concept.) Rapture does not belong to historical Christianity; it is the recent creation of evangelical Protestantism in the United States.
Rapture has six or seven different versions. Does Jesus come to earth at the same time the earth is destroyed? Does he come earlier? Later? Left Behind assumes a doctrine called pretribulationism, which distinguishes rapture from the second coming of Jesus Christ. This view holds that the rapture will be preceded by seven years of tribulation, during which the world will be overwhelmed by nuclear war and various natural disasters. Only then would Christ appear to supervise a thousand years of peace. The first evidence of the rapture is that people begin to disappear, thus the bumper sticker.
Left Behind is set early during the seven years of tribulation, in which an Antichrist, former president of Romania, Nicolae Carpathia, persuades the nations to destroy all but 10% of their nuclear weapons. These they would donate to the United Nations, which becomes a world government. The Antichrist becomes Secretary General of the United Nations.
I can’t imagine most readers care much about the details of pretribulationalism, except that it creates a time and space in which the good guys can fight evil. Appealing in an adolescent way are the four lead characters: Rayford Steele, pilot of a 747, Chole, his daughter, Buck Williams, crusading reporter for a newsweekly, and Bruce Barnes, assistant and remaining pastor of the New Hope Village Church. Together they become the Tribulation Force, “whose task was clear and their goal nothing less than to stand and fight the enemies of God.” (p 472)
What’s wrong with Left Behind?
Neither good works nor a good heart nor virtues like loyalty matter as far as salvation is concerned. Only one thing matters, taking Jesus Christ as your savior. Rayford is virtuous. Among other things, he resists the temptation of a sexy stewardess. But that won’t save him. Only the choice to accept Jesus as savior will. The same principle goes for the other lead characters. Virtue is nice, but only God will save you from Hell.
Like Peretti, the world is divided into good against evil, with no place for compromise, no grey, nothing in between. One’s opponents are followers of the Antichrist. How different are the pedophiles of QAnon fantasy, a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic sexual abusers of children operating a global child trafficking ring opposing former President Trump? Surely an evangelical novel on this theme is being written right now. Grasping the wide appeal of books like Left Behind makes it easier to understand bizarre political beliefs. Not only is the novel a suspension of disbelief; so too is much political life.
What sort of God would do that?
Consider the twelfth book of the series, Glorious Appearing.
Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches and a yawning chasm opened in the earth, stretching far and wide enough to swallow all of them. They tumbled in, howling and screeching, but their wailing was soon quashed and all was silent when the earth closed itself again. (p 376)
[The Tribulation Force must drive carefully to avoid] hitting splayed and filleted bodies of men and women and horses. (p 208)
The riders not thrown leaped from their horses and tried to control them with the reins, but even as they struggled, their own flesh dissolved, their eyes melted and their tongues disintegrated. . . . Seconds later the same plague afflicted the horses, their flesh and eyes and tongues melting away, leaving grotesque skeletons standing, before they, too, rattled to the pavement. (p 273) (quoted by Kristof)
The Book of Revelation is not the Bible
Left Behind, like This Present Darkness, glories in blood and violence. This is, of course, the choice of the authors, but it is the consequence of choosing the Book of Revelation to represent the core of Christianity. The Bible is a book of books. Originally there was great disagreement and dispute over whether Revelation should be included in the canon we call the Bible, a disagreement that lasted for several hundred years after the death of Christ. For many Christians, not Revelation, but the Gospels teach the true lesson of Christianity: non-violence and love of neighbor in the face of hatred.
For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked, and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me. (Matthew 25: 35-36)
This is the teaching of Jesus Christ. Not a hint of this comes through in any of these three books. No matter how much we question whether a particular saying in the Gospels was genuine Jesus, it is clear that the basic ideals of non-violence and care for others belong to him. Sure, Jesus sometimes condemned sinners to Hell (John 3:16-18), but that is not his central teaching. The Sermon on the Mount is (Matthew 5-7). Revelation is almost another Bible, and to choose it as one around which to organize Christian theology is to miss the point, substituting the blood of enemies for the blood of Christ, violence for self-sacrifice.
Not a good way to think
Evangelical novels are not political tracts. They deal with political issues, but they take a larger worldview. Nevertheless, they represent a way of thinking about the world today that is dangerous. Kari Lake, Republican gubernatorial candidate in Arizona, cast elections in the following terms. “It is not just a battle between Republicans and Democrats. This is a battle between . . . good and evil.” (NY Times, August 15, 2022) When the political opposition is evil, then compromise is sin. Some evangelical novels (not all, not The Shack for example) contribute to this way of thinking.