Sunday, May 20, 2007

Book Review: Rapture Fiction

Rapture Fiction: And the Evangelical Crisis (Emmaus)What series of novels are more successful than the Harry Potter series? Answer: Left Behind. Two evangelical authors, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins published the first book in a series back in 1995 called Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days. The series has been a publishing sensation, selling over 60 million titles. In 2001, the ninth book in the series, Desecration, ’became the world’s top selling work of hardback fiction in the year of its release’. Since then, fiction that speculates on the detail of the end of the world have mushroomed. And they have all sold well. People seem to want to know about how the world will end. At the heart of all this fiction is the idea of The Secret Rapture. Before the second coming of Christ, the Church will be snatched from the earth - millions of people will suddenly disappear from the earth in the twinkling of an eye - before a period of intense tribulation occurs. Drawing on this basic concept and passages in the apocalyptic book of Revelation in the Bible, detailed scenarios are constructed by these authors. Movies and video games have been derived from some of these books. Rapture fiction has become a world wide phenomenon. What do we make of it? What is the theology behind it? What sort of effect is it having on Christians? And how is it affecting evangelicalism? Crawford Gribben tries to answer these questions in his book, Rapture Fiction and the Evangelical Crisis. Gribben begins his book by surveying the rapture fiction phenomenon and the way that it has tapped into fears of the end of the world, the anxiety around Y2K and 9-11; and the controversies it has engendered within evangelicalism in particular. Next, Gribben discusses the origins of the secret rapture. Tracing it from the dispensational theology of John Nelson Darby in Britain in the 1820s; its spread to North America; its popularisation by the Scofield Bible; and the subsequent changes that eventuated in the rapture being a secret event before Christ’s return. Gribben then turns his attention to the rapture fiction phenomenon itself, beginning with a look at Hal Lindsey’s popular non-fiction book The Late Great Planet Earth. In this book, Hal Lindsey produced a highly conjectural reading of the book of Revelation resulting in a detailed scenario of the end of the world. The ideas in this book have clearly influenced the development of dispensationalism. Gribben’s believes that Hal Lindsey’s book, which combined ’dispensational theology and accessible literary style’ and which ’was clearly designed to take his ideas to as wide an audience possible’ opened the way for popular fictionalised accounts of the end of the world. A number of lesser known works of rapture fiction followed. But none have been as popular as the recent crop of novels. After surveying these pieces of fiction, Gribben turns to a focused critique of its theology, specifically addressing its relationship to the gospel, the church, and Christian life. For Gribben, rapture fiction has introduced distortions in all these areas that have led to a crisis in evangelicalism. He writes:
Left Behind, despite its remarkable success, is a symptom of an unhealthy evangelicalism. The earlier series and its more recent spin-offs outline an inadequate account of the gospel, presenting as the content of saving faith something quite different from the message preached by the apostles. The novels are uncertain about the purpose of the church, the importance of the sacraments, and the life of the Christian under the law and under the cross. Left Behind - like much of the evangelicalism that celebrates its success - is the product of a shrinking theology.
For Gribben, this leads to the conclusion that
... evangelicalism itself now requires reformation, a reformation that will take it back to Scripture, away from the accretions of tradition that been institutionalised over centuries. This conclusion suggests that a great deal of modern evangelicalism is now more governed by Scripture than was much of the thinking of the medieval church it once rejected.
Strong words! There is no doubt that contemporary rapture theology is popular. Gribben mounts a strong case for its errors and damaging effects on the life of believers. The dispensational theology within which these novels are cast (and which Gribben seems favourable towards) is, in my view, a great deal of the problem. But even if one disagrees with dispensationalism, Rapture Fiction and the Evangelical Crisis is a timely critique of the dark side of this fiction. It is a much-needed corrective and reminds us of the essential emphasis on the return of Jesus and the danger of letting speculation and conjecture actually obscure this biblical truth. Related Links

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