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Here Come De Final Judge

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Recently, a few readers left me some nasty voicemails after reading something I'd written in our annual List Issue. In a list of new genres of fiction I'd like to see, I had included religious fiction in which "the fundamentalists are taken up to heaven and leave the rest of us in peace, never to suffer their sanctimonious B.S. again (working title, The Case of the Disappearing Fish Symbols)." The voicemails were mostly along the usual fundie line of "you're damned to hell and I'm glad of it," but one stood out: a woman who seemed almost giddy as she said, ". . .if people like you really knew what was in the Left Behind books, you'd tremble." I assume she meant that "people like me" would tremble before the fundies' fearsome version of God, but actually, I have read enough of the Left Behind texts to make me tremble for other reasons. I shudder just thinking about the state of the American mindset and soul when the most popular books in the land are these collections of cliche-ridden, violent claptrap posing as spiritual wisdom.To read or listen to the mainstream media, last week's release of Glorious Appearing, the climactic 12th installment in the Left Behind series, in which Jesus returns to settle accounts, was just another interesting day in the annals of American publishing. I suspect that the woman in my voicemail is right and that most book editors in the US have only a vague idea of what these fundamentalist fantasies really contain.

Based on a literalist reading of the Book of Revelation (an accomplishment in itself since Revelation is as easy to take literally as, say, Indian scripture's Krishna tales), LaHaye and Jenkins' books are presented as swiftly plotted quasi-thrillers that give readers an idea of how the Apocalypse will happen -- again, according to their reading of Revelation. As an emotional bonus for fundamentalist readers, these stories can give them a feeling of vindication as they read about the torturous suffering that's in store for unbelievers -- an element that led Joseph C. Hough Jr., president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, to say that the Left Behind series "leads people to think that Christianity is about cosmic fire insurance."

The series has been criticized for its emphasis on the conversion of Jews and its focus on the vicious rule of the Antichrist, who happens to head the United Nations and dresses suspiciously like a Catholic cardinal. But what's most disturbing -- sick, really -- is the barely contained glee that courses through passages in which unbelievers get their comeuppance. Take, for instance, this excerpt in which Jesus destroys the Antichrist's followers in a bloody massacre:

"Tens of thousands of foot soldiers dropped their weapons, grabbed their heads or their chests, fell to their knees, and writhed as they were invisibly sliced asunder. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of God."

Kind of gives you that comforting we're-all-one, cosmic-love feeling, doesn't it?

Taken together, these books, along with the current uproar over The Passion of the Christ, would lead any objective observer to conclude that something's seriously askew these days in Fundamentalist World.. Psychologists could have a field day examining what level of fear and desperation is needed to be attracted to this kind of entertainment posing as religious truth. I'm not a psychologist so I won't go there, but I will venture to say that there's something even scarier than knowing that a substantial portion of your fellow citizens claim allegiance to the fundies' narrow-cast, constipated version of spirituality. And that is that the man in the White House with his finger on the nuclear button toes the same dangerously deluded, Apocalyptic line.

Meanwhile, Glorious Appearing, the definitive deus ex machina story, raced up the bestseller charts last week quicker than a raptured soul can say "Quick, take the wheel, I'm outta here." Over two million copies of Glorious Appearing had already been ordered by retailers before it was released. Not to be outdone, LaHaye and Jenkins now plan at least two more books in the series: one last battle between God and Satan at the end of Jesus' 1000-year reign, and a prequel of the early days of the Antichrist.

Of course it remains to be seen if there will be time for those extra books. As Christian bookseller Bob Fillingane told the New York Times last week, "Just like with the Passion movie, it is all part of the warning we get before Christ returns. . .Many people have asked me, Do you think they will finish the series before Christ comes?"

Pretty soon, perhaps all of us, including the many who think the fundies are a sad, albeit strangely amusing, perversion of Christianity, will find out whether Left Behind readers -- and those nasty voicemail callers -- are right.

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