PREFACE: this is going to be scathing, and long. If you can't take "scathing and long" -- run away! Run away!
First: I've always liked Al Mohler. I'll probably go on liking him. But this essay -- oy!
Second: I've read all the Left Behind books except either the last one, or the last two. I thought they were clever and imaginative. Well-written? It depends on what you are looking for. If you want a light page-turner, that pretty well hooks you and keeps you going, yes. If you're looking for depth of thought, reflection and literary quality, phrases you'll savor and memorize for their craft and beauty -- oh my heavens, no!
I'd say it's a good-faith effort to imagine how Biblical prophecy might play itself out.
Anyone who wants to criticize it as literature will hear no argument from me. Anyone who wants to propose a better (read "more Biblical") scenario for how prophecy will be realized on our planet, in our history, will have no thematic argument from me.
But the most acid critiques I've read of the Left Behind series come from another place. They come from people who are threatened and outraged at the fact that the authors take Biblical prophecy seriously. Of course, they never put it that way, but that's the bottom-line.
Take Al Mohler.
Set flame to "sim." Al Mohler titles his essay The Danger of Gnosticism -- And Its Attraction. (Check out the URL; it's just funny that it ends in "666.") Out of the 568 words of the essay, 383 are straight quotations lifted from an editorial in the magazine Christian Century, not a publication noted for its Biblical intensity. I make that 68% of his essay. Guess he really, really liked it.
What is the premise of the celebrated editorial? It is that the two works are similar, in that both bring out secret and suppressed knowledge to the reader, both appeal to lurid curiosity or restlessness, both are designed to sell.
Mohler doesn't fully quote the editorial's specific sneer at dispensationalism: "[Left Behind's]unfolding of the apocalypse according to a dispensationalist eschatology presumably appeals to far-right biblical fundamentalists who scour the news for signs that the rapture is coming." The editorial refers to Rodney Clapp's article in the same issue, where he also specifically curls his lip at "the thrill of decoding the Bible by way of dispensational theology."
(Get that? Saying that "Israel" means "Israel" is "decoding"; saying that "Israel" is "the Christian Church" is -- what? Sober, sound exegesis, I guess.)
The editorial further snipes, "Both also update the dusty old gospel of the churches with action-packed stories that move so fast that readers tend not to notice the problems in the stories or the mediocrity of the prose."
Now, try something with me for a second. Put aside your hermeneutical and eschatological system for a moment. Pretend you're reading Revelation for the first time. What do you see? Explosions, chases, loud sounds, dragons, falling stars, global events, supernatural and human battles in the heavens and on earth, culminating in the return of Christ from Heaven to earth, the judgment of all mankind, and the complete transformation of all creation.
That's not an "action-packed story"?
But I digress.
Mohler agrees with the article, and pronounces his "Ditto" on its last sentence: "When the junk food of the gnostic stories fails to satisfy, churches should be there with the soul food of the gospel."
(May I pause once again, to remark on an essay that slams the "mediocrity of the prose" of these novels, and then concludes with the words, "Ditto on that last sentence"? As Buck Murdock sagely remarked, "Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.")
So, Al Mohler likes lumping together Brown and LaHaye, DaVinci and DaRapture.
Increase flames." I would have expected better of Mohler, but evidently would have been wrong.
Clearly we should feel that it is terrible that there are actually people who think that, simply because Biblical prophecy says something is going to happen, it actually is going to happen. To some, it is scandalous that there are people like LaHaye who make (good-faith but) flawed efforts to loook for real-world fulfillments of Biblical predictions.
These louts just aren't sophisticated and educated enough to know that the coming of Christ was a sort of bait-and-switch. Our Lord could roundly and severely reproach the leaders of His day for not taking the prophetic portions of Scripture seriously and literally, and for not expecting real-world fulfillments (Matthew 16:1-4) -- but then, after His departure, everything turns around! Now His representatives (like Mohler?) scorn and reproach folks who do take prophetic Scripture seriously and literally, and do look for real-world fulfillments!
In some circles (Mohler's?), it is the accepted stance to be appalled that there are still theological Neanderthals who are actually so barbaric and crude as to imagine that grammatico-historical exegesis applies to all of Scripture, and not just the sections about the Atonement.
Can you imagine practitioners of this school of decorder-ring interpretation in Jerusalem in the year 1 BC, debating the meaning of Scripture? "Come on, Rabbi Jacob -- as if 'donkey' means 'donkey' (Zech. 9:9)! Don't you know that our Zeitgeist dictates that a 'donkey' is a symbol of humility? Your approach is so crude and unsophisticated! And 'virgin' (Isaiah 7:14) -- of course that cannot mean a literal female who has never had sexual relations! It is a symbolic representation of the spiritual purity of the Remnant to whom deliverance comes! And 'Bethlehem' (Micah 5:2) has such a deeper meaning than a mere geographical label! It means 'House of Bread,' the Torah which replenishes our souls!" And on and on it would have gone, until everything meant everything, and thus nothing.
Yes, Dr. Mohler. Brilliant observation. People who take all of the Bible seriously are JUST LIKE Dan Brown, who completely trashes the Bible! Thanks for pointing that out. We must really keep those dispensationlists at the back of the bus. They've got to learn to stay silent around their betters.
Someone really must tell the LaHayes of the world that the Church had scoured all the truth out of the Bible by the year 1700. They must become more sophisticated. They must learn that the Bible is just a museum now -- not an actual working mine.
Afterword: One more time, because I know I will be misunderstood. My point is not to defend Tim LaHaye's book, his specific interpretations, nor his skill as a novelist. He is most scorchingly criticized because he looks for real-world fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, because he dares to be EWD (Existing While Dispensationalist), and because he doesn't just lump the whole of it into one shapeless, formeless, indistinguishable mass, shrug, and say, "Whatever. Christ. Whatever."
I don't think most of the harshest critics are animated by their offense at LaHaye and Jenkins' specific envisionings of prophecy. I think they're animated with rage at the very fact that they try to envision prophecy, as if John meant something when he wrote that his book was about actual "things which will take place after these things" (Revelation 1:19c). It is threatening to their "Yeah, well, whatever" approach to Biblical prophecy.
That is my point.
(For more on the hermeneutical approach underlying this critique, please see my essay,The Science of Bible Reading. And please do keep in mind What Dispensationalism Isn't.)