Friday, May 26, 2006

Al Mohler: Tim LaHaye is like Dan Brown

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.)


Gavin Brown said...

Sounds like you have a dispensational axe to grind.

I agree that Mohler is painting with way-too-broad strokes. Lumping LaHaye in with Brown (in this context) is rather unthougtful and ill-informed.

MattMissyKamps said...

For a different spin, N.T. Wright made the exact comparison in a radio forum with Anne Rice, found at right at the beginning. By the way, Wright doesn't deny the resurrection, stop reading headlines.

Phil Siefkes said...

I was warmed by your "flames." I appreciate your defense of literal/normal interpretation of all of Scripture. Mr. Mohler once again demonstrates the truth of Job 32:9, great men (or old men) are not always wise. We have learned much from Mr. Mohler, but we all have much more to learn from God's Word.

ThirstyDavid said...

Dan, I promise this is not a loaded question. I have not read Left Behind, nor much commentary on it. So, my question is, in your opinion, is it eschatologically accurate?

ThirstyDavid said...

What I meant to ask is, how accurate do you think it is? You obviously think it's at least somewhat accurate.

Robert said...

I would argue that the grammatical-historical interpretation is an argument AGAINST the dispensational view. After all, they say that the phrases "things which must SHORTLY take place"-Rev. 1:1,"for the time is NEAR"-Rev 1:3, "Surely I am coming QUICKLY"-Rev. 22:20, etc. cannot be taken literally, but MUST mean the far future to comtemporary readers. Does anyone believe that Revelation chapter 12 describes a women LITERALLY "clothed with the sun"?, or a LITERAL dragon? No, we all recognize tham as symbols in a book filled with symbols.
Another example - it's strange that "this generation" all through Matthew's gospel always means Jesus' contempories, EXCEPT in chapters 24 ,where we're told it suddenly means the far future to contemporary listeners.
Or does Isaiah 40:3ff. describe a LITERAL road construction project in Israel? We recognize that some OT prophecies were in symbols and types. The same is true of NT prophecy.

It's simply not the case that dispensationalists are courageous "literalists", while everyone else wimps out to "allegory" ('like those liberals' being implied and sometimes stated (like by Hal Lindsey)).

(To put all my cards on the table, I mostly agree with Gary DeMar in "Last Days Madness" and "End Times Fiction", and Oswald T. Allis in "Prophecy and the Church".)

Anyway, you can understand Mohler's frustration when you think of all the acres of poor trees that have been destroyed for the sake of the nonsense that has been put out during the last century in the name of Dispensationalism.
To be fair, there are also scholars - like George N. H. Peters ("The Theocratic Kingdom of our Lord Jesus, the Christ") and Charles Ryrie - on their side also.

Louise said...

You think you've heard it all? You haven't if you haven't turned to Google and typed in "Pretrib Rapture Diehards," "Thomas Ice (Bloopers)," "Appendix F: Thou Shalt Not Steal," and "Famous Rapture Watchers"----all from the pen of Dave MacPherson who has found more documents on dispensationalism's 19th century roots than all other researchers put together. Louise

Jeremy Weaver said...

(Get that? Saying that "Israel" means "Israel" is "decoding"; saying that "Israel" is "the Christian Church" is -- what? Sober, sound exegesis, I guess.)

More properly stated we believe that Christ is the true Israel and recipient of the promises and only throught union with Him can we be said to be the 'new' Israel.

Most of the non-dispensationalists that I know still see an eschatological future for 'national' Israel.

As for what Mohler was saying in his article, I found it was more against the 'overlaying of truth with fiction' than a backhanded slap at Dispensationalists.

Speaking of irony, how is it that overlaying truth with fiction is treating prophecy seriously? If it is such a serious matter (as I believe it is), then why do we jsut smile and say, "That Tim Lahaye! He really and truly loves prophecy!", when all the while he treats it in such a contemptible manner as to relegate it to a fantasy world? That's so ironic it's actually made out of iron!:-)

Robert said...

Know what's funny? Louise has sent that message to so many blogs, that if you DO try googling thoses phrases, the first references all all to HER messages about googling those phrases!

Robert said...

Darn! I can't proof-read!(Sigh)

Kim said...

I've read both The Da Vinci Code and LaHaye's books. I haven't given any serious thought about the similarity of the thematic elements, doctrine, or whatever. One way they are very similar is their over-use of dialogue.

But that's just my opinion. I'm not a literature expert, but that was my reaction.

BugBlaster said...

Hi Dan, I thought hard about commenting but couldn't. Blogged it instead. I detest the use of the word gnostic to compare the two works. It is incredibly misleading.

lee n. field said...

"Methinks thou dost protest too much."

Is it just me, or is it objectively true dispensationalists are quite touchy when criticized?

The original Christian Century (a publication I've been successfully ignoring for decades) doesn't say much at all about DP-ism or Left Behind. Al Mohler doesn't talk about it much either. The one time I ever heard him talk about the end times, he sounded like an ordinary premil kind of guy.

My cards on the table: I'm not totally settled on any current scheme.

I have heard some just whacky interpretations from dispensationalists (ex.: The "exceedingly great army" of Ezekiel's vally of dry bones vision is . . . .ta da!: the Israeli Defense Forces.).

Israel is always Israel-according-to-the-flesh also seems quite problematic. There are anthropological (in the biblical not secular sense) and soteriological consequences of a two peoples of God scheme that you probably wouldn't care for.

Highland Host said...

Let me state first of all and up-front that I do earnestly believe that, when Paul says in Romans 11 that 'all Israel shall be saved', he is referring to Israel after the flesh. I also believe that the statement that 'the gifts and calling of God are without repentance' is best interpreted as referring to God's calling of Abraham and His gift of the Land of Israel to Abraham's seed for ever. Having said that, let me also say that I am neither premil or dispensational. I find the dispensational insistence that they AND THEY ALONE consistently pracice the grammatico-historical method to be a wild overstatement, not to mention somewhat offensive and occasionally even silly. For example, poetry ought to be interpreted as poetry, not as if it were prose (I attended a Brethren assembly for a time, so I have heard dispensational preaching), yet I find Dispensationalists taking poetical and figurative passages (such as the Revelation) as if they were a report in the Times. Brethren, they are not. Stars literally falling to earth would obliterate the planet, after all. Yes, Biblical prophecy DOES mean something. The question is, what? And THERE is the debate. Each 'side' is trying to be as 'literal' as possible in interpreting the text, and it is somewhat disingenuous to say that those who interpret it figuratively (in the light of Revelation 1.1, note, not according to some arbitrary canon of our own) are not.
As we try earnestly to follow the light we have, let us charitably assume that our brethren are doing the same.

Indeed, I too read Al Mohler's piece. I am exceedingly surprised that our esteemed author has made so much of it.

P.S. I refer to the word translated in the A.V. 'signified' in Rev. 1.1, which means literally to show by signs.

Highland Host said...

And no, I wouldn't call 'Left Behind' Gnostic. Not in any proper sense. And I'm not keen on tecnical words like Gnostic being used so loosely.

But I do not think that Dr. M. inended to say, as you represent him, that 'Tim LaHaye is like Dan Brown'

Ironically, Mr. Phillips, you would probably agree far more with Dr. Mohler on prophetic interpretation that you would with me!

But as I recall from your 'what Dispensationalism is not' post, you are something of a 'progressive dispensationalist'. Unlike the Brethren men I have heard. Your 'Dispnsations' would be far less rigid than theirs - am I right? You would, for example, see Jew and Gentile at last as ONE people, not two (Romans 11.24)?

It is Romans 11, which I cannot but apply to the Jews, that convinces me of two things. The first is that there is only one people of God, the second is that God's purpose for the Jews still includes the Land as well as a calling of a vast multitude of them to faith at some specific future time.

BugBlaster said...

I can't speak for Dan, Mr. Highland, but it sounds like I agree with you on more than I disagree. Besides I used to play the pipes and you wish you were from the highlands, so we are practically twins.

Robert said...

One more comment. Doesn't gnostic mean "knowledge"? So the Gnostics claimed to have secret knowledge others did not have. The sensationalist wing of Dispensationalism has this tendency. Here's a quote fron Gary North's Preface to "The Beast of Revelation" by Kenneth Gentry. In describing strings of "Antichrist now!" type book, he says:

"They want thrills and chills, not accurate Bible exposition; they want a string of “secret insights,” not historical
knowledge. Like legions of imaginative children sitting in front of the family radio back in the 1930’s and 1940’s who faithfully bought their Oval tine, tore off the wrapper, and sent it in to receive an official “Little Orphan Annie secret decoder”, fumdamentalist Christians are repeatedly lured by the tempting promise that they can be “the first ones on their block” to be “on the inside” — to be the early recipients of the “inside dope.” And that is just exactly what they have been sold, decade after decade."(p. xviii)

(You gotta' admit it, when Scary Gary is right, he nails it!)

Highland Host said...

Robert. You have summed up there what is wrong with books like the 'Left Behind' series and Hal Lindsay's allegedly 'factual' works. However, Gnostic refers to a particular heresy that afflected the early Church. What is more, Dan Brown draws on that source (admittedly in a most selective way), La Haye and Jenkins do not. Therefore it is wrong to refer to both books as 'Gnostic', since that gives a wrong impression.

All of which is not to say that the Post-millenialist agrees with La Haye and Jenkins on such matters as the rebuilding of the Temple, the UN being a future one-world government, or anything of that nature.

Highland Host said...

Please recall that our host means by 'Dispensationalism' :
"Grammatico-historical hermeneutics applied to all Scripture;
The Christian church and Israel distinguished from each other;
The glory of God seen as the center of history"

Now, that as a definition is WAY too broad. Why? Because it would embrace just about everyone who believes in the restoration of the Jews. Including a Reformed Postmillenialist like myself!

Of course, then we have to ask, is Mr. Phillips a PREMILENNIAL Dispensationalist? In that case we might explain his views thus:
"Grammatico-historical hermeneutics applied to all Scripture;
The Christian church and Israel distinguished from each other;
The glory of God seen as the center of history;
The Second Coming of Christ to occur before the beginning of the Millenium."

The 'Left Behind' series are also PRETRIBULATIONAL, that is, they teach a 'secret rapture' of the Church before the 'Great Tribulation'. Quite where they get the 'Secret rapture' doctrine, or its timing before the tribulation from is beyond me. Rapture, yes. Plain Biblical teaching. But at Christ's Second Coming (and final coming. No third coming in my Bible), not before. And open, not secret.

Highland Host said...

PS. Please note that, following Romans 11, I do not, and cannot consistently interpret the Bible so as to distinguish between the Church and Israel FOR EVER, but only until the restoration of the Jews to faith. The land is another matter, and that will be restored to the Jewish people, but as far as I see it, only completely AFTER they have returned to God.

Jim said...

Dan, thanks for this article. I also read the link to your "what Dispensationalism is not". I appreciate your delineation between reformism and dispensationism.

Is there a reason that reformers would tend to be amil. rather than pre-mil.? Is this due to something in their theology or simply the influence of many major theologians who were also steeped in Roman Catholic tradition and eschatology?

God bless,

DJP said...

You reeeeeeally want to get me in trouble, doncha, Jim? (c;

A straightforward question should get a straightforward answer: I think they simply did not reform all their theology. There is no question in my mind that, had the Reformers consistently applied the grammatico-historical approach by which they recovered the true Gospel (and much else) from the epistles, their approach to prophecy and ecclesiology would have been very different indeed.

Put another way, if an amill interpreted Christological passages the way he interprets many prophetic passages, he'd likely be a pantheistic mystic.

Highland Host said...

The trouble with making any statements about the millenial views of the Reformers is that Calvin (most notably) declared frankly that he did not understand the book of Revelation.
Many of the Puritans, who sought to carry on the legacy of the Reformers, and to further reform the church, were Postmillenial. The Westminster Directory for public worship demonstrates that at least a majority believed in a literal restoration of the Jews.

John Brown of Haddington, in his once popular 'Self-Interpreting Bible' gives a splendid example of a consistent, Grammatico-historical method of dealing with the prophetic books some time before the dispensational method was introduced.

By the way, Mr. Phillips, 'amil' is not a monolithic position, any more than 'dispensational' is. For example, while some Amillenialists deny the restoration of the Jews, others (such as Dr. Lloyd-Jones) affirm it.

Could you give examples of these 'way-off' expositions? May I suggest Herman Bavinck's exposition of Romans 11 in his 'Reformed Dogmatics'? He denies the restoration of the Jews, which is frankly bizarre.

Stephen Newell said...

Uh, color me both amused and confused.

I'm amused because I have an affinity for the type of sarcastic humor displayed in your post, Dan. This is a good one.

I'm confused because you have apparently jumped to a conclusion. Mohler seems to be saying that both Dan Brown and the Left Behind novels are works of fiction that boldly proclaim what they contain to be fact. This is true.

What Mohler did not do are the very things you're insinuating he did; namely that he's got his flamboyantly heterosexual (thank you Mark Driscoll for that phrase) undies in a bunch because LaHaye looks at prophecy as if it actually means something. That's just crass alarmism and poor thinking, bro.

DJP said...

Wrong in every regard.

First, read the claim at the start of DVC, to this effect: "FACT: All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."

Then find me any equivalent within the LB books.

Next, most of Mohler's column was unqualified direct quotation of the CC editorial, which is linked in praise to an article within its pages. Unless I missed it, he expresses no criticism of that editorial; and, yet again, most of his column is direct quotation.

You know, all this is quoted and explained in my essay. No one has to read it.

But it'd be nice if you read it before criticizing on it.

DJP said...

Highland Host

First, email me, would you? I wanted to correspond a bit.

Second, that's really funny. Too bad you couldn't have talked with the late William Hendriksen. He told me I couldn't be 100% Calvinist and dispensationalist. But you won't need to do any necromancy; just talk to the scores of writers who rule out dispensationalists as eo ipso not "Reformed" -- regardless of whether we affirm the five sola's (I do), or accept the 5 points (I do), but simply because we interpret all of Scripture by the same principles they apply only to some of Scripture.

It's passing ironic. Only eschatology similar to that of Rome is "Reformed." Try to build it from a grammatico-historical approach to the Word, and you can't be Reformed anymore.

You ask for an example of way-off exposition? Sure. My hero, E. J. Young, in his (otherwise) wonderful set on Isaiah. In chapter five, we see doom and cursing for Israel and Judah. What is the fulfillment? Literal judgment for national Israel and Judah (pp. 192-230).

But then turn just a few chapters back, to his treatment of chapter 2. The chapter depicts the glory of Judah and Jerusalem. The fulfillment? Brother Young tells us that "the reference of this prophecy is to the church which Jesus Christ founded" (p. 102).

So in one chapter, Judah = the Christian church. In another chapter of the same book, the same Judah is, well, Judah.

And this is the common bait-and-switch (non-)reformed approach to Biblical prophecy. Israel cursed=ethnic Israel; Israel blessed=Christian church.

Any possibility that the original readers could ever have understood what God was saying? In violation of Deuteronomy 13, no.

It's in code.

Stephen Newell said...

Yeesh. Disagree even a tad and suddenly I "haven't read the post?" That's tacky, brother.

LaHaye has stated publicly and in print that the Left Behind novels represent a clear picture of what will happen at the end. He's even said that there is ignorance concerning this topic. That's what I was referring to. Dan Brown does the same thing; the only difference is that he actually put it in his novel.

That's actually not much different from what the article Mohler quotes is putting forth. Where's the horror at Mohler basically saying to keep one's eyes open when something like that happens?

DJP said...

Sorry you don't see your mistake; glad I'm not depending on anything hidden or not in public evidence to make my point.

On that subject: if you can adduce a statement such as you report from LaHaye, I'll be glad to disagree heartily with him. If he is saying more than that, according to his reading of prophecy, this is one telling of events may play out -- then he's gone too far.

Obviously if that is all that Mohler implied, there'd be no horror whatever. As I demonstrated, it goes farther than that.

DJP said...

I was out of town when the comments rolled in for this essay, which is why I missed interaction. So here are two overdue responses:

mattmissykamps -- By the way, Wright doesn't deny the resurrection, stop reading headlines.

Who are you talking to?

thirstydavid -- your opinion, is it eschatologically accurate?

It's a great question; wish I had a great answer. Though I have studied prophecy to the point of exhaustion, I in in way consider myself adept at it, and I don't remember all the details of the LB books I read. With that disclaimer, I'd say it's a good-faith attempt to envision one way in which prophecy could play itself out. I know that I agree with the broad outline: the pre-trib Rapture, rise of a personal Beast and False Prophet for a seven-year period, ministry of the two witnesses, increasingly hellacious judgments culminating in the return of Christ.

DJP said...

Oops, one more to thirstydavid:

My bottom-line is that I have a lot more respect for LaHaye's attempt to make something of the details of prophecy, than I do for CT's and amill's attempts to make nothing of them.

Jim Crigler said...

At Ligonier '02, Dr Bob (W Robert Godfrey) pointed out that Luther had much the same argument with the Geneva guys about the Lord's Supper as Dan seems to have with Mohler (and others) about eschatology.

Dan, are you saying that the entire church had eschatology wrong for 1700 years?

DJP said...

No, Jim -- just you! (c;

Seriously, maybe it's the altitude (I'm on vacation), but I'm not following your point. I don't see your analogy.

To try to answer the question, I think parts of the church had parts of eschatology unexamined and thus undeveloped. The error is thinking that everything was learned and sealed centuries ago, so that the Bible is behind glass in a museum to us today. To that mindset, all we can do is reminisce about those heady days in the 1500's-1600's, when there was still ore in the mine.

To mix metaphors.