A.T. Coates

PhD Candidate in American Religion, Duke University.

Author: misteracoates (page 1 of 4)

Vintage Advertising – Christmas Candy, 1910

With the holiday season in full stride, I present this lovely Christmas ad from 1910. The font is pretty illegible, but it’s an ad for Huyler’s candies, a company that operated a chain of candy and ice cream shops out of NYC at the turn of the century. I like this ad for a few reasons. First, it dispels the myth that Santa was created by Coca-Cola in the 1930s. Not true. Here is the Santa we all know and love, alive and well in 1910. Rudolph is missing from his herd and won’t show up for another 30 years, but the basics are all here. Certainly, Coke did its part in shaping the image of Santa we have today—red, fat, surrounded by toys, and cheerily drinking coke. But images of Santa long predate Coke’s iconic ad.
Second, this ad is great because it is so fiercely commercialist. Despite what Bill O’Reilly and Pat Robertson tell us, not much has changed about people’s attitudes toward Christmas in the last 100 years. Just like now, Christmas in 1910 was as much (or more) about lovers, family, gifts, and spending as it was about the birth of Jesus. Certainly, some savvy retailers played on the day’s religious significance to move more inventory—most famously, John Wanamaker of Philadelphia with his flagship store’s Christmas hymn-sings, pageants, and organ recitals. For most people, including Wanamaker, the religious significance of the day was always wrapped up with other concerns. Then as now, there was no separation between Christmas’s capacious Protestantism and its end-of-year splurging. In the case of this Huyler’s ad, Christmas is all about sex and candy. It assumes that its audience, like Santa, has gifts to give. People simply need to give a box of Huyler’s on top of everything else they give in order to make Christmas bright. The plump young lover (Mrs. Claus?) falls into Père Noël’s arms, coyly saying, “Oh! You dear!” Thanks to Huyler’s candy, it seems Santa will have a very merry Christmas after all.

Throwback Thursday – Vintage Advertising – Dr. Price’s Cream Baking Powder, 1898

This is without a doubt the most bombastic advertisement I’ve ever seen for an unromantic product. I, for one, would take great comfort in knowing that my cookies contained World’s Fair award-winning cream of tartar. I’m also curious, since I’m in the business, why it has to be DR. Price’s cream of tartar… and why someone with a PhD would misspell the phrase “whole grane.” All such aside, it’s interesting to note that this product pitches itself as a heritage brand–“40 years the standard.” This is pretty remarkable, given that 40 years before 1898, nothing really like the modern brand existed. If you’re pitching cream of tartar, you’ve got to get creative.

Dr Price's Cream of Tartar, 1898

A Fundamentalist Temperance Song

Homer Rodeheaver served as song leader for the famous fundamentalist revivalist Billy Sunday. “Rody,” as friends called him, was one of the first people ever to record gospel music. Believe it or not, this was once controversial behavior for a Christian musician. The Library of Congress lists his 1916 Victor recording “Molly and the Baby, Don’t You Know?” in a catalogue of temperance songs. Their description states it “is a song of a father promising not to drink for the sake of his wife and child.” Certainly, temperance crusaders like Sunday and Rodeheaver saw liquor as a threat to family stability–hence the overt message of the song. But to students of American religious history, the song’s religious undertones are unmistakable. “Molly and the baby” is a play on Mary and Jesus. Giving up liquor wasn’t just about being a responsible husband and father, but also about being a good Christian. The success of prohibition laws proved the broad appeal of fundamentalism’s unique style of religion in the 1910s and 20s.

Throwback Thursday – Vintage Ads – Lysol Shaving Cream, 1919

Finally, a shaving cream that contains Lysol! Just what I’ve always wanted! This ad reminds its viewers of the dangers lurking in daily routines. Unsanitary strops, moldy shave brushes, and dirty razors cutting into men’s faces. Buffeted by germs all day, those poor faces needed relief. Lysol to the rescue! Just a little Lysol in a shaving cream offers “a protection to the shaver from countless dangers of infection.” My favorite part of the ad comes near the bottom, where it suggests that Lysol saved untold thousands from infection during the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918. Therefore, it needs to be in your shaving cream. This deft move leverages people’s fear of another epidemic into brand confidence. I can’t wait to see how someone leverages Ebola. Hazmat suits contain plastic… buy Ziploc to keep Ebola out of your fridge?

Lysol Shaving Cream - Feb 1919

Vintage Advertising – Quaker Oats, 1898

Visual culture shapes our world in pretty surprising ways. It’s amazing how some advertising images have managed to persist for a century, structuring our lives in ways we wouldn’t expect. Today I stumbled across this vintage Quaker Oats ad from 1898, touting it as “The Easy Way to a Good Breakfast.” While Quaker Oats today doesn’t emphasize its lack of “bitter, oily taste,” it is still synonymous with a healthy breakfast. What’s most interesting to me about this piece is that it suggests eating Quaker Oats for supper. My grandmother, who was a teenager during the Great Depression, remembered eating oatmeal for breakfast and fried oatmeal for supper when no other food remained. People probably got tired of eating it twice a day. It’s no wonder we don’t eat it at night.  My own students were somewhat surprised to learn that Quakers were a religious movement prominent in colonial Pennsylvania, not just a breakfast logo.

Quaker Oats Ad, 1898

Dispensationalism Images…

Millerite Prophecy Charts

Working on a history of prophecy charts to understand Clarence Larkin better, I’m taken back to this stunning Millerite chart of 1843. (Larkin was not a Millerite or Adventist, so you’ll have to read my dissertation to learn how this chart relates to his). The chart is by Joshua V. Himes, officially titled “A Chronological Chart of the Visions of Daniel and John.” For its original viewers, seeing the chart revealed the harmony of apparently disconnected Bible prophecies. It offered nothing more or less than the truth of scripture. The figures, numbers, and texts demonstrated the “one undeviating path” of Bible prophecy. David Morgan writes, “the viewer was meant to see in the chart a systematic reading of prophecy across image and text as if the two merged seamlessly into a self-evident act of scripture reading itself. The Millerites sought to make their argument by visualizing the coherence of their interpretation as a system, in other words, by displaying the ‘beauty and harmony’ of the Bible properly interpreted.” David Morgan, Protestants and Pictures, p.133 (New York: Oxford, 1999).

"A Chronological Chart of the Visions of Daniel and John." 1843 Millerite Chart. Joshua Himes.

Clarence Larkin Ad from Moody Monthly, September 1920.

Finding this from 1920 is what dissertation research is all about. Clarence Larkin’s Bible prophecy charts never looked so enticing. “The Greatest Book on Dispensational Truth in the World!” Now with pictures!

Rise of the Nones

Teaching a class on the “rise of the nones” tomorrow. Found this great 2012 video of Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about his personal attitudes toward religion. I think it nicely illustrates some of the major concerns of the nones. At the very least, it illustrates the kind of things I want my students to think about. Tyson swears he’s not an atheist, but an agnostic: “I don’t play golf. Do non-golfers gather and strategize? Do non-skiiers have a word [like ‘atheist’]? … At the end of the day, I’d rather not be any category at all.”

Civil religion and baseball

Here I am preparing a class on civil religion on a warm April evening, thinking about baseball. I remembered that Americans haven’t always sung the national anthem at sporting events. Like everything religious, this cherished practice of American civil religion has a history…

Chicago: September, 1918. Comiskey Park. Cubs vs. Red Sox in Game 1 of the World Series. The Red Sox started their star pitcher, Babe Ruth. This was the only world series in history played into September: the military draft meant many major leaguers were set to report right after Labor Day. People had become accustomed to patriotic displays at ballgames since the war started. Players marching in formation, flag waving, that sort of thing. But folks usually didn’t sing The Star-Spangled Banner unless a flag was being raised. The game turned out to be a 1-0 snoozer and the crowd was quiet. During the 7th inning stretch, however, a military band started playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” When they started the tune, the Red Sox’s 3rd base player–an active-duty sailor named Fred Thomas–snapped to attention and saluted the flag. The other Sox players followed suit, saluting with their hands over their hearts (in civilian fashion). The crowd saw this and did the same. Then, they all started singing together. The moment proved so powerful that they repeated it for the next two nights. Soon moved to the beginning of the game, it has become a standard practice.

How is this “civil religion”? With America at war, the act tied the national pastime to the war effort. More than that, however, singing the national anthem at ballgames started a civil religion practice. This practice created–and creates–powerful collective emotions. It generates shared experiences of transcendence, a sense of belonging to the greater national body. Durkheim would call that religion.

Religion and World War II

I recently taught a class on religion and World War II in America. Though the acts of chaplains and soldiers certainly matter for the study of religious history, I focused on the ways that religious ideas and practices helped people justify, explain, and understand the war at home. This image from the Nazi-occupied Netherlands provided a fruitful point of discussion. It contrasts nicely with Norman Rockwell’s well-known painting Freedom of Religion (1943).  To Americans, pluralism and freedom of religion were central values worth defending. To her enemies, these were the very things wrong with the USA–pluralism and freedom of religion made America monstrous.

save_freedom_worship

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), “Freedom of Worship,” 1943. Oil on canvas, 46″ x 35 1/2″. Story illustration for “The Saturday Evening Post,” February 27, 1943. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.

ABD At Last!

I just passed my dissertation proposal defense with flying colors. The title of my soon-to-be dissertation is now official: “Fundamentalist Aesthetics: Sensation and Scripture in Early Twentieth-Century American Fundamentalism.” David Morgan said he wants a first draft by August. Yeah, right.

Publication news: I wrote a short essay for Yale’s Initiative for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion website. Many thanks to Sally Promey and the staff for putting together this project! You can find my essay here: http://mavcor.yale.edu/conversations/object-narratives/rightly-dividing-word-truth

Done

I passed my prelims. Thanks for reading! This blog will undergo some retooling in the coming weeks and months as I start my dissertation.

Claude Levi-Strauss, “The Savage Mind” (1966)

Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (1966).

“Savage mind” does not refer to “primitive” mind or the mind of “savages.” Instead, it describes the mind itself in its “savage” or natural state of classifying, distinguishing, ordering the world. Binary oppositions form the basis of its systems of classification. “The savage mind totalizes” (245), it “builds mental structures which facilitate an understanding of the world in as much as they resemble it” (263).

Culture consists of symbolic systems. Levi-Strauss treats culture like Saussure’s linguistics treats language: culture possesses deep structures behind surface phenomena. Discrete elements/units can be combined, recombined, and re-ordered in many different ways—but they are always ordered, and always ordered according to consistent patterns, and those patterns ultimately rest on binary oppositions—general/particular, up/down, God/human, etc.

Magic and science: “Magical thinking is not to be regarded as a beginning, a rudiment, a sketch, a part of a whole which has not yet materialized. It forms a well-articulated system, and is in this respect independent of that other system which constitutes science, except for the purely formal analogy which brings them together and makes the former a sort of metaphorical expression of the latter. It is therefore better, instead of contrasting magic and science, to compare them as two parallel modes of acquiring knowledge… Both science and magic however require the same sort of mental operations and they differ not so much in kind as in the different types of phenomena to which they are applied” (13).

Bricolage, Bricoleur – “[The Bricoleur’s] universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand,’ that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions” (17). The figure of the bricoleur describes the activity of the savage mind–it stands in contrast to the engineer, which describes the scientific mind (theorizing, generating new methods and tools, etc. “The elements which the ‘bricoleur’ collects and uses are ‘pre-constrained’ like the constitutive units of myth, the possible combinations of which are restricted by the fact that they are drawn from the language where they already possess a sense which sets a limit on their freedom of maneuver” (19). Mytheme – fundamental unit of myth. Can be deployed in many different contexts/structures (like a morpheme or phoneme).

History and anthropology shouldn’t be antagonistic. This will only happen if we stop privileging history. We ought to recognize history as “a method with no distinct object corresponding to it” (262). No such thing as human nature. No given facts. History, a highly selective enterprise, orders the past. There is no “history” per se, only “history-for” someone, some culture.

… “The characteristic feature of the savage mind is its timelessness; its object is to grasp the world as both a synchronic and a diachronic totality and the knowledge which it draws therefrom is like that afforded of a room by mirrors fixed on opposite walls, which reflect each other (as well as objects in the intervening space) although without being strictly parallel” (263).

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Selections from “Provincializing Europe”

Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Idea of Historicizing Europe,” “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History,” and “Reason and the Critique of Historicism” from Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000).

Consider it a sign of the times that a historian of American Christianity is reading Chakrabarty. Chakrabarty notes the abiding asymmetry in the practices of academic history: renowned historians of Europe (or America… in fact, especially America) can work in near-total ignorance of non-Western histories, but non-Western historians cannot return the gesture “without taking the risk of appearing ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘outdated’” (28). This is especially the case in places where local histories might include ancestors, spirits, or magical beings; European “secular” history becomes the gold standard of true history. Academic “history” seems always to find a way of becoming the history of Europe—or, at least, of “the West.” The project of “provincializing Europe” aims to expose the processes by which this asymmetry survives, reminding Euro-America that its history isn’t the only history that matters, revealing how this vision of “history” props up the colonialist project of “political modernity.” He writes, “provincializing Europe [is] a question of how we create conjoined and disjunctive genealogies for European categories of political modernity as we contemplate the necessarily fragmentary histories of human belonging that never constitute a one or a whole” (255). In short, Chakrabarty endeavors to show both the “inadequacy” and “indispensability” of social scientific thinking (6). Marx and Heidegger represent two competing poles of this thinking that he tries to bring into balance: on the one hand, we ought to acknowledge that certain universal/analytical categories (e.g. capitalism) help us confront social injustices—Marx. On the other hand, the hermeneutic tradition encourages sympathetic, personally engaged approaches to thought—Heidegger.

Chakrabarty’s beef doesn’t concern history per se, if by history we mean thinking about the past in the present. “Historicism,” however, withers under his intense scrutiny. By “historicism,” Chakrabarty describes a way of thinking that “tells us that in order to understand the nature of anything in this world we must see it as an historically developing entity, that is, first, as an individual and unique whole… and, second, as something that develops over time” (23). Historicism wants to objectify what it studies, finding a single, unified past in each of the archive’s relics, relics over which the subject has sovereignty.  This discourages the scholar from acknowledging her or his position of engagement with the past in the present: the subject of political modernity wants to make an object of history so as to become free from history. But the present, Chakrabarty argues, entwines with the past, is “irreducibly not-one” (249). The scientist carries a lucky rabbit’s foot. He coins the phrase “timeknot” to describe “the plurality that inheres in the ‘now,’ the lack of totality, the constant fragmentariness, that constitutes one’s present” (243).

Antonio Gramsci, Selections from “Prison Notebooks”

Antonio Gramsci, Section III.1 from The Prison Notebooks, “The Study of Philosophy.”

http://www.walkingbutterfly.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/gramsci-prison-notebooks-vol1.pdf

Everyone is a philosopher. By this Gramsci does not mean that everyone has the social role of the professional philosopher, but rather that philosophy happens in the practices of everyday social life like language, folklore, and “common sense.” Philosophy cannot be the preserve of a few experts, but must be a concrete, collective activity. The professional philosopher must always remain engaged with people’s “common sense” convictions—building on them, critiquing them, and working with them to spark a socialist revolution from the bottom up. This does not mean capitulating to common sense when it is wrong, but it means that philosophy’s criticism needs to remain embedded in concrete social relations and everyday life.

Common sense: generally accepted ideas. Good sense: “a conception of the world with an ethic that conforms to its structure” (660).

Philosophy must be politically engaged: “Since all action is political,” he writes, “can one not say that the real philosophy of each man is contained in its entirety in his political action?” (631-632).

Religion is more than just the opiate. For Gramsci, religion offers a prime example of how ideas can embed themselves in practical action and create a socialist common sense that spans between professionals (clergy/philosophers) and non-professionals (laity/the masses): “religion has been and continues to be a ‘necessity,’ a necessary form taken by the will of the popular masses and a specific way of rationalizing the world and real life, which provided the general framework for real practical activity” (647). According to Gramsci, religion offers stability and community to “the masses.” Marxism needs to become a little more like religion, providing a way of thinking about real life and offering a framework for practical action. He defines religion as “a conception of the world which has become a norm of life” (657-658). Marxism, a conception of the world, needs to become more like religion.

There is no such thing as human nature. Gramsci describes the human as an “ensemble of social relations” (680).

Jason Bivins, “Religion of Fear” (2008)

Jason Bivins, Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (2008)

Grant Wacker insists that students in his seminars learn to distinguish between what is important and what is merely interesting. Religion of Fear makes important contributions to the study of evangelicalism. At the intersection of conservative politics, evangelicalism, and American popular culture, a “religion of fear” has developed. Emerging after the 1960s, this religio-political impulse used the medium of popular culture to scare the Hell out of people—literally. The religion of fear offered readers and audiences an “interpretive template that posits demonological causes for political decline… [one that situates] readers in a historical framework and [defines] for audiences a coherent, unchanging place therein” (9). Part of Bivins’s project consists of documenting the rhetorical and affective strategies of anti-rock preaching, Hell Houses, Jack Chick’s cartoons, and the Left Behind novels. The creators of these works, he argues, act as savvy “technicians of identity,” engaging fear and horror in specific ways to create a politically charged range of acceptable religious identities (16).

Despite its claims to fixity and stability in a declining culture, Bivins declares that the religion of fear is actually animated by two instabilities: 1) the erotics of fear and 2) the demonology within. The “erotics of fear” describes the fact that fear’s discourse, though strongly condemnatory toward American culture, nonetheless displays deep fascination with what is forbidden. Evangelical teenagers compete heartily for the right to play the sexually active, unmarried couple in a Hell House play. Jack Chick’s most interesting drawings show sinners writhing in pain for their wrongdoing. The final book of the Left Behind series contains about a hundred pages of Jesus unleashing blood-drenched wrath on God’s enemies. In the religion of fear, forbidden evil goes on display. The “demonology within” describes the basic irony of using popular culture to condemn popular culture. The pure Christian self is constituted by its Others. You define yourself as a Christian teenager by not listening to Slayer—but this means that you know what Slayer is, that the demons behind the Slayer lyrics might grab hold of you at any moment.

But it’s Bivins’s approach to his subject that makes the most important contributions to the field. Far too few books explore the felt-life of evangelicalism. Emotion takes center stage in this book about political religion—“fear” isn’t some clever heuristic for explaining evangelical theology or its “relation” to governmental politics, it’s a feeling that certain religio-political popular culture artifacts engage and frequently try to produce in viewers, readers, and listeners. Bivins offers new ways of thinking about conservative evangelicalism: rather than an agglomeration of cleanly theological or political “movements,” conservative evangelicalism emerges from this text as a messy mélange of discursive strategies, techniques of identity, body practices, products of entertainment. And Bivins doesn’t shy away from criticizing this religion of fear when he thinks it warrants it. If scholars of religion abandon all claims to normativity and all forms of social critique in the name of taking our subjects “seriously,” we play the conservatives’ game: Bivins doesn’t want to play that game, and argues that scholars should counter fear with “sober political vision” instead of reactionary disavowal or willful indifference (228). Fear thrives when democratic culture atrophies. The point is not for scholars to proceed recklessly against our subjects, but rather to suggest that we scholar-citizens have a responsibility to remain politically engaged. That responsibility doesn’t disappear when we put on the mantel of scholarship. Bivins models his vision of social critique by engaging fear’s political vision seriously and carefully: “fear’s political vision should be contested in the name of politics itself, with the goal of a reaffirmation of a democratic process allowing for the pursuit of reasonable compromises of principled differences” (235).

Diana Eck, “Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India” (1998 edition)

Diana Eck, Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India, (1998 ed.)

Eck’s essay examines the practices of “holy seeing” among Hindus in India and America. Darshan simply means seeing, but it holds much richer valences. According to Eck, seeing the divine image with one’s own eyes—and in turn being seen by the divine image—constitutes “the central act of Hindu worship” for laypeople (3). In the visual image, the deity “gives” darshan and the people “take” darshan. Seeing acts as a kind of touch between the human and the divine—the worshipper reaches out with the eyes and the eyes of the deity reach back (9). But the act of holy seeing involves more than just the eyes. Worshippers engage the divine image with their whole bodies: touching it with the hands, hearing mantras near it, eating consecrated food in its presence, and smelling oil lamp offerings. Presence proves a key concept for this work—and connects it to the broader study of visuality in religions. Eck argues that, at bottom, darshan works because “God is present in the image, whether for a moment, a week, or forever. People come to see because there is something very powerful there to see” (51).

Though its argument now feels somewhat dated (it was originally published in 1981), darshan still provides a great text on visuality in religion. I think it would work especially well in a gateway course: it expands students’ understanding of what vision and images can be/do, but it does so without the heavy theory of more recent works. It’s also short and very readable. Eck’s account of the Sri Lakshmi temple in Ashland, MA “eye-opening ceremony” (in the afterword) and her brief discussion of mass-produced images (43-44) provide especially healthy food for discussion. In the former, elaborate rituals help to tame the awesome power that emits from the image when the deity becomes present and opens its eyes. Shown first to a cow, then a group of young girls, then others, worshippers must all look at the deity in a mirror before turning to the image itself. The section on mass-produced images deals with a completely different set of issues: cheap, readily available images of temple images that occupy people’s home shrines. These, writes Eck, allow worshippers to “have darshan not only of the image, but, of the picture of the image as well!” (44). In other words, divine presence remains even in reproductions of the divine image. Take that, Walter Benjamin?

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966)

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (Routledge, 1966)

Douglas’s classic anthropological study offers an extended meditation on the concepts of dirt and contagion. As a structuralist, Douglas insists that social categories pervade all levels of experience—from the arrangement of homes to understandings of the body. Lest society descend into chaos, these categories require constant policing and maintenance. Ambiguous and anomalous things must be incorporated into some category or another—or banished from society altogether. Certain things must remain taboo or off-limits to define and solidify the boundaries of a community. Pollution spreads without intent or moral wrongdoing: mere contact with the forbidden is enough, since the real issue is transgression of the social order. Unlike earlier anthropologists, Douglas insists that all societies remain similarly vigilant against disorder. This applies not just to the “primitive” societies imagined by earlier anthropologists, but modern Euro-American societies as well. For Douglas, symbolic actions of taming disorder—rituals of purification, strategies for managing danger—provide a strong base for the comparative study of religion, since they reveal the deep structures of societies. She rejects Tylor’s definition of religion, “belief in spiritual beings,” demanding instead that scholars of religion compare “peoples’ views about man’s destiny and place in the universe” (35). Rejecting hard-and-fast distinctions between the sacred and the secular, Douglas studies the social construction of religion via bodily practice, symbolic action, and ritual. In short, she uses cultural analysis as a way of approaching how religions work, rather than identifying religion as any particular thing in the world.

Douglas’s chapter “Secular Defilement” could prove very useful in a religion 101 class—particularly if the class dealt with a topic like zombies, vampires, ghosts, spirituality, etc. In this chapter, Douglas examines our own society’s notions of dirt and cleanliness. While we like to believe that we clean for medically sound reasons, Douglas shows that this simply isn’t true. Everyone in our society stores their kitchen cleaning supplies in the same place: under the sink. If you met someone who kept the Mr. Clean next to the mugs, you would probably run away scared. But why? It’s dirty. The clean bottle of cleaning fluid and the clean mugs together become dirty. For Douglas, the explanation for such behavior reveals the systems of classification operative in our society: “Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” (44). Later, she explains that “dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained,” it is “matter out of place” (50). In other words, “dirtiness” applies to things that just don’t fit into our cultural system’s normal categories.

But there’s the rub—for Douglas, everything has to fit into the system somehow, even if only as “dirt.” This makes her book a good conversation partner for later works on materiality. In particular, I think it would make an interesting intro to Todd Ochoa’s Society of the Dead, where the question is precisely how thinking matter, especially unbounded matter, can upset our usual categories of analysis. “Dirt” may just have a mind of its own. It may not want to remain the castoff of a neat cultural system. It likes to mess us up.

Review by A.T.

LaHaye and Jenkins, “Left Behind” (1995)

Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of Earth’s Last Days (1995).

Suddenly, without explanation, people disappear en masse. Cars crash into medians, driverless. Passengers vanish from airplanes midflight. Piles of clothes suddenly replace loved ones. All the world’s children, gone. A woman in labor finds her belly suddenly deflated; she delivers only a placenta (46). Welcome to the world of Left Behind. Boasting a company of characters named like the cast list of a 1970s porno—Buck Williams, Chloe Steele, Bruce Barnes, and Dirk Burton among others—Left Behind narrates a spy-thriller version of old-fashioned dispensational end times theology. The book operates on two levels. On the one hand, it’s an entertainment novel. Pure airport fare. A band of stock characters needs to solve a mystery, but forces ranging from the paranormal to the United Nations frustrate and complicate their efforts. In the end, the conspiracy goes much bigger than they thought, one problem (why did everyone disappear?) finds resolution but reveals bigger problems to follow (the antichrist is rising, but who?).

On the other hand, Left Behind is a thoroughly, unabashedly, Christian book for a conservative Christian audience. It puts a creative spin on the old dispensationalist practice of reading current events for signs of the times. Left Behind imagines a not-too-distant future that looks and feels suspiciously like the present (c. 1995): one character (Buck) finds that “the connection to his ramp on the information superhighway was busy” (32). Another character, searching for an explanation for his wife and son’s disappearance, pops in a DVD made by his wife’s pastor—the DVD player having first appeared in, that’s right, 1995 (202). So the book’s setting is the future, but it might as well be tomorrow. This gives practically unlimited creative license when the authors to get down to the dispensationalist business. This book does not read signs of the times as dispensationalists traditionally do, but rather conjures the times. Working backwards, it drapes the prophetic future onto the form of the present rather than looking at the present for signs of the prophetic future.

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