A.T. Coates

PhD Candidate in American Religion, Duke University.

Tag: millennialism

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.

Ernest Sandeen, “The Roots of Fundamentalism” (1970)

Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930. (U Chicago, 1970).

Sandeen isolates millenarianism as the lifeblood of American fundamentalism. In his appraisal, fundamentalism marks just one important phase in the larger history of millenarian theology. Instead of looking to the infamous “five fundamentals” (inerrancy, virgin birth, atonement of Christ, bodily resurrection, miracle-working power of Christ) as time-honored Christian principles upheld by old-fashioned believers, Sandeen treats them as theological innovations that emerged from the millenarian tradition. Though Americans had developed indigenous strains of millenarianism in the Millerite and Mormon movements of the early 19th century, the variety that led to fundamentalism came as a British import. In general, British millenarianism gave the American version four characteristics: i) zeal for interpreting biblical prophecies, ii) special interest in Jews and Zionism iii) the doctrine of the premillennial advent, and iv) a futurist stance toward the book of Revelation (8-9, 12, 36-37). In particular, John Nelson Darby’s dispensational premillennialism that won the States. With its doctrine of the secret rapture and its division of the New Testament into “Jewish” and “churchly” texts, dispensationalism became the dominant form of millenarianism in America by the 1870s.

But, even with Darbyite dispensationalism on the scene, American millenarianism wasn’t yet fundamentalism. Fundamentalism of the “five fundamentals” variety emerged only when British-style millenarianism formed a sort of informal alliance with “Princeton theology.” Developed by figures like B.B. Warfield and Charles Hodge, Princeton Theology stood out for its commonsense, rationalistic approach to the authority of the Bible. These thinkers insisted that a) the inspiration of scripture extends to the words of the text themselves, b) the Bible is not only reliable, but claims to be inerrant, and c) the inerrant verbal inspiration of the Bible only applies to the “original autographs” penned by the biblical writers (125-127). Sandeen argues that around the 1890s, when this theological approach met dispensationalism at Moody’s prophecy conferences, fundamentalism proper was born (172).

Coming of age intellectually in the post-Marsden age, it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking Sandeen’s work was in 1970. Obviously, the book shows its age—I cringe at the mere thought of someone writing today about fundamentalist history only by looking at the theology of its “great (white) men.” Cultural or social history this ain’t. Nonetheless, the book still holds an important place in the historiography for several reasons. First, Sandeen saw himself as one of the only historians to take fundamentalist theology seriously. There’s very little condescension in these pages, and Sandeen makes a tremendous effort to treat fundamentalism as a movement with significant theological depth. Relatedly, Sandeen insisted that fundamentalism made measurable contributions to the development of American theology. That is, fundamentalism wasn’t just a relic of some bygone age doomed to die a slow death, but a living theological tradition. Third, Sandeen corrected the misconception, probably started by H.L. Mencken, that fundamentalism thrived only in the rural South. Quite contrarily, in Sandeen’s story, fundamentalism emerges as a sophisticated intellectual movement located primarily in the major cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Forty years after I publish my book, I’ll be well pleased if some smartass PhD student still finds any value in what I’ve written…

Review by A.T. Coates

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