In this corner, weighing in at a combined 356 pounds of unstoppable eschatological wonder, the tenacious team of anti-intellectualism, the fundamentalist Christian duo you’ve all come to know as the apocalyptic daydreamers of the Left Behind series, Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.
And in the other corner, the sultan of theological criticism who has authored such books as The Di Vinci Fraud and The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, the demystifier of twisted religious mythology, the practitioner of metaphorical interpretation whose newest spiritual analysis The Paperback Apocalypse: How the Christian Church Was Left Behind has earned him scholarly acclaim, the one, the only, Robert M. Price.
As this theological battle between literal and figurative biblical interpretation ensues, you can be certain that Price won’t budge. His fancy introductory footwork definitely summarizes his rejection of popular “corporate eschatology” and the fundamentalist Christian’s appeals to End of Time myths. This heavy hitter isn’t just another ordinary street preacher who holds his Bible to the heavens, talking fire and brimstone to all those who ignore the warning of the coming apocalypse, selectively spitting the darkest scripture he can conveniently pull from anywhere in the good book.
Instead, in his newest theological analysis, Price systematically addresses (and dismantles) the most absurd claims made by fundamentalist Christian eschatologists, primarily using LaHaye and Jenkins’ Left Behind series as a vehicle for discussing (and refuting) some commonly held End of Time beliefs.
Leading with the successive jabs of The Paperback Apocalypse’s first six chapters, Price chiefly concerns himself with addressing the Christian fundamentalist mythology of the approaching apocalypse, laying the foundation for his literary and theological critique of the Left Behind books. An outline of the major influences that likely started the general apocalypse sentiment begins his book, the major of these influences being the “dream of a better day” that, as Price suggests, ultimately roots itself in the early political fracture between the lucrative ruling class and the poverty stricken lower class.
Next comes an uppercut, as Price examines some common eschatological characters and phenomena, i.e., the antichrist, the second coming of Messiah, the great tribulation, and the rapture. According to Price, these over-inflated symbols have been largely dramatized by hellfire apologist preachers and modern novelists alike. In a word, what LaHaye and Jenkins set out to accomplish is no better than a scare tactic and shouldn’t be taken seriously. The fear of God is a powerful weapon, after all, and the Left Behind series simply feeds the popular apocalyptic ideology of irrational believers.
But being the unwavering powerhouse of theological intellectualism that he is, Price doesn’t flinch. His God exists in a more allegorical way. As he punches at the popular early and late Christian apocalypse novels within his later chapters, critiquing such stories as Stephen King’s The Stand and David Sletzer’s The Omen among others, Price examines the age old problems of the mysterious biblical timeline and the constant reinterpretation of the Revelation prophecy, a book which, as he repeatedly points out, makes no reference to the rapture at all.
But as Price endeavors to convince readers of the second coming and rapture hoaxes, his points often seem moot, obvious, and rehashed, bogged down with extensive biblical quotations that suggest he’s “trying too hard”. Of course, the biblical timeline is mysterious. Of course, prophecies such as the one outlined in the book of Revelation can only be apprehended in retrospect, which is convenient for the Christian apologists who are constantly pushing back the apocalypse deadline. All that’s true, but so what? Now tell us something we didn’t already know.
Unfortunately, as a born-again Christian who adamantly disagrees with the fundamentalists and their predictions of the always-approaching apocalypse, Price’s literary analysis of popular eschatological fiction is often overridden by his religious fervor, and his tone resembles a sermon as a result, one that preaches of the figurative moral complexity of biblical symbolism.
Furthermore, on the much more interesting human point, Price never speculates on the psychological manifestations of these Christian fundamentalist beliefs. Ask yourself, why are these beliefs held at all? Rather he only hints briefly at two “major” psychological justifications for the radical, more literal eschatologist: (1) the trauma of original sin, i.e., the hope of a second chance at salvation and (2) the resentment of intellectualism, i.e., that figurative analysis of the Bible is just plain ludicrous and to analyze the word of God is even more ridiculous. As Price himself states, “Indeed, what else are the Left Behind books but an exercise in theological daydreaming? ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the real world were actually like the one we pretend we live in while we are in church? ‘“
That said, his interpretation is obviously subjective and he can no more assert the absolute truth of his claims than the fundamentalist Christian can. Price’s stern literary and theological struggle against the Left Behind series within the final chapters of The Paperback Apocalypse cannot be denied. Wisely, he focuses on Jenkins when it comes to the elements of good literature and LeHaye when it comes to the theological issues.
While Jenkins gets off with no more than a slap on the wrist, mostly for going along with his counterpart, LeHaye is pummeled. His numerous suggestions that “good” Christians shouldn’t (and don’t) think critically about the Bible are met with Price’s hard intellectualism fists. Truth be told LeHaye’s absurd claims are not only insulting to religious thinkers and persons of other faiths, but also, as Price has already pointed out in previous chapters, likely untrue.
Price’s tone, which he constantly tries to balance with the occasional humorous turn toward pop culture, comes off as preachy and cumbersome at times. His literary criticism of the major antichrist genre books and the Left Behind series may be insightful, but his theological criticism remains lifeless in the contemporary religious fields. In a word, his struggle against radical eschatology is genuine and his parody chapter of Left Behind is masterful, but his religious fervor saturates the text and, as a result, may overwhelm secular and spiritual readers alike.
Perhaps these are the seeds of a more thorough psychological investigation to come, but as Price’s new book stands, The Paperback Apocalypse only superficially describes the virtues and numerous vices that are ingrained in other apocalypse novels, never penetrating into the fearful heart of the fundamentalist Christian’s motives.
Not necessarily the right book for a fan of apocalyptic literature, nor the best for those searching for meaning to the Bible, but rather The Paperback Apocalypse is a valuable research resource for religious apocalyptic novels and an adequate primer for the critical theologian who is mildly curious about New Testament eschatological literature of the past 50 years.