Actor Nicolas Cage and Christian filmmakers want to help snatch believers away into an escapist world of eschatological novelty, easy villainy, and evangelical vindication. Or if you prefer, the Lalonde Brothers want to re-translate the troubling signs of our times into a remake of the first Left Behind movie, which was based on the best-selling novel that preached the Gospel while asking “what if?” about literal end times prophecy from the Bible.
Left Behind debuts October 3, 2014. And I’m conflicted about the film and the novels I’ve loved.
Yes, I was a Left Behind fan, in the same way kids from the 1990s can say “I was a Ninja Turtles fan.” It was the fall of 1997 when I first saw the novel Left Behind, by prophecy wonk Tim LaHaye and novelist Jerry B. Jenkins, at the gift shop of the Great Passion Play Theme Park in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I’d already heard radio minister David Jeremiah exploring the thrilling world of pre-tribulation end times views. Now there was a novel?
By Christmas I’d read books 2 and 3, which featured a cameo by a world war, a return to daily globetrotting and evangelism, and then a global earthquake. By 1998, the series was gaining a harvest of fans. I joined my first internet forum at LeftBehind.com. (Remember forums?) A dramatic audio version was released. The authors promised to write 12 books.
Then came the film announcement. These days we hear of at least six new “send a message to Hollywood that we want films with Values” evangelical movies per year. Back then an actual “Christian movie” in theaters was a bigger deal. Imagine it! I could go to a movie like the big kids and enjoy adult-level storytelling, visuals of the absolutely Biblical Rapture, and in sequels, world wars and earthquakes and everything!
Alas, early expectations about a blockbuster-budget Left Behind film were slowly replaced by a more economical version made by Cloud Ten Pictures, e.g., the chaps who assembled direct-to-VHS end times movies advertised on Christian television.
Well, Left Behind was bigger. Its budget was $4 million and that sounded expensive, right?
Then in the summer of 2000, I saw Rexella Van Impe on TV gleefully cooing about a Left Behind: The Movie trailer (this one, I believe). The trailer was… well, it almost resembled the books, except with no visual effects. But then Rexella explained that you could get the videotape for a suggested donation. Wait, it was already on video? What about the theatrical release? Yes, the makers planned to release Left Behind: The Movie first on VHS, then to theaters. But why would anyone attend the theatrical debut if they already owned the film on video? What “last days” madness was this? What were they thinking?
Months passed before I bought a copy of the movie and saw for myself what they’d done.
Whereas the novels at least aimed for a global thriller scale, the film’s aesthetic resembled a single Touched by an Angel episode. You never saw people vanish in a “Rapture,” not even in flashbacks. Kirk Cameron looked too young for his part. They added a conspiracy about food supplies, something the book never tried during its justifications for the Antichrist taking over Earth. Also, the film managed to be over-the-top evangelical, with altar-call moments and everything, but also name-dropped Jesus Christ maybe once and ignored the Gospel, despite their import to the story.
Oh well. I still had the novel series, which faltered for book 9 (in which the Antichrist parades into the temple and kills a pig), then improved before Jesus returned in 2004 for book 12. Prequels followed, with limited success. But my Left Behind fandom was nearing an end. Besides, The Lord of the Rings films were greater, and The Chronicles of Narnia were next.
Today I no longer hold to such evangelical pre-tribulation views of the end times. In fact, I have rejected the novel view of “the Rapture” — the vanish-out-of-your-clothes kind — because it splits Christ’s single Second Coming two ways and chops the oft-ignored bodily resurrection of the saints into even smaller fragments. I’m still searching for a new end times view. Whichever one I adopt will include both the fact that the present age is getting worse (which Rapture teaching affirms) and the Biblical truth that God will purify/resurrect — and not obliterate — the world and its cultures (which Rapture teaching implicitly denies).
But if pressed, I must admit I’m still a Left Behind fan. In fact, from my desk I can look over to my complete collection of Left Behind novels, along with the LaHaye prophecy books that I bought for Bible study and novel series spoilers.
I’ve kept them all as life mementoes.
God used these books for my good. They challenged my reading tastes, deepened my desire to study Scripture, and stirred my love for fantastical fiction — and they were great fun.
Absolutely, too many Christians use Rapture teaching to promote escapist lifestyles and other bad theology. But in one sense, that’s not my problem, nor does it discount my old fandom. Many secular pop culture franchises are also a lot lamer than we remember them, such as 1980s cartoons and Ninja Turtles movies, but fans fondly recall them anyway. We don’t feel guilty about our fandom. We own it. Oftentimes, we even ask for rebooted versions.
I just wish more evangelicals realized Left Behind is still just end times fantasy and could have fun with it anyway, rather than taking it all so seriously.
But if you’re going to remake a nostalgic franchise, please do it right. Honor the cheese but don’t simply repackage moldy cheese. For Left Behind, a bigger budget and broader market for evangelical movies means that Cage could drive the film to success. Or the car could be unmanned. Either way, the movie had better show people actually being Raptured, or else I doubt I can return to my old familiar fandom to play, not even for one last time.