I recently caused a stir at my church's book group by divulging a secret about me and "Left Behind." Once a month, a dozen of us meet and discuss a book with "spiritual import": We've read books by evangelical mystic A.W. Tozer, memoirist and children's writer Madeline L'Engle, and a biography of Teresa of Avila. We've read Jan Karon's "At Home in Mitford," and a new novel called "Grace at Bender Springs." We try to alternate fiction and nonfiction.Last month, our book was "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," an investigation of America's evangelical subculture, which meant the next month was slated for fiction. As our discussion of "Mine Eyes" wrapped up, we began to debate what to read for next month. This is usually a pretty easy conversation: We each take turns suggesting a book, and unless almost everyone else has already read it, that's the book we read.
This week, Dara suggested we read "Tribulation Force," the second novel in the "Left Behind" series. Surely a reasonable book to suggest since it is one of the most influential Christian books of our day. It's not great literature, but then, neither are the Mitford books.
But there was an uproar. "I really don't think that's the best book for us to read," said Camilla. "In fact, if that's the book we pick, I think I'll probably stay home next month."
Terri echoed the sentiment: "Yeah, agreeing to read that book would be signaling our approval of it, and I just can't approve of the "Left Behind" books."
"But we often read books we don't agree with," protested a perplexed Dara.
"We may read books we disagree with," replied Terri, "but we don't read things that are absolutely beyond the pale. We wouldn't read something heretical, or Wiccan, or a book by Jack Spong."
But the "Left Behind" novels are hardly Spong-like heresy, I thought. Tim LaHaye, one of the authors of the series, has been an evangelical leader for decades. Sure, some people have said that the novels' vision of the End Times is off-base--but Christians have been arguing for centuries about whether the millennium will proceed or follow Christ's return to Earth. So why were some of the women in my book group getting so bent out of shape about the "Left Behind" novels?
Not, it turned out, because they were sticklers about the End Times, but because they were sticklers about evangelism.
The "Left Behind" books, the members of my book group recognized, are not just preaching to the converted; they are also geared to non-Christian readers. "And they use," said Terri, "scare tactics. They try to get people to become Christians by frightening them. They say to non-Christian readers, you ought to become a Christian because otherwise you will have to face this scary and terrible doom when the End Times come. And that is not why I want people to become Christians," Terri went on. "I want to tell people about the love of God, not about the terrible things that will happen to them if they don't love God in return. After all, Jesus did not convert people by telling them that otherwise their lives would be terrible."I hadn't contributed to the discussion until this point. Then I asked, "But what if people are, in fact, brought to Christ by reading these books? Do the means really matter? Isn't it the end that is important?"