2017-07-12
Jesus has been depicted as a lamb and a shepherd, a rock star and a lowly carpenter. In "Glorious Appearing," the climactic twelfth installment in the Left Behind series released this week, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins give us Christ the Destroyer.

Here's the Christ Triumphant speaking as he encounters the army of the Anti-Christ near the ancient city of Petra in Jordan: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and Last, the Beginning and the End, the Almighty." Upon hearing these words, the Anti-Christ's minions fall dead, "simply dropping where they stood, their bodies ripped open, blood pooling in great masses." Later, as the Lord rides his white horse to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the saved sing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

This vision of Christ, who eviscerates his human foes and drops them to the desert floor, is fast becoming the Savior for our times. He is Jesus the Warrior, who has gone in and out of fashion for most of the 20th century. "We're looking for a much more martial messiah," says Stephen Prothero, chairman of Boston University's religion department and author of the recently published "American Jesus." "In part, it's a response to 9/11 and the war in Iraq," he says, pointing out that the militant Jesus was popular during and after both world wars. "In the '60s and '70s, this Jesus nearly disappears," says Prothero. "You get the sense now that we are swinging back."

To find further evidence of this shift, you need go no further than the movie theater to take in this year's other multi-million dollar Christian phenomenon, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Beaten with rods until his torturers are winded from their exertions, Gibson's Jesus rises to his feet with a virile grunt-if you didn't know the movie was in Aramaic, you could swear he mutters "Bring it on." Three days later, we find Jesus sitting, disrobed and staring into middle space, like an athlete in the locker room. Then, still wearing his game face (and, curiously, nothing else), he strides out into Easter morning to the beat of a warlike drum. The tomb is open; so is a major can of whoop-ass.

Jenkins and LaHaye have been spinning the Book of Revelation, the inspiration for their novels, as a tale of payback since the series began in 1990. In the debut, "Left Behind," true Christians were suddenly assumed into heaven while unbelievers either died promptly--say, if their pilot loved Jesus--or were left to deal with the ensuing chaos. For faithful readers of the series, the surprise may not be the bloody outburst, but how brief and measured it is, and how kindly the Jesus of "Glorious Appearing" then turns out to be. As Jenkins's heroes and the other redeemed stream from every corner of the earth, Jesus appears as an enormous, benign presence who can look everyone in the eye at once while whispering individual blessings. Jenkins's model could have been the stern but loving lion Aslan from C.S. Lewis's Narnia series of the 1950s and '60s. (In an interview here, Jenkins says he based it on his early impressions of Christ from Sunday school.)

Prothero believes that it is precisely this Christ, the loving friend, that we are leaving behind. "What's going on now is a kind of withdrawal from the feminine, Victorian Jesus that has been popular with evangelicals" in the past few decades, he says.

Jesus' split personality--swinging from belligerent to gentle within "Glorious Appearing's" 400 pages--is a sign, perhaps, that evangelicals like Jenkins and LaHaye are still in transition between the Jesus the friend and Jesus the general. But it also reflects the ambivalence that is built into Christian theology. A messiah who dies on the cross "doesn't quite compute," says Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, director of graduate theological studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada. "There is both fulfillment and surprise running hand in hand, and much of the New Testament shows Christians scrambling to explain how different this is from what they expected."

Two thousand years later, the scramble continues, and while catastrophic events like 9/11 usually spur us to reinvent our image of Jesus, 9/11 may not be the only factor. Defenders of Gibson's movie have praised its celebration of manly virtues like sacrifice and forbearance amid a flabby, materialist culture that sees religion as an extension of the self-help craze. Writing in the Boston Phoenix, gay activist Michael Bronski cast Jesus' scourging in "The Passion" as a vicious rebuke of our obsession with "beauty, sex, and body image." His stoic response, meanwhile, proclaims how irrelevant these concerns are irrelevant to our spiritual lives.

Ours is not the first generation of Americans to demand a more macho redeemer. This Christ first emerged at the turn of the 20th Century, when Theodore Roosevelt--himself an booster of the manly Jesus--was storming up San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders, and painter and sculptor Frederick Remington was fashioning the ideal of American men as cowboys and military heroes. Even before the United States had joined the First World War, evangelist Billy Sunday was calling Jesus the "biggest scrapper that ever lived."

After the war, Jesus, who had been softened by the liberal Protestant Social Gospel movement, became more masculine again--quite consciously made over, for instance, by Cecil B. DeMille in his 1927 blockbuster "King of Kings." In the 1940s, as the world was again wracked with conflict, Walter Sallman painted a "virile, manly Christ" that inspired American soldiers abroad, eventually becoming the most widely known image of Christ in history. Sallman's Jesus stands as clear testimony to how unstable our image of Jesus can be. With his softly curling hair and doleful eyes, it's hard to imagine him standing up to Nazis, much less Al Qaeda. (Then again, it could be that generations that follow will miss the strength of Gibson's pulverized, post-9/11 victim.)

The idea of a warrior Jesus, of course, is not completely the product of warlike culture. The Bible contains abundant references to Jesus as king and judge--the role that usually came with martial might--and finds parallels to him in Old Testament victors. St. Paul tells the Thessalonians to put on the armor of God. Like every detail of their novels, Left Behind's killer Christ is firmly grounded in Scripture. "The Bible says He will slay our enemy with a weapon that comes from His mouth," explains one character. "Revelation 1:16 calls it 'a sharp, two-edged sword.'" Linking that verse with Hebrews 4:12--the Word of God is "sharper than any two-edged sword," the authors decide that Jesus will vanquish by speaking.

Many mainstream scholars would argue with this reading, as they do with much of Left Behind's rather arcane theology. Both passages could, with less strain, simply teach that Christ transforms people by the Word instead of slicing then up with swords, as the Romans and other mere humans did. "It is dangerous to read Revelation and then work backward into the rest of the New Testament," says Neufeld.

Neufeld, who has written extensively about God as warrior, cautions that the theme shouldn't be taken too literally. "The irony of Christ the warrior is that his warring is indistinguishable from his suffering," says Neufeld. In the letter to the Ephesians, says Neufeld, "Jesus kills not enemies but hostility itself. He has killed enmity through his own death. You don't drop the warrior language, but it gets inverted." When Paul instructs Christians to take up the armor of God in 2 Thessalonians 5, Neufeld says, "Truth, peace and prayer turn out to be the weapons." If there is blood on the armor of Christ, goes one Christian trope, it is his own.

Given the complexity of all these correspondences, it's entertaining to ponder how archeologists will understand a book like "Glorious Appearing" when they stumble upon dust-caked, molding copies a thousand years from now--if Jesus hasn't come by then. Will they take it for the supermarket fiction it is? As a myth explaining some global catastrophe? Or, perhaps they'll see it as Christians do the exotic and challenging book that inspired it: a coded version of the future or the past. We wish them luck.


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