Left Behind with the Catholics.
Tim LaHaye and the Bishops_Barnabas-Left Behind with the Catholics.
"These books are fiction. They entertain and intrigue people on a high moral level... Instead of being critical of what we're doing, [the bishops] should face the fact that, for once, there's a best-selling series of books that doesn't shock their sense of moral values, doesn't use profanity and doesn't denigrate Jesus Christ."
—Tim LaHaye, responding to the criticism by Roman Catholic bishops of of his Left Behind novels. (Chicago Sun-Times, June 6, 2003)
When a series of novels that sells 57 million copies evokes criticism from Catholic bishops, that news has ethical implications. When the novels are based on a view of the end of the world that did not become widely known in Christian theology until the late nineteenth century, that is absurd. So I’m not giving up my union card in this column.
Even so, my brief column is about LaHaye’s innocently disingenuous response to the criticism. (If innocence can in fact be disingenuous, and in LaHaye’s case I think it can—an opinion I do not have room to defend here, and is beside the point anyway.) His defense of his work is irenic and positive. He seeks common ground with the bishops. The problem is that he dodges the point that is at the heart of their criticism.
“These books are fiction,” he says, implying that you don’t have to take them seriously if you don’t want to. But then they are written as both futurist and realistic fiction, with the built-in assumption that any serious Bible reader will see in it what LaHaye’s protagonists see — which, throughout history, has never been true. Thousands upon thousands of serious Bible students through the centuries, both before and since the 1800’s, have discerned the biblical message concerning the end of the world very differently; and their view, “catholic” with a small “c” is the view being defended by the Roman bishops. This doesn’t automatically mean that they are right and LaHaye is wrong; it does mean that in LaHaye’s fictional world their point of view doesn’t have a chance because events he has invented for the purpose of his story “prove” his position and put it out of reach of discussion and debate.
For a critic to say, in response to a rattling good story (and the one I read was a page turner: Tom Clancy, meet Billy Graham), “But that’s not what the Bible says, that’s not what the Bible says,” is to be a whiny spoil sport. LaHaye seems to be counting on that. What he’s doing is called, in logic, “begging the question” – basing his argument on its conclusion rather than its premises: “It’s true because it’s true.”
The realism trap is avoidable by writing fantasy or allegory, as with John Bunyan, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, who retain their prominent position in the Christian literary scene. It’s the conversion of biblical imagery into futuristic, fictional realism, as in Left Behind
, that evokes justifiable criticism. It’s this that LaHaye either doesn’t see or refuses to acknowledge.