The following guest post is by Mark Edwards, assistant professor of US history and politics at Spring Arbor University in Michigan, author of The Right of the Protestant Left: God’s Totalitarianism, and co-chair of the recent 2014 S-USIH Conference.
I was born and bred in rapture culture. Chick tracts were my Marvel comics (btw, be sure to download the Chick tracts app to your phone so you can see what happens to Charlie’s ants when they die!). For some Christian young people today, growing up as a potential Leftover is tough. When discussing fundamentalist readings of the end of days last semester, one student betrayed his deepest childhood fear: Whenever he was left behind in a room by his parents, he cried, worried that they had been taken up. For me, on the other hand, the rapture was my ticket out of a financially unstable working-class family as well as out of having to deal with the uncertain world beyond grade school. I was counting on those 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will be in 1988 (Edgar Whisenant’s book sold over 4.5 million copies) since that was the beginning of my senior year. Alas, the rapture didn’t occur. At least I don’t think it did: Has anyone seen Phil Collins lately? Maybe in the air tonight?
The hyper-systematic theology of dispensational premillennialism that undergirds rapture culture has become of increasing interest to scholars—the term “rapture culture” itself comes from a wonderful book of the same name by Amy Johnson Frykholm. Matthew Avery Sutton’s just-released American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Harvard 2014) is sure to become a definitive work in this field. Similar to other recent studies by Daniel Williams, Darren Dochuk, and Bethany Moreton, American Apocalypse tells of the long origins of contemporary evangelical conservativism (Sutton starts in the Gilded Age). Unlike Dochuk and Moreton, however—who share the new political history’s attention to “corporate populism” (Moreton’s term)—Sutton focuses on the power of ideas to determine political action, and vice versa. That theme was evident in Sutton’s 2012 essay “Was FDR the Anti-Christ?” which won the JAH’s best article award and is now a chapter in American Apocalypse. There is much to commend Sutton’s book to intellectual historians, as has already been revealed in several early reviews and, I prophecy, will be made plain in several future venues including this blog. For now, I need to get to the point of this post.
To what extent can rapture culture’s greatest accomplishment, the Left Behind franchise of books, t-shirts, role-playing board and video games, and most importantly the movies, be considered Biblical epics? Or, perhaps better, why AREN’T the films considered to be so? Because they are not as “Biblical” as the Exodus or Ten Commandments? Because the very category of Biblical epic assumes premodern source material heavy laden with sensuous hulks—no planes, trains, or automobiles allowed; and certainly not Kirk Cameron or the Ghost Rider? These questions get at the boundaries of what is accepted as “tri-faith” ecumenical religious entertainment versus sectarian fantasy that we pretend lacks cultural capital but doesn’t at all.
As Sutton’s book reminds us, white Christian Americans have been enraptured by Left Behind ideology to an extent that they never were by the Exodus story. And as Ed Blum has recently and brilliantly observed, white America’s refusal to go down with Moses to liberate its many captives at home and abroad is a most epic fail.