Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Regime By Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins

(Book Review)

When I was home last for Winter break I was driving around Grand Rapids with Shoko and the radio was stuck on Christian music. (Wait, wait, stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this.)
When I was at Calvin, I used to really hate Christian music. I guess more because of the kind of people who listened to it than the music itself; the people who thought they were too holy to listen to regular rock music, or the people who believed that secular music was evil and they had to shield themselves from it. But I also parroted all the usual lines by Calvin liberals: that Christian rock music wasn’t so much music as propaganda, or at worst it was an attempt to cash in on the gospel.

But listening to it in the car several years later, I had a hard time remembering why I hated it so much. It wasn’t hurting anyone. Nobody was doing any harm by listening to it. It was cheesy sure. Some of it was cheesy as hell. But being cheesy isn’t a crime. A lot of secular pop is really cheesy these days. And some of the Christian music was even kind of catchy. I caught myself singing along to a DC Talk song that I remembered from junior high school.

All of this brings me to “The Left Behind” series, which was something else I passionately hated back at Calvin, but now I don’t really remember why. I remember it was fashionable for Calvin Liberals to criticize these books for one reason or another, most often for their faulty theology. (Such as this 2001 Chimes article by Nathan Bierma).

But if one takes these books not as doctrinal theology, but as escapist fiction, than what really is the harm? After all, the fascination with the book of Revelations and the end times has already inspired plenty of Hollywood horror films (and Japanese Anime). Why shouldn’t Christians share in the fun? What’s wrong with a fictional story about the end times based on Christian mythology?

At least that was what my attitude was going into this book. I got 100 pages into “Left Behind”, and then I realized that there were 3 prequel books, so I thought, “Well, why not start at the beginning.” I shelved “Left Behind” (I might finish it someday) and picked up “The Regime.” “The Regime” isn’t the very first book in the series, but I could find it at the local library, and it’s the second of 3 prequels, so I figured it was close enough. After reading the book, I have to say that I’m not overly impressed. As Dick Cheney might say, “Sigh, where to begin?”

First of all there’s the problem of prequels. They’re a tough genre to write well (which is one big reason why the new Star Wars movies sucked so much). A prequel’s end is already predetermined before the author even sets pen to paper. The characters aren’t free to develop naturally because they all have to end up at a predetermined spot. Thus instead of fully developed people who could almost walk off the printed page, you get puppets being manipulated as slaves to the plot. The characters can’t undergo any personal changes or developments. And, if the author really has his eye on good continuity, they can’t even experience any major events, because then it would seem strange that they never referred back to these events in the regular series.

This prequel isn’t quite as bad as George Lucas, but it is obviously laboring under the limitations of the genre. I’m going to give the rest of the series the benefit of the doubt, and assume that it gets better once you get into the main books.

“The Regime” has the duel purpose of tracking the rise of the Anti-Christ, and also setting up the characters who will be left behind once the Rapture occurs in the first series. The former plot line is kind of interesting. The latter is definitely not.

Basically all of this is set up for the first book, of which I think I’ve read just enough to understand where all these plot lines are heading. The main characters of the “Left Behind” series have to be left behind, otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story if everyone vanished in the rapture. But they also have to be sympathetic and open enough to Christianity to learn the error of their ways and convert over to God’s team after the rapture occurs. And so in “The Regime” they must be urged close to God, but object just at the point of being saved.

Half of the book revolves around the plot line of Irene trying to get her husband Rayford and daughter Chloe to come to church, and the latter two resisting. This is not a plot line which should occupy so much space, especially since (due to the nature of prequels) none of the characters are allowed to develop at all during this extended argument, and it is just a lot of the same ground being repeatedly retread.

Stylistically this isn’t a great work of literature. It’s not the worst book I’ve ever read either. I mean I could be a lot more snooty about it if I wanted to be, but it’s no worse than those cheap paperback “Star Trek” books I used to read as a kid. The problem is that LaHaye and Jenkins seem to be unable to resist plunging into religious cliches when they’re writing about letting Jesus into your heart, or the importance of going to church every Sunday. As someone who grew up in the church and Christian schools, I had a lot of flashbacks to my old Sunday school tracts. You know, the ones that read like: “Judy really wanted to tell John about Jesus, but she didn’t know how. She prayed that God would open up John’s heart to the good news, and she asked God for guidance about how to share her joy about Jesus.”

As a religious pluralist, I find myself in opposition to the main premise of these books: that there is going to soon be a division between the elect and the unsaved. I’m willing to accept that a story based on traditional Christian mythology is going to follow that line, but I could have done with a little less preaching about it. This book wasn’t so much a story as a sermon. (Again, I’m assuming the books do get better as you get out of the prequels.)

But while I’m on the subject, I don’t really understand what the obsession is with getting asses in the pews on Sunday morning, as if that were the be all and end all of Christianity. Read the Gospels and see how often Jesus says, “You must attend Church regularly to be saved.” Now compare that with Jesus’s calls for social justice and compassion for the poor. If you want to make distinctions between the elect and the unelect, go and reread the separation of the goats and the lambs, and see how much of a factor church attendance was in that decision.

Anyway, I’ll pull myself away this before I get into a long rant....Theological issues aside, politically this book was pretty non-offensive. I know these books are associated with the religious right, but in “The Regime” I couldn’t find a lot. I thought there was a slight Republican bias when a fictional United States president was compared to Lyndon Johnson because of his habit of using obscenities. Now when you think obscenities in the White House, do you think Lyndon Johnson, or do you think of a certain Republican who was famous for tape recording obscenity laden conversations? Also the Russians as the bad guys might indicate a bit of a cold war mentality hangover, but that’s the worst I could find.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Chuck Cunningham syndrome is a term of criticism applied when a regular character in a television series leaves with little or no explanation, and is never referred to again despite the character's previous importance either to the show or to the other characters. The term derives from the Chuck Cunningham character in the American series Happy Days (1974-1984).

Link of the Day
Laos: Secret War Still Killing Thousands Of People


b jeremy jackson said...

Babel Fish ( translated your quote at the top of your blog as:

"If that was virtue coming ジョエル, it is bad it was ジ ョ l. It is ジョエル of intelligence and also, it was ジ ョ l of grumble. If it was ジョエル of belief, it was unfaithful ジ ョ l. If it was ジョエル of light, it was ジ ョ l of darkness. If it was desired ジョエル, it was ジ ョ l of despair.
~'From two capital story' beginning parts~"

Was it close?

ジョエル said...

Not so far off actually. I should clarify thatジョエル is just the syllables of my name transliterated into the Japanese Alphabet. So think of it reading as : "If that was virture coming Joel, it is bad it was Joel. It is Joel of intelligence and also, it was Joel of grumble.

IT WAS the best of Joel, it was the worst of Joel, it was the Joel of wisdom, it was the Joel of foolishness, it was the Joel of belief, it was the Joel of incredulity, it was the Joel of Light, it was the Joel of Darkness, it was the Joel of hope, it was the Joel of despair.

Of course there are those who would argue that it's always the best of Joel, but I like to think that blogging captures us at both our best and our worst. Hence the quote.