I’ve been reading two different book series and I’m mad. I’ve been silent about my anger for a couple of weeks now because trying to verbalize it has left me quite literally tongue-tied. Now, however, I think I can logically air my feelings. My frustration is this: why does there seem to be so much fluff in popular Christian fiction?
I just finished reading the original 12 of the 16 books in the Left Behind series by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. These were supposed to be books with hard-hitting subject matters dealing with End Times prophesies, political conspiracies, and Christian faith. What they proved to be for me; however, were stories with a few scary moments, and a lot syrupy don’t-worry-be-happy-style preaching. Perhaps I’m in the wrong mindset for this message as I have been dealing with grief over the loss of my grandfather and the continued convalescence of my best friend (see my “Remembering Rebekah” post for details) for the past two years, but honestly I can’t recall any part of my life as a Christian ever being as care-free and fluffy as Left Behind makes it seem.
The entire series centers around the world-ending prophesies described primarily in the Biblical books of Daniel and Revelation. And yet, despite all the famines, plagues, earthquakes, wars, and death described, the main characters know with absolute certainty that everything will be all right because God is in control. Okay, newsflash, guys: yes, God is all-powerful, but he has a propensity of gumming up the works of his well-oiled machine by lovingly giving all of his sentient creations free will. This means that, among other things, God is only in control of my life and the lives of everyone else on this planet as much as we let him be.
My own friendship with Jesus has been pretty close since my teenage years. That being said, our relationship has never been fluffy. I have routinely asked for and listened to his guidance over the years, but I don’t shout “Praise God! Hallelujah!” every five minutes. Most mornings I stretch out on my bed with my Bible in hand and simply ask him what he wants to tell me. I’ve cried on his shoulder and I’ve yelled at him in anger. I’ve laughed with him and I’ve been in awe before him. Throughout it all, I’ve learned that to be truly in a good relationship with God means that I need to know when to shut up about my own needs and listen to his. That humbling of self has led to some incredible experiences. However, it also meant more than a few growing pains.
I’ll be the first one to say that growing wiser is good, but I also want to mention that it is painful. It is painful to take my own pride and hand it to God only to watch him flush it down into the proverbial spiritual toilet and say, “You really don’t need that anymore; I have something better for you.” It is scary to witness the sickness of a loved-one and know that I can’t do anything to fix it other than cry out to Jesus. It is bizarre to yield my spirit in worship to the Lord only to have him overpower my senses with a love and a peace that I can’t understand or explain.
Every time I give up a piece of my life; God has given me something far better in return. He always has and I know that he always will. But receiving the gifts of God has never been the part of our relationship that my human brain dislikes. Instead I in all my “wisdom” have a problem with giving up things. I am fiercely independent and I’m ludicrously stubborn. If I want to do something, then I’m going to do it no matter the consequences. My nature has always been geared toward trying to do things myself because I feel the best about myself when I’m self-sufficient. As a five-feet-two-inch-tall woman, this poses a problem. I am not strong enough to build a bookcase by myself nor am I confident enough with a hammer and post-hole digger to build a fence, so I’ve always had to have help doing manual labor. But mental labor is another matter. I am, after all, incredibly smart. Consequently, in this one area of intellectual knowhow, I wrestle more with God than with any other thing.
“No, leave me alone, Jesus. I’m smart enough to figure this out on my own,” I shout at the ceiling, all the while knowing the ugly truth that I’m not nearly as wise as God. I could have live a thousand, a million, or even a trillion lifetimes and I still wouldn’t be not smart enough to answer all of the questions in our universe. The realization of that simple humbling fact is why I became a Christian in the first place.
I’d love to say that I’m an anomaly in this, but I’m not. In fact every single person I’ve ever met (both Christian and non) struggle with the same problem of giving up all of our petty stuff up to God so that he can bless us with something better. It sounds counterintuitive that letting go of vices would be so hard, but it’s the truth nonetheless. My pride trumps my logic more times than not.
I guess my question is: where is this struggle in Christian fiction? I felt sure that the large cast of characters in the Left Behind series would afford me at least one story arc in which a Christian truly struggles with giving God control over a stronghold in his or her life. A struggle with doubt or fear or addiction or grief or something. But everyone I met in the books seemed to whip right past the “stronghold stage” and on to happier things as soon as they met Jesus Christ. Even their grief of losing loved ones throughout the series was often tempered by an admonition like, “Don’t worry, we’ll see them in six years.” I’m sorry, but that’s not the reality of grief. The reality of grief for a Christian is that it doesn’t matter if we’ll reunite with the loved-one in five hours or fifty years, we still miss them terribly right now and that isn’t something that we can fix in the present.
In almost 27 years of knowing Jesus, I can honestly say that there have been some problems that God has immediately taken out from my life and others that he has had to pry out of my grasp millimeter by millimeter with something akin to a heavenly crowbar. The difference in the two routines is always me. In my short life thus far, I have watched God repair lives broken by porn addiction, same sex attraction, eating disorders, alcohol addiction, self-loathing, sexual abuse, self-injury, hatred toward others, and much more. Each of these situations and people were different, but in all cases, relief from the problem only came once the person recognized it as something detrimental to self and to others and was truly willing to give the trouble over to God. Only then was that weight lifted off over his or her shoulders. Suddenly these people were completely free of their particular vice through Jesus Christ’s saving grace. It was and still is a miracle. However, once that sin is gone, there are still others still chaining us down. This is one of the many reasons why being a Christian is described in terms of relationship. It takes time and effort for people to form friendships with one another and this includes a relationship with God. God’s love through Jesus Christ is completely transforming and ultimately freeing if we let it be.
Of all the characters, Rayford probably came the closest to showing this real-life character arc. His dealings with grief and vengeful anger pushed him to the brink of sanity, but the pivotal moment of his falling to the floor and surrendering his soul-crushing sin to Christ never really materialized. Instead there was a moment of what-have-I-done clarity after Rayford touches the cookie jar one too many times followed by a confession about as deep as a five-year-old crying “I’m sorry, Papa. I will never do it again!” while still eyeing the cookie jar. Yeah, that’s inspiring.
If the flat good characters weren’t bad enough, the authors’ weak portrayal of the books’ major villain definitely did me in. The villain (who is literally Satan incarnate) acts more like a smooth-talking used car salesman rather than a Hitler-on-steroids. To make matters worse, his number-two man is shown to be a complete buffoon and kiss-up. How am I supposed to take either character or their antics seriously? Everyone throughout the books talkings about the two men being great deceivers and yet not one of the good guys or girls ever even waver when calling either of the villains evil. Isn’t one of evil’s major strengths its scary ability to disguise itself as good?
I wish I could say that the Left Behind series was alone in its happy-go-lucky portrayal of a life lived in the shadow of the cross, but it’s not. Many other fiction series within the genre are just as pie-in-the-sky bad. On recommendation from a church friend, I tried reading Ted Dekker’s The Circle series. I haven’t even made it past the first half of the first book yet and already I feel like I’m being bathed in baby-powder-scented perfume during every other chapter. Ugh. I can only hope my own fiction isn’t this fluffy. In the meantime, I think I’ll go read a Joel Rosenberg book and a few of the Apostle Paul’s letters from prison. Those are far more interesting and inspiring reading.
Until our next meeting, may we each rewrite our world for the better!
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