This apocalyptic scenario is anticipated by millions of Americans. These millions have made the Left Behind series--novels that depict the rapture and apocalypse--perennial bestsellers, with over 40 million copies now in print. In Rapture Culture, Amy Johnson Frykholm explores this remarkable phenomenon, seeking to understand why American evangelicals find the idea of the rapture so compelling.
What is the secret behind the remarkable popularity of the apocalyptic genre? One answer, she argues, is that the books provide a sense of identification and communal belonging that counters the "social atomization" that characterizes modern life. This also helps explain why they appeal to female readers, despite the deeply patriarchal worldview they promote. Tracing the evolution of the genre of rapture fiction, Frykholm notes that at one time such narratives expressed a sense of alienation from modern life and protest against the loss of tradition and the marginalization of conservative religious views.
Now, however, evangelicalism's renewed popular appeal has rendered such themes obsolete. Left Behind evinces a new embrace of technology and consumer goods as tools for God's work, while retaining a protest against modernity's transformation of traditional family life. Drawing on extensive interviews with readers of the novels, Rapture Culture sheds light on a mindset that is little understood and far more common than many of us suppose.
Excerpt The narrative of the rapture, drawn from the tradition of Christian fundamentalist apocalypticism, has achieved unprecedented popularity through a recent series of evangelical adventure novels called Left Behind. Read preview Overview. John Nelson Darby preached a form of prophecy called dispensationalism that was widespread in Britain and North America in the nineteenth century.
The apocalyptic story of rapture followed by a seven-year tribulation became a distinctive narrative with stock characters and a plot outline. Students of biblical prophecy saw the story as truth, but they also readily indulged its dramatic turns and vivid imagery. Meanwhile, they attempted through study of obscure biblical passages to trace the exact events of the period called the tribulation.
The story was told in sermons, tracts, testimonies, and occasionally in novels. Dispensational premillennialism, as scholars came to call this form of prophetic belief, made order from seeming chaos, put God in charge of human history, and designated a privileged place for believers. They discovered their roles through the interpretation of this apocalyptic narrative. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. He used it to assert the existence of an invisible church, known only to God, that stood apart from institutional structures.
Only with the rapture would the true church be known and the hypocrites left behind. In this way, Darby criticized the institutional structure of the church claiming special knowledge that church leaders and church hierarchies did not have. Confronted with criticism, Darby charged his opponents with the kind of worldly apostasy he saw in the church. Rather, Sandeen describes a gradual seeping of the story of rapture and tribulation into American life in the latter decades of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century.
This happened primarily through the work of laypeople and itinerant preachers rather than established clergy, denominations, or biblical scholars. Believers in the rapture saw themselves as marginal to both the church establishment and to American culture more broadly. As the twentieth century approached, dispensational premillennialism became a form of virulent antimodernism that expressed alienation from the institutional structures of modern life. At the same time, dispensationalism achieved astounding and increasing success as a popular movement.
Dispensationalists emphasized evangelism over institutionalization and cast their lot with popular belief rather than church leaders. Darbyite Cyrus I. The dispensationalists staked the power of their story with the people. They did not defer to institutions like Princeton or scholars like Machen but instead fostered the story of rapture and tribulation among popular belief.
While dispensationalists developed elaborate charts and systems based on biblical study to explain, justify, and detail their beliefs, they scorned the opinion of university biblical scholars, even fundamentalist scholars, and offered their story to laypeople who enthusiastically embraced it. Again, Bible schools, which offered alternatives to secular universities for Christian young people, played a crucial role in the developing history of the dispensationalist narrative.
Though dispensationalism sounds complex to the outsider, it has made a lot of sense to those who have grown up regarding the Bible as a primary text for human history. Most scholars of American religion agree that the rapture emerged in American Protestant culture at a moment when conservative Protestants felt a decline of cultural power.
Two related trajectories of modernity—urbanization and immigration—began to transform an American landscape that had belonged to the powerful Protestant majority for decades. Between and , Many of these were Roman Catholics and Jews. While nonProtestant religious communities were certainly intimidated and exploited by the Protestant majority, Protestants also felt threatened. Protestantism, which Max Weber argues helped to form the capitalist economy, now found itself at war with what it itself had created. Betty DeBerg suggests that rapid change in gender roles was probably the most intense and intimate factor to which the fundamentalist movement responded.
Women gained currency in the culture as consumers who had purchasing power and were often responsible for the buying habits of their families. Middle-class American family life was undergoing a profound transformation. In an atmosphere where conservative Protestants sensed a loss of cultural control, the doctrine of the rapture promised an escape. In a complex and confusing social arena, the rapture divided saved from unsaved.
While conservative Protestants objected to the social transformations taking place, they often embraced and advanced the technological changes. Preachers like Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday urged churches to build on business models and adapt to cultural and social changes. Conservative Protestants developed mass publishing and mass marketing to appeal to a broadly popular audience and quickly understood the power of these tools for religious life. Even though the Scopes Trial of the s deeply wounded the fundamentalist movement and branded them in the public eye as rural, backward, and unsophisticated, this characterization never did justice to the powerful understanding of popular media fundamentalist leaders had.
As inheritors of the revivalist movement of the nineteenth century, conservative Protestants had long used the latest technological developments and a keen sense of popular culture to promote and defend their beliefs. In this way, largely hidden from the view of institutional structures of power, fundamentalism developed into a thriving popular movement of which the story of rapture and tribulation was a central part.
The book criticized fundamentalism for its anti-intellectual and separatist stance. It encouraged another form of conservative Protestantism to emerge. Because dispensationalism was fundamentally a rhetoric of alienation, Henry sought to temper it. Their outlook on the world was counsel for temporal despair; all of their hope was pinned on an imminent divine rescue. Some would follow him in founding a new base for an intellectual evangelicalism; others would push for a socially active form of conservative Protestantism that would directly engage social problems beyond evangelization.
Still others vigorously pursued a broad appeal to popular culture. Instead the story of rapture and tribulation was rearticulated for new generations; the outline of the story was colored with new understandings drawn from contemporary political and social realities.
It took on new meanings for its adherents, but it maintained a tenacious grasp on Protestant Christian imagination. This book became the best-selling publication of the decade, though its sales occurred almost entirely in Christian bookstores and through Christian distribution systems—in part by missionary organizations on college campuses—and so stayed largely off the radar screen of mainstream publishing. Left Behind needs to be understood as a part of this long-established tradition—a tradition that has used mass publishing and mass culture to its advantage from a very early day.
On the other hand, Left Behind has become successfully con- 22 rapture culture nected to institutions of commercial and media culture. It has seeped into American popular culture and become a part of belief systems through conscious and unconscious means. Because apocalypticism and eschatology have been largely ignored by mainline and liberal Protestant clergy, this has left room for a wide spectrum of popular belief.
Believers in the rapture may identify with fundamentalism no more than their clergy, but they are likely to have encountered and even embraced dispensationalism without ever learning its origins or ever attaching these labels to their beliefs. While they share much in common with previous fundamentalists, they do not often identify with this term. Furthermore, they seem, for the most part, little concerned with what label is used to describe them. Unlike their fundamentalist predecessors, they do not need to identify themselves in a way that provides separation from broader American culture.
They see their faith as a distinctive testimony in a relatively hostile and needy world, but they are not interested in setting themselves apart in the ways that were crucial to fundamentalists some decades before. In recent decades, evangelicalism has become a broad term for conservative Protestantism. The use of evangelical, however, has served the inheritors of fundamentalism well. It has offered a term without the rapture in america 23 the pejorative connotations of fundamentalist, giving them a stronger and more visible place in the culture.
Readers come to Left Behind from various social and religious positions. How they respond to the texts, what they make of them, and how they integrate them into their own lives is no more contained by the terms evangelicalism or fundamentalism than the narrative itself. For a previous generation of fundamentalists, behavior was an extremely important marker for who was inside and who was outside the community of faith. A strict behavioral code that prohibited drinking, dancing, smoking, watching movies, playing cards, and swearing distinguished the fundamentalist way of life from the condemned outside world.
One reader, Sarah, a woman in her late twenties, expresses acute awareness of this shift in practice because she comes directly out of a fundamentalist tradition. I have always respected my parents—you know, as you get older and are able to look back, my parents always presented what they believed to me as the truth, and the complete truth, but they let me 24 rapture culture learn and create my own opinions on things differently.
My grandmother adamantly believes that drinking any amount of alcohol, you know it is not going to send you to hell or anything like that, but it is a sin.
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And my parents pretty much adamantly believe that and for a long time, I also felt that way. But as I got older and I started seeing other people and watching how the world was and developing more my own sense of spirituality, I was like, for me, drinking is wrong.
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It convicts me. To me, being drunk at any point in time is wrong. To me, drinking at all convicts me. I guess it goes back to that: does it interfere with your salvation at all? This is the big deal, Sarah. If I was in an interracial marriage and that interfered with my ability to—if that to me was wrong, or if that interfered with my ability to worship or to live a godly life, then that would be wrong. She certainly considers herself as devout as her grandparents and part of the same tradition of faith. But the distinction that her grandmother makes through practice Sarah is left to make in other ways.
While she sees this as largely a function of thinking through issues for herself and learning more about the world, we can also view the rapture in america 25 it as a part of a cultural pattern emerging for contemporary conservative Protestants. They are willing to defer to diversity of belief and practice in matters of behavior that do not appear to them as crucial. Something has changed in her universe, something that was not true for her parents and grandparents. Race has become for her an issue somewhat separate from religion. Race is still an issue for her, but interracial marriage is no longer a collective wrong.
It is something that can be wrong for an individual and prevent that person from seeking a deep relationship with God. She distinguishes the question of personal salvation, always crucial to fundamentalism, from social mores. Reading Left Behind appears to be something equally shared by men and women, crossing class boundaries and racial boundaries. When describing readers of Left Behind and attending to their unique stories and circumstances, labels become increasingly less helpful and give way to more complex and nuanced histories.
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Since the s, conservative Protestant membership numbers have grown while those in so-called mainline and liberal churches have fallen. For many scholars of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, separation and distinction from the world have been key to understanding how conservative religious groups develop a sense of identity and continue to thrive in a modern, pluralistic environment. Recently, sociologist Christian Smith has revised this thesis to explain the popular success of contemporary evangelicalism.
Smith argues that the importance of boundaries in evangelicalism explains why this particular kind of Christian faith thrives while others seem to founder. He distinguishes evangelicalism from fundamentalism on the one hand and mainline Protestantism on the other. Fundamentalism, he argues, is too closed. It does not thrive in a modern setting because its boundaries are too rigid. Mainline Protestantism and certainly liberal Protestantism falter because they are too open. It posits clear boundaries of belief and practice that allow its believers to construct their identities soundly on the distinction of religious faith.
Following from this sense of distinction is also a sense of threat. The world outside evangelicalism is perceived as not merely secular, but as actively hostile. This hostility, or perceived hostility, is also part of what allows evangelicalism to thrive. A statistic like this implies a stability that seems very unlikely to exist.
By focusing on the function of symbolic boundaries, he misses the porous nature of these boundaries and how evangelical belief, symbolism, and especially apocalypticism has seeped out into American culture and extended beyond those who claim the label. In other words, Smith creates a totalizing map of evangelical identity that cannot see the intricacies of everyday life and practice.
He creates an objectifying picture of evangelical life that ignores broader sociocultural and institutional settings in which evangelicals are situated. It takes on colors drawn from its surroundings, its boundaries always shifting and porous. In the interviewing situations, respondents had more freedom to express the complex commitments of their religious lives.
The man called into question his own label and perhaps the very act of labeling itself. People move in and out of the boundaries of evangelicalism, in and out of its apocalyptic beliefs. Millions of people have come into contact with evangelicalism and been shaped by it in some way. The meaning they make from these experiences and from this contact varies widely and shifts with the passage of time. Rather than maintaining strict boundaries, evan- the rapture in america 29 gelicals began to use these boundaries strategically and rhetorically.
They were miniaturized, multiplied and internalized. While the rhetoric of leaders often remained distinctly hostile to the general culture, the practice of believers became increasingly integrated. It moves in a dynamic relation with both religious faith and a seemingly secular broader culture. Negotiated Texts Like its readers, Left Behind must make its way through a complex terrain of culture, positioning itself both in opposition to that culture and in negotiation with it.
Its heroes and heroines are largely out of step with the modern world and unable to make their homes in it. In nearly all cases, those who convert to Christianity after the rapture are the victims of the Antichrist and his regime. They suffer passively as the cosmic scheme is played out. While Left Behind shares in this tradition, it also departs from it in many ways. The series opens with a scene of rapture. After the rapture, the story follows the lives of several characters who, like Rayford, have been left behind.
They convert to Christianity and band together to form a group called the Tribulation Force. Timothy LaHaye has long written on prophecy from a dispensationalist perspective and remains traditional in his approach. The story begins with rapture and follows the characters through seven years of tribulation. Like previous dispensationalists, LaHaye has carefully plotted a series of events—earthquakes, plagues, and wars—from biblical texts. Jenkins is less invested than LaHaye in the meanings of traditional dispensationalism and is more moderate in his approach.
In part because of its authorial relationship, Left Behind is a divided text. Left Behind is a negotiation with contemporary American culture, both amending traditional dispensationalism and continuing to assert a claim of a special place within unfolding world history. Because gender has played a central role in the development of fundamentalism, it has also been a central concern of rapture and tribulation narratives from their inception.
They are taken up just as they are about to be beaten by drunken husbands or abandoned by faithless ones. In the midst of these sufferings, the women have preserved their faith and are rewarded by rapture. In other cases, rapture provides the context for an unbelieving husband to come to Christ. This power has effect, however, only when she disappears, only when she is no longer on earth to receive or act on it.
Women embody the purity of the church and the perfection of piety. While men are corrupted by modernity, women remain, in the dispensational imagination, above it. This gives them a kind of privileged position, but it also means they have no real power to act in and on the world. Instead, they are never truly at home in this world. By remaining outside the public sphere, they preserve their purity but remain relatively powerless. In this way, she becomes intensely symbolic—far more powerful as a symbol of faith than she was as a living believer.
If anything, her commitment to her faith drives him away. But in her disappearance, she comes into full power, and through her example, Rayford is saved. With his fully loaded on autopilot above the Atlantic en route to a 6 a. The church-world dichotomy on which dispensationalism is built is invoked here as Rayford dismisses thoughts of his family. Domesticity, home, and family are markers for faith. These are the very things that Rayford ignores in order to pursue women, success, and power.
In establishing an apocalyptic narrative, dispensationalism draws clear lines between saved and unsaved, between the raptured and the left behind. In the symbolic and archetypal structures that have emerged from this tradition, this church-world dichotomy has often become a female-male dichotomy as well. Women are pious; men are worldly. Women are raptured and saved; 32 rapture culture men are condemned.
Rather he is transformed from a worldly man to a Christian leader. Or is he? Can Rayford Steele retain his worldly savvy, his swaggering masculinity, his rational and unemotional intelligence and become a Christian? He found himself identifying with Irene, remembering the hopeful expression on her face almost every night. On the other hand, this same movement has been concerned with giving men the tools to become more gentle and loving to their families, more expressive emotionally, and more open to religious faith.
This negotiation between faithfulness and worldliness constructs a somewhat unstable gender identity for Rayford—not a pure archetype. Similarly, while Irene remains archetypal through her disappearance, her daughter, Chloe, enters the same cauldron of gender negotiation that transforms her father. Introduced to the reader as a skeptical, Stanford-educated young woman with a feisty personality, Chloe gradually softens into something that looks more like the domestic ideal of Christian motherhood.
She marries and has a child. She speaks a rhetoric of submission to her husband that seems the rapture in america 33 inseparable from her newfound religious faith. She both departs from and conforms to the ideal presented by her mother. I thought that was one of the things you liked about me. Am I still a member of the Tribulation Force, or have I been demoted to mascot now? She refuses to become an object and even demands full participation in the work of the Tribulation Force.
She both submits and asserts herself, negotiating for a position that will allow her to be Christian mother and Christian warrior. This is a position that allows Chloe to be both a stay-at-home mom and a smart and savvy businesswoman. Even later in the series, Chloe leaves for an adventure in Greece while Buck stays at home with their son. While Linda Kintz argues that contemporary evangelicalism relies on the assertion of absolute gender identity, the extraordinary popularity of Left Behind seems to offer counterevidence.
This is not to say that the books are not full of gender stereotypes and scenes of female submission to male authority. They certainly are. This is also not to say that the books are not invested in maintaining a patriarchal order of male leadership, heterosexuality, and female docility. Many examples could be offered to demonstrate this.
At the same time, we can see evidence of a negotiation in the books and in the lives of readers. We have noted that the predecessors of contemporary evangelicalism—the revivalists of the nineteenth century, the religious entrepreneurs of the early twentieth century, and the fundamentalists of the mid—twentieth century—were skillful users of mass culture and its accompanying technological advancements. From the early days of mass publishing to the initiation of radio and television broadcasting, conservative Christians have played a prominent role in the development and use of these venues for mass consumption.
Even when the means have been very modern indeed, the message, through the narrative of rapture and tribulation, has often been antimodern. Mass culture also belongs to the Antichrist. Receiving the Mark of the Beast means eternal condemnation, and the Christians who refuse are persecuted and then martyred. The Christian heroes of these earlier texts are a small and embattled minority.
Christians are depicted as simple, often rural people who do not function well in the modern world. If not exactly backward, they are old-fashioned, clinging to home and family in the midst of overwhelming social and cultural change. While the Antichrist and his followers are elites, the Christians are ordinary people.
They have depicted their own brand of Christianity as out of step with the modern world, but all the more sincere and powerful because of this. Left Behind offers an almost direct reversal of this portrayal of Christianity. In fact, he uses his money and power to advance Christianity.
Soon after his conversion, Rayford arranges to take Hattie, Chloe, and Buck out for dinner at an exclusive hotel restaurant. Rayford plans to present his newfound faith to the other three, especially Hattie, and he wants the waiter to understand why they are lingering beyond dessert. And the water glasses were always full.
Technologically, the Tribulation Force is more advanced even than the Antichrist. They have the most sophisticated machines and the most knowledgeable technicians. The books are full of enamored descriptions of cell phones and computers, and the Tribulation Force is equipped with all the latest technological gadgetry. I want a computer with virtually no limitations. I want to be able to take it anywhere, keep it reasonably concealed, store everything I want on it, and most of all, be able to connect with anyone anywhere without the transmission being traced.
He is at home in this universe of computer technology. What does the story of rapture and tribulation mean if it is no longer an antiworldly and antimodern formula? What does the story signify to its readers if not alienation and isolation? Why does dispensationalism remain persistently popular as an apocalyptic narrative and how has its meaning been transformed? Interviews with readers of Left Behind do not give us easy or straightforward answers to these questions. People use texts to make meaning in a variety of often contradictory ways. But the interviews do offer us insight into a culture that is in the midst of a broad transformation.
While retaining some of their original intent and force, rapture and tribulation have become a part of a new set of meanings. While Left Behind portrays something that is not exactly the the rapture in america 37 old dispensationalism, it is not entirely new either. In the following chapters we will explore this power and its effect on the stories readers tell about themselves. She got much more than she had bargained for. Since then, she says, her life has been transformed, and she is now a regular in the Left Behind chat rooms.
From the news media, we gain this picture of readers of Left Behind: A customer strolls into a bookstore and sees a display for the latest release of Left Behind. Intrigued, she buys a copy and becomes a statistic, one of the 32 million consumers of Left Behind. The purchaser is an isolated number, a disconnected wanderer who stumbles onto Left Behind, buys, and reads it in the privacy of her free time. Indeed, this is a distinctly modern understanding of reading—an event that takes place in solitude.
This view 40 rapture culture of reading is compounded by consumer culture, which invites us to see the act of consumption as one of individual choice. Just as reading is something a person does in private, the decision to buy a book is one a person makes in isolation.
Reading Left Behind is better understood, however, as an act of social connection. Like the Book of Revelation itself, which was meant to be read orally to the congregation for which it was written, Left Behind is shared orally by thousands of listeners on hundreds of radio stations—it has become a popular radio drama. One reader is often responsible for buying several copies of Left Behind and distributing them to family and friends.
Similarly, one copy of Left Behind makes rounds through a circle of friends, through a church choir or a Sunday school class. Reading Left Behind is a social event, something encouraged by and readily shared with others. Nearly all readers in my study are part of religious communities. They experience various degrees of commitment, and not all religious communities are contained by a church building.
Readers do not pick up Left Behind in isolation. They engage with the novels as participation in a social network. Left Behind is read and interpreted in the context of these families with their shared worldviews, their tensions, and their disagreements. Nearly every member of the congregation has read or plans to read Left Behind, and the books are passed through the adult Sunday school class and the choir.
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They are discussed during the social hour after church and in the small group Bible studies that meet during the week. Members of the church have decided to start a Bible study on Revelation, prompted in part by the reading of the novels. Before the church service, the unadorned sanctuary is full of conversation that spills out from the church onto the lawn.
Before the sermon, the minister asks the congregation for Prayers of the People. There is a brief moment of silence and then hands go up. The minister calls out the names of members, and they offer prayers for sick and dying people of the town and the church, for wayward relatives, for people who are traveling. They offer up joys—new jobs, the decisions of children to go to college or into the military, the visit of relatives. The ritual of the Prayers of the People is repeated every week with new requests, new concerns, but a similar rhythm of offering and acknowledgement. During this ritual, that love seems tangible.
It takes material form in the ritual of speaking and being heard, of being able to speak the ordinary and yet profound events of everyday life and be acknowledged by people who can share those concerns by hearing them. In my return visits to this church, I look forward to the Prayers of the People, and take it to be a key moment in the formation and sustenance of the community that members describe in interviews. At this particular church, community is profoundly local. It is an insular community, open to visitors like me, but rooted in the connections—often decades and generations long—between individual members and between its locality and the people.
Congregants are united by race and class—the majority are white and working class—as well as by religious faith, but it is religious faith that gives the fullest expression of their connection to one another. Without that faith, they might be connected in the less deep and less powerful ways that they are connected to coworkers or other members of the town. Anglo, Afro, Latino, and Asian people approach the wide front of the building and stand outside on the steps talking animatedly.
Around the room are several screens and at the front is a stage where musicians are warming up their instruments and setting up a sound system. The room is crowded, nearly every seat taken, and I take note of the people sitting around me. Next to me on one side is a young white man, probably a college student, with thick glasses, neatly dressed in slacks and a tie. On the other side sits an elegantly dressed African American woman in her thirties and her young daughter. In front of me are two young men—one black and one white.
The white man wears a dashiki and long hair tied in a ponytail; the black man wears his hair in dreadlocks and beads around his neck and wrists. Next to them sits a very conservatively dressed middle-aged white man who engages these two young men in a warm conversation before the service begins. Singing spreads across the congregation and an elaborate band with guitars, drums, bass, French horn, trumpet, several singers, and bongos begins to play.
The words to the songs are projected onto screens and people clap and raise their hands in a charismatic style as they sing. Everyone sing, now, praise God. Ban Ba La La. Hold on to Jesus. There seems to be, at least in this moment, a genuine desire to embrace the whole world through singing. I am reminded how diverse evangelicalism is, how different forms of religious life spring up and take shape in contexts all over the world.
I went to the church reluctantly. Yet, as the service unfolds, I am unprepared for the energy, diversity, and ecstatic invocation of community that this church inspires. I am moved by what appears to be genuine interactions between the people who have gathered and by the spirit of inclusion that attends the singing.
Here difference—racial, linguistic, and ethnic difference—seems to be ecstatically on display. These experiences in the churches of readers hint to me that strong social bonds based on religious faith draw readers into evangelicalism and hold them there. Within these communities, members experience love, support, friendship, and inclusion.
At the same time, I wonder at the foundations of such communities. On the other hand, I am struck by the policing of gender roles and sexuality that seems similar in nearly all the churches I visit. I wonder if the sustainability of the community, its very viability, depends on the acceptance of male authority and rigid conceptions of sexuality. Male authority is everywhere in evidence, from the exclusively male clergy to the ushers who collect the offering to the rhetoric of readers in conversation with me. As much as weekly church services work to reinforce profound community relations, they simultaneously seem rituals of patriarchal display.
In her study of fundamentalist churches, Brenda Brasher makes a distinction between authority and power. Fundamentalist churches make a point of visually demonstrating male authority. On the other hand, she argues, power is more broadly shared than is evident on the surface. Or is it something else altogether? Evangelical churches extend their communities into many aspects of daily life. Sunday morning worship is only one ritual among many. Readers also participate in Sunday school classes, weeknight Bible Studies, church potlucks and socials, organizational meetings, and volleyball games or other recreational events.
For some readers of Left Behind, church-related activities extend to several evenings each week. Readers also participate in church communities through activities like personal Bible reading and prayer, where through private 44 rapture culture acts of devotion they reinforce their connections with the church. In describing their churches, readers invoke the domestic tradition of religiosity to which evangelicalism has held since the nineteenth century. It is a place where one can become refreshed and prepared for the continual foray into that society.
The church has perhaps retained this ideology of the home better than the houses in which believers live. Economic and social conditions conspire against this ideology in the everyday lives of believers. This dissonance creates tensions that are less visible in the church where presumably everyone is a believer and shares the same foundational premise of faith. Home is a place where burdens are shared and lifted, where love is tangibly felt and experienced, and where the community fosters connection. At the same time, churches function as ritual performances of home where the ideology of domesticity can be acted out and reinforced in a way that is no longer possible in the world outside the church.
Historian Joel Carpenter has noted that for fundamentalists of an earlier era, the church was a place where the boundaries of the community were simply more secure. In any typical congregation there would be those who were single or single parents. Where families are divided on matters of religious faith, where the world outside church walls makes demands that are not congruent with church ideology, the congregation remains a place where faith can be secured and refreshed.
The transience of contemporary life and the constant shifting of communities and populations often prevent readers from becoming invested in a church community long enough that it can feel like home to them, but most are searching for that kind of stability or can remember with nostalgia a church like that from another time in their lives.
The contrast between the desire for a church home and the vagaries of contemporary life that prevent such a home from becoming reality increases the power of Left Behind, which depicts Christians engaged in a community that most readers strongly desire. Readers of Left Behind feel tied together by common beliefs. Together they share beliefs about the nature of reality, about the rightness of traditional family life, and about the end of time, and these beliefs provide a context for all of the activities that constitute their interactions with one another.
In the process of sharing these beliefs and using them as a common foundation, they build community life and often develop long-term commitments to one another.
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Shared belief takes shape in shared rituals as well as in less formal means of interaction. And from these interactions extend a community that many call family. The church also provides a structure that gives congregants a strong sense of connection and relation. In the church, they are linked through faith to other believers. From this connection, along with all of the activities that it entails, believers develop strong emotional bonds that feel to them like family bonds.
These social connections develop at odds with a culture bent on individualism. This exchange is satisfying for many of the people I interviewed. Left Behind is often read in these extensive social networks of family, friends, church, and work. The books are passed along from parent to child, 46 rapture culture brother to sister, within a church Bible study group or in other similar social settings. One reader might buy several books at once or pick up one copy, lend it out, and never see it again.
They are also discussed at beauty parlors, on airplanes, and after church on Sunday. Within social networks that support and supplement the reading, readers claim that the books have a powerful effect on their lives. The books give spiritual insight, renewal, and courage. They enable and reinforce certain kinds of communal bonds. Most readers hope that they will be taken up in the rapture and spared the suffering of the tribulation, and that the rapture will be evidence of the rightness of their worldview.
With this, the separation of the believer from the nonbeliever, the saved from the unsaved, is clearer than it ever is in actual life. This shared religious faith provides the basis for the community, its reason for being.
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In other words, the church family needs to be understood as itself a dynamic construction of faith embedded in a rhetoric of stability. The Church Family and Its Discontents The reading of Left Behind and the functioning of the church community are often mutually supportive and constitutive of one another. This should not be misunderstood as saying that church leadership actively encourages the reading of Left Behind. In fact, most readers do not think that their clergy read Left Behind or that they have ever mentioned it in a church setting.
Reading and passing the books along are activities of the laypeople in the congregation, a way of building connections among themselves, sometimes wholly separate from the clergy. In chapter 5, I discuss religious reading practices that are taught both in the books and in churches. These reading practices encourage a particular understanding of reality and the relationship between the text of the Bible and everyday life that is amenable to the apocalypticism of Left Behind.
By providing a theological argument embedded in narrative, the books open up a space for disagreement. Disagreements arise as well among readers about the timing of apocalyptic events, the possibility of redemption after the rapture, and the accuracy of the portrayal according to the Bible. The texts provide the foundation and opportunity for readers to consider and discuss ideas and beliefs that otherwise may have remained latent.
This kind of interaction about the text with other readers serves a dual purpose. On the one hand, it strengthens community ties by providing a context for shared belief. On the other hand, 48 rapture culture it points out theological and social differences over which readers then must grapple. For some readers, Left Behind provides an alternative authority that readers use to challenge the authority of their clergy or of other people in positions of power in their church communities. She was raised in a conservative Baptist church in a small mountain town. Just very spoiled.
The bond she feels with him is clearly strong. So I am surprised when Sarah tells me that he disapproves of the reading of the Left Behind series. Sarah herself is an avid reader and has shared the books with her entire family and several friends. She has never spoken with him about her reading, but from the pulpit he has addressed the novels. Sarah is somewhat troubled by this disagreement, and as she tries to reason her way through it, she turns to her own reading of the Bible for help. Some people believe that after the rapture the only people that will be saved will be Jews.
The Bible talks about there will be saints slain at altars praying after the rapture. To me that says there will be, I mean being a saint of God indicates that you have accepted Jesus Christ, right? My pastor at home deeply disagrees with me. And the characters in the book, whether that was actually how salvation would take place, networks of readers, networks of meaning 49 I felt like the ones who were saved after the rapture did it with an earnest heart.
For example, within Protestantism, there is a long tradition of emphasis on individual reading of the Bible and individual salvation. Fishwick Virginia Tech Search for more papers by this author. Read the full text. Tools Request permission Export citation Add to favorites Track citation. Share Give access Share full text access. Share full text access.
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