17 January 2005

Can an excess of Christian entertainment trigger a fundamentalist crisis of faith?

Tim LaHaye, The Secret of Ararat (Bantam Books, 2004)

Reviewed by Jana Prikryl

It was the religion that made them do it — that was the immediate liberal response to last November’s election. The country’s secular minority suddenly went into crisis mode, certain that it shared no common language with the vast majority of church-going Americans. Granted, that first impression was corrected within a few weeks of the election. Both conservatives and liberals eventually agreed that 22% of Americans (who claimed in exit polls that “moral values” were the election’s top issue) do not a moral majority make. But that has been scant comfort for many secular liberals, who long believed that large swathes of the country were inhabited by strange, religious creatures. Whatever the polling results, they are sure there is no common ground between themselves and church-going Americans.

Yet American culture has never been so simple or monolithic (this is the one case where a schizophrenic state of affairs may actually be healthy). In a weird way, the most hopeful sign that secular and religious Americans do share a common language is the bizarre and phenomenally successful series of Left Behind novels, which have sold more than 60 million copies since they first appeared in 1995. For nonbelievers, these books are a strange blend of Biblical prophecy and Indiana Jones knock-off. For many (but certainly not all) Christian conservatives, they are simply the truth disguised as entertainment. But it is significant that believers should tolerate truth in such a disguise.

Consider the English forebears of today’s American evangelicals, the members of 19th century Protestant sects who extolled the Bible and nothing but the Bible. One such family is intimately described inFather and Son, a memoir of childhood in the 1850s, by Edmund Gosse. “No fiction of any kind,” he writes, “religious or secular, was admitted into the house.” He adds that his mother “had a remarkable, I confess to me a still somewhat unaccountable impression that to ‘tell a story,’ that is, to compose fictitious narrative of any kind, was a sin.” That is not the fundamentalism that thrives in North America today.

Even the strictest American church-goers believe in entertainment as much as they believe in God. In fact, their hunger for the “right kind” of entertainment is such that when the Left Behind series ended in March of this year, its creator Tim Lahaye moved along to a fresh series calledBabylon Rising. (Lahaye always lets someone else do the actual writing of these books.) The Secret on Ararat, the second volume of the Babylon series, appeared this past August. It is, as usual, a very particular reading of Scripture, dressed up as fiction. Lahaye is remarkably liberal in his bastardization of his own religious beliefs with vulgar set-pieces inspired by old Schwarzenegger movies. That statement itself, though, contains a contradiction: Even the violence of action movies is conservative in its strict reliance on formulaic plots and reliably flat characters. Such conservatism — a conservatism of the imagination — allows Lahaye to churn out dozens of Bible-inspired potboilers, and it appears to draw millions of readers to his books.

To use The Secret on Ararat as a case study for the rest of Lahaye’s phenomenally successful novels, one is immediately struck by the book’s blending of fact and fiction, of incident and evangelizing. There is the pure fiction of the story: Michael Murphy, a “Biblical archaeologist” (and self-avowed adventurer) finds a chunk of wood in a cave in Tennessee (thanks to

clues left by his arch-nemesis, Methuselah). This piece of wood leads to Noah’s Ark — don’t ask how — and Murphy accordingly assembles a rag-tag team of experts and mountain climbers to scale Mount Ararat in Turkey, where legend suggests the Ark has been marooned ever since the Biblical flood. Following a number of adventurous and homicidal episodes, the team finds the Ark, and Murphy has his sunset moment with a red-haired assistant who has been intriguing him ever since he recovered from his wife’s death, which occurred in the previous book.

That plotline, however, is strung with pearls of useful tips for Christians in need of practical advice. Here you’ll find help with everything from how to scale a mountain to how to fix a marriage to how to save the world from doom at the hands of the liberal elite. The Secret on Ararat is less a novel than a guidebook for evangelical, politically conservative believers. And judging from the breadth of its advice, Christian conservatives must be desperately insecure about life in the 21st century. That shouldn’t be so surprising: We live in a world of constant changes in culture, technology, and politics. All these changes are morally ambiguous. Tim Lahaye’s oeuvre is so successful because he offers a simplistic ideology to make sense of the modern mess (believe in God, or else!), and he coats it all with a sugary layer of Hollywood tropes.

Yet you needn’t read too deeply into the book to find contradictions embedded in the prose, in the very strategy of the storytelling. The plot of The Secret on Ararat, for all of its reliance on a higher power, is peppered with scientific data and, more to the point, scientific language. The novel’s first episode involves Murphy rescuing a pair of German shepherd puppies from an underwater cave while trying to nab the aforementioned chunk of Ark wood. At one point Murphy stuffs the puppies inside his jacket and can “feel them squirming in utter panic as the last molecules of oxygen disappeared from their lungs.” Molecules of oxygen? A creative writing teacher might reward that level of concrete detail with a gold star, but there’s nothing concrete, nothing based in everyday experience, about molecules. To “see” them, you need a microscope — or the eye of God. This is merely Lahaye sending a clear signal to the reader: Their faith is not shy of science, because their faith is supported by science. The trappings of science are brought into The Secret on Ararat whenever possible to confirm religious “truths.” For instance, the chunk of wood found by Murphy is carbon-dated, and on the strength of that result, it is somehow reasoned to be an Old Testament artifact.

From here, though, the fact-fiction relationship grows insidious. The standard science of carbon-dating and of oxygen molecules is one thing; but Lahaye introduces a science-religion hybrid that many evangelicals will read as pure science, and which most atheists will view as pure bunk. For instance, midway through the novel, Murphy learns that the chunk-of-Ark wood (which gets some serious mileage in this story) contains no potassium 40. In the sort of implausibly polemical dialogue that runs through the novel, Murphy ponders aloud:

“Potassium 40 is found in just about everything. It’s one of the things responsible for the aging process. For this piece of wood to have almost no traces of Potassium 40 would mean there was very little of it around in the pre-flood world. Which would make sense since it was normal for people to live for hundreds of years prior to the flood. After the flood, however, people’s life spans were reduced to where they are today.”

Eureka! And so another Biblical mystery is explained in terms of everyday science, and LaHaye’s believers go home happy, their faith fortified. It doesn’t matter that such reasoning is strictly unscientific; it only matters that it sounds scientific enough to persuade Christian conservative readers that they’ve just added a fresh quiver to their arsenal of weapons against the secular world.

The Secret on Ararat is full of such useful weapons. Lahaye’s genius lies in alternating action-filled chapters (which echo any fragment of pop culture, from Bond flicks to WWF matches) with chapters that offer more thoughtful advice to Christian conservatives trying to lead ordinary lives. One of the sub-plots, for instance, deals with Hank Baines, a family man who feels disconnected from his wife and daughter, and who doesn’t attend church (though his wife and daughter do). Murphy offers several rounds of counseling: First, he focuses on repairing Baines’ rift with the rebellious teenage daughter by using biblical wisdom. When that’s done, Baines realizes his relationship with his wife ain’t what it could be, so Murphy offers a second round of biblical wisdom-cum-marriage counseling. This entire episode, of course, functions as meta-self-help, too, in that it teaches Christian conservatives how to proselytize. Readers can imagine themselves on either end of the Baines-Murphy conversation-conversion.

The same applies to dialogues about evolution, church-and-state, and anything concerning the literal truth of the Bible. And then there’s this strategic trick: Lahaye allows the reader to wade halfway into the book before reaching the island of radical political conservatism at its core. In a chapter that brings us into the Goth-style den of the Seven, Murphy’s mysterious enemies, we learn that the World Court, the European Union, and the United Nations are all harbingers of the Antichrist.Literally. Later, Murphy is seen talking to an innocuous-seeming media baron (who happens to be in the employ of the Seven). The millionaire tells Murphy that his job is to fight crime and violence with the help of “Information. Communication. The more we know about the world, about one another, the less reason there is for conflict.” Sounds good, right? Murphy replies: “Sure. As long as what you tell people is the truth. Sometimes truth does lead to conflict. Sometimes truth is what you have to fight about.” And what is Murphy’s truth? “I try to prove the truth of the Bible.” It’s hard to read that entire exchange and avoid the conclusion that Lahaye is not advocating a return to the Crusades.

And there you have it: Christian conservatives who would support religious war are also fans of Hollywood schlock. This sounds like the sort of information you’d receive about two-thirds into an action movie: Will the fundamentalists ingest so much Christian entertainment that they finally see the contradictions in their own beliefs? Or will the fundamentalists simply spread their beliefs more effectively with the help of people like Tim Lahaye, and will they then go and have lots of fundamentalist babies to whom they’ll read books like

The Secret on Ararat before bedtime? Luckily, real life is never as streamlined as the plot of an action movie. But the larger question of Christian conservative entertainment does seem especially urgent today, as political and scientific issues are steered by religious voters, and as new ideas and attitudes travel through our culture by means of popular entertainment. If secular liberals feel they are slowly edging towards a political chasm based on religious differences, a grasp of Christian books and movies and music may be more useful than the numbers found in exit polls.

Jana Prikryl is a writer living in Manhattan. Her work has appeared in Maisonneuve,Salon.com and Books in Canada. Her last essay for The Revealer was “The Gay Shall Inherit the Church.”