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Date Published: 11/1/2006
www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=561
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

LEFT BEHIND

Religion, Technology, and Flight from the Flesh


Stephen Pfohl



7

The Gendering of Left Behind


One thing that struck Frykholm as particularly important was the indifference most readers expressed when asked about matters of gender in the Left Behind novels. As a feminist literary critic, Frykholm, of course, approached the books with a different set of concerns than the people she conversed with. Situating the Left Behind phenomenon within the changing history of American religious practices, Frykholm notes how Left Behind simultaneously "remains within" and departs from "the tradition of dispensational premillenialism."[1] She also discusses differences with regard to representations of gender between dispensationalism and the wider tradition of fundamentalist evangelical thought, of which dispensationalism is an important but singular strand.

Most scholarship today recognizes that a virulent assertion of the spiritual superiority of masculinity is a key component of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism arose in the later half of the nineteenth century in response to sweeping changes taking place in British and American society. These changes included unsettling challenges to existing gender roles. For the most part, Victorian Christian culture pictured men as more worldly and women as more spiritual. Early fundamentalists rejected this view. They decried the effeminate character of mainstream Protestant churches, arguing that men were "divinely equipped" with a greater aptitude for religion and rational judgment than women. This supposedly made men better protectors of the Christian faith, as well as more effective public religious leaders.[2] Early dispensationalists also criticized the "womanish" and "weak" character of mainstream Protestant churches. But over time fundamentalist and dispensationalist imaginings of gender became more discordant, particularly in the realm of rapture fiction. This is also true when considering the depiction of gender in the Left Behind series.

In most fictional accounts of End Times, the term rapture carries intensely gendered resonances. While the word "rapture" does not itself appear in English versions of the Bible, the phrases "snatch up" or "caught away" are used to depict the "idea of God translating [or transporting] people from earth to heaven." In Greek, the word used is harpazo. Rapture is the Latin translation. Nevertheless, as Tim LaHaye points out, rapture "caught on as the unofficial title of the event. Actually it may be a better translation than 'snatch up' or 'caught away,' because it suggests a joyous exaltation -- which is not the case when a person is snatched away by a kidnapper or someone who plans to do him harm."[3] After conducting a computer search on the term, LaHaye subsequently discovered that the word, rapture, is also often associated with "romances, love stories, and even erotica."[4]

Frykholm concurs with LaHaye on this matter, noting that in rapture fiction, the term rapture typically connotes the "carrying off of a woman" -- whether by ecstasy or force. In dispensationalist thought the connection between women and rapture is also symbolized in the "taking up" into heaven of "the Bride of Christ," Christ's true church:

Fictive narratives of the rapture played with this theme. In the stories that began to appear in the early years of the twentieth century, the 'raptured' were nearly always female. In fact the classic form of the rapture narrative is one in which a devout wife and mother is raptured from her home leaving behind her worldly and ungodly husband. This essentially domestic image of the rapture weaves together the 'carrying off of a woman' with images of female piety. The 'raptured woman' becomes Christ's bride in heaven... This woman is immediately raptured while her husband or son, who fails to hear her warnings, is left behind when the rapture comes... Early rapture fiction punished the worldly man and exalted, but rendered irrelevant, the pious woman.[5]

For Frykholm, dispensationalism in general, and the Left Behind series in particular, extend and partially modify fundamentalism's typically virile approach to Christianity. In keeping with the precepts of patriarchal culture, women characters in the Left Behind novels are divided into two sorts. On one hand, there is the pious or good woman. She acts in accordance with faith, submitting herself to the will of both God and men. In Left Behind, on first impression, Chloe Steele appears to exemplify this figuration of blessed female purity. On the other hand, there is the bad or rebellious woman. This woman refuses her divinely ordained role as submissive wife and mother, acting, instead, in keeping with stereotypes of unruly female sexuality. In rapture fiction, women of this sort are often paired with the biblical image of the Whore of Babylon. They are "women who go off to seek their fortunes and end up as prostitutes in lives of faithlessness and decadence. They are women who leave the home, refuse domesticity, and pay a price with their souls."[6]

In the Left Behind series, Hattie Durham, the beautiful flight attendant, appears cast as the biblical Whore. Hattie shuns the advice of Rayford Steele and other members of the Tribulation Force, becoming first the secretary, then consort, of Nicholas Carpathia. The alluring and rebellious Hattie "exists in the novels as a warning of the dangers of women who refuse to submit to Christian male authority."[7] Until she finally converts to Christianity, Hattie's actions lead from disaster to disaster. After sleeping with Carpathia, she becomes pregnant and experiences a monstrous miscarriage. Later in the series, Hattie is attacked by a plague of locusts, then poisoned, and finally incarcerated in the notorious GC BUFFER (the Belgium Facility for Female Rehabilitation). Hattie's behavior also compromises the safety of the Tribulation Force. Despite Hattie's reckless behavior, the tribulation saints continue to pray for her and perform daring actions to rescue her from the throes of Carpathia's power.

Frykholm initially interprets gender imagery in Left Behind, whether consciously or unconsciously, as "a largely negative response" to contemporary feminism.[8] But this is not how the readers she interviews make sense of the texts. Readers describe characters, such as Chloe and Hattie, as "character types" rather than "gender types." Chloe is seen not as domesticated or submissive, but as "spunky" or "hard-headed." Hattie is perceived not as evil or whorish, but as "tragic" or "proud." While readers voice disgust with Hattie's actions and the fate that befalls her, most view her negative treatment in the novels as having little to do with her status as a woman. Her negativity, instead, is said to stem from the fact that she is an unbeliever.[9]

When interviewed, readers routinely discount -- or reframe -- matters pertaining to gender conflict, shifting focus to the novels' more general concerns with the apocalyptic battle between forces of good and evil. At times, those interviewed by Frykholm even appeared bewildered by her insistent questions about gender. Given the importance of gendered imagery to both fundamentalism and dispensationalism, the reasons for this disavowal are perplexing. To make sense of this anomaly, Frykholm modifies her initial interpretation of the Left Behind books. Despite "the hard-line antifeminist position of fundamentalist leaders," Frykholm views the novels, in part, as responding to the "concerns and language of feminism." In this sense, the women's movement is said to exert "an important, if subtle, effect on the [fundamentalist] movement."[10] This is most evident in the novels' treatment of Chloe Steele. Unlike female characters in earlier rapture fiction, Chloe is not a one-dimensional figure of innocence. "Chloe is neither the domestic saint nor the martyred heroine... While she certainly would not say she is a feminist, [over the course of the novels, she shows herself to be] a strong, articulate, savvy businesswoman, and even though she says she submits to [her husband] Buck's authority, we rarely see examples of it."[11]

The complexity of Chloe's character is revealed in the following excerpt from Soul Harvest. Chloe has become the CEO of an underground Christian commodity co-op, struggling to resist the economic and spiritual domination of the Antichrist. Chloe has also married Buck Williams and has recently become pregnant with Buck's child. As Chloe's husband, Buck decides that she will not be permitted to accompany him on an important trip to Israel. Chloe is angered by Buck's presumption that he can make decisions on her behalf. She responds to her husband in the following exchange.

'I won't even be showing by then, Buck. I'll be three months along. You're going to need me. Who's going to handle logistics? I'll be communicating with thousands of people on the Internet, arranging these meetings. It only makes sense that I show up.'

...

'We'll see how healthy you are in a few weeks.'

'I'll start packing.'

'Don't jump to conclusions.'

'Don't parent me, Buck. Seriously I don't have a problem submitting to you because I know how much you love me. I'm willing to obey you even when you're wrong. But don't be unreasonable. And don't be wrong if you don't have to be. You know I'm going to do what you say, and I'll even get over it if you make me miss out on one of the greatest events in history. But don't do it out of some old-fashioned, macho sense of protecting the little woman. I'll take this pity and help for just so long, and then I want back in the game full-time. I thought that was one of the things you like about me.'[12]

Drawing upon Margaret Bendroth's analysis of the convergent appeal of fundamentalism to both men and women, Frykholm notes how Chloe simultaneously submits and asserts herself, "negotiating for a position that will allow her to be a Christian mother and Christian warrior."[13] The attraction of fundamentalist thought is particularly strong in times of widespread social and cultural change. During such times, faith in the literalness of the Bible is also said to evoke a "more nuanced expression of manliness than the tireless virility demanded by the secular world." While opposing "feminizing forces in religion and society," the "nuanced" masculinity discerned by Bendroth and Frykholm, nevertheless offers heterosexual men a "romantic, passionate outlet."[14] In the Left Behind books evidence for this is found when considering the series' leading male characters, Rayford Steele and Buck Williams. Following the Rapture, each man manifests, not only a reinvigorated commitment to Christ, but also the ability to be in touch with his emotions and respond flexibly to the needs of the women in their lives.

Rayford, like Buck, is generally portrayed as virile and heroic. But after the rapture of his wife and young son, in addition to becoming "born again," Rayford becomes more emotionally sensitive and caring. He also displays a newfound domesticity and a sense of parental responsibility for his daughter, Chloe. When asked by his boss, Earl, to come to work at a last minute's notice, Rayford declines. He politely informs Earl that he's "in the middle of something" important. When Early inquires as to whether Rayford's "got another deal cooking?" Rayford responds, "I'm cooking, but not another deal. I happen to be preparing dinner for my daughter." At dinner, Chloe asks her dad why he took the time to prepare shrimp scampi, her favorite meal. Rayford replies playfully, "I just got in touch with my feminine side."[15] Buck, who later marries Chloe, makes related adjustments in masculine style when responding to Chloe's mixture of assertion and devotedness.

Despite its pronouncedly masculine rhetoric and theology of female submissiveness, the actual role of gender "within fundamentalism and, more recently, contemporary evangelism has always been more complex than the rhetorical stance of its leaders... Women were drawn to these congregations during times of social crisis, and there they found a network of female support unavailable in other cultural locations. The churches offered female-led Bible studies and female-only activities that provided women with social, emotional, and spiritual inspiration and a context in which their fears and anxieties could be expressed."[16] While accepting less of a public role than men, women appear to find informal power and influence in a wide variety of everyday church activities, in missionary work, and the organization of church services. Perhaps as an informal trade-off for lesser public roles, women married to evangelical men are also able to demand men's greater participation in family life than are women married to non-evangelical men.

Thus, despite advocating "a God-ordained model of marriage with male headship and female subordination," many strands of evangelical Christianity also promote "an increasingly 'tender' Christian man, one much more able to express his emotions, engage in relationships, and openly communicate with his wife."[17] As suggested above, in the Left Behind novels this modification of masculine privilege is revealed in the emotional reflexivity of Rayford Steele and Buck Williams. In this way, the novels register "all the contradictions in gender identity that are present in the contemporary 'Promise Keepers' movement. As 'servant leaders,' men in the Promise Keepers are supposed to assert their authority as men, but they are also supposed to learn to be more expressive and emotional. They are supposed to learn to be better husbands and fathers through more attentive listening to their wives. While the Promise Keepers movement has been criticized as strongly anti-feminist, the responsibility that men bear for improving their relationships and humbling themselves suggests that this is a patriarchy of word more than deed. Like Rayford [and Buck], Promise Keepers seek a compromise between masculinity and the softening demands of Christianity."[18]

Both the Promise Keepers and the dispensationalist Left Behind narratives offer gendered images of order in a world beset by chaos and social conflict. Women are blessed with informal power in the realms of family and church. On the other hand, men retain greater influence in the action-oriented public realm, but become softer and more emotionally responsive to their wives and family. This nuanced modification of gender roles occurs without presenting serious structural challenges to male privilege in its entirety. According to Frykholm, this exemplifies what Judith Stacey refers to as a "patriarchy of the last grasp" -- a more flexible order of gender inequality in a world beset by unsettling forces of global social change in multiple realms -- cultural, technological, and economic.[19] In this sense, the Left Behind books offer evangelical readers a projective screen to help make sense of changing gender roles and sweeping global transformations that threaten traditional notions of personal and religious identity.

As mentioned previously, many readers describe how the books help them to better "visualize" some of the Bible's more abstract or arcane imagery. By suggesting one-to-one correspondence between biblical prophecies and contemporary social occurrences, the books also help readers to make visible the otherwise "invisible hand" of world historical power. This is a key aspect of the fascination and pleasure that the novels hold for readers. As a kind of "formula fiction," the books enable readers to interpret the global complexities of contemporary culture, power, and history in keeping with the more simplistic mythic structures of Christian eschatology. As Frykholm notes,

Readers of Left Behind often use this [religious] myth to speak to anxieties about the swiftly changing world of late capitalism. No matter what new information they receive -- and that information appears to be more and greater every day -- it can be sifted and sorted into myth. Disorienting and potentially frightening events begin to make sense. For example, 'globalization' has long been translated through the rapture narrative into the 'One World Government.' Since the early twentieth century, rapture narratives have described the consolidation of the world's economic, political, and religious diversity into one totalitarian force. Through the figure of the One World Government with the Antichrist as its head, the rapture narrative has spoken to fears about globalization and the advancement of capitalism. It has expressed concerns about the possibility of totalitarianism inherent in the vast homogenization of capital.[20]

Readers interviewed by Frykholm use the Left Behind books to align their vision of life with biblical prophecies, whether in considering what to make of the World Trade Organization or United Nations, war in the Middle East, the seductive allure of consumer culture, the anxieties and promises aroused by new technologies, or the cosmic significance of the latest earthquake. With this in mind, the next section of this essay examines the relationship between religion and technology in the Left Behind books. What specifically do the many images of technology in the novels reveal about dominant social phantasms guiding distinctively American technologies of power at this time in history?


Notes
---------------

[1] Ibid., p. 103

[2] See, for instance, Margaret Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender: 1875 to Present. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1993; Betty A. DeBerg, Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

[3] Tim LaHaye, The Rapture: Who Will Face the Tribulation? Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 2002. pp. 29, 30.

[4] Ibid. pp. 30-31.

[5] Amy Franklin Frykholm, Rapture Culture, pp. 97-98.

[6] Ibid., p. 98.

[7] Amy Johnson Frykholm, "What Social and Political Messages Appear in the Left Behind Books? A Literary Discussion of Millenarian Fiction," in Bruce David Forbes and Jeanne Halgren Kilde, eds., Rapture, Revelation and the End Times: Exploring the Left Behind Series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. p. 181.

[8] Ibid., pp. 90-91.

[9] Ibid., pp. 91-94.

[10] Ibid., p. 99.

[11] Ibid., p. 182.

[12] Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Soul Harvest. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996. pp. 306-307.

[13] Amy Franklin Frykholm, Rapture Culture, p. 181.

[14] Margaret Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender, p. 52.

[15] Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Tribulation Force. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996. pp. 154, 155, 156.

[16] Amy Franklin Frykholm, Rapture Culture, p. 99.

[17] Ibid., p. 100.

[18] Amy Johnson Frykholm, "What Social and Political Messages Appear in the Left Behind Books? A Literary Discussion of Millenarian Fiction," pp. 180-181.

[19] Amy Franklin Frykholm, Rapture Culture, p. 101.

[20] Ibid., pp. 120-121.


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