Sunday, September 17, 2006

Best of the Blogosphere, Part 6: Slacktivist Reads Left Behind

(Sixth in an occasional and entirely whimsical series. Other entries here.)

Some of you may be familiar with the greatest literary takedown of the Nineteenth Century: Mark Twain's marvelous essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses". It's a short, funny and utterly devastating demolition of a crappy novelist. Well worth reading, incidentally, if you haven't come across it before (even if you haven't read Fenimore Cooper -- which, after reading Twain, you won't want to).

Well, a blogger named Fred Clark, who blogs at Slacktivist, has been doing a similarly sharp takedown of what he refers to as the Worst Books of All Time: the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

Like Twain, Clark says a lot about literary technique along the way. Unlike Twain, he also says a lot of interesting stuff about a wide variety of other things -- especially Christianity, especially its evangelical branch, and that branch's premilleniast subculture. This is because Twain was writing a fairly short essay, and, therefore, stuck fairly closely to the matter at hand. Clark, it must be said, is writing at somewhat greater length. He is doing a page-by-page reading of the Left Behind books. He began in October, 2003; he's still at it; he is, I think, about half way through the first book in the (twelve volume (not counting prequels, spin-offs, etc.)) series.

The takedown is, as I said, just as sharp as Twain's. But it's a bit longer.

But -- and I cannot emphasize this enough -- I am not complaining. I'm exalting. An essay of Twainian quality is wonderful; more than 100,000 words (I counted (or Microsoft Word did, at my behest)) of near-Twainian quality is superb. I say "near-Twainian" -- the best of it is of Twainian quality; the rest is simply very good.

Still, it rather begs the question: why spend so long on these books?

Well, it's fun and funny. It allows Clark -- who, I should mention, is himself an evangelical Christian, only the sort who doesn't believe that Jesus's main messages were directives to increase the wealth of the rich, start wars whenever possible, and hate gays -- to criticize trends in evangelical culture that he dislikes.

But it's more than that. This is a subculture, set of beliefs, that is very important in America. It is believed by tens of millions of our fellow citizens. If any of those can be reached, it is an important view to try to sway them from; for the rest of us, it is an important view to understand.

But Clark has himself addressed a few times (with some perhaps-understandable self-consciousness) why he's taking the time to do this. So I'll let Clark say why this matters:
...the "end times" mania and wretched theology of the Left Behind series is dangerous for everyone, within and without the Christian community. Swap around a few of the words in [a previously quoted passage] and you've got a standard piece of al-Qaeda fundamentalist propaganda. Same world view -- different religions. Actually, that's not true. Kill-the-irredeemable-infidel fundamentalism is always the same religion, no matter what faith it masquerades as a form of.
Elsewhere, he says:
Why expose myself and the readers of this blog to the potentially toxic foolishness of Left Behind? Because LB is more than simply a wretched novel. It is a wretched novel with serious consequences. It is, among other things, an assault on the central beliefs of the Christian faith... But please don't think of all this as a simple for-Christians-only intramural struggle affecting only the church and those within it. L&J present a political perspective that is every bit as corrosive as their theological views. And that political perspective is being read and absorbed by millions of Americans. The political impact of L&J's brand of dispensationalism is difficult to measure and difficult to overstate. It affects people's attitudes toward religious pluralism, multilateral and international institutions, diplomacy and peacemaking... At a very basic level, this worldview opposes and undermines any long-term thinking, any sustained effort to make the world a better place -- replacing the hope of redemption with a perverse longing for apocalypse. As such, L&J ultimately are like any given set of villains from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They want to open the Hellmouth and bring about the end of the world. Stopping them, as always, begins with research. So let's send Xander out for donuts and get back to hitting the books.

These are, I submit, convincing reasons to make the attempt. Clark's wonderful writing and analysis are convincing reasons to read it. So I therefore present the sixth official Attempts Best of the Blogosphere™ award to Slacktivist's Left Behind Series. Go read it: you'll enjoy it -- and profit from it.

...Except that, as I've mentioned, it's, well, er, long. As in, over 100,000 words. A reasonable-sized book. I mean, in one of my previous entries to this series, I gave the award to two essays, each serialized, totaling 22 blog posts in all. But they were also available as two pdfs -- and they were, in the end, two essays. This is a book. And still growing.

Now, the whole thing is worth reading, really. (The link above will take you to an archive of the series -- an archive, somewhat irritatingly, organized in normal blog style, that is, with the oldest posts at the bottom. The problem, therefore, is that to read it in order you need to start at the bottom, scroll up a bit until you get to the top of the first post, read it, then scroll up a bit more, and so forth. Not the best UI in the world for this sort of thing, frankly.) But I figure that my Noble Readers might like to have a place to start. So here are a few entries in the series that stick in my memory, that are good ones to start with. (In following my one-year-old minimum for this series, I've picked ones that are at least a year old; but the series is ongoing.)

L.B.: The Evil of Banality
L.B.: Holy Spirits
L.B.: Explicit Content
L.B.: No Change of Power
L.B.: Funny You Should Ask
L.B.: Other People

As I said, those are just a few I personally liked. Other people will click with other entries (sometimes people will leave comments on entries that strike me as comparatively weak saying 'that's one of the best of the series). But if you haven't read the series yet, you can start with those. And if you like them, do read the series. It's a funny look at an important subject.

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