Once Upon a Tribulation

re:generation quarterly 8.2 (Winter 2003), 32-34

If you want to know what life was like in the late sixties, skip the history books. Just watch reruns of the original Star Trek. The Federation is the United Nations back when everyone took it seriously. Kirk, a swashbuckling American romantic, is a Freudian poster child. Spock and his race of utterly rational Vulcans are modernity triumphant. McCoy is a glowering medical aristocracy that knows it has all the answers. Scotty’s military industrial complex can do anything – even without the thirty minutes demanded by the laws of physics. Uhura is civil rights before feminism. Klingons are Soviets, Romulans Chinese. The galactic issues that face the twenty-fourth century are, amazingly enough, the same social issues that faced Americans with color televisions in 1968.

Yet Roddenberry’s vision still transcended its era. After catching on in reruns and several motion pictures, the Star Trek franchise opened a new final frontier in 1987. The Next Generation’s seven seasons chronicle its times too. The Federation is now the European Union, Captain Jean-Luc Picard an efficient French bureaucrat. William Riker, like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, is the icon of a military culture rising from Vietnam-era contempt to Gulf War glory. Data is Spock in reverse, taking baby steps out of modern rationalism like – well, like a Trekkie getting a life. Geordi is a multicultural Übermensch in the bright young days of political correctness: blind and black, a brilliant engineer and a trusted friend. The Borg is collectivism, Worf is the men’s movement, and Counselor Deanna Troi is Pamela Anderson channeling Joseph Campbell.

What is true of science fiction is also true of fantasy. The British war years drive the mood of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which looks nostalgically on a rich medieval world entering the modernity that will destroy it. One of its contemporary counterparts, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, looks eagerly on a world entering the postmodernity that might revive its tired secular imagination.

These franchises have spawned whole social worlds. Bookstores are full of each tradition’s fictionalizations, knock-offs, and war games. Trekkies (documented in the film of the same name) are legendary. The Lord of the Rings created the Dungeons & Dragons subculture. Harry Potter is still young (and Scholastic and Warner Bros. are being assertive with their copyrights), but webrings and sites like HarryPotterville.com look promising.

When these subcultures commune in cyberspace and at sci-fi conventions and Renaissance Faires, one senses a common identity. To be sure, there is bickering over which denomination of Star Trek or D&D is superior. Nevertheless, the conventions bring together sci-fi and fantasy enthusiasts of all kinds. Somehow they share a metanarrative. Ironically, it is a fellowship not of particular pasts or futures, but of a shared present. From its margins in the imagination, fantasy directs these people’s lives.

Our society tolerates these weirdos only so much. When they transgress the boundaries between fantasy and "the real world," bewildered observers try to ridicule them back into their ghettos. On Saturday Night Live William Shatner once played himself speaking at a Star Trek convention. When he shouted "Get a life!" to a stunned room of costumed Trekkies, he spoke for millions.

Yet fantasy is about the real world. Its fusion of current events, selective realism, and fiction makes it both prophetic and unassailable. It reigns from a mental hideout safe from modernity’s caustic empiricism. It dismisses the shallow objections of skeptics – "time travel is logically impossible," "there are no such things as hobbits" – because they miss its real point. Whenever I howl at yet another breach of the laws of nature in The Next Generation, my English-major wife knows how to put me in my place: "Come on, it’s Star Trek." She understands these things better than her left-brained husband.

I wasn’t always that way. In grade school I collected Trekkie merchandise and attended a couple of sci-fi conventions. Putting away these childish things as a teen, I turned to D&D. This made a few evangelical friends nervous: Was I opening the door into a demonic underworld and leaving myself helpless before its powers? I was raised in bland Protestant liberalism – my parents even kept a Ouija board in the toy shelf – so I just rolled my eyes and played on.

My indifference ended in eleventh grade when a friend’s mother introduced me to The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey. Out went the D&D – no longer interesting – and in came the apocalyptic realism of Lindsey, Herbert W. Armstrong, and assorted forgettable second-stringers.

I had switched narrative pasts and futures, from the romantic nostalgia of D&D and the rosy optimism of Star Trek to the forbidding biblical narrative. Even more compelling was the experience of exchanging presents – from the world as narrated by Star Trek and D&D to the world as narrated by pretribulational premillennialism. The true significance of world events now lay not in the imaginations of war-gamers, but in the prophecies of end-gamers.

Lindsey, I now realize, is the Gene Roddenberry of American fundamentalism. He invited a generation into the final frontier – boldly going, as it were, where one Man had gone before. Lindsey offered much more than just the nineteenth century thrill of timing the end of the age. He offered a world of detail: Within the general framework of classical dispensationalism there was room for episode after episode and sequel after sequel of intricate interpretation. Every scene appealed to American sensibilities in the 1970s. Like all conspiracy theories, it was all the more powerful for being nonfalsifiable. Israel’s northern foe was the Soviet Union. The beast of Revelation 13 was a supercomputer humming away in Brussels. The locusts of Revelation 9 were actually Cobra helicopters. The mark of the beast was a system of tattooed bar codes. For someone raised on transporters and rings of power, all this made perfect sense.

Roddenberry eventually passed the Star Trek mantle to Rick Berman. Under Berman, the Star Trek universe has grown exponentially to include Deep Space Nine, Voyager, new Next Generation films, and now Enterprise (set in the century before the original series). Its new worlds, subplots, and armies of characters are richer than ever. It even boasts holodecks, fictive worlds within fictive worlds that host alternative universes for those bored with the same old galactic timeline. (One episode of The Next Generation even featured the narrative recursion of a holodeck simulated within a holodeck simulation.)

Lindsey’s successor is the writing team of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Their phenomenally successful Left Behind series is Planet Earth: The Next Generation. It updates Lindsey’s school of apocalyptic realism for a world perched between the Cold War and the War on Terror, nervously ticking away a half hour’s respite from the war of the Lamb (Rev. 8:1).

Left Behind is more than just revived Hal Lindsey. LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ moves to fiction have made them more like evangelicalism’s holodeck programmers – better yet, evangelicalism’s dungeon masters. Readers progress through the volumes of their series like players working through levels of a role playing game. As they follow the characters’ stories, they journey deeper and deeper into future history, on and on into a world that is coming closer and closer to their own – and further and further into a sprawling narrative world as much like Rowling’s or Berman’s as Lindsey’s.

Five minutes in any Christian bookstore will confirm that evangelicalism inherited fundamentalism’s empiricism along with its dispensationalism. This has its virtues. The Christian faith rests on the historicity of the resurrection, the reliability of the Bible (however this is reckoned), and the visible work of the Holy Spirit. Evangelicalism’s insistence on these is a strength. It preserves the movement from wholesale fideism, experientialism, and spiritualism, and fosters intellectual and public responsibility.

Yet empiricism comes at a cost. Modern Christian apologetics have their place, but they can leave the convinced strangely detached from the facts newly laid before them. How does Jesus’ timeline intersect my timeline? For communities called to a gospel whose narrative shape is more than just empirical, empiricism can also reduce the Christian vision to something much smaller. The faith can become a set of facts and principles justified scientifically, even by criteria of reason other than the gospel itself. Or it dwindles into a set of opinions and values justified experientially, by little more than a person’s right to hold them.

Furthermore, empiricism pressures narrative imagination. It either pulls storytelling into "objective history," or pushes it into realms empiricism cannot conquer: the experiential, the fictive, and the fantastic. Fiction’s import becomes a function of its relevance to the tangible world – showing histories, making social commentary, or at least teaching morals. Narratives which do not obviously serve the empirical are relegated to the margins of serious thinking: entertainment, childhood fantasy, airport-novel escapism.

Eschatological epics respond to this pressure in the same way as science fiction: by exploiting the modern dichotomy between fact and fantasy. They interpret today from the epistemic refuge of tomorrow. Their realism earns them a foothold among empiricists, and their futurism makes them difficult to disprove. (Warp drive could happen, you know.) While Planet Earth leans toward the factual, Left Behind shrouds its history in fiction, which is both more dramatic and beyond the reach of factual criticism. It invites rather than compels us to see the world its way.

Many have accepted its invitation. Left Behind has singlehandedly pioneered an explosion in Christian fiction. In 2001 CBA reported that Christian fiction had become the top-selling book category in many Christian stores. Left Behind’s success sent the major publishing houses circling to acquire or develop Christian imprints.

It is fashionable among the sophisticated to mock pop apocalypticism. Many rightly find Left Behind a dreadful mixture of poor theology, distorted biblicism, and turgid storytelling – more L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth than Lord of the Rings. Writer Albert Haley dismisses Left Behind as propaganda, and poor propaganda at that. "Its agenda arrives with the force of a sledgehammer," he laments. Just as troubling are all the readers who reject the faith they associate with it.

Yet in my youth Lindsey’s propaganda showed me a way to see the world that was newly hopeful while still recognizable. He told the story of God’s coming judgment through the symbols of my culture – as apocalyptists have done since the Babylonian exile. Had he not shaken me out of my secular complacency, I do not know whether I would be in church today, let alone teaching theology.

As high-church sacramentalism did for nineteenth century Anglicans and Catholics and Barthian Neo-Orthodoxy did for twentieth century liberals, pop apocalypticism has helped evangelicals find epistemological high ground from which to subvert modernity with the good news of Jesus Christ. In spite of their considerable differences, sacramentalist aesthetes, Barthian theologians, and apocalyptic propagandists also share a metanarrative – not only a common past and future, but a common present ruled and guided by their one sovereign Lord. As late modernity’s Christian survivalists, they should show each other sympathy, if not respect. They too meet together at conventions – churches, they call them – where partisans bicker but ultimately eat at one table. Muggles are their mission field and their common threat. Let skeptics mock their strange alternative universes; only the elect know the way to Platform 9¾.

Perhaps the shift from Planet Earth to Left Behind as a sign of the sentimental deterioriation of the dispensational project and the weakening of the evangelical mind. But it may also be a sign of progress. Though evangelicals have long written and read fiction, we are turning to it more and more to do our truth-telling. Having once shunned movie houses, today we are film critics. Having once taken fiction seriously mainly as a parabolic satellite orbiting the real, today it is a respected genre in its own right. Without having dispensed with the old facts, today we dwell in the epics they spawn. Having been burned by too many discredited eschatological timelines, today we embrace chronological ambiguity.

All this brings us closer to the heart of apocalyptic literature. As Daniel felled Babylon with allegory, Jesus confounded Pharisees with parable, and John defeated Rome with imagery, so Left Behind confronts modern secularism with sci-fi.

Some will protest that Lindsey and LaHaye are futurists, not fictionists or fantasists. That is a blurry line to draw. "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible," Arthur C. Clarke’s Second Law states, "is to venture a little way past them into the impossible." Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, George Orwell’s 1984, Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, and Carl Sagan’s Contact construct futures that are fictional without being fantastic. From the perspective of the present, both pop apocalyptic and science fiction colorfully portray a possible future in the hope of speeding its arrival, or fostering our preparedness, or warning us away. Even Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Rowling’s Harry Potter, and Lewis’ Space Trilogy and Chronicles of Narnia evoke fantastic worlds enough like ours that we can imagine them as our own. In all these projects, narrative realism and unrealism bring persuasive power to prophecies of eschatological human transformation and deformation.

Yale theologian Julian Hartt contended that modern readers may find biblical narratives more accessible as stories than as modernistic history. If reading the Bible as "true fiction" untangles readers from metaphysical and scientific issues, they might at least read to the end and grasp the point. "A geocentric universe? Ascending and descending through the skies? Falling stars?" Let apocalyptic fanatics and skeptics alike heed my wife: "Come on, it’s eschatology." Moreover, while historicists and other empiricists will find the Bible’s world only partly habitable, the imaginative will find it much more hospitable. Consider all those Trekkies dressed as Star Fleet officers. When was the last time a parishioner came to church wearing camel’s hair and a leather girdle?

There is simply no stopping "end-is-nigh-fi." The worldwide conspiracy of late modernity, current events, and booksellers will see to that. Debunking is easy and fun, but when an old epic is discredited, someone will always write a new one. It is as sure as sacramental revival, the next generation of Barthians, and a new mission for the Enterprise. Resistance is futile.