: One look at your most extensive resume clearly illustrates your position at the forefront of some of America’s largest-circulation publications. From this vantage point one could say you have had front-row seats. That said, what was your primary motivation for skipping into the fracas of the militant Christian cyclone?
: Well, I’m not sure if I’ve had front row seats of much other than in front of my laptop for the past few years. I have been lucky and persistent enough to publish in some quality publications, though that’s mainly been as a reviewer or critic lately, something I’ve never been entirely comfortable with. I’d much rather be able to look at something more fully, on the ground, in an objective and full way than spout criticism or opinion. But in the world of blogs, shouting pundits, it is harder to do that type of journalism without a big financial backer. Hell, if they didn’t pay Katie Couric — how much money did they fork out on her? — you could fund a whole news agency start up. But I'm veering already.
The motivations for doing this book came from a few different areas. I’d first been talking to Soft Skull Press about doing a book on important systemic stories in the Midwest like rural meth problems and small family farms tanking, urban Middle America poor and all that. I really wanted to get out and travel around and report on these stories, something like what Working Poor came to be, but more just snapshots of various lives, not with much commentary, but showing these stories. They liked the idea but there isn’t much of a budget for that with small presses, or even major presses that would support a first time author (this was my first book) with an advance that would allow for that type of exploration. So I proposed something on the Left Behind books, which wasn’t going to take a massive expenditure to send me all over hell and back to gather a story. So I basically read the books, read books about the books and the culture, read news relating to the books and the authors, did a few months of library research in a massive collection of social documents at the University of Iowa, attended a few conferences and did a smattering of phone interviews. So this turned out to be a very source-heavy, critical evaluation of the Left Behind books.
If I could have done it differently I would have been out interviewing and doing a lot of footwork. That takes a lot of time and money. Even while doing this book I probably hovered around $500 in my checking account during that year, year and a half. Back to motivations though. I’d run into people more and more frequently who seemed to be totally entranced with the ideologies and theologies coming, not from the Bible, but from the “Christian” media like the Left Behind books. So I thought I should explore that, especially as during the past several years, going back the last 25 to 30 years of the so-called “Culture Wars,” how religion, specifically a very political Christianity, has been used to gather much of the electorate behind what used to be the Grand Old Party, now dropping Grand and substituting God. It’s something that’s been manufactured to a great extent, this politicized Christianity, but people like LaHaye through books and media like the Left Behind books.
But that is only one part of a larger, and very diverse movement. I also put quotes around “Christian” because in my mind what fictions like the Left Behind books claim to be “Christian” is merely a ruse, trying to pull Christians into a very limited line of belief within Christianity, but not something that represents most of Christianity. Like radical militant Islam, radical militant Christianity, though it might just be in words and vocalizations at the moment compared to its cousin, is just one part of a whole of Christianity that has a variety of ranges.
: Aside from providing you the necessary source material for your thesis, and a grand one it is, how did this investigation into the murky militant Christian war machine affect you?
: I think it seriously ruined my sense of humor for a while. There’s almost no humor in these books, and what is there is tremendously lame. Of course you could look at the entire series as self-satire, which in itself does make it enjoyable. The books are so ultra-violent on one hand — millions of people are wiped out in a few pages in almost every book — and then on the other hand extremely prudish. The authors go on for pages and pages about the character Buck Williams — an international journalist who seems he’s never been really anywhere outside of an ultra-conservative suburb somewhere in Middle America — about how he isn’t sure he should kiss a girl before marrying her. I’m no psychoanalysis expert, but that sounds like some serious repression going on there. So there is this disturbing element there where you’re thinking, okay, there are like 70 million people out there eating up these books, and you’re thinking that there are so many other quality things people could be reading out there besides these books. They’d be much better off reading the Bible, actually, than devouring this pseudo-religious political propaganda. So I would be the first to say “Read the Bible!” to them, which is something you often hear them say. It was painful to read these books on so many levels: artistically, philosophically, spiritually, aesthetically, politically — and at the same time realizing that there are millions of people seemingly enjoying them, too. It’s like you’ve stepped into an alternate universe. It was pretty depressing actually. I still don’t understand a lot of the draw of this, other than that much of it comes from outside the books themselves. There’s such a community, political and worship community, that is tapped into through the books, that it’s something like a badge or a “mark” for those who believe what the books claim, which they proudly wear.
: Sadly, one has only to meet and engage in conversation with those to whom militant Christianity is the ONLY Christianity to realize that a reaction of fear is not only reasonable but essential. And they wear that badge of honor like a 16-year old-kid wears a vampire kiss, not appearing to grasp that the dogma they preach is one of destruction. When you made the decision to propose and pursue this project with Soft Skull, did you have any perception of the level of degeneration you were in for, the unconscionable and self-justifying viewpoint that flagrantly ignores the very words of Jesus himself, “But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love 1 Corinthians 13:13?”
: Yes, I was aware of this, but I wasn’t sure how it had transferred itself to the Left Behind books, which is what I was mainly looking at. But this is something I think that happens with about any absolutist-type thinking. All the assurance means that they have no doubt and for me doubt is a huge part of faith. There is no mystery in this paint-by-numbers approach to what they think is picking the lock of the Bible, like there is supposedly some secret that needs to be decoded behind certain phrases and passages. I think mystery is also a huge part of faith, but that is much different from unlocking secrets. People really get wrapped up in this decoding and in doing so forget that the Bible is much more than just the Book of Revelation to John, a book that is unfortunately at the end of the Bible and one that almost didn’t make it into what we know as the Bible. There’s a real disconnect that goes on here with trying to tie everything they stand for as Christians with some sort of political stance supported by a particular party. I would say the same thing about left-wing Christians if they were creating a platform based on fulfilling particular beliefs. That by no means disqualifies Christians from politics, but that doesn’t mean that politics should become a platform for pushing Christianity, either left or right. Our beliefs do inform our political choices individually, but when it is packaged and promoted like some political slogan it gets a bit dangerous. There are militant aspects of Christianity, just as there are of Islam, due to the fact that they are both evangelizing religions. It becomes dangerous when that evangelizing mixes with militant readings of theology wrapped into any absolutist underpinnings that render all other beliefs as beyond the pale, false or evil. We don’t currently have Christian zealots assassinating, blowing themselves up or resorting to nihilistic terror as we see with segments of Islam, but those things do start with the idea that “my religion is the only religion, it must spread to every person on earth, and we have a short time left to do that” — an example I look at in the Left Behind books is this fascination with assassinating the head of the U.N., which in the books is the Antichrist who has taken over the organization and turned it into a very Hillary Clintonesque “Global Community.”
: “Get right or get left!” Seems I’ve been seeing that on bumper stickers for as long as I can remember. And so the force-feeding continues. Tell me, Mike, do you find it difficult after the fact to be around Christians of any type, meaning, has this overexposure to the seamy side of faith and its abuses somewhat ruined your chances of seeing Christians through an uncolored lens, lumping them all into the rotting barrel of Left Behind fanatics?
: Not at all. Most Christians don't believe in the Rapture and there are many different interpretations and readings of the idea of a Second Coming from the extreme literal to the extreme allegorical. I’ve actually had e-mails from other mainstream, non-fundamentalist Christians thanking me for writing a book about these things, and seen a few blogs from more mainline Christians recommending the book. I know that all sounds a bit sectarian, but then Christianity is a diverse and divided religion with many interpretations and views on theology. When people like LaHaye claim to speak for all “Christians” or when a political formation such as the Religious Right (or a Religious Left) says they speak for all “Christians,” they’re really overreaching and pulling the wool, a lot of times, it seems to me, simply for reasons of power, greed and control.