Newsweek confronts galloping literalism

raptureartNewsweek's cover package on "The New Prophets of Revelation" rings true, for the most part, to readers familiar with the work and personalities of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Indeed, much of the fun in David Gates' reporting is in the contrasts between the pushy, polyester-clad LaHaye and the self-deprecating, jeans-favoring Jenkins. LaHaye revels in confounding intellectuals: "It's the theologians that get all fouled up on some of these smug ideas that you've got to find some theological reason behind it. It bugs me that intellectuals look down their noses at we ordinary people." Jenkins sounds more apologetic: "I don't claim to be C.S. Lewis. The literary-type writers, I admire them. I wish I was smart enough to write a book that's hard to read, you know?"

The worst distraction is rooted in this remark by LaHaye: "Those millions that I'm trying to reach take the Bible literally." Then it's time for Newsweek to cluck about the thirst of millions for certitude and literalism. Three examples:

LaHaye and Jenkins -- the prophecy teacher and the pop novelist -- combine the ultimate certainty the Bible offers with the entertainment-culture conventions of rock-jawed heroism and slam-bang special effects.

Scholars reconstructing the popular history of the first years of the 21st century -- if there still are any -- will have to grapple with the phenomenon of "Left Behind." In an age of terror and tumult, they may find, these books' Biblical literalism offered certitude to millions of Americans amid the chaos of their time.

And [Jenkins] and LaHaye came up against the limits of Biblical literalism. "The Bible says Jesus is going to slay his enemies with a word that comes out of his mouth," he says. "We don't believe there's an actual sword in his mouth. The sword is his word."

Managing editor Jon Meacham, writing the Editor's Desk column for the week, starts on a note of self-criticism: "Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are not exactly household names in New York City, where much of the national press lives and works. Given the cultural influence these two men have over a huge part of the country, however, they should be."

Soon enough, though, he's jumping to conclusions about why people have bought 62 million books in the Left Behind series: "That LaHaye and Jenkins's books are selling so briskly at a time of global chaos suggests that millions are taking refuge in literal renderings of Scripture, seeking a port amid the storm of the present." The coup de grâce comes in Meacham's final paragraph: "Little wonder, then, that so many people are turning to fiction to alleviate the burden of fact."

Newsweek grasps at one point that many Christians object to in Left Behind. But the usual point of contention is not over literalism. Even in most Episcopal churches, the congregation still affirms its belief that "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." The disagreements center on what the world will look like until then.

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