The Strange Nostalgia of 'Left Behind'

By Catherine Woodiwiss 10-03-2014
Captain Steele's daughter, Chloe, in 'Left Behind,' out in theaters today. Image
Captain Steele's daughter, Chloe, in 'Left Behind,' out in theaters today. Image courtesy LeftBehindMovie.com

Editor’s Note: ‘Left Behind’ starring Nicolas Cage hits theaters nationwide on Friday, Oct. 3. The film is based on the wildly popular book series and movies of the same title, in which God raptures believers and leaves unbelievers behind to learn follow Jesus and defeat the Antichrist. So how’s the film reboot?

Sojourners Web editors called up a group of religion writers in D.C. to watch and review the movie together. We left with more questions than answers. Here’s our takeaway on all things ‘Left Behind’ — and a little Nic Cage.

Catherine Woodiwiss, Associate Web Editor, SojournersSo first things first — why Left Behind again?

When the books were published [starting in 1995], there was a debate happening in Christianity over whether Hell was a real, physical place. And the original movies were produced in the context of 9/11 and the Iraq war. So you can look and say, okay, this was a time of questioning what some saw as fundamental beliefs, of war and terrorism. So the popularity of an end-times series makes some sense.

But why now? Why today?

Esther Boyd,  Communications Director, State of Formation/Editor, Applied Sentience: It’s the rise of millennials running away from churches, of people identifying as spiritual but not religious. The fact that atheists and humanists and agnostics are trying to claim a part of American identity. People are talking about religious freedom versus religious privilege in very serious and meaningful ways.

Jack Jenkins, Religion Reporter, Think Progress: When Barack Obama got elected President, the Tea Party happened. After that cultural movement occurred … you had [people saying], “We have George Bush in office, we have an evangelical as President,” and then we got Barack Obama, which a lot of people falsely associate with being Muslim. And then the healthcare debate happens, which immediately becomes a religious liberty battle. This is a cultural milieu —

Jeff Spross, Film Reviewer, Brightest Young Things/Reporter, Think Progress: It’s a complete upheaval. One of the things that’s interesting about this is we’re not talking about a movie that’s defending Christianity. We’re talking about a movie that’s defending a very specific subset of Protestant Christianity that feels embattled, and is making its point with this movie.

CatherineWhich makes it curious that this film only focuses on the rapture — there’s no Antichrist, no “bad guy” to fight. There is significantly less proselytizing. What can we make of a Left Behind that’s only about the act of rapture itself? Is that an interesting Christian change, or more about let’s just make a movie about things blowing up?

Jeff: There’s two interpretations. One, it’s an entirely cynical act — “We need to be more marketable.” The other more hopeful interpretation is this is prompted by genuine self-reflection on the part of the evangelical community.

It is sympathetic — everyone who falls into the theological rubric of “sinner” is actually treated very well by the film, and have substantive development. The abstract point made by having a Muslim character who doesn’t get raptured is really kind of grotesque. But the way he is presented in his actions scene-by-scene is really sympathetic.

Jack: But also Jews are totally left out of the story. Which is interesting.

And in terms of church attendance, African American and Hispanic Christians are right up there with white evangelicals. And the fact that they’re not a conversation partner in this film …[aside from Chloe’s pastor], they’re just not there.

Esther: It’s too bad, because to talk about this movie as being about a common human experience — as the producers say they’re trying to do, very intentionally — you’d have to make it with a multifaith component. It has to speak to plurality of identity. And it just does not.

Sandi Villarreal, Web Editor, Sojourners: But that’s not the point. This particular brand of evangelicalism says the only thing that can save you is saying this prayer and accepting Jesus into your heart. “Yes, he’s a great guy but he doesn’t believe in Jesus.” And that’s it.

Once in youth group I took an elective course on [premillennial beliefs about] end times. They laid out the timeline — this is going to happen then. Left Behind is that exact timeline. But this did a bad job of assuming that everyone who watches is going to get that. It is so gentle in how it portrays people left behind — it is not a clear condemnation. It is, interpret for yourself. Which is not a very effective form of evangelism.

Esther: I mean, the only characters we know who were raptured was a mom that didn’t say much, and a boy who only asked for material things and then got all of them.

Jack: That’s true! They go to the mall, and the boy just articulates his desire for stuff. And then they go home to an American flag —

Catherine: And on the airplane, half of First Class was raptured but no one sitting coach was, except the kids.

JeffThese are all signs of comfortable, middle-America Americana. This whole movie feels to me like an act of instinct. Like there was no strategic or meta-level thought that we’re discussing put in there at all.

It feels very well-intentioned, but questions of diversity, engagement with the current moment — none of that happens.

Esther: It feels like they went back to source material and said ‘Let’s rewrite the script,’ not ‘Let’s reimagine the story.’

When the first Left Behind movie came out, it made more money than Toy Story 2. There’s definitely a market for it. But the first version was shown in churches, for youth groups…[Writer/Producer] Paul LaLonde doesn’t want to make another, what he called, “church basement movie.” He’s been explicit about wanting to get this to a bigger market.

Brendan Byers, Student, Princeton Theological Seminary: So then what does this say about our, for lack of a better term, our present theo-political environment that this is still marketable? This is a movie that’s 15 years out of date. What’s the redeeming quality? What does it do now that the other didn’t do 15 years ago?

Jeff: I think we’re talking about a stumbling continuation of an awakening to the Christian movie market. It makes you wonder if we’re part of a cultural moment.

Esther: Well, there are 14 bible movies coming out in 16 months.

Brendan: But is it a cultural moment or is it election season? Let’s be honest. You get a bunch of politicians to say, “I support this evangelical movie,” and you get a couple million votes.

Jack: I think it’s a nostalgic remake. The kind of movie that the intended audience wants to see, precisely because it harkens back to a time when it could be more proselytizing.

Catherine: “God’s not dead.”

Sandi: Exactly. And it legitimizes the story by saying, “Look who we drew to be in it, look at the budget we got for it.”

CatherineWell, there are some different movie markets happening. Willie Robertson [from Duck Dynasty] is an executive producer on this film and did God’s Not Dead, which is very different than a Darren Aronofsky film, or a Ridley Scott film. So there’s a spectrum to this.

Here’s a quote from LaLonde: “We wanted to hold true … to the Scriptures and make sure we didn’t change any of the biblical realities. …We didn’t do a ‘Noah’ on the script. What I want is when people walk out of the theater, they’re asking, ‘Is that really in the Bible?’ And unlike ‘Noah,’ the answer is yes.”

Thoughts.

Jeff: This! This is American civic religion that has gone so deep that we don’t realize that it isn’t actually based on Scripture. None of this is rooted biblically. The words have been lifted out of their concrete meaning at the time and moved into a totally different context of American culture in the last hundred years or so.

Jack: Okay. Left Behind is just as extra-biblical as Noah. Most of the rapture narrative, like all narratives, has been created and reinvented based off of a smattering of scriptures over time. But this one just happened to be reimagined particularly in the context of America 2014. It’s being reinvented in front of us as we watch this film. It’s a premise that’s just as extra-biblical as Aronofsky’s Noah. In some ways Left Behind is a Christian midrash.

Catherine: SandiI think your earlier observation, that maybe this film can’t work as evangelism, is a really good one. Do you think it does?

Sandi: I think they were so careful to try to not offend people that they didn’t make it clear enough what the effect of nonbelief was.

JeffThere’s a theory of moral innocence here, but what the cutoff is, where you cross over, is actually very important. This movie explicitly avoids trying to figure that out.

Esther: There are many scenes in the beginning when Chloe is talking about her mom, but we don’t see a scene where she says right out, “My mom is a crazy Christian,” or a scene where Nic Cage says, “They’re all in heaven with God.” You only see immediately before and after the part of the conversation that directly includes God and belief. You get the suggestion of meaningful interactions and open conversation about religion, but they’re not actually putting any of that on screen. We only hear the name ‘Jesus’ once.

Sandi: So if you are a person of faith — what do you get from this?

Catherine: I’m not sure. When the theology is “we must be explicit,” but the way you deliver it is, “let’s not be too explicit,” it’s kind of duplicitous, actually.

Esther: As a nonreligious person, I do not think that most nonreligious are going to walk about of this movie asking questions — if they see it at all. If the creators are looking for an audience people who do identify as religious but not this particular brand of religiosity, they might be a little more successful at generating conversation and questions. But not in the ways the producers expect.

Brendan: For people find themselves to be socially or religiously conservative — I think what they walk away with is one, [the protagonists] weren’t jerks. Two, they were right. And three, people at the end figured out they were right.

JeffLeft Behind just feels like cultural exhaustion from the evangelical community. Like they’re no longer willing to bring the hammer down.

Jack: I think it’s fitting because this brand of evangelicalism feels left behind. It’s still trying to speak truth to power even though they feel like no one is listening.

Jeff: There’s a sense of nostalgia for the debate between evangelicals and atheists. Like, “Remember when we were there? We’re still at the table, right?”

 

WATCH the trailer for Left Behind here.

Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners.

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