Saturday, July 17, 2004
Kristof reads a book: In today's New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof writes his book report on "Glorious Appearing," the latest in the "Left Behind" series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
I've got to give credit to Kristof. He is the only one of the Times' liberal editorial columnists who attempts to see evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics as something more than cardboard cutouts.
Kristof's problem is that he doesn't put enough effort into actually finding out about the people that he's writing about. Kristof's spent weeks in China, Iran and Sudan, but I doubt he's spent two consecutive Sundays in an evangelical church. Or sat down with an evangelical pastor over a dinnertable.
I must confess that I've not read any of the "Left Behind" books. (I'll add them to my wish list and read them if anyone wants to purchase them for me.) The subject really doesn't interest me a whole lot, Jesus will return when he returns and looking for signs and worrying about it is useless.
But I will take issue with Kristof's attempt to draw a link between these popular end times books and the real here and now of Islamic radicalism.
If a Muslim were to write an Islamic version of "Glorious Appearing" and publish it in Saudi Arabia, jubilantly describing a massacre of millions of non-Muslims by God, we would have a fit. We have quite properly linked the fundamentalist religious tracts of Islam with the intolerance they nurture, and it's time to remove the motes from our own eyes.
In "Glorious Appearing," Jesus merely speaks and the bodies of the enemy are ripped open. Christians have to drive carefully to avoid "hitting splayed and filleted bodies of men and women and horses."
"The riders not thrown," the novel continues, "leaped from their horses and tried to control them with the reins, but even as they struggled, their own flesh dissolved, their eyes melted and their tongues disintegrated. . . . Seconds later the same plague afflicted the horses, their flesh and eyes and tongues melting away, leaving grotesque skeletons standing, before they, too, rattled to the pavement."
I don't know what this will look like when it happens, but this description is not found in the Bible ("and then God sliced 'em and diced 'em"). It is instead an imagined horror, designed to sell books and shock the conscience.
I must confess that I've never read any Muslim fiction -- if there is any -- so I don't know how would handle their end-times beliefs. But Kristof would do well to note that it's Jesus (aka God) who's doing the "filleting," not Christians. The book isn't calling on Christians to go out and render judgement on Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.
As my Times colleague David Kirkpatrick noted in an article, this portrayal of a bloody Second Coming reflects a shift in American portrayals of Jesus, from a gentle Mister Rogers figure to a martial messiah presiding over a sea of blood. Militant Christianity rises to confront Militant Islam.
This matters in the real world, in the same way that fundamentalist Islamic tracts in Saudi Arabia do. Each form of fundamentalism creates a stark moral division between decent, pious types like oneself — and infidels headed for hell.
No, I don't think the readers of "Glorious Appearing" will ram planes into buildings. But we did imprison thousands of Muslims here and abroad after 9/11, and ordinary Americans joined in the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in part because of a lack of empathy for the prisoners. It's harder to feel empathy for such people if we regard them as infidels and expect Jesus to dissolve their tongues and eyes any day now.
Kristof's politics are showing. Yes, we imprisoned thousands of Muslims in the wake of 9/11 -- but not because they were Muslim. We imprisoned them because they were in this country illegally, or were fighting our troops in Afghanistan. (Would Kristof rather we just executed them all?)
Actually, what really shows here is Kristof's failure to talk with some intelligent, everyday Christians. Kristof suggests that Christians are in the process of rising up to slay all the Muslims because they are "infidels headed for hell." It's simply not true. If he'd have asked most any Christian, he could've cleared this up.
Q: Do Christians believe that Muslims are going to hell?
A: Yes. But we're not happy about it.
If Christianity is what Kristof describes it to be (which it must be if "Glorious Appearing" is a bestseller), then why do I know people who go secretly (that's the only way they can get into many of these countries) as missionaries to Muslim countries? Why do people risk their lives to share their Christian faith with Muslims?
Christians take no joy in anyone going to hell. I wish I could say the same of Muslims.
I often write about religion precisely because faith has a vast impact on society. Since I've praised the work that evangelicals do in the third world (Christian aid groups are being particularly helpful in Sudan, at a time when most of the world has done nothing about the genocide there), I also feel a responsibility to protest intolerance at home.
Should we really give intolerance a pass if it is rooted in religious faith?
No, we shouldn't give intolerance a pass, but Kristof isn't really talking about tolerance. He's talking about acceptance. In Kristofanity, no religion can say that another religion is wrong, because that is intolerant. Kristof isn't the first liberal to mix the terms "tolerance" and "acceptance," and he won't be the last.
Many American Christians once read the Bible to mean that African-Americans were cursed as descendants of Noah's son Ham, and were intended by God to be enslaved. In the 19th century, millions of Americans sincerely accepted this Biblical justification for slavery as God's word — but surely it would have been wrong to defer to such racist nonsense simply because speaking out could have been perceived as denigrating some people's religious faith.
Kristof acts like it was secular humanists behind the abolitionist movement, instead of Christians.
But hasn't Kristof trapped himself here? Let's just assume for a moment that Christianity is true. Is it then wrong to publicly proclaim Christianity is the only way because it could be "perceived as denigrating some people's religious faith"?
People have the right to believe in a racist God, or a God who throws millions of nonevangelicals into hell. I don't think we should ban books that say that. But we should be embarrassed when our best-selling books gleefully celebrate religious intolerance and violence against infidels.
I believe in the God of the Bible. I believe that Jesus Christ is God's son. I believe Jesus is God. I believe that one day we will all be judged by God. I believe in God's judgement. I believe non-Christians (not nonevangelicals) will be judged and will be thrown into "hell." I take no joy in that. God takes no joy in that. If "Glorious Appearing" describes Christians or God doing that "gleefully," then it is at odds with the description of God found in the Bible.
In his piece Kristof does ask a sincere question that I'd like to take a shot at answering.
These scenes also raise an eschatological problem: Could devout fundamentalists really enjoy paradise as their friends, relatives and neighbors were heaved into hell?
Short answer: Yes. I don't think any Christian here on Earth, let alone Kristof, can truly appreciate what our relationship with Jesus Christ will look like the moment we are made perfect and receive our new bodies. I think that the friends, relatives and neighbors who tragically chose hell, will fade from consciousness. Relationships which seem so important today, here on Earth, will no longer appear as important when compared to our relationship with Christ.
Kristof gets credit for addressing this issue, but he could really benefit from reading the Bible and going to church for a few weeks.
*UPDATE* I touched on it earlier, but I'd like to re-emphasize one point. Kristof is attempting to equate evangelical Christianity with fundamentalist or Wahabbist Islam. That somehow books like "Glorious Appearing" spur the same hatred in Christians that the tsarist forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" spurs in Muslims. The fact that you don't see Christians kidnapping Muslims and chopping their heads off is proof enough that Kristof's concerns are unwarranted. If Kristof popped into a church some Sunday he'd discover that, unlike many mosques in the Middle East, there isn't anyone standing behind the pulpit exhorting the congregation to go forth and kill infidels.
Kristof would do better to spend his time worrying about real demons, not imagined ones.