“Left Behind” And The End Of Christianity

"Woe to you, o Earth and Sea, because this movie isn't very good"

“Woe to you, o Earth and Sea, because this movie isn’t very good”

 

So, Nicolas Cage, LoLo Jones, Jordin Sparks, a Muslim and an angry midget are on an airplane…

Sounds like the setup to a joke, but happens in the 2014 movie version of  Left Behind, based on the bestselling series by Christian authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

A brief foreword: I was raised a Presbyterian and have been in churches my entire life. I read the entire Bible when I was in college. There are aspects to the faith (and its practitioners) that I’m not in love with, but I’m not anti-religion or anti-Christian.

So, on to the movie:

Nicolas Cage plays Rayford Steele, a womanizing pilot. Now, I would never condone adultery, but his wife (played by an unrecognizable Lea Thompson) is a humorless evangelist just this side of Carrie White’s  mother. I’d say the movie’s first failure as a recruitment tool is that every overtly “Christian” character either disappears or is a grinding, obnoxious nag.

He’s chastised by his daughter for never being home; his daughter is obsessed with The Big Problem of how a kind and loving God can allow suffering in the world. Well, her questions are about to be not answered, because she’s at the mall hugging her winsome little brother (who looks about twenty years younger than her) when all of a sudden she’s hugging an empty set of clothes. Screams echo throughout the mall as little piles of clothes end up where all the children and some adults were.

Up in the air, Nicolas Coppola/Steele/Cage and his stewardess/squeeze are the only members of the flight crew left, and half the plane is gone. On Earth, all Hell is breaking loose as planes drop from the sky and driverless cars crash everywhere: it seems that Nic Cage is the only non-Christian pilot flying the friendly skies. His daughter, Chloe (I had to look it up, just like I had to look up the name of every other character, because the character development-shocker-sucks) dodges crash after crash, smashing her way through windows and glass doors so flimsy that you wonder how they got installed in the first place. I mean, I knew a guy in junior high who punched through a car window when he was drunk and literally broke every bone in his arm, but I’m supposed to believe Nic Cage’s girly daughter doesn’t see broken glass as an obstacle.

Rayford Steele’s plane has a minor collision with another plane, which was apparently staffed by better people than his because the cockpit is empty, and in between whining “mayday,” he goes through the missing flight attendant’s purse and finds a Bible and an appointment book full of bible-study appointments and figures out (with the help of a kooky passenger-again, for a Christian-produced movie, every portrayal of a Christian is either a kook or a humorless crank) that the Rapture has occurred. Of course, Nic Steele’s been married to a Christian presumably for decades, but never once heard of the Rapture, although he’s probably ignored his wife all this time anyway.

His daughter Chloe is making her way across whatever the hell town they’re in, hearing story after story and seeing that all the children are gone. It’s great that the children are all in Heaven, but boy, God sure ripped a lot of babies out of a lot of mothers’ arms. She finds her childhood church and the pastor’s inside. She’s figured out by now what’s been going on, and is surprised to see him, because you’d think a pastor would have made the final cut. He explains that “the words were on his lips, but he didn’t believe enough.” Oops.

Back on the plane, there’s all kinds of manufactured tension to try to lure me into caring about these people. There’s back-and-forth between an angry dwarf and a Muslim-y guy (they never actually identify him as a Muslim, but he’s wearing a little hat). I guess his name’s Hassid. I had to look it up because, again, I don’t care about these people. There’s also a fun senile old couple. Rayford Cage is in the cockpit with the dashing journalist, trying to figure it all out. Also, it becomes obvious pretty early on that the movie’s writers know nothing about aircraft or aviation and couldn’t be bothered to find out.

"Mission Control and aviation and um...stuff about flying."

“Mission Control and aviation and um…stuff about flying.”

There’s an angry dwarf. He’s clearly angry at God for making him “different,” and I don’t know if the coming tribulation is going to make him less angry. Jordin Sparks is the ex-wife of an NFL player who accuses her husband of masterminding an elaborate plot to kidnap his daughter back by drugging her and swearing the rest of the plane to silence. Of course,his daughter’s been raptured away (again, it seems that a Kind And Loving God could have made His point without ripping another child out of the arms of her parents, but who am I to ask?) She also sings the slow-jam gospel song over the end credits, again making me question whether the movie’s producers actually listened to the music cues before they pasted them into the movie.

There’s a Muslim on the airplane, but no overtly gay people. On the ground, Chloe Steele doesn’t encounter any gay people either, which means legions of well-meaning bigots were wrong and they got raptured away, or that LaHaye and Jenkins were so repulsed by the phenomenon of homosexuality that they couldn’t even envision an apocalypse where gay people are eaten by radioactive scorpions, or whatever’s supposed to happen.

"We couldn't find a gay person who was angry at God."

“We couldn’t find a gay person who was angry at God.”

Early on, the movie shows promise as a camp classic, but takes itself so seriously that the sheer weight of its self-insistence turns what could have been a fun Airport-meets-World War Z-mashup into a dreadful, proselytizing bore. The initial dialogue is terse and clipped (“hey, if we stick to single sentences and one-word answers, they won’t know they’re watching a ‘Christian’ movie!”) but when the sermons come, they have all the nuance and subtle poetry of a Jehovah’s Witness camped out on your porch when you’re late for work. And, there’s no mention of why God is doing this, or what the end reward is for not just simply sticking a gun in your mouth to avoid the radioactive scorpions.

There’s a scene where Chloe Steele is at the top of an electrical tower ready to ‘end it all’. I’m not sure why-maybe it’s the sojourn through the maternity ward full of empty cribs, or maybe it’s the shock of learning her pastor wasn’t any more prepared for Heaven than she was, or maybe it’s the God-awful white-bread country-spiritual music playing, but she gets a sat-phone call from the dashing journalist and her father and somehow clears a path for the plane to land-the movie’s camp status is somewhat redeemed when we learn she’s not only an expert motorcycle rider but also knows how to operate heavy machinery.

Nicolas Rayford Steele Cage lands the plane and there’s a moment of subtle hilarity when the senile old lady says to her equally senile husband, “Honey, wake up, we’ve landed.” The movie ends with the same cliche’ ending used in every apocalyptic thriller from The Thing to every Resident Evil installment: the group standing by the wreckage, looking out onto Armageddon. The bad news is that this is the beginning of the end of the God-engineered collapse of human-society…the good news is that Rayford Coppola is free to bang away with his stewardess girlfriend, since of course, his Margaret White-ish wife has been raptured away, the only remnant being her earrings in the shower drain.

Then the Jordin Sparks slow jam starts, along with a Bible verse, which I think is Matthew 24:36 (“But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only) but like everything else, the movie screws that up, too.

I guess this mess is supposed to make me want to be a Christian somehow.

I guess this face is supposed to make me want to be a Christian somehow.

I guess this face is supposed to make me want to be a Christian somehow.

***

At the beginning of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen To Good People, he relates the account of a husband and wife in his synagogue whose college-aged daughter drops dead of a brain aneurism. The husband, stricken beyond belief, tells Kushner, “You know, Rabbi, we didn’t fast last Yom Kippur.”

“Who,” muses Kushner, “taught these people to believe in a God who would strike a promising young woman dead for someone else’s ritual infraction?”

What follows is an examination of the dichotomy between the patient, loving, kind God most of us were taught to believe in, and the wrathful Old Testament deity Kushner dubs the “monster-god.” It’s no mistake that, since the birth of film, the movie most credited for religious conversions has been The Exorcist. What does this say about us-as spiritual beings or as a species?

"I was #1 until that meddling Pope Francis came along!"

“I was #1 until that meddling Pope Francis came along!”

In no sense of the word can this be considered a “recruitment film.” More people probably joined the Army after watching Stripes than became Christians after viewing this dreck. Left Behind is such a failure in this regard that the only conclusion I can make is that it was never intended as such a tool in the first place. This movie was made to reinforce the worldview of people who not only believe the Rapture and Armageddon are coming, but are looking forward to it, and if given half the chance, would probably hasten the process. All I’m saying is…do you think anyone involved in writing or producing this movie looked in the mirror afterward and said “hey, a lot of planes fall from the sky in this movie…anybody else find that a tad ironic?”

One of my favorite novels has always been William Peter Blatty’s Legion (filmed as the credible but disappointing Exorcist III). The novel’s central character, the Jewish lieutenant William Kinderman, muses, “Why do I hear the words ‘love your enemies,’ and my heart sings?” To me, the concept of loving your enemies is central to the Christian faith, and yes, my heart sings when I hear those words as well. If the Left Behind book series says anything about loving your enemies, the filmmakers did a great job of leaving it off the celluloid.

God isn’t dying…the monster-god is, and personally I’ll rejoice when it’s done.

 

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