Saturday, May 23, 2009

Book Review: The Paperback Apocalypse

In the course of researching my next novel (and how I love the fact I don’t have to think up new hooks for these articles) I came across Robert M. Price’s The Paperback Apocalypse, a wonderfully thorough overview of fundamentalist End Times literature. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series is neither the first nor the most interesting entry in the field, which has a long and storied history. Left Behind only did for Apocalypse novels what Straight Outta Compton did for Gangsta Rap, propelling the sub-genre into national prominence. The Paperback Apocalypse functions as a road map through this Tribulation territory, with Mr. Price, a professor of scriptural studies at Johnnie Coleman Theological Seminary, as our ecumenical tour guide.

Our Humble Author doesn’t skimp on this trip, making sure to take the scenic route. We begin with genesis—the god Yahweh’s genesis in the moral power struggle between priests and prophets in fifth century Israel. Once an ass-kicking, plague-bringing, god of kingship and nationhood, Yahweh El Elyon morphed into his more-familiar, judgmental self after the Babylonian Exile. With Israel’s upper classes carted off whole hog, the laypeople were (ahem) left behind to puzzle out what the hell could’ve happened. How could their mighty God desert them so callously?

A quick glance at the lives of the prophets provided what we now call the Deuteronomic answer: Israel and Judah’s sins caused God to withdraw His favor. Surprise: it was all King David’s fault. His Royal Highness’ wandering penis had condemned the whole nation. Even if the priests and kings returned (as they would, relatively soon, with the support of Persia’s self-deifying emperor) it could all happen again the next time someone in high office violated the covenant. Better to believe that, someday soon, God would flex his warrior-king muscles and upend the whole status quo, returning to cast the priests into Gahenna. With God dwelling among them, Israel would become a land of priestly people, with all the world’s pagan kings reduced to servile servants of the restored Temple.

Meanwhile, the returning priestly aristocrats did what aristocrats like to do and cracked down on the people’s ad hoc worship. From Persia they brought with them a view of the world we now call Manichean, though back then it was simply Zoroastrian. A Persian prophet and (alleged) contemporary of Moses, Zoroaster taught that all the world’s a battleground between the forces of Good, represented by the god Ahura Mazada and Evil, represented by the antigod Ahriman. Balanced but not equal, Good would surely win out in the end, but until then every human deed, and every historical event, was a proxy battle in their Great War, its outcome a point for one side or the other.

Put these two beliefs together and you’ve got fertile ground to grow yourself a Revelation. Ground lain, Price devotes chapters two through six to an almost-exhaustive dissection of the modern fundamentalist Apocalypse. “Messianic Prophecy”; “The Gospel of the Anti-Christ”; “The Second Coming”; “The Secret Rapture”; all receive point-by-point, Scriptural refutation from our author, who swings a mighty big theological pipe. Actually, he’s Dr. Price, a fact I had to find on the Internet, despite his receiving the degree (in systematic theology from Drew University) twenty-six years before writing this book. Do I smell false modesty? Or is Dr. Price preemptively dodging the anti-intellectual arrows fundamentalists so-love to throw at anyone who questions their beliefs?

Price confesses a personal interest in Apocalyptic literature (calling it a “guilty pleasure” the same words we around this corner of the internet use to defend our love for Bad Movies) but never once mentions his own falling-out with fundamentalism. This isn’t about him; it’s about the indefensibility of modern fundamentalist beliefs. Price (rightly) identifies the “faith” of the Rapture Ready as a collection of half-baked misinterpretations, compounded by willful ignorance of the very Bible they claim to idolize. Like a certain Golden Calf I know, their doctrine breaks under the weight of all these scriptural quotations, from Isaiah to Revelations, which Price helpfully restores to their historical and cultural context, something beyond the keen your average, jumped-up, Southern Baptist.

With a firm grounding in the genre’s “classics,” Price jumps to the early twentieth century, and the first End Times novels. Given the fundamentalist condemnation of novel-reading as a sinful, worldly pursuit—like drinking, whoring, and card playing—its no surprise the first real entry in the genre comes in 1905, with Joseph Birbeck Burroughs’ Titan, Son of Saturn: The Coming World Emperor - A Story of the Other Christ. Now if that’s not a rip-roaring, full-throated, modernist title, I don’t know what is. Can’t you just picture Henry James off to the side, clucking his tongue at it?

From thence we move straight on ‘til morning—past Left Behind (which, fittingly, receives its own chapter at the very end) and right up to more-modern, less-successful, and (believe it or not) less-well-written entries in the genre. Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Hal Lindsey’s Blood Moon. Or William A. Stanmeyer’s Catholic-toned Day of Iniquity: A Prophetic Novel of the End Times. Or James BeauSeigneur’s Christ Clone Trilogy. Or Pat Robertson’s own entry, The End of the Age.

If you have, by now you’re probably pretty pissed at my flippant dismissal of your faith. (I invite you to utilize the Comments button below, and please don’t hesitate to describe the yawning torments of hell awaiting me in the Next World.) If you haven’t heard of these books you probably don’t care, except in an academic sense—marveling at the genre from a distance. Like most speculative fiction (call it “mainstream” as Price does when he reviews "mainstream" Apocalypse novels, like The Stand), fundamentalist End Times novels are the center of a multibillion dollar, international media industry, with more published every year. More, certainly, than anyone could read in a lifetime devoted to the subject.

Thankfully, Dr. Price reads these things for fun, and presents this book as a gift to us. Half-Biblical exegesis, half-book review anthology, The Paperback Apocalypse is just the ticket if you’d like a superficial knowledge of the genre and a thorough knowledge of how to refute its theological underpinnings. Unlike Dr. Price, I make no bones about my personal stake in both projects.

1 comment:

Nathan Shumate said...

FYI, Price also used to be one of the movers and shakers in Lovecaraft studies, publishing Crypt of Cthulhu for many years.