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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Left Behind prequels: "Countdown to the Rapture"

Yesterday I finished reading book 3 of the "Left Behind" prequel series. The prequels, called "Before They Were Left Behind," detail the lives of Nicolae Carpathia, Rayford Steele, Buck Williams, and other characters from the popular series in the days directly leading up to Left Behind. Book 1, The Rising, details the sinister circumstaces surrounding the conception and birth of Nicolae, and also tells the story of the childhood of Rayford Steele. Book 2, The Regime, continues the rise to power of both men (Nicolae in business and government, Rayford in college and aviation), and book 3, The Rapture, brings things right up to (and past!) the time of the actual rapture, which occurs partway through the book.

I have to say, I approached the prequels with some interest. Although I've seen the movie version of Left Behind, I've never read any of the novels before now. But frankly, I've been a little bit disappointed in these prequels. It's not that the story isn't interesting... it's more like there are too many stories going on at once! Every chapter, and sometime several times within the chapter, for all three books the perspective shifts between characters and often between countries, and they never dovetail (actually, Buck winds up on Rayford's plane at the end of book 3, but the stories don't intersect until then). I actually found it difficult to invest myself completely in any of the stories, because we never stuck with the same story long enough. Sort if like trying to watch TV with someone who keeps switching channels.

And you know what? I think I should take back what I said about the story being interesting, because sometimes it's as dry as a bone. Particularly the first two books have a distinct "prequel" flavor, kind of like Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. In both cases it's interesting enough to learn the backstory, but the story itself isn't that interesting. So Nicolae was a test tube baby. So he had his mother and fathers (!) killed. So he has a lot of people killed. So what? He's a cold sucker. He's the ANTICHRIST, for goodness sake. We KNOW he's a bad guy!

One thing I will give the series... when the rapture happens in the story, suddenly things come alive! I almost felt like I had been raptured myself! Except for the parts where the authors describe stories of real people in detail (come on... we know the Through Gates of Splendor story already, and we know Billy Graham is a cool guy, and we all probably feel pretty sure they'll be getting rewards in Heaven) and pretend that Bible characters will somehow quote themselves stright from King James when they meet Jesus in Heaven (how corny! Mary will recite The Magnificat to Jesus? Really?)... except for those parts, the post-rapture Heaven scenes are pretty great! I love their ideas of how Heaven might be, how it might feel to have a glorified body, what might be in the place that Jesus has gone to prepare for us. I kind of wish that LaHaye and Jenkins had kept it in the realm of fiction, though, and not tried to teach us so much church history. There are a plenty of good books for that. I would have preferred made-up characters and rewards rather than the Bible school lessons. How about writing some interesting people into the story and then telling us about their rewards? That would have been more fun than stories of the Church Fathers, even though I highly respect those saints who have gone on to be with Jesus and in other contexts I am riveted to their stories.

It would have been pretty hard to write those scenes without including Bible characters, it's true, but I think it would have been more interesting to give them words to say that weren't directly from the recorded Word of God. When someone only speaks two or three times in the Bible, doesn't it stand to reason that they might have other things to say than those few lines? Ironically, the characters that are given more to say... Peter, for example... are generally the ones who had more lines to choose from in the Bible. (An exception would be Joseph, earthly father of Jesus... his scene is quite touching. I wish other characters would have been handled that way.)

I've been reading LaHaye's book Revelation Unveiled, which details what he believes about the end times; his theological ideas form most of the basis for the entire "Left Behind" saga. I found that book to be much more interesting than these prequels. But you know... maybe the problem is that I haven't read the original series yet. Maybe I should have started with Left Behind like the rest of the world. Maybe then this batch would have had more "Oh yeeeeah! Now I understand!" moments. So I'm looking forward to starting the regular series very soon. But I don't think I would recommend the first two books of the prequel series very highly for the uninitiated... they honestly might scare people off. I think The Rapture might be a good entry point into the series, but maybe save the others until you've exhausted the other parts and can't stand to leave the series quite yet.

POSTSCRIPT: This morning I read the first chapter of the original book, Left Behind. I was disappointed to find that most of the good parts from The Rapture are actually repeats of the first chapter or so from Left Behind, almost word for word! I expect some repetition in chapter 2 as well, judging from what was in the other book. How disappointing.

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