On December 31, 1995 something momentous happened. Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins released the book Left Behind, a fictional account of their (somewhat fanciful) ideas of what the rapture would be like, as well as the 7 years of tribulation that followed. The book spawned a series that would ultimately involve 16 novels and would sell 65+ million copies. Many people read the books, many people hated the books, and many people presented the books as the reason for rejecting various points of end times theology (properly known as eschatology) for the next 20 years (if I had a dime for every time I found myself in a conversation about eschatology where someone brought up a series of fiction books as their reason for rejecting Biblical doctrine…). But that wasn’t the end of it all. On October 31st, 2000, the Left Behind series hit the big time when it (*gasp*) became a movie. Not only did it become a movie, but it was a movie that starred Kirk Cameron (the Tim Challies of “Christian” cinema) as well as that guy from Walker, Texas Ranger…
…and some other show from the eighties that I cannot remember the name of.
This was one of the first “big budget” Christian films ever ($4 million), and I’ll never forget seeing my first “Christian” movie: confused shock. Shock that people on my TV were talking about Jesus in a way that wasn’t idiotic or revealing a writer who apparently slept through every post-flannel board lesson in Sunday School. I was weirded out, but mostly because I wasn’t used to seeing Christians act like Christians on my TV. It was obvious that this was no Hollywood-quality production but it was definitely something I was not used to seeing. That confusion and novelty factor was likely what gripped me the most about the movie.
Now that Hollywood has basically remade everything that was ever any good, they’ve remade Left Behind too. This time, it was staring Nicolas Cage rather than Kirk Cameron, and the budget was 4x bigger ($16 million). On October 3rd (opening night) I sat through the remake.
Here’s a summary of the movie and some thoughts (both positive and negative).
1. The Movie in a Nutshell:
– The story is somewhat the same as the original movie…
– Nicolas Cage is the pilot (Raymond Steele** – the biggest-name actor in the movie, though there are several familiar faces), and the other characters are Buck Williams (an investigative journalist), Chloe Steele (Ray’s daughter), Irene Steele (Ray’s wife), Remy Steele (Ray’s son) and Hattie Durham (the stewardess who Ray hopes to have a fling with). There are other characters, but they’re all somewhat minor and there as filler.
– Buck Williams, who is a famous reporter, arrives in the airport and is questioned by a somewhat crazy “Christian” woman who comments on how he’s traveled the world and seen a ton of earthquakes. She asks him if he (the unbelieving reporter) recognizes them as the “signs of the end times” that they apparently are, and Ray’s daughter Chloe (who’s home from college for her dad’s birthday) pipes up and brings up the philosophical problem of evil (basically “why does God cause all these earthquakes if he’s so loving?”), to which the lady says “The Lord works in mysterious ways”.
– Chloe then sees her dad at the airport flirting with Hattie (the stewardess) and is crushed. She confronts her dad in a round-about way.
– Ray pretends like it’s nothing, lightly lectures Chloe about being nice to her mother (who’s now “drank the kool-aid”, meaning converted to Christianity), Buck Williams flirts with Chloe (by talking about the problem of evil) and gets her number.
– Chloe goes home, talks with her mom and things get uncomfortable as she refers to the lady at the airport as “crazy”. Her mom takes it seriously, Chloe leaves awkwardly, goes to the mall with her younger brother (who looks around 10 years old) and watches some break dancing.
– Buck gets on the plane, and the plane takes off shortly after Ray flirts with Hattie.
– While at the mall, Chloe’s brother runs off. She finds him, scolds him and hugs him, and mid-hug he vanishes in a small puff of smoke. Every baby at the mall disappears, as well as all the toddlers, and a handful of adults. Immediately (like within seconds), people start kicking in the windows at electronics stores and stealing televisions.
– In the air, all the babies & toddlers, a stewardess and the copilot, as well as a half dozen other adults, all disappear. Everyone freaks out.
– The phones stop working (apparently the rapture is accompanied by an EMP or something), and some of the electronics on the plane stop working as well.
– Chloe’s car is destroyed, she eventually ends up at a hospital (trying to find her brother), finds an empty maternity ward, and discovers that the phenomenon is global. On the plane, nobody knows what’s going on and theories fly (aliens, parallel universes, wormholes, etc.). Everyone agrees it wasn’t a wormhole.
– Chloe finally makes it home, finds her mother’s necklace and rings in the shower, and then realizes it’s God…so she throws a bible through a window.
– In the air, Ray tries to find a common denominator to the disappearances and finds out that the missing stewardess was a Christian (she had a Bible study in her day planner, so obviously…). Ray starts crying and then another woman in first class (after awaking from doing drugs in the bathroom) mentions that she knows what’s going on too since she went to Bible camp as a kid (everyone went to Heaven…or something…).
– Chloe runs from her house to her mom’s church to find the church empty with the pastor there. He goes off on a speech about how he used to know it all, but “you have to believe”, which apparently he didn’t do (a fact about which Chloe proudly reminds him).
– Chloe runs off to commit suicide.
– Ray’s plane gets into a minor collision with another plane (with nobody flying it) and starts leaking fuel. Buck calls Chloe as she’s about to jump off a bridge (the phones apparently start working again) and Ray apologizes for lying to her and tells Chloe how much he loves her. Chloe, at some point, puts on her moms necklace (I forget when exactly, but apparently it suggests she becomes some sort of vague theist, which is apparently all one needs to do; she doesn’t say a word but just puts on the necklace. The necklace has a fish and a cross on it, so that’s enough, right?).
– Ray tells Chloe that the plane cannot land since all the airports are closed, and Chloe finds a closed section of highway for the plane to land on.
– The plane lands, everyone gets off, and Ray delivers the epic line “It looks like the end”, to which Chloe replies “No, this is only the beginning”. The movie flashes Mark 13:32 and a cover of the Larry Norman song “I wish we’d all been ready” plays.
Yup. That’s about it in a nutshell.
2. My Positive Thoughts:
– I’m glad that the movie exists. If anything, it may give opportunity to have some gospel conversations with people.
– The movie isn’t as horrible as some suggest, at least on the quality front. People who mock the acting, soundtrack, special effects, etc. have apparently never seen actually bad “Christian” movies. It’s far more endurable than many other “Christian” cinema out there…
– I’m glad that someone in is at least trying to make the effort to use film to bring the message of Christianity to the world or make movies for a Christian audience. It’s about time that Hollywood started targeting the Christian market with some measure of seriousness. Even the recent gong shows (like this movie or this movie) reveal that the Christian market has tremendous potential, and only one movie has really decently exposed the potential of that market. There are untold billions to be made if Hollywood takes evangelicals seriously and puts in the effort to understand us as a market (I’m open to consulting offers).
3. My Negative Thoughts:
I’ve got a lot of negative things I could say about the movie, but I’ll try to explain my dislike for the movie in a few simple statements:
A. It has nothing to do with actual Christianity.
Now I’m not being nitpicky or taking apart the bad theology that surfaces in the movie (though there was lots). What I mean is that this movie doesn’t actually portray Christians or Christianity, but rather Americana Religiosity. I’m talking about the cultural Christianity that one finds in large swaths of America where “being American” is somehow related to “being Christian”. A big part of the reason I say that is because throughout the entire movie, nobody even mentions Jesus Christ at all.
No kidding. He doesn’t make an appearance in a single conversation.
People talk vaguely about “God”, and the “need to believe”, but nobody talks about Christ.
Nobody mentions him.
Now I’m not complaining because people don’t talk about the things I want them to talk about. If people would have said “Jesus” a few times in the movie, that wouldn’t have fixed things.
The real problem wasn’t that Christ was not mentioned, but rather that nobody shows any understanding about him whatsoever and people somehow “get right with God” in the movie without Christ or the gospel being a part of it. The “good news” in Christianity is “good news” about Jesus. The “message” of Christianity is, at it’s essential and uncompromisable core, about Jesus Christ.
B. It wants nothing to do with actual Christianity.
Before the rapture, all the Christians in the movie are either actually annoying/crazy. That describes the woman at the airport. She runs up to Buck, mentions how he’s seen lots of earthquakes, refers to Matt. 24:7 and then asks him if he thinks they’re in the “end times” (as if unregenerate men look at the world and make that leap). Other are simply annoyingly stupid. That describes Irene Steele (Ray’s wife). She talks to Chloe about the end times because she wants Chloe “to be ready”, but apparently never mentions Jesus. She apparently doesn’t understand the gospel in a basic sense. She doesn’t seem to know that “being ready” means “knowing Christ” rather than “knowing disassociated and random facts about the end times but remaining unregenerate”. The New Testament constantly and continually makes this point, basically every time there’s eschatological talk (i.e. Matt. 25, 1 Pet. 3, etc.). In order to “be ready” a person needs to be reconciled to the judge, not the judgment.
I definitely wanted to scream when I watched the Irene/Chloe conversation.
Left Behind is actually a movie that is more of a plane crash thriller than any sort of “Christian” movie at all…assuming that a “Christian” movie has some sort of vague purpose that involves presenting the message of Christianity in some way (which this movie absolutely wants nothing to do with).
In this respect, the original Left Behind was an unbelievably better movie.
C. It shows no understanding of actual Christianity.
Continuing along the previous line of thought, it’s like people in Hollywood (meaning the film industry, not the geographic place) don’t understand Christianity but are committed to not facing that obvious fact. If you want to make a movie and get millions of Christians to pay $15 to see it, you need to show that you understand Christianity (at least a bit). Points A and B are the main illustrations here.
Let’s be serious here: “Christian” movies aren’t aimed at liberals or nominal Christians. They’re already drowning in all the sludge that Hollywood churns out. Hollywood could remake First Blood and some self-professing “Christians” would make an argument that Rambo is “really” a sort of Christ figure (I mean, the movie has “blood” in the title, right?). Christian movies are aimed at the (somewhat) conservative evangelicals that make up the only growing segment of Christianity in North America, but Hollywood doesn’t understand that crowd at all. All Hollywood seems to do is either make fun of us or show that they don’t have a clue about conservative evangelicalism (and don’t really care about learning).
Hollywood shows no interest in understanding us but also wants our money.
One of those things has to change.
4. Various rambling thoughts:
– The humor in the movie was painfully bad. The movie made fun of an old lady with alzheimers, a Muslim, and had a series of “little person”jokes that climaxed with the Muslim kicking the little person down the plane’s inflated emergency ramp. It was painful. No clever dialogue humor, no witty visuals, etc. Just slapstick mockery of little people, old people and Muslims. Maybe I have a far different sense of humor than most, but I wasn’t laughing and only heard mild token chortles in the theater.
– The whole looting spree that started within seconds of the rapture was absolutely hilarious. I mean honestly. A bunch of kids disappear and seconds later, people are kicking in windows and looting. The last time you were at Costco and lost track of your kids, was your immediate reaction to start looting? Is that anyone’s immediate reaction?
– I was laughing at several things in the movie that were not intentional jokes:
– For example, the airline was “PCA Airlines”. Seeing that this was a movie about a pretribulational rapture, I found it rather funny that the name of the airline was coincidentally PCA; those folks definitely deny the pretrib rapture (I kept waiting for some tearful Presbyterian to recognize what had occurred and mutter to themselves”but the Bible never mentions the rapture!”).
– Another thing that made me laugh was how Irene Steele’s pastor was Left Behind, as was Chloe, but nobody else showed up at the church. Apparently her unregenerate pastor shepherded an entire church of believers. I’ll buy that for a dollar.
– If I was involved in the writing process and people wanted the movie to have humor, I may have included some of the following completely missed comedy gold (I’m an equal opportunity offender):
– Tom Cruise could have coincidentally disappeared in a yachting accident on the same day as the rapture, and then Colton Burpo could have been on TV claiming to have taken a second trip to Heaven, seen Tom Cruise, and returned with an encouraging message about environmentalism.
– Chloe could have walked by an Episcopal Church that was setting up an emergency shelter in their gym with their church sign reading “we’re here throughout this period of tribulation to help”.
– A celebrity pastor with really white teeth from Texas could have on CNN giving a “pastor’s perspective” on speculations about whether this disappearance was something to do with “a thing mentioned in the Bible”, to which he could have said “well, I don’t know about that but I know that God loves each and every one of you and wants to turn your pain into your prosperity!” and then tried to sell his latest book “God’s your biggest fan”.
– Some guy could have been wandering through the streets muttering to himself “How in the world could this have happened? I take a literal reading of Genesis and I home-schooled all my kids!”
– Chloe could have walked further down the road to Faithful Word AV1611 Free Will Baptist Church, gone in, and had a guy frantically run up to her yelling “Lady, you gotta go home and burn your cabbage patch kids! I locked mine in a trunk, and look at me now!”
– There could have been a guy sitting a Christian bookstore with a bunch of different study bibles who looked up with a confused look and said “It seems like the Christians are gone but now the gospel will now conquer the whole world and usher in the church age!”
– Brian McLaren could have issued a seven-year moratorium on anyone pronouncing judgments as to whether the rapture has occurred.
– There could have been a great clip of somebody on TBN nervously offering an explanation of why TBN is still on the air at all.
– The movie could have closed off with Bill Maher and Dan Barker preaching the gospel with fire coming shooting from their mouths.
– Rob Bell could have been on some TV show, arguing with the host and saying “No! The Bible teaches that everyone goes to Heaven, not that everyone gets raptured!”
Talk about missed jokes. Feel free to toss out more in the comment thread.
So, that basically sums up all that I’ve got to say.
Feel free to see it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. There isn’t any serious swearing (one “s-word” that I remember) and there’s obviously no sex scenes or nudity or anything, so it’s at least a relatively clean movie that you can see with someone. At least that is worth something.
If you’re like me though, you will either be really annoyed by it or will find yourself providing color commentary and making all the theological jokes that were missed…
** The main character’s name isn’t “Raymond” but actually “Rayford”. Several commenters have pointed this tremendous error out to me, but I kept the error to preserve the delightful banter in the comment thread. I haven’t actually read the Left Behind books and offer this evidence as “exhibit A”. Also, both “Rayford” and “Raymond” are “Ray” when shortened, and I believe “Ray” was the main name by which Nicolas Cage’s character was referred to in the movie.