In Writing the Rapture, Crawford Gribben offers a serious examination of a recent literary phenomenon largely dismissed by academics, as well as by much of the reading public: novels that take as their central event or setting the Rapture, in which (in the evangelical interpretation) the righteous are taken bodily into Heaven and the rest of humanity is left behind on Earth. The evangelical novels in Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s Left Behind series enjoyed enormous popularity in the 1990’s, dominating best-seller lists and leading to highly lucrative media and merchandise franchising. The series inspired a number of derivative novels, novel series, spoofs, and commentaries and led some general publishing houses to embrace prophecy novels as a new marketing genre. In the 1990’s, the series’ remarkable success appeared to reflect the cultural mainstreaming of evangelical Christianity within the United States, where evangelical movements had been seen as occupying a fringe status during much of the preceding century.
Among the reading public, the general impression has prevailed that the Left Behind series, which began with Left Behind (1995), was offering a new kind of entertainment. Gribben responds to that misapprehension by documenting the early appearance and even popularity of prophecy novels in the years before World War I. Gribben notes that most early prophecy novels seem to have been written by Americans, including Titan, Son of Saturn (1905), by Joseph Birkbeck Burroughs; Judgment Day (1910), by Joshua Hill Foster; and The Devil’s Bride (1910), by Milton H. Stine. In his historical discussions, Gribben identifies numerous areas in which fictional conventions are established that are adopted or followed by prophecy novels of more recent years. He also notes, in discussing those later novels, ways in which they acknowledge their debts to their predecessors.
Several prophecy novelists have been evangelist preachers, and Gribben discusses the development of evangelical Christianity, specifically chronicling changes in American evangelism and fundamentalism. He usefully identifies moments in history that provoked changes in those sets of beliefs, such as the Scopes trial of 1925 and the foundation of Israel in 1948. This analysis may help readers understand the “historicism” of those prophecy novelists who believed that some prophesied events had already occurred. Gribben’s depiction of the shifting and malleable nature of evangelical beliefs in the twentieth century lends credibility to his arguments that prophecy novels, by introducing nontraditional elements into the story of the Christian millennium, have altered the course of American evangelical Christianity.
Important in modern evangelical history is the shift of emphasis from postmillennialism to premillennialism, movements in which the “post” and “pre” refer to the time of Christ’s second coming relative to the Christian millennium. Prophecy novelists have embraced premillennialism of a sort identified by theologians as “dispensationalism,” in which a “secret rapture” preceded the millennium. To judge from Gribben’s accounts, this dispensational premillennialism and the prophecy novel genre have developed hand-in-hand.
Writing the Rapture’s focus upon American evangelical novels does not prevent Gribben from identifying important influences from abroad. Of particular importance in his analysis are the works of British author Sydney Watson, who published the first series of prophecy novels in the 1910’s. Watson’s trilogy comprising Scarlet and Purple (1913), The Mark of the Beast (1915), and In the Twinkling of an Eye (1916) was distributed widely in England and America, and it enjoyed a long-lived popularity among Christian readers. Watson’s series established several standard conventions of the prophecy novel. As Gribben points out, Watson even used the phrase “left behind.” What may have proved most pivotal about Watson’s series, however, was the decision he made in choosing to employ a form of entertainment traditionally rejected by those who held sacred the subjects of the...
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