Apocaliterature and Historical Fiction

NB: This post compares and contrasts a set of books that I have never read (just like a true academic, or a true fundamentalist, er, a true ideologue of some sort ), so any feedback would be extremely helpful.

It is useful to compare the Left Behind series that has been so popular since 1995 in evangelical circles, with the Work and the Glory series since its release in 1990. Both are multi-volume epics that are aimed at the faithful as didactic literature that inculcates its audience into a theological and cultural insider status. Left Behind represents “apocaliterature” while the Work and the Glory takes part in the historical fiction genre. I am interested in the ways that these two series are expressions and producers of popular culture in each community represent different relationships to the presence of God.

In the Left Behind series, God is seen as acting through history in the very near future, in apocalyptic times. The series opens with the Rapture, where the righteous are miraculously taken up to heaven, and continues with the end of days with the rise of the Antichrist and the wars and disasters of the Book of Revelation. The readers are given a peek into the near future and an understanding of the real significance of contemporary geopolitics, letting them know who to watch out for. Security is offered to the readers by letting them in on the secrets of the future of God’s intervention.

In the Work and the Glory series, God’s presence is depicted primarily as occuring in the past, particularly around the early days of the church. The fictional family that is being followed becomes the lens through which the story of the early church, and God’s intervention into history. The readers are led through the miraculous beginnings of this dispensation. They are reassured of God’s involvement with the LDS church.

How do these two series represent the hopes and anxieties of these two communities? For evangelicals, how is God’s coming in the future addressing anxieties about a rapidly changing world which is seen as increasingly secular and hostile? For Mormons, how does the idealized, spiritualized past where God is ever-present reaffirm the rather mundane spiritual life of the modern church?

Of course, the days of the idealized past can be found in Evangelical accounts of the life of Jesus, and Mormonism is not short on accounts of the idealized future, but the popular cultural expressions of these ideas seem to have been put on the back seat in these two series. In other ways, the story of the Restoration is also a story of the end of days, so the differences between the two may not be completely overstated. Nevertheless, there seems to be a significant difference between these two series and how they express God’s presence in history for the believers.

10 Replies to “Apocaliterature and Historical Fiction”

  1. Interesting question, TT. I can’t speak for the Left Behind series, of course, nor can I directly comment on the Work and the Glory series since, like you, I’ve never read either of them. Consequently I can only comment on your assessment of the Work and the Glory.

    It seems what your describing is not unique to Lund’s work, but rather characterizes … well … scripture. Rhetorically speaking, is there a difference between the introduction to the Book of Mormon, which states that its purpose is to remind the children of Israel that God keeps his covenants, and the assurance in WAG that God is behind the LDS church? In fact, isn’t that the rhetorical purpose of biblical documents as well?

    And I think your description of the mundane modern church must qualified by perspective. Perhaps your experience in the church is mundane. To be honest, mine is too, most days. But it sure doesn’t sound mundane when a missionary gives a report in sacrament meeting; miracles occur, prophecies are fulfilled, prayers are answered (to model Luke 7:22 a bit.

    Unless I listen to these kind of stories with a suspicion hermeneutic (which, to be honest, gets depressing after a while), I wish my life could be like that. Well, I think that the rhetorical purpose of scripture and WAG is to remind its hearers that their lives could be like that, if only they believed.

    Work and the Glory, to borrow a phrase, is a Faith Promoting Rumor in published form.

  2. jondh,
    Excellent set of questions. My brief response to the difference between WG and the scriptures actually has to do with the fictional aspect of WG. While of course any text produces its own reality, I think that there is a key difference. Rhetorically, WG presents itself as historical fiction, which I take as quite different from the Heilsgeschichte of the scriptures. Most importantly, the reader approaches both texts differently.

    As for the mundaneness of the church, I think your qualification is importantly. I should have said “relatively mundane” compared to the history of the church and compared to the spiritual life of other charismatic churches.

  3. TT – That’s a good point about readers approashing a text differently. I mean I could tell the story about the lady who bore her testimony in sacrament meeting about praying for the Steed family, but I don’t think that’s the norm.

    Nevertheless, your emphasis on the fictional aspect of WG raises a necessary question: what constitutes fiction? Is fiction a completely made-up event—which WG is not—or can it be a factually-sculpted “myth” (in the “myth and ritual” sense)—which I think much of scripture is.

    Therefore, I don’t know that the different approaches of the reader accout for much since the common purpose of encouraging faith is accomplished with both texts.

  4. TT and jondh,

    WG and apocaliterature are wonderfully combined in a series of novels by Jessica Draper and Richard Draper (BYU Rel. Ed. professor) which are like a Mormon ‘Left Behind.’


    The writing is…exquisite. I came across these gems a few years back. They are too good to be true for those interested in snark material and dramatic readings for small groups of other jerks.

    If anyone here has access to the BYU library or a local Deseret bookstore, please pick up a copy and give us some one liners. It would be a great addition to this post.

  5. Both are pretty much written for profit, WG does a good job presenting the history of the Church, with a little embellishment. However, LB series merely exploits the fears of those who subscribe in any inkling to the Evangelical agenda (not doctrine).

  6. This is a wee bit off topic, but since you brought up Left Behind, here’s an example of a Mormon interacting with that text:

    Before the last book in that series came out, I saw a story on it on 60 Minutes, probing its rampant popularity. They hyped up the imminent release of the last volume, which would cover the actual Second Coming.

    That made me wonder: what would the authors have Jesus say? After all, it wouldn’t be much of a story if he just stood there mute, and if they gave him any dialogue, that would violate the evangelical understanding of “not adding to the scriptural canon” (i.e., the Book of Mormon). So I eagerly picked up a copy to see what they would do.

    The authors thought of a clever way around the problem: when Jesus appears, he basically just quotes the Bible. At one point, though, the text reads something like, “When He spoke, everyone heard the words that were meant just for them.” That seems to indicate an awareness on their part that new sayings/teachings logically must accompany the Second Coming, but an unwillingness to deal directly with it. It was a clever cheat–and a necessarily safe one considering their audience–but a cheat nonetheless.

  7. I think a big difference between the two is the effort towards accuracy employed in them. Gerald Lund’s books are filled with referenced material, studiously researched so that the events described were usually accurate, even if some of the characters were fictional.

    Left Behind starts with a questionable premise of the Rapture, a disappearance of all the righteous Christians 7 years before the final destruction at Armageddon. The rest is based on complete fictionalized views of a possible future, with those “left behind” believers trying first to find out what happened to those who disappeared, struggling with why they weren’t raptured, and then seeking to help others come to Christ even if they were not yet chosen, during the final tribulations when it isn’t good to be a Christian.

    Very major differences in the story lines. Lund’s writing has presence and forethought, while Left Behind left me wanting.

  8. FWIW, I read about 6 or 7 of the LB books (mostly because my mother kept sending them to me) It’s very preachy and not that well written. The story lines were interesting enough – some of the um, interpretations of Revelation topics were really out there. I think my favorite invention was the earthquake-proof building that used ropes and air bubbles. Fun stuff.

    What I remember of it didn’t really speak much on the nature of God, but more on the nature of humanity. (And how easily humanity converts to the side of evil.) Generally, the heroes would pray for things, but they would be more likely to get help in the form of a person, rather than a “verbal” answer to prayers.

  9. I read only the first book in each series, as neither really captivated me with their story telling, and both had what I considered unintentionally laughable parts. Overall, the WAG was better than LB in terms of writing.

    My take, though, is that both represent an idealized portrayal of the doctrines as perceived by the intended audiences. In the Work and the Glory, God is seen as active in the lives of the characters, miraculous events and experiences just within an arms grasp. Left Behind portrayed the fate of those who didn’t measure up, some of whom seemed to get it, and others who didn’t once the reality set in of what had transpired. But there was no mistaking which was a Mormon view of life, and which represented the conservative Christian viewpoint.

    I don’t doubt that lots of evangelicals read the LB series hoping “Thank Heavens I’m not one of them” but secretly fearing that they might be, while LDS readers read WAG with the same sort of vicarious “I certainly would have accepted the Gospel then” satisfaction, while worrying that maybe they really wouldn’t have.

    Both reinforce acceptable cultural norms of their intended audiences using simple right/wrong circumstances, without really putting you in a position to grapple with the complexity of choices and the paradoxes of life, and as such, failed as significant literature for me.

  10. I read the Storm Testament series as a kid but never read the Work and the Glory series. But the ST is similar in showing the Restoration through the lens of fictional characters experiencing the events. The historical fiction genre works really well for Mormons because the Book of Mormon itself could be described as a work of providential history. I do not believe that the Book of Mormon is fiction but I take Mormon’s role as editor/compiler very seriously and realize that the “history” he was writing was abbreviated and approximate (in terms of historical writing) rather than detailed and precise (in terms of presentation of facts/information). I believe that what Mormon writes is factually true but not that it has to be 100% accurate — he did not benefit from nineteenth century German theory re the science of history.

    We can easily imagine President Monson sitting down with the D&C, the volumes of the History of the Church and the Journal of Discourses, together with his own memory/experiences and those that he heard at the knees of his parents/grandparents, and attempting to compile a 500 page book about the Restoration of the Gospel in the Latter-days out of all that. Assuming he includes the entire D&C intact (comparable to Mormon’s inclusion of the plates of Nephi), the rest of the book would indeed be historical and the work would surely focus on God’s hand in directing events, or rather, it would focus on revealing how that was the case. But there could be any number of areas where the book contained factual or event-oriented inaccuracies (nothing that would vitiate the doctrinal teachings or historical lessons being taught, mind you, but simply abbreviated and approximate when compared to a scholarly work of encyclopedic or analytic historical writing). It would be a work of providential history.

    Many or even most of us Mormons are just that way — we see the hand of God moving through time and directing the events of history. Whether genetically or as a product of nurturing, we tend to see things in terms of providential history. So the Work and the Glory series taps right into that element of the Mormon psyche and that’s why it works for so many Mormons.

    (Plus, many Mormons who were the key market for the Work and the Glory series were legacy Mormons who had direct ancestors that had been participants in the events depicted in the Work and the Glory and such Mormons surely read their own ancestors’ experiences into the story being told — some of them with early Church leaders or detractors as ancestors might have even read stories involving their own ancestors directly, so that’s something to consider as well.)

    As much as detractors from our faith want to depict our history as our main weakness, ours is, ironically, a very historical faith.

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