One of the most well-publicized hypotheses regarding the terror of 9/11 is the notion that religious fantasies
played a major role in inspiring the militants of al-Qaeda to launch their suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon. Only irrational fanatics could have been capable of killing themselves for the sake of taking thousands of
innocent lives and destroying three buildings that symbolize Western power and preeminence. Surely the hijackers must have
been enticed and deluded by the rewards promised by Islam to martyrs--instant entry into paradise where they would be served
by "seventy dark-eyed virgins." The lurid and prurient nature of this fantasy has been invoked to account for the
terrorist bombings committed by the Palestinians against the Israelis, as well. In the eyes of the liberal, capitalist West,
fantasies reveal the obscene underside of the puritanical worldview associated with radical Islam. The Muslim terrorist is
capable of launching suicide attacks because he has embraced an immoderately concrete vision of the afterlife that has
spawned in him a kind of psychosis. The belief that Islamist radicals are religious fanatics acting from a delusional
hatred of the secular West or from contempt for the superseded religions of Judaism and Christianity has played no small role
in stifling questions about the ideological factors behind these acts of terror, and about the legitimacy of Israeli policy
towards the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
That the mystifications underlying the mass media discourse on Islamist
terror and the American military response
to it might possess significant theological content of their own comes as little surprise. One may recall the jarring
"slips," such as "crusade" and "infinite justice," terms deeply disturbing to most Muslims, used by the Bush administration in
the immediate aftermath of the attacks of 9/11. Even as these terms were hastily jettisoned under the criticism of
American Islamic clerics, the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has
done much to confirm the view that the actual policy of the
United States has become that of a latter-day crusade against the Arab world, whether in the name of preventing the future use
of weapons of mass destruction or establishing a model liberal democracy in the region. Indeed, one might argue that it is
theological, absolutist notions of freedom and security that are driving the war on terror. This article makes the case that
the destruction inflicted by the United States against Afghanistan and Iraq is no less religious in nature than the terrorist
acts of Islamist radicals by examining the political fantasies behind much of the popular support for the neo-imperialist
policies of the second Bush administration. I first discuss the legitimation for neo-imperialism among intellectuals
supportive of the administration and the popular millenarianism that sanctions militaristic policies seen as fulfilling a
divine plan. In section two, I provide a brief analysis of the best-selling novel series of the 1990s, Left
Behind, which is based on a literalist understanding of biblical prophecy concerning the millennium. In the third
section, I discuss the mode of spirituality that informs the apocalypticism which has become pervasive in American culture--a
form of religiosity that has little to do with historical Christianity but is in fact far closer to the ancient heresy of
Gnosticism. In the fourth section I address how the overarching themes and ideological orientation of this explicitly
programmatic series of novels emerge in mainstream Hollywood cinema. I conclude with a discussion of how Christian doctrines,
particularly that of sacrifice, become derailed in the demonology that takes root from a system of belief far more dualistic than
that of traditional Christianity.
I. Suicide of the Last Men
- In his article on the "fantasy ideology" of the militants of al-Qaeda, published in the Heritage Foundation's journal
Policy Review, Lee Harris proposes that it is wrongheaded to view the attacks on the World Trade Center and
Pentagon as having been driven by political objectives (21-22). Instead, Harris argues, we must come to grips with the fact
that al-Qaeda is interested chiefly in enacting a collective fantasy on the world stage, a fateful and titanic drama in which
they, self-cast as the forces of righteousness, carry on a struggle against the decadent, apostate legions of the
Great Satan of the West. Yet, in spite of the unprecedented destruction wrought by al-Qaeda on 9/11, Harris assures us that
such ideological fantasies--which in effect derail politics from the rational pursuit of strategic interests into the
enterprise of transforming human nature and reality itself--are nothing new. The examples he provides, of groups for whom
politics served as a form of self-aggrandizing theatre, include Nazis, Communists, Jacobins, and even Vietnam War protesters.
Fantasy ideologies, according to Harris, are a "plague" and should be dealt with accordingly, "in the same manner as
you would deal with a fatal epidemic--you try to wipe it out" (35). I will leave aside for the moment the observation that
the act of describing one's political enemies in medical terms has served with disquieting regularity to legitimate massacres
and genocide. Rather, the underlying assumption governing Harris's distinction between politics as the rational and practical
pursuit of concrete objectives and politics as the catastrophic enactment of a divine drama is that the secular West has
outgrown the seductions of absolutist terror--so much so, in fact, that it is slow to recognize fully the true nature of the
threat posed by radical Islam. Harris fears that the West has made itself more vulnerable to al-Qaeda in becoming bogged
down in futile questioning over the ostensible political motives behind the attacks of 9/11, when, instead, it ought simply
to devote its energies to annihilating a foe with whom it is senseless to reason. The conclusion that the liberal democratic
West has effectively exorcised the demons of political totalitarianism and religious fanaticism also surfaces in the
opposition between consumerism as a way of life in Western societies and the ethic of self-denial driving the Islamist
militants, as pointed out by Slavoj Zizek in Welcome to the Desert of the Real, his recent book on 9/11 and the
war on terror. In this particular ideological antagonism, the citizens of the West have become "Nietzschean Last Men," whose
primary concern is the satisfaction of fleshly and material appetites and who react with incomprehension at the suggestion
that the only life worth living is one which is devoted to a transcendent cause. The Muslim radicals, by contrast, display
the attributes ascribed to the Hegelian master--it is they "who are ready to risk everything, engaged in the struggle even up
to their own self-destruction" (Welcome 40).
Yet the opposition between fundamentalist Islam and the liberal West often works to overshadow a significant rift
within the West itself. This is the divide between the "post-historical" social democracies of Europe, which, according to
Robert Kagan, have entered the Kantian realm of "perpetual peace," and the still all-too historical United States, which
remains stranded in a Hobbesian world of unending struggle (3). Kagan's distinction stems from the Nietzschean principle
(which he leaves unstated) that weak nations, such as those of Western Europe, embrace international law as the primary means
of exerting their influence, whereas "brute force" is both the province and prerogative of the powerful (6). Robert Kaplan,
in Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, goes even further to argue that the United States
effectively constitutes a "new imperium" and urges that it should embrace the role of global hegemon (148). What emerges is
thus the contradictory image of the United States as the lone remaining superpower that is at the same time excessively
reluctant to expend the lives of its own citizens as the cost of maintaining its geopolitical dominance--hence its reliance upon
proxies, such as the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, for the hand-to-hand combat, and its dependence upon the
overwhelming destructive force afforded by its advanced technology, as seen in the invasion and conquest of Iraq. Do not
Kagan's reflections on the American practice of power politics--as well as Kaplan's advocacy of "stealth imperialism" by the
U.S. as a corrective to "the self-delusive, ceremonial trappings of the United Nations" (148-49)--provide the murderous
supplement to the monotonous consumerism of the Last Men within the liberal capitalist order?
It has been the province of thinkers who have achieved positions of governmental influence, from the liberal realist
George Kennan to the Stalinist Eurocrat Alexandre Kojève, to explain in frank, "explicitly non-human" terms how the
killing and impoverishment of millions is necessary for the prosperity of the West (Rosen 94). In the case of Kennan,
the central matter is one of maintaining the imbalance of wealth and resources that grossly favors the United States; thus, the
abandon policies that champion "human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization" (Pilger 98). As Zizek
notes, Kennan's words have the salutary effect of tearing away the hypocritical mask of universal prosperity from late
capitalism. But it is Kojève who articulates most forcefully the position that catastrophes always
happen elsewhere and to other peoples. Kojève, a self-taught economist as well as a lecturer at the École des
Hautes Études, where he taught an entire generation of French intellectuals, viewed his high-level position at the
French ministry of foreign economic affairs as an unparalleled opportunity to unify theory and practice. For his idea of the
"post-historical utopia," which served as the philosophical underpinnings for his service to the French state and the
emerging European Economic Community, is erected upon the "murders of millions of innocent persons in fulfillment of Hegel's
observation that history is a slaughter-bench [...] upon which are prepared the feasts of the gods: the residents of the
post-historical utopia" (Rosen 94).
Thus avowedly antihumanist ideas have been increasingly breaking the surface of public discourse after 9/11--whether as the open
advocacy of imperialism by Robert Kaplan or the "new racism" that justifies itself not on the basis of the "cultural" or
"natural" superiority of the West but according to "unabashed economic egotism" (Welcome 149). Yet such
appeals to brute, naked force and amoral national interest run counter to the value system of Christian morality (underscored
by the title of Kaplan's book) that informs mainstream American society. It is instructive here to refer to Zizek's account
of ideology, the function of which is to "combine a series of 'inconsistent' attitudes" inclusive of sentiments of
both assent and critique, so that the "obscene unwritten rules" which sustain power may prevail over the public Law
(Plague 75, 73). Ideology is thus a way to "have one's cake and eat it," providing unity for heterogeneous and
contradictory positions, such as believing in the existence of a Christian God and a moral universe while approving of
tyrannies and massacres in developing countries as the necessary conditions for one's own peace, security, and economic
well-being. Such antagonistic contents become unified through a "quilting point" (point de capiton), an "effectively
[...] immanent, purely textual operation" that becomes comprehended as an "unfathomable, transcendent, stable point of
reference concealed behind the flow of appearances and acting as its hidden cause" (For They Know 18).
The "quilting point" relieves the unbearable pressure wrought by irreducible ideological tensions by means of a
reversal of perspective that magically changes turmoil and discord into harmony and resolve. Zizek's examples of a "quilting
point" include the function of the Jew as the bearer of contradiction in Nazi ideology as well as Saint Paul's reversal of the
view of Christ's death on the Cross, which transformed it from a disastrous setback to the nascent Christian movement to its
greatest triumph. It is my contention that the support of Christians--particularly the Christian Right--in the United States
for decidedly un-Christian policies, such as a neo-imperialist foreign policy, a consumerist lifestyle, and the acceptance of
a global system which condemns entire populations to destitution for the sake of U.S. prosperity, relies upon a "quilting
point" that goes far beyond merely realistic concerns about the nation's security. In fact, it is the very opposite of
security; it is the mass destruction of the planet through the divine will of God that reconciles for these evangelicals the
fact of having to live in the soulless, indolent world of the Last Men with a warlike imperialist foreign policy under the
"third, properly symbolic moment" of an imminent apocalypse. Accordingly, wars are to be accepted not as the means for
securing particular political ends, in terms of cold-hearted realpolitik, but rather to be read--and welcomed--as
signs that the end-times have been set into motion. For the particular configuration of empire, Third World poverty, the
dominance of sinful pleasures in the media, technological hubris, and the legal practice of abortion can only be tolerated by
means of intense fantasies about their essentially temporary nature; such evils may reign at the present but will be swept
away shortly by the punitive catastrophes of God's judgment.
II. Fateful Dispensations
- The view of the apocalypse that has become dominant at present among Christian evangelicals goes by the name
of dispensational premillennialism. Promoted widely in the late nineteenth-century United States by John Nelson Darby, an
Irish-born preacher who became the leader of a new sect, the Plymouth Brethren, after leaving the Protestant Church of
Ireland, dispensational premillennialism emphasizes an account of the end-times based on a literalist reading of biblical
prophecies (Boyer 87-88). Declaring that true Christians would be protected from the horrors predicted for the end-times,
Darby popularized the doctrine of the Rapture, in which believers will vanish into thin air and be taken up into heaven. The
Rapture has held a privileged position in the apocalyptic theology of Christian evangelicals, but evangelicals are divided
about its timing vis-à-vis the Tribulation, the seven-year period when the earth will be overwhelmed by horrors and
catastrophes of supernatural (and genocidal) magnitude. Post-tribulationism holds that the Rapture will occur at the Second
Coming and that Christians will therefore have to suffer through the plagues, famines, and wars along with everybody else;
this remains the viewpoint of a distinct minority that includes a number of survivalists. The view that looms largest in the
public consciousness at present is the "pre-tribulationist" view, according to which believers
will be evacuated into heaven before the onset of horrors. Of the two, the "pre-tribulationist" doctrine--the most widely held
of the premillennialist viewpoints--offers the rosiest end-time scenario for believers and the ghastliest of sufferings for
the faithless. Recent pre-tribulationists include Hal Lindsey, the best-selling author in the 1970s according to the New
Times, and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, co-authors of the Left Behind series that features many of the best-selling
novels of the last decade.
Left Behind, published in 1995 as the first novel in the series by LaHaye and Jenkins, opens with a
into disarray by the mysterious disappearances of millions of people. As is common in the representations of the apocalypse
among evangelicals, the world is paralyzed by an epidemic of plane crashes and car accidents after their pilots and drivers
instantaneously vanish. Not only have all true Christians disappeared, as well as have all children under the age of ten, but
also all fetuses have vanished from wombs. The narrative focuses on the ordeals of those "left behind," that is, former
skeptics and nominal
Christians who, because of the mass disappearances, become converts to the faith. One of the protagonists in the series is
an airline pilot named Rayford Steele, who had been growing apart from his devoutly religious wife.
After her disappearance, he becomes plunged into guilt, and visits the church she had attended, where the senior minister had
frequently preached about the Rapture. A repentant junior pastor whose merely cosmetic faith had failed to make him
dematerialize hands Steele a video made by the senior minister specifically in preparation for this eventuality. "As you
watch this tape," it begins, "I can only imagine the fear and despair you face, for this is being recorded for viewing only
after the disappearance of God's people from the earth" (209).
The episode involving the video is intended as an injection of reality into the world of the novels, which have
themselves been conceived as a kind of paratext to biblical prophecy (co-author Jenkins has said in a TV interview that he
doesn't think that these novels are fiction). Real-life churches enamored of apocalyptic
prophecy have gone to the lengths of making their own videos to explain the Rapture to non-believers after their members have
disappeared. Websites dealing with the apocalypse have special sections containing information for those still on earth in
the wake of the divine evacuation. Yet the intensely programmatic aims of Left Behind--as a fictionalized
treatment of the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies--interpellate the evangelical reader by satisfying the contradictory
demands of a split consciousness. On the one hand, the reader is treated to the spectacle of divine wrath being visited upon
hapless non-believers during the time of the Tribulation--major American cities are reduced to rubble by nuclear strikes, a
meteor storm destroys much of Iraq, 200 million ghostly horsemen kill a third of the earth's population. The evangelical
reader is thus invited to marvel at and enjoy grandiose scenes of carnage inflicted by a punishing God (in Lacanian terms,
the act of perversely identifying with the enjoyment of the big Other); as billions of unbelievers suffer gruesome deaths and
tortures, he or she can remain secure in the knowledge that the faithful will all have ascended into heaven before
these harrowing events take place. On the other hand, the struggles of Left Behind's heroes, who are new
converts to Christianity, mirror (however hyperbolically) the widespread feelings of marginalization and embattlement
among evangelicals living in a society that appears to them hopelessly corrupt, dangerous, and decadent.
In the universe of Left Behind, the Antichrist is a charismatic Romanian politician with the unlikely
name of Nicolae Carpathia. In the span of a few short months after the Rapture, he takes over the position of Secretary
General of the UN, receives possession of Air Force One from an "emasculated" American president, purchases all the major
media outlets around the globe, and wins the support of an overwhelming majority of the globe's population in establishing a
one-world government. Naming this universal regime the Global Community (GC), Nicolae takes on the title of "Global
Potentate" and oversees the mass disarmament of the former nations' arsenals from the GC's capital, the newly rebuilt city
of New Babylon, in Iraq. A scenario in which a pitifully small band of defiant Christians struggle against the might of a
world empire may recall the "heroic period" of the early Church when it suffered persecution at the hands of the Roman
emperors. Christian propaganda focusing on the courage and martyrdom of the saints greatly impressed Georges Sorel, whose myth
of the general strike was influenced by the categorical refusal of the Church to accommodate the ostensibly reasonable demand
of the Roman state to acknowledge the divinity of the emperor. As Sorel saw it, it was the Church's uncompromising stance,
which was judged by outsiders as irrational and foolish, that enabled it to take power once the empire had collapsed (211). The crude theology of Left Behind, however, depicts miracles taking
place with plodding regularity and world events fitting mechanically into proper sequence in fulfillment of biblical
prophecies. The notion that born-again Christians will be exempt from having to endure terrible suffering extends to the
post-Rapture converts who are the principal characters of the series. The two prophets at the Wailing Wall, both converts
from Judaism, routinely incinerate their Jewish and Muslim assailants with fire from their mouths. A full-scale surprise air
assault by Russia against Israel results in the destruction of every single Russian jet without a single Israeli casualty.
When a plague of demonic locusts is unleashed, the creatures sting only non-Christians, causing such agony that they "want to
die but [are] unable to" do so (Apollyon 205). There is a moment of unintended sadistic humor, in which the
authors' avowed philo-semitism reveals its underlying prejudice, when Buck Williams, a member of the "Tribulation Force" of
Christians mobilized to combat the Antichrist, chides his friend, the skeptical Nobel-Prize winning Jewish chemical engineer
Chaim Rosenzweig, for not being more scientifically curious about these supernatural insects, knowing full well that the
locusts' stings will cause him terrible pain. When the older man doubles over with convulsions after being stung, he begs
Buck to bring him some water, to which Buck perfunctorily replies, "It won't help" (Apollyon 265).
The supernatural turns of the narrative of Left Behind indulge the believer's sense of
Schadenfreude: evangelical Christians are depicted as the only people who understand why disaster is befalling the
world; everyone else fruitlessly flails about for answers or, worse, is duped by the Antichrist's explanations. Such smugness
towards mass death and devastation is the result, I suggest, of the merger of American premillennialism and American consumer
culture. For what is the Rapture but the "holiday from history" elevated to a cosmic principle? Moreover, this merger of
millennialism and consumerism accounts for the increasingly wide appeal of apocalyptic scenarios and the recoding of
apocalypse itself. The idea that the saved gain spiritual salvation but are spared physical suffering is a very different
understanding of salvation than that of the early Church and its impassioned embrace of earthly ordeals and
the risk of martyrdom. Indeed, the Rapture as a doctrine appears acutely symptomatic of a people for whom history is unreal
and who have become convinced that disasters happen only to other people in foreign countries. The apocalyptic, as authors as
different as Ernst Bloch and Norman Cohn remind us, has traditionally been linked to hopes for social transformation. The
post-Augustinian revival of millenarianism by Joachim of Fiore was taken over by zealous Franciscans whose anger at the papacy
and the wealthy would leave its mark upon the numerous anarchic sects and revolutionary uprisings that arose against the
Church and nobility throughout medieval Europe. The apocalyptic of Left Behind, by contrast, is uncoupled from
any concrete demand for social justice, and in fact advocates a political stance that opposes peace, especially in the Middle
East, on principle, for the very reason that the Antichrist will dangle the vision of international harmony before a gullible
globe as an irresistible lure for setting up his one-world government. Indeed, such humanistic ideas as religious tolerance,
the rule of international law, and nuclear disarmament are all exposed in the novels as being ruses of the devil.
The categorical rejection of working for peace as playing into the hands of the Antichrist results less in the active
embrace of war as a means of achieving concrete foreign policy objectives than in a viewpoint which greets the outbreak of
wars as confirmation that the Millennium is near. The readiness to approve of wars as fitting into the workings of a divine
plan would make this brand of twenty-first-century American millenarianism an ideological partner, albeit a volatile one, to
neo-imperialism of the second Bush administration. There are, to be sure, less widely known groups of evangelicals whose
millenarian expectations have led them to support nuclear disarmament, human rights, environmentalism, and other causes
promoting for social justice. Indeed, the sharpest critics of premillennialist literalism are to be found among evangelicals
themselves. The eclipse of political and ethical dilemmas by the question of individual salvation among most prophecy
writers, who repeatedly exhort those not yet born-again to accept Christ so that they may escape the horrors of the
Tribulation, nevertheless betrays a fatalistic inertia that causes their doctrines to drift into antinomianism. Take, for
example, the words of doomsday popularizer Hal Lindsey regarding the inevitability of World War III: "It's clearly not going
to get better before Jesus comes; it's going to get worse. Christ's reentry to this planet is to save it from
self-destruction, not to ascend a throne that we have provided for Him" (281). Lindsey is merely one among numerous prophecy
writers who since the Progressive Era have dismissed social reform as utterly futile in combating social, political, and
moral evils, which they believe will only increase as the end-times draw near. Questions of morality thus become
effectively cast aside when politics is reduced to matter of choosing between actions that hasten the end and those that
delay or "distract" from it.
This rationale is explicitly at work in the activities of the so-called "Christian Zionists," evangelicals who,
believing in the decisive importance of Israel's role in the apocalypse, have become fervent supporters for the hard-line,
expansionist policies of the Israeli Right. Christian Zionists raised $14 million in
2001 alone to resettle diaspora Jews in Israel. They have also moved to cut off American financial support to Israel when it
seemed that the Israelis and Palestinians were taking serious steps towards peace--when Ehud Barak, early in his ill-fated
administration, attempted to move the peace process forward with the Wye River accord. In response, the conservative
Christian Israel Public Affairs Committee, which was set up to garner Christian support for Israel, tried to block $1.6
billion in U.S. aid (Gorenberg 169). Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu have recognized the Christian Right as the most
steadfast backers of their aggressive policies against the Palestinians, and the Sharon government frequently provides
expenses-paid trips to the Holy Land for leaders of the Christian Right and holds meetings to discuss strategy with the
Christian Coalition and other groups (Goldberg; Engel). But according to the apocalyptic narrative of the
Christian Zionists, of which Left Behind presents an elaborately detailed illustration, all Jews will have
either been killed or become converts to Christianity by the time of Christ's return.
III. Onward Gnostic Soldiers
- It is thus in their fixation on Israel as the place where the decisive end-time prophecies will be fulfilled that
premillennialist eschatology effectively crosses over into antinomianism--the doctrine that the redeemed no longer need
uphold the moral law. Although the term was first coined by Martin Luther to condemn the views of Johannes Agricola, who
took the notion of justification by faith to the extreme of maintaining that a Christian's salvation cannot be altered even
by the intentional commission of sins, antinomian beliefs can be traced to the Gnostic repudiation of the Decalogue as an
instrument of oppression devised by the tyrannical creator deity, Yahweh, to keep human beings in a state of spiritual
bondage. Saint Paul, like Luther, was acutely aware of the attraction that an amoral interpretation of Christ's sacrifice as
the extirpation of the Law might exert upon new converts to the faith, and so devoted considerable energy in his Letters to
affirming the holiness of the commandments. Early Christianity, to be sure, was an apocalyptic sect; although Paul and the
Apostles believed that the Second Coming was at hand, they discouraged speculation about when it would actually occur.
Instead, they stressed the responsibility of the Christian to lead a moral life after he or she had become converted, that
is, had undergone the symbolic death that leads the believer to a new life free from the dominion of sin. The believer must
now live in the awareness of having died to sin, "but the life he lives, he lives to God" (Rom. 6.10). Contemporary
premillennialism, on the other hand, is almost entirely consumed by the specifics of end-time speculation, and its central
fantasy of the Rapture amounts to a blithe denial of physical death: a fantasy that--if I may be permitted to reverse one of
Luther's most memorable metaphors--squeezes this second life granted by salvation into the bowels leading out of earthly
existence, in effect dispensing with the deeply Christian idea of conversion as a traumatic encounter which slays and
recreates the believer as a subject--in this world.
The question thus emerges as to whether premillennialism represents a deformation of Christian orthodoxy, or if it
springs from an entirely different spiritual tradition. Let us recall here Harold Bloom's thesis that Americans erroneously
believe themselves to be Christian, but are in fact Gnostic without knowing it. In Bloom's view, the exaltation of the self,
the democratic--and anti-intellectual--mistrust of external authority, the vast spaces of the frontier, and the privileging
of experience over doctrine in the churches have given rise to a kind of spirituality in the United States that has little in
common with historical Christianity but is in fact a modern recurrence of ancient heresies. Such religiosity extends as well
to the secular understanding of American nationhood, as the insistence upon the exceptionality of America's destiny likewise
commands the zeal of a religious devotion. For the ancient Gnostic as well as for the American Religion, the individual self
is the irrevocable source of authenticity and truth, over and against any actual or imagined collectivity:
It is not repentance or brotherly love that is the defining attribute of Gnostic salvation but freedom--freedom from history,
the cosmos, nature, as well as from morality itself. Gnosticism holds that the created world (and also the human body and
soul) was designed by the Demiurge as a prison to hold the divine sparks, or pneuma, taken from the uncreated abyss
of light. The politically explosive, even paranoiac character of Gnosticism in both its ancient and latter-day
manifestations can be deduced from its account of the creation, which presents a cosmology in the form of a conspiracy
theory. The minions of the tyrannical creator, the Archons, work to keep humanity in a state of ignorance regarding its own
true, alien nature as well as the dark purpose of the created world. Gnostic salvation thus comes in the form of a
liberating knowledge that awakens human beings to the presence of a divine spark hidden deep within the soul. The American
Religion, Bloom argues, asserts this harsh dualism between spirit and matter in its "deepest knowledge," which is the
conviction of American Fundamentalists "that they were no part of the Creation, but existed as spirits before it, and so are
as old as God himself" (57).
urging the need for community upon American religionists is a vain enterprise; the experiential encounter with Jesus or God
is too overwhelming for memories of community to abide, and the believer returns from the abyss of ecstasy with the self
enhanced and the otherness devalued (Bloom 27).
The Gnostic valorization of freedom at the same time articulates an exceedingly vindictive denunciation of the
physical world, a condemnation far harsher than any perspective found in Christian orthodoxy. The radical dualism of
Gnosticism means that its adherents assume a drastically different spiritual posture from that of the Christian believer;
whereas the latter experiences saving knowledge as the increasing awareness of his or her sinful condition in a divinely
created cosmos, the Gnostic sets out to regain his or her innocence in a world that is the misshapen and
unregenerate product of a malign deity. Thus, Gnosticism, in order to sustain its belief in the innocence of the uncreated
spark, must project all that is baleful and malevolent onto the cosmos itself. The assertion of this insuperable divide
between one's inviolable self and the woeful prison of matter generates an equally intractable sense of indifference to one's
actions in the world, since such indifference, which is actively assumed out of disdain and horror and thus not to be
mistaken for detached quietude, demonstrates the powerlessness of the Demiurge to corrupt the divine spark within. According
to Bloom, the American Religion is likewise defined by the conviction that the world and one's actions in it are irrelevant
to the purity of the self: "If your knowing ultimately tells you that you are beyond nature, having long preceded it, then
your natural acts cannot sully you. No wonder then, that salvation, once attained, cannot fall away from the American
Religionist, no matter what he or she does" (265). Furthermore, if the creation is truly identical to the Fall, and
the physical world reveals the designs of an antagonistic deity, then the sacrosanct self becomes defined according to its
hostility against the order of being. For the American Religion's worship of freedom is at the same time a war against
otherness, which it understands as "whatever denies the self's status and function as the true standard of being and of
value" (Bloom 16).
The premillennialist doctrine of the Rapture is thus distinctly Gnostic in character, as its image of mass ascent
recalls not only the taking into heaven of Enoch and Elijah in the Hebrew Bible (both of whom are central figures in the
Gnostic lore of the Kabbalah) but also the crucifixion of the Gnostic Christ, who, according to the heretical accounts, did
not suffer a shameful and agonizing death but was instead transfigured by the bliss of illumination. The proximity of
premillennialist eschatology to the heretical religiosity of the Gnostics and the enormous gulf separating it from Christian
orthodoxy also becomes apparent in the fact that Left Behind emphatically breaks with the doctrine of original
sin, as all children under the age of ten, as well as the unborn, are transported into heaven. What is astonishing is how
this typically secular belief in the "natural innocence" of human beings, often derided by religious conservatives as a
shallow, overly optimistic understanding of human nature, surfaces in a narrative in which the majority of the world's
population will be annihilated in horrifying catastrophes. There is, however, no contradiction that American Gnosticism, in
its very creedlessness, has not yet been able to unify, least of all the perhaps altogether unprecedented phenomenon of an
imperial eschatology--the convergence of millenarian fervor and imperialist domination that currently informs the foreign
policy of the Gnostics of the American Right. The early, pre-Constantinian Church, Jürgen Moltmann notes, prayed "may
thy kingdom come and this world pass away," but once Christianity became the official religion of the empire, the imperial
church came to pray instead "pro mora finis," for the delay of the end (162). The know-nothing eschatologists of the
Rapture, on the other hand, espouse an imperial politics while praying the prayers of the disinherited who yearned for divine
intervention to destroy the empire!
The contradiction of an imperialist apocalypse is thus a coherent manifestation of a heretical spiritual tradition
that has survived systematic persecution by taking on forms which mask its origins. The God who works miracles in
mechanistically fulfilling the predictions of his prophets exhibits aspects, on the one hand, of the God of the Pentateuch
who rains frogs on Egypt and leaves manna on the desert floor every morning, and on the other, of the Demiurge derided by
Captain Ahab for his automaton's lack of creative intelligence in slapping together a jerrybuilt cosmos. According to Bloom, the American Religion is defined by a startling reversal of traditional Gnosticism and worships the Demiurge as God.
In the contemporary instance, a God whose works are both visible and historical becomes not the subject of ridicule (as was
the case for the ancient Gnostics), but rather idolized as a radically anthropomorphized divinity. Such a reversed
Gnosticism belongs nonetheless to a rich and vital tradition of American thought and culture, as Emersonian self-reliance and
the flourishing of antinomian dissent in the New World reflect unmistakably Gnostic preoccupations. In this new millennium,
Gnostic forms of thought have become commonplace in popular culture, thanks in no small part to the ubiquity of New Age
thinking that buttresses everything from conspiracy theories about UFOs to the psychobabble of our therapeutic culture.
Gnostic concepts also dominate treatments of religious themes in films and literary works not distinguished by any explicit
programmatic intent. Two recent Hollywood films, ostensibly about the nature of faith--M. Night Shyamalan's
Signs (2002) and Bill Paxton's Frailty (2001)--attest to the insidious power of Gnostic doctrines
to deflect ethico-religious dilemmas into fantasies of national idolatry.
IV. Post-Ironic Affirmations
- In Signs, Mel Gibson plays a former Episcopalian minister named Graham Hess who has recently lost his faith
death of his wife in a tragic road accident. The film opens with a shot of large, mysterious patterns set into the cornfield
near his farmhouse, where he lives with his two small children and younger brother, a former baseball player named Merrill Hess,
Joaquin Phoenix. Shrugging off the crop circles as a prank, Graham remains defiantly skeptical in the face of mounting
evidence that an alien invasion is imminent. When the evening news shows UFOs hovering over many of the major cities of the
world, Merrill suggests to Graham that there might be a divine purpose at work behind their arrival. Graham curtly dismisses
any such notion of providence, saying that the last words of his wife, "swing away," were spoken under the haze of
pain-killers which caused her to fixate on a memory of watching Merrill playing in a baseball game, and that this incident
proved to him that the cosmos is ruled purely by chance. Once the aliens attack, however, Graham realizes that his refusal
to believe in the aliens' existence has endangered the lives of his family, and so renounces his skepticism. At the film's
close, when Merrill confronts an alien that has taken his nephew hostage, Graham suddenly recognizes the true import of his
wife's final words--he directs Merrill to the baseball bat mounted in the wall behind him and instructs him to "swing away"
at the extraterrestrial, thereby saving the life of his son. Even his son's asthma proves providential, as an attack closes
his lungs and thus saves him from the toxic gases emitted by the alien.
Apart from the blatant consumerism of the film's theology, in which the workings of God are made to fit the demands of
a neat and tidy Hollywood resolution (God reduced tautologically to the mere function of deus ex machina),
Signs is notable for its dimensionless literalism, its outright lack of metaphoric depth in its portrayal of the
aliens. Science fiction, as a speculative genre, is rich in allegorical potential--one need only to call to mind the parable
of Western imperialism in H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, in which Great Britain gets to suffer the fate it
inflicted upon the peoples it colonized. In Signs, by constrast, the aliens do not "stand for" anything at all;
still less do
they incarnate "something outside the rational chain of events, a lawless impossible real," to which, according to
Zizek, the birds in Hitchcock's film attest (Looking Awry 105). The aliens' sole purpose, rather, is to serve as
the pretext for the dubious conversion of the film's protagonist.
In the "post-ironic" age we are now said to inhabit (especially after 9/11), in which one is called upon to renounce
excessive skepticism and to embrace the responsibilities born of a new solemnity and earnestness, the very structure of the
suspense narrative undergoes a dramatic shift. In earlier narratives about the supernatural, the genre of the "fantastic" as
elucidated by Tzvetan Todorov in his classic study, the primary tension often emerges from and is defined by a
protagonist's--and the reader's--activity of questioning whether or not ghosts or other paranormal beings really exist. The
strategy of the post-ironic film about the supernatural hinges upon the surprise disclosure that the protagonist, with whom
the audience has identified from the beginning of the narrative, is already dead. This narrative turn was made famous by
Shyamalan's earlier film, The Sixth Sense (1999), and also by Alejandro Aminabar's The Others
(2000), both of which interpellate the viewer as a ghost that has refused to acknowledge the fact of his or her own death.
What these films seek to accomplish, whether by therapeutic ministrations or by the realization that death bridges two
extensions of monotonous life, is the domestication of what Zizek, following Kierkegaard, calls the "ultimate horror," which
is not death but the inability to die (Ticklish Subject 292).
To get a better sense of the ideological shifts at work in the post-ironic age, let us imagine a version of
Signs made according to an alternate set of symbolic coordinates. In a perhaps more traditionally "ironic"
version, Graham, instead of being convinced of God's nonexistence after the death of his wife, actively inveighs against
God as being cruel and malicious. Indeed, he would look upon the alien invasion as another instance of a bored and sadistic
deity making a plaything out of human fate, that God's gratuitous reaping of human life is no different from the aliens'
"harvesting" of human victims, and even raising the blasphemous suggestion that God himself is an alien. Such a film,
regardless of whether it would go on to refute or validate these hypotheses, would not only achieve the narrative coherence
missing from the existing Signs but would also directly confront the influence of Gnostic cosmology and its
valuations. For what is at stake in Gnosticism is the human will that--often unwittingly--turns God into the
devil. Indeed, in this re-imagining of Signs, the aliens would indeed come to represent something--the
repressed alien God who was once identified with the blissful, uncreated abyss but now returns in the guise of the
exterminating deity of a wished-for Armageddon.
Signs, by contrast, presents the audience with a false wager, a dilemma about the existence of God that
remains extrinsic to the strange events linked to an alien invasion, being instead programmatically foisted onto the eruption
of the marvelous. As mentioned earlier, when Graham and Merrill first talk about the arrival of the alien ships, Gibson
sternly rejects Merrill's view that this fantastic event confirms the existence of a providential God governing the structure
of the cosmos. The film therefore proceeds to muddle the distinction between faith and belief--that is, while faith is
related to a
binding symbolic pact, such as the covenant between God and Abraham or the Christian understanding of Christ's death on the
cross, one can "believe" in the existence of God (or in other deities or spirits for that matter) without
necessarily having "faith" in Him, as in The Brothers Karamazov, where Ivan Karamazov condemns God for being
unjust and unmerciful. Instead of developing Graham's lack of faith as a refusal of the paradoxes of theodicy,
Signs suppresses the question of faith by displacing it onto that of belief--Graham's lack of faith in
God translates seamlessly over the course of the film into his unwillingness to believe in the menace posed by the
aliens, even as newscasts show armadas of flying saucers preparing to land and one of his neighbors is attacked by them. The
narrative takes pains to emphasize the fact that his refusal to see the invasion as proof of God's existence is what keeps
from him taking reasonable steps to defend his family. In the film's ideological universe, God can be counted on to
demonstrate in astonishingly explicit terms that every tragedy or loss unequivocally serves higher and beneficial purposes,
while skepticism is revealed as nothing less than a denial of reality itself. Signs thus shares with
Left Behind a world in which the unbeliever commits the sin of stubbornly persisting in disbelief
regarding the objective miracles of the alien invasion or of the Rapture that takes place before his or her eyes. The fact
that belief is validated by miracles experienced on a collective and public scale turns any skepticism into a kind of
psychosis in the face of cataclysms being meted out by divine power.
It is impossible to overlook the ideological revision of Christianity at work here, in which the believers are
protected by a God dealing in miraculous contrivances. The very crudeness of a consumerist theology in which belief draws the
reward of earthly well-being undermines the traditional Christian idea that faith exposes the believer to suffering and
hardships, often with tragic consequences. If Signs were about the properly Christian dilemma of faith, Graham's
belief in God might in fact lead him to place his children at terrible risk, not the other way around. He would do this not
because he doesn't love his children, but rather because faith, as the suspension of the ethical and the universal, demands
that no other relationship come before the relationship of the faithful with God. I am taking Kierkegaard's reading of the
story of Abraham's call to sacrifice Isaac as paradigmatic for the Christian conception of faith. The recent Gnostic
rewriting of this tale in Bill Paxton's Frailty (2001) proves quite instructive in its distance from
Kierkegaard's interpretation, with divergences that lay bare in compelling ways the spiritual dimensions of the new imperial
V. My So-Called Jihad
- Set in a small town in Texas in the late 1970s, Frailty stars Bill Paxton (who also directs) in the role
of Meiks, a
working-class father of two young boys named Adam and Fenton. His wife having died giving birth to the younger son, Meiks is
presented as an exemplary single parent, devoted and caring, warm-hearted yet firm. He is shown preparing meals
for his sons, making jokes with them, helping them with their math problems, and so on. But one night, the father comes
rushing into the bedroom shared by his sons to tell them that he has received a vision from God. An angel had come bearing
the message that God had chosen him and his family to fight the demons that have been unleashed on earth in preparation
for the final clash between God and the devil. The younger son Adam readily accepts his father's account as truth, whereas
Fenton shrinks in horror, believing that his father has gone insane and is having homicidal delusions. Subsequent visitations by
the angel reveal to Meiks the weapons he is to use--a length of metal pipe, an axe, and a pair of gardening gloves--and he
receives the first list of names of the demons he is to "destroy" (Meiks makes much of this distinction between
"killing people" and "destroying demons.") Then, late one night he returns home carrying a bound and gagged middle-aged
woman whom he has kidnapped. When Fenton implores him to spare her life, Meiks responds by admitting he too
doesn't want to go through with slaughtering the woman, but God's commands must nevertheless be obeyed.
The fundamentalist literalism behind the belief in the Rapture is echoed here in the father's conviction that he can discern
who, among those who look like ordinary persons, is actually a demon. When Meiks removes his white gloves
and touches the flesh of his victims, he goes into convulsions while receiving visions of the evil acts they committed.
Conversely, when Fenton brings the incredulous town sheriff to the house to show him the body of a recently executed victim,
the father crumples over and begins to vomit after killing the officer, sickened at having been forced to take an innocent
life to protect their sacred mission. Revealing that Fenton has been named by the angel as being one of the demons, thereby
accounting for the boy's reluctance to fight the forces of evil, Meiks declares that, in this one instance, he is determined
to disprove the angel's message. In a memorable scene portraying the manipulative, guilt-inducing power in a father's
admission of his own impotence, Meiks confides to his terrified elder son, just before locking him up in the dungeon built
for their victims, "You're my son, and I love you more than my own life. You know what's funny about all this, Fenton? I'm
afraid of you."
The father's words prove prophetic when, after being released from the basement, Fenton is commanded by his father to
prove his newfound faith by executing their latest victim. Handed the axe, the son turns the weapon against his father,
killing him instead. The guilt assumed by the elder son goes beyond this act of parricide--it is later revealed, in a
characteristically post-ironic narrative twist, that the skeptical Fenton is really the "God's Hands" serial killer sought by
the FBI, not the believing younger brother Adam, who had willingly participated in the "destruction" of the demons. At the
end of the film, the audience learns that it is in fact Adam who is telling the story in flashback while impersonating Fenton, in
order to trap the FBI agent who is the latest "demon" to appear on his list. Thus, as in Shyamalan's better-known Sixth
Sense, the thrill experienced by the audience at the conclusion of the film consists of the overturning of its
spectatorial position ("the protagonist has been dead all along!"). In Frailty, the two characters with whom the
viewer identifies--the FBI agent trying to solve the killings, the rational and compassionate "good" son who was traumatized
by his father's gruesome actions--are revealed in the end to have committed, respectively, matricide and serial murder. Such
a dispossession of the spectator's points of identification must not be understood simply as an effect of the film's creators
resorting to the only narrative trick still capable of taking today's audiences by surprise. Rather, the "real story" that
emerges once the skeptical point of view is feigned and then discarded validates the bloody undertakings of the father and
younger son. The film establishes that, far from being a deluded madman, Meiks, as well as his son Adam, does possess the
supernatural ability to perceive the demons hiding in human form. Indeed, Frailty essentially indicts the
audience for its very presumption of critical distance; in the film's moral universe, skepticism and doubt are attributes
belonging to demons who murder their own parents, whereas ruthless, exterminating violence defines the actions of the
Of course, religious (and political) faith does involve the overcoming of skepticism and doubt, and ruthless violence
might even be the very action it enjoins. Indeed, Kierkegaard was drawn to Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac for
precisely these reasons: to
affirm the incommensurability between the moral law and the divine injunction. The Danish philosopher was well
aware that virtue, common sense, and morality easily become obstacles to the unconditional commitment demanded by God.
Frailty explicitly alludes to Abraham's ordeal, when Adam, having thrown off the pretense of being Fenton, tells
the FBI agent that his father had been commanded by God to kill his son: "You see, God asked Dad to destroy his
son, much like he asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. But Dad couldn't do it, and God didn't take pity on Dad like he
did Abraham." Doesn't the category of the religious necessarily involve in some fundamental sense the repudiation of the
ethical and of any notion of the good, defined in human terms? And if faith is ultimately to be opposed to ethics, reason,
and common sense, doesn't Frailty merely present an updated illustration of Kierkegaard's idea of the
teleological suspension of the ethical? The answer is no, and we may proceed by looking at how the film significantly
deviates from Kierkegaard's understanding of Abraham's sacrifice.
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard defines the "paradox of faith" as the idea that the "single
individual is higher than the universal" (70). Thus, insofar as the person of faith has "an absolute duty" to God, for
Abraham the ethical/universal is the temptation which seeks to dissuade him from acting according to his faith. Kierkegaard
contrasts the trial of the man of faith with that of the classical tragic heroes Agamemnon and Brutus. The mythical Achaean
king and the defender of the Roman republic are forced to sacrifice their children for the sake of a greater social good--the
necessity that compels them is thus the object of public approval and veneration and their actions are recognized as
ethical. Abraham, on the other hand, is ready to commit an act of killing without any reference to the higher good of
ethics. His sacrifice of Isaac is emphatically not for the sake of preventing a greater evil, and serves no purpose other
than the fact that God has commanded it. One should stress here the wrong-headedness of attempts to critique the story of
Abraham and Isaac as an oppressive myth that perpetuates the violence of patriarchal authority by referring to real-life
instances where fathers have murdered their own children, such as the father who stabbed his daughter to death in California
in 1990 or the 1996 case of Robert Blair in New Hampshire (in both instances, the father appealed to the biblical story of
Abraham to justify and explain his act of killing), as detailed by anthropologist Carol Delaney in her book, Abraham on
Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth (1998). According to Kierkegaard, God's terrible commandment not only
separates Abraham from the ethical, but also renders his dilemma incommunicable to others. The incommunicable nature of his
ordeal thus makes Abraham either a man of faith or a murderer, but what his faith precisely excludes--the identity he is not
ready to assume--is the "middle position" between the two, namely that of the murderer who makes the excuse that God
commanded him to do it.
In Frailty, by contrast, the divine command given to Meiks lacks the mystifying and futile
character of the injunction imposed upon Abraham. He is ordered to kill Fenton not because his faith is being tested through
an ordeal, but rather for the very pragmatic reason that his elder son is a demon and thus places in jeopardy the family's
mission of fighting the forces of evil. If the film were faithful to Kierkegaard and had evoked the Abrahamic sacrifice in
all of its appalling gratuitousness, Meiks would have been called to slay his innocent, obedient younger son. Similarly,
whereas according to Kierkegaard, Abraham's faith brings him into contradiction with the moral law, the divine command in
Frailty never conflicts with the demands of the ethical universal. Meiks's failure to slaughter Fenton is
presented both as a breach of moral necessity and as a lapse in practical judgment, as it results in his own death at the
hands of his son. Thus, the divine injunction is not experienced as radically and inexplicably horrifying; rather,
Meiks maintains to the end the illusion that he is acting on behalf of the good when God imposes upon him the command to do
terrible. Frailty thus domesticates the terrible command by keeping it on the side of the moral law and
collective good (as opposed to the Kierkegaardian constellation of the divine injunction/transgression of the law/separation
from the universal). As such, the film fails to achieve the status of what Zizek calls the "properly modern post- or
meta-tragic situation," which comes about when "high necessity compels me to betray the very ethical substance of my being"
(Did Somebody 14).
VI. Collateral Sacrifices
- Frailty also avoids the problematic of secrecy that is decisive in Kierkegaard's account of
faith, invoking instead a theology of visible redemption through its supernatural motif whereby Meiks and his younger son
Adam are able to distinguish, simply by laying their hands on others, which persons are beings of unregenerate evil. A
similar plot device is to be found in Left Behind, in which the saved can be distinguished from non-believers by
the mark of God on their foreheads--a mark, furthermore, that can be perceived only by other believers. Of course, one can
object that Frailty's basis in the Bible is tenuous at best anyway, since Jesus Christ and his disciples went
around casting out demons, not slaying those possessed by them. But one may counter that such deviations from the Gospel are
far too common in religious contexts across the American cultural and political landscape to be regarded as mere exceptions
to orthodoxy, as a theology of visible salvation is not of Christian provenance but profoundly Gnostic in inspiration. The
mystical ability to fathom the hidden guilt of others or instantly recognize their status as unbelievers may give rise in
these two instances to an infantile view of good and evil which easily lends itself to the demonizing of one's political
enemies, but the vision of sanctified violence that emerges at the end of Frailty bears particular relevance for
the way in which wars have been conducted in the post-Cold War order. For the violence in the film is sanctified precisely
insofar as it is surgical--its victims, with the one regrettable instance of collateral damage in the town sheriff (for which
the film implicitly faults Fenton's skepticism), are without exception murderers and pedophiles who would otherwise get away
with their crimes.
The idea of surgical killing, which is claimed to annihilate enemy combatants and matériel while minimizing civilian
casualties, was of course a major legitimating factor for the recent war of conquest against Iraq as well as for the Persian
Gulf War of 1991. Images of computer guidance systems directing bombs and missiles to Iraqi military targets dominated the
television newscasts during the previous conflict, while the first Bush administration successfully kept pictures of dead and
wounded bodies, the traditional imagery of war, off the air. The Air Force, however, announced on 15 March 1991 that 93.6%
of the tonnage of the explosives that fell on Iraq were in fact conventional bombs, belying the surgical nature of the
destruction inflicted upon Basra, the second largest city in Iraq before the war (Walker). Furthermore, even as the
destroyed and damaged equipment of the Iraqi army was subjected to meticulous examination, the military suppressed any
precise count of enemy casualties, giving a 50% margin of error to a total estimate of 100,000 Iraqi dead, a margin that, in
the words of Margot Norris, "reduces the dead to phantoms of speculation" (242). Operation Desert Storm, celebrated as an
overwhelming victory for the United States and its allies, concluded with the mass incineration of retreating Iraqi troops on
what has become known as the Highway of Death. In a single month, a greater tonnage of bombs was dropped on Iraq than were
used during all of World War II, while scarcely a photo of its human cost appeared in the U.S. media. The Western riposte to
Islamist suicide attacks is to massacre from long range, using weaponry such as depleted uranium shells, which cause
long-term environmental damage and physiological harm in the form of cancer, birth defects, and poisoned ground-water.
Frailty makes explicit the inherent fantasy in the derealization of mass Arab casualties in its
depiction of victims who, in spite of their normal, everyday appearance, fully deserve to be slaughtered. Because it lacks
the essentially programmatic nature of Left Behind, which cannot but provoke in the nonfundamentalist reader the
grotesque and suffocating sensation of being directly confronted by another's obscene fantasy, Frailty renders
with greater degrees of concreteness the ideological equivalent of a theology of visible salvation in the realm of politics.
It baldly takes at his word the fatuous, Manichean utterances of the current President Bush (America's enemies "hate"
freedom; Americans value "innocent life") in portraying a pair of serial killers who insist that they do value "innocent
life." Yet the film's over-identification with post-9/11 militaristic moralizing is constrained by certain ideological
limitations. Aside from its Gnostic revision of the Abraham story, Frailty fails to unsettle the belief of the
"God's Hands" that the victims of their jihad are anything but irredeemably depraved. The film in this sense falls in line
with a president who self-righteously condemns the nations he considers hostile to his administration's interests as "evil."
The skeptical viewer will no doubt be tempted to look with irony upon the final revelation that the calling received by the
"God's Hands" is true and divinely inspired. But an ironic interpretation remains wholly external to the narrative--nothing
within the storyline authorizes such a stance. Instead, Frailty anticipates a "fundamentalist" reading by
evoking the genre of the "superhero," a comparison drawn by the young Adam ("we're a family of superheroes that are going to
help save the world") when his father first shares the revelation of his own personal "war against evil."
One thing that has changed after 9/11, now recognized by the Left as a "missed opportunity" for the United States to
confront and reevaluate its role in the world, is the acceptance of ideas formerly associated with the religious fringe by
the mainstream media. Time magazine's cover story of 23 June 2002 on the popularity of the Left
Behind series commended the novels for exemplifying American optimism in the face of tragedy and took pains to mute
the criticisms offered by various religious scholars and theologians. As mentioned earlier, Jerry Jenkins, the more
avuncular of Left Behind's co-authors, declaimed in somber, almost melancholic tones on ABC's
UpClose that their work is not fiction, although he stated that he personally wishes that it were. As further
how their exterminist eschatology is no longer regarded as a fringe phenomenon, his interviewer failed to pose any probing
questions about a doctrine with a questionable basis in the Bible that bears more than passing resemblance to the cosmology
of the Heaven's Gate cult, which committed mass suicide near San Diego in March 1997. Yet, even as the Christian
fundamentalist fantasy ideology of the apocalypse serves to endorse for many the blindly destructive policies of the United
States in the Middle East, its suicidal nature reveals that it cannot entirely extinguish the critical force of the genre to
which it belongs. For insofar as the apocalyptic evokes the sweeping and total transformation of things as they are, the
millenarianism of the Christian Right comprises its own unconscious indictment. The prophecies of the Bible, with their rage
against arrogant empires and unjust authorities, have served as a source of hope for the dispossessed and
disenfranchised--that is, for those who are in a position to appreciate the metaphoric dimension of the imagery of the
apocalyptic. In the hands of the fundamentalists for whom such symbols appear emptied of any metaphoric resonance, the
prophecies, especially that of the Rapture, have become a kind of time bomb set against the providential history of the
United States itself. "We live after the failure of peoples," writes Giorgio Agamben, implying that the entry of a people or
nation into post-history is marked by their taking up the task of reckoning with their crimes and complicity in terror
(142). It might very well be that the apocalypticism of this new millennium is a kind of last obstacle--a final, almost but
not quite nakedly nihilistic outburst seeking to give American manifest destiny a moral justification--before Americans, too,
begin to realize their place alongside all the other peoples of the world. Until then, we are all subject to the risk that
this apocalyptic will perpetrate further atrocities in the course of discrediting itself, so that we may have to live through
yet more tragedies before we recognize how we were already bankrupt.
Department of French, Italian, and Comparative Literature
University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee
COPYRIGHT (c) 2003 Peter Yoonsuk Paik. READERS MAY USE
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1. The interview took place on ABC News show UpClose on 5 August 2002.
2. Accounting for the scarcity of attention accorded to the persecution of Christians in
pagan literature, Sorel notes that "no ideology was ever more remote from the facts than that of the early Christians"
3. Nicholas Veliotes, former assistant secretary of state for the Near East and South
Asia, relates that then-President Reagan himself explained to him the basis for conservative Christian support for Israel
in biblical prophecy: "in order for Armageddon to occur, Israel had to exist so that it could be destroyed. Hence, any
possible threat to the Jewish state has to be opposed. In this view, the peace process itself is a threat that must be
opposed" (15). See Veliotes.
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