Do We Have a Story to Tell?: Reflections on Barbara Rossing’s The Rapture Exposed
In the past year, like many other Reflections readers, I’ve given talks on the DaVinci Code and the Passion of the Christ. I didn’t enjoy either work, but I familiarized myself with them just to keep up with my students. Having now spoken on the DaVinci Code and the Passion in churches as well as in academic settings, I’m struck by a couple of things about those occasions. First, people flock to these talks and are really interested.
They come early and stay late. Second, a lot of what I say in these talks is critical. For example, I hated that the Passion “improved” upon the gospels by frequently interjecting Satan into Jewish crowd scenes.
But no matter how much I criticized the Passion and the DaVinci Code, I found that audiences still loved them. And so I have come to see that simply delineating the historical and theological distortions in popular works isn’t enough to give to an audience hungry for knowledge about the biblical world. I also need to present a coherent countervision of Christianity. People who look to Christianity for meaning can’t live on critique alone.
Those of us with theological educations also have a responsibility to speak to the larger culture outside the church. I remember, during the Branch Davidian debacle of the 1990s, talking with other scholars in American religious history about the need to seek a public voice so that an informed analysis of contemporary Christianity—particularly of apocalypticism—received a general hearing. We debated and agonized (all without much success) about how to do that. Waco would have played out quite differently if the FBI and the ATF had understood David Koresh’s apocalypticism.
The recent and astonishing popularity of the Left Behind books has injected apocalypticism into public discussions of foreign policy as well as of theology. The Left Behind series combines Christian triumphalism with American nationalism; Tim LeHaye boasted on CBS’s 60 Minutes that when cut, both he and coauthor Jerry Jenkins bleed red, white, and blue1 Paul Boyer’s article in this issue of Reflections eloquently articulates the political and spiritual price of allowing a dispensationalist reading of the Bible to define public discourse on apocalypticsm. Anyone who took a Bible course at YDS can demonstrate the inadequacies of the dispensationalist hermeneutic. The additional challenge, however, is to present an equally compelling countervision of the biblical world.
I think Barbara Rossing’s Rapture Exposed does just that. This deeply moving book critiques Left Behind not simply by detailing its exegetical follies, but also by offering a sparkling alternative depiction of the New Jerusalem. The Rapture Exposed gives us a model of how to make responsible biblical theology come alive. In the rest of this article, I’ll outline strategies that Rossing uses in her book to persuade readers of her biblical interpretation, and I’ll ask questions to help us think about how to communicate successfully with lay audiences within the church as well as with the wider world outside it.2
Rossing wants ordinary people to read this book, and she understands the wide spiritual hunger that the Left Behind books address. As she says, “I am convinced that part of the reason the Left Behind novels and dispensationalist theology have such appeal today is that we Christians have not been passionate or urgent enough in telling our stories of those ‘Aha’ moments of seeing God and the Lamb alive in the world.”3 Rossing’s goal is to replace the Left Behind eschatological narrative with one that is equally compelling but also (unlike Left Behind) consistent with scripture.
One rhetorical strategy that emerges immediately is her willingness to address the reader personally. From the start, Rossing speaks of the Bible’s message to “us,” including herself with the reader. She considers appropriate responses to scripture that “we” should consider. On page 76, after an introduction, a chapter on dispensationalism, and then most of a chapter on the Middle East, Rossing adopts a rhetorical advice I found particularly powerful. She addresses readers directly, urging, “But listen now to the best alternative story of all….Come with me on a journey to Bethlehem.”4
Rossing returns to this strategy of directly inviting readers to follow her repeatedly (see, for example, pp. 103, 104, 116, 140, 147, 152, 155, 158, 161, 164, and 166). On p. 143 she urges readers to go on another journey with her—this one “in” to the new Jerusalem as early readers would have experienced it in worship. Throughout these journeys, Rossing provides hints about how to interpret Revelation, hints intended to initiate readers into a vision of life that they can begin living now, rather than waiting for a final tribulation. Rossing’s vision of Lamb power is not as entertaining or seductive as the orgiastic scenes of violence that typify the Left Behind novels, but she tells readers it is what they need, explaining, “Amy Frykolm interviewed [Left Behind] people who said, ‘I would only be persuaded by a different story.’ So I am seeking to tell that different story—the story of a God in whose heart is a Lamb.” As Rossing concludes, the rest is up to us: “Only you can decide which version of the Lamb’s story you want to follow—Left Behind’s version or the alternative.”5 I found Rossing’s story stirring, and I think other readers will as well.
Another rhetorical strategy that Rossing uses to great effect is appealing to popular culture images to provide analogies to guide readers as they enter the fantastic world of apocalypticism. Here are some of those references: Narnia; Star Trek; 401k plans; World War II (and III); get-out-of-jail free cards; Scrooge; Magic Eye puzzles; Nike shoes; Toto and the Wizard of Oz; TV courtroom dramas; horoscopes; the Statue of Liberty; Uncle Sam; Martin Luther King, Jr.; addiction; virtual tour; travel guidebooks; and gated communities.
These references are quite helpful, and I think a few of them are downright brilliant. I’ve used Rossing’s discussion of Scrooge’s spirit journey in my New Testament class when we studied the book of Revelation. Rossing’s argument that the purpose of a spirit journey is not to predict the future but to bring about reform is incredibly useful to readers who are inclined to assume that John was actually a first-century Nostradamus. Students get the point when Scrooge asks the Spirit whether the future things he has seen must be or may be; and they understand that it is seeing the horror of his future that allows Scrooge to become a new man. I think only a biblical scholar has the authority to make such a comparison stick; the rest of us would sit around and wonder, “Is it really okay to use Dickens to explain the function of early Christian apocalyptic vision journeys?”
Rossing’s answer is that it is okay. Read through those other references to popular culture and judge for yourself how well they work. I think you’ll like the Magic Eye; and I predict that conservative Christians who read Rossing’s book will be comforted to find C. S. Lewis and Narnia in it. I think they will also be impressed by her explication of a number of biblical stories. Rossing uses the story of Jonah, for example, to illustrate that the function of prophecy is not to predict destruction but to call people to repentance. Yes, God told Jonah to prophesy destruction to Ninevah in forty days if the great city did not repent. When the city responded, God spared it from destruction. This story proves not that Jonah was mistaken or that the biblical text is in error; rather, it provides readers with a model for interpreting the role of prophetic warning in the book of Revelation.
The Rapture Exposed is one of the most inspiring presentations of Revelation that I’ve ever read. Will it persuade readers? I invite you to peruse it and then consider the following questions.
First, Rossing wants readers to know that the doctrine of the Rapture did not exist until the rise of dispensational theology in the nineteenth century. But was putting a historical discussion of dispensationalism so early in her narrative (chapter 2) a good idea? Logically, that’s exactly where I’d expect to see this discussion. But does this chapter (and then most of the next one on the Middle East) actually delay the invitation to journey to Bethlehem too long? In short, is there too much scholarship up front?
Second, is it possible to refute dispensationalist eschatology without looking just as capricious as those who advocate it? Simply deciphering this reading of the Bible is so difficult that readers will have a hard time following the explanation. Then offering alternative exegetical principles quickly (there is a rush if you want to keep readers engaged) may appear, especially to secular readers, to be nothing more than a “he said/she said” scenario. I know Rossing was concerned first of all with Christian readers, but a larger purpose of her book is to prove to the world that Left Behind biblical readings do violence to scripture.
Third, what are the consequences of Rossing’s refusal to demythologize the Second Coming? Will nonfundamentalist readers take seriously an author who refutes the fantastic Left Behind tales while retaining belief in a literal second coming? Since Left Behind has Jesus returning twice (a scenario unknown to the New Testament), it makes sense for Rossing to argue that “Jesus will return—once.” (p. 186). As we know, however, some New Testament books don’t mention any parousia, and many major theologians (such as the Niebuhrs) have interpreted the Second Coming not as a historical event but as a theology of history, defining what is or is not possible as human beings seek to live, even now, in the Kingdom to come. Rossing may lose a lot of people (secularists, the neo-orthodox, etc.) by not demythologizing the Second Coming.
Fourth, is Rossing’s tone too “strident”? Or not strident enough? Christian Century’s review of The Rapture Exposed suggests that before readers finish the first paragraph they will have already encountered a full-blown jeremiad.6 I think Rossing is restrained and respectful, given the content and quantity of the Left Behind series, but I know her publisher deliberately toned down the title, discarding The Rapture Racket for The Rapture Exposed.
Finally, one more question on structure: what about the epilogue? The epilogue debunks rapture theology verse by verse, and it capitalizes on the rhetoric that speaks to readers directly, asking them to choose which theology they will serve. Should the epilogue have been chapter 1? Or is it so effective at engaging readers because by the end they are ready for it? Are there ways that the current chapter 1 could have read less like history and more like challenge?
Though Rossing wrote The Rapture Exposed primarily to reach a Christian lay audience, her goal— to refute a problematic interpretation of the book of Revelation and replace it with a better one—is one that speaks to people outside the church as well. Millions of Americans have read a Left Behind book; tens of thousands of people have visited a Christian theme park like the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, where they have thrilled to impassioned dramatic presentations of Rapture.7 Popular culture is bursting with dispensationalism. The proponents of the Rapture have stated their case powerfully. Because the interpretation of Revelation has global consequences for Middle East politics and for the environment, all of us have a stake in interpreting John’s apocalypse. The call has never been clearer, nor has the need been more urgent. The question is this: do we have a story to tell?
1. 60 Minutes II, “The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” air date April 14, 2004. While LeHaye and Jenkins were the featured guests, Barbara Rossing also appeared on the show. For CBS’s account of the episode, see http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/
04/13/60II/main611661.shtml. To find other media interviews that Rossing has done in regard to The Rapture Exposed, see http://www.lstc.edu/news/
2. I think my discussion of Rossing’s book here offers more than ample reason why her work should be discussed in this magazine. In my own defense, I can say that I have read the entire Left Behind series
3. Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Westview, 2004), 98.
4. Rossing, Rapture, 76.
5. Ibid., 140.
6. Jason Byasee, “What’s Behind ‘Left Behind?’ En-raptured,” Christian Century (April 20, 2004), p. 21.
7. I visited the Holy Land Experience in March 2005. I didn’t agree with its theology—and was especially horrified by its demonization of Muslims—but I thought the park communicated dispensationalist doctrine powerfully, and I know (from their cheers and their tears) that visitors were moved. For park information, see http://www.the- holylandexperience.com/press/index.html. Florida offers all kinds of colorful experiences for Christians. You can hike into the site of the original Garden of Eden (see http://www.travelintelligence.com/wsd/ articles/art_474.html) just south of Tallahassee and also visit Dinosaur Adventure Land in Pensacola, where you will see evolutionism refuted in favor of Genesis. Pastors receive reduced admission prices. See http://www.dinosauradventureland.com/kidos/ index.html.
Valarie Ziegler (‘79 M.Div.) currently teaches at DePauw University. She is the author of three books: The Advocates of Peace in Antebellum America, Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe (awarded the 2002 Trinity Prize), and (with Linda Schearing and Kristen Kvam) Eve and Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings in Genesis and Gender (1999).