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Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The most popular novel in America right now is one in which the world is tyrannized by the former secretary general of the U.N., who operates from Iraq, and his global force of storm troopers, called “peacekeepers.” Revered rabbis evangelize for Christ, repenting Israel’s “specific national sin” of “[r]ejecting the messiahship of Jesus.” Much of the world is deceived by a false prophet, part of the inner circle of the Antichrist, who seems a lot like the pope — he’s a Catholic cardinal, “all robed and hatted and vested in velvet and piping.”
“The Remnant,” which debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, is the 10th entry in Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye’s phenomenally popular “Left Behind” series, a Tom Clancy-meets-Revelation saga of the Rapture, the Tribulation and, presumably, the eventual return of Jesus. Last year’s “Desecration,” the ninth volume of a projected 14, was 2001′s bestselling hardcover novel. There is probably very little overlap between Salon’s readership and the audience for apocalyptic Christian fiction, but these books and their massive success deserve attention if only for what they tell us about the core beliefs of a great many people in this country, people whose views shape the way America behaves in the world.
After all, Tim LaHaye isn’t merely a fringe figure like Hal Lindsey, the former king of the genre, whose 1970 Christian end-times book “The Late Great Planet Earth” was the bestseller of that decade. The former co-chairman of Jack Kemp’s presidential campaign, LaHaye was a member of the original board of directors of the Moral Majority and an organizer of the Council for National Policy, which ABCNews.com has called “the most powerful conservative organization in America you’ve never heard of” and whose membership has included John Ashcroft, Tommy Thompson and Oliver North. George W. Bush is still refusing to release a tape of a speech he gave to the group in 1999.
The point isn’t that all these leaders are part of some kind of right-wing Illuminati. It’s simply that the seemingly wacky ideology promulgated in the Left Behind books is one that important people in America are quite comfortable with. The Left Behind series provides a narrative and a theological rationale for a whole host of perplexing conservative policies, from the White House’s craven decision to cut off aid to the United Nations Family Planning Fund to America’s surreally casual mobilization for an invasion of Baghdad — a city that is, in the Left Behind books, Satan’s headquarters.
Political attitudes and actions that make no practical or moral sense to secularists become comprehensible when viewed through Christian pop culture’s eschatological looking glass. At a time when America is flagrantly flouting international law, spurning the U.N. and tacitly supporting the land grabs of Israeli maximalists, surely it’s significant that the most popular fiction in the country creates a gripping narrative that pits American Christians against a conspiracy of Satan-worshipping, abortion-promoting, gun-controlling globalists — all of it revolving around the sovereignty of Israel.
Israel is the key to the theology that dominates Left Behind (as well as much of American evangelical Christianity). In the religion, as in the series, the rapture is kicked off by a military attack on the country, which survives almost unscathed (though the first Left Behind, written before the current intifada, had Russian aggressors rather than Arabs). Indeed, the chain of events that lead to the return of Christ depends on the existence of a Holy Land that is under catastrophic assault. No wonder the born-again lobby is obsessed with Israeli self-defense, but opposed to any peace plan.
Those Israeli settlements in the West Bank that add so much kindling to the conflagration in the Middle East are often “adopted” and funded by American evangelical churches whose members are devouring a novel that depicts Jews reclaiming Palestinian land, moving Al-Aqsa Mosque out of Jerusalem and rebuilding the second temple on the Dome of the Rock. The chosen people are suddenly the darlings of the religious right, while a bestseller promotes the idea that Jews will soon convert to Christianity — and atone for their centuries of stubbornness — en masse.
Of course, it’s not that every reader of the more than 50 million Left Behind books sold so far is an end-times fundamentalist any more than every Eminem fan is a homophobe. Nor are the books guaranteed to change their audiences’ views on American foreign policy — the relationship between culture and politics is never that simple. But the stories people tell themselves about the world necessarily shape the way they act in it, and right now, this is the story that’s captivating America.
On one level, the attraction of the Left Behind books isn’t that much different from that of, say, Tom Clancy or Stephen King. The plotting is brisk and the characterizations Manichean. People disappear and things blow up. Revelation is, after all, supremely creepy, which is why it gets so much play in horror flicks from “Rosemary’s Baby” to “End of Days.”
The opening sequence of the first Left Behind book is gripping and cinematic. Rayford Steele, an unhappily married commercial pilot, is flying to London and contemplating an affair with a stewardess, when, handing the controls over to his co-pilot and walking into the cabin, he finds her hysterical. People throughout the plane have disappeared, their clothes left in neat piles on their seats.
“This was no joke, no trick, no dream,” Jenkins and LaHaye write. “Something was terribly wrong, and there was no place to run.”
Returning to America, Steele finds a world in chaos. All real Christians — as opposed to mere churchgoers — as well as children and fetuses out of wombs have vanished. Planes flown by believers have crashed, along with cars driven by the faithful. The media struggles to make sense of it, but Rayford, whose marital troubles were caused by his wife’s newfound religious passion, knows what happened. His wife had told him that Christians would be raptured up to heaven in preparation for the rise of the Antichrist, his nefarious seven-year reign and the Second Coming of Jesus.
The Left Behind books chronicle those seven years — known to Christians as the Tribulation — as a ragtag group of new believers form the “Tribulation Force” to thwart the murderous plans of Nicolae Carpathia, the U.N.-leader-cum-prince-of-darkness (often just called “the evil one,” Osama bin Laden-style). Carpathia’s rise is engineered by a cabal of bankers. He’s supported by Israeli liberals enthralled by his devious promises of peace, and a Democratic American president sells out the country to Carpathia’s one-world government. Meanwhile, the Tribulation Force finds a spiritual leader in Tsion Ben-Judah, a rabbi and former Israeli statesman who realizes the error of his Jewish ways and becomes a guerrilla media evangelist.
It’s bizarre that more attention hasn’t been paid to the series’ open hostility to the Jewish religion, if not the Jewish people. Imagine if, say, James Carville wrote a novel in which a band of heroic gay socialists defeated a voracious army of slack-jawed Bible-quoting Republicans to turn the world into a gigantic French-speaking free-love commune. He’d be crucified on the talk shows, and all kinds of sinister motives would be impugned to the Democratic Party.
That a Republican player can create a blockbuster media empire out of analogous extremism suggests two seemingly contradictory things. First, Christian paranoia has become so mainstream that few see fit to remark on it anymore. Second, while the novels’ popularity has received lots of media attention, their actual content is utterly off the radar of the kind of people who write about books. Nobody, it seems — except, of course, for the series’ millions of fans — is reading Left Behind.
The Left Behind books actually play on that sense of being unfairly ignored, reveling in the moment when smug agnostics, insufficiently zealous Christians and, most of all, Jews realize how terribly wrong they were. As Gersholm Gorenberg wrote of the books in his “The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount,” “Christianity’s ancient, anxious amazement that the people who know the Old Testament best don’t accept that it leads to Jesus (don’t, in fact, accept that it is Old Testament) is at last disarmed.”
Cannily, the authors make their protagonists disbelievers who are disdainful of fundamentalism. That means that doubters can relate to them and are thus drawn into their dawning religious consciousness, while believers get the satisfaction of seeing the heroes come around to their point of view. By having even minor characters recount their conversions, Jenkins and LaHaye make sure that each volume has moments when readers can enjoy a bit of high-minded revenge against mocking urbanites.
The writers take a special pleasure in the self-abnegation of supposedly sophisticated media types. In “The Remnant,” a British reporter makes an appearance solely to explain her salvation. “All I can say is that the enemy has a stronghold over the mind until one surrenders to God,” she says. “I was a pragmatist, proud, a journalist. I wanted control over my own destiny. Things had to be proved to me.” Now born-again, she tells Steele that she’s mystified by her former “lunacy.”
Seeing the self-defeating delusions of erstwhile elites exposed may be the greatest pleasure the Left Behind books offer their readers.
The plotting alone certainly isn’t enough to sustain attention in “The Remnant.” That wasn’t true of the first book — theology aside, the setup of the original Left Behind makes for a strangely compelling thriller. The stage is the whole world gone mad, and the story roils with international intrigue. Jenkins and LaHaye are very good at turning esoteric biblical augury into real-world scenarios, and they get the action going before they start inserting too many sermons into the mix.
So simple fascination with a good story might have accounted for the book’s initial success — after all, audiences don’t necessarily endorse the politics behind every action adventure they devour.
But by the time “The Remnant” starts, the suspense has pretty much died, because the story has the ultimate deus ex machina. Whenever things look grim for our heroes, when the enemy is closing in and there’s nowhere to run, they’re saved at the last minute by … God. At the beginning of “The Remnant,” Ben-Judah is encamped, Moses-like, with a million followers in the Jordanian desert. Carpathia’s forces unleash a devastating bombing raid, but thanks to God, the resulting “massive sea of raging flames” leaves the so-called Judah-ites untouched. God can also be relied upon to speed up computer searches and drop plenty of nourishing manna on his blockaded flock. In the wittiest scene in “The Remnant,” God is literally a co-pilot, sending an angel to help fly a plane during a tense getaway.
There’s not much drama in the repeated victories of an omnipotent being, but that’s not the only thing that makes “The Remnant” sluggish. In order to stretch out the series for so long, Jenkins and LaHaye have larded it with tedious subplots and countless techno-geek scenes in which a crafty Christian hacker named Chang sabotages Carpathia’s plans or creates false identities for his comrades. About a third of “The Remnant” concerns the rescue of a Tribulation Force pilot named George Sebastian from Greece. The action mostly involves the characters driving around, splitting up, reconnoitering and then trying to find each other.
The Remnant has very little in the way of climactic good vs. evil showdowns. While there is a bit of supernatural deviltry (masses of vipers attack believers lured from Ben-Judah’s protection by agents of the False Prophet) and some martyrdom (though not of any main characters), most of the story follows members of the Tribulation Force jetting around the globe running various errands. The nuclear annihilation of Chicago rates just a few lines, while the cellphone codes the Force uses to communicate gets several pages.
Left Behind cloaks itself in the conventions of ordinary airport thrillers, but it does far more than just provide a Christian alternative to decadent mainstream entertainment. It creates a Christian theory of everything, one that slates current events into a master narrative in which the world is destroyed and then remade to evangelical specifications. It’s an alternate universe in which conservative Middle Americans are vindicated against everyone who doesn’t share their beliefs — especially liberals and Jews.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone is entitled to their fantasies. But LaHaye and Jenkins are at pains to show that the Left Behind books are meant as more than fiction. They write on the Left Behind Web site, “While it is true that in the broad spectrum of Protestant Christianity there are multiple views of the end-times scenario, the pre-millennialist theology found in the Left Behind Series is the prominent view among evangelical Christians, including their leading seminaries such as Talbot Seminary, Trinity Seminary and Dallas Theological Seminary.”
So the rest of us can ignore Left Behind, or chuckle at its over-the-top Christian kitsch. We should keep in mind, though, that for some of the most powerful people in the world, this stuff isn’t melodrama. It’s prophecy.
Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).More Michelle Goldberg.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)