'Left Behind' or lost in space?

Nicolas Cage in "Left Behind" (CNS/Courtesy Stoney Lake Entertainment/Teddy Smith)

The remake of the 2000 film "Left Behind" is based on the first of 12 best-selling novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. This new film is a watered-down and somewhat changed version of the earlier movie with a bigger budget and not much else. There is barely enough undercooked scriptural theology to critique in the vacuous writing and painful acting. However, it offers an opportunity to explore dispensationalism, a popular way of interpreting the Book of Revelation, an idea that never comes close to Catholic Christian teaching. I wrote about it recently in my review of "The Identical."

Kirk Cameron headlined the original 2000 film as Buck Williams, a journalist who witnesses the sudden, mysterious disappearance of people midflight and tries to get to the bottom of what has happened to all the lost people. The film teaches us all the way through that the end times are coming, heralded by the disappearance of the just and the beginning of seven years of turbulence for those "left behind": Drought, famine, war, pestilence -- you name it -- are on the way. Here, Nicolas Cage is the philandering pilot Rayford Steele, and Chad Michael Murray is the journalist Buck Williams. I suppose these new actors were cast to attract viewers -- there is a hint of romance between Chloe (Cassi Thomson) and Buck -- but why anyone would want to remake this film remains a mystery to me.

Wife and mother Irene Steele (Lea Thompson) has recently become an end-times Christian. Bibles and crosses are all over her well-appointed house. Her daughter, Chloe, comes home from college to surprise Rayford for his birthday. They meet at the airport, and Chloe notices him flirting with a flight attendant. When they speak, though, it is about Irene and her sudden religious fervor that they feel is annoying and a little weird. Her beliefs have not helped their faith grow.

When Ray's flight is halfway across the Atlantic, there's a jolt, and about half the people disappear, or are snatched, from their seats on the plane. The rapture has happened. Ray discovers that people are disappearing all over the world and in other airplanes in their flight path. Buck starts taking pictures and interviewing people.

One woman who self-medicates says she knows what's happening. "It's in the Bible." A calm Muslim man, Hassid (Alec Rayme), suggests everyone pray to God. Melvin (Martin Klebba) is a little person and his own man. He refuses help with his luggage and argues with Hassid about whose God they will be praying to. Melvin's attitude, along with the person who tries to defend himself with an electric toothbrush from some perceived fear that the plane has been invaded by aliens, provides some comic relief.

If you are afraid of flying, this is a film you will want to avoid. Almost everything happens at the airport, trying to get to the airport, in the air, or trying to get out of the air. Chloe saves the day all by herself. She steals a motorbike, a pickup truck, and then drives a big asphalt roller to clear a highway under construction for the plane to land.

Needless to say, everything that Mom told Chloe and Ray is coming true. They can now believe that they are entering the end times that will destroy people and Earth in seven years so that a new heaven and new Earth will emerge. Yet they are to remember that God loves them: The Gospel citation John 3:16 shows up on the face of the co-pilot's watch that was left behind.

The film is about the rapture (which means "snatched") but never uses the term. In fact, I am not even sure they say the name of Jesus, never mind God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.

To give the film a compliment, even though white people are in charge and got all the lead roles, the supporting cast members are culturally diverse. Women are the heroes. In presenting Hassid as a good person, the filmmakers avoid demonizing a Muslim, a huge un-Christian mistake made by the producers of "God Is Not Dead," a Christian apologist film that came out earlier this year. Green Mountain Coffee and Starbucks also have leading roles, and I wonder about the link between coffee and the end times. Does it mean there won't be any after the rapture? Interesting thought.

The original book and both movies are thinly veiled fictional narratives that teach an odd theological concept: dispensationalism. This is a fundamentalist Christian belief with an eschatological worldview. It emerged in the early 19th century from a small Protestant Christian sect in England called The Plymouth Brethren and spread throughout the United States in popular and religious culture. It is not a Catholic Christian teaching or understanding of the Scriptures. But because the concept is derived from the Book of Revelation, it provides much fodder for engaging the visual imagination and engendering fear.

I asked Barbara Murphy, a former RCIA director with a master's degree in theology, to write about dispensationalism for this review. I know many Catholics who have read all the Left Behind books and seen the films and believe that they convey Catholic teaching. This is not so.

The first indication that dispensationalism is not Catholic is its dependence almost exclusively on the Book of Revelation as the framework for its vision of the final judgment. The Catholic church turns to Jesus in the Gospels, the letters of Paul and the church, the prophets, and the wisdom of the ecumenical councils to describe mystery beyond our conception.

The premillennial worldview proposed by dispensationalism makes the claim that before Christ's thousand-year reign, there will be the rapture, when the holy ones will be snatched or caught up in the air while those left behind suffer God's wrath. The church is amillennial. She sees the unfolding of revelation taking place in the world while at the same time we wait in expectation. "The Lord will come like a thief in the night" (1 Thessalonians 5:2-4). Jesus tells us that if we are prepared in faith, we won't be found wanting like the lazy servant (Luke 12:45-46).

Eschatological or fundamentalist evangelical Christians who share this worldview believe they are charged with ushering in the second coming and final judgment and make themselves instruments of Armageddon. The Catholic church teaches that no one but the Father knows the day and the hour (Matthew 24:36). We are not asked to intervene in order to bring the battle on, but to live a life of faith and trust in Jesus Christ.

Dispensationalism finds its justification in numbers. It counts time and breaks it into epochs or dispensations. Time is literal and subject to human calculation. For Catholics, God flows through the Scriptural numbers. They stand for the passage of kingdoms and empires, of suffering and wonder, not fixed in linear time. The church's understanding of the transcendent nature of revelation asks us, whose time are we counting?

Dispensationalism sees the thousand-year reign of Christ as an earthly reality. The church teaches that the greatest deception of the antichrist is the claim that the messianic promise is realized in history. Rather, it is realized beyond history. Jesus consistently rejected the human understanding of his messianic role.

Dispensationalism envisions the new heaven and new Earth as the earthly city of Jerusalem. The church understands that reality changes when heaven and Earth are one. As we will be changed at our resurrection, so too will the world. The Book of Revelation speaks of God walking with us in the city as he did in the garden (Revelation 21:3). In the final resurrection, we return to God no longer children, but adults who know about good and evil and have chosen the better part.

Dispensationalism concerns itself with the physical reality of the revelation John received at Patmos. The Catholic church sees beyond the prophetic experience into the life of Jesus. It is there where we are lifted up to be with him in spirit and in truth.

In the rush to flood the movie market with lucrative "Christian" faith and family-friendly films, filmmakers really need to up their game and create art with good writing, compelling stories, and brilliant actors. These kinds of film are spiritual pablum that are derivative and comfort the comfortable. Informed Catholics will not find much that resonates in "Left Behind." And one would hope that despite the $6.3 million this film made on opening weekend, audiences would be more demanding of the movies for which they are willing to spend $10 to $12 per ticket. If you find yourself lost after watching "Left Behind" know you are not alone.

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