The Book Club

Does God Hear the Prayers of a Jew?

Dear Mickey,

Amid our discussions about the God portrayed in the “Left Behind” series, we’ve said little about the origins of LaHaye and Jenkins’ approach to the Bible–the hoary scheme of biblical interpretation called dispensational premillennialism. It is, as you know, the invisible specter looming over all of these books, and it shapes the authors’ attitudes toward history, society, and especially toward the Jews.

I mentioned dispensationalism briefly in my initial posting and suggested that it was a response to the evangelical conviction that the world was becoming more chaotic rather than more righteous at the end of the 19th century. Dispensationalism absolved evangelicals from the messy business of social reform. Jesus, after all, would return at any moment, so evangelicals directed their efforts toward the regeneration of individuals rather than the regeneration of society. This “theology of despair” has had enormous repercussions for evangelicalism throughout much of the 20th century. You can see it, for example, in the evangelical retreat from the political arena by the 1920s and in fundamentalist religious architecture, especially in the early decades of the 20th century. The buildings they constructed were spare and functional, utterly artless, often made of cinder blocks. Why? Jesus was returning at any moment, so why should they expend a lot of effort and spend a lot of money on structures that would be emptied at the Rapture? (If I may chide you gently, I offer as evidence many of the evangelical buildings in the greater Wheaton, Ill., area, where you work.)

Dispensational premillennialism did two things for evangelicals. First, it convinced them that their reading of the book of Revelation had been wrong. Jesus, they discovered, would return before the Millennium, not after, as the postmillennialists had argued. The world was not getting better; it was getting worse. Jesus would come at any minute, they decided, and the unspoken corollary was that Jesus would then rain judgment upon the evangelicals’ enemies (witness the plot lines of the “Left Behind” books).

(I’ll pause here long enough to note that dispensational premillennialism informs the bumper stickers that read: “In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned.” And I love the response, in this age of dueling bumper stickers: “In case of Rapture, can I have your car?”)

Second, dispensational premillennialism divided all of human history into successive ages or dispensations. It posited that God had struck a different agreement with humanity in each of these ages. Specifically, dispensationalists argued that Christians had inherited the promises God had made to ancient Israel. Followers of Jesus were the new “chosen people,” and for Jews to reclaim those promises they must acknowledge Jesus as messiah. They must, in effect, become Christians.

This should help to explain fundamentalists’ oddly ambivalent attitude toward Israel and the Jews. I’ve often characterized the leaders of the Religious Right, for example, as being simultaneously pro-Israel and anti-Semitic. They favor Israel because they believe that the State of Israel will be a crucial player in the unfolding of the apocalyptic prophecies that LaHaye and Jenkins write about, and so people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are always advocating a pro-Israel foreign policy. At the same time, the only good Jew for most fundamentalists is a converted Jew. They refuse to recognize the validity of Judaism on its own terms. Jews who have not converted, who have not recognized Jesus as messiah, are “incomplete Jews.”

In the extreme, this fundamentalist attitude toward Jews manifests itself in rather blatant anti-Semitism. Every few years, it seems, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention (whoever he–always and forever he–may be at the time) can be counted on to make an inane statement to the effect of “God doesn’t hear the prayers of a Jew.” Or, consider this exchange between Tim LaHaye and Jeffrey Goldberg, as recounted in Goldberg’s wonderful Slate article “I, Antichrist“:

Some of the greatest evil in the history of the world was concocted in the Jewish mind,” LaHaye told me, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear–he knew what the name “Goldberg” generally signifies. “Sigmund Freud, Marx, these were Jewish minds that were infected with atheism.” I asked LaHaye to tell me more about the Jewish mind. “The Jewish brain also has the capacity for great good,” he explained. “God gave the Jews great intelligence. He didn’t give them great size or physical power–you don’t see too many Jews in the NFL–but he gave them great minds.

This kind of statement recalls the ethnic and racial stereotyping of the 19th-century discipline of phrenology, in which purportedly learned people argued that African-Americans, for example, were physically incapable of intelligent thought.

One final comment about dispensationalism, the ideology animating the “Left Behind” series. A large part of its appeal–then and now–is that it allows evangelicals to say, in effect, “We’ve cracked the code of Revelation! We understand the mind of God! We know how it will all turn out!” Dispensationalism allows them to take control of history. Many readers who have detected a tone of triumphalism and smug self-righteousness in the “Left Behind” books; that can be attributed (at least in part) to dispensationalism.

Sorry for going on at length. I’ve been writing and lecturing about dispensationalism for years now, but I still haven’t figured out how to do so briefly. I may have told you this story already, but when we were working on the PBS adaptation of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory several years ago, the director and I had a long discussion about how we could talk about dispensationalism in the documentary without using the term “dispensationalism” because we were afraid that viewers’ eyes would glaze over.

A note about what you refer to as the “fear of judgment” strategy for evangelism. I’d like to offer a word in defense of Jonathan Edwards here. While it is true that “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is his most famous sermon, the people who know Edwards’ work better than I insist that the sermon is atypical. Edwards’ God was a God of benevolence and grace. I still believe that we evangelicals have to take more seriously the doctrine of the incarnation, that God was revealed in Jesus. If we really believe that God was made man in the person of Jesus, then it seems to me that the God of the New Testament looks a lot different from what Doug Frank describes as the all-powerful and avenging SkyFather described in the “Left Behind” books.

The Almighty as Arnold Schwarzenegger leaves me cold.

Your friend,

Randall Balmer

P.S.: Fyodor Dostoyevsky a fundamentalist? Hmm.