It is so turned around these days.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

"On the Ark, the End of the World is never ending, because it's the only dramatic game in town."


I sit in an armchair and open Desecration (subtitled Antichrist Takes the Throne). What I don't understand about these Left Behind books is how there can be so f--ing many of them, given that their subject is Armageddon. How long can a writer drag out the Second Coming? Even a trilogy would be a stretch, but ten novels going on eleven, all huge sellers, with no final volume in sight? I smell a con.

But that's because I've failed to realize this: On the Ark, the End of the World is never ending, because it's the only dramatic game in town. Drop the curtain on the Apocalypse and there are no more stories--the party's over. Which means the art of Desecration, and of the Christian thriller in general, is the art of the stall--of giving the reader a sense of forward motion without moving things any closer to a conclusion. This task is complicated by the fact that the genre's basic principles rule out new suspense. Since the heroes are assured of going to Heaven, it doesn't really matter if they die, and since the villains are bound to bum in hell, it doesn't matter if they win. Which they won't, of course. The Bible tells us so.

So why am I still reading? It's a mystery. Desecration's dialogue is preposterous ("In all candor, Anika, our intelligence reports indicated that we might face more opposition here, in the traditional homeland of several obsolete religions"), and its situations; and episodes develop in a pell-mell, miscellaneous cascade, careening from Jerusalem holy sites, where Ultimate Evil haunts the ancient shadows, to the family rooms of average midwestern homes, where true-blue Americans with names like Ray battle the Beast using laptops and ham radios. No, it must be the freakish tone that holds me: part Marvel Comics ("Mac jumped out and realized his front tires were on the edge of the gigantic crevasse") and part Sunday sermon ("We often wonder, when the truth is now so clear, why not everyone comes to Christ"). Who'd have thought such styles could ever be united? It's the prose equivalent of a sideshow monster: a snake with fur or a dolphin-flippered lady, unbearable, repulsive, yet irresistible. I decide to make this an all Armageddon day, so I pop in a tape of Megiddo: The Omega Code 2, starring Michael York as Stone Alexander, the Antichrist, and Michael Biehn as David Alexander, the straitlaced American president who opposes him and also happens to be his brother--a touch that suggests that Doomsday by itself is not sufficient but needs a soap-opera family angle too. After a brief intro by Hal Lindsay, a leading doomsayer from the 1970s and proof that a Christian can cry wolf for decades on end and still not lose his audience, the movie deals its familiar hand of cards. As in the Left Behind books, the Antichrist is an oily Eurotrash bureaucrat whose globalist rhetoric masks his raw ambition. His cosmopolitanism marks him as the Evil One as surely as David Alexander's Yankee bluntness shows he's a born lieutenant of the Lord. Does this come from the Book of Revelation? Of course not. The folks behind Megiddo and Desecration may pose as scholars of biblical prophecy, loading their products with murky sacred symbols and fancy numerological allusions, but at heart they're cornpone vaudevillians.

As the evidence mounts that Megiddo's cosmic climax will be a dud and necessitate a sequel, I find myself pitying Michael Biehn. Biehn is your typical Christian-movie star: a semilegitimate Hollywood leading man (remember Navy SEALS?) who hasn't been seen much for the past few years and appears to have weathered some crisis or tribulation that has dimmed his good looks without completely wrecking them. Because his role in Megiddo has no substance, what comes through most clearly in his numb performance is his gratitude for finding work mixed with his self-hatred for taking the work.

Biehn has plenty of company, of course. Ark culture is all about the comeback and the redemption of the mainstream hasbeen. The music aisle of the Family Christian Store features a number of John Tesh CDs. The former cohost of Entertainment Tonight has rebranded himself as a composer of inspirational music. In his photos, he's a praying man's Michael Bolton, all stuble and jawline and long–if thinning–blond hair. He's just the type church ladies go nuts for: a sort of macho eunuch. Burt Reynolds comes in a Christian version now, too. In Waterrproof, a weepy melodrama about forgiveness and spiritual growth, he plays a crusty Jewish deli owner who's shot in a holdup by a troubled black kid. The air of studly mischief that made Burt famous persists, but only faintly, subliminally. Once, long ago, he sinned, but now he's harmless.

I suspect Christian movie fans love to witness such neuterings. You thought you were such hot s--t, I hear them thinking. Look at you now--you're not even allowed to cuss!


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