A couple of weeks ago, I released a “Concluding Thoughts” post about a recent series, and said that “most artworks can’t cover all reality.” Every piece of art has a theme or message – sometimes defined by the medium, sometimes intentional, and sometimes an unplanned message that evolves as the work progresses. From a moral perspective, we can argue whether an artwork’s theme is accurate, moral or problematic. At the same time, most artworks can’t capture every single side of a theme equally well. Irving Stone wrote dense, brick-sized historical novels, often using original research and primary sources, and you get a strong sense in his works that you’re seeing a whole culture. Yet even his books have a particular slant. The Agony and the Ecstasy sees Michelangelo as an early humanist wanting to make work that shows God’s glory in man, fighting prudish authorities who see humans as just depraved. This is an important key to understanding Michelangelo’s work, but there’s debate on whether his philosophy fits Christianity as well as he thought. Various scholars have argued that humanism eventually becomes humans worshipping themselves (hence Makoto Fujimura argues the Sistine Chapel “paved the way to Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Nietzsche”). However, short of building a novel twice as long with two narratives (one showing Michelangelo’s view, the other the opposition’s view), it’s hard to see how Stone could have equally captured both sides of this debate. If he had, the book would have been too long and unwieldy to function as a modern novel.
Recognizing that few artworks can be perfect universes in miniature, we can still recognize when an artwork presents a theme that isn’t internally consistent or doesn’t understand its genre limitations. We can create art that recognizes how a theme may present, and make little steps here and there that push the story into another direction. An interesting (and this being October, a seasonally appropriate) example would be the 1976 movie The Omen as opposed to the Left Behind series. Both stories focus on the apocalypse, as seen through the eyes of a heroic male protagonist. While Left Behind tells the heroes’ stories over 12 books, it achieves about as much character development of the heroes as The Omen does in 111 minutes of film, so we can compare them with no qualms about being unfair. In The Omen, diplomat Richard Thorne must face the fact he may have adopted a child who is the devil’s son, the Antichrist. In Left Behind, Rayford Steele witnesses End Times prophecies fulfilled right in front of him, and has to consider what he will do in the end of days. Richard Thorne gets considerable help from journalist Keith Jennings, much as Rayford Steele gets help from his son-in-law Cameron Williams (one could describe The Omen as Left Behind for older audiences).
Williams and Steele both fit the “men of action” hero role that Thorne and Jennings belong to, and since they are placed in a thriller/horror story, they do what men of action do in that kind of narrative. They go on globe-trotting adventures to find obscure resources, they track leads to determine what action to take, and when they’ve determined the right action, they don’t hesitate to break laws or use force to achieve it. In short, they operate like typical heroes in a thriller story. But since both stories set up the heroes as Christian warriors, that raises some interesting questions: should a Christian use violence to get the job done?
One of the oldest questions about thrillers is when do the stories go from describing violence to promoting violence. Rebellion, vigilantism and fascism (in the sense of a philosophy built on the attitude, “I can punch you out, so I must be right”) have orbited the genre from the start. The first modern spy thriller, The Riddle of the Sands, was written by Irish Republican fighter Erskine Childers, later executed by firing squad for sedition. Edgar Wallace was dubbed “the prince of thrillers” for his novels, notably Sanders of the River which John Sutherland has a colonial hero with policies that would have gone down well with Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz (Lives of the Novelists, 301). Dennis Wheatley’s supernatural thriller The Devil Rides Out arguably created the model that Left Behind and The Omen use, and like most Wheatley novels its filled with older conservative heroes who don’t mind punching or threatening people to stop evil conspiracies. There has been much discussion about whether filmmakers like John Milius (screenwriter on the first two Dirty Harry films and Jeremiah Johnson, director of Red Dawn and Conan the Barbarian) and Mel Gibson (with his extensive work in action “exploitation films” like Mad Max) promote anarcho-fascist attitudes in their work.
Daniel Silliman observes in Reading Evangelicals that Left Behind cocreator Tim LaHaye once declared about politics that “in the face of despair, extremism is no vice.” For secular thriller writers on a certain end of the political spectrum (Wheatley being an obvious example), this attitude makes sense, so why shouldn’t their stories feature heroes who take extreme measures? In the context of a story written by Christians about apparently Christian characters, it isn’t that simple. For one thing, there is the question of whether the Bible allows Christians to openly rebel against corrupt authority. Many supernatural thrillers adopt knighthood imagery (the hero as warrior defending his keep, etc.), which leads to debates about what it means to follow chivalry. Supernatural thrillers about the End Times make these concerns more complex, leading to questions about how much humans influence or obey prophecies. Should a Christian resort to using guns and fists to fight the Antichrist, or wait and pray for God’s will to be done?
Left Behind and The Omen handle these questions in different ways. Left Behind‘s characters never seriously discuss whether their particular interpretation of Revelation is accurate or whether using weapons and theft to get things done is an example of them playing God. By the time you get halfway through the series (or the first book even), one realizes these characters aren’t interested in those questions, and never will be. The guns will just keep blazing until the story’s end (without the overripe dialogue or action set pieces that usually make this kind of thriller fun). In the end analysis, Left Behind becomes more or less Red Dawn… only near the end Red Dawn has scenes suggesting that the violence is eating the heroes alive and they’re not certain of their quest anymore. In a 1984 interview, Milius described Red Dawn‘s last scene (a monument erected to the heroes) as being a lonely plaque on an abandoned battlefield, highlighting “the utter futility, a certain desperate futility of war.” Whether it does it well or not, Red Dawn at least alludes to the high cost of violence, and the ongoing philosophical debates about what it solves. Left Behind shows no interest in these questions, leaving itself open to charges of just being anarcho-fascism for Christian dads.
In contrast, The Omen alludes to the moral questions its story raises, which Thorne realizing his present course is setting him out to kill the Antichrist, still a young child. Thorne ultimately decides to swallow his reservations, tries to kill his adopted son, and a police encounter leaves it unclear whether he pulls it off. Then (in a twist that director Richard Donner states was decided during production), a funeral scene shows that Thorne has died, Damien has survived and been adopted by Thorne’s old college friend… currently serving as the President of the United States. This ending sets up an interesting level of complexity. Throughout the film, any theology student has been thinking that the movie is ignoring the fact that killing the Antichrist would mean that Revelation’s prophecies wouldn’t be fulfilled, raising questions about whether God’s word is infallible. Thrillers set up the expectation that the hero will use violence to get the job done, but in this story a hero who uses violence to kill the Antichrist would interfere with God’s infallible plan. By having Thorne’s plan fail, and his failures setting up Damien in a powerful position, the story implies that even Thorne’s attempts to subvert prophecy have only furthered it. Instead of being a thriller hero who plays at being God and forges a new destiny, Thorne becomes an unexpected instrument in events planned out for a long time.
Neither The Omen nor Left Behind provides a full-fledged exploration of the “fascism versus pacifism, freewill versus obedience” debate that naturally comes up with thrillers. However, one gives a little twist that allows it to subvert those genre weaknesses, creating a balanced story rather than a simplistic one. In doing so, it becomes an interesting example of how a story can know what genre it’s in, and make little or big motions that create complexity and avoid thematic problems.