A review of Brenda Peterson's book: I Want to Be Left Behind
Who doesn't want to be taken in the Rapture? Many people, apparently (see TBC 4/11). The author of I Want to Be Left Behind (DaCapo Press, 2010) shares her insights and personal feelings about this subject that is becoming more and more controversial.
I have to admit that Brenda Peterson is a very engaging writer. I was drawn in from the first page, and even though the book reads like a blow-by-blow description of practically every moment in her life, Peterson manages to hold her audience's attention and keep them in a bit of suspense as to just where she will finally end up.
This book feels almost like fiction, with lots of dialogue, beautiful word pictures of the scenery around her, and some very poignant accounts of conversations during family gatherings.
The theme of the book is Peterson's search for the truth about God, the Rapture, the church, life, the afterlife--all worthwhile undertakings. Raised in what she calls a "fundamentalist" Southern Baptist family, Peterson remembers that their beliefs majored on the authority of Scripture, the evidence for and anticipation of a Rapture in which Jesus Christ would appear in the air and believers would rise to meet Him, and the importance of "gathering together" with other believers.
I found myself rooting for her in her quest for truth--up to a point. Against all odds, I continued to hope that she would come to the conviction that the Bible is true and is therefore to be trusted (even though the very title of the book and the endorsements on the back cover let me know that my hopes wouldn't be realized).
What was interesting was the fact that despite her yearnings for all things "natural" and "woodsy," Brenda Peterson has never actually been able to shake off her Christian roots and the very real, loving ties to her Christian family. It often seems as though she hopes to be able to merge her love for the elemental things of life with the God whom her parents believed had created the universe. Alas, she eventually does just that.
One quote near the beginning of the book reveals her cynical wit and pragmatic view of "spiritual" things, which may make this book so popular--and dangerous: "It struck me that being 'raptured' out of this world trumps the insecurity of living and the surrender of dying. No bodily indignity. No suffering. One will simply be whisked off with the fellowship of the believers, the Rapture gang, to a heavenly and just reward. In the twinkling of an eye, they say, the righteous will ascend, dropping golden dental work, nightgowns, and perhaps some spouses. Unless you count losing the earth and billions of unfortunate sinners who cling to it, getting raptured is a blast" (pp. 3-4).
Peterson herself is one of those who clings to the earth, and using humor to make her point, she draws her audience in deeper: "I had seen a new bumper sticker: IN CASE OF RAPTURE, THIS CAR WILL BE UNMANNED. I wanted to tell him that I was going to get a new bumper sticker too: IN CASE OF RAPTURE, CAN I HAVE YOUR CAR?"
Early in her life, Peterson realized that she "felt no connection with the continual Southern Baptist story line of sin, suffering, and separatism." She continues, "When the congregation sang, This world is not my home, I'm just passing through / If heaven's not my home, then, Lord, what will I do? I bowed my head in consternation. How could they happily jettison the entire world for an afterlife that seemed thinly conceived and lonely for all I most loved? Another thing: if God so loved this world, why didn't Christians take better care of it?"
Her obvious misinterpretation of John:3:16 that God loved the earth finds its fulfillment (for her) when she reads an article by N. T. (Tom) Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham in the United Kingdom, called "Christians Wrong About Heaven." She paraphrases his writing: "Paradise is not a final resurrection or rapture away from this world. It is an intermediate stage before Christ's return to join the 'new heavens and the new Earth together.'" She cites Wright's explanation of Revelation: "God wants you to be a renewed human being helping him to renew his creation . . . you won't be going up there to him, he'll be coming down here." Peterson herself then goes on to explain her own justification for the "no Rapture" theory: "That is why it is so important to care for this earth, God's creation....So why not help out in creating the new heavens and earth?...If the earth is joined with heaven, if eternity with the divine is already here in this world, then we cannot leave the earth behind--ever" (p. 253). This is not unlike what many of today's churches are teaching!
She is disappointed that Christians seem to believe that animals will not be included in the Rapture because she loves animals of all kinds and has a particular fascination for snakes. She mentions that one of her favorite books is The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, which seeks to show how Christianity might have developed if Gnostic texts had been accepted as part of the Christian Canon. Peters describes her fascination with the Gnostic serpent coiled around the earth and the "symbolic twining of the serpent with Christ the Messiah" (p. 175).
Drawing from Hinduism, Taoism, Hopi Indian shamanism, Buddhism, along with Christianity and environmentalism, her philosophy jumps from one idea to another. The difficulty in reading this book is to see her come close to the truth and then back away into another blend of all that she has taken in. None of her philosophies satisfies her by itself. Even environmentalism, for which she claims to have a strong affinity, when broken down into its parts, has, according to Peterson, too much in common with fundamentalist Christianity! So she considers herself a "backslidden environmentalist" who still clings to the earth and the things of it.
The saddest moment in the book is the following excerpt:
"'Well, honey, the Bible says we will be swept up to meet Christ in midair,' my mother jumped in. She is always exhilarated by the good fight. 'We truly hope you'll be lifted up to heaven with us.'
"I was about to protest, but suddenly I was distracted by the thought: what if I was wrong and my family was right all along about the Rapture? What if while floating on this little cruise ship of a world, the tropical heavens suddenly parted wide and I saw my whole family ascending on chariots of fire? Wouldn't I want to be with them? I pictured myself on an upside-down, tilting Titanic, like in the movie with all the passengers clawing their way to higher decks. Wouldn't I take a lifeboat or a chariot of fire if it were offered, especially if my whole family was onboard, reaching out their loving arms to me?
"Then the sad but somehow bracing thought struck me: no, I would want to stay onboard and go down with the ship....I realized that I would want to sing along with those Titanic musicians who serenaded everyone as they sank" (p. 217-18).
When the author was addressed directly by a family member as to exactly what belief she adhered, her reply was, "I do believe in a divine presence in this and all worlds. And I believe that every faith is sacred."