Just last week, the reboot of the film Left Behind hit theaters and was met with universal disdain. Critics panned the film for bad cinematography, laughable dialogue, shoddy acting, lame special effects, and a propagandist plot. It received a rating of 2% on Rotten Tomatoes.
My main aversion to the movie is my irrational but intense dislike of Nicolas Cage. But the storyline itself merits some examination. In case you’re not familiar, Left Behind is a series of best-selling Christian novels. These 12 books were written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and were published between 1995 and 2007. They come from a particular viewpoint about what the end of the world will be like.
Full disclosure: I have not read any of these books or seen the movies. So I’m not talking about them per se but about the theology behind them. The Left Behind stories center around belief in the rapture. There are variations of this belief, but the most common version of rapture theology says that there will come a day when believers are swept up into heaven and non-believers are left behind to endure tribulation and persecution. You do not want to be left behind.
There are several problems with this. First, the rapture is not in the Bible. Adherents point to two verses in 1 Thessalonians that refers to believers being “caught up…in the air.” But the idea of the rapture came about only in the 18th century, which means the Christian church went 1800 years without it. (See this video for an explanation of the origins of the rapture.) And the witness of the book of Revelation is to God descending, like our focus song said, not us ascending.
Two Bible verses and some imagination just don’t satisfy me as justification for belief in the rapture. Besides, blogger Zack Hunt points out that even if there seems to be some resemblance between the rapture and those two verses in 1 Thessalonians, the idea of believers being swooped out of harm’s way “is antithetical to the narrative of Scripture,” “Because the Bible is a story about a God who journeys with His people through hard times even when it is God who has unleashed the judgment.”
God is not in the habit of snatching certain people out of harm’s way and leaving others behind. In fact, in Scripture, it is that which is left behind that is of most importance to God. God’s chosen people built a nation out of the remnant that was left. And in Luke 15, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, where a shepherd leaves his flock of 99 to seek out the one that was left. Then he describes a woman with ten coins who searches high and low until she finds the one that went missing. And here in John 6, Jesus performs a miracle of overabundance and then tells his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”
The people present for the miracle of the loaves and fishes are themselves fragments, too. John tells us that the crowd followed Jesus “because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.” Maybe they were simply curious, but if you are following someone who is healing the sick, chances are good it’s because you yourself are sick. Jesus drew crowds of not just onlookers but people in need. He drew crowds of people who were rejected, cast aside, and left behind because of their social status, occupation, criminal history, mental instability, ethnic or religious identity, and physical illness or disability. The fragments and leftovers of human society were gathered together in his presence to be fed, healed, and loved.
The European Union declared 2014 the European Year Against Food Waste. If you pay attention to the produce available in supermarkets, you will find a great deal of uniformity in the size, shape, and color of the fruits and vegetables available for purchase. But if you’ve ever had a garden, you know most food doesn’t look that way. Every years, literally tons and tons of perfectly good food is rejected and thrown out because it doesn’t fit these aesthetic specification.
And so, in response to this fact and the EU’s declaration, French grocer Intermarché started a campaign called Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables. They purchased produce that was misshapen but perfectly good to eat, gave it its own packaging, and marketed “the grotesque apple, the ridiculous potato, the hideous orange, the failed lemon, the disfigured eggplant, the ugly carrot, and the unfortunate clementine.”
“Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”
Tomorrow, a group from Centenary will be traveling to Haiti for 5 days. In preparation for the trip, I have been reading Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains, which is based on the incredible work of Dr. Paul Farmer in Haiti and around the world.
Much of Farmer’s work was done in rural Haiti, where tuberculosis was a huge problem and doctors complained frequently of patient noncompliance. Farmer rejected the very idea of noncompliance, believing that it was a doctor’s responsibility to make sure the patient had everything he or she needed to get well. Once, he made a 5-hour round trip on foot just to make sure a TB patient understood the instructions for his medication. On the way back, Farmer remarked, “Some people would argue this wasn’t worth a five-hour walk,” but clearly he thought it was.
Paul Farmer wasted his time to help those who had been left behind. “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” However useless the fragments may look, however impractical it might be to seek out the lost sheep, to hunt for the missing coin, to take the time meticulously to gather up what is left, that is simply God’s way.
Because God’s love is excessive. God’s love is unnecessary. God’s love is extravagant. Jesus performs a miracle to feeds 5,000 people who are just going to be hungry again in a few hours. Twelve baskets leftover is impressive, but it won’t even provide for their next meal. Yet every piece is counted as precious, just as every hungry belly in that moment was considered worth filling.
I recently read a book called Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. If you eat meat and would like to continue to do so, don’t read it. The book covers a lot of different farming practices, and one of them is fishing. Foer describes the many problems with raising fish on farms, but he points out that even fishing in the wild isn’t perfect. In fact, much commercial fishing relies on ships dragging nets that are miles long, dredging up not only the intended catch but also many times more unwanted sea animals. These creatures usually die and are discarded.
The excess sea animals that are tossed aside are called “bycatch.” They are unwanted, unuseful, and undesirable, and they suffer for it. They become the remnant that is left behind for the sake of a harvest of shrimp or tuna.
But God goes fishing precisely for the remnant. Nothing is left behind, and nothing is thrown overboard. God walks with us through the tribulation, seeks the lost sheep and the missing coin, reclaims every ridiculous potato and unfortunate clementine, goes out of his way to help those left behind, and puts everything on the line to bring in the ones that nobody wants. And he offers his excessive, unnecessary, extravagant love in the simple, often overlooked gifts of bread and cup.
Artist and writer Jan Richardson wrote a blessing for the fragments based on John 6. I’ll close with her words:
Cup your hands together,
and you will see the shape
this blessing wants to take.
Basket, bowl, vessel:
it cannot help but
hold itself open
knows the secret
of the fragments
that find their way
into its keeping,
that may hide
in what has been
the persistence of plenty
where there seemed
Look into the hollows
of your hands
what wants to be
what abundance waits
among the scraps
that come to you,
will offer itself
from the fragments
“Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” He’s got a lot on the line, and no one, however lost, however inglorious, however unwanted, needs to be left behind. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell