Oct 3, 2014

The 'Left Behind' audience

Jackson Cuidon read the Left Behind books as a kid. He watched the movies that starred Kirk Cameron in 2000, 2002, and 2005. He knew he wanted to watch the remake starring Nicolas Cage, which comes out in 1,820 theaters today.

You might say Jackson Cuidon is a Left Behind fan.

Except one thing.

He hates Left Behind.

"I had so many feelings about the books -- strong ones," Cuidon writes in his Christianity Today review of the new "Left Behind" movie. "I was ready to be upset about this movie, is what I'm saying -- upset at a movie based on books that I felt totally mischaracterized my faith."

Cuidon wasn't as upset as he expected to be by the Nicolas Cage remake, in part because the film seems to him to be a straight action flick rather than, like the novels, an action flick pretending to be especially Christian. Not that he liked the movie. He pans it in his review, writing, "It has many, many faults, and almost no positives."

So Cuidon isn't a fan, even though he's consumed a lot of this cultural product over the years. His relationship with the series is complicated.

He's not the only one.

Left Behind was and is a mass culture phenomenon. It had and has a mass audience. That means the audience is diverse. Some people are fans in the simplest sense but other people -- many people -- consume this culture for other reasons, their own reasons, with their own varied and complicated responses.

Cultural critics too often treat mass audiences as if they were all the same. They assume a homogeneity. The audience is taken to be a simple, single-minded thing, which can be explained by explaining the culture being consumed. Popular culture is simplistically taken as evidence of how people think and what people think, based on the unsupported idea that people consume culture because they enjoy it, and that "enjoy it" means identify with it, agree with it, and accept it without thinking.

Audiences are more interesting than that, though.

The cultural theorist Ien Ang has looked at television audiences extensively. She writes that even when TV viewers are just passive consumers, with only very limited and indirect control over the content, they still exercise a bit of freedom. They can "choose between programmes," she writes, "to watch little or a lot, together or alone, with more or less attention, in short, to use and consume television in ways that suit them."

Looking specifically at Dutch audiences of the soap opera "Dallas," Ang found that viewers were actually quite creative in their uses of the show. There was an interesting minority of viewers, for example, who watched ironically. They reported that they didn't like watching "Dallas," but also really liked not liking it. They "don't enjoy 'Dallas' itself at all," Ang writes, "what they seem to enjoy is the irony they bring to bear on it."

Ang didn't have the phrase at the time she wrote Watching Dallas, but now this is called hate watching. There are a number of ways in which to think about hate watching, and a seemingly a number of different variations of hate watching too. It's part of how interestingly complicated cultural consumption is.

Viewing creativity can also be found in people who consume culture more straightforwardly -- enjoying escapist fantasies, for example, for the escape and fantasy. Even these viewers, according to Ang's study,
are well aware they are watching a fictional world . . . . The 'flight' into a fictional fantasy world is not so much a denial of reality as playing with it. A game that enables one to place the limits of the fictional and the real under discussion, to make them fluid. And in that game an imaginary participation in the fictional world is experienced as pleasurable.
Research on evangelical fiction readers show this sort of imaginative engagement too. People read fiction as fiction. It's a kind of play. They "try on" alternative realities and imagine what it would be like if they experienced what the characters in the novel experience, and it's fun. It's not serious -- it's fiction.

There is certainly a didactic content to Left Behind, but it's also fiction, and readers of fiction are aware they're reading fiction. Amy Johnson Frykholm, in her analysis of Left Behind readers, found that they were diverse, complicated and creative in their consumption.

Frykholm writes,
Stories leave room for interpretation. Perhaps this is even a reason for the popularity of Left Behind itself, why it is far more successful than Timothy LeHaye's nonfiction prophetic texts have ever been. As fiction, Left Behind attracts a broad audience because in its very nature as a story it invites multiplicity. A story is multisided and reflexive. It mirrors back onto its reader and creates a prism of stories inside of only one. Even a story as black and white as the rapture that appears on the surface to be only about the saved and the damned turns out to have a multitude of stories within its story -- stories about family life, about finding meaning, about negotiating power, creating truth, and sharing truth.  
Often what readers express through the story of rapture and tribulation is not about 'the end' at all, but about the creation of meaning in the present.
Among cultural critics, there's a tradition going back to the Frankfurt school of treating mass culture as manipulative, and seeing mass audiences as passive and stupid, easily molded by what they consume. It's a condescending view. It's also a view that also seems to only really be supported by its own snobbery. Even the briefest of investigations into actual cultural consumption shows the theory of manipulated masses is not a good one.

Nevertheless, whenever the audience is mainly women, you see this theory.

When the audience is young women, this is how they're treated. When it's people without a college education, or racial minorities, or cultural conservatives, or other groups critics apparently find it difficult to treat as three-dimensional humans, audiences are again taken to be milling, drooling sheep. Cultural condescension passes for critical analysis not infrequently.

It's not just Left Behind's audience that gets treated this way, but Left Behind has been a good example of this over the years.

Now the new movie is out, and there are good examples of the complexities of the actual audience.

Jackson Cuidon wanted to watch the movie for Christianity Today because he would hate it. There are also viewers like Patricia Long, from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who wrote on the movie's Facebook page, "Thank You, Dear Lord, for this movie coming out! For too long Hollywood has been pushing so many terrible, terrible movies, and it is about time for Christians to support good films with their Money and Attendance!"

On the Relevant podcast, Jesse Carey said he was concerned that it would be OK. "The trailer for the movie looked incredibly competent," he said. "I'm not saying it's going to be a great movie, but it's not going to be a laughable one." Cameron Strang, Relevant magazine's publisher, agreed it might not be campy enough. "We were hoping that it's the next Snakes on a Plane," he said. An American Airlines employee named Kim Opperman, on the other hand, writes that she feels reserved about the remake for different reasons. "I loved it with Kirk Cameron who made it years go without a lot of support," she writes.

E. Stephen Burnett writes for Christ and Pop Culture that he has been a fan of Left Behind but, for him, being a fan of the series has meant being conflicted and disappointed. "God used these books for my good," he writes, noting that, since he first encounted them he has moved away from their theology. "They challenged my reading tastes, deepened my desire to study Scripture, and stirred my love for fantastical fiction -- and they were great fun."

What it means to be a "fan" is not always as a straightforward statement of liking something. People like things in different ways. They identify and dis-identify, accept and oppose and negotiate with a cultural project, as individuals and in groups, with their own histories and varieties of expectations. That's the nature of mass audiences for mass cultural phenomena.

That's why audiences are so interesting.