The Late, Great Planet Mirth V: Future Tense (1990), and a Jeremiad for America

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three star

Welcome to The Late Great Planet Mirth, an ongoing series in which a reformed survivor of PreMillenialist Dispensationalism explores the often silly, occasionally absurd, and sometimes surprisingly compelling tropes, traits, and treasures of films about the Rapture. Get caught up in it with us!

As the end of the world approaches, it’s time to get back into the swing of things with a look at more premillenialist dispensational fearmongering with Future Tense. I thought about moving on to the older tetralogy of Rapture flicks that I remember from rainy recesses at Christian school, starting with 1972’s Thief in the Night, but those films are harder to track down, so I went with this 1990 half-hour evangelism video instead. Tense was produced and distributed by Mars Hill Productions shortly after that ministry’s 1988 split from their parent organization, Youth for Christ/Houston, following the division’s formation in 1977. The plot, such as it is, concerns newly born again student Michael Cummings (A.J. Merrill), who joined the Christian faith after leaving his atheistic home for college. His attempts to share this good news are rebuffed by his parents, so he records a tape in order to preach at them without interruption tell them about his newfound Savior and warn them about a spooky metaphorical dream he had about the Rapture, and how they can avoid being left behind.

Of particular interest is the way that this film was created as a proselytization aid and how that actually informs the viewing experience in a positive way. The Apocalypse series shows the Rapture event happening very early, and is largely concerned with the Tribulation period that follows and how new converts will have to live in that supposed future; the Left Behind series (both the books and films) were also more invested in what follows the Rapture than being prepared for it, and when we talk about the Thief series soon we’ll see many of these same ideas. For all that Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins, Hal Lindsey, and their ilk may like to think of themselves as selfless Jeremiahs come to warn unbelievers of a doomy future and by their warning save the lost, there’s a sense of smugness that pervades their work, a depraved (and frankly unChristian) desire not to save souls from damnation but lord their rightness over them. They don’t look forward to the Rapture because they’ll finally be with God, they look forward to being proven right in their eschatology: “We were right and you were wrong, so get ready for Wormwood and Babylon, sinners.” Future Tense, for all that it may fail to adequately connect with an audience that is not already “Rapture Ready” is genuinely and earnestly concerned with the viewer’s salvation, for better or worse. Despite its short run time (which, like Apocalypse and many films created for Christians to use as evangelism tools, includes a montage sequence during which your Christian friend showing you this video is supposed to offer to pray with you), Future Tense crams in more humanity than the entire Left Behind oeuvre, which should be properly lauded.

Also notable in this film is that Michael’s father (John Shannon) voices many of the secular—as opposed to scriptural—objections to Rapture ideology that PMDs hear in the real world, making this one of the more realistic Rapture flicks, although this does not render the short without flaw. The purveyors of this kind of Christian media exist within such an ideological echo chamber that they seem unable to actually comprehend that the viewing audience isn’t already invested in their worldview and the beliefs thereof. For instance, in one scene Michael’s father states that “For as long as [he] can remember” there have been doomsayers predicting the end of the world, and he’s right! For instance, Hilary of Poitiers, whose Commentarius in Evangelium Matthaei is the oldest complete extant Latin commentary on Matthew, predicted that the world would end in 365 CE. When we get to Thief in the Night, we’ll see a Lindsey-influenced PMD pastor state that the then-impending 1980s apocalypse must mean that the Antichrist was already politically active in that film’s production year of 1972; Martin of Tours said essentially the same thing: “There is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born. Firmly established already in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power.” Of course, Martin was predicting a world expiration date of 400 CE, a good fifteen centuries earlier than Lindsey. All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.

The filmmakers, of course, don’t intend for Michael’s father to be seen as a voice of reason; his protestations are supposed to ring hollow in the ears of True Believers, but the producers fail to consider that the real intended audience, the unsaved, needs to be presented with some kind of rebuttal to Mr. Cummings’s rhetoric if they’re going to be swayed by this video. His smugness is undoubtedly meant to be read as the most deleterious form of prideful arrogance: the kind that damns others as well as oneself. We’re meant to pity him and his family because they will be left behind and because he refuses to listen to his son, but what aspect of his recounting of historical apocalypse hoaxes is inaccurate? What concerns does he have that don’t demand an answer, one which the evangelist should be ready to present? Ultimately, the fact that counter arguments are invoked but not discussed undermines the intended message.

Instead, what we are left with as a result is less a sermon than a text that can be read as an unintentional short-form presentation about one man’s mental illness, and how his fanaticism about his newfound faith and the accompanying dreams (or hallucinations, if you will) have a harrowing effect on his relationship with his family. He calls his parents, anxiously weeping and begging his parents to join his religious sect, warning them that, if they do not come to believe what he does, they will suffer. His younger sister is affected most strongly by these warnings, becoming paranoid about the end of the world. After all, Michael is her older brother; she respects and admires him. Couldn’t he be right? Mr. Cummings, unsure of how to deal with his son’s deteriorating sanity and worried for his daughter, forbids discussion of this Rapture nonsense in his home. And there’s Mrs. Cummings, caught in the middle, so desperate to reach out to her beloved firstborn but unable to do so because every phone call ends in admonitions and premonitions of darkness to come. When she refuses to play along, he sends them a recording of his ramblings so that they can’t interrupt his stream-of- consciousness diatribe.

That’s not the story that Mars Hill set out to make, but that’s what’s on screen.

So, what have we learned from Future Tense? We’ve learned that PMD media can be genuinely human when it focuses less on shaming those who will be left behind and more on building the flock. We’ve learned that a fundamental misunderstanding of (or an unconscious unwillingness to empathize with) the intended audience can turn an evangelistic parable into a dire warning about the perils of religious susceptibility. But most of all we’ve learned that, if your loved ones won’t listen to you, the best solution is to give them an audio cassette and an ultimatum.

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“A jeremiad is a long literary work, usually in prose, but sometimes in verse, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society’s imminent downfall.” – definition via Wikipedia

A tangent here, if you will indulge me. There is no mention of the “Antichrist” in Future Tense, although that figure is often a major player in most of these films. We live in dark days, and whether or not we (as individuals or as a nation) emerge from the next four years at all is in question. I have to ask, what is the Antichrist? Many modern Christians interpret the term to mean a singular entity, even though this is . . . not really textually accurate. A more correct reading is that the term describes a system of ideas that are antithetical to the actual teachings of Jesus, such as: condemning usury and calling upon money lenders to forsake their trade and follow him; finding the image of God in the faces of the sick, the elderly, and those of a foreign land, and caring for them as one would for Christ himself; rebuking the adherents of a religious doctrine that curried political favor by supporting the oppressor and the status quo; encouraging de-escalation as the truest means of seeking peace; discouraging the accumulation of wealth at the expense of the destitute; and, most importantly, loving one’s neighbor, without caveat. I never wanted to be Hal Lindsey or Martin of Tours, but let me say this now while we are still here: the spirit of the Antichrist is very much alive in our current social and political systems, and within the religion which claims to follow Christ. If there is a physical embodiment of that spirit, his ascension is upon us. It’s enough to make a man consider conversion.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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