The Rapture, the much-anticipated 15th novel in Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins's Left Behind series, was published this June. The Rapture is a prequel of sorts, describing the set-up for the Left Behind volumes that preceded it.
The Left Behind books, infused with Christian dispensationalist theology, describe the End of Times as prophesied in apocalyptic works of the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible.
In The Rapture, the world's righteous are sucked up to heaven, leaving only the unsaved on earth. This inaugurates a tumultuous era, not least because world affairs are being directed by a UN Secretary General who is actually the Antichrist. But salvation is still possible. The heroes of the novels are a group known as the "Tribulation Force," born-again Christians who attempt to save the remnants of humanity from God's seven-year reign of wrathful judgment.
This may sound like niche literature and it is, but it happens to be one of the largest niches in publishing. The series has sold 65 million copies.
The Left Behind books emerged from a fundamentalist movement, and their very premise - the eschatological distinction between the saved and the unsaved - is a paradigm of religious separatism, but in many ways, the Left Behind books are not isolationist in nature. Instead of shunning popular culture completely, these Christians have created their own. Now readers of commercial fiction can eschew Tom Clancy for an ideologically and culturally appropriate - and reinforcing - work. Nor is this religious accommodation limited to literature. Christian rock is a billion-dollar-a-year industry today.
The choice between isolation and accommodation is not unique to Christians, of course. Orthodox Jews face similar quandaries. And while isolationist haredi philosophies abound, examples of accommodation exist as well. As with the Left Behind series for Christians, fiction has become one such arena for haredim. In the past decade, Orthodox imprints such as Artscroll and Feldheim have begun publishing adult novels in significant numbers.
The Left Behind books are thrillers, and interestingly, this seems to be the genre of choice for haredi readers too. The Artscroll set has a LaHaye and Jenkins of its own: Yair Weinstock, who has published six novels since 1997.
Weinstock's most recent novel, Borrowed Time (Sha'ar Press, 2006), was also published in June. This book follows private detective Gabi Ben-Dor as he investigates a nefarious doctor responsible for numerous hospital deaths. At the same time, Gabi pursues a family mystery: his grandfather disappeared during World War I, leaving his grandmother an aguna for life.
Borrowed Time is the first haredi novel I ever read, and while some of my expectations were met, the book surprised me too. I assumed the quality of the writing would be unfortunate, and unfortunately I wasn't wrong. Weinstock's novels are translated from Hebrew, but this fact alone cannot account for the immaturity and predictability of its prose.
The biggest surprise? Borrowed Time not only reinforces positive haredi values, it criticizes haredi faults.
One such critique emerges from the story of Baruch Graievski, who suffers a heart attack on the day of his daughter's wedding. Graievski was felled by the financial stress of having to buy the bride and groom an apartment. At the shiva, Rabbi Diamant, Gabi Ben-Dor's spiritual adviser, rebukes his constituents: "Nearly every parent in the haredi community here in this country who marries off children undertakes a burden of debt the size of a mid-size bank... The question is how many victims have yet to pay with their lives to the Molech of fully paid apartments, before we realize that things cannot go on this way."
Literature, of course, has a history of not only reinforcing social norms, but protesting problematic ones. In the end, it may be this aspect that transforms Borrowed Time from narrative propaganda into literature - no matter how poorly written. Weinstock's novel tries to perpetuate haredi culture, but it also tries to help it transcend itself.
Which is what art is supposed to do.