Cast as flight attendant, daughter, housewife and mother, the principal women in the Left Behind series play second string to a career airline pilot, precocious news reporter, Nobel prize-winning chemist and international politician/statesman.
The best-selling Left Behind books serve numerous readers as convincing commentaries on Bible prophecy and teaching relating to end times. Unfortunately, sex role stereotypes commence at cruising altitude on page one when senior pilot Rayford Steele (even his name evokes masculine strength) fantasizes about the possibility of an affair with the flight attendant Hattie Durham.
Steele mentally compares “drop-dead gorgeous” Hattie with his distant wife Irene who has replaced her serial enthusiasms for Amway, Tupperware and aerobics with an obsession for religion. The rapture interrupts Steele’s fantasies somewhere over the North Atlantic Ocean, protecting the “never unfaithful” pilot from his basic instincts.
The authors’ own words project their attitudes towards their female characters. “Beautiful, sexy and smart” Hattie Durham is a “toucher”… “as she brushed past or rested her hand gently on his (Steele’s) shoulder…”
“Attractive and vivacious enough, even at forty,” Irene Steele allows Christian radio to point her to “real preaching and teaching” at New Hope Village Church that is unavailable in the country club-like church she and Rayford shared.
“A fastidious housekeeper,” Irene departed her “beautiful, frilly place … decorated with needlepoint and country knickknacks” from the flannel nightgown “which she only wore when he was not home.”
Chloe Steele completes the original female trinity of the first book: Stanford college student, “competitive, a driver…but she was like her dad. She took care of herself.”
Both the gorgeous temptress Hattie and the departed paragon Irene perform on occasion as though intellectually challenged. Hattie reveals innate moral and spiritual weaknesses when she moves into the enemy camp to serve as a personal assistant to Nicholae Carpathia, the antichrist figure. Hattie’s unwed pregnancy creates numerous spiritual, as well as political, complications.
Chloe joins the Tribulation Force (book two in the series) dedicated to physical and spiritual warfare and becomes a partner with the pastor, the reporter Cameron “Buck” Williams and her father—as much as a woman is permitted. Because of her relationship to her father and her reporter friend/husband, Chloe becomes a vital team member allowed to employ her intelligence and abilities in business and finance.
As subsequent volumes appeared, other women played significant roles, including the sophisticated Irene-antithesis Amanda White, second wife of the widower Rayford Steele. Nevertheless, men dominate the action, decision-making and biblical interpretation.
A brief nod to racial diversity and stereotyping occurs early on when New York-based Williams attempts to mend his relationship with “fiftyish black woman” Chicago news bureau chief Lucinda Washington after he scooped her office on a Chicago story. Three days later she is raptured. Her son Lionel plays one of the four major teen roles in the initial book of the youth series Left Behind: The Kids.
The “kids” series boasts 18 volumes. Vicki Byrne, “fourteen and looked eighteen … fiery red hair … short skirts, flashy tops, lots of jewelry,” Lionel Washington and two more teenage boys move through adventures parallel to the adult Left Behind books.
Readers eagerly await new installments of this apparently never-ending serial of post-rapture adventures, which began in 1996. Number nine, entitled Desecration: Antichrist Takes the Throne, hit Christian and secular bookstores in October 2001. All the major characters (except the Raptured housewife introduced through the memories of her pilot husband and student daughter) are spiritual losers by virtue of being present in these tales.
Of course, everyone left behind receives one final chance to become good enough to make the second cut. Methodical and unrelenting Scripture searching and study occupy several male characters trying to make sense of a distressful and depressing situation. The women seem content to accept truths as they become revealed from Revelation, Ezekiel and Daniel.
Margaret Tarpley is an associate in surgery for surgical education at Vanderbilt Medical Center and a former missionary to Nigeria.