It was set to be a hit from the time letters hit paper. (No movable type yet, so it wouldn’t hit the presses for a couple centuries.) It had glimpses into Hell and Heaven, the doom of the Pope, and a cast of modern-day (every era thinks itself modern) characters present and active as God’s plan for history comes to a head. It featured creative use of imagery from Daniel and Revelation, and it reassured all who read that, so long as they believed in the proper God, even if they suffered on earth, they would be spared the torments of Hell. It even featured pot shots at the author’s least favorite political and ecclesiastic factions.
The precursor is, of course, Dante’s Comedy. Let me begin this little reflection by saying that I don’t mean any disrespect to what I hold as the greatest poem of the Christian tradition and probably that humankind has produced. Jerry Jenkins is no Dante, but that’s alright; nobody is. But as a discussion of “end times” happened a couple pews behind me fired up before services started Sunday (I have developed enough discipline not to make eye contact when I overhear fragments of those conversations), it dawned on me that, since this year is 2008, and since Dante– scholars seem to think–began to write his Comedy in 1308, this year is an anniversary of sorts.
I’ve maintained over the years that Dante has a great historical sense, an acute grasp of Aristotelian philosophy, a generous touch with human follies, and great characters. All of those still apply. Yet some things continue to bother me when I reread the poem. (I have done so every summer since 2002, and I’ve nearly finished this summer’s read.) Dante’s politics, for one, are unapologetically imperialist: he believes that since justice is a singular idea, human government should be singular, and one of his great laments is that Constantine’s project has fallen on hard times. (He thought it was coming back, though–keep reading.) Beyond that, the fact that the woman who inspires him is not his wife (whom biographers seem to think Dante more or less hated) but a girl much younger than himself bothers me, despite critics’ calls for me to give the man and his arranged marriage a break. But one of the bothers that I discovered on this year’s reread actually makes him quite interesting when considered next to Messrs. LaHaye and Jenkins.
In the very opening cantos of Inferno, Dante alludes to a Greyhound who would bring justice back into the world. When first I read Inferno back in high school, I thought that he was making some kind of allusion to Christ–after all, the Bible calls him a shepherd and a lamb and a lion among other things, so how strange could a racing dog be? Now that I’ve read more carefully, I notice that Dante thinks that in his lifetime, the early fourteenth century, the Greyhound is a young man and that, moreover, he had been born in Italy. That’s weird.
What’s weirder is that in the poem’s middle section (neither heaven nor hell, so I’ll let you church historians and Google searchers figure it out), the poem ends not with a simple geographic transition as did Inferno but with an apocalyptic pageant in which events-leading-to-the-establishment-of-the-eternal-Empire play out before Dante and angels tell him that such things are coming soon. Playing a part in the antichrist’s company in Dante’s version is the Pope, just as he does in LaHaye’s, but this one resides in Avignon as a result of the Great Schism. (No, that phrase doesn’t refer to the split between Union and Southern Baptists.) Dante’s vision culminates in Rome’s being restored as center of Church and Empire, with a true Shepherd holding the staff and a true Caesar holding the sword, those roles never to be mixed again, and justice reigning in the land.
Now I’ve only read the first of the Left Behind novels, and that was only so that when somebody asked me (as they did with some frequency in the earlier years of this decade), instead of speculating, I could say that I read it and it stinks. (I read it. It stinks.) So I don’t know the plot details or much else about the later novels.
I do have to chuckle, though, to think that so many people, many of whom told me that these novels told things “as they are going to happen,” aren’t even aware of Dante, much less that he undertook the same project seven hundred years ago. By the way, Dante died fairly close to seven hundred years ago, the Avignon papacy ended, the Greyhound did not restore justice on earth, and Dante is still the greatest poet ever. Seven hundred years later, although his poem is great, his apocalyptic casting of his own generation as the last generation has to strike us, seven hundred years later, as somewhat overconfident if not a little funny.
Cross-posted at Hardly the Last Word