Although it was once a notion with widespread cultural currency among the more superstitious American evangelicals of the 1970s and early 80s, the “credit cards = ‘the Mark of the Beast’” belief has largely died off, no doubt a casualty of the fact that nearly everyone has one, and so far at least no devilish Antichrist has shown up to lay claim to our immortal souls.
In fact, searching for “credit cards” and “Mark of the Beast” on Google today brings up just 35,000 results, belying just how wildly popular that belief once was, mostly fuelled by best-selling books like Hal Lindsey’s paranoiac blockbuster The Late, Great Planet Earth (which sold nearly 30 million copies to a nation that then numbered just over 200 million) and its sequels, Satan is Alive and Well and Living on Planet Earth and The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon. Dog-eared copies of all three books could be easily found in practically any Christian church of the era, and every garage sale.
Among Lindsey’s readers were future US president Ronald Reagan, and my parents, who used only cash and checks, and refused to get a credit card due to Lindsey’s assertion that they were the first step to “The Beast” taking over. (When they shockingly got one in the 1990s, I reminded my mother that she used to believe credit cards were the “Mark of the Beast” and she brushed me off as if there was no truth to the matter whatsoever. That’s not the way I remember it…). The Hal Lindsey books, Chick tracts and other assorted “end of the world” literature was basically all there was to read in church and I became quite an expert in the genre, although not intending to become one. What I want to impress upon readers who weren’t born yet, or who lived outside of the Bible belt, is that these kinds of premillennialist beliefs were a part of many, I’d say most, evangelical Christian churches in America at that time. These books could be found pretty much everywhere. (The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown has sold but a fraction of the books Hal Lindsey has sold, to put it into perspective.)
After a certain point probably when I would have been a high school sophomore, my beleaguered mother and father finally tired of arguing with me about going to church with them, but one of the final things I have any memory of that I experienced there was a pot luck dinner event held in the church basement where these people came and showed three movies, one that I immediately recognized when I saw it linked on the Christian Nightmares blog yesterday.
A Thief in the Night, A Distant Thunder and Image of the Beast were shown in one marathon Saturday late morning to late afternoon screening that featured a lot of scalloped potatoes, green bean casseroles, fried dumplings, rump roast, Swedish meatballs, cakes, brownies, cookies and stuff like that. Although, these films (and one more titled The Prodigal Planet) known together as either the “Rapture” (or sometimes the “Thief”) series, seem rife with goofy fashions, stiff acting, a lot of preaching and anachronistic beliefs, not to mention being the victim of low, low budgets, they are not entirely unwatchable. I remember being entertained by them with their elements of supernatural horror, paranoia, conspiracy theories and silly plotlines. Bear in mind that the series could be seen as a parallel version of Hollywood’s Omen films, which, after all feature a “Biblical” character, so there several levels on which to appreciate these movies (“Christian camp” being the biggest by quite some margin. They’re lame and fascinating at the same time. Try watching the films through the eyes of someone in the 70s, a decade where a clever horror film like The Exorcist was taken very, very seriously by religious persons.)
The “Rapture” films, directed by Donald W. Thompson and produced by Russell S. Doughten Jr. were hugely influential on the Left Behind book series, indeed they served as the primary influence, as acknowledged by authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. It’s claimed that the films have been seen by some 300 million people around the world, many who were deeply affected by the thought that they themselves might be “left behind” when the Rapture occurs. I’m sure they gave a lot of gullible people and children many a terrible nightmare.
Which was, of course, the entire point to begin with: Scare ‘em straight! Pascal’s wager on a $60,000 budget!
More after the jump…