A "Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year" ~ The Christian Science Monitor
Selected by Independent Booksellers nationwide as an Indie Next "Great Read"
Watch Nancy Pearl's "Book Lust" interview on I Want to Be Left Behind
Listen to a recent NPR interview "Finding Common Ground" with Brenda Peterson
Read cover story, "Grounded" in City Arts magazine
Now an audiobook on Audible.com, read by the author
Listen to an interview on NPR's "The Faith Middleton Show" with the author.
Listen to an excerpt from the memoir, "Gift of the Magi Cupcakes," on NPR's KUOW.org
To the Best of Our Knowledge interview
Apocalyptic fiction and doomsday scenarios from celebrated writers. Justin Taylor on "The Apocalypse Reader"; Kevin Brockmeier on "The Brief History of the Dead"; Brenda Peterson on Rapture Here; Margaret Atwood on "The Year of the Flood"; Jim Crace on "The Pesthouse".
Praise For I Want to Be Left Behind
“[An] unusually affecting and radiant spiritual memoir… Peterson seeks a meeting of church and earth in this witty, enrapturing account of a spiritual journey of great relevance to us all.”
Kirkus Reviews, 12/1/09
“The author offers a selective memoir that blends her unique autobiography with compassionate and levelheaded observations about family, food, religion, life and our relationships with living things…Peterson has a gift for describing her life’s many adventures with disarming understatement and narrative poise.”
Library Journal, 11/5/09
“This tender, lyrical account of turning away from her religious roots starts with the painful realization that there is no place in a fundamentalist heaven for her beloved animals and the growing sense that her love of the natural world is antithetical to those eagerly anticipating the Rapture. Charting her evolution into an environmental writer of fiction and nonfiction, Peterson always seeks common ground, eschewing fundamentalism of all kinds, whether religious or environmental.”
Publishers Weekly, 1/11/10
“Talk of the rapture surrounds Peterson, and she engages this conversation with delicacy, humor, frustration, and, at times, a begrudging respect, in this memoir.”
City Arts Seattle, February 2010
“Peterson’s I Want to Be Left Behind is a tonic, the least acridly dogmatic of the new God books, pro or con...Her book has humor, which the divine debate could use more of. Instead of another volley in the God wars, her book can be seen as a kind of peace offering. She makes you think maybe everybody is in more harmony than they think.”
Los Angeles Times, 1/31/10
“It is a rich and often lovely life—full of humor and Peterson’s own unique brand of faith.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer, 1/31/10
“Lovely, irreverent humor…Her journey is fascinating, and when she writes about spiritual revelation through nature, she’s captivating...We are left with a good feeling: it is possible to have meaningful discussions with people we don’t agree with and still love them."
Huffington Post, 2/10/10
“With this luminous, surprising memoir, Brenda Peterson completes her own assignment, giving us a story where no one is killed, dismissed, or left behind, where empathy is not only possible but imperative, where rapture can be ours here and now.”
Hudson Valley News, 2/3/10
“A thought-provoking, beautifully written and challenging memoir.”
North Kitsap Sun, 2/14/10
“[A] comedic spiritual memoir.”
Seattle Times, 2/14/10
“[A] thoughtful, witty meditation…Peterson has distilled her life experiences to create the sense of a woman on an idiosyncratic spiritual journey.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer, 2/18/10
“Lovely, irreverent humor…[Peterson’s] journey is fascinating, and when she writes about spiritual revelation through nature, she’s captivating.”
Harborwalk Books, in the Columbus Dispatch, 2/28/10
“At once precocious and thoughtful, [Peterson] weaves her way through the contradictions of growing up to find her own spiritual place in the world. ‘Glowing’ would not be too strong of an adjective for this book!”
The Center of Progressive Christianity website, 3/9/10
“Talk of the rapture…surrounds Peterson, and she engages this conversation with delicacy, humor, frustration, and, at times, a begrudging respect, in this memoir about growing up among Southern Baptists and not quite fitting in.”
“In a memoir that is truly sui generis, veteran author Brenda Peterson humorously recounts the dynamic tension between her nature-loving parents and her Southern Baptist relatives… [A] big hearted book... Peterson’s memoir is more even-handed than Pollyanish, as she critiques both evangelicalism and holier-than-thou environmentalism. Through it all, the author expresses her deep love and appreciation for nature.
Christian Science Monitor, 3/15/10
“Peterson wraps her story in down-home warmth and a quick wit…Peterson’s stories are gems.”
Miami Herald, 3/21/10
“[An] outstanding memoir…[Peterson’s] vivid imagination combined with a lilting writing style make the book a pleasure to read.”
Spirituality and Practice website, 3/22/10
“[A] well-written and consistently compelling spiritual memoir.”
Portland Oregonian, 4/4/10
“[Peterson] merges her quest for spirituality with her love of nature…[She] writes with gentle humor of being a stranger in her own family, while highlighting both the beauty and the holiness of our physical world.”
Curled Up With a Good Book, June 2010
“An often pointed, sometimes funny but always thoughtful history of a young girl's quiet rebellion against the noisy (to her) faith of her family.”
EcoPsychology Review, September, 2010
"A powerful and beautiful memoir . . . exquisite storytelling. Peterson invites the reader through her life story to see ourselves as experienceing rapture here on earth and to realize that this is everything we could ever want."
National Catholic Reporter, 6/19/2012
"A delightfully funny and affectionate family memoir."
Saturday, December 29, 2012 10:00pm
Brenda Peterson was raised to think that the chosen will be swept into heaven. A new memoir reveals how she reversed her thinking and why she now believes the chosen have muddy feet.
photo by Charlotte Wright
In the apocalyptic war between God’s apologists and assailants, Seattle is a major battleground. On God’s side are local writers like Michael Medved and Stephen Meyer, cofounder of the nationally influential agitprop group the Discovery Institute. Meyer’sSignature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design is Amazon’s tenth-best-selling 2009 science book.
Opposing them are writers like Brenda Peterson, whose new memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, critiques her Southern Baptist upbringing; Christian-basher Dan Savage of cable TV and newspaper fame, and Seattle-educated TV star Julia Sweeney, whose autobiographical monologue Letting Go of God is new on Showtime.
The God fight is the central event of our time, splitting our country in half (and the Christian right may soon split the Republican party). Both sides are hopping mad. The Discovery Institute–spawned politician Susan Hutchison claims that when she met best-selling author Richard Dawkins, she tamed his raging atheism by grabbing his face in both hands to make him be nice. He called her “a religious nut.”
In the toxic context of this battle, Peterson’s I Want to Be Left Behind is a tonic, the least acridly dogmatic of the new God books, pro or con. “The problem is, they all get so self-righteous,” says Peterson in her aerie overlooking Alki Beach. Her piercing blue eyes blaze with fervor, but not rage. And her book has humor, which the divine debate could use more of. “Have you ever seen a fundamentalist stand-up comic?” she asks.
Peterson is more of a Northwest mystic than a stand-up comic, but her act has never won more applause. A nature and fiction writer with a respectable pedigree – five years at the New Yorker, one New York Times Notable Book of the Year – she struck a zeitgeist geyser this month with her fifteenth book. It’s earned her best reviews, and it’s her first to be chosen by the American Booksellers Association for the Indie Next best books of the month list. “We’ve had film interest,” she says. Is her suitor a Hollywood name we’ve heard of? “Oh God, yes!” Clearly, Brenda Peterson’s time is at hand.
To understand Peterson, you have to know about America’s most popular new religion: Rapture Christianity. It holds that all Christians will soon be swept alive into heaven, with sinners left behind to be ruled by Satan. Popularized in 1909 by a Kansas City lawyer, Rapture theology reweaves the Bible’s most baffling prophecies into a coherent story and has formed the basis of many literary works, including the popular Left Behind series of novels. Only 39 percent of Americans believe in evolution; 55 percent believe in the Rapture.
“They say it’s biblically literal, but it’s an edit job,” says Peterson. Even as a young Rapture Christian, she had trouble believing it. “It’s the flip side of Islamic fundamentalism. Each longs for a paradise beyond this earth, and shows no mercy for those left behind.”
Peterson preferred earth to heaven, partly because her Forest Service father raised her in a series of natural paradises. “I was born on a lookout in the High Sierra on the Oregon-California border. There were only ten of us there – it was pretty hard to be too human-centric. The forest got to me before the faithful did. I assumed that everyone experienced the daily raptures I felt.” She couldn’t see the Rapture for the trees, which her dad called “the Standing People.”
“My family loved animals and nature, “ she says. “It was a paradox – if they loved the world, why were they so eager to leave?” Peterson got booted out of Vacation Bible School for thinking flying squirrels miraculous. She was outraged to hear that animals would get left behind. “Why whisk only humans off to heaven? What kind of Rapture was that?”
When she was in the third grade, her father took a fellowship and whisked the family off the mountaintop. “We put on shoes and went to Harvard. It was a shock.” Then it was off to Montana, then Virginia. “I went to sixteen different schools.”
Even when they were not in the Bible Belt, her family was a traveling bubble of Southern Baptist values. But their Rapture lessons failed to take, and nature remained her true religion. When she snuggled in her Montana Sunday School teacher’s grizzly-bear fur coat to get warm, she felt close to the grizzly, but the Bible lesson left her cold. While working at what she calls “a Southern Baptist boot camp” in New Mexico, she got fired for bringing food to indigent native tribes and writing a poem called “Jesus Had Dirty Fingernails.”
Her dad complained, “Your mind is so open it’s one big hole.” But as she points out, “It’s hard for dogma to take hold when you’re constantly in culture shock.” In tenth grade, they moved to Berkeley. It was the ’60s, when folks were beginning to call it Berserkley. “That’s when my family thinks I got lost. I actually got found.”
She was discovered by her University of California writing professor, Diane Johnson (Le Mariage, The Shining screenplay). In 1972, Peterson speed-typed her way into a coveted job in the New Yorker typing pool, rife with future novelists. “It had its own dogma, language, dress code.” It wasn’t a magazine, it was a religious order, and novice Peterson worshipped literature under legendary editors Mr. Shawn, Jonathan Schell and Pauline Kael. “[Pauline] put her elbows into my shoulder and leaned over to make sure every word of her Last Tango in Paris review was correct.” It was like a mad monastery: one writer lived in the ladies’ room; another imprisoned his mom in his office; a third knocked Peterson and editor Edith Oliver over with a bookshelf. “They were all so eccentric, but it gave me permission to understand that art is all about imagination – not answers, it’s all about questions.”
But it was tough to live on eighty-eight dollars a week – as a shocked Oliver gasped, “You mean you live on your salary?” Peterson puzzled her urban colleagues by planting a garden inside the New Yorker office. At the chilly dawn of Ann Beattie minimalism, the fiction department was stony soil for Peterson’s Southern-fried maximalist imagination. Her boss said, “Lose the Southern accent, people will think you’re stupid. Start covering Manhattan cocktail parties.” Peterson didn’t drink, which was like refusing to take communion. Her first novel, River of Light, had Bible Belt characters who said things like, “It’s rainin’ like a cow pissin’ on a flat rock.” Not in Mr. Shawn’s magazine they didn’t.
In 1978, God smiled on Peterson. New Yorker editor Rachel McKenzie, discoverer of Muriel Spark and Philip Roth, volunteered to edit Peterson’s book for free. “I said, ‘Oh, thanks!’ I didn’t realize it was thousands of dollars’ work she was offering.” And more: McKenzie hooked her up with John Updike and Julia Child’s editor at Knopf, the magazine’s preferred publisher.
McKenzie’s fondly inscribed portrait rests on Peterson’s desk in Seattle, where she’s lived since 1981 – longer than anywhere else on earth, her own promised land. She looks out on an Alki beach she’s helped make a National Wildlife Federation sanctuary for baby seals, watched over by her group, the Seal Sitters. “It’s just neighborhood folks taking care of seal pups while their mothers are fishing.” The scene is the subject of her next book, Pups on the Beach, due out next year.
I Want to Be Left Behind begins and ends on this beach, where she and her Rapture Christian seal-sitter friend George debated the End Times while trying to keep pups alive. She told George, “We would all miss you so much if you zipped up to heaven. We’d say, ‘Well, there goes the neighborhood.’”
Peterson’s is a more loving rejection of Rapture Christianity than most of its opponents can manage. Her environmentalism is also cheerier than is typical these days. “Environmentalists have become increasingly fundamentalist,” she complains, “full of fundamentalist End Time scenarios. I think people are tired of being scared to death, of red alerts and orange alerts. I want to be here on earth exploring and imagining other futures than extinction or heaven. Our religions are too focused on fear and death instead of life and joy.”
Peterson loves to get together with her Christian relatives and sing old hymns like “This World Is Not My Home, I’m Just Passin’ Through,” even though this world is her home. She says they argue constantly, “as if their afterlives depended on it.” But in between, they sing hymns in multipart harmony.
Instead of another volley in the God wars, her book can be seen as a kind of peace offering. She makes you think maybe everybody is in more harmony than they think. Who knows? Maybe the arguers are actually singing to the glory of what some call God.
In any case, I Want to Be Left Behind proves Peterson’s old college anthropology professor was right. He said, “She has a gift for rapture.” •
Read an Excerpt:
One day on our backyard beach, my neighbor, George, caught me off guard.
“With 9/11, the blessed countdown for the Rapture has begun,” George informed me.
This was the last place I expected to be proselytized.
George and I sat perched on driftwood, keeping watch over a seal pup whose mother was far-out fishing the Salish Sea. We are part of the West Seattle citizen naturalist group, Seal Sitters. Natural beaches are precious to harbor seals, a place where they can give birth, nurse, and rest. Seal sitting is a startling stretch of time to spend with people whom we usually whiz past in our busy lives.
“Hand me the binoculars, will you, George?”
This pup was about two feet long, round and robust, its speckled fur camouflaged against the rocky beach. It was breathing regularly, with no discharge from its mouth or nose—all good signs. Though Washington has a thriving seal population, 50 percent of juveniles don’t survive the first year.
“This pup looks plump and healthy, don’t you think?” I asked George.
“I sure hope so.”
A foghorn suddenly moaned in baritone blasts, and the seal pup shuddered. He lifted his head, his black eyes huge.
“That’s how it’ll happen, you know,” George said quietly. “The trumpets will sound, and we’ll be lifted up far away from here.”
For a moment I considered not engaging in this loopy, no-exit dialogue. But we had a lot of time and a pup on our hands.
“Listen, George, why are you so, well, cheerful about the end of the earth?”
I could see my neighbor studying me as if I were the pup, as if he already had passed me in the slow sinner’s lane on the freeway to the apocalypse.
“The hurry is that right now we see signs and wonders proving that the end times are upon us,” he said. “We’ve got holy wars, globalization, Islamic terrorists, and even global warming.” This last sign he pronounced brightly, as if our climate was gleefully graduating into a hot time in the old world.
I felt claustrophobic in the grip of my neighbor’s convictions.
“Sandwich, George?” I rummaged in my backpack for a pimento cheese sandwich.
Not to be put off, George said, “I’m afraid you’ll have a rough time of it here during the tribulations.” Then George took my arm a little too tightly. “But you could come with us.”
I politely disengaged from George to study the pup. I was a little worried. It had been 12 hours since the seal pup hauled out. Not unusual. But in a few hours it would be high tide again.
“Anytime now,” George murmured, “the mother will return. That’s my favorite part.”
And then I understood something about my neighbor and about myself. All of us know what it feels like to wait for someone to call, to finally come home, to recognize our love, to reunite with those of us who seek something greater than ourselves. Maybe it will come in the night, in that twinkling of an eye. Maybe it will save us from a lonely beach.
As if in answer to our longing, a glossy head popped up in the waves. The seal pirouetted to find her pup on the beach. George and I sat absolutely still, hardly breathing. A soft cooing call. The pup fairly leapt up, flippers unfurling like wings, then an undulant body-hop along beach stones as the pup inched toward the surf.
“Ah, you’re safe now, buddy,” George sighed as the pup slipped into the water.
There was tranquility in George’s face, a sweet calm that comes from sitting on the beach all day with nothing to do but watch over a fellow creature. We watched the two seals dive and disappear. The driftwood creaked slightly under our weight. I surprised myself by going back to the subject I had worked to avoid.
“George, what if we’re sitting here to make sure that there will be something left for our kids?”
He pondered this for a while.
“You’re a really good neighbor, George,” I said. “We would all miss you so much if you zipped up to heaven. We’d say, ‘Well, there goes the neighborhood!’ ”
“I’ll miss you,” he admitted now, “and . . . all this, too.”
“You know, George,” I said softly, “I really want to be left behind.”
My neighbor looked at me thoughtfully and then fell quiet as we watched another harlequin float past, bright beak dripping a tiny fish. Happy, so happy in this moment.
Wave after wave lapped our beach, and the spring sun glowed on our faces. We sat silently, listening to waves more ancient than our young, hasty species, more forgiving than our religions, more enduring. Rapture.
NEW YORK CITY LIFE seemed to take place against a brazenly artificial movie set, not on an actual island anchored between real rivers. I was mugged three times the first few weeks I was in Manhattan, until a friend kindly advised me, “Keep your eyes straight ahead and walk with purpose—as if you are late for everything.” I had landed a job in the editorial department of The New Yorker magazine but had no place to live. So my friend’s father—who was president of a Jewish philanthropic organization—found a dorm room for me in the Ninety-second Street Y. But I had to pass a rigorous interview.
“You can teach those Israelis a thing or two about scripture,” Mrs. Simha told me after grilling me for what seemed hours on my religious background. Raised by fervent Southern Baptists, I’d long ago left the fold to search for my own spiritual path.
“You’ll be the only shiksa here,” she said. “Watch out that the more militant Israelis don’t tear the mezuzah off your door in protest.” Life as the only Gentile in the Ninety-second Street Jewish Y dormitory was yet another immersion in a new language and culture. When I told my mother where I was living and that on my salary even the Y was a stretch, she responded, “You’re living in the Old Testament! I hope you can save a few of your friends, dear. You know, they’re still waiting for the Messiah!”
“Aren’t you too?” I asked.
“Well,” Mother paused, and then added fiercely, “at least we Christians know He came down here in the first place!” She paused, and then took a milder tact. “But it’s good you have Jewish friends, honey. You know what an important role they are playing in bringing about . . . ,” she hesitated, as if struggling with herself, then insisted, “well, what some of us still believe is God’s plan.”
“Do we have to talk about the end of the world again now, Mother?” I sighed.
I glanced down the hallway of the top-floor dormitory. No other girls were waiting yet to use the hall pay phone. We both had time on our hands, and Mother was paying for the call. So we were off again in our endless End Times wrangling. Mother had recently sent me an audiotape on “the Great White Throne of Judgment” and another one of her hand-me-down thrillers. She had always been downright evangelical about her spy novels—or, as I’d heard one of the magazine critics disdainfully call it, “spy-fi.”
Mother had not warned me about the book’s gleeful Armageddon violence, but she had advised, “Just skip the sex scenes.” Propped now against the dormitory wall and tethered to the pay phone, I chided myself for falling into another family philosophical slugfest—what I’d come to think of as similar to Jacob’s wrestling with angels. The story of Jacob was one of my own and my mother’s Bible story favorites: Jacob, who had already tricked his brother Esau out of a patriarchal blessing, finds himself wrestling all night with an angel. Jacob will not let the muscular angel go “except thou bless me.” The blessing comes with a wound to Jacob’s thigh and an annunciation. Jacob’s name will be changed to “Yisrael” because “as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”
In the long weeknight Bible studies of my childhood, I had listened to many interpretations of this story. Most of the Southern Baptist truisms centered on how Christians struggle with God and survive the mortal combat of seeing Him face-to-face. The emphasis was on survival rather than the dark night of the soul, the inner struggle. But living in the Y as the lone shiksa and listening to theological debates from another perspective had given me a vivid new interpretation of this Torah story. The focus here was on God’s changing Jacob’s name to Yisrael, or “one who wrestles with God.” Several of my Y friends believed that it was actually our spiritual responsibility to argue with God.
“For Jews, God is not some dictator who always has to win every argument and battle,” my roommate Rachel explained to me as we sat in the dormitory kitchen talking late into the night—Jacob-like.
In the communal refrigerator, we kept our food in locked metal compartments, like little safe deposit boxes. Rachel, a struggling actor and an extraordinary cook on a low budget, shared her stash with me. I had been living on tuna and bagels. And on paydays I always blew half my food allowance on challah, cheese, and deli food at Zabar’s, where I had once fainted from the crush of the crowd.
“God is a good rabbi who enjoys a feisty . . . do you know the word midrash?” Rachel continued.
I did not. But I was picking up some handy Yiddish and had delighted in confiding to my brother that our family was meshuga.
“Midrash,” Rachel said, “means, you know, a real back-and- forth commentary on what we believe. There are no easy moral answers. That’s why Jacob has to wrestle with God.”
Since as a youngster I’d been banished from Vacation Bible School for disagreeing that God would get personally involved in finding Mrs. Eula’s contact lens, I had come to believe that doubt and questioning were as important as belief. Jacob’s struggling with his angel, whether it was the Creator or his own demons, was still one of my favorite stories because of its ambiguity, its haunting equipoise between divine and human.
“You mean,” I had to laugh, “God is not the heavyweight champion of the world?”
“God is a mystery—equal to our own,” Rachel said quietly and presented me with her homemade rhubarb tarts.
I was so struck by her dessert and her words that I wrote them down. Our late-night discussions were one of the reasons I was so content living in the Y and would have happily stayed on for years if there hadn’t been a waiting list for my room.
Now standing in the hallway of the Jewish Y, I tried to wind up the conversation with my mother on the communal phone—several other girls were now impatiently waiting, rolling their eyes. They understood mothers.
“Mother, I gotta go now, but thanks so much for your scrumptious Christmas care package.”
“Maybe I should visit and cook you some real food,” she held on. “Are you sure you’re really getting enough to eat up there?”
“Mother, I’m in Manhattan!” I said and suddenly heard in my voice a new tone. It was only the slightest shading—supercilious, annoyed, and righteous, but it so startled me that I fell silent.
Mother continued in a softer voice. “Oh, I worry about you in that godless city.”
My mother’s tenderness always surprised and touched me. “Don’t worry, Mother.” I tried to ease her concerns. “There are preachers here on every street corner. And I’m having long dialogues about Old Testament stories here in the Jewish Y.”
“Well, honey,” she said, “if you wanted to live with Jewish people in some sort of commune, why couldn’t you go to Israel and work on a kibbutz or something?” Mother then admitted excitedly, “I’ve always wanted to visit the Holy Land.”
My mother was not alone among evangelicals in her longing to visit Israel. Ever since the 1967 Six-Day or Arab-Israeli War—when Israel gained control of much larger territories from the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza Strip to eastern Jerusalem—many conservative evangelical Christians had flooded to the Holy Land. They were tourists with a mission—forging a surprisingly strong, if uneasy, alliance between evangelicals who believed that Jews were God’s people, chosen to bring about the fulfillment of the pre-millennialist prophecies of End Times. One of Israel’s most passionate supporters was the late fundamentalist icon Jerry Falwell. The Moral Majority’s Reverend Tim LaHaye, author of the “Left Behind” series, was a frequent and very welcome guest in Israel, meeting with governmental officials. This new and odd alliance of evangelical Americans and Zionists was not greeted by my Jewish friends in New York as fortuitous.
After a close reading of my mother’s The Late Great Planet Earth, Rachel had commented dryly, “Okay, so evangelicals still believe that Jews are the chosen people. But unless we convert at the end of all the holy wars to their Messiah, we’re still damned—disposable. Jews are just, well, stepping-stones on the evangelicals’ way up their heavenly staircase.”
“That’s about it,” I had said. As if in apology, I offered my roommate some homemade cherry fudge and black-walnut divinity that my mother had sent with a note: “You are too thin. Eat more desserts! And let me know a good time to come visit. I’ll come by train, of course.”
When my mother—an e-Wabash Cannonball railroader during WWII—did visit New York, I was no longer living in the Jewish Y. But Rachel and I still met often to debate scripture and exchange recipes.
Arriving in Penn Station, Mother exclaimed giddily, “This is hell . . . a real Sodom and Gomorrah!” Thrilled, she locked arms with me and off we went into to happily tour this godless city.
Brenda Peterson is the author of 18 books, including I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, which was named among “Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Books” by Christian Science Monitor and chosen as an Indie Next “Great Read” by independent booksellers. Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir, co-authored with Sarah Jane Freymann, was just featured on Oprah.com. www.BrendaPetersonBooks.com