L.B.: God took my copilot

Left Behind, pp. 34-35

Rayford Steele sat ashen faced in the cockpit. Half an hour from touchdown in Chicago, he had told the passengers everything he knew. The simultaneous disappearance of millions all over the globe had resulted in chaos far beyond imagination …

So far beyond imagination that LaHaye and Jenkins scarcely even try to imagine it for us.

… He thought, but didn't say, how grateful he was to have been in the air when this event had taken place. What confusion must await them on the ground! Here, in a literal sense, they were above it all. They had been affected, of course. People were missing from everywhere. But except for the staff shortage caused by the disappearance of three crew members, the passengers didn't suffer the way they might have had they been in traffic or …

And here it finally occurs to unsaved, and therefore "left behind," pilot Rayford Steele the central message of the book's first chapter:

… if he and Christopher had been among those who disappeared.

Above all else, L&J remind us, you should never, ever get on a plane with a born-again pilot.

I couldn't help but be reminded of this fundamental rule in early February when news broke of an American Airlines pilot who had asked all the Christians on his plane to raise their hands, said something about "crazy" people and generally scared the bejebus out of everybody on board.

If you wanted the real story of what the pilot actually said, and why, the only news outlet that had it was the only one that happened, by chance, to have a reporter there on the plane: The Advocate.

Advocate.com editor-in-chief Bruce C. Steele (no relation) was on the plane and heard the announcement by pilot Roger Findiesen. And he interviewed Findiesen after landing.

Steele's interview is a model of allowing a subject to speak for themselves in their own voice. The story Steele and Findiesen relate is one of an evangelical expressing his passion and faith in an inappropriate way, and an inappropriate setting. Yet Steele is charitable — he respects Findiesen's conviction, no matter how clumsily it was expressed.

The oddly hopeful thing about this entire report is how the interaction between Steele and Findiesen utterly contradicts the standard tropes about evangelical activists and homosexual advocates. Steele affords the pilot courtesy and respect. Findiesen, in turn, exhibits no suspicion or distrust of the reporter:

Findiesen's identity has been shielded by American Airlines, but the pilot spoke candidly to The Advocate and Advocate.com editor in chief Bruce C. Steele, who identified himself to the captain at the end of the flight. Findiesen then confirmed to Steele his identity, the spelling of his name, and that his home base is Washington, D.C. At no time did Findiesen mention homosexuality or say anything antigay. During the three- to five-minute interview, he was positive and upbeat and interested only in explaining the importance of witnessing about his faith.

What Findiesen said, as best the stunned passengers could recall once they were able to move about the cabin and confer after Flight 34 took off, was this: "I just got back from a mission," Findiesen said after making a routine announcement about the plane being second in line for takeoff. "You know, they say about half of Americans are Christians. I'd just like the Christians on board to raise their hands."

In the suddenly hushed coach section of the airplane, a few nervous passengers raised one hand, most no higher than shoulder level, none above tops of the seats.

"I want everyone else on board to look around at how crazy these people are," the pilot continued, with an intonation suggesting he was using the word "crazy" in a positive, even admiring manner. Evidently addressing the non-Christian passengers, he concluded that they could "make good use of [the flight], or you can read your paper and watch the movie."

The movie on the flight was Under the Tuscan Sun, with Diane Lane and Sandra Oh as Lane's lesbian best friend.

Findiesen did not directly ask Christians to witness, nor did he explicitly ask non-Christians to talk to the people he imagined were raising their hands, but the implication that he hoped such interactions would take place was clear, and he confirmed his desire to foster religious discussion in his interview with Advocate.com.

Capt. Findiesen believes that God wanted him to speak to the passengers on his plane. Considering the backlash of negative publicity this story generated, I wonder about that.

But I do think that maybe God wanted Bruce Steele on that plane to be the one reporter who could get this story right, providing a model — a witness, even — that we can show one another not merely tolerance, but respect.

  • Chris

    I’m trying to figure out how L&J reached the odd conclusion that it was better to be in the plane when things go south. Yes, Ray is “above it all,” but in a fragile machine that is incapable of staying up for more than twelve hours. So he wasn’t going to remain above it all for long and is dependent on ground control (which apparently was staffed entirely by born agains except in Sodom on Lake Michigan).
    On a happier note, it’s postive that even a few seemingly strange evangelicals are not the vile hate mongers that appear on tv. Findiesen seems a much better representative of the faith than L&J, though it still seems a bit creepy to ask people to identify their faith just because they got on a plane.

  • Nell Lancaster

    Thanks so much for this followup, Fred. And let’s have more L.B.!!

  • sebastian

    Yay for LB! It’s good to see these columns back.

  • hesprynne

    “… if he and Christopher had been among those who disappeared.”
    Kinda like those “Warning–In Case of Rapture, This Car Will Be Unmanned” bumper stickers. I guess if you’re saved, you don’t have to pull over or shift into neutral…

  • RichK

    It’s nice that the pilot and the reporter got along, but it’s amazing how little the pilot thought about this. Two and a half years after 9/11, how many people on that plane could have feared that everyone who raised their hands would be shot? I’m amazed that he didn’t scare the (ahem) bejeezus out of a lot of people on board.
    The invitation to prosetylize is just annoying. I know how to say “I don’t speak English” in six different languages.

  • Katja

    OK, as a Catholic-Christian, I dislike these sorts of conversion efforts intensely. First of all, these people only think they know about the Bible and the history of Christianity, second, they will not hear alternate views, third because of theirfailure to understand the Bible and the history of Christianity, they in actual fact observe their religion poorly on a number of counts, for example they fail to dress modestly, and they don’t understant that a false claim of God speaking to one constitutes blasphemy, and false prophecy, and is almost the only death penalty offense in Christianity. They are over-emotional in their religion and because of that, they miss out on the benefits of logical argument for their religion and therefore they can lose their faith in a crisis, or fail to behave correctly in a crisis. That kind of ‘faith’ is not strong, only noisy!
    They do too much for show.
    The ‘Left Behind Seris’ and ‘The Passion of The Christ’ are all a bunch of heresy and not true to Scripture.
    The whole concept of the Rapture is not based truely on the Bible anyway, it comes from the Plymouth Bretheren, a sect within Protestantism which for some unknown reason has had great influence on American Evangelical Protestants. It ddoes not come from original Christianity.
    Further an obsession with the Last Days is mentally unhealthy. The UnConscious Mind reacts to percieved threats, whether that threat has a basis in objective fact or not. Any percieved threat releases chemicals in the body designed to react to threats. Is it brilliant to have an unecessary reaction to threat going on in one’s body over a prolonged period? How does it make one a better person?
    I’d like to leave my fellow Christians with a little something from a Muslim saint, Ra’abia, She said “Let me do God’s will not out of fear of Hell or longing for Paradise but for His Own Sake”
    When people are unduely obsessed with Last Days, they do not love God for His Own sake!
    Thanks for haveing these articles!

  • http://hownow.brownpau.com/archives/2004/04/blood_im_afraid How Now, Brownpau?

    “Blood, I’m Afraid.”

    The Slacktivist has some excellent running commentary on Left Behind and its implications for Christianity and faith with its pulp treatment of eschatology, doctrine, and…

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