L.B.: The evil of banality

Left Behind, pp. 35-39

As our heroes prepare to touch down in the shattered, post-”rapture” world, they survey the damage, the consequences — so much loss, death, disaster and calamity — and they realize what this means: a logistical nightmare.

That’s the theme of these pages, and a major theme of the next chunk of Left Behind. LaHaye and Jenkins present glimpses of mass carnage, but almost always from the perspective of how this makes it inconvenient for our heroes to travel from point A to point B. L&J are like a commuter who sees on the morning news that a school bus has exploded on the expressway, killing all 37 children on board, and whose only reaction is, “That’s gonna slow down my commute.”

As [pilot Rayford Steele] settled into a holding pattern miles from O’Hare, the full impact of the tragedy began to come into view. …

Steele’s view. Not the readers’. L&J don’t show us much.

… Flights from all over the country were being rerouted to Chicago. Rayford needed to stay in priority position after flying across the eastern seabord and then over the Atlantic before turning back. It was not Rayford’s practice to communicate with ground control until after he landed, but now the air-traffic control tower was recommending it. He was informed that visibility was excellent, despite intermittent smoke from wreckages on the ground, but that landing would be risky and precarious because the two open runways were crowded with jets. They lined either side, all the way down the runway. Every gate was full, and none were backing out. Every mode of human transport was in use, busing passengers from the ends of the runways back to the terminal. …

Note the smoke from wreckages — plural — on the ground. Nothing to see here. Move along.

But, Rayford was told, he would likely find that his people — at least most of them — would have to walk all the way. All remaining personnel had been called in to serve, but they were busy directing planes to safe areas. The few buses and vans were reserved for the handicapped, elderly and flight crews. Rayford passed the word along that his crew would be walking.

L&J present the airport as being as narrowly, logistically focused as our heroes. Wrecked planes litter the ground. “All remaining personnel” are called in. Not to search for survivors in the wreckage. Not to douse the flames of the burning, twisted metal and corpses littering the runways. But to “direct planes” and to drive buses and vans so that surviving passengers will not be overly inconvenienced.

L&J want to provide a sense of drama and suspense. Seeing no potential for drama in those “wreckages on the ground” they instead turn to the dramatic and suspenseful situation of Buck Williams, who is working on his laptop computer as the plane approaches Chicago:

By the time the plane began its descent into Chicago, Buck had been able to squeeze onto only one briefly freed-up line to his computer service, which prompted him to download his waiting mail. This came just as Hattie announced that all electronic devices must be turned off. …

Omigod! What’s going to happen?!? Will our hero be able to “download his waiting mail” in time? What if he’s forced to stop before he’s finished? It could be hours before he’s able to read about the latest features available in the next AOL upgrade …

With an acumen he didn’t realize he possessed, Buck speed-tapped the keys that retrieved and filed all his messages, downloaded them, and backed him out of the linkup in seconds. Just when his machine might have interfered with flight communications, he was off-line …

Whew! That was close! Fortunately, our hero is a master typist.

Hattie Durham comes by, unaware of Buck’s narrow brush with e-mail catastrophe. She’s weeping, and with the trained eye of an expert reporter, Buck intuits something is wrong:

“Mr. Williams,” she sobbed, “you know we lost several old people, but not all of them. And we lost several middle-aged people, but not all of them. And we lost several people your age and my age, but not all of them. We even lost some teenagers.”

He stared at her. What was she driving at?

“Sir, we lost every child and baby on this plane.”

“How many were there?”

“More than a dozen. But all of them! Not one was left.”

L&J here are making a case for some notion of an “age of accountability,” which they (and we) will get into in more detail later, but what’s interesting here is that Hattie seems to be a much better reporter than Buck.

“You know …” she tells him, but he doesn’t know. He has been too busy with important journalist stuff, like checking his e-mail, to bother with any basic examination of who was and wasn’t missing. It’s up to Hattie to figure out what is perhaps the most devastating aspect of this story — all of the children have disappeared, all of them. But even after she tells him, it doesn’t seem to sink in. Nowhere — here or anywhere in the book, really — does Buck Williams, GIRAT, consider that perhaps the spontaneous vanishing of every parent’s child across the globe might be, you know, a story angle.

What is Buck thinking about instead? What else? Logistics. Travel arrangements.

Having just cut through the cloud bank …

“Cloud bank?” I thought visibility was excellent …

… the plane allowed passengers a view of the Chicago area. Smoke. Fire. Cars off the road and smashed into each other and guardrails. Planes in pieces on the ground. Emergency vehicles, lights flashing, picking their way around the debris.

As O’Hare came into view, it was clear no one was going anywhere soon.

I didn’t cut anything there. That’s the progression, the response of our heroes and our authors: Smoke, carnage, not “going anywhere soon.” It’s bizarre. It’s inhuman. And it happens again and again in this book.

The most charitable explanation is that L&J are providing a subtly unreliable narrative. Buck and Rayford are not yet redeemed at this point in the story. Perhaps L&J are artfully trying to suggest that this is the unregenerate nature of fallen humanity without God — to consider only ourselves and our narrow self-interest, to ignore the pain and need and suffering of others to such an extent that we barely even acknowledge its existence except in terms of how it impedes or inconveniences our own lives.

But this theory doesn’t stand up. Jerry Jenkins ain’t Nabokov and the narrator here isn’t a persona. The narrator(s) is/are the author(s) and the reader is expected to accept the account and perspective we are given. Later in the book and the series — long after Rayford and Buck have allegedly been born-again, baptized and sanctified — our heroes behave and relate to the world in the same way, with the same egocentric, compassionless tunnel-vision.

This is what LaHaye and Jenkins believe it means to be a Christian. This is what LaHaye and Jenkins believe it means to be a human. Hannah Arendt gave a name to this perspective: “the banality of evil.” The subject of her book, like the heroes of Left Behind, was a man primarily focused on travel arrangements.

… it was clear no one was going anywhere soon. There were planes as far as the eye could see, some crashed and burning, the others gridlocked in line. People trudged through the grass and between vehicles toward the terminal. The expressways that led to the airport looked like they had during the great Chicago blizzards, only without the snow.

Cranes and wreckers were trying to clear a path through the front of the terminal so cars could get in and out, but that would take hours, if not days. A snake of humanity wended its way slowly out of the great terminal buildings, between the motionless cars, and onto the ramps. People walking, walking, walking, looking for a cab or a limo.

It’s not just the prose here that’s awful (“like … the blizzards, only without the snow”), it’s the stunted vision of what L&J are trying to describe. They make the apocalypse sound like trying to get out of the parking lot at Shea Stadium after a game.

Buck began plotting how he would beat the new system. Somehow, he had to get moving and get out of such a congested area. The problem was, his goal was to get to a worse one: New York.

Buck has to get to New York because he’s a reporter. And there’s obviously nothing happening here in Chicago that might be worth covering.

The chapter closes with the suspenseful account of Rayford Steele’s landing of the plane on the smoke-filled, crowded runway. L&J have heightened the tension by telling us that this landing will be “risky and precarious.” And now for the dramatic payoff. Rayford cautions his passengers:

… to stay seated with their seatbelts fastened until he turned off the seat belt sign, because privately he knew this would be his most difficult landing in years. He knew that he could do it, but it had been a long time since he had had to land a plane among other aircraft.

Rayford envied whoever it was in first class who had the inside track on communicating by modem. He was desperate to call Irene, Chloe and Ray Jr. On the other hand, he feared he might never talk to them again.

That’s it. End of chapter. The next one starts with the plane already on the ground. As it turns out, the suspenseful account of the landing is neither suspenseful nor an account.

  • Andrew Cory

    Please, keep it up!

  • Chris

    Well the fact that Ray and Buck don’t give rat’s ass about others is pretty much keeping with a certain strain of Christian writing, the individual’s journey of faith is what’s important, not others (think Bunyan but with stilted prose).
    On the other hand, they are completely clueless. I especially like your comments about the alleged journalistic abilities of Bucky. Apparently, not a big believer in the story is what you make of it.

  • GeoX

    What’s really hilarious is that the even-more-endless ‘Left Behind Kids’ series definitively contradicts the “children are automatically saved” thing. Anything for a buck, I reckon!

  • lawguy

    I don’t know and maybe I am not all that familiar with the dogma here, but I thought that your basic Calvinist dogman said that there would only be 144,000 of us left. Apparently I am wrong about that, unless of course, all of them were in Chicago.
    Honestly, in trying to understand these books am I right in assuming that the 144gs is no longer operative? Of course if that is true, then can you explain the shift here.

  • YT

    The expressways that led to the airport looked like they had during the great Chicago blizzards, only without the snow.
    I do not think this phrase means what the writers think it means. In Chicago, during a “great blizzard,” the expressways are EMPTY.

  • Eileen

    How come all the traffic’s going to one of the most crowded airports in the country? Why didn’t Rayford head to Midway?

  • David Barrett

    Fred Clark, you’re a genius.

  • Mike

    Fred, this is one of your best. Then again… you’ve got good material. Thanks!

  • Jon H

    Hm.
    So what happens to babies conceived post-Rapture?
    Do all eggs fertilized from then on vanish and go to heaven?
    Or are kids conceived post-Rapture just SOL, and stuck going through the tribulation due to their date of birth?

  • Nell Lancaster

    This is such wonderfully awful stuff… Sobering thought: would LB have lower sales if well written?

  • kevin

    “Sobering thought: would LB have lower sales if well written?”
    Almost certainly. To be better wrriten would almost certianly to mean to have more rounded characters. Which means they would stop being polemics and start being fiction — and I don’t think fiction is what most of their audience finds compelling about the books. From the reactions of the people Iknow who read these things, I think the affirmation fo their belief system is the most compelling aspect. And I think that affirmation would sufference if it was put acrosss with any nuance.

  • Todd Johnson

    I own that book but I have never started it, maybe I should?

  • Laurie

    There’s a certain brand of disaster-fiction (and there can be no greater disaster than an apocalypse, I’d have thought) which keeps its readers engaged by endlessly describing the ramifications of the initial disaster, in endless and gory detail. This is what Titanic was, it’s what Jurassic Park and Twister and Deep Impact and Armageddon were all about — the money shots are the wreckage, the houses in flames, the ocean crushing the skyscrapers, the guy bouncing off the propeller. So if I’d picked up this book, that’s what I’d expect it to be full of: gory details. If I’d hadn’t read your Left Behind reviews, that’s what I’d assume was the reason behind the books popularity — it purports to be religious fiction, but is actually one great big disaster story.
    The fact that the LB novels *aren’t* disaster novels makes them even more disturbing. Why the hell are people reading this crap? Apart from being badly written, it’s not even entertaining. I just don’t get it.
    But keep it up, Fred… the LB series is what got me reading your site in the first place, and it’s compelling — because unlike the LB series itself, the reviews *are* an excellent account of a literary disaster, in all the gory detail.

  • Nick Kiddle

    Whether they’re “disaster novels” surely depends how you interpret the phrase. I for one read them in much the same way I slow down at road accidents to have a good look. A kind of horrified fascination.

  • Marlena

    The defining characteristic of this whole Left Behind theology, to my mind, is that God is petty. He’s only going to save certain people who hold a very specific interpretation of scripture.

  • Barry

    It seems to me as if the authors are apologetic about the scenes of carnage that obviously must be acknowledged, but they don’t want to dwell on them. The “disaster movie” aspects of the book have to be addressed, obviously, but I get the feeling the authors are embarassed to have to write about it, and want to keep focused on the real theme of their story, the religious one.
    Almost like they’re wanting to make a movie with an environmental message but the only medium they have to work in is a porno film – while the main character keeps hollering “Save the Whales!” the filmmakers begrudgingly have to make her nude.

  • Scott Cattanach

    One quick question about this “age of accountability” thing. Take that, and the evangelical belief that it would go all the way back to fertilized eggs, then wouldn’t the vast majority of Heaven be people who never had a conscious memory of Earth, never sinned, never made any decision about anything, and for all practical purposes were created perfect in Heaven (since any unique personality would have to develop post-death, since an early term fetus wouldn’t have developed a brain)?

  • hesprynne

    As far as L & J are concerned (L, at least) what has happened is *not a disaster.* It is what God wants. It is part of God’s plan. And L. is absolutely certain that if anything like this really happens, he’s not going to have to be around to see it.
    Brings back kind of a nasty memory of Catholic school (in the 70′s mind you–long time ago) when a nun bawled out a kid in my class for praying for people in Hell. You don’t have to feel compassion for those people, stuck there suffering for all eternity. You’re not even *supposed* to, just like you’re not supposed to think about all the people who drowned during the flood. Because It’s All Their Own Fault.

  • Scorpio

    My, do you have these guys nailed. Want to know where I broke out laughing so hard that I never managed to pick up a L&J book ever again? Below the asterisks, the sorry tale …
    *
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    *
    *
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    All the scenes of apocalypse continue into Book 3. At this point are the earthquakes that devastate all the land, and kill 1/3 of all the humans left.
    Do our heroes see a corpse? No, they do not — here we are in the third book, and there have been two dead folks or heroes have seen.
    But what got me — all the building were shattered, the world is in ruins,and what is the first move the Anti-Christ makes? Why, he is installing *new microwave towers* so that the Christians can keep using their cell phones and laptops!!
    I broke up.
    Generators? We don’t need no stinkin generators!

  • Arlen

    “I don’t know and maybe I am not all that familiar with the dogma here, but I thought that your basic Calvinist dogman said that there would only be 144,000 of us left. Apparently I am wrong”
    That’s correct, lawguy. You are, in fact, wrong. In point of fact, if John Calvin were to be presented with the L&J images of the Revelation, he would be very perplexed, possibly to the point of wondering if they read the same book he did. I could give you the specific theological jargon involved, but the bottom line is John Calvin saw the Revelation as indicating a church growing ever more in control of the world, not set upon by the world.
    The L&J eschatology (view of the end times) is a minority viewpoint throughout Christian history, and a relative newcomer to biblical studies. It is, however, the one most often published, for the simple reason that they aren’t as sexy. Other views of the Revelation don’t sell as well; partly because they aren’t as exciting, and partly because they aren’t as easy to make fun of.

  • http://www.wetware.com/drieux/PR/blog2/RetroSexual/200403.html#id3163128392 drieuxish blog

    Mona Lisa Smile

    One of the Grave disadvantages of life in community, is that one from time to time is obliged to watch movies that were not of one’s own choosing. In this case DialogsWithFashionRisks did the run to blockbusters and picked up Mona Lisa Smile. [ cf imdb…

  • Alabama Lefty

    As pointed out above, what is being described is manifestly NOT a disaster, but the will of God, and, in fact, the event good Christians have been praying to hasten. Dwelling on death and sorrow and even gore would surely imply that the Rapture is a Bad Thing; this puts the authors in the unenviable position of having to describe the devastation of humanity without ever considering the real human cost. Consider also that, since they don’t think that death is the end, the real tragedy is those who die without repenting. Of course, that’s God’s will too.

  • Emily

    For what it’s worth, I’ve heard the 144,000 figure before, but as a very, very fringe belief; I think some (or all?) Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, believe it.

  • mdn

    I think the 144k figure is somewhere in the book of revelations, and it is the number that go to heaven, not the number left behind. Which means if you’re a literalist, either St. Peter is a real badass of a bouncer or heaven’s been full for a looong time.
    That was a great entry, by the way. I often find a real sense of inhumanity in these evangelical beliefs – like mel gibson saying his wife is going to hell, and apparently not being especially troubled by this.

  • Jeff Keezel

    Yeah – only 144,000 will be saved – the elect. Basically none of us are worthy to come to heaven, we are all tainted with total depravity passed down from Adam and the original sin.
    None of us are worthy of being saved but God in his grace will save 144,000 just because he is a loving god…thekeez

  • Jeff Keezel

    I always thought a great tv ad would go:
    “The Bible says only 144,000 will be saved…BE ONE!”
    Brought to you by your local Presbyterian church…thekeez

  • Scott Cattanach

    I thought it was 144,000 Jewish Christian converts during the end times (12K for each of the 12 tribes), and some unspecified number of Gentiles.

  • Fred

    The 144,000, as Scott says, is a reference to a Jewish remnant — 12,000 from each tribe — all virgins and all “blameless”
    The roundness of the number is an indication that we’re dealing with symbolism here. As is the opening of the passage in Revelation 7 that introduces us to these 144,000:
    “After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on earth or sea or against any tree.”
    To read the “144,000″ with a clumsy literalism is as foolish as it would be to read the “four corners of the earth” as an indication that the earth is square.
    By the same logic that LaHaye & Co. apply in reading the 144,000 as a specific figure one could argue that Rev. 1:7 rules out the possibility of there being a northeasterly wind.

  • Guapo

    Thanks for the fantastic work on the LB series. Just wanted to add that Senor Scorpio has left the bast part out of his account of book III (Spoiler)
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    The microwave towers are part of the new “Cellular-Solar” network, abbreviated “Cell-Sol”…Probably the only bona fide attempt at a joke I’ve seen in all of the LB’s I’ve read. Cards, them Lahaye and Jenkins.

  • natasha

    Emily – “For what it’s worth, I’ve heard the 144,000 figure before, but as a very, very fringe belief; I think some (or all?) Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, believe it.”
    mdn is right as regards what the JWs believe, in the sense that they believe that only 144,000 will go to heaven. BUT… they don’t believe that only 144,000 will be saved. Instead, the rest will literally inherit the earth. They will live on it in perpetuity, in a state of perfect youth and health, along with all of the resurrected dead who died without blaspheming the holy spirit.
    JWs don’t believe in souls, and think that a person is kind of like a tape recording that exists as long as its physical medium does, and can come back if that physical medium is recreated by God.

  • Ken

    “What is Buck thinking about instead? What else? Logistics. Travel arrangements.”
    Common problem with beginning or not-so-hot fiction writers — developing tunnel vision about some favorite aspect of the story. Usually you find “logistics; travel arrangements” obsessions in mystery writers, where the crime and its solution hinge on timetable management of the various characters/pieces. (I believe “Have His Carcase” by Dorothy Sayers is the textbook example of this type of mystery.)
    Or, akin to “World-builders’ Disease”, LaHaye & Jenkins might have done a lot of behind-the-scenes work on how their two principals “get there from here” and feel compelled to put it in.

  • John Owens

    Having just cut through the cloud bank …
    “Cloud bank?” I thought visibility was excellent …
    Actually, to give L&J a little sliver of credit (*shudder*), “visibility” in pilot-speak only refers to how far you can see things at ground level. As long as the cloud deck (“ceiling”) is off the ground at all, i.e. not a fog bank, you measure how far you can see what’s under the clouds, and that’s your visibility. So that part does actually make sense. Which isn’t too surprising, I guess, since it doesn’t involve character or personality, let alone morality.

  • Hibryd

    Waittaminute. It’s taken the flight crew this long to realize that all the children are missing? That should have been the source of the first scream to echo down the cabin! If an adult wakes up and finds nothing but their loved one’s clothing, they might think it’s some kind of bizarre prank and wait it out for a few minutes. But if a mother suddenly finds her baby carrier empty, she’s going to wail at the top of her lungs “MY DAUGHTER’S GONE!! WHO TOOK MY DAUGHTER??” followed by hours of her frantically searching every nook and cranny of the plane, fasten seatbelt signs be damned.
    These books are awful. This site is wonderful. I’m re-reading it from the beginning.

  • wintermute

    OK, I just re-read this (yay for the latest comments sidebar!), and one line of the text jumped out at me:
    It was not Rayford’s practice to communicate with ground control until after he landed
    I’m no air-traffic-control-ologist, but I’m pretty sure that not talking to the control tower would get a pilot fired pretty quickly. Don’t they have to confirm that they’ve received their runway assignment, and are ready to start descent, at the very least? What benefit is there to maintaining radio silence, anyway? Is this just a way of Ray asserting that his Madonna-like fame in piloting circles frees him from following the rules that bind mere mortals?

  • cjmr

    In our post-9/11 world, not communicating with ground control is likely to get you shot down, forget just getting fired!

  • the opoponax

    wait, wasn’t one of the authors a at some point a military pilot and hobbyist?
    because, in the spirit of the mary sue, i’m wondering if it’s not, say, Time LaHaye the cessna hobby pilot’s practice to not communicate with ground control until he lands at his teensy little podunk airfield where everybody knows him.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    (obligatory apology for such a late addition to the thread, citing Fred’s recent creation of a Left Behind index post-Patheos move as my temptation)

    Actually, no, pilots don’t talk to ground control until after they land. They talk to air traffic control instead. This separation allows ATC to keep an eye on what’s in the air, and GC to manage the busy taxiway and ramp traffic. Only after they’ve safely landed does air traffic control hand them off to ground, usually by telling them which taxiway to exit the runway at and then telling them the frequency for ground control, which the pilot should switch to only after having safely exited the runway.

    Much as I hate giving L&J any credit for getting things right, my Someone Was Wrong On The Internet More Than Four Years Ago compulsion is compelling.

    To take that credit away, L&J shouldn’t have portrayed normal aviation procedure as “it was not Rayford’s practice to…” It’s typically not anyone’s practice to, dolts; build up Rayford’s special Pan-Continental snowflake credentials elsewise, please.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    (obligatory apology for such a late addition to the thread, citing Fred’s recent creation of a Left Behind index post-Patheos move as my temptation)

    Actually, no, pilots don’t talk to ground control until after they land. They talk to air traffic control instead. This separation allows ATC to keep an eye on what’s in the air, and GC to manage the busy taxiway and ramp traffic. Only after they’ve safely landed does air traffic control hand them off to ground, usually by telling them which taxiway to exit the runway at and then telling them the frequency for ground control, which the pilot should switch to only after having safely exited the runway.

    Much as I hate giving L&J any credit for getting things right, my Someone Was Wrong On The Internet More Than Four Years Ago compulsion is compelling.

    To take that credit away, L&J shouldn’t have portrayed normal aviation procedure as “it was not Rayford’s practice to…” It’s typically not anyone’s practice to, dolts; build up Rayford’s special Pan-Continental snowflake credentials elsewise, please.


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