L.B.: Sorrow Floats

Left Behind, pp. 48-49

Rayford Steele finally reaches a pay phone and places a call to his home. He’s already read the plot summary on the back of the book and, realizing that he’s in a novel about the “Rapture,” knows that his born-again wife Irene won’t be there to answer his call:

His answering machine at home picked up immediately, and he was pierced to hear the cheerful voice of his wife. “Your call is important to us,” she said. “Please leave a message after the beep.”

Rayford punched a few buttons to check for messages. He ran through three or four mundane ones, then was startled to hear Chloe’s voice. “Mom? Dad? Are you there? Have you seen what’s going on? Call me as soon as you can. …”

Here as ever we witness Jenkins’ tin ear for choice of detail. Those “mundane” messages from Rayford’s life before the calamity could have offered telling reminders to both the reader and the character of all that he has lost and how vastly his world has changed. Each of those messages would either be from someone now disappeared or from someone else left behind — a link, a connection, to some other survivor.

I wonder who would be calling the Steele household. Their impersonal answering machine message (“Your call is important to us”) seems more suited to a tech-support line than to the machine of a family that regularly gets phone calls from friends.

Irene is such a wholehearted devotee of her church and its subculture that she isn’t likely to know anyone else who might have been left behind. This points to one of the paradoxes of America’s insular evangelical world. For evangelical Christians, evangelism — spreading their faith to nonbelievers — is an essential obligation. Yet evangelicals have constructed a comprehensive, separate, parallel world that virtually ensures they won’t know any outsiders with whom they can share their faith.

As for poor Rayford, the guy doesn’t seem to have any friends at all.

The message from his daughter introduces another major character in these books. Chloe is LB’s ingenue. (For those keeping score at home, that’s three female characters: Chloe, the ingenue; Irene, the madonna; and Hattie, the whore.) Chloe was away at Stanford, where relatively few of those elite intellectuals were taken home by God.

Well, at least he knew Chloe was still around. All he wanted was to hold her.

One hopes that when Rayford finally greets his daughter, he does not do so by saying, “Well, at least you’re still around.”

This section of the book reminded me of the “Sorrow Floats” chapter in John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire — another story in which the mother and the youngest boy are suddenly lost. Irving’s book is deeply affecting as he poignantly shows the impact these losses have on the rest of the family. L&J’s book not so much. Yet here we do see the rare acknowledgement from L&J that the practical consequences of a sudden “Rapture” and of a sudden death are really no different. Does it really matter to those left behind whether it’s little Egg lost in a plane crash or little Raymie whisked off to heaven like Elijah? Gone is gone.

The “Rapture” idea, ultimately, is a pretty flimsy device for the denial of death. The scripture passages LaHaye cites in support of this idea were written to give believers hope in the face of inevitable death. For LaHaye and his followers, the fear of death overwhelms that hope. Thus “we will not all SLEEP, but we will be CHANGED” is twisted into “we will not ALL sleep, but WE will be changed.”

St. Paul was writing about what happens when believers die. LaHaye doesn’t want to believe that true believers will die. Rayford’s response to his wife and son’s undying deaths — albeit a response awkwardly rendered by Jenkins — offers a glimpse of emotional honesty not usually permitted by LaHaye’s fear- and denial-fuelled “Rapture” ideology.

I sometimes think that the best response, the best counter-argument, to End Times enthusiasts and apocalypse-obsessed “prophecy” nuts is not a comprehensive biblical and theological rebuttal, but rather to borrow a line from Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck:

“Cosmo? I just want you to know. No matter what you do. You are going to die, just like everybody else.”

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  • Chris

    What is it about death that so terrifies the dispensationalists that they build a whole theology with an escape clause? Most religious people accept death (sort of) and hope for an afterlife (presumably better than this one). Why do L&J need to skip the death part? Death isn’t a door for them; it seems to be the worst possible thing that could ever happen, rather than an ugly thing that happens to everyone.
    I had always assumed that they just wanted to dodge the Tribulation (who wouldn’t?). The way L&J put it, they view the Rapture as something qualitatively different from death. How I can’t quite grasp. I mean it looks more or less like a painless death with a bit of flashy, attention- seeking pizazz thrown in. And frankly having my body disappear and leave my clothes and fillings behind isn’t that big a special effect.

  • Daddy-O

    I love your reference to “Sorrow Floats”, Fred. That was an excellent, complex book.
    I can’t help but add: It was made into one of the worst movies ever made, with Rob Lowe and Jodi Foster.

  • cm

    Personally, I was rather hoping that I wouldn’t be starkers when I met Saint Peter; I’m willing to settle for a robe of some kind, it doesn’t have to be fancy, or even a flattering colour. Which makes me wonder, what’s with leaving the clothes behind (if you’ll pardon the expression)? Wouldn’t evangelicals have even more issues than I do with arriving at the Pearly Gates naked?

  • Pete M.

    One of the things I don’t understand is how this fear of death continues even when our heroes realize that they, too, are “saved” from lasting death. It would seem that once you’d seen all those signs (rapture, plagues, miracles) you would have a pretty good idea that everything you believed was true.
    Why, then, the fortress mentality? The brave Christian warriors choose a strange “we’ve just got to hold out until the end” mindset when real faith would seem to call them to risk a couple of years of mindless tribulation living to achieve something meaningful with others left behind.
    Kind of an interesting window onto the beliefs and fears of Tim and Jerry.

  • bellatrys

    Not to puff you up with pride, Fred, (vanity of vanities &c &c) but your series was mentioned favorably on d’Kos by several people before I could, where another Kossack is doing summaries of all the books to save readers the anguish.

  • Patrick Mullins

    I want to thank you, too, Fred, for doing summaries so I can find out about socially and political influential books I wouldn’ read unless paid hard cash to.
    I remember in Harold Bloom’s The American Religion, a marvelous survey of Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, New Agers, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others, he said it must be “death” that is the reason for all religions. I hated that in 2000 when I read it, and now I am very comfortable with it. One thing “life after death” almost certainly is full of, in part, is “death.” There is just a good lot of death in life after death.
    I was brought up in the Bible Belt of Alabama, and since I have lived in NYC for 35 years, I have gradually grown through many religions and “spiritualisms” until I have only a few secular ones left–art, as much compassion for human suffering as I can find within myself, and also some metaphysical ones like Heidegger’s “the being of beings” as well as death being Da-sein’s fullest realization of itself–its “ownmostness.” What importance does life have if it doesn’t get some good solid death in return for doing it really well?
    The LB disappearance sounds spontaneous-combustion cremation inside fire-proof garments. Probably a lot of people don’t like the idea of decomposing corpses; and clearly a lot of people don’t like the idea of a hard-minded life which would naturally eventually want death. A lot of evangelicals in my extended family in the South are nuts about clean fingernails but make sure to dress as dowdily as possible. Some of them home-school while being ignorant themselves, and most of them think all French are “immoral.” In the sense they mean the word “immoral,” I am glad at least one nation is holding down the fort.
    I may have to do without the answer to this question, since I am not going to read these books, but do any of the believers have serious college educations? (I’ve certainly known some much smarter high school grads, of course; but these people sound as if there was never much attempt to “put them through school” as well as having an alarming lack of common knowledge.

  • Nick Kiddle

    I have to echo Chris: what’s the big distinction between rapture and death that makes this belief system necessary? I’m pretty afraid of dying, but I always thought that was because I’m an atheist; if I thought I had anything to move on to it wouldn’t bother me nearly as much.

  • jacobeanone

    Patrick – I know some rapturists, though I don’t think they’re as gung-ho as L&J (though get them started on some other ‘fundamentals’…). Point is, they’re all at University with me, some of them doing quite lengthy degrees, in law, med, chemistry, and so on. So I think it’s really a bit unfair to make the automatic characterisation that this brand of believer is uneducated. I’m sure there are many withou substantial education, but it doesn’t appear to be the cause of their belief.

  • bellatrys

    Nick, I may not be the right one to explain it, and there are a many different answers as there are Christians probably, but – “to sleep, perchance to dream” – Hamlet angsting about suicide, was afraid that death *wasn’t* the end. He would have been relieved if he could have been an atheist.
    Because there’s always the chance that you’re *not* saved, even the most arrogant and hubristic believer has to have *some* doubts no matter how they fence them out. But if you got assumed into Heaven, well then, you’d *know* you were safe. None of that worrying “Four Last Things” business – you know, the Death, Judgment, Heaven or Hell sequence.
    Add to that niggling doubts as to whether *your* view isn’t right after all, that Pascal’s lost his wager, it was all a waste of effort and self-denial – and you’ve got a buildup of pressures to want to, as Annie Dillard puts it, “skip death” and collect the $200 right away…
    –Triumphalist fantasies can be a pretty comforting anodyne in that case, I guess, though I’ve always thought that the poet was right who said, “malt does more than Milton can/to justify Gods ways to man”…

  • Patrick Mullins

    Thank you, jacobeanone. I would imagine, from those that you name, that certain disciplines would be less likely to seem useful to rapturists–since until “it” happens they are rather stuck with Hegel’s “unhappy consciousness” just like other religious fantasizers. So my guess is that rapturists would not be majoring in philosophy of any reputable variety; in music (because they’d need to make their own inexpensive material to fit the program–the way New Agers did except when there was some real talent like Chick Corea by coincidence)or the other arts, because they would be useless; and especially literature–because curricula in any decent university would no more be likely to include these books than they would Danielle Steele–and how would they read Kafka or Sartre without getting those sour looks on their faces? Those working toward degrees in the fields you listed would make some sense for their movement, notwithstanding the schizophrenia they seem to be able to live with easily enough; they would need the disciplines from which to build up an “empire” of skilled technicians and professionals in the more scientific and technical disciplines, and in business administration, of course–so they could support whole communities they might like to begin to take over, in the same way the Scientologists have largely done with Clearwater, Florida.

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  • ihavenomouth

    “This points to one of the paradoxes of America’s insular evangelical world. For evangelical Christians, evangelism — spreading their faith to nonbelievers — is an essential obligation. Yet evangelicals have constructed a comprehensive, separate, parallel world that virtually ensures they won’t know any outsiders with whom they can share their faith.”
    And you’re so, so on the mark here. I can remember being a Christian my senior year in high school, and my mother (a Christian) wanted me to stop talking to my friends. She told me they’d drag me down. I reminded her that Jesus ate supper with the tax collector, but you know how mothers are. Of course, we were taught that same lesson in youth group– they had one student stand on a chair, and one stand on the ground. The one on the ground tried to pull the chair-one down, and the chair-one tried to pull the ground-one up. Of course the one on the chair was yanked down, and the lesson was, “It’s easier for them to drag you down than for you to pull them up.” So why even bother, eh? Evangelizing is only to be done at a safe and respectable distance. Jesus’ example was just… an example. ;o)

  • Brightie

     As someone who has had an on-again off-again affair with pre-millenial theology–blame it on peer pressure, if you like–I can say that death has never been the issue for me, or for some people I know. The fear is more the manner of death–the “if it were possible, even the elect would be deceived” thing, and the idea of having the whole world against you, pressure from all sides to give up your faith, an actually persuasive antichrist (unlike Carpathia), and the likelihood of some very intense physical torture if you don’t play along. Death is a lot less of a spectre than, say, the idea of a sort of Christianese equivalent of Room 101.