L.B.: Ars poetica

Left Behind, pp. 66-68, 73-76

This is the most human-seeming and almost successful passage in the book so far.

Jenkins, for once, eases off the expository gas and lets the reader look around as Rayford Steele explores the home he dreads he will find empty. The result is a little set piece where, for the first time, Rayford almost seems human.

Jenkins seems to realize that the key to this scene is the selection and presentation of details — the unattended and overcooked coffee pot, the still-sounding alarm clock, the pictures in the hallway that remain as the only presence amid absence. Not all these details are aptly chosen or aptly conveyed — this ain't "For all the history of grief / An empty doorway and a maple leaf." And some of the details convey something other than what LaHaye and Jenkins intend. Consider, for example, this description of the Steeles' bedroom:

At the end of the hall he paused before the French doors that led to the master suite. What a beautiful, frilly place Irene had made it, decorated with needlepoint and country knickknacks. Had he ever told her he appreciated it? …

Lbmovie_1"Country knickknacks"? Ugh. I suppose we're meant to take this as evidence that Irene Steele was a loving and devoted homemaker, but I read that as further confirmation that the frilly, preachy Irene was not someone you might enjoy knowing.

Still, the overall approach here is right. In the movie version, about which we'll have more to say later, the scene works better than it does on the page. That's partly because Brad Johnson, who plays Rayford, is a better actor than Jenkins is a writer. But it's also because a movie — a motion picture — is forced by nature of the medium to show more than it tells. This particular scene is one of the few that didn't have to be re-envisioned in order to work in the movie.

There's much here that is maudlin, or cliched, or both, but a few choice details stand out as well-chosen, as when Rayford looks into the garage because he can't yet summon the courage to examine the empty upstairs rooms:

If only one of the cars was missing. And one was! Maybe she had gone somewhere! But as soon as he thought of it, Rayford slumped onto the step inside the garage. It was his own BMW that was gone. The one he had driven to O'Hare the day before. …

Or this, after discovering his son's empty pajamas:

He … noticed a picture of himself on the bed table. He stood smiling inside the terminal, his cap tucked under his arm, a 747 outside the window in the background. The picture was signed, "To Raymie with love, Dad." Under that he had written, "Rayford Steele, Captain, Pan-Continental Airlines, O'Hare." He shook his head. What kind of dad autographs a picture for his own son?

He hits the note a little hard, and that last rhetorical question is probably overkill, but that's a revealing little glimpse of Rayford's character. Such moments are rare in these books, so let's be charitable and celebrate this one without getting too picky about it.

It is interesting, though, that the few aptly drawn bits of characterization in the book tend to be of Rayford Steele as a stern father figure. Such moments may reveal less about Rayford's character than they do about that of our co-authors and their relationship. I've noted that the two main heroes of our story — Rayford and Buck Williams — seem to be Mary Sue surrogates for Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, respectively. It's Jenkins who does the actual writing/typing of these books, and it's Jenkins who provides these very occasional insights into Rayford's odd character (and never provides similar insights into Buck's character). It may be, therefore, that the implied answer to the rhetorical question above — "What kind of dad autographs a picture for his own son?" — is "Tim LaHaye, that's who. This guy's a piece of work."

The mysterious disappearance of Irene and Raymie Steele is not, of course, at all mysterious to Rayford, who seems to have realized very early on that he was stuck inside a premillennial dispensationalist fantasy novel and that Darby's Rapture has come to pass. Just in case the reader is slower on the uptake than Rayford, though, Jenkins takes pains to remind us of this every few pages. Thus, when Rayford first enters the empty house, we get this:

Was it possible she had gone somewhere? Visited someone? Left him a message? But if she had and he did find her, what would that say about her own faith? Would that prove this was not the Rapture she believed in? Or would it mean she was lost, just like he was? For her sake, if this was the Rapture, he hoped she was gone.

Yet the passage that follows this betrays that odd notion. There is no message — Rayford's wife and son are gone. They are among the disappeared and Rayford, for once, responds like a human being. He breaks down weeping and cries himself to sleep.

That sorrow is the main reason this section of the book sort of works. Rayford here seems to stumble across an insight that eludes Jenkins and LaHaye. He realizes that this "Rapture" idea doesn't make any difference. Irene and Raymie are gone, and it doesn't make a bit of difference — to him, or to them — whether it's due to a Rapture or to an aneurysm.

Any pretend distinction between "raptured" and just plain "dead" is irrelevant.

This is the most pitiable aspect of Rapture mania. It is, at its core, driven by denial and fear of death, and so it desperately imagines a shortcut to the after life. One need only to consider that phrase — "the after life" — to realize that no such shortcut is possible.

Rayford's wife and son are dead. He seems to realize this, even if LaHaye and Jenkins do not.

  • Painini

    Your previous LB posts have left me wondering what sort of people could find these books compelling, and how. This post helps me not only to understand the “how” a bit, and also to consider that I’ve met several people of “that sort.” (A start was considering who I know who finds country knick-knacks cute. end snark)
    Suffice it to say, you’ve done a little humanizing here, and it’s much appreciated.

  • Painini

    Your previous LB posts have left me wondering what sort of people could find these books compelling, and how. This post helps me not only to understand the “how” a bit, and also to consider that I’ve met several people of “that sort.” (A start was considering who I know who finds country knick-knacks cute. end snark)
    Suffice it to say, you’ve done a little humanizing here, and it’s much appreciated.

  • Beth

    Hey wait second, I thought these people were pro-life. By following all the church rules that will result in their rapture, aren’t they in effect choosing a premature death? I realize that living through the tribulations wouldn’t be something most people would look forward to, but compared to being trapped for years in an unresponsive body with a half-dead brain, it really doesn’t seem that bad.

  • Mabus

    Remember–they expect that heaven is guaranteed them. Some of the fear of death is the uncertainty. If you’re sure–absolutely sure–of heaven, then it’s possible to see the transition as nothing more unusual or scary than a trip to Maui. For yourself, anyway–you still get separated from family, at least for a while.

  • linnen

    Who ever said that these people were pro-’life’, Beth? If they were they would be talking about life all the time instead of death, no?

  • Karl

    I, for one, love Left Behind Fridays. When you finally get through all the books (in, say, 30 years or so) maybe you can publish them all in a single volume? Call it Critical Commentary on Left Behind, or something like that.
    It may very well become the benchmark for LB criticism.
    keep it up!

  • perianwyr

    Hopefully we will no longer be thinking about these atrocious books by then.

  • jonforest

    Clearly these books are dreck, but that is also why they’re so interesting. They were written so quickly and with so little discipline that a whole range of social assumptions on the part of the writers bleeds through into them. Sociologically, then, they’re fascinating.
    Like Painini and Fred, I find the country nicknacks and needlepoint a telling choice. Lehaye/Jenkins goal here is the characterization of Irene, which is in itself not unworthy. But Irene is not merely Rayford’s wife, she is a type–the archetypically good Christian woman, virtuous and domestic. The implicit suggestion, then, is that this is what a good Christian woman looks like. She decorates with frills, does needlepoint, collects country nicknacks.
    But who is like that? This is a 1950s red-state fantasy of what a middle-class homemaker is like. (Needlepoint? Does anyone do this anymore?) So if Rayford and Buck are surrogates for Lehaye and Jenkins, might I suggest that Irene is a surrogate for Beverly Lehaye and her generation.

  • Chris

    Country Knicknacks? Dear God, they live at the Cracker Barrel!

  • Ray

    You saw the movie too? Fred, I know you think you can handle it, but I’m afraid you may be getting in too deep…

  • Ray

    You saw the movie too? Fred, I know you think you can handle it, but I’m afraid you may be getting in too deep…

  • JC

    One thing I find interesting about this passage, is it reinforces a personal stereotype of conservative, fundamentalists of every religious tradition that I have come to hold: They truly believe that anyone who does not share their religious worldview has deliberately chosen a path of wickedness and depravity. Once you have heard the “good news” or the equivalent in the non-Christian brands and chosen not to act on it in the narrow, proscribed manner they insist you must, well, you are then evil. You are never holding true to your own strongly held faith, beliefs and morals. No, you are just blithely choosing the path of evil.
    As a liberal, agnostic UU, by temperament if not always attendance, I find the grand tapestries of religion fascinating. And I know moral, upright people that come from many different religious traditions. It is pretty frightening to try to put myself into a worldview that would turn all those people into practitioners of evil.
    Tying this back to our good Mr. Steele, it is apparently important for their narrative that he be a person who has heard the Word, had a chance to change and instead chosen the path of evil. I find it interesting that the swinging, world-traveling Steele is tied down domestically to the Cracker Barrel connoisseur. Did she used to be a sophisticate who turned to homey ways after she was saved? What is the dynamic where these two tried to carve out a life together, even though they come at the world from such different perspectives?

  • jonforest

    Another point. It is noteworthy (and I think already noted) that LB’s men are manly. It is surely telling that its women are girlish.

  • jonforest

    Another point. It is noteworthy (and I think already noted) that LB’s men are manly. It is surely telling that its women are girlish.

  • Mabus

    JC, I know you are not talking to me personally, but as an example of religious conservativism–one of the few here–perhaps I should respond.
    I am sure there are some of us who believe everyone who behaves differently from us is deliberately evil. I’ve encountered such people. In fact, some years ago, I was such a person. But I also know from experience that they do not make up the whole; they are merely the most vocal of us. I think you can see how that might come about.
    At the same time, any morality is likely to contain at least a few positions that are so different from some other morality’s as to be not just “incorrect” but “incomprehensible”. I have encountered some liberals who found it incomprehensible that anyone could support the war in Iraq, for instance, and insisted that anyone who had ever supported it must be morally perverse. I tried to explain to these people that (at least given the limited information available when the war began) it was possible to imagine that the war was both critical to American safety and helpful to the Iraqi people living under a tyrant. These justifications have now dissolved, but they were convincing to some people at the time, including myself. Usually my listeners remained unconvinced and proclaimed me (with one phrasing or another) evil–even after I had turned against the war. Why? Because they apparently could not comprehend the motives and values I was describing. They were too different, at least in this particular context.
    A final caveat–in some religions, evil is not something that has to be chosen; it is merely the default term for other paths. To people who follow a faith such as this, calling someone “evil” can be merely a descriptive term for their actions, not a personal indictment. To use the war again–I imagine all of us here now agree that this war is evil. That does not mean we are saying that each soldier in the field is personally evil. But, regardless of their motives, they are participating in an evil act and can in some sense be called evil.

  • Andy

    I have frequently wondered if these books are not a gross transgression of Revelations 22:18-19: “I warn everyone who hears the words of prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add him to the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”

  • Scott

    Country Knicknacks? Dear God, they live at the Cracker Barrel!
    Just L&H’s way of letting you know that nobody in LA or NY will be raptured, as you can’t get “country knicknacks” in Manhattan or Hollyweird. I’m just suprised they never come out and put the Dems in charge of the US because all the Reps got raptured.

  • cjmr

    Yes, some of us still do do needlepoint. But, for the record, I hate “country knicknacks”.

  • Scott

    Yes, some of us still do do needlepoint. But, for the record, I hate “country knicknacks”.
    That makes you outside the stereotype for a Red State Christian, and thus bound straight for Hell, for being different. Any good talibangelical will tell you that ‘different’ is just Satan’s euphamism for gay.
    (For those of you new to the comments section, that’s a snarky comment about the religious right, not a slam against cjmr or gays).

  • cjmr’s husband

    I was always irritated by the adjective “country”… I wonder “WHICH country?”
    My parents’ house is decorated with “country knicknacks” — the countries are England, Taiwan, Korea, Turkey, and, of course, Cracker Barrel.
    I once saw a copy of LB in there house, too, though; I was a bit surprised, as they are vehement Catholics. I said nothing, and never saw the sequels there.
    As for autographed pictures, my father sent me one when he was stationed in Turkey when I was five. He spelt my name wrong.

  • kevin

    1)You need to collec tthese eassays and have them published.
    2)You need to write a book about the Rapture that explores what such events would really look like.

  • kevin

    1)You need to collec tthese eassays and have them published.
    2)You need to write a book about the Rapture that explores what such events would really look like.

  • Beth

    Linnen,
    It looks like Frank Rich agrees with you. His latest article is about America’s fascination with death. He writes:
    No one does the culture of death with more of a vengeance – literally so – than the doomsday right. The “Left Behind” novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins all but pant for the bloody demise of nonbelievers at Armageddon.

  • SadieB.

    Thanks for Left Behind Fridays. As a liberal, I believe “I am human, therefore nothing human is alien to me,” and I always enjoy trying to put myself in others’ shoes. To me the central mystery of the books (and maybe you’ve already addressed this, I’m a little late to the conversation) is that they are written for those who expect to be raptured, about those who are left behind. Why? Are they secretly afraid of being left behind themselves? Or do they want to revel in the torments of those who are left behind? But if that were the case, Rayford would not be sympathetic (from their point of view) at all.
    And I can’t resist the irony of the Good Christians being identified with “country” culture. It’s funny when you know that the origin of the word “pagan” is pays gens, or, country people. Back from the days when Christianity was the religion identified with decadent city types. Even today, country people are not fully Christian — my God-fearing Nazarene grandparents never blinked and eye about planting by the signs for example.

  • Jon H

    JC,
    I have a theory on how Rayford got together with his wife.
    I suspect he was a military pilot. He met her while he was in the service, at some base deep in the Knicknack Republic of Cracker Barrel States, where her tastes were formed. (Military pilots have a reputation for being, well, like Rayford, so that explains him.)
    They fooled around. She got pregnant. They got married. Child was stillborn, or died young, or something, but they stayed married because she was sufficiently obedient and submissive. After the tragedy, she found comfort in religion.

  • Steve

    URGENT PRESS RELEASE!
    Pot Calls Kettle Black
    From CNN’s review of the miniseries “Revelations”:
    “A similar assessment comes from Jerry B. Jenkins, who with Tim LaHaye co-authored the hugely popular ‘Left Behind’ novels, chronicling the fate of those stranded on Earth after Christ lifts the faithful up to heaven at the end of the world. Jenkins has described ‘Revelations’ as ‘a mishmash of myth, silliness and misrepresentations of Scripture (which) seems to draw from everywhere and nowhere.’
    And he should know.
    You can’t make this stuff up.
    See further:
    http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/TV/04/13/apontv.revelations.ap/index.html

  • http://gaunilosisland.blogspot.com/2005/04/its-become-so-obvious-you-are-so.html Gaunilo’s Island

    Its become so obvious, you are so oblivious…

    In a related story, crazy mad props to Slacktivist, who meticulously deconstructs that trainwreck of literature that is the Left Behind series…A recent priceless example:

  • Davis X. Machina

    I was always led to believe that pagan came from Latin ‘paganus’, a resident of a ‘pagus’, what we would call up here in Maine an unorganized township.
    Of course, the point is still the same — urban = Christian, rural = the old religion.
    Equally interesting is the derivation of ‘cretin’ from “Christian”.

  • Scott

    Oh boy oh boy oh boy tomorrow is Friday….. :-)

  • Nancy Lebovitz

    I know people who do needlepoint….pagan needlepoint.
    Needlepoint isn’t the biggest hobby in the world, but there does seem to be rather a lot of it for sale, and I expect some of it’s bought by people who actually finish the projects rather than thinking it’d be nice to get around to it.

  • Gus

    in some religions, evil is not something that has to be chosen; it is merely the default term for other paths. To people who follow a faith such as this, calling someone “evil” can be merely a descriptive term for their actions, not a personal indictment.
    That says a LOT about those religions and nothing about the practitioners of the religions they label as “evil.” Although such dualism might be intended as “descriptive,” plenty of history shows that it eventually becomes an indictment that leads to inquisitions and other forms of oppression if the people holding that view gain political power.

  • Sophist

    You know, if there is a strong correlation between the presence of “authentic” country knickknacks and a state of grace then China and Mexico are going to be mighty empty come rapture.

  • Sophist

    You know, if there is a strong correlation between the presence of “authentic” country knickknacks and a state of grace then China and Mexico are going to be mighty empty come rapture.

  • http://www.davidchess.com/words/log.20050610.html#20050616 Log: David Chess

    Thursday, June 16, 2005

    So let’s see. Rachel Chalmers pointed us at the Slacktivist’s close readings of the “Left Behind” series (infinitely better than actually slogging through the books, I expect). One of those postings led us in passing to the poem that that “a poem shoul…

  • none

    Hold on……. ‘his own BMW that was gone. The one he had driven to O’Hare the day before.’
    His car was at the airport??? wasn’t that where he had just had a hell of a time getting away from?? Did he forget??? or just didn’t wasn to deal with the traffic?

  • dv03awp07n

    http://hometown.aol.com/killerpain473765/actos-canada-online-pharmacy-actos-actos-index-php.htm [url=http://hometown.aol.com/killerpain473765/actos-canada-online-pharmacy-actos-actos-index-php.htmactos canada online pharmacy actos actos index php[/url] a href=http://hometown.aol.com/killerpain473765/actos-canada-online-pharmacy-actos-actos-index-php.htmactos canada online pharmacy actos actos index php/a http://hometown.aol.com/pills824728fiori/prozac-side-effects-uses.htm [url=http://hometown.aol.com/pills824728fiori/prozac-side-effects-uses.htmprozac side effects uses[/url] a href=http://hometown.aol.com/pills824728fiori/prozac-side-effects-uses.htmprozac side effects uses/a http://hometown.aol.com/viagra601208onli/stronger-weight-loss-pill-than-phentermine.htm [url=http://hometown.aol.com/viagra601208onli/stronger-weight-loss-pill-than-phentermine.htmstronger weight loss pill than phentermine[/url] a href=http://hometown.aol.com/viagra601208onli/stronger-weight-loss-pill-than-phentermine.htmstronger weight loss pill than phentermine/a http://hometown.aol.com/buy377864pill/ambien-and-product-liability.htm [url=http://hometown.aol.com/buy377864pill/ambien-and-product-liability.htmambien and product liability[/url] a href=http://hometown.aol.com/buy377864pill/ambien-and-product-liability.htmambien and product liability/a http://hometown.aol.com/drug519857cialis/buy-viagra-phentermine-online-pharmacy.htm [url=http://hometown.aol.com/drug519857cialis/buy-viagra-phentermine-online-pharmacy.htmbuy viagra phentermine online pharmacy[/url] a href=http://hometown.aol.com/drug519857cialis/buy-viagra-phentermine-online-pharmacy.htmbuy viagra phentermine online pharmacy/a http://hometown.aol.com/viagra601208onli/cheapest-diet-pill-phentermine.htm [url=http://hometown.aol.com/viagra601208onli/cheapest-diet-pill-phentermine.htmcheapest diet pill phentermine[/url] a href=http://hometown.aol.com/viagra601208onli/cheapest-diet-pill-phentermine.htmcheapest diet pill phentermine/a http://hometown.aol.com/viagra601208onli/what-is-the-difference-between-phentermine-pills.htm [url=http://hometown.aol.com/viagra601208onli/what-is-the-difference-between-phentermine-pills.htmwhat is the difference between phentermine pills[/url] a href=http://hometown.aol.com/viagra601208onli/what-is-the-difference-between-phentermine-pills.htmwhat is the difference between phentermine pills/a http://hometown.aol.com/buy377864pill/withdrawals-from-ambien.htm [url=http://hometown.aol.com/buy377864pill/withdrawals-from-ambien.htmwithdrawals from ambien[/url] a href=http://hometown.aol.com/buy377864pill/withdrawals-from-ambien.htmwithdrawals from ambien/a http://hometown.aol.com/viagra601208onli/cheapest-diet-phentermine-pill.htm [url=http://hometown.aol.com/viagra601208onli/cheapest-diet-phentermine-pill.htmcheapest diet phentermine pill[/url] a href=http://hometown.aol.com/viagra601208onli/cheapest-diet-phentermine-pill.htmcheapest diet phentermine pill/a http://hometown.aol.com/pills824728fiori/vidoe-clips-of-prozac-nation-staring-christina-ricci.htm [url=http://hometown.aol.com/pills824728fiori/vidoe-clips-of-prozac-nation-staring-christina-ricci.htmvidoe clips of prozac nation staring christina ricci[/url] a href=http://hometown.aol.com/pills824728fiori/vidoe-clips-of-prozac-nation-staring-christina-ricci.htmvidoe clips of prozac nation staring christina ricci/a

  • Lepht

    *looks up at the linkfest* …gotta little spam problem there, buddy.
    anyway, as i was saying, decor is an indicator of evil levels. for example, Irene here has frills, and needlepoint pictures, both classic hallmarks of the Saved Christian. as an atheist, my walls are covered in black leather, made from the skin of dead fluffy kittens and dyed with the blood of sacrifices to Satan, whom i conveniently don’t believe in.
    seriously.
    Lepht Anonym
    http://sapiensanonym.blogspot.com
    lepht@trioptimum.com

  • ann

    I’ve just been letting everything wash over me recently. So it goes. What can I say?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X