L.B.: Making the cut

Left Behind, pp. 105-109

These pages concern — can you guess? That's right, another phone call.

This time it's Buck talking to his father who lives in Tucson, Ariz. Jenkins tosses in a bit of father/son conflict, but his heart's not in it. The subject may be fathers and sons, but this isn't the stuff of Arthur Miller:

"This is awful, Cam. I wish you were out here with us."

"Yeah, I'll bet."

"You bein' sarcastic?"

"Just expressing the truth, Dad. If you wanted me out there, it'd be the first time." …

[snip]

… [Buck had] been resented by the family ever since he'd gone to college, following his academic prowess to the Ivy League. Where he came from, the kids were supposed to follow their parents into the business. His dad's was trucking fuel into the state, mostly from Oklahoma and Texas. It was a tough business with local people thinking the resources ought to all come from their own state. …

There had been a lot of bad blood, especially since Cameron was away at school when his mother fell ill. She had insisted he stay in school, but when he missed coming home for Christmas due to money problems, his dad and brother never really forgave him. His mother died while he was away, and he got the cold shoulder even at her funeral.

Some healing had occurred over the years, mostly because his family loved to claim him and brag about him once he became known as a journalistic prodigy. He had let bygones be bygones but resented that he was now welcome because he was somebody.

It's bad enough that LaHaye and Jenkins recycle the old cliched conflict between the working class father and the college-educated son, but they don't even get the cliche right. Buck's dad resents his success as a Princeton student, but not as a globe-trotting reporter? I can't make sense out of this father/son conflict.

(And have you ever encountered someone so infused with a fierce pride in their state that they resented those who import fuel oil from a neighboring state? Hunh?)

Considering L&J's literally patriarchal notion of God, this description of Buck's estrangement from his "earthly father" is a missed opportunity to explore a parallel that might have provided some insight into his estrangement from his heavenly father. But L&J are unable to explain either estrangement. They manage to spend several pages on Buck's conflict with his father without revealing anything more about his character. That's not easy to do.

But then this section isn't about character, it's about soteriology.

Reading Left Behind as a Christian is a bit like watching the old "Who's On First" routine from Abbot and Costello. The words are all familiar and you think you know what they mean, but they mean something different here. (For that matter, it's also a bit like listening to Paul Wolfowitz speechifying on peace, freedom and democracy.) They write about sin, salvation, God, Jesus — all words we Christians recognize, but their use here seems a bit askew. We're forced to relearn these words as they are used in the LB universe.

That's why didactic little passages like today's are valuable. They help to explain what it is that LaHaye and Jenkins mean by words like "salvation" or "Christian." Here's the key section:

"You know your brother is afraid it was like the last judgment of God or something."

"He does?" [sic]

"Yeah. But I don't think so."

"Why not, Dad?" He didn't really want to get into a lengthy discussion, but this surprised him.

"Because I asked our pastor. He said if it was Jesus Christ taking people to heaven, he and I and you and Jeff would be gone, too. Makes sense."

"Does it? I've never claimed any devotion to the faith."

"The heck you haven't. You always get into this liberal, East Coast baloney. You know good and well we had you in church and Sunday school from the time you were a baby. You're as much a Christian as any one of us."

Cameron wanted to say, "Precisely my point." But he didn't. It was the lack of any connection between his family's church attendance and their daily lives that made him quit going to church altogether the day it became his choice.

The reference to "liberal, East Coast baloney" is notable. LB was written in 1995, before the disputed 2000 election that produced our current color-coded stereotyping. L&J here have the red-blooded red-stater criticizing the "liberal" blue-stater for holding a position they agree with, namely that church attendance and faith are not necessarily the same thing.

L&J's desire to distinguish between nominal Christians (CHINOs) and real-true-genuine Christians is legitimate. Jesus himself says, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven … I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" (Matt. 7:21-23).

I'm sure that L&J were thinking of exactly that passage when they wrote today's section about Buck's churchgoing father and his pastor. I'm equally sure that in thinking of this passage they left out the key part that I replaced above with an ellipsis. Matthew 7:21 reads in full: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."

Jesus makes it very clear that it is God's job, not ours, to distinguish between true believers and false ones. But every time he discusses this distinction — every time — he does so on the same basis as in the passage above, on the basis of deeds. Not on mental allegiance to a series of particular propositions. Not on saying "Lord, Lord" or another set of magic words in the sinner's prayer.

Consider Jesus' most expansive discussion of this subject in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). The righteous sheep are separated from the unrighteous goats exclusively on the basis of their deeds — specifically on the basis of how they responded to the neediest, the poor, the hungry, the sick, imprisoned and homeless.

The remarkable, but little remarked on, aspect of this story is that Jesus suggests two and only two categories of people. The first type, the sheep, do his will, but have no idea who he is. The goats, by contrast, know who Jesus is and claim to follow him, but they do not do his will.

We reflexively fill in the other, unmentioned quadrants when we read this story, the ones that contain the categories of people we're most accustomed to thinking of. Surely, logically, we reassure ourselves, there must also be people who claim to follow Christ and do so, and people who do not know who Christ is and do not do his will. But the story makes no mention of such people. This is part of what makes the story so unsettling, a perfect example of what it means to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

The Calvinists reading this are doubtless now convinced I'm advocating some form of Arminian "works-righteousness." I'm not. I'm simply refusing to play the game in which we create a false dichotomy between faith and works and then pretend to choose which of these hollow abstractions is more important. Therein lies madness and a neverending, irrelevant dispute. "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do." One might as well start an argument about which blade in a pair of scissors does the cutting.*

L&J also suggest, perhaps inadvertently, that deeds/works/behavior are essential to the distinction between true and false faith. Buck's father is indicted for "the lack of any connection between his … church attendance and [his] daily [life]."

Their main point here, it seems at first, is to say that there's more to being a Christian than simply attending church. I couldn't argue with that. They further suggest that church attendance ought to shape and influence one's daily life. That wasn't the case for Buck's father and brother, which is part of why they are left out and left behind.

But is that the only reason? What of the pastor of Buck's father's church? Here is a man who evidently believes he is a Christian, and as an ordained minister, his faith apparently is connected to his daily life. Yet he gets left behind too. So how come he doesn't make the cut?

In the world of Left Behind, simply attending church isn't enough. It seems you have to attend the right kind of church — the kind of church where they teach you the specific formulas and the precise propositional content of belief that will enable you to say the magic words, compelling God to extend you his grace. This is neither a Calvinistic nor an Arminian doctrine. It's a matter of spellcasting to bind the djinni-God to do your will.

- – - – - – - – - – - –

* To my Calvinist friends: FWIW, I do not believe that works earn us grace, but rather that grace necessarily enables works. Beyond that, I don't want to get sucked into this discussion because I think your categories confuse more than they clarify.

  • sophia8

    Bellringer:”Can we please just focus on the flaws in the Left Behind series, and not drift off into these “How many angels can dance on the head of pin” arguments?”
    Actually, as a non-Christian, I’m finding some of these debates fascinating; they give me ammunition for those times that fundie Christians tell me that I’m going to Hell. They also give me hope that those fundie Christians don’t represent Christianity. For that alone, Fred & co are “doing God’s work”.
    Anyway, the flaws in the LB series are so obvious that they don’t need a lot of discussion!

  • sophia8

    Bellringer:”Can we please just focus on the flaws in the Left Behind series, and not drift off into these “How many angels can dance on the head of pin” arguments?”
    Actually, as a non-Christian, I’m finding some of these debates fascinating; they give me ammunition for those times that fundie Christians tell me that I’m going to Hell. They also give me hope that those fundie Christians don’t represent Christianity. For that alone, Fred & co are “doing God’s work”.
    Anyway, the flaws in the LB series are so obvious that they don’t need a lot of discussion!

  • pablo

    Maybe you guys can help me out with this. I was raised Catholic and read the bible but I never understood what is the deal with Paul. He never met Jesus. He’s not in the gospels. All he has is that less than convincing road to Damascus story and yet his views seem to predomintate with christians. I think he gets quoted a lot more than Peter or even Jesus, especially when the fundies are being particularly hateful they’re quoting Paul I have a problem with Paul because it seems like he comes out of nowhere and muscles his way to the top spot in the cult, shoving Peter aside.

  • nixon

    Let’s boil this down – simple faith will get you into Heaven (John 6:40 – “for my Father’s will is that, everyone who looks to the son, and believes in Him shall have eternal Life and I will raise him up on the last day”); good works is a necessary by-product of faith (I Corinthians 10:31 – “whatever therefore ye eat or drink or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God”).
    If you truly believe, you will live by the principles of Jesus. If there’s a disconnect – you go to church every Sunday and forget about it every other day of the week – you’re probably not a true believer but (as we say at my church) a “Sunday Morning Christian”.
    However, simple works and works alone won’t get you to Heaven. You can be a nice guy, give money to the poor, help blind ladies across the street, and still end up in Hell. Why? Because you never BELIEVED, i.e. you never had FAITH. Works are a result of faith, not compeltely independent.
    Ephesians 2:8-9 – “For by grace are ye saved through faith; AND THAT NOT OF YOURSELVES; it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast”. Faith has got to come first. It’s fairly simple and Bible-based, not diluted by Church-based dogma and ritualism. It all comes down to a personal faith, not how much you pay or how many services you attend.
    For the non-Christians out there who seem to have trouble understanding the faith – might I suggest a study of the Bible itself, and not commercial works of fiction? I understand it might be harder that way, but the insights gained will be more than worth it.

  • blah

    Careful Pablo, questioning of the Pauline epistles opens the door to heresy.
    I know it opened the door to my walking away from fundamentalism 5 years ago.
    Who does this “paul” think he is, claiming to be an apostle? If you do open that door, things will tend to make a lot more sense.
    For a comment on LB: elementary writing for too wide an audience. They were making a book for all grade levels, and the print size looks like someone trying to cheat on a 20-page research paper by tightening the margins and using a big font on their word processor, not that I’ve never done that trick before, but I wasnt getting millions of dollars for my typewritten spew.

  • Ray

    I think I understand the faith well enough already, to be honest. Understanding why people would have faith is another thing.

  • Sour Kraut

    Well, if your name is Nixon, you better hope you can rely on God’s grace…

  • R.

    ‘However, simple works and works alone won’t get you to Heaven. You can be a nice guy, give money to the poor, help blind ladies across the street, and still end up in Hell. Why? Because you never BELIEVED, i.e. you never had FAITH. Works are a result of faith, not compeltely independent.’
    That, however, leads to the question: Why, if that would be true, should decent human beings *want* to go to Heaven, if people who were nice guys, gave money o the poor and helped blind ladies across the street end up in Hell? What would it say about the character of a man if he accepted an invitation to Heaven under such circumstances?

  • nixon

    Jesus died so that he could suffer the penalty for our sins; through him, we find redemption. Every one of us deserves to go to Hell and every one of us should, but for the sacrifice of Jesus. Having faith in Jesus includes admitting and asking forgiveness for our sins. The “nice guys” might have been nice, but they never admitted that they were sinful and in need of a Savior.
    I would say it speaks very well of a man’s character if he accepted an invitation to Heaven “under such circumstances”. It means he is humble enough to acknowledge his shortcomings and to ask forgiveness for them. It means he is able to believe in something bigger than himself. It means he sees his deeds not as a reflection of his own glory, but of God’s.
    It’s all in the Bible, should anyone care to give it a serious look. Doesn’t finding excuses NOT to believe get tiring after a while?

  • Mark

    nixon: Jesus died so that he could suffer the penalty for our sins
    This isn’t in the Bible anywhere.
    And it’s good that it’s not, because I’m with R.: I can’t accept salvation under those circumstances. God offers to let me off the hook for my sins and instead punish someone else. How can I consent to that? An innocent man was tortured to death so that I would escape the punishment I deserve. I can’t change the past, but at the very least I can refuse to profit from it.
    The message of this doctrine is that Jesus is not one of us, but instead of us. Jesus goes to the cross so that we don’t have to, not so that we can follow him. It also makes a mockery of God’s “justice”, which apparently doesn’t distinguish between punishing the guilty and punishing the innocent as long as someone gets punished.
    Doesn’t finding excuses NOT to believe get tiring after a while?
    I just sit here and the excuses not to believe come to me. Salvaging what good there is in Christianity is what gets tiring.
    Oh, and being patronized by someone who evidently hasn’t bothered to think through the implications of his beliefs before offering them as a replacement for the process of debate and discovery that the rest of us are going through. I tire of that very quickly.

  • Beth

    Nixon,
    A couple of things:
    1. What do you mean by faith? I get the impression that it has something to do with believing that Jesus is the son of God, but there has to be more to it than that, right? I mean, believing in a fact isn’t really a soul-changing experience.
    2. Luke 10:25-28 says:
    25On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
    26″What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
    27He answered: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[c]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d]”
    28″You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
    So it enough to love God and your neighbor, or must you believe in the divinity of Jesus as well?
    Ray,
    I think I understand the faith well enough already
    I’m sure you do. I’m sure everyone commenting here does, too. But I’m also sure that our understandings are so widely varied that any real discussion on the subject will impossible unless we make an effort to explain what we mean by ‘faith’.
    I think faith is — to put it in theistic terms — our side of the ongoing dialogue with God. Faith is the response to grace, and grace is the response to faith. Faith is essentially being open to God, which means being open to everything. It means being open enough to not only notice that blind lady on the street-corner, but to empathize with her and so behave as you’d like a passing stranger to behave if you were in her place: by helping her across the street. Unlike the commenter, Nixon, I believe that anyone who responds that way, who helps her without any thought of reward in this world or the next (including the reward of thinking of themselves as a good person), is acting out of faith.
    Like other non-Christians here, I’m uncomfortable hearing that works are not enough, you must also have faith. It sounds like they’re saying, “It doesn’t matter how good a person you are, if you don’t adhere to our belief system, you’re screwed.” It helps me to think about the story of the Bodhidharma, who established Buddhism in China. He once met with the emperor, who was himself a devout Buddhist. The emperor proudly told the Bodhidharma about all the magnificent temples he had built and asked, “What is my merit?” Bodhidharma replied, “No merit at all.” The emperor had behaved generously, but only in order to gain merit. He had investested in Buddhism as one might invest in land or stocks, in the hope of making a profit. Therefore there was no merit in his actions. At its best, the Christian teaching that works alone are not enough is the same as Bodhidharma’s “No merit at all.”

  • Ray

    Nixon – what you’re saying is, God has decided that we’re all sinners and deserve to burn in hell for all eternity, but he’ll let us off if we kiss his ass. Well, _I’m_ certainly inspired.
    Excuses NOT to believe? What’s your excuse for not believing in the Tooth fairy?

  • Ray

    Nixon – what you’re saying is, God has decided that we’re all sinners and deserve to burn in hell for all eternity, but he’ll let us off if we kiss his ass. Well, _I’m_ certainly inspired.
    Excuses NOT to believe? What’s your excuse for not believing in the Tooth fairy?

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    As a damned heathen myself (well, not really; I’m Wiccan, not Asatru :-) … I am not at all offended by Fred’s suggestion that “grace enables works.” My interpretation of it might be a little askew from the general populace here, though. “Grace enables works” implies, to me, that Being A Good Person is a Symptom of that state we call Having Grace. It’s an inclusive philosphy. I have known some very Grace-Filled atheists.

  • SadieB.

    Mark,
    Thanks for pointing out that “Jesus died for our sins” is not in the Bible. I always had a problem with that one. Seems to me, if you follow that line of thinking very far at all, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that God killed Jesus. After all, who was it that demanded a blood sacrifice for the crime of eating an apple? Who made the rules in the first place? Though it’s perfectly in line with His Character, I mean, He told Abraham to kill his son, too.
    Fundamentalists, or, to use the biblical term, Pharisees, can’t seem to get past this God-as-psychopathic-father-writ-large stage. I think that may be all there is to this LB business, they are pinning all their hopes on the rest of us getting a whuppin when Daddy gets home, because otherwise they have thrown their lives away for nothing, and that really sucks.

  • Scott

    It’s Friiiiidaaaaay.

  • Scott

    It’s Friiiiidaaaaay.

  • none

    > Thanks for pointing out that “Jesus died for our sins” is not in the Bible.
    Alas, the assertion is quite incorrect, as evinced by the following passages:
    Romans 3:23-35 … for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God set forth to be an atoning sacrifice, through faith in his blood, for a demonstration of his righteousness through the passing over of prior sins, in God’s forbearance …
    Hebrews 10:11-14 Every priest indeed stands day by day ministering and often offering the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, but he, when he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; … . For by one offering he has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.
    I John 2:2 And he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.
    I John 4:10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
    As to the question of who killed Jesus, that is a little harder to deal with, but still not complicated. John records Jesus saying “No one takes it [his life] away from me, but I lay it down by myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. I received this commandment from my Father.” (John 17:18) Perhaps Jesus would be best to blame for killing himself, though clearly with the complicitity of the Father. Of course, from a Trinitarian perspective, Jesus and the Father are ultimately part of the same entity and identity, so suicide would probably be the most accurate way of looking at it. So while the divine logic behind the situation may be bizarre, at least we can’t accuse God of getting of easy (of course, again, assuming Trinitarianism).

  • Mark

    Anonymous critic:
    For the record, that’s not the assertion I made. What’s not in the Bible is this: “Jesus died so that he could suffer the penalty for our sins.” Though I’ll take the opportunity to point out that the words “Jesus died for our sins” don’t appear in any of the passages you quoted, either.
    As to the question of who killed Jesus, that is a little harder to deal with, but still not complicated.
    Pontius Pilate killed Jesus. I thought that was pretty well settled.

  • cjmr

    As to the question of who killed Jesus, that is a little harder to deal with, but still not complicated.
    Pontius Pilate killed Jesus. I thought that was pretty well settled.
    Well, technically, the soldiers/executioners who actually carried out the crucifixion were the ones who killed Jesus. But between the Jewish leaders who were jealous of Him and Pontius Pilate, and the various other voices calling for His crucifixion there is certainly more than enough complicity to go around.

  • Devon

    Mark: Salvaging what good there is in Christianity is what gets tiring.
    There’s a book by a guy named Emmet Fox called The Sermon on the Mount, which I really like. I had given up on christianity, and all organized religion, long ago. I read this book and found that the Sermon itself has some really good stuff in it, that’s useful even if you don’t buy into the rest of the theology. Fox takes things further than I can follow, and his hyperbolic style is difficult at times. But if you can get past that, this book can help you find the good left in christianity.
    Also interesting, is The Lost Gospel Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus.
    But, alas, trying to find the good in organized christianity is a lost cause. Give up. (Unless you count the Quakers as organized, which you probably shouldn’t.)

  • jc_freak

    This is only the first time I’ve found your blog, and I’m enjoying your comments on Left Behind, which I became disenchanted with some years ago. However, your one comment here bothered me. You claim that Arminianism represents a “works righteousness”. This is untrue. Arminianism teaches that we are saved by faith and faith alone, and that election is conditioned on faith. The idea of salvation by works is called Pelagianism.


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