L.B.: Funny you should ask

Left Behind, pp. 115-121

Chapter 7 of Left Behind does not begin with a phone call. Instead, we are treated to another detailed explanation of travel plans.

In the first 100 pages of this book we've learned about a nuclear war (it's OK, no one was hurt), and the disappearance of 2/5 of the world's population. Yet these same 100 pages are strangely uneventful — the story of a man whose flight to London is detoured to Chicago, so he then charters a private plane to New York.

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This chapter continues the Amazing Race between Buck Williams and Chloe Steele. He is trying to travel the 750 miles from Chicago to New York. She is racing to cover the 2,000 or so miles between Palo Alto, Calif., and, let's say, Naperville, Ill. Buck is chartering a private jet because all the commercial airlines are shut down. Chloe is flying home by, er, commercial airline. Buck gets to the finish line first, but only just barely, and it costs him $1,500.

We meet Ken Ritz, Buck's hired pilot, deftly sketched for us with some quick strokes of the cliche brush: "Ritz was tall and lean, with a weathered face and a shock of salt-and-pepper hair."

"Let's get down to business," [Ritz] said. "It's 740 miles from O'Hare to JFK and 746 from Milwaukee to JFK. I'm gonna get you as close to JFK as I can, and we're about equidistant between O'Hare and Milwaukee, so let's call it 743 air miles. Multiply that by two bucks, you're talkin' fourteen hundred and eighty-six. Round it off to fifteen hundred for the taxi service, and we got us a deal."

Here's another fine example of Jerry Jenkins' Cliff-Clavenish eye for unimportant detail. I trust him to get things like this right. Without double-checking, I'm sure it's true that it is, in fact, 746 air miles from Milwaukee to JFK. Jenkins is careful about details like this, even though they don't matter a bit as far as plot, theme and character go.

When Jenkins has to write about Buck's journey from Waukegan to New York, he becomes strangely careful and meticulous. He stops writing to look up the distance in air miles. This never happens when he's writing about that nuclear war, or the disappearance of billions of children. He rattles off those sections without a second thought, any concern for detail, or the slightest apparent curiosity about what such things might actually be like.

This is bad writing, but it's also more than that. Jenkins and LaHaye read the Bible through the same skewed lens. This same obsessive elevation of irrelevant detail shapes their interpretation of the scripture. Thus they read Jesus' sermon on the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 and ignore everything it says about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and caring for the least of these. Instead they latch onto the introductory bit about the Son of Man sitting on "his throne in heavenly glory" and speculate what that throne is made of, and where it its, and how big it is, and how many air miles there might be from that seat of judgment to Waukegan.

This is also characteristic of their politics, in which things like disastrous wars of choice or the bankruptcy of the federal treasury are viewed as tangential matters compared with so-called "values" issues that often have little to do with the government.

Ritz parked in a metal Quonset hut at the Waukegan airport and chatted while running through the preflight procedures. "No crashes here," he said. "There were two at Palwaukee. They lost a couple of staff people here though. Weirder than weird, wasn't it?"

This strangely glib tone characterizes the discussion of the disappearances that continues in this section. Ritz sounds like he's talking about the weather. This might've worked as satire — like the desperate denial of the Sunnydale Press headline reading "Mayhem Ensues: Monsters Certainly Not Involved" — but it doesn't seem intended as such. The authors are as strangely blase as the characters.

After an odd little interlude giving us Ken Ritz's backstory as a safety-conscious whistleblower fired by an unnamed airline, the two men get back to the subject of the disappearances via one of Jenkins' typically smooth segues:

As the jet screamed east, Ritz wanted to know what Buck thought of the disappearances. "Funny you should ask," Buck said. …

"Funny you should ask"?

Yes, by some odd coincidence, Buck and Ritz just happen to be thinking about the very same thing. What are the odds?

Ritz at least has a theory about the disappearances: Space aliens.

Good for him. Space aliens ought to be on anyone's short list of possible explanations for this kind of phenomena. We listed several such possibilities a while back, including: "mass hallucination/insanity, alien abduction, … spontaneous human combustion, rapid-acting flesh-eating bacteria, wormhole in the space/time continuum, … an evil sorceror from an alternate dimension plucking away slaves to work in his sulfurous mines." Plus the "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids … all the kids" theory that the disappeared are still there, just very, very small.

These are all kind of Mulderish, but extreme situations call for extreme theories. We're not dealing with a fuzzy amateur video purporting to be Bigfoot here. We're dealing with a worldwide phenomenon affecting billions of people, one that both demands and defies explanation. So we can't just Scully away theories about space aliens or alternate dimensions just because they seemed implausible in the pre-event world.

Ritz offers his version of the space alien theory:

"… It's not like E.T., with creatures and all that. I think our ideas of what space people would look like are way too simple and rudimentary. … And I agree with people who think those beings are more intelligent than we are. Otherwise, they wouldn't have made it here, if they are here. And if they are, I'm thinking they're sophisticated and advanced enough that they can do things to us we've never dreamed of."

"Like making people disappear right out of their clothes."

"Sounded pretty silly until the other night, didn't it?"

Buck nodded.

That's not a bad summary of a basic space alien theory. I'm sure, however, that the commenters here can do better, and I eagerly invite your ideas and elaborations.

The pilot's musing prompts Buck — finally, on page 119 — to think about one of the first questions he should have been asking when he woke up on the plane:

"With all the people disappeared, you think they had something in common? … Something that set them apart, made them easier to snatch?"

Ritz notes that everyone he's heard about among the disappeared "was either under 12 years old or was an unusual personality." So he speculates that the space aliens took only those who weren't "strong enough to resist."

This is disappointing. Forget for the moment that we already know this is a rapture story and let's run with Ritz's space alien theory. The children — the space aliens have taken all the children. Why would hyperintelligent space aliens take the children? I'm sure we can come up with better answers than just that they weren't "strong enough to resist." Let's consider the benign as well as the sinister possibilities (and, again, I look forward to reading your suggestions below).

To his credit, though, Ritz is also the first character in LB to give serious consideration to the possibility that these billions of people might return as suddenly and mysteriously as they disappeared:

"They disappeared in an instant, so they had to be dematerialized. The question is whether they were destroyed in the process or could be reassembled. … Maybe they're somewhere specific in some form, and maybe they can return."

Given that every parent on the planet has just lost their child, you'd think at least some of them would be pursuing a similar line of thinking — and demanding that every official and agency help them get their kids back. But that, of course, doesn't happen here.