L.B.: Opening Irene’s Bible

Left Behind, pp. 121-123

Rayford Steele is grieving. He has begun what in the world of Left Behind passes for an existential crisis.

Rayford Steele lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. … He didn't want to watch the news. He didn't want to read the paper, even knowing a new one had flopped up onto the porch before dawn.

This much is true. The paper would still arrive. It might be a lousy paper that unquestioningly parrots official government talking points. It may have only a dwindling news hole that it fills up with unfiltered wire copy. But the paper would still arrive. On time. Damn straight it would. This is a point of pride for those of us who participate in the daily miracle of a daily newspaper: In case of apocalypse, come in early.

But Rayford doesn't reach for the newspaper, he reaches for the Bible. These pages provide his first encounter with that book and help to set the stage for his coming conversion.

I like a good conversion story — whether it's the tweedy, cerebral argument of C.S. Lewis, or the sudden, ecstatic certainty of Pascal, or the earthy epiphanies of Anne Lamott ("Fuck it. Come in. I quit.").

But this isn't a good conversion story. It's a manipulative little polemic in which fictional events prove that Irene Steele was right and all those who disagreed with her or mocked her or failed to buy her books and DVDs were wrong. That's not exactly the stuff of Augustine's Confessions.

He wanted to investigate, to learn, to know, to act. He started by searching for a Bible, not the family Bible that had collected dust on his shelf for years, but Irene's. Hers would have notes in it, maybe something that would point him in the right direction.

This is what premililennial dispensationalists mean by sola scriptura. The meaning of life and salvation is found in the Bible, but only if that Bible includes the notes and commentary — the gnostic keys to interpretation — that explain what it really means. It's an odd twist on the so-called common-sense literalism that shapes American evangelicals' approach to the Bible. The PMDs claim, as all evangelicals do, that the meaning of scripture is self-evident, unambiguous — that "it means what it says and it says what it means." The idea that tradition or community could be useful or necessary for informing the interpretation of scripture is viewed with suspicion, if not hostility.

This rejection of tradition makes possible idiosyncratic new interpretive frameworks, such as the prophecy schemes of PMD. But these innovative, heterodox frameworks in turn impose their own, new "traditions" that shape the meaning of the text for their adherents. These new traditions continue to think of themselves as antitraditionalist. Thus the strange phenomenon of elaborate schemes like PMD or "scientific creationism" that introduce thousands of elements nowhere present in the text, yet still claim to be based on naive, common-sense, literal readings. For such schemes to make sense, you can't just read any old family Bible, you have to read Irene's annotated version, under the guidance of an experienced adept.

Rayford again seems to be aware that he is a character in "a novel of the earth's last days," so he begins reading on the last page of the Bible. He hoped, Jenkins writes, to find a:

… verse at the end of the Bible that said something like, "In the end God took all his people to heaven and gave everybody else one more chance."

But no such luck. The very last verse in the Bible meant nothing to him. It said, "The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all. Amen." And it sounded like the religious mumbo jumbo he had heard in church.

LaHaye and Jenkins are eager to establish in this section that Rayford, for years, attended a spiritually dead church filled with hollow, "religious mumbo jumbo." But it's hard to see how Revelation 22:21 could be so baffling to anyone. One needn't be a sectarian believer to understand this simple benediction, but L&J treat it as though it were an opaque expression of the deepest mysteries of the faith.

Perhaps for them it is. "The grace of the Lord Jesus" is not exactly a theme of LB. And the remainder of this final verse in the Bible — "be with you all" — suggests several other questions that L&J do not want to see answered. Who is "you all"? To whom, in other words, was this book addressed? When and why was it written for them? Start asking or answering questions like those and it becomes much more difficult to pretend that John's apocalypse is a Nostradamus-like piece of fortune-telling meaningful only to Christians in these, the last days, and irrelevant to all believers throughout the intervening millennia.

Rayford next figures out what the red type in Irene's Bible signifies — "He … noticed on the spine, 'Words of Christ in red.'" — and begins skimming the red text at the end of the book and meditating on the delayed parousia.

So Jesus said he was coming quickly. Had he come? And if the Bible was as old as it seemed, what did "quickly" mean? It must not have meant soon, unless it was from the perspective of someone with a long view of history. Maybe Jesus meant that when he came, he would do it quickly. …

All these questions and maybes will, of course, be dealt with later in the book with a mind-numbing didacticism and a stifling, spirit-quenching tone.

But the next thing that happens here is extraordinary, evidence that even L&J can't always miss with good material:

Rayford could make no sense of the text of the chapter. It seemed old and formal. But near the end of the chapter was a verse that ended with words that had a strange impact on him. Without a hint of their meaning, he read, "Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost."

Here, for a glimmer of an instant, L&J stumble across a hint of what even good conversion stories struggle to convey, that numinous experience that even the cerebral Lewis described as being "Surprised by joy." L&J quickly smother this little spark of something genuine, piling on deadening exposition ("But what was the water of life?" Rayford wonders).

That verse in Revelation echoes one of my favorite passages, from Isaiah 55. So, rather than letting Irene's Bible have the last word, let me quote that here:

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;

and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!

Come buy wine and milk without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and your soul will delight in the richest of fare …

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  • cjmr

    So far it sounds like Rayford’s “long dark night of the soul” isn’t even a “long dark tea-time of the soul”. I’m hoping it gets better/more meaningful, but I’m not holding my breath.

  • bulbul

    “Long dark tea-time of the soul”, how I love that book!
    Sorry to disappoint you, cjmr, but it only gets worse. And there are eleven more volumes of this…

  • Dave Lartigue

    That’s fantastic in L&J’s world, not being devoted to the Bible means you have absolutely no working knowledge of it whatsoever.
    “This ‘Bible’ appeared to be many bound ‘pages’ containing, it seemed, ‘words’. Rayford struggled to decipher them and soon found that it appeared to be an account of a being called ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’…”

  • B-W

    “The PMDs claim, as all evangelicals do, that the meaning of scripture is self-evident, unambiguous — that “it means what it says and it says what it means.” The idea that tradition or community could be useful or necessary for informing the interpretation of scripture is viewed with suspicion, if not hostility.”
    You must have a more limited understanding of what an “evangelical” is than I do. I consider myself very much an evangelical, but believe than an understanding of trandition, community, history, culture… in short, context, is very much required for the interpretation of Scripture.
    Perhaps you’re confusing “evangelical” with “fundamentalist”?

  • Scaramouche

    I reminds me of the story about the hardliner who would flip open their bible haphazardly to find an inspirational verse for the day.
    So they stabbed with their finger on the verse, “And Judas hanged himself.”
    This didn’t sit well so they tried again and came to, “Go and do likewise.”
    Consternated, they give it another shot and read, “That which must be done, do quickly.”

  • Grumpy

    I confess, I once wrote a story about an apocalyptic event, reported in the next day’s newspaper. But it was a somewhat satirical take, and a survivor of the catastrophe marveled at the diligence of the delivery boy.
    BTW, does any Bible advertise on its cover that the words of Christ are in red? It’s like a DVD that promotes its chapter stops as “Special Features.”
    Words of Christ in red! Pages numbered for easy reference! Includes capital letters and punctuation, so you know when sentences begin and end!

  • cjmr

    Yes, my RSV that I got from my Sunday School teacher in 4th grade says “Red-Letter Edition” on the spine and cover and “Words of Christ in Red” on the title page. You can get KJVs and NKJVs this way, too. I haven’t seen a red-letter NIV, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find they were out there.

  • Garnet

    “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all. Amen.” And it sounded like the religious mumbo jumbo he had heard in church.
    Religious mumbo… I’ve heard people say grace and include more arcane religious references, and that’s coming from an agnostic in a family of atheists and lapsed Christians with no religious friends. Gods and demons, LaHaye and Jenkins are absolute morons.

  • Grumpy

    I stand corrected, cjmr. Then again, as I said, there are DVDs that promote their chapter stops and menus as bonus features.

  • Jay Denari

    …only if that Bible includes the notes and commentary…
    he can have my copy… but I doubt the notes and commentary would be very appealing to the fundies!

  • redboy

    Ya know, maybe I’m stretching, but I see a lot of similarities between the steely-eyed airhead pilot in LB and the one in Plan 9 from Outer Space; the alien abductions, the half-assed curiosity, the goody-two-shoes wife….
    maybe it’s the sancerre talking…

  • VKW

    “He didn’t want to read the paper, even knowing a new one had flopped up onto the porch before dawn.”
    Maybe this isn’t as true as it used to be, but weren’t papers in the past often delivered by young boys? Perhaps Mr. Steele is fortunate enough to have a paperboy not worthy of salvation.
    Again, the thought that people simply shrug off the loss of their children and put their nose back to the grindstone is ludicrous.

  • Maugham

    Has anybody noted the irony of L&J believing so stronging in the End Times yet signing long term book deals for an ongoing series?

  • Robert

    Once again it’s the self-centeredness of these characters I find inexplicable. No curiousity, no empathy, no introspection. Each and every one of them is a fully-fledged sociopath.
    Because if you weren’t wracked with grief wouldn’t you want to know what the situation is? Maybe there’s been some progress? Maybe some of the vanished have even returned? How could you not grab hold of every piece of information coming your way looking for clues?
    But not Lance Strongchest. He’s already figured the whole thing out. God forbid anyone interrupt him during his research by needing sympathy or help or anything. Wanker.

  • buckets

    Steele’s disinterest in the paper is an appropriate detail from the ‘long-dark-night-of-the-soul’ angle.
    But it’s a bit wrong in context. Steele’s wife and child are missing–part of a great mass disappearance. This was an important story; maybe there was news.
    Far from not caring about the paper, any human character would be lying awake all night waiting for that ‘thump’, racing to get it, combing every word for a clue, and then slipping into a depressive stupor until the next news cycle began.

  • jean

    And shouldn’t he be at least a little concerned about his (sinner) daughter who is trying to make her way across the country to him? Who, as far as he knows, can’t fly home since every airport in the country is buried in crashed planes… as far as he knows. You think he’d be ON THE PHONE. *snort* Nope. Beloved Daughter is on her own, while he reads the red parts in his wife’s Bible. What a lovely, caring Dad.

  • pharoute

    If writers write what they know and all works are semi-autobiograpical can we assume that L&J’s conversion was this nonchalant and mundane? Where’s the searing blinding light of God? Where’s the scales falling from the eyes?? The realization that in this unfathomably huge universe that indeed this lonely sinner is beloved of God? That unconditional love really means unconditional?? Are their readers going “Yup I accepted God and it was like a giant Clapper “CLAP CLAP” turned on the lights. Then we had a really great potluck after service”

  • pepperjackcandy

    He didn’t want to read the paper, even knowing a new one had flopped up onto the porch before dawn.
    Hallelujah! We’re definitely in the end times now. The sun turns red and the moon turns black (or is it the sun turns black and the moon turns red?) and newspapers deliver themselves!

  • Mabus

    Maugham, I believe in the End Times, in a manner of speaking. Yet I would sign a long-term book deal if I could get one. Of course, my church doesn’t (usually) teach that the End Times are coming soon, just that they’re coming, but I’m under the impression that L&J think we may have another 40 or 50 years. That’s not long on the cosmic scale, but it’s long enough to enjoy your money, get old, and (if you’re already middle-aged, as they are) die.

  • Scott

    Lance Strongchest
    Chuck McLargehuge
    Slab Hardcheese
    Butch Deadlift
    Bolt Bigflank
    Splint Chesthair
    Flint Ironstag
    Bulk Vanderhuge
    Thick McRunfast
    Blast Hardcheese
    Buff Drinklotz
    Slab Hunk
    Trunk Slamchest
    Fist Rothbone
    Stump Beefknob
    Smash Lampjaw
    Punch Rockgroin
    Buck Plankchest
    Stump Chunkman
    Dirk Hardpec
    Rip Steakface
    Crud Bonemeal
    Brick Hardmeat
    Rip Slabcheek
    Punch Sideiron
    Gristle McThornbody
    Slate Fistcrunch
    Buff Hardback
    Bob Johnson
    Blast Thickneck
    Crunch Buttsteak
    Slab Squatthrust
    Lump Beefbroth
    A Big Brave Brick O’ Meat
    Touch Rustrod
    Beef Blastbody
    Big McLargehuge
    Smoke Manmuscle
    Beat Muchbeef
    Hank Blowfist
    Roll Fizzlebeef
    “Ol’ Chunkhead”

  • Brian C.B.

    Putting aside the conversion experience, which entails effectively admitting that there is a part of yourself you cannot control and therefore you must trust some other thing to control it, which is deeply personal and unconnected to external events, which means it’s really not core plot of the whole LB thing, no matter how much LaHaye tries to make it so, there is a bigger question about the rapture. It’s of course:
    What about the sex?
    It would seem that a God who stripped fetuses from the wombs of pregnant women, and children from the globe would make contraception unecessary. This change would make most people really sad, because it would mean the end of the human race. I would think that this might be a big topic in the books, right? Of course, even the sad might take advantage of the newer sexual freedom once accorded only those who could purchase temporary or permanent sterility.

  • Steven

    Includes capital letters and punctuation, so you know when sentences begin and end!
    Hey, considering that a lot of the Gospels are written as (IIRC from my 20-years-ago theology course in high school) chiasms, and didn’t have any of those useful capitals and punctuation marks in the original, it’s a useful feature! Really! ;)

  • cjmr

    And since the Old Testament books didn’t even include vowels…

  • none

    LB: “And if the Bible was as old as it seemed […]”
    “Rayford tried to gauge the Bible’s age from the condition of the paper, then gave up and looked at the printing date on the title page. The Bible seemed to be 25 years old.”
    BTW, does any Bible advertise on its cover that the words of Christ are in red?
    Um. Well, I remember back in the 1980’s, there was an abridged Bible called “The Book” that was getting really heavily marketted. Every volume had an “As Seen on TV!” starburst on the cover.

  • Scott

    BTW, does any Bible advertise on its cover that the words of Christ are in red?
    Yes, I’ve seen ones that advertise that. Get thee to a used bookstore.

  • Lila

    “BTW, does any Bible advertise on its cover that the words of Christ are in red?”
    I own one! Dates from the early ’70s IIRC.

  • pharoute

    BTW, does any Bible advertise on its cover that the words of Christ are in red?
    You can even get translations of the Gospels with Jesus’ words in red, pink, gray and black: The Five Gospels by the Jesus Seminar

  • badcatholic

    God. It really IS like porn, like reading a cheesy romance novel. “Rayford inhaled sharply as his fingers brushed across the smooth, creamy pages, lingering on each precious word, drinking in the sight of the powerful, luscious red type. He felt a chill traverse his spine as the words rose to his lips: ‘Whore of Babylon. Oh, baby, yes. More,’ he groaned, tossing his pride aside as the desire grew too strong to ignore.”
    … I feel dirty.

  • Brian C.B.

    Bad Catholic has artfully described what happened when Rayford picked up the New Testament, the Scarlet Letter Edition.

  • MrLefty

    Interesting – someone doesn’t like the Wikipedia entry for Left Behind linking to you, fred – they keep deleting references.

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  • hate

    Home schooling provides a better education, is worse for your child

  • pedal

    I’ve basically been doing nothing to speak of. Basically nothing seems worth thinking about. I feel like a void, but that’s how it is. I’ve just been hanging out doing nothing.