Left Behind, pp. 123-126
Somewhere near where you live is a restaurant you've probably never eaten at. It's heyday was decades ago, before the original owner sold the place. The subsequent owners have preserved the decor, the menu, the name — but they all seem to be lacking whatever it was that originally made them special. The place endures, though. The location is great, and tt's still kind of an institution in the neighborhood. People still have banquets and weddings there because that's where people in the neighborhood go for that kind of thing. But unless it's for a banquet or a wedding, nobody under 60 ever seems to set foot in the place. And, like much of its graying clientele, the restaurant seems to be on its last legs.
Somewhere near where you live is a church that's just like that restaurant.
I've visited churches like that. And I've been to churches that seemed spiritually comatose, places that, as St. Paul wrote, hold to the outward form of godliness, but deny its power. But I've never seen one that was totally dead. Try as we might to deny it, those outward forms still have a power of their own. And while the hearth of these churches may have grown cold and dark, some members still carry a spark or a flame. And the place still usually carries some residual warmth from generations past, or from the Korean or Haitian congregation that rents out the fellowship hall in the afternoons.
I've certainly never seen any church in real life that fits LaHaye and Jenkins' description of the House of the Dead that Rayford Steele and his family attended before Irene switched to the End-Times-obsessed New Hope Village Church.
In thumbing through his dead/raptured wife's Bible, Rayford comes across the inscription he had written in the front:
He had given the Bible to Irene on their first wedding anniversary. How could he have forgotten, and what had he been thinking? She was no more devout than he was back then, but she had talked about wanting to get serious about church attendance before the children came along. He had been angling for something or trying to impress her. … Maybe he was hoping she would let him off the hook and go to church by herself if he proved his spiritual sensitivity with this gift.
This is an odd detail, but one that rings strangely true — just not for the reasons that Rayford/L&J describe here. Yes, the first is the "paper anniversary" — so giving Irene a book as part of his present makes sense. But a Bible? Not a terribly romantic gift for newlyweds.
It fits, though, with the Madonna/Whore Complex that Rayford shares with his creators. He couldn't sully the pure and chaste Irene with a nice edition of the Kama Sutra or even something like Sonnets from the Portuguese. Those are the sorts of dirty pretty things Rayford would give to his mistress, not to his wife. So he gives her a Bible for their anniversary, and he has dinner alone with pretty young flight attendants when he travels, and he doesn't consider it really cheating if he has a "necking session" with some other woman.
Eventually, the Steeles did being attending a church, one that seemed to be little more than a restaurant in a good location:
For years he had tolerated church. They had gone to one that demanded little and offered a lot. They made many friends and had found their doctor, dentist, insurance man and even country club entree in that church. Rayford was revered, proudly introduced as a 747 captain to newcomers and guests, and even served on the church board for several years.
No, he didn't. This just isn't possible. Attending even a culture-bound, bourgeois, country-club church would have meant attaining a familiarity with at least the "outward form" of Christianity. It's possible for Rayford to have attended such a church and to have served on its board as a hypocrite who didn't really believe any of it. But to be a hypocrite he would have had to pretend to be something he was not. Pretending to be a "revered," prominent member of the church board would have required Rayford to learn to fake the local language and customs. He would have been asked to pray in public (probably in stilted, King James language).
He couldn't have done all that for years and still be baffled by a simple benediction like, "The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all. Amen." L&J describe Rayford as mystified by this basic outward form of godliness. But if he had really attended such a church and served on its board, he would surely have had to utter these very words himself, in public, with an air of devotion. He cannot be both a naif and a hypocrite.
It's also curious that this church, which L&J present as spiritually dead, still manages to draw "newcomers and guests." The reason they take such pains to describe this hypocritical, dead church is to contrast it with the vibrant, genuine faith of New Hope Village. This is in keeping with one of the book's central themes: playing God by separating the wheat from the tares; declaring who is and who isn't going to be "left behind" and therefore who is and isn't a Real True Christian.
When Irene discovered the Christian radio station and what she called "real preaching and teaching," she grew disenchanted with their church and began searching for a new one. … She found one, and he tried it occasionally, but it was a little too literal and personal and challenging for him. He was not revered. He felt like a project. And he pretty much stayed away. …
Irene's new church was interested in the salvation of souls, something he'd never heard in the previous church.
Rayford finds last week's bulletin from this church in Irene's Bible: "He pulled the bulletin from Irene's Bible and circled the phone number. Later that day, after he checked in with Pan-Continental, he would call the church office."
This contrast of the two churches — old and new, false and true — was probably suggested by the passage from St. Paul quoted above.
This passage is a favorite of "last days" obsessed folks like L&J because it comes from a section, 2 Timothy chapter 3, that begins "You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come." They like to quote from the conclusion of this little rant, in which Paul describes the false believers of the last days as "… lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power." But they tend to skip over the rest of the rant. That first verse is just Paul taking a deep breath before letting loose with this:
For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them!
Gee, Paul, don't hold back so much. Tell us how you really feel.
Paul lets loose like this several times in the Bible. Guy had a temper. Apart from dismissing such breathless rants outright, there are two ways you can read them. The first is to realize that there's something here for everyone. I'm not inclined to be an unholy, abusive, treacherous brute, but there's plenty of other stuff in that list that hits me pretty close to home.
The other option is to read such tirades as wholly directed at Other People. Judgement is never for Us, only for Them. This is one of the main points of LB and indeed of the entire pseudotheological framework of premillennial dispensationalism on which it is based.
This approach — judgement for Thee but not for Me — also helps to account for the current antigay mania of American evangelicalism. In a couple of Paul's other rants, he includes "sodomites" in his bestiaries of badness. Even if we accept, for the sake of argument, the dubious assumption that Paul misunderstood the story of Sodom, and therefore used this as a synonym for "homosexuals," it doesn't follow that "homosexuals are bad" is the main lesson that heterosexuals should be gleaning from such passages. But if you read such passages looking for any excuse to exempt yourself from the apostle's condemnation, this offers an ideal escape hatch. Preaching against self-love, ingratitude, love of money or love of pleasure can be a two-edged sword. But if you're heterosexual, and you're preaching against homosexuality, then you're safe. You've found the ideal target for self-exempting, self-justifying self-righteousness.
Judgment is for Other People.