»

L.B.: Everybody loves Rayford

Left Behind, pp. 129-133

We left Buck Williams outside of the offices of "Global Weekly," somewhere in midtown Manhattan, miles and miles from midtown Manhattan.

Buck heads inside and meets up with his friends and colleagues for the first time since one third of the world's people disappeared and hundreds of thousands more were killed in various catastrophes involving planes, trains and automobiles. Since that event, Buck had been on his own, but:

He was with people who cared about him. This was his family. He was really, really glad to see them, and it appeared the feeling was mutual.

That second "really" is what sets Jerry Jenkins apart as a novelist. Passages like this make one grateful that he is sharing this gift with others. You, too, can sign up for his "Christian Writers Guild" and you can learn to be a really, really good writer.

They cheered when they saw Buck. These people, the ones he had worked with, fought with, irritated and scooped, now seemed genuinely glad to see him. They could have no idea how he felt. …

These folks have all just experienced the same world-altering 36 hours that Buck did, so you'd think they actually would have an idea of how he felt. We readers, however, can't be sure what is going through Buck's mind as he: "… began to sob, right there in front of his colleagues and competitors."

There ought to be more of this happening in this book, more spontaneous emotional meltdowns. Few lives would be untouched by the disappearances and the ensuing disasters. All the children are gone, all 1.3 billion of them. That means at least that many grieving parents. Most of the planet, at this point, is probably coping with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Random bouts of sobbing should be the new normal.

"It's all right, Bucky," one said. "If this is your first cry, you'll discover it won't be your last. We're all just as scared and stunned and grief-stricken as you are."

That's kind of nice — a humanizing touch for a character who has, so far, showed scarcely a glimmer of human response to the suffering, loss and mayhem around him.

But who was that speaking? One of Buck's nameless, faceless coworkers — the people who cheered when he walked in. There's something a bit creepy about the chorus roles in this book. They surround Buck, offer him cheer, seem genuinely interested in how he is doing and what he has been through. He never reciprocates this concern, and they never seem surprised by that. It's like they know they're just extras and he's the protagonist.

The same odd dynamic is at work on the next page, as Rayford checks in with the office:

Rayford talked himself into calling the Pan-Con Flight Center early in the afternoon. He learned that he was to report in for a Friday flight two days later. "Really?" he said.

"Don't count on actually flying it," he was told. "Not too many flights are expected to be lifting off by then. Certainly none till late tomorrow, and maybe not even then."

If Friday is two days later, then it must be Wednesday, which means, I think, that the disappearances must've occurred late Monday/early Tuesday (depending on timezone). So we finally know what day it is, if not what month.

Another thing we don't know is who it is that Rayford is talking to on the phone. Passive constructions like "he was told" don't even allow us to figure out this person's gender for another two pages (when Rayford hears that "he was tapping computer keys").

But we did learn that a very few commercial flights have been flying again. You know how it is after a big disaster involving multiple crashes closes all the airports. The FAA keeps just about everyone grounded except for private jets for journalists, commercial flights for Stanford students, and members of the bin Laden family. (See, for instance, Snopes' mea culpa.)

The nameless Pan-Con voice helpfully tracks down the travel itinerary of Rayford's daughter Chloe, who apparently took a bus from Palo Alto and is flying home via Salt Lake City, Enid, Okla., and Springfield, Ill.

Rayford asks Peripheral Chorus Guy when he'll be getting back home if his scheduled flight does take off:

"Saturday night."

"Good."

"Why? Got a date?"

"Not funny."

"Oh, gosh, I'm sorry, Captain. I forgot who I was talking to."

"You know about my family?"

"Everybody here knows, sir."

PCG must also have a family. Every parent in the entire company has lost their children. And dozens of Pan Continental jets have crashed, taking the lives of pilots and crew. But somehow it is Rayford's loss that is the talk of the office.

"Everybody knows," and everybody cares, about Rayford. They know that he lost his wife — the same wife he couldn't stand to be around, the one he blew off to hit on young flight attendants — and they regard his loss as somehow more special, more important than their own. It's not just that these people are undeveloped extras in the background of somebody else's story — it's that they know they're merely extras in the background, and they enthusiastically embrace this status.

We could just file this under Bad Writing, but it's more than that. The self-centered, sociopathic lack of empathy displayed by Rayford and Buck is held up as model behavior. By implicit example, and sometimes more explicitly, this book is trying to teach its readers that Other People do not matter.

One common riff used by evangelical speakers involves John 3:16 — the verse made famous by Bannerman. As a reminder of God's love for each of us, the speaker will quote that verse as a fill-in-the-blank, urging the audience to insert their own name: "For God so loved [your name here] that he gave his only begotten son, that [your name here] shall not perish but have everlasting life."

This illustration turns the verse into something like the parable of the Lost Sheep ("ninety and nine all safe in the fold"), which is a valid point, but not the point that John's Gospel is making.

John 3:16 says, "God so loved the world," or literally, "the cosmos." It's not a good idea to substitute yourself for the entire cosmos. Part of what this passage is saying is that God loves the world, so you should love it too. That message is lost if you make it all about you.

If it's all about you, then it doesn't really matter what else or who else God loves. God doesn't even really matter that much, except insofar as you get helped out. You're the hero of this story — God is just Peripheral Chorus Guy writ large, just another one of those faceless chorus members cheering when you walk into the room.

Lest you wonder if "sociopathic" is too strong a term for the self-centeredness of our hero Rayford, here's how this chapter of LB ends:

"Well, I'm sorry for what you're going through, sir, but you can be grateful your daughter didn't get on Pan-Con directly out of Palo Alto. The last one out from there went down last night. No survivors."

"And this was after the disappearances?"

"Just last night. Totally unrelated."

"Wouldn't that have been a kick in the teeth?" Rayford said.

"Indeed."

Rayford doesn't ask which one of his fellow Pan-Con pilots was aboard the doomed flight. He doesn't care because it wasn't him or his immediate family. Neither, "indeed," does PCG. They are both just relieved that Rayford and his family are unaffected by this event. It "would have" been a tragedy if Chloe had been on board. But it was just Other People who died. So no harm, no foul.

  • Buck Eschaton

    These books are horrible. Too many similarities to Atlas Shrugged and the Turner Diaries. All dream about mass murder of people they don’t like. Fantasy books about total victory over any and all perceived enemies. The Left Behind books make God into the Satan. I read the last part of Glorious Appearing, a truly horrible book. There is nothing redeemable about it.
    Chronicles of Indestructible Life

  • evagrius

    For those interested in the REAL original eschatology of the early Christians, there’s no better book than “The Hope of the Early Church- A handbook of Patristic Esxhatology” by Brian E. Daley S.J. published by Cambridge University Press and now out in paperback.
    It examines the views of Christian theologians on the “last days” as well as the final judgement, the reality of hell, the entrance into etenal life, salvation, divinization etc; etc; from the first century to Gregory the Great in the sixth century.
    Absolutely no mention of the “rapture” whatsoever in those writers, none, nada, not even in the index.
    Now, I know many evangelicals will simply counter that those Christians were wrong, despite them knowing Scripture just as well or better than evangelicals, ( remember, they spoke Greek and Latin and many knew a bit of Hebrew to boot.
    Of course, the early Christians weren’t right. They had to wait until Darby, ( ignorant of Greek, Latin, Hebrew and the early Patristic writers), came along to straighten them out. Amazing what results ignorance can bring.

  • ajb

    It’s interesting that the fundigelicals who refuse to believe in biological evolution hold theological beliefs that they admit “evolved” after the earliest Church got it so wrong.

  • emjaybee

    What’s amazing is that this post brilliantly explains the appeal Bush has for fundigelicals (good word!) Rayford and Steele are both incapable of real human emotion or connection. Bush can’t stop his vacation for 20 minutes to talk to a grieving mother–he has to “get on with his life” to go bicycling. They are birds of a feather, aren’t they? No wonder the audience for both is the same.

  • none

    You know, you’ve actually convinced me to pick up a dusty, basement-stored copy of Left Behind that we got from a friend to see how bad it is, Fred.
    It’s actually damn entertaining, and I’d reccomend it to anyone looking for a good laugh. Despite the bad writing, bad plot, and bad characters it’s not too hard to get through–I just picked up where we left off and read through two chapters after it–nine and ten, I think.
    All I can say is I can’t _wait_ until Fred reaches the Chole-Rayford meeting and discussion. That has to be the worst movtivation piece I’ve ever read, and the hypocritical parts of Rayford are downright hilarious when you remember earlier talk…and how normal people would react.

  • MelancholyPlatypus

    Just a quick correction. If you read the Parable of the Lost Sheep carefully, the shepherd doesn’t leave 99 “safe in the fold,” although that’s the way the old hymn wrote it, and has become the most common mental image. In the actual parable, the shepherd leaves the 99 out in the open to go recklessly in search of the lost one. It’s a much more interesting picture that way.