L.B.: King of Kings and Capo di tutti capi

Left Behind, pp. 189-190

The Rev. Bruce Barnes is an odd man. He's twitchy and God-haunted like Hazel Motes in Wise Blood. He says he believes in the "rapture," but we don't see him rejoicing over the salvation of his wife and children. Instead he acts more like God took them and left a ransom note. Now God wants him to proselytize, and he'd better do it if he knows what's good for him.

Barnes has a similar terrified reverence for the dear departed senior pastor, whose former office he leads Rayford and Chloe into for his sales pitch:

"I don't sit at his desk or use his library," the younger man [Barnes] said, "but I do work in here at his conference table."

I kind of understand how Barnes might feel unworthy to sit at the late pastor's desk — whether from self-loathing or from a healthier form of humility. But why avoid the old man's library? Those books contain the gnosis, the secret knowledge that leads to salvation as the senior pastor understood it. Plus they've got all those wonderful dispensational timelines and prophecy checklists. The old guy was enough of an End Times fanatic to have recorded an in-case-of-rapture video, so you know his library contains Ironside's fantastical charts, the complete works of Hal Lindsay, and even Tim LaHaye's own intricately detailed week-by-week accounts of the seven-year Tribulation that apparently started four days ago. If I were convinced, as Bruce Barnes claims to be, that all these books had just been proven right, I would be going through that library and marking the calendar, trying to figure out how many months I had to stockpile bottled water before Wormwood falls from the sky and turns the seas and rivers into blood.

(Barnes' comment here also probably tells us something about one of Left Behind's co-authors. LaHaye was himself a senior pastor and I'm guessing he didn't like the other members of his staff touching his desk or his books while he was away from the big office.)

"I can't imagine God would call me to take over this work," Barnes says, "but if he does, I want to be ready."

"And how will he call you?" Chloe said, a smile playing at her mouth. "By phone?"

Barnes didn't respond in kind. "To tell you the truth, it wouldn't surprise me. I don't know about you, but he got my attention last week. A phone call from heaven would have been less traumatic."

Chloe raised her eyebrows, apparently in surrender to his point.

It's probable that Bruce meant to say "dramatic" there, rather than "traumatic," but let's not dwell too long on choosing the right word, since it's clear that Jerry Jenkins never did.

The odd thing here is that Chloe seems utterly unfamiliar with the idea of being "called" to ministry. This is particularly odd when you consider that Chloe's mother, Irene, was a devout and vocal evangelical Christian, and that Chloe herself attended church regularly until she was a teenager. At most evangelical churches, even young children are taught to respect and to hope for a calling to "full-time Christian ministry." But It's unthinkable that one could attend any church for more than a few months without becoming acquainted with the term "calling."

This term and this idea aren't purely religious esoterica, either. They're part of Western culture. The idea that every person, including the laity, has a calling was a central theme of the Reformation and has helped to shape the culture of those nations — including this one — with roots in Protestant Christianity. In other words, if Chloe somehow managed to avoid hearing the term during all her years in church and the rest of her daily life, she certainly should have encountered it at Stanford when she had to read Durkheim or Weber, or even in freshman Intro to Western Civ.

This is an example of the kind of creepy, subcultural weirdness that pervades LB and so much of the other entertainments — from "Contemporary Christian music" to those awful direct-to-DVD "Christian" movies — produced by and for evangelicals. The people producing these products have little sense or understanding of the larger culture and its relationship with their symbiotic subculture. They take for granted that every reader/listener will comprehend the coded jargon particular to the subculture, which tends not to be the case. At the same time, they assume that all outsiders are completely ignorant of many of the aspects of their faith that are held far more broadly than just within their subculture.

It's also yet another example of the characters in LB contradicting L&J's explicit characterization of them. Chloe, they tell us, is sharp-witted and clever, but that's not how she comes across here.

Barnes won't be deterred. He saw what God did to his wife and kids, and to all of his coworkers, and he knows the Big Guy means business. So Barnes cuts right to the business himself:

"I don't want to be rude, but I don't want you to be either. I asked for a few moments of your time. If I still have it, I want to try to make use of it. Then I'll leave you alone. You can do anything you want with what I tell you. Tell me I'm crazy, tell me I'm self-serving. Leave and never come back. That's up to you. But can I have the floor for a few minutes?"

There's an urgency here, but it seems more the urgency of fear than of love. Barnes' concern is less for the fate of the Steeles' immortal souls than it is for his own fate if he should fail to discharge his duty to present the Big Guy's message. This reminds me again of Annie Dillard's account of her encounter with another of the Big Guy's messengers, a woman whose doorbell she rang asking for permission to cross her property along Tinker Creek. This is from Dillard's Teaching a Stone To Talk:

The woman was very nervous. She was dark, pretty, hard, with the same trembling lashes as the boy. She wore a black dress and one brush roller in the front of her hair. She did not ask me in.

My explanation of myself confused her, but she gave permission. Yes, I could walk their property. … She did not let me go; she was worried about something else. She worked her hands. I waited on the other side of the screen door until she came out with it:

"Do you know the Lord as your personal savior?"

My heart went out to her. No wonder she had been so nervous. She must have to ask this of everyone, absolutely everyone, she meets. That is Christian witness. It makes sense, given its premises. I wanted to make her as happy as possible, reward her courage, and run.

She was stunned that I knew the Lord, and clearly uncertain whether we were referring to the same third party. But she had done her bit, bumped over the hump, and now she could relax.

Like Barnes, this woman was scared. Her fear also was not driven by concern for the soul of her target, but by the consequences she might meet if she failed to carry out her duty in this encounter. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," Proverbs says, but this kind of quivering, flinching, dog-that's-been-beat-too-much fearfulness is not what Solomon had in mind. This woman, like Barnes, acts less like she's dealing with God than like she's dealing with the Godfather.

Maybe Barnes/Jenkins used the right word after all. For them, dealing with God really does seem to be traumatic.

  • J

    “In the same vein, when a fundamentalist encounters an atheist who was raised Christian, it is more convenient to think he/she is rebelling against God rather than discounting the whole concept.”
    Ooh, I’ve almost been waiting for someone to point this out. There are about 10 big and annoying assumptions we atheists (or at least, me personally) have to hack through lie so much rhetorical underbrush:
    1.) “You’re just an atheist because you had an absent and/or bad relationship with your father.”
    Ugh. Of all the nakedly paternalistic, bastardized-Freudian, excrescent psychologizing, this is the worst. My dad was always there for me and we always had a great relationship. I don’t think I ever remember arguing with him about anything we couldn’t hug and make up for three hours later. If anyone is open to charges of beliefs based on absent fathers, it is Christians, Christians, Christians.
    2.) “You must be gay.”
    I am not gay. I don’t even know where to start with this one. It’s just the saran-wrapping together of all the concepts Christians hate, such that the logic surely MUST work fowards and backwards: “People who don’t believe in God must hate God”, “God hates gays”, therefore, “People who hate God are gay.”
    3.) “You must be a professor.”
    Good old-fashioned American anti-intellectualism on parade here. No, I am not a professor.
    4.) “You must have become an atheist after reading Nieztsche.”
    Yes, I know, “God is dead” blah, blah, blah. I’ve never read a book by Nieztsche. I doubt I ever will.
    5.) “You must be a communist.”
    Surely if I don’t believe in Christianity, I must believe in some other deeply oppressive and anti-human system, right? Or else, “All communists are atheists; therefore all atheists are communists.”
    Needless to say, no actually, I’m not. I own stocks and bonds. I like the idea of being rich, although I have the personal equanimity to know that I probably won’t ever be.
    6.) “Don’t you believe in love?”
    Uh yes, I do. What does that have to do with god? And to answer the tiresome rejoinder, “Well you can’t PROVE the existence of love, so why don’t you just say it doesn’t exist?” I answer, “I never said I only believe in what I can prove. Here’s the rub: I have felt love many times. I have never felt the presence of god.”
    Yeah and I’m sure someone will say, “But love is god!” Except that I don’t think it is.
    7.) “You must be a relativist.”
    No, I have very firm ideas about the existence and character of good and evil, freedom and thank you very much. The fact that you may not like my values does not make them relative.
    8.) “My faith is good enough for the impoverished people of XXX country, why shouldn’t it be good enough for you?”
    This one is clever, I’ve got to admit. But I think they’re mistaking me for a post-modern rather than a classical liberal. I do not accept the idea that because people are poor, they therefore have a better handle on life than those who are not. Yeah, that’s smart: Let’s base our worldview on that of the poorest and most violent people on earth.
    9.) “You must be into drugs.”
    I’m not into drugs.

  • J

    Oh and I forgot #10:
    10.) “Why do you hate America?”

  • Scott

    “You must be a relativist.”
    Funny thing is that this is the same crowd that defends the genocidal takeover of Caanan in the OT. You see, God’s chosen can commit genocide because the Caananites are in rebellion against God. You can tell they’re in rebellion because they’re killing their own children. Therefore, God’s chosen (Israel then, presumably Christians now) can kill all of them, including those very children.
    So you see, the believers in God’s Moral Absolutes think it is OK for them to kill Caananite children because Caananite children were being killed by someone else who didn’t have permission. It’s OK for us because it’s wrong for them.
    Yet you’re the relativist.

  • Bugmaster

    next to Kirk Cameron’s Buck.
    Aw, but it’s all about Nicolae Carpathia ! His acting in the first movie was great. Sure, it’s only great in comparison to everyone else in that movie, but still. The final UN-mesmerizing scene is the only one worth watching in the whole movie.

  • aunursa

    J,
    You should see the top ten reasons why Jews reject Jesus (according to Christian missionaries):
    1. Our families would disown us.
    2. We’re ignorant of our own Scriptures.
    3. We’re taught to reject Christian theology.
    4. We’re expecting a messiah who will be a military leader.
    5. Our minds are closed due to historical Christian persecution.
    6. We’re too stubborn to admit we’re wrong.
    7. God has punished us with spiritual blindness.
    8. We don’t want to admit that we’re sinners.
    9. Rabbis are trained to reject a priori Jesus’ messianic candidacy.
    10. Our rejection is a fulfillment of New Testament prophecy.

  • pepperjackcandy

    It’s probable that Bruce meant to say “dramatic” there, rather than “traumatic,” but let’s not dwell too long on choosing the right word, since it’s clear that Jerry Jenkins never did.
    Sounds to me like a Freudian slip on Jenkins’s part.

  • http://customerservant.com/?p=250 customerservant.com

    Comprehensive Review And Critique Of Left Behind

    Fred Clark of The Slacktivistcomprehensive review of the first book in the Left Behind series, Left Behind.
    Hes taking it page by page, and the series usually gets posted on a weekly basis.
    Give it a read if youre interested, especially i…

  • The Old Maid

    Thoughts:
    1. “The fear of the Lord” as a deterrent. This usage suggests that if someone can evade human law and human detection, it might remind him that there is still One who sees, and knows. Obviously this doesn’t deter everyone (“There was a corrupt judge who neither feared God nor regarded man …), but if someone has a spark of conscience, this “fear” might nurse that flame of the spirit back to life.
    2. “The fear of the Lord” as “awe.” Psalm 24 has a lot of this. (“When I consider the stars of the heavens and Thy manifold works, what is man that Thou are mindful of him?” etc.
    3. They don’t look like this kind.
    “Fear is the original sin. Almost all the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that someone is afraid of something. It is a cold, slimy serpent coiled about you. It is horrible to live with fear; and it is above all degrading.
    –Lucy Maud Montgomery

  • Ray

    What’s the difference between 1 and 3?

  • The Old Maid

    I don’t know the people here well yet, so I can’t tell if you’re joking with me. So I’ll just say I don’t see how the “fear” that gives our conscience a backbone … could ever be mistaken for the “sin of fear” that crushes conscience, all too often becomes a weapon, used to isolate, dominate, abuse, break.

  • Ray

    I’m not joking. Both 1 and 3 seem to be cases where fear is used to scare people into acting a certain way. In both cases, people are scared that there is someone watching everything they do, and that the watcher will punish them if they do the wrong thing. You don’t think the fear of eternal damnation can be ‘type 3′ fear?

  • The Old Maid

    Fear (as opposed to awe) is not merely a Christian issue, or a monotheist issue (ex. Judaism) or a religious issue (ex. Hindu). It is a human issue. I’ve yet to meet an agnostic or atheist who would see no appreciable difference between “I would never embezzle from the Alzheimer’s patient/beat my wife and children, because I fear what could become of me if I do,” versus “I will embezzle from the Alzheimer’s patient/beat my wife and kids because I fear what could happen if I don’t.”
    And unless I am very much mistaken, this site has spent much of its existence trying to establish this distinction.

  • Ray

    So fear is type 1 if the results (for other people) are good, but type 3 if the results (for other people) are bad, even though the actions in each case are motivated by the same fear that someone is watching and will punish you for not acting? The fear of hell and damnation that makes you give to charity is different in some way to the fear of hell and damnation that makes you persecute gays?

  • Beth

    I think the distinction The Old Maid is making can be found in the Book of Job. Job, like his friends, “fears” God, not only in the sense of respecting him, but also in the sense of knowing that God can squash him like bug. At the same time, there’s a clear difference between the way Job fears God and the way his friends do. The friends’ response to God’s treatment of Job reminds me of the guy in the Pirhana Brothers sketch. “Yeah, ok, maybe God did nail Job’s head to the floor,” they seem to be saying, “but He had a very good reason for it. No, He didn’t tell us what that reason was, but God’s a great guy, and He’d never have nailed Job’s head to the floor if Job didn’t deserve it.”
    Job, on the other hand, just doesn’t see the justice here and isn’t afraid to say so. He wants an accounting from God, and he’s not going to rest until he gets it. Now God could have responded by saying, “You think you’re suffering Job? Just keep on complaining, and I’ll show you what suffering really is,” but he didn’t. Instead he described the vastness of his power and knowledge, awing Job with the vast difference between them. The result is that Job recognizes God’s immense natural authority and backs down, not out of fear, but out of respect. In the end, God not only rewards Job by returning him to his former glory and then some, he upbraids Job’s friends for their toadying ways.
    Job and his friends both feared God, but Job’s fear never caused him to abandon his own sense of decency and justice, while his friends’ fear did. I think that is the essential difference between 1 and 3. It’s the difference, as Fred’s title suggested, between the King of Kings and the Capo di tutti capi.

  • Ray

    I think what happened there is that God took him aside and said “Stop fearing, start respecting”. The little chat moved Job from 1 (or 3) to 2. If God had said instead “Think what you like – just remember I can see everything you do, I know everything you think, I _am_ taking notes, and I _will_ punish you if you do wrong”, well, that’s exactly the kind of fear specified in (1). And if God had reacted like that – or not reacted at all to Job’s complaints – then it was Job’s place to just knuckle down and accept God’s plan for him. To say, in effect, “God’s a great guy, and he wouldn’t have nailed my head to the floor if it wasn’t for some good reason.”
    (I mean, didn’t this just come up a few weeks ago, when discussing ministry to the sick? The proper Christian response is not to tell God that if he thinks this is appropriate behaviour then he can fuck right off, but to suck it up and accept that God has his reasons, right?)

  • J

    “Job, on the other hand, just doesn’t see the justice here and isn’t afraid to say so. He wants an accounting from God, and he’s not going to rest until he gets it. Now God could have responded by saying, “You think you’re suffering Job? Just keep on complaining, and I’ll show you what suffering really is,” but he didn’t. Instead he described the vastness of his power and knowledge, awing Job with the vast difference between them. The result is that Job recognizes God’s immense natural authority and backs down . . .”
    I’m glad you’ve convinced yourself that this makes moral sense (or any sense), Beth, but you ain’t convincing me. God still doesn’t answer the question: why did YOU, yes YOU-TAPDANCING-YOU Jehovah, kill my children? What PURPOSE did it serve? What’s more, why exactly do you deserve PRAISE from me for doing this?
    I don’t particularly give a shit if god is wise, powerful, knowledgeable, or very, very different from me. Compared to my grandmother with dementia, I am wise, powerful, knowledgeable. That status nevertheless affords me NO more rights over her than I would otherwise have.
    Everyone gets all weepy and choked-up about the Book of Job. “It changed my life” or “It explains so much”. Bullshit. It explains nothing. It contains no meaning. It reveals a god so incoherent and clumsy as to vitiate any purpose in belief.

  • Erick Oppeen

    I would actually have to say that the word “traumatic” as used in the quote from LB was quite apposite.
    I’m not the warmest, most loving person in the world (and the _Titanic_ had problems with water getting into the hull), but losing all my relatives and friends in one swell foop, without a smidgen of warning, would strike me as traumatic.

  • Keith T.

    J:
    And then there’s the circular-logic FUD launched against athiests by the same groups:
    1. You are immoral if you do not believe in God, because God *is* morality.
    2. You will go to Hell, because only those who accept Jesus go to heaven.
    3. Your life will be filled with pain and misery because you will not have God to guide you through life.
    For an athiest to accept any of these arguments would require the athiest *to believe in God*. It’s as if the common devout Xtian not only cannot accept the idea of athiesm, but is utterly unable to visualize the very concept: that there *is* no God or gods, at all, anywhere, at any time, ever.

  • Keith T.

    Grr. That’s atheist and atheism, of course. Damn those dogmatic elementary school spelling classes.

  • Keith T.

    Also, for more on God (esp. OT God) as a mafioso, read “Ken’s Guide to the Bible”, where he repeatedly makes the same comparison based on the retributory plagues and extortions of the Exodus and later Pentateuch, the family-member-killings of the stories of the Kings of Israel, and various acts during the battles in the stories of the Prophets.

  • Beth

    I’m glad you’ve convinced yourself that this makes moral sense (or any sense), Beth, but you ain’t convincing me.
    What is it you think I’ve convinced myself of?
    God still doesn’t answer the question
    Right. It’s not a comforting fairy tale that ties everything up with a neat little bow. Not only does God never tell Job the answer, we, the audience, never learn the answer either. We know the events leading up to Job’s torment, but they don’t really tell us why God behaved as he did. Were his conversations with the Opponent part of some cosmic struggle, or was just a divine ego trip? Was there a meaning behind that terrible test or was God just showing off? We’re never told. The Book of Job doesn’t give us an answer to why people suffer; it takes one away. It shows us the fallacy of thinking that “God’s justice” is simple and comprehensible. For those who believe in a just God, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone deserves what they get. If we’re rich, it must be because God rewarded us, so we don’t have to worry about sharing our good fortune. If someone else is poor, it’s because they’re a bad person, so we needn’t lift a finger to help. The story of Job says that things aren’t that simple. It reminds us of how little we know as a way of encouraging us to be a little more compassionate and a little less judgemental with each other.
    Job also provides an interesting twist on the old “faith and doubt” narrative, in which unquestioning devotion is rewarded, and any hint of rebellion is punished. If LaHaye and Jenkins had written the story, it probably would have ended with Job’s friends being lifted up to heaven, and Job being left behind, cursing himself for having stubbornly refused to take their good advice. Instead, God not only rewards the critical, questioning Job, He requires those smug, self-righteous friends to humble themselves before him.
    Compared to my grandmother with dementia, I am wise, powerful, knowledgeable. That status nevertheless affords me NO more rights over her than I would otherwise have.
    That’s not necessarily true. As a result of your grandmother’s dementia, you could potentially become her legal guardian, which would give you significant rights over her. It’s a poor analogy anyway. A closer comparison would be with you and your dog. What if your dog demanded to know why you take it to visit a strange, scary man who pokes it with sharp objects? Being a dog, it can’t really understand concepts like “vet” and “injection”, much less conceive of the existence of microscopic organisms or comprehend even the basics of modern medicine. So what can you really tell it except, “You wouldn’t understand”?
    It explains nothing. It contains no meaning.
    That’s an awfully arrogant statement. Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have meaning or value for others. Personally, I prefer stories that get me thinking, that don’t impose a simplistic conclusions, but encourage us to consider and explore the subtle complexities of the issues it raises You might be more comfortable with something like Aesop’s Fables, where each story has a simple, clear message, and even provides a ‘moral’ at the end.

  • none

    **Well, in The God Who Wasn’t There, you have a narrator who tries to paint all Christians as totally ignorant of science and alternate mythologies. He does this man-on-the-street thing where he asks people “Have you ever heard of this or that other Pagan God who’s similar to Jesus? Osiris, Dionysus, Mithras?” Names that are at least partially well known throughout the classically educated world. And they all say, “No, no, never heard of them. They’re not Jesus, so, who cares?” I forget what else he asked them, but it all seemed to revolve around an implied claim that Christians can’t see past their own Bibles and don’t know a damn thing about the rest of the planet. But what do you expect from people who believe in imaginary beings, ho ho ho, aren’t I funny?**
    Sorry, but I see it as, not “youse Christians are ignorant, I can name gods you don’t know” but as “here’s a list of other gods, why do you not believe in them? what is the diff between yers & others?”
    but I didn’t see the movie, so I dunno.
    but what IS the diff?
    **Much later, talking about Job
    Job, on the other hand, just doesn’t see the justice here and isn’t afraid to say so. He wants an accounting from God, and he’s not going to rest until he gets it. Now God could have responded by saying, “You think you’re suffering Job? Just keep on complaining, and I’ll show you what suffering really is,” but he didn’t. Instead he described the vastness of his power and knowledge, awing Job with the vast difference between them. The result is that Job recognizes God’s immense natural authority and backs down, not out of fear, but out of respect. In the end, God not only rewards Job by returning him to his former glory and then some, he upbraids Job’s friends for their toadying ways.**
    But y’know, I never bought Job’s knuckling under. Job was admirable when he was asking God “What the fuck did I do? What is your hairy God problem?!” Hell, even God appreciated it more than his pals’ “it musta been yer fault!” And apparently God just has to say “I made everything! Even the Pleiades! I am SO powerful and important! And you have the nerve to object to my treatment of you?!!” and Job says “oh, yeah, I can’t make stars and I ain’t the whirlwind so whatever you want to do to me for whatever reason is okay.” Bullshit. Job had good reason to bitch, he bitched well, and he was smacked down by a vengeful god. Trying to explain this REALLY IS exactly like trying to explain why it’s okay for Joe to beat up his wife.
    And exactly what kind of family friendly god IS this, anyway? God kills everyone in Job’s family and apparently it’s all okay, Job gets NEW children! He doesn’t need or care about those old dead kids, so long as he has someone to do the work when he gets too old!
    Honestly, the Bible needs a Fred to fisk it.

  • Ray

    Yeah – good idea! We all know Left Behind is a crap book, but how about Fred goes through the Bible, book by book, pointing out the inconsistencies, bad moral lessons, and cardboard characters?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X