L.B.: Grace and greed

Left Behind, pp. 206-208

Thinking about the evangelistic sales-pitch he has just heard, Rayford sure is sure that he's pretty sure he's interested:

He wanted to remain sensible, yes, analytical. He wanted to study, to pray, to be sure. But wasn't that just insurance? Could he be more sure? … He had found the truth, and Bruce was right.

We return to Rayford and Chloe driving back from the church. Apart from Rayford pestering his daughter to watch the In-Case-of-Rapture video with him, the drive is uneventful. Rayford isn't nervous to be out on the road, he isn't worried about their safety as they travel. He also hasn't been watching the news or reading the papers, yet somehow, in the middle of this tranquil drive, we get this update on what that news he hasn't been watching has been reporting:

The news was full of crime, looting, people taking advantage of the chaos. People were being shot, maimed, raped, killed. The roadways were more dangerous than ever. Emergency units were understaffed, fewer air- and ground-traffic controllers manned the airports, fewer qualified pilots and crews flew the planes.

People checked the graves of loved ones to see if their corpses had disappeared, and unscrupulous types pretended to do the same while looking for valuables that might have been buried with the wealthy. It had become an ugly world overnight …

Ugly everywhere, apparently, except the Chicago suburbs. The rest of the world, according to the news Rayford hasn't seen, is brimming with grave robbers, father stabbers, mother rapers, father rapers and a shortage of qualified transportation personnel. But here in Wheaton there's nothing to interrupt a leisurely drive to and from the church.

We're told about all this debauchery and chaos not because our heroes encounter any of it, but because the authors want us to know that "Rayford was worried about his and Chloe's safety." Because Rayford was desperate to get himself and his daughter saved "before anything happened to them."

That pretty much sums up the golden-ticket understanding of "salvation" that shapes Left Behind's version of Christianity. Rayford is looking to escape Hell — maybe even to escape death like Irene did — and he's hoping Jesus is his magical escape route.

This perspective doesn't leave a lot of room for "Amazing grace … that saved a wretch like me." It doesn't much care if "Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain." That kind of penitence, gratitude and love don't much enter into it. Jesus is just our cosmic rich daddy who pays the bail and hires the lawyers to help us beat the rap.

One of the amazing things about amazing grace, of course, is that such grace is extended to us even when the best that we can do is grab for this kind of get-out-of-jail-free card. That grace covers a multitude of sins — including our inability to feel or express a wholly sincere penitence or gratitude. Forgiveness and grace, by definition, are not deserved — they are offered even when our reasons for seeking them are wholly selfish and greedy.

Here again I wish that LaHaye and Jenkins were trying something more subtle and more complex. I wish they were trying to show us how even the basest motives of selfishness and self-preservation can provide an opening for the grace of God, and how such grace enables us to move beyond this shallow, desperate, greedy salvation-seeking and to grow into a right relationship shaped by love and not just by fear.

But that's not what they're doing here. They have no problem with the idea that salvation (or discipleship or Christianity or human existence in its entirety) is primarily about fear and self-preservation. They're urging their readers, like Rayford, to get saved "before anything happens to them."

My favorite image of God from the Bible occurs throughout the Hebrew scriptures, but is most vividly drawn in the story of the prophet Hosea. That story portrays God as a jilted husband with an unfaithful wife. That would be us, humanity, the "wife of whoredom," in Hosea's phrase. But God, in this story, is infinitely patient and never stops trying to woo us back. This cuckold God is still God, still the Almighty, but all that power isn't the point of this story. A lover longs to be loved — he can woo, but he cannot coerce, because coercion cannot produce the freely given love that he seeks.

Trying to fit the vengeful God of Left Behind into Hosea's metaphor produces a rather disturbing image. This divine lover is an angry husband, and look what we made him do. We brought it on ourselves, after all. But he promises to stop punishing us if we would just learn to do what we're told.

  • Sophist

    The rest of the world, according to the news Rayford hasn’t seen, is brimming with grave robbers, father stabbers, mother rapers, father rapers and a shortage of qualified transportation personnel.
    Peter: Wait, wait, before you go–what’s Heaven like?
    Nate: Oh it’s fine… there’s a shortage of chairs…
    Peter: …oh…
    Nate: Yeah…….
    Also, grave robbing? A significant portion of the population just dissapeared a couple days ago and left all their chattel behind, and people are disintering corpses for their morturary-wax-encrusted Rolex’s?
    Give me a break.

  • The Old Maid

    Their gospel preaches repentance in the name of escaping Tribulation- something Jesus Himself never promised we would be delivered from. If such was the case, and any form of Tribulation struck near does it imply that we are not saved?
    We could ask a dozen people and come up with a dozen answers. Some would be more Book of Job-ish, (maybe a few votes for Amos and Malachi too) but we might also get a few “God sent this natural disaster because the people living there were/are so bad.” I have problems with that last one.
    In Mark some disciples were talking with Jesus about a tower that collapsed and killed a lot of people. In other words, they were discussing the day’s news. The disciples asked Jesus if these people had done something to hasten their deaths. Jesus replied, “Do you think these people were worse sinners than anyone else?” The lesson we were to take away was that anyone can die at any time, whether we are right with God or not. We can’t anticipate the one, but we can be ready for the other.
    I’ve been trying to crystalize my thinking around Greedy Salvation ever since I saw a child proudly say that she was going to be baptized so she could have eternal life last year at my in-laws’ church. It struck me badly, in a “sell your soul for a cookie?” kind of way…
    We might give a free pass to the small child, especially if the child is well cared for. Why shouldn’t a child be proud-delighted at the prospect of eternal life, especially if it includes seeing loved ones again? (Now if the child was showing pride-arrogance, that’d be different.)
    Garrison Keillor commented on his childhood that “we think of the old days as the good old days, more simple. And it’s not true. Life was simple for me, because I was a child and my happiness was looked after.” Naturally a child who loves life is going to respond well to an offer to have more of it. Eternal life only becomes a “sell your soul for a cookie” sort of thing when we should have grown beyond the comfort-food faith, the “milk teeth” stage of faith, when we should have grown “meat teeth” to eat “solid food.” (Consider Esau, who sold his birthright for a meal. Consider the rich young man whom Jesus loved, but who went away sadly rather than “sell all you have, and come follow” Jesus.)
    Did you mean Greedy as in, the conversation reminded you of people who should have outgrown the child’s mindset, or something different?
    People checked the graves of loved ones to see if their corpses had disappeared.
    Did corpses get raptured too? It seems kind of ghoulish, but it would solve the problem of some people in heaven having physical bodies and others not.
    [snip]
    Maybe the Christian insistance on burial is simply a holdover from Judaism. Traditionally, Judaism makes a connection between what’s buried and what’s resurrected (any separated body parts are buried in the same grave, so the resurrected body will be whole), but it also requires decomposition (Jewish law specifies wooden caskets, so nothing will interfere with it).
    My question though, didn’t have to do with resurrection, but rapture. I find the idea of living people being taken bodily up to heaven a little weird to begin with, but the idea of corpses being raptured seems utterly bizarre.
    It could be the authors taking a stand amid so many conflicting views.
    Many Christians argue if we are created in God’s image, after God’s likeness, then there is more to us than the body. I’ve heard it expressed as “I am a spirit (my species; God is spirit and I am created in the image of God). I live in a body (my house). I have a soul (my life-principle).” Now the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, reject that belief. They teach that bodily death is full extinction. When the body dies, so does everything that made you “you.” Your life exists only in God’s memory. So the JWs teach that if you’ve been righteous, God creates someone with your “life pattern” that counts as “you.” (They also believe that Jesus existed first as Michael; then that ceased and he became Jesus; then that ceased and he’s Michael again now. I think.) In the JW position, the wicked simply cease to exist and God doesn’t bring them back, even as a copy.
    Rapturists (and most other Christians, for that matter) strongly reject that interpretation. They teach that there is always a part of “you” that is more than the body. That’s where Paul came in. The Thessalonians believed that Jesus would return almost immediately after they converted. In the meantime people lived their lives. Then people started dying. (Although a lot probably were martyred, others of course would die of disease, traffic accidents, or old age.) The survivors apparently had been exposed to some belief system that made them think that the dead would stay dead when Jesus returned. Death had separated the Thessalonian believers from their loved ones, and they mourned that separation. Paul wrote his letter to reassure them that the righteous dead would indeed see eternity. These verses were adopted by the rapturists to argue the existence of a secret rapture … which ironically would separate families all over again, the opposite of what Paul had told people.
    Where the rapture of corpses comes in is this: the “Second Coming” verses in 1 Corinthians 14 specifically state that the dead will be raised “imperishable” (sometimes translated “Incorruptible”). Unless one adopted the Jehovah’s Witness position — that God’s happy memories of us are the only “imperishable” part of our existence — the average Christian would consider that the body is the only “perishable” or “corruptible” part of one’s being. Therefore the body would be resurrected and transformed at the Second Coming. This is why certain branches of rapturism insist that the dead have to be raised on rapture day: because if they aren’t raised, it doesn’t “count” as a legitimate return of Jesus.
    I.e. in the New Testament it’s very biblical to say that the dead will be resurrected at the Second Coming. It’s the proposal that the dead will be resurrected on a day other than Judgment Day (which is supposed to be the day and the reason for the Second Coming), that’s the problem. (Would Rapture Day be the Second Coming, or the 1.5th Coming? Would Rapture Day be the Second Coming, and Judgment Day be the Third Coming? Since the Bible uses the words “second” but not 1.5 or Third, well …)
    The verses in 1 Thess. 4 and 1 Cor. 14 also make clear that the dead “meet” (there’s that extremely specific word again) Jesus first. Why? Well, Paul phrases it almost as a fairness issue. The dead have been waiting longer, so they get to be first in line. (Something about long-suffering faith.)
    Burial … I remember reading something to the effect that God buried Moses, but God also communicated in Torah that a dead criminal also should be buried quickly. The interpretation was that if the best man in the land was decently buried, and the worst man in the land ought to be decently buried, then burial must be the decent thing to do for everyone in between. So yes, I think that may be an inherited belief from Judaism.
    About people checking the cemetery to see if their loved ones had vanished … I could see this creating more confusion as often as less confusion. Suppose two secular families who each buried a Christian grandmother go to the grave. Grandma is the only Christian they knew well. Will there be different outcomes based on the denominational affiliation of said grandmother? Will one family say, “Well, it can’t be this rapture-thing I’ve heard about. After all, Grandma is still here!”
    The whole invocation of the “Last Trump” makes it sound to me pretty much like the actual Second Coming.
    Verily. People often point out that the L.B. rapture doesn’t look much like the Bible, even in the verses rapturists cite as proof. Assorted verses say that The Last Trumpet will sound, an archangel will shout — but neither of those things happen. The Book of Acts says Jesus will return the way He came — but Jesus was visible, and in the novels Jesus is not visible. The verses in 1 Thess. say that the righteous will “meet” (very, very specific Greek word) Jesus in the air — but that doesn’t happen either. That is, nobody saw Jesus coming, and nobody saw the righteous leaving. Rev. 1:7 says that when Jesus returns “every eye shall see Him” — but rapturists say that will happen later, not on Rapture Day. (So, if “every eye” does not see Jesus, can one say that Jesus did come? Rapturists say Yes.)
    Rapturism argues that it is perfectly permissible — and even doctrinally mandatory — to split the Second Coming into an invisible drive-by (to pick up rapturists on the express elevator), and a different, visible triumphal return seven years later. Obviously this is an interpretation that most Christians do not share.
    What bugs me most about this whole series is that the characters always seem to take everything in perfect stride. There’s very few outbursts of emotion, and those that do happen are relegated to a paragraph or two.
    It might come from the Puritan attitude toward emotion: a leveling of affect that shows distrust for “frivolous” emotions combined with a lack of depth in “profound” emotions. The Puritans believed that the righteous should exercise self-control. However their expression of it could squelch compassion, and it didn’t do much to stifle fear. (The Salem trials come to mind.)
    Also, grave robbing? A significant portion of the population just dissapeared a couple days ago and left all their chattel behind, and people are disintering corpses for their mortuary-wax-encrusted Rolexes?
    It’s certainly possible (don’t a few of the stranger crooks do it now?), but it’s an amateurish mindset. These are not King Tut’s tombs, after all. Most people would be buried with items of sentimental value: a wedding dress, a service uniform, a piece of lace from Grandma, a teddy bear placed into the casket by grandson. Probably the most valuable thing in the casket would be a wedding ring. And in L.B. Land, there are much easier ways to get gold.
    Actually it’s related to the question about the economy. There are at least five massive die-offs, but the economy doesn’t collapse. I remember when the Dow dropped 500+ points in a day due to computerized trading and people were in hysterics. That doesn’t happen (or it doesn’t happen onscreen, or enough, or whatever) in the novels. Far from it: a character hoards over a million dollars in gold to protect himself from an economic collapse that never comes. The protagonists end up pocketing the gold until they find a black marketeer who’ll take it.
    The ghoulish-but-petty grave robbers remind me of a line from the Titus show, something about if a comet hit the earth the first thing he’d do is meditate, “Hm, nobody’s guarding the Lexus dealership.” In contrast, in L.B. the GIRAT Williams gets a luxury SUV. Except that he haggles and buys it. Although this is strange, I can’t say I’d want him to steal it instead.

    Oh, there was a post too?
    Okay. There is such a thing as “prevenient grace” — the grace that “runs ahead of you” to gently help you recognize the right direction when you go looking for it — but Rayford doesn’t wear it well. He presses Chloe hard to accept something he himself hasn’t finished examining yet. Hence the line about studying and analyzing it a little more. (When Chloe wants to do the same i.e. take the time to think it through, it annoys him. Chloe doesn’t just take his word for it, and that angers him.)
    I do wonder why Rayford mentioned that he wanted to pray on it first and then called it “insurance.” It reminds me of the Pharisees (not all of them) who wanted John the Baptist to baptize them, not because they believed/understood the message, but because they were just covering all the bases. There’s just something about calling prayer “insurance” that seems strange. Well, that and he hasn’t actually paid the insurance “premiums” — he’s considering making a claim (through praying on the subject of converting to rapturism) when he doesn’t have a policy yet (i.e. he’s not a rapturist).
    Maybe they just need a better metaphor. This one seems a little circular.

  • Beth

    Thanks for all the good info, Old Maid, and especially for “prevenient grace.” I’ve never heard of it before, but it’s a lovely concept. It sounds kind of like the spiritual equivalent of the artist’s muse.
    Maybe they just need a better metaphor.
    Yes, that one doesn’t work with an absolutist view of salvation (if you do X you get into heaven, otherwise you’re screwed). If Rayford had thought he’d been a good enough person that works alone could probably get him in, an insurance prayer would have made sense, sort of like answering the extra credit question on a quiz, just in case you’d screwed up some of the other answers.* But since Rayford’s read the back cover, he should know that until he accepts Jesus Christ as his personal lord and savior — or whatever the formula is — no amount of praying is going to do the least bit of good.
    *Actually, Judaism has something like that. A popular belief is that all decent people get to the Kingdom of God eventually, but most spend at least some time in torment to atone for their misdeeds. Your loved ones can reduce that time by praying for you after you die. Praying for a year will win pardon for even the worst sinner. Traditionally, Jews pray for the full year for everyone. They may have seemed like wonderful people, but you can never be sure, so better safe than sorry.

  • Grumpy

    Ugly everywhere, apparently, except the Chicago suburbs.
    And London and Frankfurt, where the mortal peril to Our Man Buck is supposed to be exceptional.
    Re: cremation vs. burial
    What’s the difference? Any force which can revive an organism which has ceased metabolism and begun to decay could surely reassemble the scattered ashes of a cremated corpse almost as easily.

  • Duane

    could surely reassemble the scattered ashes of a cremated corpse almost as easily
    Or perhaps not. I’m not sure the second magical ability was even in the spell set. And it sounds like something that would require a ton of mana or a couple of wizards working together to pull off. And a hunter to find the ashes, of course.

  • bulbul

    And it sounds like something that would require a ton of mana or a couple of wizards working together to pull off.
    Play a lot of WoW, do ya? :o)

  • Erick Oppeen

    Part of the problem with the whole “disinterring corpses” thing here, whether to check to see if the Dearly Departed was raptured (and I’m sorry, Thessalonians or no bloody Thessalonians, I was taught that the dead will get _new_ bodies upon resurrection; no need for this _Night of the Living-Dead Christians_ nonsense) is that modern standard-issue burials are in a vault, which is a stone b*tch to get open. You’d probably need power tools and a good deal of undisturbed time to do it.
    Personally, I’d think that heading out to the graveyard, pick and shovel in hand, singing “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s robbing graves I go,” would get a person…attention, at least…from whatever law-enforcement types are still around. Not to mention the criminal fraternity themselves; I would _not_ want to be the person that someone like Tony Soprano caught violating graves in the cemetery where his mother’s buried.

  • Amanda Rush

    I wanted to comment on the G-d as loving husband metaphor.
    Basically, as previously stated, Hosea’s marriage is a representation of G-d’s relationship with Israel.
    But it’s not supposed to be a direct correspondence.
    Basically, marriage, in the Jewish view, is a covenant, or contract, between man and wife.
    Hosea’s wife violates the covenant between herself and Hosea, just like Israel violated the covenant between G-d and Israel.
    What G-d is saying is, just as Hosea takes his wife back after repeated violations of the covenant, he will take Israel back, despite repeated violations of the covenant.
    I think to pick the metaphor apart and try to correlate every single detail with some view of G-d is missing the point.
    And I believe that what makes the LB view of G-d even more sad is that they miss the point of this altogether.

  • Axiomatic

    I suppose making a new body out of ashes is just to difficult for a being with only one point in its Omnipotence Discipline.
    *Goes back to reading the third-edition rulebooks for God: The Miracling*

  • none

    What does all this do to the money supply? to inflation? to the Nasdaq? Inquiring minds want to know.
    I think what happened after the great plagues might offer a model: basically labour became a lot more expensive, while traditional “wealth” was for grabs. People in general -particularly the working class- were much better off after the plague than before. Overall the economy boomed. But the big land owners were reduced to putting sheep on most of their land for which earlier they had exploited peasants to cultivate.

  • Keith T.

    I think the problem is that L&J believe that everyone, or everyone with faith and redemption, are just like them. Like them, Steele doesn’t listen to the news very much or think critically outside of his box. L&J only know how Small Town America regular people are like; this must be just how Big City Suburban people are like, too. The only people who are different than this model are Europeans and Jews, and L&J presume we, like they, know just what kind of people THEY are.

  • Tonio

    “This divine lover is an angry husband, and look what we made him do. We brought it on ourselves, after all. But he promises to stop punishing us if we would just learn to do what we’re told.”
    Great analogy. It matches up well with the portrayal of God of the Old Testament, who often comes across as an abusive parent. He is portrayed as arbitrary and capricious and impossible to please, like nothing humans do is good enough for Him.

  • Ken

    Ugly everywhere, apparently, except the Chicago suburbs. The rest of the world, according to the news Rayford hasn’t seen, is brimming with grave robbers, father stabbers, mother rapers, father rapers and a shortage of qualified transportation personnel. But here in Wheaton there’s nothing to interrupt a leisurely drive to and from the church.
    It’s called “Cozy Catastrophe Syndrome”, i.e. “It’s the End of the World, but I’m not inconvenienced in the least.”

  • Sara Willow

    I’m loving this blog. Love the Alice’s Restaurant reference as well.

  • Mel Steffor

    If God or Jesus came to your home and talked to you would you want to share what God had to say to you with others? Well that is exactly what I have been doing, telling everyone I can reach. Mel Steffor

  • Mel Steffor

    This is the message told by God to me. Please read and pass it along. The message is from God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost respectively sent in the Spring of 2006. It is about the meaning of First is Last and Last is First. The message is this:
    In the morning I go to Heaven. In the afternoon I live my life. In the evening I die, death. What does this mean? In other words this means Birth is Last and Last is Birth. Think of this as a continous circle of life. Birth, Life, Death, Birth. God also said that Judgment will be before Birth in Heaven. AS birth on Earth is painful so will birth in Heaven. Yes, God has recently made contact and he sent a messenger. Spread this message along, just like a chain letter. OH, one more point of interest. Did you know that Mike Douglas died on his birthday? Mel Steffor

  • Mel Steffor

    Now God and Jesus had more to say than this. He didn’t just drop-in for a one night message. The Holy Spirit spent months with me. Now the reason I ask other people to help spread the message is that it is a lot or work for me to tell everyone. The message about First is Last is God greatest issue. Thanks Mel

  • cjmr

    Now God and Jesus had more to say than this. He didn’t just drop-in for a one night message.
    I guess that explains the repeated spam, then…

  • hapax

    Hi, Mel! Thanks for dropping by.
    In the morning I go to Heaven. In the afternoon I live my life. In the evening I die, death. What does this mean?
    That God is totally stealing his shtick from Ra?

  • wintermute

    Did you know that Mike Douglas died on his birthday?
    A little bit of Wikipediaing suggests that you mean the Mike Douglas who was the voice of Prince Charming in Disney’s Cinderella, and I have to ask: Did God specifically point this fact out to you? If so, did he tell you what its significance is? Is knowing this more important than knowing that Newton died on Christmas Day*?
    *Your calendar may vary.

  • wintermute

    Sorry, was born on Christmas Day.
    Bad wintermute.

  • Zyzzyva

    Likewise, did you know that Washington was not born on Washington’s birthday?

  • cjmr

    Someone named Washington must have been. It’s statistically impossible for that not to be the case.

  • Jeff

    Likewise, did you know that Washington was not born on Washington’s birthday?
    EVERY Washington was born on Washington’s birthday; on that Washington’s birthday, to be precise. As cjmr says, the number of Washingtons born on George Washington’s Birthday (whichever of the three — Pre-Gregorian, Gregorian or Monday — you use) is going to be quite large.

  • wintermute

    Shakespeare, of course, died on his birthday. Therefore, Mike Douglas is Shakespeare. An unspecified deity told me so.
    And Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same date (23rd of April 1616), but ten days apart.

  • Alger

    The Steele Family are residents of Mount Prospect, Il. , a fact that made me giggle when I read about it.
    Mount Prospect is located about two miles north of Ohare Airport, which made Rayford’s epic journey with Hattie jiggling in his lap a little bizarre in the same way Buck’s 24 hour trip to NYC was.

    But what’s really strange is that Mount Prospect is…nice in that levittown  cookie cutter way that Chicago’s inner ring suburbs are. Put bluntly, to a person from Chicago descriptions of Rayford’s success and lavish lifestyle while living in Mount Prospect is like finding out some successful Wall Street stock broker lives in Queens. It could happen, sure, but what are the odds.
    All the popular airline pilots used to live out in Crystal Lake in the 1980s and 90s. United pilots even had their own subdivision.
    Rayford must have been a prick to them too.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X