L.B.: Humbert Steele

Left Behind, pg. 237-239

So far, Chloe Steele is one of the most sympathetic characters in Left Behind. This is so, mainly, because we know almost nothing about her.

She was a student at Stanford, then the world ended. She managed, somehow, to find a flight home to Chicago even though the planes weren't flying, and arrived there to learn several distressing things: A) her mother and kid brother have vanished, leaving nothing behind but their pajamas; B) her father has become a religious zealot; C) her father has been deeply involved — emotionally, if not physically — with a young flight attendant; and D) he wants to talk with her, in great detail, about B and C. All of which (particularly A and D) causes us to regard her with literal sympathy, the poor kid.

We've been told very little of how Chloe is responding to all of this, but in the few, brief glimpses we've gotten at this point in the story, she has appeared resilient and resourceful, thoughtful and skeptical. All of which makes me like her far more than, say, her dad or Buck.

This response may be the opposite of what LaHaye and Jenkins intended. We've already seen that the newly sanctified Rayford Steele, who serves as the authors' spokesman, views his daughter's thoughtfulness as a "pseudointellectual" pose. Rayford/L&J are angrily dismayed by her skepticism and independent-mindedness. They have established a contrast between Chloe's unregenerate brain and Rayford's spirit-filled guts, and clearly in such a conflict we're intended to side with the male guts over the female brains.

But with the lines so clearly drawn, I'm really not sure what we're supposed to make of this next section. Rayford seems to be thinking out loud, trying to figure out how to resolve things with Hattie Durham, the young flight attendant he has been stringing along for years. It might have been better if he'd had this conversation with Bruce Barnes or with anybody other than his poor daughter, but Rayford doesn't actually have any friends. And he seems to think that getting all of this out in the open is a good way to demonstrate his newfound honesty and to convince her that he is a new man after his conversion.*

For her part, Chloe seems appropriately appalled, and her sometimes cutting comments seem to offer good advice.

"I'm going to invite Hattie to dinner with us this week," he said.

Chloe narrowed her eyes, "What, you feel like you're available now?"

Rayford was stunned at his own reaction. He had to keep himself from slapping his own daughter, something he had never done. He gritted his teeth. "How can you say that after all I've just told you?" he said. "That's insulting."

"So was what you were hoping for with this Hattie Durham, Dad. Do you think she was unaware of what was going on? How do you think she'll interpret this? She may come on like gangbusters."

Like everyone else in this book, Chloe talks funny. How many 20-year-old college students would really say "come on like gangbusters"? (It's also kind of funny that Chloe talks like everyone else in this book. Apart from corn-pone yokels who say things like "goin' over yonder," everyone — college students, 30-year-old journalists, middle-aged pilots — talks the same. Their voices are nearly indistinguishable, and offer little insight into character.)

But let that pass. The substance of what Chloe is saying here seems sound. She seems right and Rayford — avatar of the authors — seems wrong.

"I'm going to make it clear what my intentions are, and they are totally honorable, more honorable than they ever could have been before, because I had nothing of worth to offer her."

"So, now you're going to switch from hitting on her to preaching at her?"

He wanted to argue, but he couldn't.

Flirt to convert, that's pretty much Rayford's plan. And Chloe calls him on it.

So what's going on here? Does this suggest that Rayford is not always a reliable narrator? I'm really not sure. We're told that, "Rayford was offended … but he had brought this on himself and felt he deserved it." But we're also told that Chloe is being "bratty." So I really can't tell whether or not we're supposed to agree with Rayford that his daughter deserves a good slapping for insubordination.

My guess is that, as ever in Left Behind, the real unreliable narrators here are Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. They want to show us that their hero is fallible, and that his new faith requires him to face the consequences of the bad choices he made earlier. They also — unintentionally, accidentally and unawares — give us a portrait of Rayford as vain, selfish, misogynist and controlling. And often the least flattering aspects of Rayford's character are revealed when the author's seem to be trying to show us something they think is admirable about their character. It's like reading Nabokov, but with the added twist of the authors sharing in the narrator's solipsism and self-delusion.

So the best I can make of this is that we're supposed to take from this that Rayford isn't perfect ("just forgiven"), and that he is commendably struggling to make amends for his former bad behavior. But yet we're probably not supposed to view him as still behaving badly. We're probably supposed to take from this that Chloe is a shrewd and perceptive woman, but yet we're probably not supposed to admire her for speaking her mind and cutting her father down to size.

Or not. Who knows? The authors know their intent, but seem utterly unaware of what they have presented on the page. We readers can see what's on the page, but we have no sure way of deciphering how that relates to the authors' intent. (That disconnect also, perhaps, serves as an example of why L&J's naive, face-value biblical hermeneutic is inadequate and misleading.)

If Rayford wasn't such a putz — and if L&J didn't abandon this whole storyline by having Hattie run off with her Antichrist lover — his dilemma here could have provided the basis for an interesting discussion of relationship as the necessary context for evangelism.

"I care about her as a person," Rayford says of Hattie, "and I want her to know the truth and be able to act on it."

(Pause for a moment to let the Calvinists catch their breath.)

For the sake of argument, let's assume that Rayford's motivation here is genuine (and not unknowingly, or half-unknowingly, disingenuous). That's not a bad impulse, but what happens when the person in question is someone we have treated badly? Rayford seems dimly aware that before he can ask or expect Hattie to listen to anything else he has to say, he needs to seek her forgiveness and to make amends. Unfortunately, he also seems to think this is something he can accomplish during the soup course while Hattie has dinner at his house (chaperoned, appallingly, by his daughter), quickly segueing into hard-sell proselytization before dessert.

One last interesting admission from Rayford in this section. Speaking of losing his wife, Irene, to the Rapture, he says this:

"… Your mother being in heaven is just like losing her to sudden death. The last thing on my mind is another woman, and certainly not Hattie. She's too young and immature, and I'm too disgusted with myself for having been tempted by her in the first place."

The interesting admission here is not Rayford's condescending contempt for Hattie — neither he nor the authors seems to recognize how despicable that sounds. What's notable here is the recognition that the Rapture is "just like … sudden death." Much of the appeal of Darby's invention has to do with the idea that true believers will be spared the undeniable inevitability that faces every human — they will never die. But here even L&J themselves, the foremost proponents of death-defying Rapture mania, are forced to concede that being Raptured is essentially the same — as experience, as effect — as suddenly dropping dead.

Left Behind, then, is a novel that begins with God demonstrating his love for his children by suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, striking all of them dead. We're familiar with such stories. We occasionally hear of a troubled and despondent parents taking the lives of their children in order to send them to "a better place." Usually, of course, we say that such parents are insane.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* This is another unintended insight the authors provide into Rayford's character. His primary relationships are with much younger women. He never hung out with other pilots, or even with flight attendants his own age. He only seems comfortable talking to these younger women, yet he dismisses whatever they have to say as "bratty" or "immature." You see guys like this in bars. They come in alone and try to buy drinks for the college girls. You know, the creepy old guys.


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  • Deoridhe

    Gate to Women’s Country
    I couldn’t stand that book. I am really not a fan of “but our manipulative, totalitarian regime will be DIFFERENT because we’re WOMEN”.
    Ako: While I’ve met some religious people I respect and admire, I personally don’t see much good in religion itself.
    Maybe talk to those religious people about what they like about their religion and then incorporate it? Personally, as a theist I haven’t incorporated religion too much in my work, so I can imagine a theist would have more difficulty. A good grounding in anthropology and a diverse set of religions could help, though, if that’s an area you want to get into.

  • Jesurgislac

    Deoridhe: I am really not a fan of “but our manipulative, totalitarian regime will be DIFFERENT because we’re WOMEN”.
    Then you kind of missed the point of the book: it’s not different. (As one of the characters says towards the end: “We call ourselves the Dammed Few”.)

  • cjmr

    So for the most part, I leave the whole matter out. I do characters whose lives simply aren’t influenced by religion, and it works for me. But this could be seen as contributing to keeping religious people under-represented in fiction. Any thoughts?
    I’d much rather read something written using your approach, than something written by someone who feels they must put (a known) religion into their work even though they don’t have any experience in it or haven’t done the research necessary to make it believable. People who are upset about their specific religion being under-represented in fiction (esp. science fiction and fantasy, which seems like an odd place to put a known religion in the first place) should try writing their own.

  • ako

    A good grounding in anthropology and a diverse set of religions could help, though, if that’s an area you want to get into.
    Thanks. I’m not setting out to write something on religion (I tend to start from story ideas, not topics), but I am trying to think on how to approach it when it would fit well. Currently, the stories I’m coming up with work well without religion in them, but I want some ideas on how to approach things in case it’s helpful in the future. So thank you for your advice.

  • Beth

    But this could be seen as contributing to keeping religious people under-represented in fiction. Any thoughts?
    My advice would be, don’t worry about it. Unless you’re avoiding putting Christians in your work or being overly critical toward novels that include them, you’re not even indirectly responsible for their under-representation. Anyway, writing well and, perhaps, commercially is enough of a challenge itself, isn’t it? Feeling obligated to write about something you’re not interested in and can’t relate to, is just going to make it worse.
    I think the best writing comes from real life, and that’s true even works of sf/fantasy. In an earlier thread, you mentioned that your time in the Philippines gave you new a perspective on religion, so if you’re determined to include religious characters, maybe you should model them on the Filipinos that you knew.

  • Foxfire

    Speaking of Free Amazons, has anyone heard the tape of “Free Amazons of Gor”?
    *blink*
    *boggle*
    MUST FIND.
    (I know where to find “Gay, Bejeweled Nazi Bikers of Gor”, but not this one.)

  • Foxfire

    From Sagra:
    I see their part of the fantasy genre is the one little niche that attracts the people most disaffected with the dominance of Christianity, so it’s difficult to think of any authors who write similar books that won’t offend Christian sensibilities.
    It is. And it doesn’t offend me, just provokes something of an eyeroll when I run across it. The only F/SF book to actually offend me was one of Tara K. Harper’s, which among the generally enjoyable survival/alien-world stuff suddenly went off into a three-page digression on “pro-lifers destroyed the world!!!!11!!1” Stuff like this makes Mercedes Lackey seem like a mistress of subtle moral nuance. :-)
    Somebody asked upthread about authors who wrote decent religious characters and/or what KIND of Christian characters I’d like to see, and I just remembered Simon R. Green on both counts. He doesn’t make a big deal of it, but he has characters who are religious, whose lives it’s clearly a major part of, but who are not there just to make a point for or against the whole God thing. Of course, this being Simon Green, his religious characters lean heavily toward butt-kicking monks, but they’re still people. The “Nightside” books he wrote have some interesting takes on this…it’s far from serious literature, but I love his work. (Especially the book with a passing mention of “Father somebodyorother and his crack squad of Jesuit commandos”.)
    I’ve read most of the folks you’ve mentioned – Meredith Ann Pierce doesn’t get anywhere near enough love – and I’ve enjoyed most of them. Especially Robin McKinley, whom I obsessively fangirl. And I find it way too amusing that reading Neil Gaiman got me hooked on G.K. Chesterton. :-)

  • Dahne

    In The Fresco’s favor, it *does* end with a romance wherein a woman lives happily ever after with a chitanous bug-alien.
    I also remember thinking that the alien system of sets of pronouns was neat. I focus on weird things in books.

  • Jonah Falcon

    Another Friday, no LB. (sob)

  • Jesurgislac

    *sobs*

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    I’m with Jesu (not a phrase I type often) on Gate To Women’s Country – what made that book much, much better than parallel despotisms in other books was the despots’ acknowledgment that what they were doing was not OK. It was the best solution they could find to the problem, but it was not OK. They hated themselves for what they were doing but they would have hated themselves worse for not having done it. It’s a similar theme to something I found very redeemable about A Plague Of Angels with its repeated refrain of “There are no acceptable solutions to some problems.” Note also the answer in Northshore/Southshore to the riddle, “What is the use of dead warriors?” and the instense anguish it causes in the character who realizes it.
    Moral complexity! It’s that, I think, which Tepper has just totally lost sight of in the last decade.
    Foxfire, I was totally unaware that there were other Marianne books. I just found the Manticore one in the library and enjoyed the heck out of it. As for the True Game books, I was reminded of them by coming across the Jinian compilation in a used bookstore. Somewhere at my parents’ house is my old paperback copy of King’s Blood Four, which I happened across some time after a librarian at my high school recommended I read Beauty; I had to keep rechecking the cover to remind myself that yes, it was the same author. Found the first Mavin paperback in another used bookstore for far too much money; I’ll probably order the rest online for still too much but somewhat less. Been finding some good hits on them via abebooks.
    Meredith Ann Pierce, Robin McKinley, and Patricia McKillip are my personal favorites for gorgeous prose to lose yourself in. My husband and I have enjoyed their works immensely during our read-aloud sessions. Except he did have this to say about Pierce: “Why do all her main characters have an intelligence roll of 6?” And I admit that both Aeriel (the Darkangel trilogy) and Jan (the Firebringer trilogy) were slow on the uptake at times, but mainly I see that as the author’s overadherence to an epic/fairy-tale plot structure. Things have to happen three times, all four seasons must be travelled through, the main character must come back to where he or she started before discovering the truth, etc. I heard some time ago that Pierce was next working on an adult fantasy series (as opposed to young adult), but I’m not sure where it’s at. Her website doesn’t even give a title for it yet.

  • hapax

    Another Christian-friendly fantasy author with ravishing prose is Charles Williams. Dense, mystical, and somewhat hallucinogenic, but definitely Christian- (of a certain flavor) friendly.
    Religion in fantasy — nobody’s done it better than Pratchett’s SMALL GODS. Also, Lois Bujold’s Chalion trilogy did some very interesting stuff with religion — along the lines of “what if those D&D type pantheons meddling in the affairs of their chosen heroes really existed?” Also, it has given me “Five gods!” (with appropriate hand gestures) as an effective epithet when stubbing my toe…

  • Alexela

    I thought gaiman’s “American Gods” had an incredibly evocative take on religion – the underlying idea was pretty similar to Pterry’s small Gods, and it obviously wasn’t as FUNNY, but… clearly more evocative.
    just a pity he tied himself into a somewhat overdone ending. Nobody is perfect :)

  • Foxfire

    Moral complexity! It’s that, I think, which Tepper has just totally lost sight of in the last decade.
    I think you’re right. I agree with Tepper on, oh, about .001% of her worldview, but she used to be a good enough writer that I read whatever she put out. (I try and keep a good selection of People Who Annoy Me on my bookshelf. *grin*) Nothing since “Grass”, or “Family Tree” at the latest, has really made me think.
    I was totally unaware that there were other Marianne books. I just found the Manticore one in the library and enjoyed the heck out of it.
    There’s “Marianne, the something-with-an-M, and the Malachite Mouse”, and “Marianne, the Madam, and the Momentary Gods”. I’ve never seen either of the other two for anything but a prohibitive price. Too bad, because I loved the first one – fascinating stuff, especially the library. As for Pierce…yeah, in retrospect, her heroes aren’t the brightest (except maybe from “The Woman Who Loved Reindeer”, which I haven’t read in a LONG time), but oh, that writing just makes me happy. I found “A Gathering of Gargoyles” in the library and fell immediately in love. It’s so evocative, and I was at the perfect age for it…I still remember going through it and the first one and the way I felt when I started to figure out the moon thing… *trails off into sheer readerly nostalgia*
    And Robin McKinley is one of my favorite authors ever. Especially for her animals – I only know one other writer with that knack for having animal characters that are, well, characters without being humans in fuzzy suits. And that’s Elizabeth Goudge, who nobody’s ever heard of. :-)

  • Foxfire

    Dense, mystical, and somewhat hallucinogenic, but definitely Christian- (of a certain flavor) friendly.
    I wasn’t able to get through the one bit of Charles Williams I tried, but that may have been due to the fact that I was sneaking paragraphs at work (thank you, Gutenberg Project!). After reading some of C.S. Lewis’ literary/nonfiction stuff, I went on a binge of the authors he’d mentioned – Charles Williams, David Lindsay, and G.K. Chesterton make for a very weird combination.
    And the Chalion books totally rock (this had better not mean no more Miles, though!). I adore “Hallowed Hunt” – the climax reminds me of one of Stephen R. Donaldson’s better scenes, without having to slog through several hundred pages of purple Donaldson angst to get through it. *grin* “Small Gods” amuses me because it’s the only book I’ve ever seen to get massive adoration from Christians and Pagans both. :-)

  • lodrelhai

    Coming into this years late, I know.  But this in particular creeps me out to no end:
    “Rayford was stunned at his own reaction. He had to keep himself from slapping his own daughter, something he had never done.”

    Alexela points out it could mean he never restrained himself before.  I took it as he never had the urge to before – as in before he became an honest-to-goodness Christian.  The urge to slap her comes off as a result of his conversion because it is new, just like his salvation.  Restraining himself is a learned behavior, a hang-up of his previous unsaved life.

    Probably a stretch, I know.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t.

  • lodrelhai

    Coming into this years late, I know.  But this in particular creeps me out to no end:
    “Rayford was stunned at his own reaction. He had to keep himself from slapping his own daughter, something he had never done.”

    Alexela points out it could mean he never restrained himself before.  I took it as he never had the urge to before – as in before he became an honest-to-goodness Christian.  The urge to slap her comes off as a result of his conversion because it is new, just like his salvation.  Restraining himself is a learned behavior, a hang-up of his previous unsaved life.

    Probably a stretch, I know.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t.

  • lodrelhai

    Coming into this years late, I know.  But this in particular creeps me out to no end:
    “Rayford was stunned at his own reaction. He had to keep himself from slapping his own daughter, something he had never done.”

    Alexela points out it could mean he never restrained himself before.  I took it as he never had the urge to before – as in before he became an honest-to-goodness Christian.  The urge to slap her comes off as a result of his conversion because it is new, just like his salvation.  Restraining himself is a learned behavior, a hang-up of his previous unsaved life.

    Probably a stretch, I know.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t.