T.F.: Sign o' the times

Tribulation Force, pp. 1 – 2

OK, so, here we go again. On three. Ready? 1 … 2 …

It was Rayford Steele's turn for a break. He pulled the headphones down onto his neck and dug into his flight bag for his wife's Bible, marveling at how quickly his life had changed. How many hours had he wasted during idle moments like this, poring over newspapers and magazines that had nothing to say? After all that had happened, only one book could hold his interest.

This dismissal of reading the news as a waste of time is meant, I suppose, to stress the relative importance of reading the Bible instead. But the problem here is that Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins don't really believe this. They don't really think that reading the newspaper is a waste of time. They see it, in fact, as a kind of spiritual obligation — as a way of following Jesus' command to "keep watch" and to read the signs of the times.

Most "Bible prophecy experts" are actually obsessed with the daily news. They may not understand it, and they may misinterpret it through the baroque and irrelevant lens of their End Times prophecies, but they watch it very carefully. The best example of this is the premillennial dispensationalist infomercial ministry of Jack and Rexella Van Impe. The set for their program is not a church, but a TV newsroom. They don't think of themselves as preachers, but as co-anchors of a program bringing you the daily news. Their top stories, of course, center on the Middle East and on wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines and anything they fear is a stepping-stone toward the Mark of the Beast and the Antichrist's One World Government (i.e., almost anything involving computers, markets or more than one country).

This is their peculiar way of following Karl Barth's* famous advice to do theology with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. But the PMDs' approach to watching the signs of the times doesn't quite look like what Barth had in mind. Both approaches use the same set of words when discussing the importance of newspapers — prophet, prophecy, prophesy — but they mean almost completely different things when using them.

For the PMDs, prophecy is merely soothsaying, augury, prediction of implacable destiny and inevitable doom. They do not believe prophecy is ever conditional, and thus fail to see that it is — always and foremost — a call to act.

"You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain," Amos says. "Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them." Passages like that don't even register, somehow, for the PMDs. Their interpretive blindspot prevents them from ever seeing the incessant prophetic refrain of "if … then," reinterpreting it instead as something like, "then, and then, and then … no matter what."

What that means for them is that they come to see the conditional punishments for the unrepentant as, instead, the inevitable destiny of the world — not as a consequence to be averted, but as a consummation devoutly to be wished. "Why do you long for the day of the Lord?" Amos asks in the same passage quoted above. For PMDs, the answer is obvious — because it's a prerequisite for the "Glorious Appearing." We see the perverse effects of this again and again in this series. War is celebrated while peacemakers are held in contempt. If they take anything at all from a prophet like Amos, it's the idea that trampling on the poor might be good, because it could help to hasten the coming of the End Times.

I rather doubt that Rayford Steele is reading from the book of Amos there in the cockpit. We can't say for sure, though, since like most Bible-reading scenes in these books, this one doesn't tell us anything in particular about what it was he was reading. Generic Bible-reading in the abstract is very important to the authors. Specific passages not so much.

The Boeing 747 was on auto from Baltimore to a four o'clock Friday afternoon landing at Chicago O'Hare, but Rayford's new first officer, Nick, sat staring ahead anyway, as if piloting the plane. Doesn't want to talk anymore, Rayford thought. Knew what was coming and shut me down before I opened my mouth.

Pestering your co-workers until every interaction is fraught with an awkward tension is presented here as a badge of honor. If everyone you work with doesn't run the other way when they see you coming, then you're not sufficiently committed to evangelism.

The authors run with this theme for a bit here. We've noted before that these books aren't evangelistic in way that most other PMD pop culture is. The Thief in the Night films and Larry Norman's "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" were intended to convert nonbelievers, to scare them into heaven. The message the Left Behind series has for nonbelievers, on the other hand, is something more like, "We're right and you're wrong. Neener, neener, neener." But these books do emphasize evangelism in another way, as a kind of pep talk for Christians to embrace a greater sense of urgency in their proselytizing. Hence scenes like this one.

"Is it going to offend you if I sit reading this for a while?" Rayford asked. …

"As long as you don't expect me to listen."

"I got that loud and clear, Nick. You understand I don't care what you think of me, don't you?"

"Sir?"

Rayford leaned close and spoke louder. "What you think of me would have been hugely important a few weeks ago," he said. "But –"

The intent here, I think, was to make the point that we shouldn't let our fears about what others might think stop us from honestly stating what we believe. Such preoccupation with what others think would be the sin of pride. Fair enough. But unintentionally, Rayford is portrayed here as a man who reeks of pride and is utterly preoccupied with what others think. He comes across not as someone who says what he believes no matter what others think, but as someone who is desperate to be perceived as such a person. "Is it going to offend you?" he asks, and it seems he would be terribly disappointed if the answer were "No." He seems less concerned here with Nick's eternal fate than he is with his own heroic giving of offense, no matter how close he has to lean and no matter how loud he has to speak.

"Yeah, I know, OK? I got it, Steele, all right? You and lots of other people think the whole thing was Jesus. Not buying. Delude yourself, but leave me out of it."

Rayford raised his brows and shrugged. "You wouldn't respect me if I hadn't tried."

"Don't be too sure."

We know Nick is evil here not just because he shares a name with the Antichrist, but because he calls Rayford "Steele," rather than "Captain Steele."

The copilot also suffers from a version of the same problem that we discussed last week with Bruce Barnes' pre-Event approach to evangelism. Nick's response here is probably Jenkins' best approximation of the sort of thing he has heard from those who have rebuffed his own attempts at evangelism. What he, Rayford and Nick all fail to recognize here is that this conversation shouldn't be anything like any conversation anyone has ever had here in the pre-Event** of our reality. Tribulation Force is set in a world in which explicit divine intervention is an unavoidable fact.
Yet like many scenes in this book, this one isn't try
ing to show us what such a world is like. So even though it makes both Rayford and Nick sound like obtuse morons for refusing to acknowledge the obviousness of their own context, the authors included this version of their conversation in the hopes of spurring Christians to imitate Rayford's belligerent boldness here in our very different context.

As Rayford was reaching for the Bible, we read that "It had belonged to the wife he hadn't seen for more than two weeks." That reference to his undead wife seemed to me to be a commendably serviceable way of letting readers know how much time has passed since the action of the first book. It was hard to say exactly how much time passed between the Event and the end of Left Behind, but it was something like a week to 10 days. "More than two weeks" thus tells us that we're picking up a few days, maybe a week later. That seems like a good approach — preserving some of the momentum while also allowing for a bit of flashback to fill us in on what has transpired in the interim.

Except that, inevitably, eight paragraphs after reading that "more than two weeks" have passed, we read this:

But when Rayford turned back to his reading, it was the Chicago Tribune sticking out of his bag that grabbed his attention.

The Tribune, like every other paper in the world, carried the front-page story: During a private meeting at the United Nations, just before a Nicolae Carpathia press conference, a horrifying murder/suicide had occurred. …

So either Rayford is still carrying around a paper from last week, or we're picking up our story on the day after the last book ended and all that "more than two weeks" business is just further evidence that Jenkins isn't paying attention to what he's writing here.

I can't blame Jenkins for the other piece of that excerpt that rings false today. Creating a believable "not-too-distant future" setting is, as we've noted, a hazardous trick. And back in 1996, when Jenkins was hastily typing up Tribulation Force, I too would have thought that the Chicago Tribune was going to endure until kingdom come.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* I'm not claiming here to fully understand Karl Barth, mind you. I've really only dipped a toe into his massive, 13-volume Church Dogmatics, which is kind of the Finnegan's Wake of theology — few have read it entirely and even fewer have claimed to understand it, but we're all sort of in awe anyway. That's also more or less the sense Barth conveys when he discusses his great theme of God's boundless sovereignty. My one-sentence summary of his perspective would be something like, "Try to remember this is God we're talking about."

** "Pre-Event" in the sense that it will never happen, not in the sense that it merely hasn't happened yet. So "pre-Event" as in "pre-flying pigs" or "pre-monkeys flying out of your butt."

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