Tribulation Force, pp. 407-413
The central theme of this series of books is always the same: You are right and someday everyone else will see that you were right all along.
That triumphalism plays out on a cosmic scale throughout this story, but it also pervades even the smaller, more intimately human-scaled scenes of these books. Here, as we finally get to meet the woman Rayford Steele is about to marry, this same theme is replayed yet again.
Amanda White functions to vindicate the life of Irene Steele. Irene was a humble Christian homemaker, we’re told — just like you, dear reader. But through Amanda we see how her modesty and devout piety changed the lives of everyone she ever met. The scornful elitist sophisticates may mock people like Irene — people like you — but here we see that Irene was right and they were wrong. Lives such as hers may seem to others to be pointless, shallow, self-absorbed, meaningless and ineffectual, but in the final tally people like Irene — people like you — are a powerful, effectual witness to sinners everywhere.
Such vicarious vindication is, I think, the essence of these books’ startling appeal. For most of the previous 800 pages, it has been offered to readers indirectly — a vindication one step removed from the target audience of Christian-brand fiction readers. The main focus up until now has been the vindication of Tim LaHaye himself. When the Rapture comes (any moment now) and God’s wrath is poured out on the obstinate unbelievers, everyone will learn that LaHaye had been right all along and the mockers will be forced to accept, too late, that they ought to have believed and accepted LaHaye’s expertise and authority. As followers of LaHaye, readers could share in that vindication, reassured that they will be proved right for thinking he was right.
Here Jerry Jenkins offers readers a more direct taste of this vindication, with Irene Steele serving as the stand-in for the reader herself or himself. Just like you, reader, Irene went to church and to Bible study, mostly detached from the wider world and perhaps, just like you, vaguely worried that her quiet life ensconced in this pattern of piety didn’t amount to much. But here Jenkins shows that Irene’s life was really a heroic model of faithfulness that left an indelible mark on everyone she encountered. Irene is shown to have been a hero and thus you too, blessed reader, are shown to be a hero. Your anxiety and ennui are unfounded. Your life, just exactly the way you are already living it, is courageous and meaningful and will someday soon be proved right as the lives of others will someday soon be proved wrong.
That’s the message here. If it’s not a theme that allows for great literature, it can be one that sells a lot of books.
I doubt Jenkins is aware of the cynical brilliance of what he’s up to here, despite it’s centrality to his own financial success as a writer. The poor rubes who sign up for his pricey Christian Writer’s Guild classes are not instructed to do what he does here. These students are not taught to employ this trick of reassuring readers that they are already as right and righteous as they ever need to be, even though this trick is the one effective tool Jenkins has in his writer’s toolkit.
Something like this ego-stroking is often an ingredient in far better fiction than the Left Behind series, but with one very important difference. Many of my own favorite stories offer a variation of this vicarious vindication. The hero of those stories is also introduced as someone ordinary — as someone just like you dear reader. But then something happens and this ordinary, just-like-you protagonist is compelled to rise to the occasion.
The catalyst can be almost anything — an espionage ring mistakes the protagonist for a secret agent, a crazy uncle bequeathes him a magical ring, he’s bitten by a radioactive spider, she’s informed by the school librarian that she is the chosen one of her generation, a fairy godmother prepares her to meet a prince, a giant on a flying motorcycle arrives to whisk him off to a magical school. Faced suddenly with extraordinary challenges, the ordinary person is compelled to change and to become extraordinary.
Even when such ordinary-seeming people turn out to have extraordinary powers or resources — like Buffy or Peter Parker or Harry Potter — the virtues that ultimately enable them to succeed, to become heroes, are virtues accessible to any ordinary reader. Magic or super powers aren’t in themselves enough — heroism requires pluck, quick thinking and, above all, courage.
The message of such stories isn’t that these heroes are just like you, but rather that you are capable of becoming just like them — that you, too, might rise to the occasion if you, too, were to summon up a level of courage heretofore undisplayed. The message of those stories is that you are capable of becoming a hero. That’s very different from the message of Left Behind, which is that you already are a hero — that you don’t need to change or to rise to the occasion or to respond to extraordinary circumstances by meeting the challenge with extraordinary courage.
“Don’t go changing,” LaHaye & Jenkins sing to their readers. “You’re a hero just the way you are.” You can stay comfortably at home in the Shire, relaxing with your pipe after second breakfast, and so long as you assent to the proper ideology, that’s enough to make you a hero.
The phenomenal sales of the Left Behind series is evidence that such superficial reassurance has some appeal, but I think that indulging in such cheap grace ultimately leaves one feeling cheaper and diminished. It lacks the inspirational and aspirational call to rise to the occasion. The reassurance that one doesn’t need to become any different or any better than one already is carries with it the implication that one is incapable of becoming any different or any better than one already is. It carries with it the unsettling notion that one is settling.
“You don’t have to be Buffy,” L&J soothingly say to their readers. “You’re Irene Steele, and that’s good enough.”
But is it really good enough? Does it feel good enough? I don’t think it does.
Readers may want to believe the superficial reassurance offering them by L&J, but I think such reassurance is ultimately unsatisfying. And I think this also accounts for some of the extraordinary sales of these books. They promise a satisfaction they never deliver and that unfulfilled promise keeps the reader coming back for the next title in the series in the hope that the next ineffectual attempt to scratch that itch will bring some relief.
Anyway, since Rayford Steele is about to remarry — despite the fact that, in the authors’ view, his first wife never technically died — Jenkins has to hurry to introduce us to his soon-to-be fiance.
“So how’s it going with you two?” Chloe asked in the car.
“I know you’re close. That’s obvious to everybody. Close to what, is the question.”
“Close,” he said.
So third base, then, I guess.
Chloe’s questions prompt a flashback and Jenkins serves up Rayford’s recollections of his first encounter with Amanda White.
Neither he nor Chloe had known what to make of her at first. A tall, handsome woman a couple of years Rayford’s senior, she had streaked hair and impeccable taste in clothes. …
Bruce introduces them after church one Sunday and Amanda insists on treating the Steeles to Sunday dinner so that she can explain to them about the “indelible impression” that Irene had made on her life.
“I’ve wanted to meet you, Captain Steele, because –”
“Well, I’ll call you Mr. Steele for now, then, if Captain is too formal. Rayford is a little too familiar for me, though that is what Irene called you.”
Again this weirdness of referring to an airline pilot as “Captain” at all times. It’s such an insistent part of this book that I sometimes begin to doubt myself, wondering if all this time I’ve been violating some unspoken etiquette by not addressing all airline pilots by rank. I mean, yes, when I’m on the plane and the pilot says, “This is your captain speaking,” that’s true. But if I see that same pilot back on the ground, at some restaurant after church, and he says, “This is your captain speaking,” I’m going to think he’s losing it.
I suppose this is a big step for Rayford, deigning to be called something other than “Captain Steele,” but it’s only an impressively egalitarian gesture if one previously accepts the innate superiority due his rank. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly respect airline pilots for their professional skill and competence when they hold our lives in their hands. But bus drivers and cabbies also hold our lives in their hands and we’re able to convey respect for them without invoking some notion of rank. (If Jenkins had written for The Honeymooners I wonder if he’d have had everyone refer to Jackie Gleason as “Captain Kramden.”)
Amanda proceeds to gush on about Irene, the savior of her soul. It’s a clever way for Jenkins to get past what might otherwise have been an awkward situation. If he’d had Rayford obsessively focused on memories of Irene, it would have come across as unfair to Amanda. If he’d had Rayford fully present and focused on Amanda, it might have seemed a bit too glibly dismissive of his history with Irene. By making Amanda the one gushing over Irene, Jenkins can allow Rayford to think about both women at once without seeming to have divided attention or divided loyalties.
Amanda describes her impression of Irene, and in doing so articulates the authors’ notion of the greatest ambitions permitted to Christian women:
“She was the sweetest little woman, so soft-spoken, so totally in love and devoted to you. She was the sole reason I came as close as I did to becoming a Christian before the Rapture, and — second only to the vanishings themselves — she was the reason I finally did come to the Lord.”
There’s your list of everything a woman is allowed to want to be:
- In love with and devoted to a man
- A Christian witness
Irene scores a perfect 5-for-5. Contrast that with, say, Joan of Arc, who scores only a 2-for-5, or with biblical figures like Deborah (1-for-5) or Jael (0-for-5), and you’ll quickly realize why Irene Steele was the ideal woman.
So if you want your daughters to grow up to be sweet, little, soft-spoken women whose lives revolve around their husbands and who are therefore powerful witnesses to the real, true Christianity of Tim LaHaye, then you should encourage your daughters to read the Left Behind series.
Amanda then takes a detour away from explaining how people like Irene and you, dear reader, are much more important than they might seem to be so that she can also explain how churches like yours, dear reader, are much more important than they might seem to be.
“We had been in a dead church all our lives. Then my husband got invited to some outing at a friend’s church, came home, and insisted that we at least check out the Sunday services there. I don’t mind telling you, I was not comfortable. They made a big deal all the time about being saved.
“Well, before I could get my little mind around the idea, I was the only one in my family who wasn’t saved. To tell you the truth, the whole thing sounded a little white-trashy to me. I didn’t know I had a lot of pride. Lost people never know that, do they? Well, I pretended I was right there with my family, but they knew. They kept encouraging me to go to this women’s Bible study, so finally I went. I was just sure it was going to be more of the same — frumpy, middle-aged women talking about being sinners saved by grace.”
At this point in her spiel Amanda gets emotional and runs off to powder her nose. In her absence the Steele’s “chuckle” over her enthusiasm. Rayford says:
“She certainly sounds ‘saved’ now, doesn’t she?”
“Yeah, but she’s a long way from frumpy white trash.”
Amanda had been guilty of prejudice, you see, because she had looked down on real, true Christians for being frumpy white trash. That was prideful and unfair, according to the authors, because RTCs are neither frumpy nor white trash and therefore do not deserve to be sneered at the way that frumpy women and white trash deserve to be sneered at. Real, true Christian women, like Irene Steele, have a stylish fashion-sense and the uncalloused hands of the refined classes who pay others to labor on their behalf. This was what made Irene’s faith so attractive to Amanda White, who returns from the restroom to continue her story:
“I arrived at this home where the ladies were meeting that week. They all looked so normal and were wonderful to me.”
The opposites of “normal,” we thus learn, are “frumpy” and “white-trashy.” Working-class people, apparently, are ab-normal, or perhaps sub-normal. Good to know.
At this fashionable gathering of un-frumpy, normally wealthy looking women, Amanda says, Irene stood out. The following is much-condensed from two full pages of this sort of thing:
“I noticed your wife right off. She was just radiant — friendly and smiling and talking with everyone. … It was her carriage, her countenance. … There was a peace, a gentleness, a kindness, a serenity about her that I had never seen in anyone else. She had confidence, but she was humble. She was outgoing, yet not pushy or self-promoting.”
And then Amanda provides the classic Left-Behind twist on the hard-sell, repent-before-it’s-too-late evangelistic message found in most Christian-brand fiction:
“She told me how to receive Christ. I told her I wasn’t ready, and she warned me not to put it off and said she would pray for me. That night my family disappeared from their beds.”
Typical evangelistic stories may feature heavy-handed warnings to the unsaved to become saved right now, lest they walk out into the street and get hit by the Hypothetical Bus while still lost in their sins. That’s the usual evangelical take on the parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids, and it’s in keeping with the words of that story: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Although the usual evangelical notion of what constitutes “keep awake” diverges greatly from what Jesus was teaching.)
Here, and throughout these books, LaHaye & Jenkins derive a different lesson from that parable: “We’re wise and you’re foolish, neener neener.” Amanda’s story — “I wasn’t ready … she warned me … that night my family disappeared” — isn’t told as the usual evangelistic warning to those who might be perilously delaying salvation. It is told, instead, as a vindication of Irene and thus also as a vindication of you, dear reader. All those prideful people who refused to convert when you told them how to receive Jesus? They’ll see. They’ll get what’s coming to them and then they’ll realize you were right all along.
At her Sunday dinner with the Steeles, Amanda praises Irene with an extravagance and specificity that goes beyond anything Rayford has yet said about his departed wife or that Chloe has yet said about her mother.
Rayford and Chloe had returned home chagrined and a little ashamed of themselves. “That was nice,” Rayford said. “I’m glad we took the time for that.”
“I just wish I hadn’t been such a creep,” Chloe said. “For hardly having known her, that woman had a lot of insight into Mom.”
Let the record show that Rayford Steele is capable of feeling ashamed. Not something I’d have guessed based on his behavior in the previous 800 pages.
For nearly a year after that, Rayford saw Amanda White only on Sundays and at an occasional midweek meeting of the larger core study group. She was always cordial and friendly, but what impressed him most was her servant’s attitude. She continually prayed for people, and she was busy in the church all the time. She studied, she grew, she learned, she talked to people about their standing with God.
And so, finding her commitment to serving the church irresistibly attractive, Rayford eventually decides to “ask her out.”
I’m not convinced that these traits were what really “impressed him most” about Amanda White. If that were really true, then Rayford would’ve asked out Loretta a long time ago.