Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist, pp. 34-35
Buck Williams can’t figure out what to do with the church.
He and Chloe have arrived at New Hope Village Church where they broke the news to poor Loretta about the death of Bruce Barnes. But now what? The nominal leader of this congregation is dead. What will they do next?
For that matter, what were they doing before?
Buck doesn’t have any idea. Neither do the authors. They’re big fans of the church in the abstract, but when it comes right down to it, they can’t really say what it’s for. They can’t figure out what to do with this church because they can’t figure out what any church is supposed to be doing.
This is a direct consequence of Tim LaHaye’s theology. We’ve discussed before how his “Bible prophecy” scheme tends to ruin storytelling. It seems like all this End Times stuff should make a thrilling backdrop for a work of fiction. But once you get into the theology of it, you start to realize it won’t allow for much in the way of thrills. When everything is prophesied and pre-ordained just so, there’s no room left for human agency. Your characters can do things, but they can’t do anything that matters.
And LaHaye’s premillennial dispensationalist theology presents the same problem for the church as it does for would-be storytellers. It leaves no room for the church to do anything that matters.
In the grand scheme of PMD thinking, we’re now living in the “church age” — a parenthetical hiccup in God’s great timeline during which nothing much of importance happens. What is the role of the church in the “church age”? Mostly, it’s sitting around and waiting for it to be over — waiting for Jesus to come back (sort of) to rapture us all off to Heaven where we’ll have front-row seats to watch the apocalyptic fireworks below.
Just like Buck sitting there in the office at New Hope, premillennial dispensationalist theologians can’t figure out what to do with the church.
NHVC was, initially, the home base for the Tribulation Force. But that small group made up only a tiny fraction of the church’s total membership. Why those others were excluded from the “force” rather than recruited into it has always been a mystery. Also a mystery: what all those other people have been doing while Rayford and Buck were flying and driving and phoning around.
Three of the four Trib Force members moved away from this church more than a year ago, and Bruce has spent much of that time traveling abroad. So who was leading this church while Bruce was away? And what was the church being led to do? It seems as though the authors have no idea. We readers certainly don’t.
Buck could find out here. This is his chance to ask Loretta what’s been going on at New Hope outside of Bruce’s long-departed “inner circle” and its secret mission. But Buck doesn’t bother to ask. He simply takes charge without bothering to figure out what it is he’s taking charge of.
And with Buck in charge, you know what that means — To the phones!
Chloe worked with Loretta in fashioning a terse, two-sentence statement that was sent out by phone to the six names at the top of the prayer chain list. Each would call others who would call others, and the news would quickly spread throughout the New Hope body.
Given his odd fascination with telephony, it’s not surprising that Jerry Jenkins would include this use of a “prayer chain” here. It’s actually a nice touch — one of the most realistic and recognizable details of real life in a late-20th century evangelical church.
Younger readers might not have heard of prayer chains or phone trees before. They were an efficient and elegant means of spreading the word in the days before the Internet, email or texting. Jenkins does a nice job there in describing how they worked — and they did work. We had a prayer chain list just like this in the church I grew up in, but phone chains and phone trees were also useful for all sorts of other, more secular purposes as well. Our soccer team had one, for example, so that all our parents would know when we were returning to the school after a long road trip and they could be there to pick us up.
Phone chains have mostly disappeared now, with Facebook and email serving the same function even more efficiently, but the thought here of this sort of thing is tantalizing. Here is an aspect of local church culture that would serve this community well if they were to take on the role of an anti-Antichrist underground. They already have their subversive clandestine communications network set up.
But again, alas, they don’t seem to have any sense of what they might do as an anti-Antichrist underground, or why such a network might be useful.
The “news” relayed here via the phone chain is, of course, the news that their pastor is dead. This is certainly important news for the church, but Buck and Chloe seem to think it’s the only newsworthy news for “the New Hope body.” I imagine that Loretta — my Loretta, not Jenkins’ southern-belle impostor — knows better. I imagine that she’s been working the prayer chain all day to keep the congregation informed of the status of all of its various members.
She lives here, after all. Unlike Buck and Chloe, Loretta and the rest of the congregation live here in the area, where a missile strike at the hospital and a perhaps-nuclear blast at the airport must surely have affected the lives of every member of the church. The prayer-chain phones have likely been ringing all day with news of NHVC members who were killed or injured or displaced in the attacks.
When Buck and Chloe arrived, they found Loretta “sitting stiffly in the outer office staring at the television” and weeping as she watched reports of the blast at the hospital. They assumed that all of her tears were for Bruce, and I imagine she didn’t see any reason to correct them. What would be the use? She knew Buck had met the Emersons more than once, but she was sure he wouldn’t remember them, so there’d be no point in telling him that no one has heard from them since they went to pick up their son at the airport.
“No point in letting Jenkins know about the Emersons, either,” Loretta thought to herself while the author’s head was turned. “He wouldn’t care either.” And so none of that made it into the book.
You know Buck won’t let Chloe and Loretta hog all the phone fun here:
Meanwhile, Buck recorded a brief message on the answering machine that simply said: “The tragic news of Pastor Bruce’s death is true. Elder Rayford Steele saw him and believes he may have died before any explosives hit the hospital. Please do not come to the church, as there will be no meetings or services or further announcements until Sunday at the regular time.” Buck turned the ringer off on the phone and directed all calls to the answering machine, which soon began clicking every few minutes, as more and more parishioners called in for confirmation. Buck knew Sunday morning’s meeting would be packed.
Chicago is under attack as World War III has broken out and the pastor is dead, but “there will be no meetings or services or further announcements until Sunday at the regular time.” This coming Sunday, Buck thinks, the church will be “packed.”
I doubt it. If this church has nothing to offer people right here and right now, then what could it possibly have to offer them on Sunday? If the outbreak of war doesn’t turn New Hope into a hive of activity — prayer vigils, care-package assembly, bandage-rolling, gathering for comfort, etc. — then there’s no reason to think that the calendar flipping to Sunday will suddenly transform it into the relevant, useful or meaningful place it has failed to be the rest of the week.
“There will be no meetings or services,” Buck’s message says. And for him those words are really just synonyms. For Buck, and for the authors, this is what “service” consists of — hosting “meetings.” This is the only “service” the church can provide.
But the church will meet on Sunday morning, as usual. Why? What for? Apparently because that’s what churches do — they hold meetings on Sunday mornings, and sometimes they hold other meetings to plan those Sunday-morning meetings or to figure out ways to boost the attendance at such meetings. But neither Buck nor the authors seems to have any idea what a church could or should be doing other than that.
And again, that’s characteristic of Tim LaHaye’s PMD theology. This is what the church does in the premillennial dispensationalist “church age” — it meets on Sundays and it waits for Jesus to come back.
This is why the Tribulation Force had to be conceived and commissioned as something separate from the church. The Trib Force (in theory, at least) has a mission and an agenda in the world — “to stand and fight the enemies of God during the seven most chaotic years the planet will ever see.” The church, and any given local church, has no such agenda or mission.
This inert, inactive local church is particularly strange to see here in the world of this novel, sitting there like a lump “during the seven most chaotic years the planet will ever see.” The Antichrist now reigns supreme as an imperial sovereign who demands the allegiance of everyone on earth. The nameless, faceless parishioners at New Hope are supposed to be opposed to all that — their allegiance is supposed to lie elsewhere. Yet they’re not doing anything about it.
Nicolae Carpathia has already established a mandatory one-world religion, the “Enigma Babylon One World Faith.” Yet New Hope Village Church hasn’t been closed down and they haven’t had to take their operations underground. They’ve been allowed to flout the EBOWF and to continue holding their Sunday morning meetings — probably because Nicolae realizes these do-nothings don’t pose any threat to his reign or to his legitimacy. There’s no reason for him to crack down on this church as though it was a stealthy gathering of dangerous insurgents, because it’s nothing like that. Nicolae doesn’t even mind the sermons they hear at their Sunday meetings — recitations of the End Times check lists that, at this point in the game, amount to little more than a weather report.
It would be a different story if this church were actually doing something — if it were the kind of church where Buck’s answering machine message announced an emergency meeting, a midnight vigil, and a call for volunteers to assemble at the church immediately before heading out to respond to the bomb-blasted and war-ravaged parts of the community. That kind of church would be a threat to Nicolae’s EBOWF and to his empire. That kind of church wouldn’t be able to operate freely and openly the way NHVC does.
If New Hope were actually doing anything, this is what attending there would be like:
RICK: Now you finish locking up, will you, Carl?
CARL: I will. Then I am going to the meeting of the —
RICK: (interrupting) — Don’t tell me where you’re going.
CARL: I won’t.
CARL: Goodnight, Monsieur Rick.
That’s from Casablanca — a story set in territory under the puppet regime of a beastly empire.
My favorite scene from Casablanca — and thus one of my favorite scenes, period — shows what a gathering at New Hope Village Church ought to be like:
That is what it should mean to sing hymns in church under the reign of the imperial beast. John of Patmos would understand that scene. I don’t think Tim LaHaye would.
Maj. Strasser orders Rick’s Cafe closed because he’s just seen something dangerous, something that poses a real threat to the reign of the empire. New Hope Village Church poses no such threat to the Antichrist.
The members of NHVC may sing the hymns of another kingdom, but Nicolae knows they don’t intend to do anything about it. They may pray “thy kingdom come,” but he knows that for them it’s nothing more than “prophecy” talk — a hollow reference to some wholly future event that has nothing to do with the present and no bearing on their lives here in this world.
These people are no threat to the Beast. They can’t figure out what to do with the church.