NRA: Stick to the script

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist, pp. 66-67

World War III begins and Buck Williams calls his dad.

That’s good. That’s a nice human touch. This is something we humans do when calamity strikes — we reach out to family and loved ones to make sure everyone’s OK.

After a 7.6-magnitude earthquake shook Costa Rica last month, one blogger there wrote, “Check the order of the calls you tried to make and draw your own conclusions. They say that in an earthquake, you first think of what you love most.”

So on the one hand, it’s nice to see Buck demonstrating such a basic human response.

On the other hand, the order of calls that Buck makes here is a bit strange. He seems both to have waited too long to call his dad, and to be calling him too soon.

Most urgently, there’s the matter of the now-forgotten cliff-hanger from the previous scene with Buck. He was on the phone with his wife, Chloe, who was racing to escape the attack on Chicago. That call was abruptly cut off:

But then he heard an explosion, tires squealing, a scream, and silence.

The very next line from Buck, three pages later, is, “Who’s got a cell phone I can borrow?”

Readers do not know what has happened to Chloe and presumably want to find out. Since Buck doesn’t know either, we assume he’s asking for a phone so that he can call her, desperately wishing to know what happened — is she OK? Is she conscious? How is she? Where is she?

We expect him to be anxious to learn all of this — anxious to know if she needs him to race to rescue her. But instead he’s weirdly complacent about her fate. After “… an explosion, tires squealing, a scream, and silence,” Buck pleads for a cell phone so he can call someone else.

Verna went back inside to gather up her stuff. Buck waited in her car, making his phone calls. He started with his own father out west. “I’m so glad you called,” his father said. “I tried calling New York for hours.”

Oh, right. Poor Papa Williams out there in Arizona saw the CNN reports on the destruction of New York City and desperately began calling Buck’s Manhattan apartment to learn whether his son was dead or alive. That was hours ago. Since then Buck has gone car-shopping, checked in with computer guy Donnie Moore, printed out 5,000 pages from Bruce’s hard drive, and swung by the office to threaten Verna Zee. At any point during those many hours he might have called his dad, but he didn’t think of it until now.

And now Buck is sitting in the parking lot of the global news organization he supposedly runs due to his supposed status as a world-class journalist. Witnessing the destruction of the city of Chicago, he barks out a command to his staff — someone get me a phone! But his first phone call has nothing to do with the urgent duties and responsibilities of his vocation. It’s a personal call — a personal call to someone other than the wife who is, at this moment, possibly injured on some unknown highway.

This lends a strangeness to the whole conversation that follows between Buck and his dad. Neither of them sounds like someone who exists in the world of this novel. The momentous events surrounding them barely seem to register with father or son — not even when they mention those very events. One gets the impression of a phone call occurring under more mundane circumstances — after New York was hit with a snow storm, maybe, or after Buck has guiltily realized he missed calling on his father’s birthday.

“Dad, it’s a mess here. I’m left with the clothes on my back, and I don’t have much time to talk. I just called to make sure everybody was all right.”

“Your brother and I are doing all right here,” Buck’s dad said. “He’s still grieving the loss of his family, of course, but we’re all right.”

“Dad, the wheels are coming off this country. You’re not gonna really be all right until –“

Buck’s reference there to “this country” is, again, anachronistic. It has been well over a year in this story since “this country” ceased to exist. All countries (except Israel) were abolished to create the one-world government of the Antichrist.

But this conversation does not really occur in or apply to the world of this story. That’s not what it’s for. Buck and his dad talk as though they were two people living in our world — a world in which America still exists and no Rapture has convulsed the planet into chaos. They talk as though they share our world, rather than theirs, because this conversation is meant to contain a lesson — a model — for readers who live in our world and our context.

Buck and his father here are merely stand-ins. Buck represents the generic “saved” reader of the Left Behind series and his father represents that generic reader’s generic “unsaved” family members. This conversation is mainly just another of the many evangelistic marketing scripts sprinkled throughout these books. It’s part how-to and part pep-talk for readers, encouraging them to persist in “witnessing” to their unsaved relatives.

“Cameron, let’s not get into this again, OK? I know what you believe, and if it gives you comfort –”

“Dad! It gives me little comfort right now. It kills me that I was so late coming to the truth. I’ve already lost too many loved ones. I don’t want to lose you too.”

I suppose the “loved ones” referred to there means Bruce Barnes. (And, maybe, Dirk Burton?)

The important thing here is the lesson: Your unsaved relatives may not want to hear what you have to say. They may be dismissive, suggesting that your faith is just something that “gives you comfort.” You have to confront that, insisting that it’s not about comfort, but about the truth without which they will be lost.

His father chuckled, maddening Buck. “You’re not going to lose me, big boy. Nobody seems to want to even attack us out here. We feel a little neglected.”

“Dad! Millions are dying. Don’t be glib about this.”

Buck Williams had advance warning of the beginning of this war. Ex-president Fitzhugh told him when and where it would begin, and he knew from his prophecy studies that it would come to claim the lives of “a fourth of the earth.” Yet Buck didn’t bother sharing this warning with anyone else — not even his wife or father-in-law. And he has yet to lift a finger to rescue anyone from the impending carnage.

But he won’t tolerate his father’s gallows-humor. That would be “glib.”

Oddly, everything that follows this condemnation of glibness is, well, pretty glib.

“Dad! Millions are dying. Don’t be glib about this.”

“So, how’s that new wife of yours? Are we ever gonna get to meet her?”

“I don’t know, Dad. I don’t know exactly where she is right now, and I don’t know whether you’ll ever get the chance to meet her.”

“You ashamed of your own father?”

“It’s not that at all, Dad. I need to make sure she’s all right, and we’re going to have to try to get out that way somehow.”

It’s kind of clunky, but this bit about Buck’s dad wanting to meet Chloe seems like a reasonable human conversation. Or, rather, it would seem that way if it weren’t occurring in the context of World War III, and if the new wife in question were not, currently, stranded and perhaps dying in an auto-wreck in a war zone.

But that context can’t shape this conversation because that might interfere with its utility as an evangelistic script:

“Find a good church there, Dad. Find somebody who can explain to you what’s going on.”

“I can’t think of anybody more qualified than you, Cameron. And you’re just gonna have to let me ruminate on this myself.”

This scripted quality infects almost all of the dialogue in these books. Characters rarely seem to be in character, but seem, rather, to be dutifully reciting words given to them by the authors because those are the words they have been assigned.

I think this relates to another way in which the authors’ theology shapes these books. It’s not quite as direct as the effect of, for example, the fatalism that flows from Tim LaHaye’s idea of “prophecy,” but the persistently awful dialogue in these books, I believe, illustrates something about the authors’ view of God.

The authors’ understanding of God, I think, informs their approach to the godlike act of creating characters.

The parallel is obviously not precise, but every novelist or playwright is a creator who gives life to a cast of characters. When those characters are truly alive, they begin to speak and to choose and to act, and the writer’s job then is to race to keep up with them. Those characters will want to say things and to do things that the writer did not expect. They will be full of surprises. The writer gave them a voice but, having done so, that voice now belongs to them — to the characters and no longer wholly to the writer.

I’m reminded here of the lovely scene in the second creation story in the book of Genesis. In that story God does not seem to be either omnipresent or omniscient, God needs to check in with the creation and its creatures to see what they have been up to while God’s attention was elsewhere. God shapes the man and then breathes life into him — life which, having been given to the man, now belongs to him. And then:

Out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

The Creator is eager to see — to find out, to learn — what this creature will say next. This creature has been given life and autonomy and the Creator does not know what he is going to decide to say. The Creator finds this exciting and delightful.

If you’ve ever tried to write dialogue then you may be able to relate to that excitement and delight. When it’s going well, writing dialogue seems much more like transcription than like composition. The characters start talking and all you can do is scramble to get it all down.

When writing dialogue is not going well, the characters just sit there, mute, inert and lifeless, and you are faced with the laborious task of putting words in their mouths. And all the while you’re struggling to do that, you know that the words you have chosen for them will never seem as true or as alive as the words they would have chosen for themselves. The more you work to control your characters — to determine what they say or what they choose — the less real they seem.

(I used to say that such attempts by the writer to dictate words and choices for characters was like treating them like puppets instead of people. But I recently watched the delightful documentary about muppeteer Kevin Clash, Being Elmo, and I’ve decided that is unfair to puppeteers and to puppets.)

For the story to seem real, the characters must be allowed to speak and to choose for themselves. If they are not allowed the freedom to speak and act as they want and need to do, then they will cease to seem like characters and become more like chess pieces in a game they do not understand.

This doesn’t mean that the novelist or playwright abandons all control over the story. The writer still gets to shape the entire world in which these characters exist — what happens to them and around them, the options and choices available to them. (Conductor voice: “Transfers at this station for endless tangential discussions of free-will and determinism. Hold on to your passes.”)

This is, broadly speaking, one way to gauge whether or not a story rings true. When the author presents the characters with choices and the characters choose, the reader or audience accepts it as real. If the author seems to be manipulating those choices, or if the choices seem out-of-character, then the whole affair seems hollow. In other words, when the author does not seem to have learned anything from the characters, then the reader or audience cannot learn anything from them either.

Jenkins’ dialogue rings false because his characters never seem to have any agency or autonomy. In this scene, neither Buck nor his dad is free to say what he needs to say given the events occurring around them. Neither of them is allowed to say what it seems they ought to want to say or to choose what it seems they ought to want to choose. They’re just going through the motions of their assigned roles, dutifully reciting the script written for them by someone else.

That mirrors the theological views of Jenkins’ co-author. Tim LaHaye’s strange brew of prophecy and predestination also denies any human-seeming agency or autonomy. In LaHaye’s world, we are all just wooden characters in a bad novel, chess-pieces in a game played by someone else.

 

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