NRA: Pulpit ‘humility’

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; pp. 208-210

This odd little scene doesn’t mention God or “prophecy” or the Bible, prayer, church or any of the other signals of evangelical piety that regularly appear in these books. Yet it presents something so familiar to church-goers that we can all recognize, just from this brief passage, that we’re reading a piece of Christian-brand fiction.

We’ve discussed quite a bit how the dual protagonists of the Left Behind series are wish-fulfillment surrogates for the books’ dual authors. Rayford Steele — graying at the temples, but irresistible to women due to the way he steers his massive, “fully loaded” jet engine — is Tim LaHaye’s fantasy of how he wishes he were perceived by others. Buck Williams — rebel-cool, the writer every other writer desperately envies — is Jerry Jenkins’ Mary Sue.

But Jenkins, who handles the actual writing/typing of these books, also seems dimly aware that he can’t portray himself/Buck as too perfect. He wants Buck to be relatable, and — like an employee filling out one of those self-evaluations and reluctant to give themselves all 5s* — he worries that Buck/Jenkins may come across as arrogant if he doesn’t acknowledge that the character has some flaws. So every few chapters or so, he inserts a little something to reassure readers that Buck is only human after all. The Greatest Investigative Reporter of All Time and the coolest human ever, but still human.

Usually this involves Buck falling down. Buck bounces off the emergency slide of an airplane and tumbles onto the tarmac. Buck slips in the muddy riverbank as he and Michael beach their boat. This is Jenkins’ way of showing Buck’s flawed human side without giving him actual human flaws — poor choices or bad traits that might cause readers not to love and admire him as much as Jenkins desperately wants and needs readers to love and admire him. (“Him” being Buck, because we’re talking about Buck Williams, of course, the character, and not “him” the author, Jerry Jenkins. Or maybe not.)

In this scene, though, Buck doesn’t physically fall down, he has a mental pratfall instead. Buck is, of course, talking on the telephone. He has called his old charter-pilot friend Ken Ritz**:

“Alexandria?” Ken Ritz said by phone the next morning. “Sure, I can get there easily enough. It’s a big airport. When will you be along?”

Buck, who had bathed and washed out a change of clothes in a tiny tributary off the Jordan, dried himself with a blanket. One of Tsion Ben-Judah’s Hebrew-speaking guards was nearby. He had cooked breakfast and now appeared to roast Tsion’s socks and underwear over the small fire.

“We’ll leave here tonight, as soon as the sky is black,” Buck said. “Then, however long it takes a 40-foot wood boat with two outboard motors and six adult men aboard to get to Alexandria –”

Ritz was laughing. “This is my first time over here, as I think I told you,” he said, “but one thing I’m pretty sure about: if you think you’re coming from where you are to Alexandria without carrying that boat across dry land to the sea, you’re kidding yourself.”

Buck’s idea — sailing from the Jordan River to Egypt — is pretty bone-headed. But it’s supposed to be bone-headed. That’s the whole point of this scene. Jenkins is showing us that Buck isn’t perfect, and he’s showing us that he knows Buck/Jenkins isn’t perfect. He wants us to bookmark this page so that later, when Buck is once again being the coolest, the smartest, the all-around best-est, like Jesus and James Bond rolled into one, he can point us back to this scene saying, “Look, there’s proof that Buck has flaws and that therefore he’s not just some pathetic wish-fulfillment author-insert.”

But that doesn’t work here for several reasons. One reason is that Buck’s “flaw” here is that his paddle-to-Egypt plan is based on a massively ignorant misconception of basic geography. That intentional “mistake” only serves to remind readers of all the other unintentional mistakes in this scene that are also based on a massively ignorant misconception of basic geography. Ken Ritz is right to laugh over Buck’s idea of sailing to Egypt, but he should also be laughing at the idea of navigating the Jordan River in a 40-foot boat.

It also doesn’t work because we can’t buy this as an isolated, one-time mental pratfall. Buck has been to Israel many times and yet it seems he’d be unable to identify the country on a map. If he gets this wrong, what else is he wrong about, or what else has he been wrong about in his reporting on Israel? This mistake also seems to contradict what we’ve been told elsewhere about Buck’s dazzling biblical knowledge and understanding. How to get from Israel to Egypt — and, especially, vice versa — is not a minor part of the biblical story. Buck has been studying his Scofield Reference Bible for 18 months by now — didn’t he ever look at the maps in the back?

But the main problem here is that this form of humble-bragging never works. It’s never convincing, this faux self-deprecation that carefully crafts what it’s willing to be deprecating about. Rather than inoculating against the charge of arrogance by humbly admitting faults, it reinforces the perception of arrogance by revealing an unwillingness to be honest about such faults.

The one place I’m sure you’ve heard this before, if you’re a church-goer, is from a preacher on a Sunday morning.

Sometimes it comes from a preacher who’s attempting to do the same thing Jenkins is attempting here — humanizing himself (usually him) by admitting to some minor or generic “flaw.” “I lose my patience in traffic,” the preacher says, as though confessing his worst sin. The unwillingness to admit to anything more meaningful — or the inability to recognize anything more meaningful — undermines the whole attempt to display humility. “Sometimes I’m ill-tempered,” he says,  as though this sets him apart. And then, you realize that what he’s really suggesting is that he’s more extravagantly remorseful that everyone else — that his guilt over such minor failings sets him apart from, and above, others.

Sometimes these alleged flaws are so trivial and commonplace that it all sounds more like boasting than confessing. He’s supposedly telling an “embarrassing” story or admitting to some foible, but it comes across like he’s saying, “This one time, just before flying off to save Metropolis from an asteroid collision, I tripped over my cape and fell smack down on my face. Ha! Joke’s on me!”

It gets more interesting when the discussion isn’t just about “flaws,” but about sins. “We’re all sinners,” the preacher says, “every one of us, including me.” And then sometimes there’s a brief pause as he ponders the need for an example that would confirm this. If the preacher is one of those redeemed sinners whose colorful “personal testimony” tells of being saved from a life of wanton debauchery before they were born again, then this part is easy. All that preacher has to do is recount one of those juicy stories from back before he was saved. But a preacher who has been a lifelong member of the church will quickly realize he’s painting himself into a corner. Confess to too serious an example and the audience might turn against you, so most preachers tend to err in the other direction.

And, again, that subverts the whole point. By confessing to something minor or even trivial, these preachers don’t confirm that they too are sinners just like everyone else, but rather they set themselves apart as sinners unlike everyone else — as people with extravagantly minor, eminently forgivable, flaws. Admitting to such things doesn’t jeopardize the affection and admiration they expect/desire from others. It seems, rather, to be an attempt to enhance them.

The best thing I’ve heard a preacher say on this “we’re all sinners, even me” subject was from Tony Campolo. “If you knew all the sin in my life,” he told one congregation, “you would never have invited such a horrible person to come and speak in your church.”

And then, “But don’t get cocky, people. If I knew all the sin in your lives, I would never have agreed to come and speak to people like you.”

[Insert long discussion here about how the pretense of righteousness prevents honest confession, about how fear of rejection prevents us from being fully known and thus from being/feeling fully loved and from fully loving others, and about how church should be more like AA.]

Jerry Jenkins invites us here to laugh along with Ken Ritz at the kooky foibles of his human-just-like-us hero, Buck Williams, and at the charmingly silly mistake that Buck has just made. How very humble he is to good-naturedly accept that the joke’s on him! What a great guy.

And I recognize that maneuver as the same one I’ve heard from dozens of pulpits. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work here.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* Don’t be. Don’t hestitate, don’t over-analyze, and don’t do your managers’ job for them. Give yourself all 5s. Or if it’s a scale from 1 to 10, give yourself all 10s.

Won’t that make you look like an arrogant egomaniac? No. This is a quantitative score and there is no place on the spreadsheet to enter a quantity reflecting your alleged humility or lack thereof. That which is not scored does not exist.

Self-evaluations are a game and the game is already rigged against you. Play the game, but don’t agree to the rigging of it. Give yourself all 5s.

Evaluations are conducted in order to establish a paper trail that can later be cited should they need to prevent you from suing after being fired. They also provide numbers and “scores” that supply the misplaced concreteness used to pretend the denial of annual raises and/or future layoffs were objective, necessary decisions. You don’t want to facilitate that or cooperate with that. Give yourself all 5s.

If you feel squeamish about that, or if your manager actually asks you about it, tell them it’s the most rational response according to “game theory.” I think that’s actually true. I’m not entirely sure, though, because I don’t fully understand game theory. Most people don’t, including your manager who, being a manager, won’t want to admit that, and so they’ll probably just nod knowingly. (If they press you on this, say you ran a scenario based on the Swedish variation of the classic prisoner’s dilemma. I’m fairly sure there is no such thing, but again I’m also fairly sure your manager won’t know that.)

** General rule of thumb: If you’re attempting to tell an epic story unfolding on a global scale and you find yourself having to introduce multiple characters who are pilots, then you should probably rework the point-of-view structure of your story.

Stories about pilots are fine — like Top Gun or Always (featuring Brad “Rayford” Johnson as The Guy Who’s Not Dead Richard Dreyfuss). But if your story is about something other than pilots and you find you’re having to bring in a bunch of pilot-characters just to fly your POV narrator all over the place then you’ve got a POV problem. And all these pilots don’t actually solve that problem, they just underline it. (See also: Gwaihir.)

 


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