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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  • 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.

    Shameless plug: I’m doing my usual Wintermas critique, and this year’s Christmas romance features just such a preacher, who…

    …had once spent more time in the county jail for drinking and disturbing the peace than he did in church. Just looking at him reminded [the heroine] and everyone else of the amazing redemptive power of God’s love.

    The preacher also has weird ideas about people coming to kill preachers, so he’s a fascinating puzzle to me.

  • quietglow

    If only you’d ministered to me before! My hairdryer broke so I tried to dry my hair with candles, but I forgot I can’t light candles. Now half the house is burned down and what’s left of my hair smells dreadful.

  • dpolicar

    The best play in an iPD depends on what strategy the other player is using, and also on how much “noise” there is in the system.

    Two players using “tit-for-tat” will endlessly defect if either of them ever defects for any reason, or even if either of them perceive the other as defecting. This result can be improved on.

  • That comic is fantastic :D I was just about falling out of my chair laughing at some points. X-D

  • TurboJesus sounds like a Shadowrun character.

    I think I’m going to go open up my rulebook and see if I can muddle through chargen to make him actually. Probably an Adept or a very, VERY heavily juiced up cyborg Street Samurai, hrm.

  • As a general rule, anything that is added to a character specifically as a prophylactic defense against accusations of mary suedom do not actually work as defense against accusations of mary suedom

  • I still think the government should just pay everyone a living wage and we can all work for Pin Money.

  • Rachel McG


  • esmerelda_ogg

    You must do really really well in job interviews too! (That’s a flaw, right?)

  • Daniel

    OT but glad to see you’re back- I was wondering where you’ve been of late!

  • Daniel

    I could say the same thing, but unfortunately another of my flaws is my terrible modesty.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I’m gonna guess this is the “How It Should Have Ended” for LotR…
    …aaaaaaaaaaaand I’m right.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Thanks, Daniel – actually, (warning, downer ahead) I’ve been arranging for and recovering from my mother’s funeral :(

    Could have been much worse – she was 90 years old, nearly 91, and was able to stay in her own home (where she desperately wanted to be) until the last four days of her life. So it was kind of a “least bad” ending.

  • Daniel

    I’m sorry to hear that. “Rich full life…” doesn’t make it any easier to lose someone that close. My thoughts are with you.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Thank you, Daniel – I appreciate that very much.

  • Daniel

    I suppose you think they’re pretty “cool”? “Really groovy”? Fine*. That’s fine.
    You know what else is “Red Hot”?

    The unquenchable flames of Hell’s fiery pit! That’s what! So hot it’ll boil the inside of your skin till it boils the outside of your skin and then roasts all the non skin bits inside the outside and inside of your skin! AND YOUR EYES! Not so hot now are you, with your “rock and roll” and all that other devil music! Let me share a valuable lesson with you that hopefully will change your listening habits to something more wholesome and bland. There’s no need to thank me when your soul sighs in relief.

    *(Tipper Gore was a friend of mine…)

  • Jenny Islander

    Imagine if the gov’t just paid every adult what is already considered non-taxable gift money: medical expenses, tuition, and the annual exclusion (currently $14,000).

    What would you do, that you can’t do now, if you knew that no matter what happened you would have all medical expenses paid, tuition if you needed more education, and $14,000 to help cover your basic living needs?

  • We Must Dissent

    I took at that guide*, and that’s brutal. Ours are bad, but not like that. And they, too, seem to have the goal of making teachers feel bad about themselves.

    *I want to time-punch whoever it was in education that decided rubric, literally “red [letters]” and referring to headings in medieval manuscripts or directions in liturgical church services, means “scoring or evaluation guide”.

  • Isabel C.

    Oh, me too. And I believe we have enough money to do it, or easily could, but…y’know, FREDERM, SOCIALISM, ZOMG.

  • alfgifu

    I don’t know about everyone else here, but I do indeed find your modesty terrible to behold.

  • alfgifu

    Therefore, even accurate reviews are going to be terrible for morale and therefore terrible for productivity. The author’s recommendation for managers caught in such systems was to always write glowing reviews for all their employees.

    I can certainly see that logic, particularly in the case of reviews entirely written by others.

    On reflection, the part of our system I find most beneficial is the part where I set my own goals and record my thoughts about my growth / challenges / issues etc. If I didn’t trust my manager enough to be open about it, that benefit would vanish – it would become an exercise in writing what I thought other people wanted to read.

    Because it’s a joint project, it’s also unlikely that I’m going to get a review that’s worse than I expect – we draft the thing together, and have a conversation about it before anything goes down on paper. My manager’s input is mostly important because it adds a second pair of eyes to the process.

    So there is (for me at least) a significant up side to having an annual review system. It would be harder to get better at my job without it.

  • alfgifu

    Two problems with the eagles-drop-the-ring-in-Mordor scenario:

    1) How do the eagles avoid detection when they enter Sauron’s airspace?
    2) Once Sauron knows that his Ring is soaring above the plains of Mordor, how do the eagles evade:
    a) Sauron’s well documented mind control thingy (where he extends his will to control his armies / intimidate his enemies) when his entire focus is on them?
    b) the flying Nazgul who have no distractions, are drawn to the Ring, and are still powered by active Sauron-sorcery?

    The eagles get into Mordor at the end because Sauron is busy melting and his Nazgul are at first flying straight for Mount Doom and then fizzling out like spent fireworks.

    The whole point of most of the rest of the plot is that Sauron is extremely powerful and actively looking for the Ring, so everything has to be done by stealth. A couple of hobbits on foot are a lot more inconspicuous than Gwaihir and his 101st Airborne.

  • Ross Thompson

    Um, wow.

  • Muriel Volestrangler

    Ah, but scheduling the bombing raid for when they’re gathered at Rivendell gives it a very good chance of success. The nine Black Riders have just been overwhelmed at the ford, and so are unavailable for piloting Sauron’s air defence squadron, So it’s just Sauron’s mind mojo, and that, against the eagles and Gandalf who also defy Saruman at the height of his powers won’t be enough, what with Boromir mooning The Dreadful Eye to distract him at the correct moment.

    Plus it has a decent contingency plan: rather than relying on Gollum to attack Frodo when he decides to keep the Ring after all (and when they hatched their “million-to-one chance, so it might just work” plan (thanks, Terry Pratchett), they didn’t even know Gollum would be anywhere near), Gwaihir can just drop Frodo into Mount Doom if he starts having doubts, as well as the ring (notice he’s been carefully placed in the talons, not on the eagle’s back – someone was thinking this through).

  • Ross Thompson

    I dunno, I don’t think I’d trust those eagles.
    (Other comics in that strip are not safe for work, but that one’s good).

  • Yeah. L&J are so tone-deaf to the way they so casually put on display their white-straight-male ideas and experiences.

  • Matthew Funke

    Actually, since Nicolae seems to have figured out the secret of making nuclear weapons non-radioactive (“It’s this switch over here! Who knew?”), maybe things like Operation Plowshare became a reality and the megaproject you describe could be dug with relatively little time and effort.
    Lesson being, I guess, that nukes can be used in Israel, but only for civil engineering projects.

  • AnonaMiss

    I was just about to mention that!

  • Indeed. Say Nicolae proclaims he can damp radioactivity, and then carefully sets off one of the hitherto-unexploded Russian nukes to prove it (say, underground in Nevada or suchlike). He then initiates grand river diversion projects in the Middle East, which gives Buck his trip down the Jordan to Alexandria later. :P

  • they’re telling people that minimum-wage jobs are for . . . . people who aren’t smart enough to ‘raise their skill level’.

    Off the top of my head, I know of five people at my store (and one other who has gone on to another better-paying-but-still-not-college-graduate-level job) who have college degrees and cannot find work in their fields. I also know another four or so who are trained in a relatively lucrative field but who were unable to find work and ended up letting their skills, or license lapse.

    In our society, we are taught that any job is better than no job. So we take any job, even if we end up seriously underemployed as a result.

    I finally convinced my mom that adults take minimum-wage jobs by simply pointing to her then-in-her-late-60s sister-in-law, who worked the counter at an Arby’s to supplement her social security.

    Edited to make it clear that I’m arguing with “them,” not you.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    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.


    All that’s missing is to make Rayford & Buck Immortal Alicorns.

    (Though Rayford DOES show one of the Secondary Sexual Characteristics of an Ayn Rand male hero — the bone-crushing Manly Man Handshake. To truly be a Randian hero, he needs the other two characteristics — heavy smoking and constant obsession with whether he’s gaining weight — “Am I getting Fat? Do I look Fat? Does this make me look Fat? Do you think I’m Fat? Do I look Fat? Am I getting Fat? Does this make me look Fat?”)

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Several of the roles have multiple characters who were added to the story so that Jerry can kill off a particular character at random.

    Red Shirts. To show how deadly the situation is without actually inconveniencing (much less endangering) the Author Self-Inserts.

    And the immediate replacements? Just a continuing parade of Red Shirts.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    I bring this up because it’s yet more proof in my argument that Jerry Jenkins is the most successful amateur hack writer ever. If he hasn’t gotten past this by now (and from what I’ve seen, he hasn’t), he never will.

    Why should he get past it? He’s already the Big Name CELEBRITY Author of the RTC set, Greatest Christian Author of All Time (GCAAT) with an unbroken string of Christianese best-sellers and movie deals.

  • From what I can tell, Sherman himself only made it to Savannah, which is about 18 miles from the sea. That’s pretty close. “Sherman’s march to the closest city to the sea” loses something, however.

  • I think that a new character who was so amazing that he or she solved the quest all by him or herself would also count as a Mary Sue. At least the distance between him or her and the position of a Mary Sue would be almost imperceptible to the naked eye.

  • VMink

    And sometimes the Mary Sue/Gary Stu fanfic makes it into publication. Forget 50 Shades — Piper from Dreadnought! and Battlestations! by Diane Carey. The character who out-logics Spock, out-engineers Scotty, out-strategizes Kirk, out-pilots Sulu, and saves the Federation. And gives a five-page lecture to a Vulcan on why the Federation is a libertarian paradise. Only Captain Princess Marissa Amber Flores Picard Gordon,* and Kirk from Shatner’s take on Trek, beat Piper for sheer WTFery.

    * – HEROINE of the FEDERATION! but, alas, not professionally published

  • VMink

    How to get arrested in Georgia:

    State Trooper: “Son, nobody goes that fast in Georgia.”
    You: “Sherman did!”
    State Trooper: “Son, step out of the car….”

  • VMink

    I prefer Vegan black metal, myself…..

  • rizzo

    Hey now Gwaihir is a perfectly good deus ex machina and not just a pilot!

    Also I love your theory on the self evaluations, I always gave myself top marks just because the whole thing is stupid but I’m going to use your excuses next time I run into that situation.

  • lowtechcyclist

    If only you knew what’s inside of me now
    You wouldn’t want to know me, somehow

    -Moody Blues, “Never Comes the Day”

  • Daniel

    Thanks for burying that right in my ear. I’m now caught in a dreadful infinite regress that should I sing that song and someone was to look inside of me now, they’d only find that song, encouraging them to look inside me now, to find that song, like some awful Justin Hayward Russian doll.

  • Jamoche

    You must do really really well in job interviews too! (That’s a flaw, right?)

    It can be. We finally got rid of a coworker who I can most charitably describe as “put all his skill points in bluff”. He sounded great in the interview, but was all talk, no action.