L.B.: Pagan Babies

L.B.: Pagan Babies May 19, 2004

Left Behind, pp. 46-48

Finally, 30 pages after the mass disappearances have occurred, Rayford Steele looks up at an airport television and the reader gets to see some scenes from the worldwide Rapture.

From around the globe came wailing mothers, stoic families, reports of death and destruction. Dozens of stories included eyewitnesses who had seen loved ones and friends disappear before their eyes.

Okay, it turns out the reader doesn’t actually get to see these scenes. We’re actually just told that Rayford saw them. And we have Jenkins and LaHaye’s assurance that these scenes were gripping and deeply moving.

If Jerry Jenkins had written the Arabian Nights it would be two pages long. Jenkins’ Decameron would be over in ten minutes. His version of The Canterbury Tales might mention that the travelers told each other stories — he might even tell us that the stories were really very interesting — but he’d probably assume, as he does in Left Behind that what readers really want to know is the logistics of the pilgrims’ travel arrangements.

Readers are allowed a glimpse of a few of the “dozens of stories” Rayford sees. Unfortunately, these details aren’t provided to give the readers a sense of what it might feel like to be in his situation, but rather to make some theological and political points.

Story No. 1:

Most shocking to Rayford was a woman in labor, about to go into the delivery room, who was suddenly barren. Doctors delivered the placenta. Her husband had caught the disappearance of the fetus on tape. As he videotaped her great belly and sweaty face, he asked questions. How did she feel? “How do you think I feel, Earl? Turn that thing off.” What was she hoping for? “That you’ll get close enough for me to slug you.” Did she realize that in a few moments they’d be parents? “In about a minute, you’re going to be divorced.”

Then came the screaming and the dropping of the camera, terrified voices, running nurses and the doctor. CNN reran the footage in superslow motion, showing the woman going from very pregnant to nearly flat stomached, as if she had instantaneously delivered. “Now, watch with us again,” the newsman intoned, “and keep your eyes on the left edge of your screen, where a nurse appears to be reading a printout from a fetal heart monitor. There, see?” The action stopped as the pregnant woman’s stomach deflated. “The nurse’s uniform seems to still be standing as if an invisible person is wearing it. She’s gone. Half a second later, watch.” The tape moved ahead and stopped. “The uniform, stockings and all, are in a pile atop her shoes.”

The bit of dialogue with “Earl” and his wife is pure sitcom cliche (does anybody in real life say “slug”?). But I wish they had told us more about the CNN newsman. Aaron Brown is the only CNN anchor who might be described as “intoning,” but we probably shouldn’t read to much into the implication here that the affable Mr. Brown has been left behind. We can be sure, however, that the newsman in question is not Wolf Blitzer. The perpetually hyperventilating Blitzer never intones — he shouts, excitedly introducing another banal piece on the change of venue in some celebrity trial as though he were covering the attack on Pearl Harbor live. I can’t say whether Blitzer would qualify to be taken in L&J’s fictional Rapture, but if he weren’t, a story this big would’ve made his head explode.

But of course the point of this little anecdote is not about CNN or about Earl’s wife: it’s a discourse on the theological and political state of the fetus. L&J’s Rapture includes the idea of an “age of accountability.” They believe that in heaven, unlike in Texas and Florida, young children belong to a different moral category than adults. They are, if not exactly innocents, not yet fully accountable and exempt from divine wrath.

The idea of an “age of accountability,” or, in the Catholic phrase, “age of reason,” is appealing in that it helps avoid the image of a cruel deity condemning innocent little babies to Hell. But that appeal is only necessary if you begin with a theology that suspects God is the sort of God who might otherwise condemn little pagan babies to Hell.

The thinnest ice on which a theologian can stand concerns questions about, “If you were God, who would you send to Hell?” The answer, of course, is, “I’m not God, so what’re you asking me for?” Theologians are on much more solid ground considering questions about the character of God. (As a Christian, I believe that our best indicator of the character of God comes from the example of Jesus Christ, and I have a rather hard time picturing Jesus roasting pagan babies on a spit. But again, this is a belief based on the nature of God, not on the forensic calculus of an abstract age of accountability. I don’t know if the concept is a wrong answer, but I’m pretty sure it’s an answer to the wrong question.)

The bit about the nurse is the most vivid, detailed account so far in the story about the disappearances. (It may say something about Jenkins’ as a storyteller that the only visual image we’ve been given so far is from a TV screen.) The effect of the scene is muted, however, by L&J’s refusal to let us know how watching this made Rayford feel. He already suspects that his wife, Irene, is among the disappeared. Now he’s finally seen just what this would mean. I’d have been satisfied with something hackneyed — “the hairs on the back of his neck stood up” or “he felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach” — but we get nothing. Rayford makes no connection. He has no response.

Next up, a brief discourse on the disposition of the bodily remains of believers who died before the Rapture:

A funeral home in Australia reported that nearly every mourner disappeared from one memorial service, including the corpse, while at another service at the same time, only a few disappeared and the corpse remained. Morgues also reported corpse disappearances. At a burial, three of six pallbearers stumbled and dropped a casket when the other three disappeared. When they picked up the casket, it too was empty.

I knew a fundamentalist preacher — a blackhearted old man who drove his daughters and granddaughter literally insane — who was a devotee of the Rapture mania of LaHaye and of Jack Van Impe. As he grew older, he became obsessed with what would happen to his body if he died before the Rapture. He was terrified that his daughters would have him cremated, which he believed would mean his body could not then be raptured like the corpses in Left Behind. He would plead with them, often tearfully, to promise that this would not happen. All this based on a warped reading of 1 Thessalonians 5 — a passage in which Paul is trying to comfort believers about the death of their loved ones.

That same warped reading is the premise for this book.

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