L.B.: Making the cut

L.B.: Making the cut June 17, 2005

Left Behind, pp. 105-109

These pages concern — can you guess? That's right, another phone call.

This time it's Buck talking to his father who lives in Tucson, Ariz. Jenkins tosses in a bit of father/son conflict, but his heart's not in it. The subject may be fathers and sons, but this isn't the stuff of Arthur Miller:

"This is awful, Cam. I wish you were out here with us."

"Yeah, I'll bet."

"You bein' sarcastic?"

"Just expressing the truth, Dad. If you wanted me out there, it'd be the first time." …

[snip]

… [Buck had] been resented by the family ever since he'd gone to college, following his academic prowess to the Ivy League. Where he came from, the kids were supposed to follow their parents into the business. His dad's was trucking fuel into the state, mostly from Oklahoma and Texas. It was a tough business with local people thinking the resources ought to all come from their own state. …

There had been a lot of bad blood, especially since Cameron was away at school when his mother fell ill. She had insisted he stay in school, but when he missed coming home for Christmas due to money problems, his dad and brother never really forgave him. His mother died while he was away, and he got the cold shoulder even at her funeral.

Some healing had occurred over the years, mostly because his family loved to claim him and brag about him once he became known as a journalistic prodigy. He had let bygones be bygones but resented that he was now welcome because he was somebody.

It's bad enough that LaHaye and Jenkins recycle the old cliched conflict between the working class father and the college-educated son, but they don't even get the cliche right. Buck's dad resents his success as a Princeton student, but not as a globe-trotting reporter? I can't make sense out of this father/son conflict.

(And have you ever encountered someone so infused with a fierce pride in their state that they resented those who import fuel oil from a neighboring state? Hunh?)

Considering L&J's literally patriarchal notion of God, this description of Buck's estrangement from his "earthly father" is a missed opportunity to explore a parallel that might have provided some insight into his estrangement from his heavenly father. But L&J are unable to explain either estrangement. They manage to spend several pages on Buck's conflict with his father without revealing anything more about his character. That's not easy to do.

But then this section isn't about character, it's about soteriology.

Reading Left Behind as a Christian is a bit like watching the old "Who's On First" routine from Abbot and Costello. The words are all familiar and you think you know what they mean, but they mean something different here. (For that matter, it's also a bit like listening to Paul Wolfowitz speechifying on peace, freedom and democracy.) They write about sin, salvation, God, Jesus — all words we Christians recognize, but their use here seems a bit askew. We're forced to relearn these words as they are used in the LB universe.

That's why didactic little passages like today's are valuable. They help to explain what it is that LaHaye and Jenkins mean by words like "salvation" or "Christian." Here's the key section:

"You know your brother is afraid it was like the last judgment of God or something."

"He does?" [sic]

"Yeah. But I don't think so."

"Why not, Dad?" He didn't really want to get into a lengthy discussion, but this surprised him.

"Because I asked our pastor. He said if it was Jesus Christ taking people to heaven, he and I and you and Jeff would be gone, too. Makes sense."

"Does it? I've never claimed any devotion to the faith."

"The heck you haven't. You always get into this liberal, East Coast baloney. You know good and well we had you in church and Sunday school from the time you were a baby. You're as much a Christian as any one of us."

Cameron wanted to say, "Precisely my point." But he didn't. It was the lack of any connection between his family's church attendance and their daily lives that made him quit going to church altogether the day it became his choice.

The reference to "liberal, East Coast baloney" is notable. LB was written in 1995, before the disputed 2000 election that produced our current color-coded stereotyping. L&J here have the red-blooded red-stater criticizing the "liberal" blue-stater for holding a position they agree with, namely that church attendance and faith are not necessarily the same thing.

L&J's desire to distinguish between nominal Christians (CHINOs) and real-true-genuine Christians is legitimate. Jesus himself says, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven … I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" (Matt. 7:21-23).

I'm sure that L&J were thinking of exactly that passage when they wrote today's section about Buck's churchgoing father and his pastor. I'm equally sure that in thinking of this passage they left out the key part that I replaced above with an ellipsis. Matthew 7:21 reads in full: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."

Jesus makes it very clear that it is God's job, not ours, to distinguish between true believers and false ones. But every time he discusses this distinction — every time — he does so on the same basis as in the passage above, on the basis of deeds. Not on mental allegiance to a series of particular propositions. Not on saying "Lord, Lord" or another set of magic words in the sinner's prayer.

Consider Jesus' most expansive discussion of this subject in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). The righteous sheep are separated from the unrighteous goats exclusively on the basis of their deeds — specifically on the basis of how they responded to the neediest, the poor, the hungry, the sick, imprisoned and homeless.

The remarkable, but little remarked on, aspect of this story is that Jesus suggests two and only two categories of people. The first type, the sheep, do his will, but have no idea who he is. The goats, by contrast, know who Jesus is and claim to follow him, but they do not do his will.

We reflexively fill in the other, unmentioned quadrants when we read this story, the ones that contain the categories of people we're most accustomed to thinking of. Surely, logically, we reassure ourselves, there must also be people who claim to follow Christ and do so, and people who do not know who Christ is and do not do his will. But the story makes no mention of such people. This is part of what makes the story so unsettling, a perfect example of what it means to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

The Calvinists reading this are doubtless now convinced I'm advocating some form of Arminian "works-righteousness." I'm not. I'm simply refusing to play the game in which we create a false dichotomy between faith and works and then pretend to choose which of these hollow abstractions is more important. Therein lies madness and a neverending, irrelevant dispute. "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do." One might as well start an argument about which blade in a pair of scissors does the cutting.*

L&J also suggest, perhaps inadvertently, that deeds/works/behavior are essential to the distinction between true and false faith. Buck's father is indicted for "the lack of any connection between his … church attendance and [his] daily [life]."

Their main point here, it seems at first, is to say that there's more to being a Christian than simply attending church. I couldn't argue with that. They further suggest that church attendance ought to shape and influence one's daily life. That wasn't the case for Buck's father and brother, which is part of why they are left out and left behind.

But is that the only reason? What of the pastor of Buck's father's church? Here is a man who evidently believes he is a Christian, and as an ordained minister, his faith apparently is connected to his daily life. Yet he gets left behind too. So how come he doesn't make the cut?

In the world of Left Behind, simply attending church isn't enough. It seems you have to attend the right kind of church — the kind of church where they teach you the specific formulas and the precise propositional content of belief that will enable you to say the magic words, compelling God to extend you his grace. This is neither a Calvinistic nor an Arminian doctrine. It's a matter of spellcasting to bind the djinni-God to do your will.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* To my Calvinist friends: FWIW, I do not believe that works earn us grace, but rather that grace necessarily enables works. Beyond that, I don't want to get sucked into this discussion because I think your categories confuse more than they clarify.


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72 responses to “L.B.: Making the cut”

  1. I do not believe that works earn us grace, but rather that grace necessarily enables works.
    As a Calvinst friend, I say, Amen!
    BTW, some scissors have only one sharp blade, but it still doesn’t cut without the other. I wonder while blade would be works?

  2. I do not believe that works earn us grace, but rather that grace necessarily enables works.
    As a Calvinst friend, I say, Amen!
    BTW, some scissors have only one sharp blade, but it still doesn’t cut without the other. I wonder while blade would be works?

  3. You don’t want to argue soteriology? But it’s such delightful nonproductive fun! There’s nothing like dueling quotes (from Paul to Christ, to a prophet, and then back to Paul again) that in the end leave each side in the debate equally convinced of their own rightness.

  4. “It’s a matter of spellcasting to bind the djinni-God to do your will.”
    I remember hearing once that that was the reason no one knows God’s true name; that buy knowing a god’s name (in the world view of BCE Middle East) you could then command it to do your bidding. Adonai, Allah, the Lord are all titles not names.

  5. “But then this section isn’t about character, it’s about soterioiogy [sic].” Typo, dude.
    Another good posting, and, yes, the father-son discussion reads like a plot point, as the MST3K dudes used to say. It does not sound like a discussion between father and son, however conflicted and competitive, following a disaster of the magnitude outlined in previous postings. “Couldn’t be the Rapture…’cause we’re still here!” I expect you would see serious denial from us left behind folks, but I expect that seriously religious people would try to torture out a face-saving rationalization from their sacred books.

  6. Actually, I’m pretty sure that “The Lord”(as it is tranlated) was more or less meant to be the name of God, YHWH. However, because the name is never entoned, we have no way of knowing how it is supposed to be pronounced. In synagouges readers were trained to say Elohim (High God or God of Gods) whenever they came across YHWH. Copyists then used the vowels from Elohim when transcribing the Torah as a conventional reminder. Confusion over this convention when Gentiles started translating lead to Jehovah (Yehovih).
    One thing I’m not getting about this section is why, according L&J, is Cam/Buck’s father excluded? Do they explicitly say he doesn’t belong to the right church? Did he do something naughty apart from being jealous of his successful son and bringing petroleum to Arizona? Since they seem to be on the extreme side of faith-righteousness, where the fruits of the new life are simply nagging everyone else, not you know actually doing anything productive, how can they say that anyone who professes the faith will be…left behind?

  7. “Couldn’t be the Rapture…’cause we’re still here!”
    Good one, VKW. That will make a good bumper sticker to place next to the “In case of rapture car will be empty” sticker.

  8. “Yahoowahoo” is from the Cartoon History of the Universe, by Larry Gonick. Read it.

  9. Off topic: My Jesuit theology teacher taught that the name of God, YHWH, as told to Moses in Exodus is a sort of Hebrew anagram. The Hebrew Pentateuch had only consonants not vowels. Different vowels makes YHWH into: “I am who I am”, “I will be who I will be”, and a third which I can’t recall. God tells Moses “Tell Pharaoh that ‘I am’ sent you.”
    This is why, according to my teacher, when Jesus uses the words “I am” in the Garden (John 18.5) he is seen by the pharisees as commiting blasphemy. (As well as declaring himself to be God.) This is why the pharisees throw themselves to the ground (John 18.6). Throwing oneself prostrate, as taught by the pharisees, is the proper response to avoiding the wrath of God accidentally hitting innocent bystanders.
    As I said off topic, and I can’t believe I have a fond memory of my time at the University of Detroit High School.

  10. yes YHWH doesn’t mean “lord” that’s just what the Hebrews read when they got to that point.

  11. Jenn, that wouldn’t be a good bumper sticker if the rapture occurs like I know it will. If you get my drift. Just having fun. I believe Jesus says “that the dead in Christ will rise first and those who are alive in Christ and remain will be caught up in a twinkle of an eye.” This is the definition of the rapture. How can this not occur when the Bible says it will? I guess I have a problem with people making fun of the Second Comming of Christ when the bible clearly says it will occur. It becomes more problematic if the rapture occurs than the other way around for those who don’t believe in the rapture.

  12. Jenn, that wouldn’t be a good bumper sticker if the rapture occurs like I know it will. If you get my drift. Just having fun. I believe Jesus says “that the dead in Christ will rise first and those who are alive in Christ and remain will be caught up in a twinkle of an eye.” This is the definition of the rapture. How can this not occur when the Bible says it will? I guess I have a problem with people making fun of the Second Comming of Christ when the bible clearly says it will occur. It becomes more problematic if the rapture occurs than the other way around for those who don’t believe in the rapture.

  13. After reading this week’s quoted passage, I was trying to recall your comments on the phenomenon that is the Left Behind series. Fiction writers can fail in many ways — from uninteresting plots and characters, to the mechanics of the writing itself, to the failure to connect the fictional world to our own in some meaningful way. As a reader, I’m sometimes willing to put up with failures in some areas of the writing, if there are compensating successes in other areas. What is it then, that compensates for the failure in so many areas by LaHaye and Jenkins, that makes the series not only publishable, but a best seller?
    Here are some of the failures you have pointed out from week to week, and their appearance in this week’s exciting episode.
    1. Bad theology.
    Say the secret words, and win eternal life. Belong to a church where you don’t have to say them, and even if you live them… left behind.
    2. Bad writing (mechanics).
    “… been resented by the family…”
    “… especially since Cameron had been away…”
    3. Bad writing (artificial characters and actions)
    Arizona has oil and resents Texas oil?
    Arizona is the land of the working class?
    Yet another phone call.
    4. Bad writing (use of cliche, poorly expressed)
    Father/son cliche this week. This line of yours, Fred, is killer: “They manage to spend several pages on Buck’s conflict with his father without revealing anything more about his character. That’s not easy to do.”
    “He had let bygones be bygones but resented that he was now welcome because he was somebody.” (Heh. This could have gone in the next category, too.)
    5. Unconscious/subconscious evil ideas
    See bad theology.
    So much bad stuff in so little space. How do they do it?
    I went back over the archives to see what you had written (didn’t get to the comments on the posts). In a cursory look, I only found a couple of reasons you had given for why these books are popular:
    1. Fear.
    2. Fan fiction phenomenon.
    I understand the “fan fiction” phenomenon. I was once at a concert that included the Beach Boys. They were really bad. Out of tune, out of rhythm, and late to boot. But for most of the people there, it was as if they could only hear the music they’d heard played on the radio over and over again, not what was actually being played by the group in front of them.
    So what do you, Fred, and the rest of the group here think are the fundamental reasons for the popularity of the books?

  14. I don’t think it is bad theology but a misinterpretation and an overgeneralization of the “bad theology”. We do know the bible says, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and Believe in your heart that God is risen from the dead you shall be saved.” That doesn’t appear to be “bad theology” to me. I no church or no one who believes say the “magic words” or “pray the magic prayer” to go to heaven. I do know that it is Faith in Christ alone as the determining factor. Many churchs don’t believe this is and hence the problem. I also have a problem with fear as well but some people equate what actually is conviction with fear and I feel that is where the problem arises. “…convicted of sin, righteousness and judgement.” While we are not to judge, I still think if the Bible makes a judgement it is not us judging but God since the Bible is God’s Word. That is said within the attitude of gentleness and respect. Attitude is the key.

  15. jwhook–
    The short answer to your question is something Fred has mentioned on a few occasions–Left Behind is Fundamentalist Evangelical Revenge Porn. It tells a story which puts forth the notion that the whole point of Christianity is for the (right-wing and Darbyite prophecy-obsessed) believers to be whisked away to Heaven and watch with pleasure while God angrily and violently punishes everyone who ever wronged them or even disagreed with them politically, allowing them to spike their spiritual football and taunt the damned with cries of, “Ha ha, we were right all along. Have fun in Hell.”
    There’s obviously more to it than that, but that’s why I call it the Short Answer…

  16. In Exodus 3, Moses asks who it is that is sending him to Egypt to rescue his people. The answer is (transliterated): ‘ehyeh asher ehyeh.’ No one really knows what that means. It is “I am that I am” or “I will be who I will be” or something like that. YHWH comes from that, though it is not clear in Scripture how that happens.
    Readers in the synagogues were trained to say “Adonai,” which is translated as “Lord.” This practice really didn’t start until the time of the Exile. It is the combination of the letters of YHWH and the vowel points of Adonai that creates the non-name of God “Jehovah” (Yahovai).
    The best evidence is that Yahweh (Yevah in the Masoretic text) was intended to really be the name of God, not just a title like Elohim, Adonai or El-laharoi or what have you. If there was a widespread belief that knowing the name of a god would give one control over it (which is at least plausible given the magical nature of many ancient religions), ISTM that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob giving his personal name turns that on its head, since he is anything but a tame God.
    FWIW

  17. The traditional English reading of YHWH is, of course, Jehovah.
    I don’t see anything particularly suspicious in the omission of loving Christians and heartless unbelievers from the Sheep and the Goats parable. Presumably, Jesus didn’t need to separate them because they found their correct place on their own. Only the people who — on seeing Jesus reigning in heaven — mistakenly assumed they’d blown it or mistakenly assumed they were home free needed correction.

  18. DH: I think I’d understand your last comment better if you were to rewrite it without using any of the same words. (It should be possible, since there are no “magic words” that must be used to express what you’re trying to say.)

  19. I followed that Bible link, and before the parable of the sheep and the goats, there’s the parable of the talents. What’s up with that?
    But on the sheep and the goats, I think you’re reading too much into it, Fred, to say the categories involved are those who “do his will, but have no idea who he is”, and those who “know who Jesus is and claim to follow him, but they do not do his will”. I don’t see any indication in the parable that the righteous did not claim to follow Christ. The point is that neither group _recognised Christ in the needy stranger_, not that one group didn’t believe in Christ.
    (Oh, and DH, “How can this not occur when the Bible says it will?” – there’s a very simple answer to that one.)

  20. The traditional English reading of YHWH is, of course, Jehovah.
    Stone her, stone her!!!!!
    (Sorry, couldn’t resist the “Life of Brian” reference :-) ).

  21. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the “Life of Brian” reference :-) ).
    That was exactly what I was thinking. I can’t read the word “Jehovah” without thinking of the guy about to be stoned dancing and chanting “Jehovah! Jehovah! Jehovah!”

  22. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the “Life of Brian” reference :-) ).
    That was exactly what I was thinking. I can’t read the word “Jehovah” without thinking of the guy about to be stoned dancing and chanting “Jehovah! Jehovah! Jehovah!”

  23. Now, look! No one is to stone anyone until I blow this whistle! Do you understand?! Even, and I want to make this absolutely clear, even if they do say ‘Jehovah.’ Ow!

  24. Wait a minute… Last week, you said, “Remember that whole rapture thing? Yeah, well, we’re done with that now.” But they’re still talking about it in the following pages.
    Or were you exaggerating for comic effect??

  25. Stone her, stone her!
    That’s not fair! Stephan said it first. Why am I the one who gets the stoning? (BTW, thanks, Stephan. I was thinking “adonai” fit in there somehow, but I wasn’t sure how.)
    It was the lack of any connection between his family’s church attendance and their daily lives
    Somehow I don’t think he means feeding the hungry and caring for the sick, but smiling sweetly and saying “Have a blessed day,” and taking every possible opportunity to drum up new members for the church. My guess is that this is less about faith vs. works than about faith vs. evangelical faith.

  26. 3. Bad writing (artificial characters and actions)
    Arizona has oil and resents Texas oil?
    Ah, yes. The vast oil fields of . . . Arizona?
    For that matter, where’s the Middle Eastern oil in this equation?

  27. “So what do you, Fred, and the rest of the group here think are the fundamental reasons for the popularity of the books?”
    No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.
    –H.L. Mencken, philosopher

  28. That’s not fair! Stephan said it first. Why am I the one who gets the stoning?
    Well, you are a woman. It’s worse when a woman says it. Sheesh, I thought everyone knew that!

  29. For an interesting study of works and grace, among other things, I suggest the anime “Haibane Renmei.” Four disks, 13 episodes, rather slow, and establishes a very interesting world based on sorrow, forgiveness, grace and intentions.

  30. * To my Calvinist friends: FWIW, I do not believe that works earn us grace, but rather that grace necessarily enables works.
    Is there anybody else out there who finds that just as hollow and unethical..and frankly quite mean-spirited as anything in the LB books?
    One of those “hollow abstracts” IS more important, from a society point of view. Infinately more important. Good works, of course. Helping your fellow human being, that’s what it’s all about.
    The reliance on faith to prove rightousness..well down that road lies the moral abyss.

  31. I’m simply refusing to play the game in which we create a false dichotomy between faith and works and then pretend to choose which of these hollow abstractions is more important. Therein lies madness and a neverending, irrelevant dispute. “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” One might as well start an argument about which blade in a pair of scissors does the cutting.
    As a damned heathen, perhaps I’m not the best person to weigh in on the subject, but here goes.
    My take on the whole faith vs. works debate is that the endless back-and-forth is the entire point. The bible isn’t contradictory as a result of error, but intentionally, so that we can never really be sure what it takes to be saved. If the bible spelled out clearly and unequivocally each and every requirement to enter heaven, you would end up with a bunch of legalistically minded “Christians” walking around with checklists. You don’t have to think about it, or try to understand it. You just follow the instructions. That isn’t faith. Even I know that.
    As long as there is ambiguity you can never be sure if you’ve done enough, if you’ve done it right. You always have to do more. You always have to question yourself. I think that this constant reflection and self examination is a key ingredient to faith. Indeed, I have a hard time conceiving of a faith that doesn’t include it.
    But again, seriously lapsed catholic speaking here, so take with copious amounts of salt.

  32. The simpler explanation is that the Bible is contradictory because some of the people writing it (or choosing the gospels) said “faith not works”, and some said “faith and works”, and so the final version has both.

  33. Sophist, that was purely brilliant. Of course I am a semi-agnostic pagan, so what do I know?
    A few years ago I heard a radio station play the song “Hands” by Jewel, immediately after which the DJ came on and said “that is so true, we are in God’s hands.” I almost called the station to say, no, you moron, the song says we are God’s hands. God will not do the work for us.
    I don’t want to take the faith-versus-works question very far, but I will ask, for anyone who cares to give an opinion: if it is true that grace necessarily enables works, can one do works without grace? Which raises the question, what is grace, anyway, and how does it connect to faith?

  34. He missed Christmas and his dad and brother never forgave him?? Doesn’t sound like any dad and brother I know. In my family, someone missing Christmas means more food for everyone else.

  35. Lucia, for my (admittedly non-Christian-raised) reaction, I always heard the “better they forget Me and follow My laws” point emphasised (way back when).

  36. Sophist:Actually the reason it’s like that, is for most of the history of the church, the theology of it was something that was kept out of reach for the common man. The discussion of religious-based morals was left in the hands of the powers that be, so that they could twist it for their own ends.
    And as for the meaning of faith. It depends on who you ask. For some people, that IS the meaning of faith.
    Lucia:Again, it depends on who you ask. Grace, then on the other side of that you have rightousness really. Grace generally is obtained through faith, but rightousness is usually through works. That’s generally how it works.
    The big problem, is the idea that faith trumps works. That in essence, works don’t matter as long as you got the faith. And even the non faithful who do the works, are lesser people without the faith. In this case, everything comes down to the grace aspect.

  37. Sophist:Actually the reason it’s like that, is for most of the history of the church, the theology of it was something that was kept out of reach for the common man. The discussion of religious-based morals was left in the hands of the powers that be, so that they could twist it for their own ends.
    And as for the meaning of faith. It depends on who you ask. For some people, that IS the meaning of faith.
    Lucia:Again, it depends on who you ask. Grace, then on the other side of that you have rightousness really. Grace generally is obtained through faith, but rightousness is usually through works. That’s generally how it works.
    The big problem, is the idea that faith trumps works. That in essence, works don’t matter as long as you got the faith. And even the non faithful who do the works, are lesser people without the faith. In this case, everything comes down to the grace aspect.

  38. “if it is true that grace necessarily enables works, can one do works without grace? Which raises the question, what is grace, anyway, and how does it connect to faith?”
    This is a good question. Grace cuts to the heart of Christianity; it is what Jesus was all about. Barth said (paraphrasing) that religion is humanity reaching for God, but grace is God reaching for humanity. So one definition of Christianity is that it is the religion that recognizes the futility of religion defined as “obedience to commandments”. Christianity depends crucially on the actions of God, not just on the actions of people seeking God.
    This is why the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is of central importance in Christianity. Leaving aside banal theological details for a moment, Jesus’ life and death are the loving actions of God, out of no particular sense of obligation, reaching out to all humanity for their good. “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Corinthians 5.15) That is, God’s grace is God’s limitless love given freely to the whole world and all people in all situations.
    As for all this parsing of somewhat artificial abstractions and dissections of faith, works, and grace, let me quote some Bonhoeffer.
    “Only those who believe obey” is what we say to that part of the believer’s soul which obeys, and “only those who obey believe” is what we say to that part of the soul of the obedient which believes. If the first half of the proposition stands alone, the believer is exposed to the danger of cheap grace, which is another word for damnation. If the second half stands alone, the believer is exposed to the danger of salvation through works, which is also another word for damnation. (The Cost of Discipleship, Ch. 2)
    Beware trying to separate belief from obedience from the work of God! Faith is a lived belief, not merely intellectual assent or merely sets of to-dos. Faith is a person’s response to the grace of God.
    But even at that last sentence Paul turns us on our heads: “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Philippians 2.12-13) So first we do it all, then God does it all. If we are skimming the Bible looking for contradictions, we need look no further. Christianity is nonsense! Or, as Paul put it two thousand years ago, “foolishness to Gentiles”.
    Feynman said in his Lectures on Physics that Einstein was troubled to the end of his life by the quantum mechanical observation that deep down, the best description that we have of reality is only probability: the closer we look, the less we know for certain.
    Christianity revels in such paradoxes. If you don’t like them, Christianity is not for you. But then again, life is rather paradoxical too. Sophist put it this way: “you can never be sure if you’ve done enough, if you’ve done it right”; I would say that Christians are not alone in this boat. Everyone who has ever lived has to confront these conflicts of meaning and questions of life and death, and the deeper you go, the weirder things get. Should we be surprised that Christianity is then talking weird?
    That’s why Left Behind is so offensive to me. L&J are not going any deeper, they are not taking up the hard cases, they are not trying to pierce the heart of Christianity; just nail Christ up there according to the manual, let him do his thing, then take him down when it’s over. They buried him! They have an answer for everything, neat little categories and boxes, all is explained on LaHaye’s master outline.

  39. ” Where he came from, the kids were supposed to follow their parents into the business. His dad’s was trucking fuel into the state, mostly from Oklahoma and Texas. It was a tough business with local people thinking the resources ought to all come from their own state. …”
    And he’s an Arizonan. *I* live in Arizona. Believe me, the fact that our petroleum by-products come from out of state is only a major issue when a gasoline pipeline fails. (Arizona has no petroleum refineries, so when a pipeline fails — like the Kinder-Morgan pipeline rupture in 2003 — we are damned grateful for the people “trucking fuel into the state”).
    (And just a brief note to thank you, Mr. Clark, for this series. It’s both entertaining and challenging.)

  40. Sophist wrote: If the bible spelled out clearly and unequivocally each and every requirement to enter heaven, you would end up with a bunch of legalistically minded “Christians” walking around with checklists.
    Uh, HELLO! You can’t swing around a dead theologian anywhere in this country without hitting a megachurch-load of “Checklist Christians.”
    Rampant reductionist teaching is the greatest threat in our time to the work of Christ. Vast numbers of people in this country no longer “love their neighbors as themselves” (if they ever did); they fear their neighbors except for the like-minded ones… same checklist, same fears.
    Ironic that comments on a L.B. excerpt yields such keen, edifying theological discussion!

  41. Ironic that comments on a L.B. excerpt yields such keen, edifying theological discussion!
    Oh the ironies just begin there. The more I read about Jesus’s teaching in their historical context, clearer the error of the “checklist Christians.” The essence of Jesus’s Good News was his emphasis on love and faith as opposed to rote obescience to a set of commandments (that and universalism in the sence that gentiles could also be saved). Hanging salvation back on following a set of rules seems to be missing the point. Honestly, we are supposed to oppose homosexuality because of Leviticus?
    And of course the greatest irony is that fundamentalists don’t get irony. Fundamentalists are immune to irony, but they are carriers.

  42. Matthew 7:21 reads in full: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
    See also Jesus’ last words in Matthew (28:19-20):
    And Jesus came to them and spake unto them, saying, All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.
    In other words, Jesus doesn’t want his followers to simply get people to confess his/God’s lordship — the simplistic “magic formula” Christianity of Protestant fundamentalism. (There’s a hierchical dominance/submission aspect to that form of religion — it’s all about paying homage to the designated leader, whether or not you actually exhibit righteous conduct.)
    In Jesus’ teachings, you can’t separate the active doing of God’s will from the believing. In the passage I quoted above, he explicitly tells his followers to teach others to observe all of the things he commanded them to do — which includes things like healing the sick, feeding the hungry, etc. He didn’t just send them out to “win souls” in the purely confessional, I-pledge-allegiance-to-God sense.

  43. Of course you can separate the two – you don’t have to believe in God to heal the sick or feed the hungry.

  44. Can we please just focus on the flaws in the Left Behind series, and not drift off into these “How many angels can dance on the head of pin” arguments?

  45. You don’t need faith in JC to do good works, but if you have faith in JC, you **must** do good works. Otherwise, JC isn’t your “personal saviour”, he’s just an excuse to continue bad behaviour. Or so it seems to this non-Christian.

  46. Bellringer:”Can we please just focus on the flaws in the Left Behind series, and not drift off into these “How many angels can dance on the head of pin” arguments?”
    Actually, as a non-Christian, I’m finding some of these debates fascinating; they give me ammunition for those times that fundie Christians tell me that I’m going to Hell. They also give me hope that those fundie Christians don’t represent Christianity. For that alone, Fred & co are “doing God’s work”.
    Anyway, the flaws in the LB series are so obvious that they don’t need a lot of discussion!

  47. Bellringer:”Can we please just focus on the flaws in the Left Behind series, and not drift off into these “How many angels can dance on the head of pin” arguments?”
    Actually, as a non-Christian, I’m finding some of these debates fascinating; they give me ammunition for those times that fundie Christians tell me that I’m going to Hell. They also give me hope that those fundie Christians don’t represent Christianity. For that alone, Fred & co are “doing God’s work”.
    Anyway, the flaws in the LB series are so obvious that they don’t need a lot of discussion!

  48. Maybe you guys can help me out with this. I was raised Catholic and read the bible but I never understood what is the deal with Paul. He never met Jesus. He’s not in the gospels. All he has is that less than convincing road to Damascus story and yet his views seem to predomintate with christians. I think he gets quoted a lot more than Peter or even Jesus, especially when the fundies are being particularly hateful they’re quoting Paul I have a problem with Paul because it seems like he comes out of nowhere and muscles his way to the top spot in the cult, shoving Peter aside.

  49. Let’s boil this down – simple faith will get you into Heaven (John 6:40 – “for my Father’s will is that, everyone who looks to the son, and believes in Him shall have eternal Life and I will raise him up on the last day”); good works is a necessary by-product of faith (I Corinthians 10:31 – “whatever therefore ye eat or drink or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God”).
    If you truly believe, you will live by the principles of Jesus. If there’s a disconnect – you go to church every Sunday and forget about it every other day of the week – you’re probably not a true believer but (as we say at my church) a “Sunday Morning Christian”.
    However, simple works and works alone won’t get you to Heaven. You can be a nice guy, give money to the poor, help blind ladies across the street, and still end up in Hell. Why? Because you never BELIEVED, i.e. you never had FAITH. Works are a result of faith, not compeltely independent.
    Ephesians 2:8-9 – “For by grace are ye saved through faith; AND THAT NOT OF YOURSELVES; it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast”. Faith has got to come first. It’s fairly simple and Bible-based, not diluted by Church-based dogma and ritualism. It all comes down to a personal faith, not how much you pay or how many services you attend.
    For the non-Christians out there who seem to have trouble understanding the faith – might I suggest a study of the Bible itself, and not commercial works of fiction? I understand it might be harder that way, but the insights gained will be more than worth it.

  50. Careful Pablo, questioning of the Pauline epistles opens the door to heresy.
    I know it opened the door to my walking away from fundamentalism 5 years ago.
    Who does this “paul” think he is, claiming to be an apostle? If you do open that door, things will tend to make a lot more sense.
    For a comment on LB: elementary writing for too wide an audience. They were making a book for all grade levels, and the print size looks like someone trying to cheat on a 20-page research paper by tightening the margins and using a big font on their word processor, not that I’ve never done that trick before, but I wasnt getting millions of dollars for my typewritten spew.

  51. I think I understand the faith well enough already, to be honest. Understanding why people would have faith is another thing.

  52. ‘However, simple works and works alone won’t get you to Heaven. You can be a nice guy, give money to the poor, help blind ladies across the street, and still end up in Hell. Why? Because you never BELIEVED, i.e. you never had FAITH. Works are a result of faith, not compeltely independent.’
    That, however, leads to the question: Why, if that would be true, should decent human beings *want* to go to Heaven, if people who were nice guys, gave money o the poor and helped blind ladies across the street end up in Hell? What would it say about the character of a man if he accepted an invitation to Heaven under such circumstances?

  53. Jesus died so that he could suffer the penalty for our sins; through him, we find redemption. Every one of us deserves to go to Hell and every one of us should, but for the sacrifice of Jesus. Having faith in Jesus includes admitting and asking forgiveness for our sins. The “nice guys” might have been nice, but they never admitted that they were sinful and in need of a Savior.
    I would say it speaks very well of a man’s character if he accepted an invitation to Heaven “under such circumstances”. It means he is humble enough to acknowledge his shortcomings and to ask forgiveness for them. It means he is able to believe in something bigger than himself. It means he sees his deeds not as a reflection of his own glory, but of God’s.
    It’s all in the Bible, should anyone care to give it a serious look. Doesn’t finding excuses NOT to believe get tiring after a while?

  54. nixon: Jesus died so that he could suffer the penalty for our sins
    This isn’t in the Bible anywhere.
    And it’s good that it’s not, because I’m with R.: I can’t accept salvation under those circumstances. God offers to let me off the hook for my sins and instead punish someone else. How can I consent to that? An innocent man was tortured to death so that I would escape the punishment I deserve. I can’t change the past, but at the very least I can refuse to profit from it.
    The message of this doctrine is that Jesus is not one of us, but instead of us. Jesus goes to the cross so that we don’t have to, not so that we can follow him. It also makes a mockery of God’s “justice”, which apparently doesn’t distinguish between punishing the guilty and punishing the innocent as long as someone gets punished.
    Doesn’t finding excuses NOT to believe get tiring after a while?
    I just sit here and the excuses not to believe come to me. Salvaging what good there is in Christianity is what gets tiring.
    Oh, and being patronized by someone who evidently hasn’t bothered to think through the implications of his beliefs before offering them as a replacement for the process of debate and discovery that the rest of us are going through. I tire of that very quickly.

  55. Nixon,
    A couple of things:
    1. What do you mean by faith? I get the impression that it has something to do with believing that Jesus is the son of God, but there has to be more to it than that, right? I mean, believing in a fact isn’t really a soul-changing experience.
    2. Luke 10:25-28 says:
    25On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
    26″What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
    27He answered: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'[c]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'[d]”
    28″You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
    So it enough to love God and your neighbor, or must you believe in the divinity of Jesus as well?
    Ray,
    I think I understand the faith well enough already
    I’m sure you do. I’m sure everyone commenting here does, too. But I’m also sure that our understandings are so widely varied that any real discussion on the subject will impossible unless we make an effort to explain what we mean by ‘faith’.
    I think faith is — to put it in theistic terms — our side of the ongoing dialogue with God. Faith is the response to grace, and grace is the response to faith. Faith is essentially being open to God, which means being open to everything. It means being open enough to not only notice that blind lady on the street-corner, but to empathize with her and so behave as you’d like a passing stranger to behave if you were in her place: by helping her across the street. Unlike the commenter, Nixon, I believe that anyone who responds that way, who helps her without any thought of reward in this world or the next (including the reward of thinking of themselves as a good person), is acting out of faith.
    Like other non-Christians here, I’m uncomfortable hearing that works are not enough, you must also have faith. It sounds like they’re saying, “It doesn’t matter how good a person you are, if you don’t adhere to our belief system, you’re screwed.” It helps me to think about the story of the Bodhidharma, who established Buddhism in China. He once met with the emperor, who was himself a devout Buddhist. The emperor proudly told the Bodhidharma about all the magnificent temples he had built and asked, “What is my merit?” Bodhidharma replied, “No merit at all.” The emperor had behaved generously, but only in order to gain merit. He had investested in Buddhism as one might invest in land or stocks, in the hope of making a profit. Therefore there was no merit in his actions. At its best, the Christian teaching that works alone are not enough is the same as Bodhidharma’s “No merit at all.”

  56. Nixon – what you’re saying is, God has decided that we’re all sinners and deserve to burn in hell for all eternity, but he’ll let us off if we kiss his ass. Well, _I’m_ certainly inspired.
    Excuses NOT to believe? What’s your excuse for not believing in the Tooth fairy?

  57. Nixon – what you’re saying is, God has decided that we’re all sinners and deserve to burn in hell for all eternity, but he’ll let us off if we kiss his ass. Well, _I’m_ certainly inspired.
    Excuses NOT to believe? What’s your excuse for not believing in the Tooth fairy?

  58. As a damned heathen myself (well, not really; I’m Wiccan, not Asatru :-) … I am not at all offended by Fred’s suggestion that “grace enables works.” My interpretation of it might be a little askew from the general populace here, though. “Grace enables works” implies, to me, that Being A Good Person is a Symptom of that state we call Having Grace. It’s an inclusive philosphy. I have known some very Grace-Filled atheists.

  59. Mark,
    Thanks for pointing out that “Jesus died for our sins” is not in the Bible. I always had a problem with that one. Seems to me, if you follow that line of thinking very far at all, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that God killed Jesus. After all, who was it that demanded a blood sacrifice for the crime of eating an apple? Who made the rules in the first place? Though it’s perfectly in line with His Character, I mean, He told Abraham to kill his son, too.
    Fundamentalists, or, to use the biblical term, Pharisees, can’t seem to get past this God-as-psychopathic-father-writ-large stage. I think that may be all there is to this LB business, they are pinning all their hopes on the rest of us getting a whuppin when Daddy gets home, because otherwise they have thrown their lives away for nothing, and that really sucks.

  60. > Thanks for pointing out that “Jesus died for our sins” is not in the Bible.
    Alas, the assertion is quite incorrect, as evinced by the following passages:
    Romans 3:23-35 … for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God set forth to be an atoning sacrifice, through faith in his blood, for a demonstration of his righteousness through the passing over of prior sins, in God’s forbearance …
    Hebrews 10:11-14 Every priest indeed stands day by day ministering and often offering the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, but he, when he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; … . For by one offering he has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.
    I John 2:2 And he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.
    I John 4:10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
    As to the question of who killed Jesus, that is a little harder to deal with, but still not complicated. John records Jesus saying “No one takes it [his life] away from me, but I lay it down by myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. I received this commandment from my Father.” (John 17:18) Perhaps Jesus would be best to blame for killing himself, though clearly with the complicitity of the Father. Of course, from a Trinitarian perspective, Jesus and the Father are ultimately part of the same entity and identity, so suicide would probably be the most accurate way of looking at it. So while the divine logic behind the situation may be bizarre, at least we can’t accuse God of getting of easy (of course, again, assuming Trinitarianism).

  61. Anonymous critic:
    For the record, that’s not the assertion I made. What’s not in the Bible is this: “Jesus died so that he could suffer the penalty for our sins.” Though I’ll take the opportunity to point out that the words “Jesus died for our sins” don’t appear in any of the passages you quoted, either.
    As to the question of who killed Jesus, that is a little harder to deal with, but still not complicated.
    Pontius Pilate killed Jesus. I thought that was pretty well settled.

  62. As to the question of who killed Jesus, that is a little harder to deal with, but still not complicated.
    Pontius Pilate killed Jesus. I thought that was pretty well settled.
    Well, technically, the soldiers/executioners who actually carried out the crucifixion were the ones who killed Jesus. But between the Jewish leaders who were jealous of Him and Pontius Pilate, and the various other voices calling for His crucifixion there is certainly more than enough complicity to go around.

  63. Mark: Salvaging what good there is in Christianity is what gets tiring.
    There’s a book by a guy named Emmet Fox called The Sermon on the Mount, which I really like. I had given up on christianity, and all organized religion, long ago. I read this book and found that the Sermon itself has some really good stuff in it, that’s useful even if you don’t buy into the rest of the theology. Fox takes things further than I can follow, and his hyperbolic style is difficult at times. But if you can get past that, this book can help you find the good left in christianity.
    Also interesting, is The Lost Gospel Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus.
    But, alas, trying to find the good in organized christianity is a lost cause. Give up. (Unless you count the Quakers as organized, which you probably shouldn’t.)

  64. This is only the first time I’ve found your blog, and I’m enjoying your comments on Left Behind, which I became disenchanted with some years ago. However, your one comment here bothered me. You claim that Arminianism represents a “works righteousness”. This is untrue. Arminianism teaches that we are saved by faith and faith alone, and that election is conditioned on faith. The idea of salvation by works is called Pelagianism.