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." …


… [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.

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* 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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