L.B.: A Grief Denied

L.B.: A Grief Denied October 28, 2005

Left Behind, pp. 165-170

My least favorite book by C.S. Lewis is one called The Problem of Pain. Lewis eventually seemed not to like it very much either.

If you've ever seen the movie or the play Shadowlands, then you're familiar with the circumstances — his autumnal marriage to Joy Davidman and her slow death from cancer — that led Lewis to write a much better book on the subject. That later book was called A Grief Observed. Where The Problem of Pain is detached, abstract and inhuman, A Grief Observed is raw, candid and full of human experience. Grief has become one of those books that people give to others who are dealing with grief and suffering. Nobody does that with The Problem of Pain — that would be cruel.

In the early pages of Grief, Lewis writes of the crisis of faith brought on by the suffering and death of his wife. He doesn't come to question the existence of God but, rather, the nature of God. What if loss, pain and suffering are what God intends? What if God is really like this, a "cosmic vivisectionist"?

That's a tough question, and at some point an inescapable one for anyone who — like me or Lewis — believes in the existence of a loving God.

It's not entirely clear that the God of Left Behind is a loving God. As many have noted in the comments section here, the vengeful demiurge of LaHaye and Jenkins seems like a cruel god. Both he and his followers seem to take a bit too much delight in the destruction of the wicked and the weak. They seem to be basing their idea of God on a twisted paraphrase of Julian of Norwich: "All go to Hell, and all go to Hell, and every kind of person goes to Hell."

Even Kirk Cameron — the former Growing Pains star who now plays Buck Williams in the Left Behind movies — seems troubled by this cruel picture of the Almighty. He wrote a column for the loopy "Worldview Weekend" folks titled "Stay Behind" (dissected here by Sadly, No!) in which, as someone said here in comments, he seems to call for evangelical Bodhisattvas:

I wonder if Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye would ever consider writing a book called Stay Behind, about a group of Christians who would rather stay and reach the lost than depart and be with the Lord?

Since even Kirk/Buck is troubled by this impression of the deity of LB, Tim & Jerry have to deal with it. And they almost do here, as just such an objection is raised by Chloe Steele:

"Daddy, what does this make God? Some sick, sadistic dictator?"

"Careful, honey. You think I'm wrong. But what if I'm right?"

"Then God is spiteful, hateful, mean. Who wants to go to heaven with a God like that?"

"If that's where your mom and Raymie are, that's where I want to be."

"I want to be with them, too, Daddy! But tell me how this fits with a loving, merciful God. When I went to church, I got tired of hearing how loving God is. He never answered my prayers and I never felt like he knew me or cared about me. Now you're saying I was right. He didn't. I didn't qualify, so I got left behind? You'd better hope you're not right."

"But if I'm not right, who is right, Chloe? Where are they? Where is everybody?"

And that's it. "Rayford dropped the subject and went to watch television."

"Careful, honey," he cautioned his daughter. I picture him looking furtively over each shoulder and backing away from her slightly, fearful that God may smite her on the spot.

Rayford doesn't disagree with Chloe — he never argues that God is not a "sick, sadistic dictator," or that God is not "spiteful, hateful, mean." He simply points out that the spiteful cosmic dictator has whisked his wife and son off to heaven, and that if he ever hopes to see them again some day he'll have to play by the Great Dictator's rules.

L&J seem suddenly to realize that it's been nearly eight pages since the last phone conversation, and even longer since Rayford has had a chance to say something condescending about Hattie, so they correct this with a phone call from Pan Continental Airlines. As Rayford receives his instructions for his next assignment (with, of course, plenty of irrelevant detail) he also learns that Hattie has asked to be assigned to his next flight.

Rayford sighed. "No objections, I guess. No, wait. Let's just let it happen if it happens."

"I'm not following you, Captain."

"I'm just saying if she gets assigned in the normal course, I have no objection. But let's not go through any gymnastics to make it happen."

There's no indication here that Hattie's request was some kind of sexual overture. She's just been through a catastrophe and she's reaching out to everyone she knows for mutual support and comfort.

Rayford, on the other hand, responds to hardship — and to all of life — like the American evangelical he is soon to become. Take care of your family with a fierce defensiveness, and let everyone else fend for themselves.

He tries again to convince his daughter of his theory that the dictator-God was behind the disappearances. "Don't say you won't even consider it," he tells her.

"Well, did you consider the space invaders theory?"

"As a matter of fact, I did."

"You're kidding."

"I considered everything. This was so far beyond human experience, what were we supposed to think?"

Rayford is lying. He never considered "the space invaders theory." He never considered any possibility other than the rapture theory. Within instants of learning about the mass disappearances — all the way back on page 19 — he had already made up his mind: "The terrifying truth was that he knew all too well. Irene had been right. He, and most of his passengers, had been left behind."

The closest he comes to considering the ET theory is when his daughter mentions it and he mentally mocks it as a nutty California notion, the kind of ridiculous idea believed by "people on the West Coast [who] afforded the tabloids the same weight Midwesterners gave the Chicago Tribune or even the New York Times."

So why does Rayford lie to his daughter? And, more to the point, why do L&J seem to think it's OK for Rayford to lie to his daughter? It's possible they simply haven't been paying attention. Continuity is not their strong suit — Jenkins' 28-day process for cranking out these novels doesn't seem to include time for reading them over before having them published.

But what seems really to be happening here is that L&J are telling readers that it's OK to lie if that's what you have to do to convert the heathen. Chloe's mortal soul is in peril, and what's a little white lie compared to that?

Rayford tells his daughter about the "In Case of Rapture" videotape made by Irene's pastor. Chloe remains skeptical, so Rayford responds with this succinct statement of the logic behind L&J's faith in their vindicating rapture scenario:

"You're coming at this as a skeptic, so sure it sounds ridiculous to you. I see no other logical explanation, so I can't wait to hear the tape."

Chloe, reluctantly, agrees to ride along when Rayford goes to the church.

"We'll go over there tomorrow," Rayford said, disappointed in her reaction but no less determined to follow through, for her sake as much as his. If he was right, he did not want to fail his own daughter.

A loving father, Rayford won't rest until his daughter is dead and in heaven. Even if that means lying to her until his tongue turns black.

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