L.B.: King of Kings and Capo di tutti capi

L.B.: King of Kings and Capo di tutti capi January 20, 2006

Left Behind, pp. 189-190

The Rev. Bruce Barnes is an odd man. He's twitchy and God-haunted like Hazel Motes in Wise Blood. He says he believes in the "rapture," but we don't see him rejoicing over the salvation of his wife and children. Instead he acts more like God took them and left a ransom note. Now God wants him to proselytize, and he'd better do it if he knows what's good for him.

Barnes has a similar terrified reverence for the dear departed senior pastor, whose former office he leads Rayford and Chloe into for his sales pitch:

"I don't sit at his desk or use his library," the younger man [Barnes] said, "but I do work in here at his conference table."

I kind of understand how Barnes might feel unworthy to sit at the late pastor's desk — whether from self-loathing or from a healthier form of humility. But why avoid the old man's library? Those books contain the gnosis, the secret knowledge that leads to salvation as the senior pastor understood it. Plus they've got all those wonderful dispensational timelines and prophecy checklists. The old guy was enough of an End Times fanatic to have recorded an in-case-of-rapture video, so you know his library contains Ironside's fantastical charts, the complete works of Hal Lindsay, and even Tim LaHaye's own intricately detailed week-by-week accounts of the seven-year Tribulation that apparently started four days ago. If I were convinced, as Bruce Barnes claims to be, that all these books had just been proven right, I would be going through that library and marking the calendar, trying to figure out how many months I had to stockpile bottled water before Wormwood falls from the sky and turns the seas and rivers into blood.

(Barnes' comment here also probably tells us something about one of Left Behind's co-authors. LaHaye was himself a senior pastor and I'm guessing he didn't like the other members of his staff touching his desk or his books while he was away from the big office.)

"I can't imagine God would call me to take over this work," Barnes says, "but if he does, I want to be ready."

"And how will he call you?" Chloe said, a smile playing at her mouth. "By phone?"

Barnes didn't respond in kind. "To tell you the truth, it wouldn't surprise me. I don't know about you, but he got my attention last week. A phone call from heaven would have been less traumatic."

Chloe raised her eyebrows, apparently in surrender to his point.

It's probable that Bruce meant to say "dramatic" there, rather than "traumatic," but let's not dwell too long on choosing the right word, since it's clear that Jerry Jenkins never did.

The odd thing here is that Chloe seems utterly unfamiliar with the idea of being "called" to ministry. This is particularly odd when you consider that Chloe's mother, Irene, was a devout and vocal evangelical Christian, and that Chloe herself attended church regularly until she was a teenager. At most evangelical churches, even young children are taught to respect and to hope for a calling to "full-time Christian ministry." But It's unthinkable that one could attend any church for more than a few months without becoming acquainted with the term "calling."

This term and this idea aren't purely religious esoterica, either. They're part of Western culture. The idea that every person, including the laity, has a calling was a central theme of the Reformation and has helped to shape the culture of those nations — including this one — with roots in Protestant Christianity. In other words, if Chloe somehow managed to avoid hearing the term during all her years in church and the rest of her daily life, she certainly should have encountered it at Stanford when she had to read Durkheim or Weber, or even in freshman Intro to Western Civ.

This is an example of the kind of creepy, subcultural weirdness that pervades LB and so much of the other entertainments — from "Contemporary Christian music" to those awful direct-to-DVD "Christian" movies — produced by and for evangelicals. The people producing these products have little sense or understanding of the larger culture and its relationship with their symbiotic subculture. They take for granted that every reader/listener will comprehend the coded jargon particular to the subculture, which tends not to be the case. At the same time, they assume that all outsiders are completely ignorant of many of the aspects of their faith that are held far more broadly than just within their subculture.

It's also yet another example of the characters in LB contradicting L&J's explicit characterization of them. Chloe, they tell us, is sharp-witted and clever, but that's not how she comes across here.

Barnes won't be deterred. He saw what God did to his wife and kids, and to all of his coworkers, and he knows the Big Guy means business. So Barnes cuts right to the business himself:

"I don't want to be rude, but I don't want you to be either. I asked for a few moments of your time. If I still have it, I want to try to make use of it. Then I'll leave you alone. You can do anything you want with what I tell you. Tell me I'm crazy, tell me I'm self-serving. Leave and never come back. That's up to you. But can I have the floor for a few minutes?"

There's an urgency here, but it seems more the urgency of fear than of love. Barnes' concern is less for the fate of the Steeles' immortal souls than it is for his own fate if he should fail to discharge his duty to present the Big Guy's message. This reminds me again of Annie Dillard's account of her encounter with another of the Big Guy's messengers, a woman whose doorbell she rang asking for permission to cross her property along Tinker Creek. This is from Dillard's Teaching a Stone To Talk:

The woman was very nervous. She was dark, pretty, hard, with the same trembling lashes as the boy. She wore a black dress and one brush roller in the front of her hair. She did not ask me in.

My explanation of myself confused her, but she gave permission. Yes, I could walk their property. … She did not let me go; she was worried about something else. She worked her hands. I waited on the other side of the screen door until she came out with it:

"Do you know the Lord as your personal savior?"

My heart went out to her. No wonder she had been so nervous. She must have to ask this of everyone, absolutely everyone, she meets. That is Christian witness. It makes sense, given its premises. I wanted to make her as happy as possible, reward her courage, and run.

She was stunned that I knew the Lord, and clearly uncertain whether we were referring to the same third party. But she had done her bit, bumped over the hump, and now she could relax.

Like Barnes, this woman was scared. Her fear also was not driven by concern for the soul of her target, but by the consequences she might meet if she failed to carry out her duty in this encounter. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," Proverbs says, but this kind of quivering, flinching, dog-that's-been-beat-too-much fearfulness is not what Solomon had in mind. This woman, like Barnes, acts less like she's dealing with God than like she's dealing with the Godfather.

Maybe Barnes/Jenkins used the right word after all. For them, dealing with God really does seem to be traumatic.

Browse Our Archives