L.B.: The real sin of the Rev. Bruce Barnes

L.B.: The real sin of the Rev. Bruce Barnes February 4, 2006

Left Behind, pp. 195-197

To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,

But life without meaning is the torture

Of restlessness and vague desire —

It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

— Edgar Lee Masters, from "Spoon River Anthology"

Rayford Steele's wife, Irene, was snatched away by God because she was a Real True Christian. She had learned to be an RTC at the New Hope Village Church. Looking for answers, Rayford drives to the church to meet with the Rev. Bruce Barnes — one of only a handful from the congregation who were left to live because they were, it turns out, not really Real True Christians.

"How did you miss it?" Rayford asks Barnes. And the now-penitent visitation pastor tells him. Barnes offers a three-page monologue describing a life of hypocrisy and insidious sin. The acts he details are … well, rather unimpressive, actually. The guy may have been a half-assed pastor, but he was scarcely even a quarter-assed sinner.

I told my wife that we tithed to the church, you know, that we gave 10 percent of our income. I hardly ever gave any, except when the plate was passed I might drop in a few bills to make it look good.

I probably shouldn't downplay this too much, since Ananias and Sapphira were punished rather severely for a more extreme case of something similar — but this still seems rather petty. Yes, lying to his wife was wrong. And the hypocrisy of trying to look generous when the offering plate was passed was wrong. But we're also talking about his tithing back to the church the income he just received from the church — which makes the whole thing seem like the way Barnes & Noble promises a 35 percent discount on a 50 percent markup. (And for Judas' sake, haven't these people ever heard of pre-addressed offering and tithing envelopes? With this kind of shoddy bookkeeping you just know somebody on the finance committee was skimming.)

The real sense you get reading this — and reading about all of Barnes' other sins — is of a not-very-imaginative pastor standing in the pulpit, just knowing that his congregants have sin in their hearts, but unable to imagine what that sin might be. LaHaye and Jenkins here are poorly served by their Protestant rejection of the sacrament of confession. You'd never read such a paltry list of sins in a novel by a Catholic priest like Andrew Greeley.

I encouraged people to share their faith, to tell other people how to become Christians. But on my own I never did that.

Here again, the hypocrisy is probably worse than the actual sin of omission. Evangelism is a Christian imperative, but it is not a universal gift, so I'm not completely sure his failure to exercise that gift even is a sin of omission. (And, in the context of this book, Irene is never condemned for not telling her husband and daughter "how to become Christians.")

The real dynamic here, I think, is that when evangelism is reduced to a sales pitch, to telling "other people how to become Christians," then it becomes an awkward, embarrassing, cringe-inducing experience for all involved. The only way to get Christians to engage in this mutually painful form of marketing is to lay on the guilt as thick and heavy as possible. This is part of that guilt trip: Move the product or you're going to Hell.

Barnes goes on to confess that, "I hardly ever read my Bible except when preparing a talk or lesson." He views this as another sin of omission, a failure to carry out another Christian duty. L&J insist that Christians must carry out such duties, and so they include this too in their guilt-trip. But what if Barnes' real failure here is not his failure to carry out his duty, but rather the fact that he seems to view such things as duties to be carried out?

My job was to visit people in their homes and nursing homes and hospitals every day. I was good at it. I encouraged them, smiled at them, talked with them, prayed with them, even read Scripture to them. But I never did that on my own, privately.

We've already discussed that Barnes wasn't good at this — that he shows no hint of awareness of the kind of human suffering one encounters in "homes and nursing homes and hospitals every day." But bracket that for now.

If Barnes really spends his work-week carrying out such a ministry, is it then a sin of omission that he fails to do this same work as a volunteer on his days off? For that to be true, we would have to conclude that all paid ministry is illegitimate. We would have to conclude that those selfish bastards at the local rescue mission don't really care about the poor because, after a long day ladling soup and doing laundry on the clock they don't go and do those same things again on their own, privately.

Fortunately, we're spared having to dwell on the illogic of this confession by Barnes' next statement, in which he seems blissfully unaware that he is refuting his claim to have been good at his job:

I was lazy. I cut corners. When people thought I was out calling, I might be at a movie in another town.

Here, finally, we come to some full-fledged sin. Not just sloth, but also a kind of theft from the offering plate that's far graver than his confessed skimping on the tithe. Barnes is also guilty of being a shoddy craftsman. Being a visitation pastor is his vocation, and failure to seek excellence in one's vocation — as Calvin, Luther and Aquinastotle all taught — is a sin. This latter point doesn't occur to Barnes because it doesn't occur to L&J: witness their own slapdash, lazy, corner-cutting approach to their vocation as novelists.

So far, then, Barnes has confessed to petty avarice, pride and sloth. Throughout most of Christian history, pride has been considered the most serious of the sins. Within American evangelicalism, however, it takes a backseat to what is regarded as the naughtiest of evils:

I was also lustful. I read things I shouldn't have read, looked at magazines that fed my lusts. … I wasn't a rapist or a child molester or an adulterer, though many times I felt unfaithful to my wife because of my lusts.

There it is. In L&J's world, the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life aren't enough to make you a really bad person. You've got to have the lust of the flesh. For L&J, nothing says "sinner" like sneaking a peek at Playboy. (Except, perhaps, sneaking a peek at Playgirl — but that's another subject.)

It's also kind of quaint that Barnes looked at actual "magazines." Usually, when writing a book set in the "near future," the authors will look at technological trends and, projecting them forward, try to imagine how such technologies will reshape the world of their novel. Here, as with the advent of cell phones, L&J failed to predict the rise of Internet porn. Predicting the near future is a tricky business, though, so I'll give them a pass (without even speculating on whether they actually failed to foresee this trend or just pretended to).

And while we're on the subject of cataloging sins, let's note that it's a bit disturbing the way Barnes lists rape, child molestation and adultery together without any sense that one of these things is not like the others. He lumps these together as though they are mere points on a spectrum of sexual sins, as though all of these are forms of pleasure, as though no distinction can be made between predation and akrasia.

"I had a real racket going," Barnes was saying, "and I bought into it. Down deep, way down deep, I knew better. I knew it was too good to be true. …"

Here's where he loses me completely. What "racket"? What part of Barnes' miserable, stunted, furtive, hollow existence could possibly be regarded as "too good to be true"?

A reader might have hoped — against all prior evidence to the contrary — that L&J, were attempting something subtle here. Perhaps they intended readers to see Barnes as a sad little man living a life of quiet desperation. But no, they genuinely seem to think that Barnes was enjoying the high life as he took license with the promise of God's forgiveness and pursued the pleasures of the flesh. They seem almost jealous of his sleepwalking, half-dead existence. It's the same jealousy one sees whenever a particularly colorful former sinner stands to give his testimony, and everyone inches forward in the pews to hear again about Brother Jim's wretched past of unbridled womanizing and drunkenness.

What's striking here — and all the more striking because the authors themselves seem not to notice it — is how color-less Barnes' life as a sinner was. It would be wrong even to say he had lived the life of a sinner — he hadn't lived life at all.

This, I would argue, was Bruce Barnes' real sin. And it's far more dangerous, far more soul-killing, than the full-blooded pursuit of pleasure by a Brother Jim, or a Faust, or a Qoholeth. Sin boldly. Better to be a crack addict chasing a counterfeit of the pearl of great price than to be chasing nothing at all.

In my favorite prayer of confession from The Book of Common Prayer, we say, "Too often we carry on our lives as if You did not exist." Bruce Barnes is certainly guilty of that, but he also carried on his life as if he did not exist. He confesses to a litany of petty sins, but not to the sin of pettiness itself — of living a small, numb, meaningless life. That's the kind of sin that breaks God's heart.

Barnes wasn't "left behind" — he stayed behind on his own.

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