Left Behind, pp. 213-217 (take two)
Stories of religious conversion — or "testimonies," as we evangelical types call them* — can be tricky. The convert wants to tell this story because she is convinced that it is important. Very important. But also deeply personal and, at some level, ineffable. Attempts to convey the ineffable often come across as kind of effed up.
I noted earlier (see "Explicit Content") how this mix of the transcendent and the intimate can lead conversion stories to resemble pornography:
Religious ecstasy, like sexual ecstasy, is difficult to portray directly in a work of art. It is too intimate, sacred and transcendent — and any portrayal that fails to respect that will seem reductive and cheap. A good artist knows when to fade to black (or, as in Dante's "Paradiso," to fade to white), when to suggest rather than to show, when implicit metaphor will be more truthful than explicit detail.
"Fire," Pascal wrote at the time of his conversion. "Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy."
Frederick Buechner writes of hearing a preacher speak about "the coronation of Jesus in the believer's heart":
… this coronation … took place among confession — and I thought, yes, yes, confession — and tears, he said — and I thought tears, yes, perfectly plausible that the coronation of Jesus in the believing heart should take place among confession and tears. And then with his head bobbing up and down so that his glasses glittered, he said in his odd, sandy voice, the voice of an old nurse, that the coronation of Jesus took place among confession and tears and then, as God was and is my witness, great laughter, he said. Jesus is crowned among confession and tears and great laughter, and at the phrase great laughter, for reasons that I have never satisfactorily understood, the great wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face.
It's not always a matter of fire and crumbling walls, of course. Dag Hammarskjold's description of his conversion seems a bit more restrained:
I don't know Who or What put the question, I don't know when it was put. I don't even remember answering. But at some moment, I did answer Yes.
Anne Lamott cites that in her book Traveling Mercies, in which she also relates her own "beautiful moment of conversion":
I hung my head and said, "Fuck it: I quit." I took a long deep breath and said out loud, "All right. You can come in."
Re-read all of the above examples but imagine that the topic is not religious conversion. Imagine that each is, instead, one of those little video interludes in When Harry Met Sally in which some charming old couple is recounting how they first fell in love.
The testimonies all make sense when read this way because, after all, this is what they are: people recounting how they fell in love. Disregard that love and such stories are meaningless. They become merely accounts of people going through the motions without context. They become pornography.
All of which brings us to Rayford Steele's strangely anticlimactic conversion in the pages of Left Behind, which reads less like the testimony of someone falling in love than it does like the testimonial of someone who is very pleased with his new insurance policy.
Like many conversion scenes, this one is intrusively intimate, making the reader feel like a voyeur. It affords little respect for the idea that something transcendent might be occurring, and it offers no meaningful context suggesting that what we are peeking at through the blinds is ultimately an act of love. What keeps it from being purely a piece of spiritual porno is the authors' earnest hope that this scene should also serve as a kind of instruction manual. This mix of the pedagogical and the prurient reminds me of those omnipresent ads for the Better Sex Video Series. (I haven't seen any of those, but the ads make them seem like porno for people who don't like porno, except presumably with a different, er, concluding shot.)
Anyway, when we left off with Rayford, he too was watching an instructional video and he was just getting to the good part near the end:
If what the pastor said about the disappearances was true — and Rayford knew in his heart that it was — then the man deserved his attention, his respect.
It was time to move beyond being a critic, an analyst never satisfied with the evidence. The proof was before him: the empty chairs, the lonely bed, the hole in his heart. There was only one course of action. He punched the play button.
So, filled with this newfound resolution to take decisive action, Rayford resumes watching the television screen. The Rev. Vernon Billings crams in a few more paragraphs of boilerplate from his Summer Prophecy Conference lectures, which LaHaye and Jenkins seem to regard as a kind of foreshadowing. And I suppose it is a kind of foreshadowing — at least if, say, reading the Cliff Notes plot outline of a book before reading the book itself counts as foreshadowing.
The Antichrist, Billings warns, "will rise up soon" and "will deceive many." He notes that the book of Isaiah says:
… the kingdoms of nations will be in great conflict and their faces shall be as flames. To me, this portends World War III, a thermonuclear war that will wipe out millions.
The passage Billings cites, Isaiah 13, was written for a people still reeling from their conquest by the Babylonian Empire. The prophet is essentially telling them, "Don't worry, one day Babylon will get what is coming to it." The King James Version, which Billings quotes, foretells that Babylon will become a desolate place where "owls shall dwell" and "satyrs shall dance" and "the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces." All of which, perhaps, might be open to interpretation as something other than an explicit prediction of global thermonuclear war. (I suppose satyrs and dragons could be immune to radioactive fallout, but I'm fairly sure owls are not.)
"Millions" also seems like a low-ball estimate for the death toll in a thermonuclear World War III — but maybe Billings is discounting due to the elimination of the entire Russian nuclear arsenal during the failed Russo-Ethiopian sneak attack on Israel described earlier in the book. That event left the world with only one nuclear superpower, and it's not clear why Billings thinks that superpower would launch WWIII by attacking Babylon — but then real-life events have demonstrated that said superpower is more than willing to launch a war against Babylon for no apparent reason, so maybe we'll give Billings a pass on that one."Bible prophecy is history written in advance," Billings says, and then offers up one last burst of this pre-history:
You'll find that government and religion will change, war and inflation will erupt, there will be widespread death and destruction, martyrdom of saints, and even a devastating earthquake. Be prepared.
Billings advice for what it means to "be prepared" is as vague as his description of the calamities to come. Given the grim outlook of his advance history, it's hard to imagine what "being prepared" would mean other than fleeing for the hills and getting really, really drunk (not necessarily in that order).
With his next breath, Billings begins his sales pitch for salvation. Neither Rayford nor the authors seem to regard this as abrupt, but I was rubbing my neck from whiplash, squinting and flipping pages back and forth looking in vain for some hint of the jarring transition:
God wants to forgive you your sins and assure you of heaven. Listen to Ezekiel 33:11: "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live."
I've got to give some style points here for the use of Ezekiel. Apart from his references to "Gog" and "Magog," I didn't expect L&J to have read much of anything by this psychadelic, R-rated prophet.
It's kind of refreshing to see an evangelical altar call that reaches beyond the usual greatest hits of John 3:16 and the "Romans road," and it's a bit startling to see such an aggressively Arminian** passage cited. But it's especially startling to see this passage cited here, in the pages of Left Behind. LaHaye and Jenkins clearly do take "pleasure in the death of the wicked" and they consistently seem to imagine and to portray God as enjoying and savoring it even more than they do.
"You can become a child of God by praying to him right now as I lead you," Billings says, and Rayford presses the pause button to think for a moment.
… he knew that he needed Christ in his life. He needed forgiveness of sin and the assurance that one day he would join his wife and son in heaven.
Rayford sat with his head in his hands, his heart pounding. … He was alone with his thoughts, alone with God, and he felt God's presence. Rayford slid to his knees on the carpet. He had never knelt in worship before, but he sense the seriousness and the reverence of the moment. He pushed the play button and tossed the remote control aside. He set his hands palms down before him and rested his forehead on them, his face on the floor. The pastor said, "Pray after me," and Rayford did.
What follows is L&J's distillation of "the sinner's prayer." Prayers are sometimes referred to as "invocations," but this one seems to be an invocation in more than one sense. It seems almost an incantation — like saying "Bloody Mary" three times into a mirror. If you are not a Christian and do not want to become one, you might want to be careful not to read the following aloud:
Dear God, I admit that I'm a sinner. I am sorry for my sins. Please forgive me and save me. I ask this in the name of Jesus, who died for me. I trust in him right now. I believe that the sinless blood of Jesus is sufficient to pay the price for my salvation. Thank you for hearing me and receiving me. Thank you for saving my soul.
Left Behind is crammed with heresies, heterodoxies and the sorts of tortured interpretations one winds up with when one starts with the idea that the main theme of the biblical prophets was to record an advance history of a thermonuclear war in one's own lifetime. But here L&J are mostly theologically sound. I might prefer something a bit more elegantly worded — something like the good old "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed" — but I have no quarrel with the essential elements of this prayer. (Although I would eliminate the bit of catechism on substitutionary atonement they've inserted. Either it's a separate matter not needed here, in which case it can be omitted, or else L&J think that a particular understanding of the workings of atonement is needed here, in which case it really ought to be omitted.)
It's not the words of the prayer that seem troubling here, but rather the implication that these words must be spoken, this invocation must be invoked, or else God's hands are tied. Wrapped up in that implication is also the suggestion that this incantation is somehow sufficient for salvation. That's not simply Arminian, or even Pelagian — it's spellcasting.
Billings says, after the prayer, that "If you were genuine, you are saved." But "if you were genuine" seems here to refer to saying these words with the proper sentiment, the proper earnestness, the proper pounding heart and the "seriousness and the reverence of the moment." It's hard to imagine "genuine" meaning anything else when it is only "the moment" that matters.
The meaning of the moment depends on a larger context over time, which is yet another reason that stories of religious conversion can be tricky. I like to hear people tell stories about the moment they fell in love, but the real meaning of such stories depends on the rest of the story that follows.
– – – – – – – – – – – –
* Many Christians — myself included — have stories that do not fit neatly into the somewhat formulaic trope of a standard evangelical "testimony," which tends to disappoint, confuse or anger those who request to hear them. When confronted with the question "When were you saved?" I like to borrow the response that theologian Stanley Hauerwas uses: "2,000 years ago, give or take."
** "Arminianism" holds that — nevermind. Soteriological disputes strike me as the tedious and un-useful arguments among blind men about whether an elephant is more like a tree or a rope. The idea that soteriology — speculation about how grace works — is itself of much importance strikes me as, well, very bad soteriology. I am not God's math teacher and I don't need to see all the work.