L.B.: Humbert Steele

L.B.: Humbert Steele December 17, 2006

Left Behind, pg. 237-239

So far, Chloe Steele is one of the most sympathetic characters in Left Behind. This is so, mainly, because we know almost nothing about her.

She was a student at Stanford, then the world ended. She managed, somehow, to find a flight home to Chicago even though the planes weren't flying, and arrived there to learn several distressing things: A) her mother and kid brother have vanished, leaving nothing behind but their pajamas; B) her father has become a religious zealot; C) her father has been deeply involved — emotionally, if not physically — with a young flight attendant; and D) he wants to talk with her, in great detail, about B and C. All of which (particularly A and D) causes us to regard her with literal sympathy, the poor kid.

We've been told very little of how Chloe is responding to all of this, but in the few, brief glimpses we've gotten at this point in the story, she has appeared resilient and resourceful, thoughtful and skeptical. All of which makes me like her far more than, say, her dad or Buck.

This response may be the opposite of what LaHaye and Jenkins intended. We've already seen that the newly sanctified Rayford Steele, who serves as the authors' spokesman, views his daughter's thoughtfulness as a "pseudointellectual" pose. Rayford/L&J are angrily dismayed by her skepticism and independent-mindedness. They have established a contrast between Chloe's unregenerate brain and Rayford's spirit-filled guts, and clearly in such a conflict we're intended to side with the male guts over the female brains.

But with the lines so clearly drawn, I'm really not sure what we're supposed to make of this next section. Rayford seems to be thinking out loud, trying to figure out how to resolve things with Hattie Durham, the young flight attendant he has been stringing along for years. It might have been better if he'd had this conversation with Bruce Barnes or with anybody other than his poor daughter, but Rayford doesn't actually have any friends. And he seems to think that getting all of this out in the open is a good way to demonstrate his newfound honesty and to convince her that he is a new man after his conversion.*

For her part, Chloe seems appropriately appalled, and her sometimes cutting comments seem to offer good advice.

"I'm going to invite Hattie to dinner with us this week," he said.

Chloe narrowed her eyes, "What, you feel like you're available now?"

Rayford was stunned at his own reaction. He had to keep himself from slapping his own daughter, something he had never done. He gritted his teeth. "How can you say that after all I've just told you?" he said. "That's insulting."

"So was what you were hoping for with this Hattie Durham, Dad. Do you think she was unaware of what was going on? How do you think she'll interpret this? She may come on like gangbusters."

Like everyone else in this book, Chloe talks funny. How many 20-year-old college students would really say "come on like gangbusters"? (It's also kind of funny that Chloe talks like everyone else in this book. Apart from corn-pone yokels who say things like "goin' over yonder," everyone — college students, 30-year-old journalists, middle-aged pilots — talks the same. Their voices are nearly indistinguishable, and offer little insight into character.)

But let that pass. The substance of what Chloe is saying here seems sound. She seems right and Rayford — avatar of the authors — seems wrong.

"I'm going to make it clear what my intentions are, and they are totally honorable, more honorable than they ever could have been before, because I had nothing of worth to offer her."

"So, now you're going to switch from hitting on her to preaching at her?"

He wanted to argue, but he couldn't.

Flirt to convert, that's pretty much Rayford's plan. And Chloe calls him on it.

So what's going on here? Does this suggest that Rayford is not always a reliable narrator? I'm really not sure. We're told that, "Rayford was offended … but he had brought this on himself and felt he deserved it." But we're also told that Chloe is being "bratty." So I really can't tell whether or not we're supposed to agree with Rayford that his daughter deserves a good slapping for insubordination.

My guess is that, as ever in Left Behind, the real unreliable narrators here are Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. They want to show us that their hero is fallible, and that his new faith requires him to face the consequences of the bad choices he made earlier. They also — unintentionally, accidentally and unawares — give us a portrait of Rayford as vain, selfish, misogynist and controlling. And often the least flattering aspects of Rayford's character are revealed when the author's seem to be trying to show us something they think is admirable about their character. It's like reading Nabokov, but with the added twist of the authors sharing in the narrator's solipsism and self-delusion.

So the best I can make of this is that we're supposed to take from this that Rayford isn't perfect ("just forgiven"), and that he is commendably struggling to make amends for his former bad behavior. But yet we're probably not supposed to view him as still behaving badly. We're probably supposed to take from this that Chloe is a shrewd and perceptive woman, but yet we're probably not supposed to admire her for speaking her mind and cutting her father down to size.

Or not. Who knows? The authors know their intent, but seem utterly unaware of what they have presented on the page. We readers can see what's on the page, but we have no sure way of deciphering how that relates to the authors' intent. (That disconnect also, perhaps, serves as an example of why L&J's naive, face-value biblical hermeneutic is inadequate and misleading.)

If Rayford wasn't such a putz — and if L&J didn't abandon this whole storyline by having Hattie run off with her Antichrist lover — his dilemma here could have provided the basis for an interesting discussion of relationship as the necessary context for evangelism.

"I care about her as a person," Rayford says of Hattie, "and I want her to know the truth and be able to act on it."

(Pause for a moment to let the Calvinists catch their breath.)

For the sake of argument, let's assume that Rayford's motivation here is genuine (and not unknowingly, or half-unknowingly, disingenuous). That's not a bad impulse, but what happens when the person in question is someone we have treated badly? Rayford seems dimly aware that before he can ask or expect Hattie to listen to anything else he has to say, he needs to seek her forgiveness and to make amends. Unfortunately, he also seems to think this is something he can accomplish during the soup course while Hattie has dinner at his house (chaperoned, appallingly, by his daughter), quickly segueing into hard-sell proselytization before dessert.

One last interesting admission from Rayford in this section. Speaking of losing his wife, Irene, to the Rapture, he says this:

"… Your mother being in heaven is just like losing her to sudden death. The last thing on my mind is another woman, and certainly not Hattie. She's too young and immature, and I'm too disgusted with myself for having been tempted by her in the first place."

The interesting admission here is not Rayford's condescending contempt for Hattie — neither he nor the authors seems to recognize how despicable that sounds. What's notable here is the recognition that the Rapture is "just like … sudden death." Much of the appeal of Darby's invention has to do with the idea that true believers will be spared the undeniable inevitability that faces every human — they will never die. But here even L&J themselves, the foremost proponents of death-defying Rapture mania, are forced to concede that being Raptured is essentially the same — as experience, as effect — as suddenly dropping dead.

Left Behind, then, is a novel that begins with God demonstrating his love for his children by suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, striking all of them dead. We're familiar with such stories. We occasionally hear of a troubled and despondent parents taking the lives of their children in order to send them to "a better place." Usually, of course, we say that such parents are insane.

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* This is another unintended insight the authors provide into Rayford's character. His primary relationships are with much younger women. He never hung out with other pilots, or even with flight attendants his own age. He only seems comfortable talking to these younger women, yet he dismisses whatever they have to say as "bratty" or "immature." You see guys like this in bars. They come in alone and try to buy drinks for the college girls. You know, the creepy old guys.

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