L.B.: An Inconvenient Sooth

L.B.: An Inconvenient Sooth August 3, 2007

Left Behind, pp. 308-314

We’ve noted before that setting a story in the “not-too-distant future” can be particularly tricky. LaHaye and Jenkins faced a particularly daunting task, since back in 1995 they were setting out to produce a 12-book series to be published over the course of the following 12 years. It’s hard to fault them for not accurately predicting the technological changes that would occur between then and now, but they might have at least tried.

Before filming Minority Report, Steven Spielberg famously convened a panel of scientists and researchers to help him brainstorm about the year 2054, when his story takes place. Before writing this series, LaHaye and Jenkins didn’t even bother flipping through back issues of Scientific American. This lack of research and lack of curiosity makes sense when you consider the way in which L&J are accustomed to thinking about the future, which has more to do with signs and portents than with technology and science. It wouldn’t have occurred to LaHaye to worry about how technology might be different in 12 years. His main worry was probably that Jesus would come back before they got around to the book in which Jesus comes back.*

The Internet revolution and the ubiquity of cell phones are probably the biggest changes that Left Behind failed to anticipate, but this passage of the book highlights another, more malevolent, development that L&J did not foresee: the popularity of PowerPoint (if you follow that link, scroll down to Sept. 5).

The Rev. Bruce Barnes has gathered the “core group” of his new congregation to lay out for them an outline of what he believes biblical prophecy foretells the next seven years will bring. He conducts this presentation with nothing more than a flip chart. That’s not how Bible Prophecy Seminars work in the age of PowerPoint. In evangelical churches, Bill Gates’ computerized Colorforms has supplanted the flip chart and the overhead projector (as well as, disastrously, the hymnal).

Slide2The slide here is taken from a PowerPoint presentation from the site Last Days Mystery. It covers the very same territory Bruce’s presentation does, the “seven seals” of judgment from Revelation 6, except it uses spiffy bullet-point lists. You can find lots of similar PowerPoint presentations on other “Bible prophecy” Web sites.

This is the ideal technology for this task because, as Edward Miller notes, “PowerPoint … can give the illusion of coherence and content when there really isn’t very much coherence or content.” This is, for many PowerPoint enthusiasts, a feature, not a bug. The illusion of coherence and content is precisely why PP is the preferred technology in corporate America and among Bible prophecy “experts” (and why it was used almost exclusively in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon).

Poor Bruce is forced to give his presentation without the aid of any such tools, so his lack of coherence and content is laid bare:

“The first 21 months encompass what the Bible calls** the seven Seal Judgments, or the Judgments of the Seven-Sealed Scroll. Then comes another 21-month period in which we will see the seven Trumpet Judgments. In the last 42 months of this seven years of tribulation, if we have survived, we will endure the most severe tests, the seven Vial Judgments …”

If you’re trying to follow along in Revelation, you’ll notice that Bruce’s 21 + 21 + 42 months = 7 years framework is his own embellishment, but you will find all the seals and trumpets and vials (or bowls) of judgment he’s talking about — Chapters 6-16 of Revelation reads like a Jerry Bruckheimer film festival, with ever-escalating calamities and disasters befalling the doomed and the damned.

I mentioned in our last installment that Bruce’s seven-year framework comes from the book of Daniel, and not Revelation. That’s true, but we also need to account for the numerological creativity of our PMD friends. Revelation does mention that the Gentiles “will trample on the holy city for 42 months,” the two witnesses will “prophesy for 1,260 days,” and the woman “with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” will flee to a desert refuge for 1,260 days. Add all that up, round down, subtract shipping, handling and a 6-percent sales tax and you’ve got seven years.

You’re probably at least somewhat familiar with the first four seals Bruce describes, better known as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. John describes the first of these, the rider on a white horse, as a “conqueror bent on conquest.” Bruce and the authors take this to mean their Antichrist. “If I’m reading this right,” Bruce says:

“… the Antichrist will soon come to power, promising peace and trying to unite the world.”

“What’s wrong with uniting the world?” someone asked. “At a time like this it seems we need to come together.”

“There might be nothing wrong with that, except that the Antichrist will be a great deceiver, and when his true goals are revealed, he will be opposed. This will result in a great war, probably World War III.”

I’m glad to see Bruce conceding that unity “might” not be bad, per se. That concession — as reluctant and half-hearted as it is — seems out of place after 300+ pages of steady insistence that the United Nations and talk of peace are the tools of Satan. But then as soon as this point is raised (by “someone” — Bruce conducts this whole lecture as a Socratic dialogue with this unnamed, unidentified, undescribed Someone) we learn that this talk of unity is really just foolishness, the result of Bruce’s misplaced enthusiasm for the Sexiest Man Alive:

“We need to watch for the new world leader,” Bruce says, prompting Someone to ask whether this new world leader might be, you know, that new world leader:

“What about that young man from Europe who is so popular with the United Nations?”

“I’m impressed with him,” Bruce said. “I will have to be careful and study what he says and does. He seems too humble and self-effacing to fit the description of this one who would take over the world.”

Like many passages in LB, this bit seems intended to make readers feel smart because they realize the significance of events that the characters haven’t yet put together. Like most such passages, the effect of this one is less to make the reader feel smart than to make the characters look dumb.

You may be wondering here how Bruce reads this:

I looked, and there before me was a white horse! It’s rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

And interprets it to mean this:

“The Antichrist will soon come to power, promising peace and trying to unite the world.”

Those don’t seem like the same thing. The former sounds like Genghis Khan, the latter like Mahatma Gandhi, and those two don’t have a lot in common (except for those tricky silent “h”s). How did this verse about a conqueror bent on conquest get transformed into a prediction of a peacemaker preaching unity? The seal judgments of Revelation 6 parallel the woes of Jesus’ mini-apocalypse in Matthew’s Gospel in which he tells his disciples to watch for “wars and rumors of wars.” The word “wars” seems clear but, as the entire Nicolae storyline throughout LB demonstrates, L&J reinterpret this to mean they should watch for peacemakers and rumors of peace. This weird inversion — which they claim is a simple, literal reading — arises from a single verse in the latter part of the book of Daniel. That single verse, Daniel 9:27, forms the basis for L&J’s entire tribulation timeline — all those 21-month and 42-month periods Bruce outlines with such certainty. Here is that verse:

And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate.

That right there is why “peacemakers” are suspect. More specifically, that — precisely that passage of scripture and a supposedly “literal” reading of it — is why millions of American evangelicals believed it was wrong for President George H.W. Bush to work with the United Nations to build a multinational coalition for the first Gulf War. That verse is why millions of American evangelicals supported President George W. Bush’s refusal to do so for the current war in Iraq. It may even be part of why Bush fils himself has such contempt for the U.N.

The second rider, war, on a red horse, carries a sword and “was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other.” John has this rider following immediately after the first, which makes sense since conquest and war tend to go hand in hand. But this creates a problem for Bruce and the authors, who believe that the Antichrist will create a 3½-year peace treaty. Bruce has figured out a work-around for that problem, which turns out to be easier to handle than the frantic pace his itinerary requires in order to squeeze all of these calamities — sequentially and discretely — into his 21-month window:

“The white horseman apparently is the Antichrist, who ushers in one to three months of diplomacy while getting organized and promising peace.

“The red horse signifies war. The Antichrist will be opposed by three rulers from the south, and millions will be killed.”

“In World War III?”

“That’s my assumption.”

“That would mean within the next six months.”

“I’m afraid so. And immediately following that, which will take only three to six months because of the nuclear weaponry available, the Bible predicts inflation and famine — the black horse. As the rich get richer, the poor starve to death. More millions will die that way.”

“So if we survive the war, we need to stockpile food?”

Bruce nodded, “I would.”

One of the nice things about being an American is that passages like Revelation 6 can seem so abstract and hypothetical. Privilege has its privileges, after all, including the privilege of reading such descriptions of war and famine and leaping to imagine that they must refer to some distant, yet-to-come future, since nothing here sounds like the world we know. We can read this part of John’s Apocalypse and imagine that it, like Thomas Malthus’ prophecy of “gigantic inevitable famine,” is either a false prophecy or at best a prophecy yet to be fulfilled. But there are 6 billion of us human earthlings, give or take, and most of us aren’t Americans. For perhaps a third of us, “gigantic inevitable famine” is a pretty accurate description of how life is. For billions of people, John’s vision doesn’t seem like the prediction of future events so much as a description of what life is like now, today, with war, famine and — what was that next one? Oh, yes, plague:

“… it gets worse. That killer famine could be as short as two or three months before the arrival of the fourth Seal Judgment, the fourth horseman on the pale horse — the symbol of death. Besides the postwar famine, a plague will sweep the entire world. Before the fifth Seal Judgment, a quarter of the world’s current population will be dead.”

I’m not sure what to make of a two-month famine, particularly one scheduled to arrive — if I’m following Bruce’s itinerary properly — in the middle of winter. (Isn’t winter already a kind of two- or three-month famine?) As dire as Bruce’s scenario for the coming year sounds, it must be almost comforting for Rayford to hear that he’s still got a 75-percent chance of surviving it. You wouldn’t expect your chances to be that good just from a nuclear World War III.

Rayford, by the way, “was furiously taking notes” through all of this. “He couldn’t get enough of this information”:

How could he have missed this? God had tried to warn his people by putting his Word in written form centuries before. For all Rayford’s education and intelligence, he felt he had been a fool.

That last sentence is again, the major theme of the LB series: You may think you’re intelligent and educated, but you’re a fool if you don’t realize that Tim LaHaye’s “biblical” prophecies are the Most Important Thing Ever. You’ll see. You’re all like, “Oh, la-di-da, I’m an intellectual and I think the Bible is all about like, loving the Lord your God and loving your neighbor as yourself,” when you should be all like, “Tell me, Rev. LaHaye, sir, do you perhaps have some study tools for sale that might help me to prepare for the coming apocalypse, the coded foretelling of which is the primary purpose of scripture?” Your failure to appreciate my genius will be punished. You just wait.

Bruce quickly summarizes the fifth and sixth seals — the slaughter of the 144,000 singing virgins and a big old earthquake — but he stops before getting into the seventh since: A) the seventh seal is the seven trumpets, and he hasn’t worked through this second drawer of Pandora’s box yet; and B) a quarter of the group won’t live to see that bit, so why bother them with the details? All he tells them of the next set of judgments is this:

I warn you they are progressively worse. I want to leave you with a little encouragement.

That non-sequitur, I assure you, is reproduced here exactly as it appeared in the book.

Bruce concludes with a bit of retro-plotting. Rayford has already seen the two witnesses on CNN during his all-nighter the evening before. The authors, somewhat awkwardly, realized that they were getting ahead of themselves, so they had Rayford think to himself that this was something Bruce had begun telling them about, recalling a conversation we readers hadn’t previously encountered. Bruce here continues this awkward revision:

“You remember we talked briefly about the two witnesses and I said I would study that more carefully?”

His more in-depth study, presented over the following page, turns out to consist of a crude summary of Revelation 11 (which we already looked at here). It turns out that Bruce and everyone else in the group had also been up all night watching CNN, so they all, like Rayford, recognized that the crazy street preachers in Jerusalem were, in fact, these two witnesses.

Having now ensured that Bruce and the rest of the group are up to speed on what we readers already knew 12 pages ago, the authors allow him to send everybody home for the day to begin stockpiling their food and digging out their bomb shelters.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* That’s assuming, of course, that LaHaye is a True Believer in his own theories, acting in good faith. One way of exploring whether or not that is indeed the case would be to examine how he is investing the enormous profits he has earned and what kind of estate planning he has set up to ensure that his heirs have a secure future guaranteed by his predictions that no such future would exist.

** Well, no. The Bible doesn’t call them that any more than the it calls the story of Noah’s ark “The Story of Noah’s Ark.” This may seem like hair-splitting, but Bruce’s misstatement here is emblematic of part of the authors’ overall problem: Their inability to distinguish between what the Bible actually says and the interpretive framework through which they view it.

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