L.B.: Buck’s soul searching

L.B.: Buck’s soul searching November 9, 2007

Left Behind, pp. 356-357

Most of the end of Chapter 19 is taken up with Buck’s taxi-cab suspicions about Nicolae Carpathia. In the midst of his pondering, Buck also takes a page or so to reconsider his suspicions about God.

The loss of his sister-in-law and niece and nephew tugged at his heart almost constantly, and something made him wonder if there wasn’t something to this Rapture thing. If anybody in his orbit would be taken to heaven, it would have been them.

Here again is a bit of retroactive correction. We’ve been privy to Buck’s every waking thought for the last 350 pages, and this is the first time he’s remembered his missing family members even in passing. He flew halfway around the world to investigate Dirk’s death, but he hasn’t even placed a follow-up phone call to his brother to ask about three people whose disappearance, we’re now supposed to believe, has been a source of “constant” pain. I’m not buying it.

Buck’s observation that his niece and nephew were more deserving of heaven than anyone else he knew is also interesting. One wonders what it is that Buck knows about, say, Marge Potter, that makes him feel she’s deserving of hellfire and brimstone.

What Buck seems to mean here is that his brother’s children were young and innocent, which points to a strange undercurrent in Left Behind’s interpretation of the idea of an “age of accountability.” LaHaye and Jenkins have placed their cut-off for childish innocence at roughly the point of puberty. Consider that alongside the sexless Millennium of the later books in the series and you get a picture of humanity in which sexual=sinful and vice versa. L&J aren’t the first to mangle the meaning of sin in this way. Origen did it too, and of course, as a consequence, that’s not all he mangled.

But he knew better than that, didn’t he? He was Ivy League educated. He had left the church when he left the claustrophobic family situation that threatened to drive him crazy as a young man. He had never considered himself religious, despite a prayer for help and deliverance once in a while. He had built his life around achievement, excitement, and — he couldn’t deny it — attention. He loved the status that came with having his byline, his writing, his thinking in a national magazine.

Well there it is: Buck was “Ivy League educated” and therefore “knew better” than to believe in God. Education and book-learning and the intellect are all in the service of pride. They are stumbling blocks, obstacles to faith, to be viewed with suspicion if not avoided altogether.

L&J have provided a stark illustration of what Richard Hofstadter describes in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life:

One begins with the hardly contestable proposition that religious faith is not, in the main, propagated by logic or learning. One moves on from this to the idea that it is best propagated (in the judgment of Christ and on historical evidence) by men who have been unlearned and ignorant. It seems to follow from this that the kind of wisdom and truth possessed by such men is superior to what learned and cultivated minds have. In fact, learning and cultivation appear to be handicaps in the propagation of faith. And since the propagation of faith is the most important task before man, those who are as “ignorant as babes” have, in the most fundamental virtue, greater strength than men who have addicted themselves to logic and learning. Accordingly, though one shrinks from a bald statement of the conclusion, humble ignorance is far better as a human quality than a cultivated mind. At bottom, this proposition, despite all the difficulties that attend it, has been eminently congenial both to American evangelicalism and to American democracy.

This seems, at first glance, to be an odd situation. Hofstadter, the Pulitzer-Prize winning intellectual, seems to be wholly in agreement with LaHaye and Jenkins about the incompatibility of faith and learning. But look again and notice the distinction: What Hofstadter presents as a diagnosis; L&J present as a prescription. Hofstadter describes what he regards as a mistake, a misapprehension, an unnecessary wrong turn taken by “American evangelicalism and American democracy.” But L&J don’t regard this as a mistake, they see it as how things ought to be. They point to the serious of dubious wrong turns that Hofstadter describes and see it as a road map to the Promised Land. L&J prove Hofstadter right just as he proves them wrong.

The above passage from Hofstadter is quoted, mostly approvingly, in Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll adds, however, that, “The question for American evangelicals is not just the presence of an anti-intellectual bias but the sometimes vigorous prosecution of the wrong sort of intellectual life.” In particular, he points to the way that dispensationalists like Darby, Scofield and Ryrie — LaHaye’s (anti-)intellectual ancestors — regarded their approach to biblical interpretation as “scientific.”

(Instead of doing what I’m tempted to do here — quoting the entirety of Noll’s chapter on “The Intellectual Disaster of Fundamentalism”* — let me just again say that if I could recommend only one book to explain American evangelical Christianity, it would be The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.)

And yet there was a certain loneliness to his existence …

Having shown us why Buck has thus far resisted conversion — his Ivy League schooling and his worldly pride is getting in the way — the authors then aim to show us that Buck still longs for it, that he needs to fill the “God-shaped hole” in his life. That’s what they start to do, at least, but then they take a weird turn:

And yet there was a certain loneliness to his existence, especially now with Steve moving on. Buck had dated and had considered escalating a couple of serious relationships, but he had always been considered too mobile for a woman who wanted stability.

Side-stepping the slashfic bait there, I think this is intended as a lead-in to the following chapter, in which Buck meets Chloe and instantly falls in love. The juxtaposition of his existential loneliness and his lack of a romantic partner might have led to a potentially interesting consideration of the way that romantic love is sometimes pursued as a surrogate for separate questions about the meaning of life. If that’s what the authors intended here, then they cut short and confuse the issue in the pages to come by having Buck find God and romance (chaste, sexless romance) at the same time. What I suspect they intended here, instead, was to emphasize Buck’s unspoiled innocence. Sure he’d had “a couple of serious relationships,” but he had never “escalated” them (nudge nudge, wink wink) so he remains pure and deserving of Chloe’s love. But since, again, Buck yields his heart to Chloe and to God almost simultaneously, this also confuses the issue. It seems to suggest that Buck’s chastity somehow made him worthier and more deserving of God’s love.

All of this soul-searching and pondering might be somewhat plausible in some other book, with some other character, it’s screamingly implausible with this character in this book. In this context it reads a bit like Moses casually saying to the burning bush, “I’ve never considered myself religious …” The authors want to treat Buck’s dawning faith as a typical representation of a typical conversion experience, but Buck is far from typical. The game here is rigged. Unlike those of us here in the real world, Buck has already seen proof of God’s existence — the Babel Fish itself. He has seen the hand of God swatting aside nuclear missiles like snowflakes. Buck’s report on that undeniably, unambiguously supernatural event, the authors say, won him a Hemingway Prize. It would also have won him a $1 million check from the Amazing Randi.

The authors acknowledge this, but still try to suggest that Buck would have room for doubt:

Since the clearly supernatural event he had witnessed in Israel with the destruction of the Russian air force, he had known the world was changing. Things would never again be as they had been. He wasn’t buying the space alien theory of the disappearances, and while it very well could be attributed to some incredible cosmic energy reaction, who or what was behind that? The incident at the Wailing Wall was another unexplainable bit of the supernatural.

This parallels Buck’s worries about Carpathia. We’re supposed to see that, too, as evidence of his skeptical, cautious journalist’s mind, but both cases just make Buck look dimwitted. He knows, he has seen with his own eyes and heard with his own ears, that Nicolae has been involved in at least three murders, that he is complicit in a criminal conspiracy to game the international monetary system, and that he is a megalomaniac seeking unchecked absolute power. Given that he knows this, his reluctance to reach any conclusions about Carpathia seems impossibly obtuse.

But Buck also knows that God exists. The “clearly supernatural event he had witnessed in Israel with the destruction of the Russian [and Ethiopian] air force” is also something that he saw with his own eyes and heard with his own ears. His reluctance to reach any conclusions about this also makes him look impenetrably dim.

That “clearly supernatural event” doesn’t only change the context for Buck, it changes the entire world of this story. Left Behind does not take place in a world like our own. It takes place in a world in which the existence of God — of a very particular, sectarian notion of God — is a settled question. It has been demonstrated, verified, televised.

That undercuts all of these soul-searching pre-conversion and conversion scenes. These are meant to lead the reader to ponder their own relationship with God, but what they actually do is cause the reader to consider how they would respond to the “God” of this story if they lived in the fictional parallel universe of this story. If the question is “What would you do if you were in Buck’s shoes?” then the only answer that makes any sense is, “If I were Buck, living in that world and under those rules, I would convert to Tim LaHaye’s brand of PMD Christianity. Duh.” But since that world is not this world, and its rules are not the rules we live under here, it seems strange for the authors to consider this a persuasive basis for evangelism.

(This rigged game also allows the authors to take some unwarranted cheap shots. Having created a fictional world in which you would have to be an idiot to be skeptical about the existence of God, they then turn around and portray all skeptics as idiots.)

It’s odd to be reminded of the Babel-Fish incident this late in the story. Like Buck and everyone else in the book, I had nearly forgotten about it. That forgetting is necessary if almost anything else in LB is to make any sense. The context of “clearly supernatural event” No. 1, the injury-free nuclear war, would necessarily shape the interpretation of clearly supernatural event No. 2, the disappearances. A thousand possible scenarios suggest themselves from such a sequence of miraculous phenomenon,** but the events of this book are not one of them.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Here’s a relevant, somewhat abridged, excerpt, from pages 126-129:

Simple anti-intellectualism, however, was not the major problem in fundamentalism for the life of the mind. More serious damage was done by the way in which the fundamentalist movement reinforced 19th-century assumptions about the conduct of thinking itself.

A major impediment created by fundamentalism for a doxological understanding of nature, society and the arts was its uncritical adoption of intellectual habits from the 19th century. Especially dispensationalism was heavily dependent upon 19th-century views of the goals and systematizing purposes of science. This overwhelming trust in the capacities of an objective, disinterested, unbiased and neutral science perhaps was excusable in the early 19th century, but by the early 20th century it was indefensible. Fundamentalist naivete concerning science was matched by several other 19th-century traits that undercut the possibility for a responsible intellectual life. These included a weakness for treating the verses of the Bible as pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that needed only to be sorted and the fit together to possess a finished picture of divine truth; an overwhelming tendency to “essentialism,” or the conviction that a specific formula could capture for all times and places the essence of biblical truth for any specific issue concerning God, the human condition, or the fate of the world; a corresponding neglect of forces in history that shape perceptions and help define the issues that loom as most important to any particular age; and a self-confidence, bordering on hubris, manifested by an extreme antitraditionalism that casually discounted the possibility of wisdom from earlier generations. …

The difficulty perpetuated by the objectivist language of 19th-century Baconian science is not with the notion that theology must proceed carefully, systematically, and by giving thorough attention to all relevant evidence — that is, in “scientific” fashion. The difficulty is rather that the lack of self-consciousness characteristic of the 19th century’s confidence in science continued in full force among some of the most influential popularizers of evangelical theology well into the late 20th century.

** Let’s run with the “space alien theory.” If we’re going to consider this as a possibility for event No. 2, then we must also consider it a possibility for event No. 1. The first case would suggest that the space aliens were acting on behalf of Israel. Given that, the disintegration of the world’s children would likely have been interpreted as somehow also occurring at Israel’s behest. That would give the rest of the world someone to blame, thus making the need for Nicolae’s peace treaty a bit more credible.

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