L.B.: Imperio

L.B.: Imperio January 4, 2008

Left Behind, pp. 384-387

Buck sat without interrupting as this most lucid and earnest professional calmly propounded a theory that only three weeks before Buck would have found absurd.

We’re being given Buck’s point of view here, a window into his thoughts, so this choice of words is apparently his: a "most lucid and earnest professional calmly propounding a theory." Indubitably, my good man. Suddenly Buck Williams has turned into Bertie Wooster.

Buck seems unduly impressed with Rayford’s after-the-fact prediction of the Rapture. This theory might certainly have sounded absurdly audacious if he’d made the claim three weeks earlier, but a week after the Event it’s not terribly impressive. Much of Left Behind is a variation on the self-congratulatory, question-begging Visitor from the Future* schtick. It works even less well here, with Rayford playing the role of an oracular time traveler from the very recent past.

Buck, however, finds this ex post facto prophecy immensely compelling:

It sounded like things he had heard in church and from friends, but this guy had chapter and verse from the Bible to back it up. And this business of the two preachers in Jerusalem representing two witnesses predicted in the book of Revelation? Buck was aghast.

The assumption here is that "chapter and verse from the Bible to back it up" provides an irrefutable, indisputable trump card. The confusion here is not unique to LaHaye and Jenkins — it’s a common notion among American evangelicals.

II Timothy 3:16 sums up what we evangelicals believe about the Bible: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God." But evangelicals rarely cite this passage as a mere statement or summary of what they believe. They cite it, rather, as though it were proof and validation of that belief. (See also II Peter 1:21, Psalm 119, etc.) Every word in the Bible is true. How do we know? Because it says so right here in the Bible and every word in the Bible is true.

This circular reasoning can seem to make sense if you’ve spent most of your life within a subcultural bubble in which everyone else shares your premises and conclusions and your inability to distinguish between the two. The trouble arises when they venture outside of the bubble and encounter others who do not share the same preconceptions about the self-evident authority of this particular holy book. Those others won’t be convinced by the self-affirming recitation of II Timothy 3:16, and the evangelical innocents abroad aren’t equipped to do much more than repeat the assertion. Second verse, same as the first …

That’s part of what we’re seeing here in LB. It’s not that the authors don’t agree with or understand those who don’t share their assumptions about the inherent, undeniable authority of citing "chapter and verse from the Bible." It’s more than that. The authors can’t even imagine that such people exist. Thus we have the supposedly secular and skeptical Buck Williams shaken to his core by something he has no reason to find impressive, persuasive or even relevant.

Try to imagine what it would mean if the world were like this — if, as the authors imagine, everyone inherently recognized the teaching of the KJV Bible as an unchallenged and unchallengeable authority. In such a world there would only be atheists or pantheists or Buddhists or Hindus because all of those people simply didn’t yet realize that the Bible told them not to be atheists, pantheists, Buddhists or Hindus. It follows that if any such person were to be confronted with "chapter and verse" explaining this to them, they would be forced to concede the point and would convert without hesitation. LaHaye and Jenkins probably wouldn’t agree with the idea expressed in such stark terms, but something very much like this seems to infuse the prophecy-evangelism scenes in this book. The same notion also seems to lurk behind much of the mass media "proclamation evangelism" conducted here in America.**

The other idea that seems to be at work here in LB is a variation on the magical/spellcasting spirituality we’ve seen elsewhere in the book. The incantation of chapter and verse, the authors seem to believe, invokes mystic power. This idea is prevalent in a lot of the "spiritual warfare" talk popular among the charismatic strands of evangelicalism. The spiritual warfare gurus love to cite the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as though it were an introductory course in Defense Against the Dark Arts. The salient point of the story, for them, is not its profound contrast of love and power, but rather its demonstration of mystical defensive techniques. A magic trick. When tempted by Satan, Jesus quoted scripture. Thus, they believe, when confronted by the forces of darkness, Christians should follow suit by raising their wands and chanting "Expecto patronus!" … er, I mean, by citing chapter and verse from the Bible to invoke divine protection.

This chapter-and-verse invocation of mystical power is implicit in the way Rayford casts a spell over Buck here. It’s made much more explicit later in the book, when Buck’s newfound holy mojo serves as a literal counter-enchantment to Nicolae’s sorcery.

"Enchantment" isn’t too strong a word for the head-spinning awe Jenkins describes as Buck’s reaction to Rayford’s sales pitch:

Buck was desperate to maintain his composure. He wasn’t sure what he was hearing, but Steele was impressive. … What else would give Buck this constant case of the chills?

Buck focused on Captain Steele, his pulse racing, looking neither right nor left. He could not move. He was certain the women could hear his crashing heart. …

Phew. Is it getting hot in here or is it just Buck? This is all intended as a description of Buck’s spiritual anxiety, but if he’s about to drop to his knees it doesn’t seem like it would be for prayer.

We get a great deal more of Buck’s insistence that Steele’s spiel is "impressive" and "profound and convincing," yet as usual we hear almost nothing of his actual words. The longest speech here comes from Buck — just after we’re told how he sat "without interrupting" and just before we’re told he was "speechless" he rattles off some more exposition from the End Times Checklist:

"Have you heard the latest?" Buck told him what he had seen on CNN during his few brief minutes at his apartment. "Apparently thousands are making some sort of a pilgrimage to the Wailing Wall. They’re lined up for miles, trying to get in and hear the preaching. Many are converting and going out themselves to preach. The authorities seem powerless to keep them out, despite the opposition of the Orthodox Jews. Anyone who comes against the preachers is struck dumb or paralyzed, and many of the old orthodox guard are joining forces with the preachers."

"Amazing," the pilot responded. "But even more amazing, it was all predicted in the Bible."

While this is a bit more impressive than the initial story of the trip-and-die guys, it still doesn’t qualify as "amazing." (When are the prophets going to breathe fire? We were promised fire-breathing.) "Religious dispute in Jerusalem," isn’t front-page news now, let alone something that would knock The Event out of the No. 1 spot in the news cycle a mere eight days later. The Event would have reset the scale for what survivors would consider amazing. Post-Event, video of Elvis and Bigfoot riding the Loch Ness Monster bareback would scarcely qualify as "remarkable." "Amazing" would be reserved for something huge, something earth-shattering — like, for instance, if CNN had been reporting that they had found a child, a 4 year old, in an abandoned house somewhere in upstate New York. That would be amazing. That would have people gathering around television sets, hanging on the reporter’s every word. Post-Event, a lethally successful membership drive by Jews for Jesus might register as "notable," but not amazing.

Despite Buck’s palpitations, when we switch back to Rayford’s point of view, we find that he’s convinced his sales pitch is falling flat:

Rayford was certain he was not getting through. … It was clear that Williams wasn’t buying it personally. If Rayford had to guess, he’d say Williams was trying to hide a smirk …

It’s just like Rashomon. Or at least just like Rashomon if, instead of showing us the different versions of the story, Kurosawa had just told us about how they made the various characters feel.

The point here is a reminder that we may not always be aware of how the Holy Spirit is at work in what we say and do. This is a common point in sermons on the duty of evangelism, so it’s not surprising to see the authors emphasizing thispoint here in what they are trying to pretend is a scene about evangelism. The authors follow so many of the conventions of such sermons in all of these pseudo-evangelistic scenes, creating such an air of familiarity for their evangelical readers that it’s easy for those readers to miss what’s really going on in these scenes with Rayford and Hattie or Rayford and Buck. It’s not evangelism.

The authors seem to be trying to obscure this point. They follow all the conventions of evangelism stories and sermons, as though Rayford were setting out to share the gospel. But he never does. He never attempts or intends to. Rayford’s message for Hattie and Buck and everyone else is not the Christian gospel. His message is never "God loves you," or "Your sins are forgiven," or even "You’re going to Hell unless you pray this magical prayer." His message has nothing to do with sin, forgiveness or eternal life. It has nothing to do with Jesus Christ, whom Rayford never mentions. His message is exclusively this: "My interpretation of prophecy is true."

You’ve doubtless witnessed the outcry and indignation that ensues when American evangelicals become convinced that someone is threatening to "take the Christ out of Christmas." Yet here LaHaye and Jenkins have completely removed Christ from the gospel of Christ and no one seems to have even noticed.

Of all the dismaying aspects of these books’ runaway popularity among evangelicals, this might be the most surprising.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

* The time traveler turned with great sadness. "If only," he said, "if only you had listened to the author of this story and done everything he advised when you had the chance." And then he was gone, returned to that doomed and tragic future from whence he came. … That sort of thing.

** The expectation seems to be that hearers will respond to such proclamations of the gospel the same way that the Karen people of Burma did when Adoniram Judson arrived. The Karen had a legend that one day their white brother would come from across the sea with the golden book that would teach them the way to salvation. "About time you got here," they said when Judson showed up. "Now let’s get on with the mass conversions already." This turns out not to be the typical response when missionaries arrive.

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