L.B.: 28:06:42:12

L.B.: 28:06:42:12 January 11, 2008

Left Behind, pp. 387-391

“I felt my heart strangely warmed,” John Wesley wrote of the moment of his conversion. Something similar is happening to Buck Williams in this passage, but his warmness is far stranger than Wesley’s:

Buck did not trust himself to respond with coherence. He still had chills, yet he felt sticky with sweat. What was happening to him? He managed a whisper, “I want to thank you for your time, and for dinner,” he said.

I don’t know if you do this too, but sometimes when I read a scene — particularly one with a vivid description of some gesture or facial expression — I find myself imitating that description.* That response is a kind of test, a way of verifying whether the description is realistic, whether it rings true. With scenes like the one above, I find myself mentally re-enacting them. Try it yourself here. Does Buck’s “whisper” make any sense? Rayford gives his hour-long, uninterrupted speech on End Times prophecy. He finally reaches the end and Buck doesn’t comment, doesn’t say, “Well, that was fascinating/interesting/different,” he just whispers — whispers — “I want to thank you for your time, and for dinner.”

I just can’t see that happening.

The authors’ task here is not an easy one. Buck is on the verge of an epiphany, of one of those magical, transforming moments when we catch, or almost catch, a glimpse of something transcendent and our heart is “strangely warmed.” You don’t have to have experienced a religious conversion to appreciate what Wesley meant by that. If you’ve ever had any such glimpse — any moment of grace, or clarity, or of the sudden onrush of overwhelming beauty, insight or love then you know what Wesley’s talking about. (Kate: “Yikes. It sounds like you’ve had an epiphany.” Angel: “I keep saying that, but nobody’s listening.”)

Nothing like that seems to be happening here for Buck, who seems to be experiencing flu-like symptoms. The authors want us to interpret this scene as the working of the Holy Spirit through Rayford. It comes across more as the working of salmonella through, perhaps, the chicken.

Buck’s spiritual crisis might be easier to understand if the authors ever actually let us hear what it was in Rayford speech that gave him chills. Then again, knowing what we know about the authors and about their decidedly uninspiring prophecy checklist, that might make Buck’s spiritual sweatiness harder to understand. Based on the rough outline of Rayford’s speech that we are given, he never deals with what you’d think would be the key point: The world is going to end. Soon.

If I were Rayford, I’d have led off with that fact: “How old are you, Williams? 30? You’ll never be 38.” That would seem like an attention-getter. Rayford should be offering a constant running countdown, like Frank the rabbit in Donnie Darko.

Instead, Rayford tells Buck his whole life story and then babbles about the Two Witnesses in Jerusalem. He knows that the world is going to end in almost exactly seven years — knows this with certainty, having read it in the Bible, or at least on the back cover of Left Behind — but he doesn’t seem to think this is pertinent information to share with his reporter friend.

Thus when Buck asks Hattie for her take on Rayford’s theory, she responds:

“I think Rayford is sincere and thoughtful. Whether he’s right, I have no idea. That’s all beyond me and very foreign. But I am convinced he believes it.”

That’s the kind of abstract opinion that you might offer if you’d spent the last hour discussing Rayford’s theory of, say, the Tunguska Event. Rayford’s presentation seems to invite just such an abstract response because he neglects to include the salient bit about the end of the world. If he had seen fit to mention, when they started dinner, that the world was going to end in 6 years, 357 days and 16 hours, or if he had mentioned when they were finished that the world was going to end in 6 years, 357 days and 14 hours, then “Whether he’s right, I have no idea” would have been a mind-bogglingly inadequate response.

The more you consider this, the stranger it seems. Rayford is portrayed throughout this chapter as speaking with a desperate urgency because he knows the clock is ticking. He grows increasingly frustrated that no one else seems to appreciate his urgency, but he steadfastly refuses to fill them in on the whole ticking-clock aspect. Maybe he noticed the looks being exchanged between Buck and his daughter and he decided to withhold this information. After all, you tell two young people that the world is going to end in 6 years and 357 days and they’re probably not going to want to take things slow.

“I will get back to you before using any of your quotes,” Buck says (possibly still whispering, it’s not clear). He says this, apparently, to give Jenkins the opportunity to insert some of his research into the exotic world of professional reporters:

That was nonsense, of course. He had said it only to give himself a reason to reconnect with the pilot. He might have a lot of personal questions about this, but he never allowed people he interviewed to see their quotes in advance. He trusted his tape recorder and his memory, and he had never been accused of misquoting.

Buck looked back at the captain and saw a strange look cross his face. He looked — what? Disappointed? Yes, then resigned.

Suddenly Buck remembered who he was dealing with. This was an intelligent, educated man. Surely he knew that reporters never checked back with their sources. He probably thought he was getting a journalistic brush-off.

A rookie mistake, Buck, he reprimanded himself. You just underestimated your own source.

Buck was putting his equipment away …

If you’re interviewing someone and you may have further questions later, there’s no reason not to say, “I may call you later to follow up.” But that wouldn’t have allowed Jenkins to show off what he’s learned about reportering, or to remind us again about Rayford’s Ph.D. from Embry-Riddle. For all of that research, though, Jenkins still seems to think that a reporter’s tape recorder is some kind of giant reel-to-reel machine with a detachable microphone — the sort of “equipment” one would have to “put away” rather than just tucking back into one’s jacket pocket. (He refers to it later in this scene as “the machine.”)

Buck was putting his equipment away when he noticed Chloe was crying, tears streaming down her face.

Apparently Chloe also had the chicken.

What was it with these women? Hattie Durham had been weeping when she and the captain had finished talking that afternoon. Now Chloe.

“What was it with these women?” Gender isn’t the common variable here. The common variable is Rayford. Spend an hour with this guy and you’ll wind up sobbing uncontrollably or shivering through your sweat. Both of these have happened to me just from reading about him.

Buck could identify, at least with Chloe. If she was crying because she had been moved by her father’s sincerity and earnestness, it was no surprise. Buck had a lump in his throat, and for the first time since he had lain facedown in fear in Israel during the Russian attack, he wished he had a private place to cry.

Buck assumes he knows why Chloe is upset, so he doesn’t bother to ask her if she’s OK, or to offer her a handkerchief, or to make any of the other sort of feeble gestures we humans tend to make when we notice that someone sitting next to us has tears streaming down her face.

It’s at this point that Buck asks Hattie for her opinion, “off the record.”

“Why off the record?” Hattie snapped. “The opinions of a pilot are important but the opinions of a flight attendant aren’t?”

No, silly. It’s not because you’re a flight attendant. Your opinions don’t matter because you’re a woman — which is also why the only opportunity you’ve been given to speak in this chapter is just one more attempt to portray you as thin-skinned and bitchy. That attempt backfires again. Score another point for meta-Hattie.

Rayford was not surprised at Hattie’s response, but he was profoundly disappointed with Chloe’s. He was convinced she didn’t want to embarrass him by saying how off the wall he sounded.

He doesn’t even seem to notice that his daughter is sobbing. Yet he’s still “convinced” he knows what she’s thinking and, based on that assumption, he is “profoundly disappointed” in her. I’m sure that comes across as comforting. What is it with these men?

“Mr. Williams,” he said, standing and thrusting out his hand, “it’s been a pleasure. The pastor I told you about in Illinois really has a handle on this stuff and knows much more than I do about the Antichrist and all. It might be worth a call if you want to know any more.”

So thanks for the interview. Oh, and I almost forgot, the world is going to end in exactly 6 years, 357 days aaaaaand … 13 hours. ‘Bye now.

In these parting words, Rayford summarizes what he considers the key point of his hourlong speech. Here is the core of his message — of the authors’ message — of his and their version of the “gospel”: “The Antichrist and all.”** Again, consider how strange this is in the best-selling “Christian novel” of the last two decades. Not, “Jesus and all,” or “Jesus’ return and all,” or even “God’s righteous wrath (and our righteous schadenfreude) and all.” The Antichrist and all.

The central figure in this message is not Christ, but the Antichrist. It’s fair to ask, then, if LaHaye and Jenkins’ religion might not be more accurately called “Antichristianity.” In their defense, however, we should note that the essential focus of their religion is not to celebrate or serve the Antichrist, but rather to oppose him. That would make their religion something more like “Anti-Antichrist-ianity.” To their way of thinking, Anti-Antichristianity is pretty much the same thing as Christianity. That’s not unreasonable, if the same semantic logic that makes “not unreasonable” mean the same thing as “reasonable” were to apply here. But opposing Christ’s opposite doesn’t make you Christian, and the enemy of God’s enemy isn’t necessarily God’s friend.

Here, as usual, Left Behind presents an extreme example of a more widespread problem in American evangelicalism. Evangelicals these days don’t stand for anything, they only stand against. And as it turns out, being against unrighteousness and being for righteousness aren’t the same thing at all. This isn’t merely a problem for evangelicals, either. Consider how rare it is nowadays to hear some say they’re “pro-America” without meaning, by that, that they’re anti- something (or everything) else.

The foursome moseyed to the lobby.

OK, yes, bonus points for use of the word “mosey.”

“I’m going to say my good-nights,” Hattie said. “I’ve got the earlier flight tomorrow.” She thanked Rayford for dinner, whispered something to Chloe — which seemed to get no response — and thanked Buck for sticking her with the cabfare his hospitality that morning. “I may just call Mr. Carpathia one of these days,” she said. …

Chloe looked as if she wanted to follow Hattie to the elevators and yet wanted to say something to Buck as well. He was shocked when she said, “Give us a minute, will you, Daddy? I’ll be right up.”

The point of this exchange, for the authors, was to arrange a chance for Buck and Chloe to talk one-on-one. They seem not to have noticed that this put Rayford and Hattie together. Alone together. On a hotel elevator.

Buck and Chloe talk about their mutual admiration for her father:

“Your dad is a pretty impressive guy,” he said.

“I know,” she said. “Especially lately.”

Lately her dad has been forcing her to tag along while he torments his former pseudo-mistress, but that’s not what Chloe is referring to. She means she’s starting to think her father might be right about “the Antichrist and all.” Buck agrees. At this point a good-night kiss is pretty much out of the question. If you’re a guy, standing awkwardly outside her door/elevator at the end of an evening together, then you should, as a rule, avoid the following topics: 1) her father; 2) weird religious theories; and especially 3) her father’s weird religious theories.

“I just met you and I’m really gonna miss you,” Chloe tells him. “If you get through Chicago, you have to call.”

Buck has already, somewhat creepily, booked a ticket to Chicago in the seat next to hers on tomorrow’s flight. He doesn’t tell her about this here, opting instead to up the creepy factor:

“It’s a promise,” Buck said. “I can’t say when, but let’s just say sooner than you think.”

The clock is ticking.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* I once got caught on the train making faces while reading Bryce Courtenay’s desciption, in The Power of One, of Pastor Mulvery’s “lightning on/off smile” with his “escape-attempting teeth.” To explain myself to the amused couple across the row, I read them the passage and soon they were trying to smile like Pastor Mulvery too. The Power of One is very good, by the way. Skip the movie, read the book — it’s like a South African Huckleberry Finn.

** Makes me wish Sellar and Yeatman were still alive to write The Antichrist and All That, at the end of which history really would come to a .

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