L.B.: Otherwise innocuous

L.B.: Otherwise innocuous February 1, 2008

Left Behind, pp. 397-399

The authors, yet again, subtly point out that Buck and Rayford have opposite impressions of how their recent “interview” went. And by “subtly” there, I’m thinking of the way that Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford subtly expressed her disapproval of wire coat hangers.

Here’s the last bit from Buck’s point of view:

It would be fun someday to tell Rayford Steele how much that otherwise innocuous interview had meant to him. But Buck assumed Steele had already figured that out. That was probably why Steele had seemed so passionate.

And then we switch back to Rayford and read that he “felt he was a failure” based on that same interview. For those keeping score at home, this is the eighth consecutive transition between protagonists to make this exact same point. And in between those transitions, the pilot and the reporter have spent most of the past 13 pages brooding on this same thing —

Rayford was privately frustrated. … Buck sat without interrupting. … Buck was desperate to maintain his composure. … Rayford was certain he was not getting through. … Buck did not trust himself to respond with coherence. … Chloe was crying. … Rayford was profoundly disappointed with Chloe’s [response]. … Rayford was convinced Williams was merely being polite. … “Your dad is a pretty impressive guy.” … Buck did not sleep well. … Buck assumed Steele had already figured that out. … So far Rayford felt he was a failure. …

Uncle! Please, make the bad men stop. Thirteen pages of this relentless pounding doesn’t just make an impression on readers, it makes a contusion.

One also wonders what Buck meant by “this otherwise innocuous interview.” It was a 90-minute, uninterrupted monologue informing him that: A) he is a sinner, damned to Hell; and B) the world is coming to an unspeakably violent end and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. How is any of that “otherwise innocuous”? It’s the End of the World — literally. Buck here seems to be supplying the answer to the old joke: But besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play? “It was otherwise innocuous.”

As Rayford continues his sanctified sulking, we learn that he, too, is a bit unclear on the concept of the apocalypse:

If this signaled the soon beginning of the tribulation period predicted in the Bible, and Rayford had no doubt that it did, he wondered if there would be any joy in it.

What part of “tribulation” does he not understand? I suppose Rayford’s just trying to accentuate the positive, to find the silver lining in “great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world.” He just prefers to look at the seven bowls of divine wrath as half-full. (Or I suppose, in this case, half-empty would be the more optimistic view.) The next seven years will be marked by unprecedented, convulsive, global calamities. The population of the earth will be enslaved to a tyrant and inexorably, painfully whittled down to a scant remnant which will itself be swept away in a final conflagration. One way or another — through famine, pestilence, war, fire, flood, earthquake or poison — every man, woman, beast, bird, fish and plant will die.

“He wondered if there would be any joy in it.” Short answer: No.

We get another full page of Rayford’s self-flagellation over “his performance during the interview with Cameron Williams,” during which we’re told that, “From the depths of his soul Rayford wanted to be more productive … to bring more people to Christ.” Take a moment to savor the ghastly use of the word “productive” there, and appreciate that all of the reasons why that’s so very much the wrong word are the same reasons the authors seem to have thought it was the right one.

The magazine interview had been an incredible opportunity, but in his gut he felt it had not come off well. … Rayford believed he had seen the last of Cameron Williams. He wouldn’t be calling Bruce Barnes, and Rayford’s quotes would never see the pages of Global Weekly.

Because the important thing isn’t to spread the gospel or to warn the world of its impending doom. The important thing is to get quoted and get your name in print.

Rayford mopes about for another full page. He had heard Chloe crying herself to sleep, but he’s convinced they were tears of embarrassment over her father the fanatic. (After spending this entire chapter totally misreading every signal from his daughter, it would have been nice to see Mr. Perceptive begin to question his utter confidence that he always knows exactly what women are thinking and what they would say to him if he allowed them to speak, but of course this doesn’t occur to him either.)

He prays for a sign, for “encouragement … I need to know I haven’t turned her off forever.” Two paragraphs later, Chloe “embraced him tight and long, pressing her cheek against his chest.”

Such little quotidian signs of the presence of a responsive God become a regular part of the rest of these books. This is a staple of Christian Brand fiction, but the authors don’t seem to have considered how strange it is in the context of this story. “Please, God, give me some small sign,” makes sense in some Jeanette Oke or Grace Livingston Hill story, but here, after God has directly incinerated the Russo-Ethiopian air fleet and then whisked away some 2 billion people in the twinkling of an eye, it seems a bit odd that the believers in Left Behind would find these smaller gestures so much more compelling as evidence of divine intervention.*

This comes up again in the following section, after Chloe receives her own equally ambiguous and unimpressive answer to prayer. “I just told God I needed a little more,” she says. More, that is, than just her father’s earnest pleading. Chloe also acknowledges that the Trip and Die guys might be a hint of some divine activity. “There’s no other explanation** for those two guys in Jerusalem, is there, except that they have to be the two witnesses talked about in the Bible?” she says. It doesn’t occur to her, or to the authors, that The Event or what Buck called “the Israel miracle” might also be regarded as signs from God. Like her father, she doesn’t find such flashy phenomenon as persuasive as she does the “little more” gestures, the supposedly miraculous answers to prayer, such as a hug from a family member or a stalker’s reminding you that you’re never alone.

The impression such scenes give is something like if Moses had interrupted God’s engraving of the stone tablets on Mt. Sinai and said, “I’m thinking of a number between one and ten …”

That’s symptomatic of a larger problem pervading the rest of this series, following the conversion of our various protagonists. The authors follow the conventions of much Christian Brand fiction, presenting their heroes as models of Christian living their readers ought to emulate. Except that none of their readers is living in this same wholly disconnected context. This tribulation period is, according to the authors themselves, a unique, parenthetical span of history — a distinct and separate “dispensation.” It is wholly unprecedented and nothing about it is to serve as a precedent for anything else (just like Bush v. Gore). The authors vacillate between emphasizing that differentness and forgetting about it entirely. It’s the apocalypse, but it’s otherwise innocuous.

Better writers can still find a way, even in such an alien context, to allow readers to relate to characters in such a story.*** But in the hands of LaHaye and Jenkins, this becomes a story of people who are not like us in a world that is not like ours, overseen by a god that is not like God.

While receiving the answer-to-prayer hug from his daughter, Rayford wonders if this would be the right time to press her again about converting to the Church of The Antichrist and All. But then:

… he felt deeply impressed of God, as if the Lord were speaking directly to his spirit, Patience. Let her be. Let her be.

“Though she may be parted,” the Lord might have added, “there is still a chance that she may see.”

What’s interesting here is that after 15 pages of Rayford being wholly misled by what he felt “in his gut,” we see him now getting a feeling in his gut that he interprets as “the Lord … speaking directly to his spirit.” How can he be sure this is, indeed, the voice of the Holy Spirit and not, rather, “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato”? Rayford’s visceral approach to spiritual discernment seems prone to misinterpretation.

Here’s the Christian Brand novel I’d like to see. Start with this very scene — the apparent voice of the Lord reassuring the anxious parent to “Let her be, let her be.” Then have the daughter walk out the door and get hit by the Hypothetical Bus. And then what happens?

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* This reminds me a bit of the story of Gideon, who played endless games with fleece while remaining unimpressed by repeated face-to-face conversations with the angel of the Lord. But unlike our heroes in LB, Gideon was supposed to seem timid and obtuse. (The tone for the story is set when the angel, finding Gideon cowering in a winepress, calls him “mighty warrior.” You have to like any story that includes angelic sarcasm.)

** Chloe, Buck and the authors all seem to think the answer to this question is No, but of course there are dozens of other possible explanations for “those two guys in Jerusalem.” They might, in fact, be acting like the two witnesses from the Bible because they’d read that passage in the Bible. That actually happens a lot. The two witnesses in our story might be Moses and Elijah returned to this mortal coil, but they might also be the reincarnations of John Reeve and Lodowick Muggleton. We can’t discount any alternative theories until they actually start belching fire.

*** One obvious way to go about that would be to explore how the inescapable suffering and death of the apocalypse is really just a concentrated version of the unknown-but-very-limited amount of time that each of us has before also encountering inescapable death. After all, every man, woman, beast, bird, fish and plant on earth is going to die, just probably not during the same seven-year span. That’s not something our premillennial dispensationalist authors are interested in exploring, though, since the whole point of believing the PMD nonsense is to be able to reassure yourself that you’re never going to die — that you will escape death by being “raptured.” (How that experience is any different, for the rapturee, from meeting your maker in the twinkling of an eye courtesy of a gunshot or railway accident is unclear, but this is something PMDs have trained themselves not to think about.)

In any case, The Meaning of Life in the Face of Death might be fertile thematic ground for a real novel, but it won’t do for a Christian Brand novel, which must always be about How to Live Like a Good Christian.**** For a character living during the exceptional Great Tribulation, the matter of How to Live Like a Good Christian is likely to be incomparably different from what it means for a reader who is not. That makes the theme of these books, almost by definition, irrelevant to the lives of the people reading them.

**** The fact that these are perceived to be unrelated themes tells you everything you need to know about Christian Brand novels.

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