L.B.: Passionate sincerity

L.B.: Passionate sincerity April 4, 2008

Left Behind, pp. 421-423

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

We left Buck Williams sitting in his car parked in front of New Hope Village Church, "his head in his hands." And there he sits for the next page, musing about how his carefully planned and ordered life had been knocked off balance by recent events:

But nothing had prepared him for the disappearances or for the violent deaths of his friends. While he should have been prepared for this promotion, that hadn’t been part of his plan, either.

Any hint of the lasting emotional or existential effects of The Event are rare and welcome in Left Behind. The near total absence of any such effects is one of the strangest of this awful book’s many defects. Two billion people get disintegrated in a flash, instantaneously transforming the planet into a world without children, and those that remain simply go back to work and get on with their week untroubled, their previous routines unaltered. A heavy snowfall would have more effect than The Event seems to have had in this book. Instead of a world in mourning, an endless string of memorial services and funerals for empty caskets (most very small), we get a world without any memorials or remembrances for the departed.

So I’m glad to hear Buck at least mention the disappearances as part of the list of things for which he was unprepared. Maybe it shouldn’t have been mentioned in a way that suggests this global trauma wasn’t a bigger deal than Buck’s unexpected promotion, but at least he mentioned it.

We know the names of the friends Buck mentions who died violently — Dirk Burton and Alan Tompkins. Calling Tompkins his "friend" seems a bit of an overstatement, since Buck only met the man a few hours before he was blown up by a car bomb intended for Buck. Yet he has thought of Tompkins repeatedly — often enough that if he said that the loss of this man "tugged at his heart almost constantly" we might actually believe him. We couldn’t believe Buck when he said that about the loss of his niece and nephew on the one occasion they seem to have crossed his mind. We don’t know the names of those relatives. I doubt Buck does either.

Finally, with a last burst of trepidation ("he felt alone, exposed, vulnerable … he felt a bone weariness as he headed for the church"), Buck goes inside.

It was a pleasant surprise to find that Bruce Barnes was someone near Buck’s own age. He seemed bright and earnest, having that same authority and passion Rayford Steele exhibited.

By now readers have to be wondering if these are the only adjectives Jerry Jenkins knows. (Police Officer: "Did you get a good look at the suspect?" Jenkins: "He seemed sincere. And passionate.") The point the authors are trying to pound home through this passionate and sincere refrain, I suspect, is that these are the characteristics that they believe every good Christian man should have: Passion and sincerity. The "authority" mentioned above is the product of those two attributes: Sincerity + Passion = Authority.

That arithmetic only works if you accept, as the authors apparently do, that one cannot be sincerely and passionately wrong. That may be why they assume that everyone they consider to be wrong or in the wrong — i.e., you, me and every other non-RTC — must be insincere.

It had been a long time since Buck had been in a church. This one seemed innocuous enough, fairly new and modern, neat and efficient. He and the young pastor met in a modest office.

Scene-setting descriptions of place are rare in this book. We got a similar quick sketch of Irene Steele’s country-kitsch bedroom decor and of Stanton Bailey’s banker-ish, polished-brass office, but compared to most scenes in this book the above description of New Hope Village Church seems detailed and expansive.

This description tells us little about what the outside or inside of the church actually looks like, but I suspect that’s not really the point. The point, rather, is to present a series of opposites to underscore that New Hope isn’t like those other churches Buck might have been in years ago. Those weren’t Real True churches. Thus where NHVC is "new and modern" those other churches are old and hidebound to tradition. Where the real church is "neat and efficient" and "modest," the false churches of the left behind are cluttered, inefficient (not cranking out the product) and immodest. All of that makes such churches, in the authors’ view, anything but "innocuous."

"Your friends, the Steeles, told me you might call," Barnes said.

Buck was struck by his honesty. In the world in which Buck moved, he might have kept that information to himself, that edge. But he realized the pastor had no interest in edge. There was nothing to hide here. In essence, Buck was looking for information and Bruce was interested in providing it.

I don’t see how withholding such information might provide any "edge," but I suppose that’s just evidence that I wouldn’t have what it takes to get by in "the world in which Buck moved" — a world of cut-throat conversational chess where the stakes are high and the slightest mistake, such as mentioning that "your friends … told me you might call," could leave you vulnerable to a fatal blow. ("Hello," the stranger said. Buck was about to respond in kind, but then he caught himself. That’s just what he’d expect me to say. …)

"I want to tell you right off," Bruce said, "that I am aware of your work and respect your talent. But to be frank, I no longer have time for the pleasantries and small talk that used to characterize my work. We live in perilous times. …"

We should note again here that Bruce’s earlier work was the role of "visitation pastor" for NHVC. That somewhat euphemistic title refers to ministers who spend their days not at the church, but in nursing homes, hospitals and hospices, by the bedsides of the sick, the suffering and the dying. "Perilous times" shouldn’t be anything new for Bruce Barnes. "Perilous times" was his job description. "Pleasantries and small talk" might have their place in such ministry, but they could never be said to "characterize" that work. Further confirmation of something we have already seen: Bruce Barnes was a terrible visitation pastor.

"… We live in perilous times. I have a message and an answer for people genuinely seeking. I tell everyone in advance that I have quit apologizing for what I’m going to say. If that’s a ground rule you can live with, I have all the time you need."

Bruce’s long apology for why he’s speaking unapologetically demonstrates a refreshing urgency. He knows that the world is going to end in less than seven years and that the remaining six years, 355 days are going to be marked by a series of unpleasant events each outdoing the last in mass casualties. He should be speaking urgently — probably even more urgently than he speaks here. This would be a good time for what Richard Clarke memorably described as "running around town with your hair on fire."

Imagine that you were transported back in time to Christmas Eve of 2004. The stockings hang from the mantel, the pregnant pile of presents sits under the tree, A Christmas Story plays for the umpteenth time on TBS. And, unknown to anyone but you, the visitor from the future, hundreds of thousands of people from Madagascar to Malaysia have less than 24 hours to live. Wouldn’t you maybe, I don’t know, call someone and try to warn the world of what was about to happen? For that matter if, at that very moment, the executive editor from a prominent national newsmagazine were to walk into your home, wouldn’t you consider that an opportunity to get the word out?

But Bruce doesn’t really seem interested here in getting the word out. He knows that unrelenting calamity and mass death are about to happen on a global scale, but he’s not looking for a way to warn the world of this impending doom. He’s looking, instead, for a select few potential new members to initiate into his secret club, some few who have been carefully vetted and found worthy of hearing the full truth of what’s coming. "I have a message and an answer," Bruce said, but then immediately qualifies that, "for people genuinely seeking." Seekers who are not "genuine" — not sufficiently sincere and passionate — need not apply. Bruce has no message and no answers for them.

A few pages ago, Bruce sat in this same office with the Steeles attempting to reinvent and rebuild the church from scratch. The model they chose didn’t come from Pentecost but from the Pentagon — "a sort of Green Berets." Buck arrives, the authors tell us, "looking for information and Bruce was interested in providing it," but that’s not really what’s going on here. Bruce is interested in screening Buck as a potential recruit. He’s interested in providing just enough information to get him signed up, but much of what Bruce knows about the events of the coming months and years is information that Bruce seems to consider classified, only to be shared on a "need to know" basis.

Contrast Bruce’s approach with that of the Jerusalem street preachers, LB’s version of the Two Witnesses from the book of Revelation. Their message and answer is a monotonous chanted slogan, which hardly seems likely to persuade, but at least they’re taking it public and not warily sizing up their listeners according to whether or not they seem to be "genuinely seeking."

We readers know, of course, that the authors have rigged the game and thus the answer that Bruce and the street preachers have is the right answer. But what about those who have latched onto the wrong answers? Ten days after The Event one would expect to find street preachers everywhere — crackpot theorists, Max-Fennig-like alleged victims of alien abduction, and unhinged former parents turning every intersection into the Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner. People walking around in "The End Is Near" sandwich-board signs would be as common in real life as in New Yorker cartoons. The Event would have revived and reinvigorated doomsday cults, dragging them out into the open where their sincere and passionate devotees would assault passersby, shouting, "I have a message and an answer!"

None of that happens here, of course, because, again: A) it would force the authors to explain how such people could be sincere and passionate, yet still wrong, and B) as we’ve seen, every character in the story seems to have read the back of the book and to know that they’re in a premillennial dispensationalist novel in which the PMD End Times fantasy is true.

B does not result in spontaneous mass conversions, I suppose, because, as A indicates, the unsaved are also insincere — they know they’re wrong, but they choose, deliberately, to reject what they know is true. I don’t know that the authors would put it that starkly, but that seems to be the underlying assumption for their characterization of all non-RTCs.

This makes sense when you consider the fate that the authors sincerely and passionately believe awaits all non-RTCs. I’m guessing that all of that mayhem, destruction and torment — followed by an infinity of even worse mayhem, destruction and torment — becomes easier to stomach if you convince yourself that its victims have deliberately and knowingly chosen such a fate.

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