L.B.: Buck and the Preacher

L.B.: Buck and the Preacher April 11, 2008

Left Behind, pp. 423-424

“I have a message and an answer for people genuinely seeking,” the Rev. Bruce Barnes tells Buck Williams, adding that, if Buck meets that stipulation, “I have all the time you need.”

“Well, sir,” Buck said, nearly staggered by the emotion and humility he heard in his own voice, “I appreciate that.”

Strolling through Left Behind, one frequently winds up tripping over phrases like that. They force one to stop, turn around and inspect the ground, wondering how such a strange and hazardous thing could have ended up there in the middle of the sidewalk.

Buck was “nearly staggered by the emotion and humility he heard in his own voice” — is such a condition even possible? Just barely, perhaps, but not in the case of anyone you would care to know. The sentence as a whole was, I think, intended to convey the idea that Buck is humble, but what it actually tells us, instead, is that Buck is the kind of person who finds a humble-sounding tone in his own voice deeply moving.1 That doesn’t strike me as an endearing quality.

Buck explains to Bruce that his questions have nothing to do with the article he’s supposed to be working on:

“It might have made sense to get a pastor’s view for my story, but people can guess what pastors think, especially based on the other people I’m quoting.”

“Like Captain Steele.”

Buck nodded.

The more people refer to Rayford as “Captain Steele” the more one gets the impression that this is something he insists on. Apart from in-flight intercom announcements — “This is your captain speaking …” — I have never, ever heard anyone speak of an airline pilot as “Captain Smith.”2 I’m wondering if this sounds as unnatural and strange to airline pilots themselves as it does to me.

The stranger thing here, though, is Buck’s notion that his readers are well-served by leaving them to “guess” what the experts think based on the comments of those experts’ most neophyte laymen followers. It’s worse than that, actually, since the role or title of “pastor” doesn’t actually require that one be an expert in anything other than, well, pastoring. “It might have made sense to get a pastor’s view” for Buck’s story only if he was interested in exploring the emotional and spiritual repercussions of The Event from the perspective of someone whose job it now was to minister to their traumatized congregations and communities. (None of which, as we’ve noticed repeatedly, interests Buck or the authors even slightly.) If he were looking for someone to provide a theological or biblical interpretation of The Event, then Buck should be interviewing a theologian or biblical scholar. Seeking such a perspective from the pastor of a randomly selected nondenominational congregation wouldn’t make much more sense than seeking it from an airline pilot.

We get another quick dose of boilerplate Rayford worship —

“I was impressed with Captain Steele. That’s one smart guy, a good thinker …”

It’s Buck talking there, I think, but it could just as well have been Bruce. They both speak of Rayford in the same awe-struck tone using precisely the same adoring vocabulary. For that matter, so does Rayford. Finally, having established their mutual respect for one another’s sincerity and passion and for that of Captain Steele, it’s time for Bruce to begin his sermon:

Bruce began by telling Buck his life story. “I once had wealth, power and the love of a beautiful woman. … It was never easy for me. I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sittin’ on the porch with my family …

No wait, I’m sorry, that’s Steve Martin’s opening monologue from The Jerk. Let me try that again:

Bruce began by telling Buck his life story, being raised in a Christian home, going to Bible college,3 marrying a Christian, becoming a pastor, the whole thing.

You get the sense that when Bruce gets up to give his testimony, he probably says “yada yada” a lot.

He clarified that he knew the story of Christ and the way of forgiveness and a relationship with God. “I thought I had the best of both worlds. But the Scripture is clear that you can’t serve two masters. You can’t have it both ways. …”

As we’ve discussed previously (see “The real sin of the Rev. Bruce Barnes“), Bruce didn’t have the best of any world in his sad, somnambular existence before The Event. The scripture he alludes to above says, “You cannot serve God and Mammon,” but Bruce wasn’t serving either one. His was exactly the kind of twilit misery — wholly devoid of either pleasure or meaning — that C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape prescribes as the living death of Hell on earth, yet somehow LaHaye and Jenkins have confused this with Bruce’s living the high life.

It’s telling, too, that Bruce’s wretched, Babbit-like existence is also said to have been outwardly indistinguishable from that of Irene or Vernon Billings or any of the other real RTCs at New Hope Village Church. Look again at that initial summary — “being raised in a Christian home, going to Bible college, marrying a Christian, becoming a pastor, the whole thing” — and see if even the authors themselves don’t sound a bit bored by the mundane tedium of it. I suppose that’s a side-effect of believing that one’s primary calling in life is sitting around and waiting for the end of the world. That’s not terribly easy to distinguish from sitting around and waiting to die. I imagine Christ had something different in mind when he offered his followers the promise of “life … to the full.”

“You can’t have it both ways. I discovered that truth in the severest way.” And he told of losing his family and friends, everyone dear to him. He wept as he spoke. “The pain is every bit as great today as it was when it happened,” he said.

Well, yeah, since it only happened 10 days ago. As a former visitation pastor, Bruce really ought to know that 10 days is still pretty early in the process for coping with the loss of one’s entire family.

But then Bruce’s pain isn’t primarily due to his loss of “his family and friends.” Everyone else on earth has been dealt that same blow, yet no one else is portrayed as Bruce is, wracked by grief, shaken to the core and perpetually on the verge of tears. That’s because they’re not dealing with what he’s dealing with — the truth he discovered “in the severest way.” The real cause of Bruce’s pain is that he rejected the LaHaye Jesus and thus missed out on his chance to participate fully in the glorious cosmic I Told You So.

Then Bruce outlined, as Rayford had done, the plan of salvation from beginning to end.

Here, once again, we readers are told that someone is told “the plan of salvation,” without our being able to read what that is. That’s a curious repeated omission in a book that both authors insist was intended, foremost, for evangelism (although there are links for the unsaved at leftbehind.com). I would have been interested to read the highlights of the authors’ version of this outline of the plan of salvation. (I’m guessing it wouldn’t be the version that begins, “There was a man who had two sons …” And, despite their enthusiasm for every other passage about the end of the world, I’m absolutely certain it wouldn’t be the version that begins, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory …”)

Buck’s response to all of this rings partly true:

Buck grew nervous, anxious. He wanted a break. He interrupted and asked if Bruce wanted to know a little more about him.

Here I’m guessing that, as with the descriptions of O’Hare Airport, Jenkins is working from firsthand knowledge. He has been in Bruce’s shoes and he has seen how the person in Buck’s situation responds. They seem nervous, increasingly anxious, as though they’re looking for a break — perhaps even an escape. Jenkins may not have correctly interpreted these signals, but at least he recognized them and does a capable job here of describing what they look like.

Buck told of his own history, concentrating most on the Russia/Israel conflict and the roughly 14 months since. “I can see,” Bruce said at last, “that God is trying to get your attention.”

The Russia/Israel conflict mentioned there is what Buck earlier called “the Israel miracle,” the explicitly divine destruction of the entire Russian air force. So here is the one certain thing we have learned from this book about “the plan of salvation from beginning to end” — it means one thing for people like Rayford and Buck and something else entirely for all those Russian (and Ethiopian) pilots. Those tens of thousands of people lived and then violently died, apparently, just so God could try to get Buck’s attention.

That may sound like I’m reading too much into Bruce’s offhand comment, but this is actually the plot of the book — of the whole series. This is the basis of LaHaye’s entire End Times scheme. He believes that in the last days, God will try to get our attention through a series of massive and increasingly lethal miracles. It’s less Judgment Day than divine tantrum.

Left Behind offers a convincing illustration of LaHaye’s notion that such a flamboyant and wantonly destructive God might succeed in catching our attention. But even more so the book serves to illustrate that such a God would not deserve it.

A God deserving of our attention would be “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” That’s Jonah’s description of God, but the unholy prophet did not intend it as praise. Jonah — LaHaye’s spiritual ancestor — was seething with anger over God’s compassion. He refused to accept that all of those Ninevites — all of those Russian and Ethiopian pilots, those Assyrians and Babylonians and New Babylonians, all of those enemies of the Tribulation Force — should be spared the calamity he desperately wished to see befall them.

But the Lord said, “Ninevah has more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

– – – – – – – – – – – –

1 Hmm. Put it that way and this sentence, which initially struck me as flagrantly awful, suddenly seems to be inadvertently insightful and useful. It gets at something I often find unsettling and unconvincing in the musical/liturgical style sometimes called “contemporary worship” (if you’re unfamiliar with the genre, google “Hillsong” — or just imagine “Kumbaya” on steroids).

At its worst (and it’s not always at its worst), this “worship music” strikes me as a kind of overacting — a desperate effort to be perceived as earnest that leaves me with the sour aftertaste of disingenuousness. The performers of such worship would likely respond that I’m not the one they’re seeking to impress. Their intended audience is God, and God knows they’re sincere. But I don’t think that’s quite true either. The real intended audience — the listener such worship seeks most to influence — is the performers themselves. The goal of such performances seems to be to achieve a state in which one is, to borrow Jenkins’ accidentally insightful phrase, “nearly staggered by the emotion and humility one hears in one’s own voice.”

2 I know two airline pilots fairly well and neither I nor anyone else who knows them calls them “captain.” We all simply refer to them, respectively, as “Billy” and “Billy’s idiot brother-in-law.”

3 The distinction between “Bible college” and seminary conveys a universe of cultural meaning, the full extent of which can be difficult to convey to those not intimately acquainted with the American evangelical subculture. The Bible college is a strange and tenuous institution — a structure designed to provide higher education while simultaneously accommodating fervent anti-intellectualism. Bible colleges are not, as they are sometimes portrayed, the evangelical equivalent of seminaries. The evangelical equivalent of seminaries are evangelical seminaries. The seminary/Bible college cultural divide is thus not between mainline Protestants and evangelicals, but between evangelicals and anti-intellectual evangelicals. In those parts of evangelicalism where anti-intellectualism is most fervent, Bible college is viewed as the proper destination for Real, True Christians while seminary is viewed as the secularized realm of pointy-headed intellectuals who have substituted fancy book-larnin’ for a genuine relationship with a personal savior.

(PMD prophecy enthusiasts like LaHaye — a seminary graduate — are a bit more complicated. They’re part of the anti-intellectual camp, but they’re also obsessed with the trappings of scholarship and the desire to have their prophecy studies viewed as academically legitimate. Hence places like Dallas Theological Seminary.)

There are a few Bible colleges that manage to transcend the limitations of their anti-intellectual heritage, and there are more than a few qualified people teaching in Bible colleges throughout the country. Having said that, I would strongly discourage anyone from spending their money attending any institution with the appellation “Bible college.”

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