L.B.: Transactions

L.B.: Transactions April 18, 2008

Left Behind, pp. 424-426

As Bruce and Buck go around in circles, spiraling closer to Buck’s eventual conversion, I find myself reimagining this scene set in “The Box” from Homicide: Life on the Street, with Andre Braugher in the role of the Rev. Det. Bruce Barnes Pembleton. The authors’ notion of evangelism isn’t that different from the manipulative mind games employed by Braugher’s jesuitical policeman when interrogating suspects. It wouldn’t seem out of place if, instead of asking Buck to pray, Bruce slid a yellow legal pad across the table and told him that it was time to make a formal statement.

Alas, the scene as actually written has none of the propulsive urgency of that excellent police drama:

“Nobody can force you or badger you into this, Mr. Williams, but I must also say again that we live in perilous times. We don’t know how much pondering time we have.”

“You sound like Chloe Steele.”

“And she sounds like her father,” Bruce said, smiling.

“And he, I guess, sounds like you.”

I’m not sure if that’s supposed to a be little meta-joke there, a winking acknowledgment to the reader that the past 400 pages are filled with repetitious dialogue from often indistinguishable characters.

Bruce’s assertion there about “perilous times” in which we can’t know “how much … time we have” is another reminder of how premillennial dispensationalism is shaped by the denial of death. His remark is an accurate statement about the fragile human condition in every place and time. The Bible is filled with such reminders of our mortality. To the PMDs, however, those reminders do not apply to every place and time, they are relegated to this future time period, this other “dispensation.” Here in our dispensation, what PMDs call the “Church Age,” we can ignore such thoughts of our own finite time by clinging to the hope of, as Irene Steele put it way back on Page 4, “Jesus coming back to get us before we die.”

I suppose that’s reassuring, provided one doesn’t stop to consider that the mortality rate for all humans, RTCs included, is a constant in every time and “dispensation.” What mortals these fools be.

“Let me take a different tack,” Bruce says:

“I know you’re a bright guy, so you might as well have all the information you need before you leave here.”

Buck breathed easier. He had feared Bruce was about to pop the question, pushing him to pray the prayer both Rayford Steele and Chloe had talked about. He accepted that that would be part of it, that it would signal the transaction and start his relationship with God — someone he had never before really spoken to.

“Pop the question” is a strange phrase there, though less theologically troubling than the rest of that paragraph. The motif of God as the patient, wooing lover of humanity is a frequent and, to me, favorite biblical image. Betrothal isn’t a bad metaphor for the kind of commitment and relationship Buck is considering here. Or, rather, for the kind of commitment and relationship Buck might have been considering were it not for the metaphor that supercedes that one here and throughout Left Behind — the idea of a “transaction” initiated by “the prayer.” Not just prayer, but the prayer — the right prayer, the Magic Words.

I can’t begin to unpack all the many ways that “transaction” is the disturbingly wrong word in the paragraph quoted above, but let’s note that this notion of a transaction would seem to imply that Buck would be the one doing the redeeming here. That’s not how we Christians usually think of this.

The authors’ magic-words notion of prayer also explains what they mean here when Buck says that God is “someone he had never before really spoken to.” Prayers not properly formulated and precisely addressed (with the correct ZIP+4) simply don’t count. Foxhole-prayers and desperate cries addressed to “if there’s anyone out there” don’t count. God doesn’t listen to things like Renan’s agnostic’s prayer (“Oh God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul”). Nor does God listen to any supplicant who doesn’t pronounce his name precisely right.

Years ago I was arguing with a fundamentalist friend over the meaning of Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” This meant, he said, that salvation was impossible unless one spoke that precise name, the name of “Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Teasing him a bit, I reminded him that the book of Acts was written in Greek, and that Peter was most likely speaking in Aramaic, so if salvation required the pronunciation of that precise set of syllables, then saying it in English wouldn’t seem to count. This clearly troubled him. I’m fairly sure he went home to look up those magic words in Greek and Aramaic, reciting them again just to be safe.

“I don’t mean to be morbid, Mr. Williams, but I have no family responsibilities anymore. I have a core group meeting tomorrow and church Sunday. You’re welcome to attend. But I have enough energy to go to midnight if you do.”

[Insert gratuitous Ted Haggard joke here.]

Core group meetings (and super-ultra-inner-core group meetings) and church services make up Bruce Barnes’ agenda these days now that he has slid into the “senior pastor” role left vacant by the disintegration/rapture of his boss. That raises the question of who now is serving as New Hope Village Church’s visitation pastor. That ministry is more important than ever here in the traumatized post-Event world. Every family in the new congregation, every family everywhere, is now struggling to cope with the loss of their children. Others would still be in painful limbo — their traveling spouses missing for more than a week now, whether raptured or dead in a plane crash no one yet knows. Those people are all going to need the attention of a minister in some form other than prophecy classes and Sunday services. The need and the pain of such people would be the dominant fact facing any church in the days, weeks and months after such an epic tragedy, yet this dynamic is completely absent from the authors’ portrayal of the life, schedule and agenda of New Hope church.

We’ve noted before that the United Nations scenes in LB are completely unrealistic, bungling every aspect and detail of how that institution works and what actually goes on there. The authors’ laziness, lack of research and failure of imagination is inexcusable, but their ignorance in that case is at least understandable, since neither of them has any actual experience or familiarity with that institution.

Yet the scenes in this book set in the offices of Global Weekly or New Hope Village Church are also wholly unreal. Such scenes also botch and bungle the details, the rhythm, the culture and the daily life of those institutions. This is confounding. Jerry Jenkins was, for years, the chief editor of a monthly magazine. Tim LaHaye has been, for decades, the pastor of a church. Despite their own histories with such institutions, their portrayal of them still seems as alien, lazy and ignorant as their portrayal of the U.N.

This is baffling. It’s like listening to someone describe himself inaccurately while looking into a mirror. (Perhaps that explains it, actually.)

Anyway, I nominate poor, shattered Loretta to fill the now-vacant position of visitation pastor. She’s visibly broken and short on answers. That should make her much better at the job than Bruce ever was.

Bruce spent the next several hours giving Buck a crash course in prophecy and the end times. …

What this means for readers is a summary of the authors’ description of the Antichrist, accompanied by a fevered description of Buck’s increasing anxiety:

Buck’s blood ran cold. He fell silent, no longer peppering Bruce with questions or comments. He scribbled notes as fast as he could. … His fingers began to shake. … Buck was overcome. He felt a terrible fear deep in his gut.

I’m starting to worry about his health. Buck’s anxiety here stems from the similarities between the Antichrist that Bruce describes and Nicolae Carpathia:

At one point he thought of accusing Bruce of having based everything he was saying on the CNN report he had heard and seen, but even if he had, here it was in black and white in the Bible.

The CNN report is, of course, fictional. So too is this version of the Bible and its purported description of “the Antichrist.”

Antichrist stories are, in a sense, a bit like vampire stories. Just as every new storyteller must reinterpret the vampire legends, deciding which parts to keep and which to revise (crosses, garlic, sunlight, mirrors, wood, running water, invitations, etc.), so too every new Antichrist storyteller must do the same — whether, as here, in fiction or in purportedly non-fiction “prophecy” studies. Both kinds of stories are based on various, sometimes contradictory legends and neither (despite LaHaye’s claims) can rely on any actual or canonical account that establishes the “real” characteristics of such monsters.

Because of this, as this series of books progresses, it’s interesting to watch the dynamic in this passage reverse itself. Here Bruce and Buck begin to realize that Carpathia’s actions closely parallel those supposedly prophesied in the Bible. Such similarities exist, at this point, because the character of Carpathia and his actions are based on those prophecies.

Yet because those prophecies of the Antichrist’s actions are also largely a creation of the authors’ imagination, the influence and the similarity begins to reverse itself as the Left Behind saga develops. The Antichrist they find “literally” prophesied in the pages of the Bible comes to resemble Nicolae rather than the other way around. They start projecting their own fictional character back into their convoluted prophecy scheme. More on this much later, when we get to some of the sequels (if the Lord tarries and/or we live that long).

I’ve commented before on the strange way that the authors (and many of their fans) seem to regard these books as evidence that these biblical prophecies are true. That wouldn’t be the case even if these books were, as the authors claim, a fictional narrative devised to illustrate the fulfillment of those prophecies.

But that’s not really what these books are. They are a fictional narrative concocted by the authors to illustrate the fulfillment of prophecies which were also concocted by the authors. They are two opposing mirrors, with nothing in between.

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