L.B.: Back to school

L.B.: Back to school June 6, 2008

Left Behind, pp. 442-443

Chloe Steele told her father of her plans to finally look into local college classes that Monday.

That makes sense, right? Chloe was just beginning the winter quarter of her freshman year at Stanford when her studies were interrupted by a loss in her family. She returned home to be with her father but now, after two weeks of sitting around at home, she’s looking into resuming her studies closer to home. Makes perfect sense.

Or, rather, it would make perfect sense in a completely different novel — one where the Steeles’ family trauma was an isolated event and not part of a global apocalypse, a world-altering trauma heralding the end of the world. Here in Left Behind, the idea that Chloe would begin resuming classes — or that there would even be classes for her to resume — doesn’t make any sense at all.

Part of the reason that she can’t just pick up where she left off after her mother’s funeral is that there was no funeral. Not for Irene, not for Rayford Jr., not for any of the 2 billion or so people all over the world who are now gone.

LaHaye and Jenkins could not allow funerals in this book. For them, everything depends on their ability to maintain an artificial distinction between “raptured” and “dead.” This isn’t just the alleged premise for this book, it’s the linchpin for their entire End Times check list and the thing that reshapes every aspect of their theology — not just eschatology but soteriology, ecclesiology, theodicy, the whole shebang. If they’d allowed funerals in Left Behind, then this artificial distinction would’ve been impossible to sustain and the wheels would have flown off their entire belief system.

In the early pages of the book, Rayford recalls his wife’s cheerful description of this indistinct distinction:

“Can you imagine, Rafe,” she exulted, “Jesus coming back to get us before we die?”

Her tone would have been a bit less exultant if she had avoided the euphemistic dodge of the “rapture”: “Can you imagine, Rafe, Jesus coming back to grant us an instantaneous and painless death?”

But the latter is just as accurate as the former. Irene and every other real, true Christian and Raymie and every other innocent child on the planet have passed on. They are no more. They have ceased to be, gone to meet their maker. They’ve shuffled off their mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. The plumage don’t enter into it.

This transition from earth to heaven, from life to afterlife, is in every way indistinguishable from the inevitable form that this transition usually takes. We have a word for that experience. It’s called “dying.” Irene Steele went to bed, fell asleep and died. Saying that she was raptured does not, in any meaningful way, change the experience for her. Her experience of this event would’ve been no different had there been a carbon monoxide leak, or a gas leak and explosion, or a Donnie Darko-style jet engine through the roof. And the experience for those she left behind — for her surviving husband and daughter — isn’t different in any meaningful way either.

The majority of the 2 billion or so “raptured” at the start of this book are children, those L&J believe are below some blurry “age of accountability” and who therefore would be regarded as innocents. (In interviews outside of the book L&J seem to underestimate the proportion of the earth’s populace that falls into this age range. They seem to have assumed that developing countries would have the same basic ratio of old and young as we have here in the U.S.) These innocent children are included in the rapture, L&J say, because God is merciful, sparing them the suffering of the coming Great Tribulation.*

Viewing the rapture of these children as an act of divine mercy is entirely dependent on the dubious distinction between raptured and dead. As long as we think of it as a worldwide “snatching away,” and not as a worldwide slaughter, then we can pretend that what has happened to all those children is somehow merciful. But that requires us to avoid anything that would allow or cause us to think more deeply about whether these things really are any different. Such deeper thoughts cast a disturbing light on Irene’s exultant longing for the coming rapture — and on the longing of her real-world counterparts (look again at that John Hagee sermon we looked at last week).

“To live is Christ, to die is gain,” St. Paul wrote, but this longing for and celebration of a global rapture seems to have less to do with that than with something more like Jonestown, or Heaven’s Gate, or the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments.

Hence no funerals in Left Behind. Better to describe an impossible world in which humans do not act like humans — in which the universal human need to grieve and to ritualize mourning does not exist — than to allow readers to reflect on the similarities between the indistinguishable statements “Irene was raptured” and “Irene was dead.” Elephants mourn their dead. The alleged humans in Left Behind do not.

But even in the impossible, inhuman, no-funerals-allowed world of this book it seems unlikely that local colleges would or could so soon be resuming their normal routine.

A mere two weeks after The Event, these schools would still be struggling to figure out which of their students and faculty members were among the disappeared. I realize that L&J view intellectual, academic types as inherently ungodly, but surely some of them would have been taken, and surely some would have been killed in the hundreds of plane crashes and thousands of highway disasters that occurred the night of The Event. And even if those who remained/survived aren’t allowed to conduct funerals or memorial services, they would all, like Chloe, have been touched in some way by the disappearances and the concurrent carnage.

Consider also how The Event would forever alter most of the various academic disciplines. Physics and chemistry professors couldn’t very well continue teaching their students about the Conservation of Matter, what with 50 million or so tons of the stuff having just vanished from the universe. Professors teaching early childhood education or obstetrics probably wouldn’t see much sense in continuing with business as usual either. Those professors of religion and philosophy who remained would, of course, all be busy berating themselves because they were wrong, wrong, wrong not to have listened to Tim LaHaye.

It’s hard to imagine a course of study that wouldn’t have been shattered and turned upside down by The Event. But even if we assume that Chloe is studying subjects that might seem unaffected — say, I don’t know, Renaissance poetry — it seems impossible that classes could just go on as before without the professor breaking down, sobbing, mid-lecture. “Today we’re going to turn again to Petrarch’s sonnets, and … and … and …” (curls into fetal ball behind the podium) “My daughter. My beautiful daughter is gone and no one can tell me what has happened to her … et le piaghe che ‘nfin al cor mi vanno …”

Then there’s the question of where Chloe might be studying, of which local college she would be enrolling in.

This is trickier than it might seem. She’s a convert now, a member of New Hope Village Church’s prophecy-addled variant of the evangelical subculture. As such, somewhere like Northwestern or the University of Chicago just won’t do. But if such hotbeds of secular humanism would no longer be an option for Chloe neither would she have any remaining religious options of the sort viewed as acceptable by her newly adopted subculture. Pre-Event she’d have had multiple options within commuting distance — Wheaton College, Trinity Christian College, Judson University, even Christian Life College right there in town. But post-Event those campuses would be all-but deserted.** If the Christian alternatives are now closed and the secular schools are now unacceptable to her — devoid even of the shelter of a Campus Crusade chapter, like Sodom without even 10 righteous to be found — then where exactly is Chloe supposed to go?

Then again, the above difficulties all seem secondary to the larger question of why Chloe would even bother with college. The world is going to end in six years and 352 days. Spending three and a half of those years working toward her B.A. might not seem like a big priority at this point — even if she thinks that she’d be able to finish in that amount of time without things like Wormwood poisoning the seas or an army of monstrous dragon-locusts interrupting her studies. (On the other hand, it would be pretty sweet to take out all those college loans knowing that you’d never have to pay them back.)

Alas, all of this discussion about Chloe’s college plans turns out to be, well, academic. She soon ends up married to Buck and thus, in the authors’ view, no longer needs to worry her pretty little head about getting an education.

“And I was thinking,” she said, “about trying to get together with Hattie for lunch.”

“I thought you didn’t care for her,” Rayford said.

“I don’t, but that’s no excuse. She doesn’t even know what’s happened to me. She’s not answering her phone. Any idea what her schedule is?”

I appreciate the distinction Chloe makes there — the obligation to care about people even if you don’t care for them. That’s a rare thing here in Left Behind. Note the contrast here between Chloe’s willingness to go out of her way to meet with someone she doesn’t really like and Buck’s unwillingness, a few pages ago, to answer the direct questions of a friendly stranger. Even post-conversion Stepford Chloe seems like she could do better than Buck.

Her dad calls the airline to find out Hattie’s schedule:

Rayford was told that not only was Hattie not scheduled that day but also that she had requested a 30-day leave of absence. “That’s odd,” he told Chloe. “Maybe she’s got family troubles out West.”

Not that he’s going to bother checking in with her to find out if everything’s OK. Rayford doesn’t care for or about Hattie. He assuaged his guilt over their pseudo-affair by forcing her to sit silently through his gospel lecture, so as far as he’s concerned, he doesn’t need to give her another thought. And anyway, he’s busy:

“I promised Bruce I’d come over and watch that Carpathia press conference later this morning.”

It might seem easy to mock Rayford and Bruce’s idea of a good time here, but I’d be eager to see that press conference too. There’s a chance, after all, that Nicolae could announce what the new One World Language was going to be, and if that didn’t turn out to be English I might need to re-enroll in college myself.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* This Great Tribulation, according to LaHaye and his prophecy-studies compatriots, is a calamitous time shaped by war, famine, disease and, stalking in the rear, gigantic, inevitable death within seven years. It’s worth noting that this is, right now, an apt description of what life is actually like for millions of children here in the real world. I would ask why God isn’t doing something to change that for these innocents but, as the saying goes, I’d be afraid that God would just ask me the same question.

** I’m picturing poor Mark Noll, shell-shocked and wandering through the empty halls of Wheaton’s campus, muttering to himself and ripping the pages one by one from Michael Williams’ This World Is Not My Home like Ophelia with her wildflowers.

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