L.B.: Under cover

L.B.: Under cover September 5, 2008

Left Behind, pp. 465-468

The final chapter of Left Behind tells us about Buck Williams’ conversion and about Buck’s big confrontation with the Antichrist and about Buck’s confusion as everyone around him becomes tangled in the Antichrist’s web of lies. The big finale, in other words, is all about Buck.

And where is Rayford Steele during this end-of-the-book Buckapalooza? Last we saw him, more than 20 pages ago, he was back home, puttering around the house and mumbling about his flight schedule. We’re about to check back in with Rayford, briefly, but then it’s back to Buck for the last few pages. Rayford seems, in the second half of this book, to have slowly diminished from protagonist to protagonist’s girlfriend’s dad.

I can’t help but wonder how this played out in terms of the dynamic between our two authors. Our dual protagonists are transparent Mary-Sue surrogates for Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, and both authors seem invested in asserting their vicarious manly heroism through their respective avatars.* So I suspect there was, at the least, some discussion over the way that Buck/Jerry is hogging the spotlight in this final chapter while Rayford/Tim is sidelined. The resolution of that discussion may have something to do with the fawning praise of and deference shown to Rayford — I mean, to Captain Steele — throughout this final chapter.

Then again, this is a chapter in which the hero’s heroic feat consists mainly of mutely crying and then running away, so maybe LaHaye wasn’t too upset that it wasn’t his stand-in performing such feats.

The POV-switch back to Rayford is also a bit awkward in that we find him watching the press conference from earlier in the day. So instead of the usual “meanwhile, back at the ranch” transition it’s more like “a while back, back at the ranch.” This switch really should’ve happened a few pages ago, before Buck started fielding angry phone calls from Stanton Bailey and Steve.

To his credit, throughout most of this book Jenkins effectively uses the change in perspective to propel the story forward in time. He checks in with Buck early in the morning, then cuts to Rayford at noon, back to Buck in the evening, etc. Unfortunately, the momentum this contributes can’t begin to make up for what Jenkins gets wrong with this cutting back-and-forth. Where most writers use such scene-switching as a tool to avoid long stretches of logistical details, Jenkins uses them to squeeze in more of that sort of thing. He loves cutting to Buck just before he gets into a cab to ride to the airport, following his POV for the entire commute, and then, just as Buck finally arrives where he’s going, Jenkins will cut back to Rayford who is getting into his car to drive to church. It’s as though these switches were designed to get as much commuting and as little action as possible.

Here Jenkins cuts away from Buck, who is talking on the phone, and switches back to Rayford, who is watching television. That makes this, by Left Behind standards, an action-packed sequence.

Rayford Steele, Chloe and Bruce Barnes watched the U.N. press conference, straining to see Buck. “Where is he?” Chloe said. “He has to be there somewhere. Everybody else from that meeting is there. Who’s the girl?”

Well, if it’s not Loretta or Marge Potter, then it must be Hattie, since, post-Event, there only seem to be four women on earth.

I’m also not sure how Chloe would be able to recognize “everybody else from that meeting.” Nicolae, sure, she’d recognize him — he’s on the cover of People magazine** — and maybe Chaim Rosenzweig. But the Steeles have no idea who Steve Plank is and the assorted ambassadors and viziers of the OWG would be for them — as they are for us readers — an amorphous, faceless, nameless blob. From Chloe’s description, it seems that all of these people are gathered behind the podium at this press conference, which is what I imagine it would look like if, say, the Polyphonic Spree won a Grammy.

Rayford stood when he saw her and silently pointed at the screen. “Dad!” Chloe said. “You’re not thinking what I’m thinking?”

“It sure looks like her,” Rayford said.

“Shh,” Bruce said, “he’s introducing everybody.”

Oh, great. That was our one chance to find out who all those Other People in this chapter are and we missed the whole thing ’cause the Steeles were talking.

“And my new personal assistant, having given up a career in the aviation industry …”

Rayford flopped into a chair. “I hope Buck wasn’t behind that.”

“Me, too,” Bruce said. “That would mean he could’ve been sucked in, too.”

“A career in the aviation industry” makes it sound like Hattie had been designing engines for Boeing, but the way Nicolae introduces her is less strange than the fact that he introduces her at all. This has to be one of the weirdest and most surreal press conferences in the post-history of the world:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am sure you have some questions about the bloodbath that has just taken place in my inner sanctum. Rest assured, I will answer those questions, pronounce my regrettable benedictory obituary for the deceased, and then brainwash you all into believing an implausible lie about what actually occurred. First, however, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce to you the surviving members of my cadre of global dominion, beginning with the emperor-prince of the Great States of Oceania and working my way up to my press secretary, my botanist errand boy, my driver and, finally, my eye-candy personal assistant …”

The news of the Stonagal suicide and Todd-Cothran’s accidental death stunned them.

L&J seem to think that the Steeles and Bruce would recognize those names, but why would they? Stonagal is a shadowy, behind-the-scenes power broker, somebody who works hard to keep his name out of the headlines. Todd-Cothran holds a prominent position, but it’s not like being the head of the London Stock Exchange would make him a household name in Illinois. I don’t recall ever seeing Clara Furse chased by the paparazzi.

In any case, if the Steeles do know who Stonagal and T-C were, it certainly wasn’t from reading anything that Buck wrote.

“Maybe Buck took my advice and didn’t go,” Bruce said. “I sure hope so.”

“That doesn’t sound like him,” Chloe said.

“No, it doesn’t,” Rayford said.

Running from danger? Actually …

“I know,” Bruce said. “But I can hope. I don’t want to find out that he’s met with foul play. Who knows what happened in there …”

Ooh! I do, I do! I already know what happened just like I already knew that Hattie was Nicolae’s personal assistant before you silly characters did.

Jenkins never gets tired of this technique — trying to make readers feel smarter by constantly telling them more than he tells his characters. It’s kind of like the opposite of suspense. Instead of withholding information and then revealing it for dramatic effect, he tells readers everything that’s going to happen beforehand, then congratulates them for always being one step ahead of the characters. That congratulations seems a bit cheap and patronizing, but it plays well with LB’s target audience of prophecy enthusiasts. These are people, after all, who have followed Tim LaHaye’s lead in believing that the Bible is, above all, a book revealing secret prophecies about the future. Once again we encounter the chicken-and-egg question of which came first, the atrocious writing or the atrocious theology.

“Who knows what happened in there, and him going in with only our prayers?”

… and our names, and our plans for a secret Anti-Antichrist guerrilla force, and the location of our headquarters …

“Who knows what happened in there, and him going in with only our prayers?”

“I’d like to think that would be enough,” Chloe said.

“No,” Bruce said. “He needed the covering of God himself.”

“The covering of God” is evangelicalspeak (with a Pentecostal/charismatic accent) for God’s protective presence. It suggests a kind of Daniel in the Lion’s Den divine intervention. That story, evangelicals believe, is a Fable That Really Happened, and the fabulous takeaway message is that we Christians need that same protective “covering of God” that Daniel experienced.

That’s all well and good. His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me. I believe that much too, but the particular idea conveyed in this particular phrasing has nothing to do with the sparrow or with the rain that falls on the just and the unjust. This “covering of God” is a special blessing conveyed upon special people who ask for and receive God’s special favor.

And we need this special favor because, like Daniel, we face persecution. Daily life, these believers believe, is an endless series of Lion’s Dens.

This brings us again to the weird, self-contradicting persecution complex that shapes and drives so much of American evangelicalism: the paradox of the persecuted hegemon.

If you ever encounter someone face to face who believes this, who insists that American Christians are “persecuted,” try to enjoy the ride. First remind them that America is, in fact, the wealthiest nation on the planet and that most Christians here enjoy a wonderful standard of living. They will argue, defensively, that this is because America is blessed by God due to its being a godly nation based on “Judeo-Christian” values. Repeat that back to them, though, and they will counter, just as defensively, that America is an ungodly place, a Babylon in which RTCs are a persecuted minority under constant threat from an elite majority [sic] in the schools, the media and the government. Repeat that back to them and they will change gears yet again, becoming even angrier and more defensive. How dare you suggest that America is Babylon? …

You can do this all day.

Those two, incompatible*** portraits of holy/unholy America don’t strike them as a contradiction because they both effectively serve the same purpose: self-congratulation. Both constructs reassure the persecuted hegemons that they are good. Or, at least, that they are better than those people over there.

Apart from the idiopathic persecution complex, though, this particular form of the idea of “the covering of God” also reflects something of the self-helpish, if not outright self-centered, nature of contemporary American evangelical piety. This could be summed up in a perverse paraphrase of John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what you can do for God, ask what God can do for you.”

“Follow me,” Jesus said to Andrew, and to Peter, James, John, Judas, Mary, Mary and, well, everybody. “Follow me.” But this kind of piety isn’t about following Jesus, it’s about enlisting Jesus to follow us, blessing our agenda and shielding us with “the covering of God.”

The world, you see, is just like that tarmac at O’Hare. We are beset on all sides by carnage and suffering and the cries of the dying. But with the covering of God, we can safely overcome every obstacle in our path — all those broken, injured and needy people — carefully threading our way safely home.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Mary Sue-ism and joint authorship don’t fit together comfortably. The latter requires the ability to keep one’s ego in check while the former is all about ego run amok:

“So I just had a few questions about your draft of the final chapter …”

“You mean the part where Buck swings in and kills the Pirate King?”

“Right, um, see I’m just not sure that Buck should be the one to kill the Pirate King, I was thinking that –“

“But the Pirate King can only be slain with the sacred sword of the Chosen One.”

“Yeah, see, that’s what I’m saying. That’s why I really think Captain Steele needs to be the one to –“

“Wait, you mean you think Captain Steele is the Chosen One? I thought it was clear that Buck …”

Et cetera.

** The special rush-to-print edition announcing the new “Sexiest Man Remaining on Earth After the Mass Disappearances of a Third of the Planet.” Because what else could People possibly have to write about post-Event?

*** Incompatible, yet still similar. One could argue that these conflicting notions of America: Christian Nation and America: Persecuter of Christians function as two different ways of expressing the same idea, just on a different scale. Both narratives reassure the believer that they are part of a righteous remnant surrounded by wicked unworthies. When such believers are asked to consider their lives on an individual or local scale, they resort to the latter construct, in which America is Babylon and Christians here are persecuted. When they are asked to consider a larger, international or global scale, America becomes their surrogate as the righteous remnant. Same idea.

And, no, I don’t really think that we should “enjoy the ride” or view these poor folks’ cognitive dissonance as a source of amusement. That might seem like all you can do, since you’re not likely to find you’re getting anywhere in your conversation with them. But, as an evangelical myself, I refuse to accept that anyone is hopelessly lost. So my serious advice, should you find yourself face to face with a persecuted hegemon, is this: Disallow plural pronouns and insist on the active voice.

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