TF: Inaction Heroes

TF: Inaction Heroes February 20, 2009

Tribulation Force, pp. vii – x

For those accidentally starting this series with Book No. 2, Tribulation Force opens with a prologue titled "What Has Gone Before." It offers a three-page summary and revision of Book 1.

I suppose I can recommend this for those in a hurry to catch up on what you'd missed in the first book. (I've tried to provide my own summary as well, but it's, um, a bit longer than three pages.) The best way to get back up to speed before starting the second book in a series is usually just to re-read the first book, but that I cannot in good conscience recommend here.

For those who did read the first book, this introduction highlights how very little actually happened in Left Behind. They've condensed that 468-page book into a three-page summary mainly by leaving out the phone calls and plane rides. And while they were at it, they've provided a few revisions and additions to the plot of Book 1. This summary diverges from the actual book enough that it might have been better titled "What I Meant to Have Gone Before," or "What Would Have Gone Before If I'd Bothered With Even a Cursory Rewrite After Rattling Off a Rough Draft and Sending It to the Publisher."

In any case, if you're going to read this prologue, I suggest doing so out loud in your best imitation of a Movietone News announcer or in the voice of the narrator from an old-time matinee serial narrator  — "Meanwhile, Rayford has fallen down a well …" That's more or less how it's written. (Plus almost anything can be fun if you read it in that voice.)

In one cataclysmic instant, millions of people all over the world disappeared. They simply vanished, leaving behind everything material: clothes, eyeglasses, contact lenses, hairpieces, hearing aids, fillings, jewelry, shoes, even pacemakers and surgical pins.

"Material" is, of course, not the right word there. Eyeglasses and earrings are certainly material, but so are eyes and ears, and those weren't left behind. The word possibly arrived here as some kind of garbling of 1 Corinthians 15 — "for this corruptible must put on incorruption." Or maybe it's a reflection of some Neoplatonic reluctance to admit that our bodies are, in fact, material things too. Two sentences in and already we're back at the familiar conundrum of Bad Theology or just Bad Writing?

The really astonishing this about this litany of non-body "material" things is that any one of these ought to have provided a vivid and memorable scene in the story itself, yet none of them actually did. The authors unsuccessfully sought a little bit of traction from Irene's wedding ring and from Harold's hearing aid, but they mostly just skipped past these details in the story or catalogued them in lists like this one here. To paraphrase a monster, a single abandoned hairpiece is a tragedy, a long list of accessories and artificial parts is merely statistics.

And speaking of statistics …

Millions vanished. But millions more remained —

Yes, there are millions of people here on earth. Maybe even tens of millions.

Millions vanished. But millions more remained — adults, but no children, and only a few young teens. All babies, including the unborn, disappeared — some during birth.

You just wait and see, because some day soon God is going to prove abortion is wrong by ripping millions of unborn babies right out of their mothers' wombs.

Apart from the political posturing here, this part of the summary is weird in that this all happened in the first book, but hardly anyone in that book noticed. Parents of the missing children all — just like Rayford and Bruce — showed up for work the next day without any of them seeming to recognize that all parents everywhere on earth were suffering the same loss.

"Worldwide chaos ensued," the summary continues. But it doesn't mean that worldwide chaos ensued due to the disappearance of every child on earth. Almost no mention is even made of the fact that every child is missing and no one — not anyone — is actually looking for them. The characters all refer to the Event generically as "the disappearances," and not as "the disappearance of the children." Rayford tells people he lost his wife and his son. What he actually would be saying would be something more like, "I had a young son, and my wife was one of the adults who vanished along with the children."

So yes, "worldwide chaos ensued," but not because the children are gone. No chaos at all ensues from that. The chaos that ensues, instead, is strictly due to the sudden disappearance of selected Real, True Christian adults in the transportation industry.

Worldwide chaos ensued. Planes, trains, buses and cars crashed, ships sank, homes burned, grieving survivors committed suicide. A transportation and communications gridlock, coupled with the disappearance of many service personnel, left most to fend for themselves until some semblance of order returned.

For this to be an accurate summary of what really happened in the book, that last sentence shouldn't end there. It should read: "… fend for themselves until some semblance of order returned later that afternoon."

For all the alleged "chaos," after all, Rayford had no trouble grocery shopping the very next day. And not a panicked stockpiling of canned goods and bottled water, but a leisurely stroll through the ample and freshly stocked produce section. (Those farmers, truckers and supermarket workers, like all parents, got right back out there.)

Airline captain Rayford Steele and his 20-year-old daughter Chloe were left behind. Rayford's wife and their 12-year-old son vanished. Rayford, piloting a 747 over the Atlantic en route to London, told his senior flight attendant, Hattie Durham, that he didn't know what had happened. The terrifying truth was that he knew all too well. His wife had warned him of this very event. Christ had come to take away his own, and the rest, Rayford and Chloe included, had been left behind.

You get the sense there that Rayford and the authors somehow thought it was more prestigious for Rayford to be having his creepy, platonic-control-freak pseudo-affair with the senior flight attendant rather than with some mere junior member of his flight crew. Anyway, let's revisit that paragraph with the help of our friends the ellipses:

… Rayford … and … Chloe were left behind. … Rayford and Chloe … had been left behind.

Even the three-page summary is padded out with repetition.

Rayford became consumed with finding the truth and making sure that he and Chloe would not miss any second chance. He felt responsible for her skepticism, for her believe-only-what-you-can-see-and-feel attitude.

Rayford is consumed with finding the truth that he already "knows all too well." So that shouldn't take long then.

This description of Chloe's supposed skepticism is followed by a brief summary of Bruce Barnes' story, which concludes by telling us that Bruce became "an enthusiastic, unapologetic evangelist." Except he didn't, not really. Or at least not in a way that would make sense in his post-Event context. Bruce's attempts at evangelism seem feckless and flaccid because he never seems to realize that he's holding cards no pre-Event evangelist ever got to play. He has evidence. He has proof. The man can tell you the future.

e could have said: "OK, Chloe, I appreciate your believe-only-what-you-can-see-and-feel attitude. After Wormwood falls out of the sky and the moon turns to blood in exactly the way I described, then you call me and we'll talk then about what it is you can see and feel." But he never says anything like that. Instead he responds to Chloe's initial skepticism by ignoring her questions until she walks out of his meeting.

Under Bruce's tutelage and the influence of a videotape the senior pastor had left for just such a time, first Rayford and then Chloe came to believe in Christ.

The weirdness of that phrase — "Under the influence of a videotape" — makes me pause for a moment to ponder how much cooler this book might have been if instead of Senior Pastor Billings preparing that video, it had been Senior Pastor James O. Incandenza.

With their new pastor they formed what they call the Tribulation Force, a core group determined to challenge the forces of evil during the Tribulation period predicted in the Bible.

He's a pastor; he's an airline pilot; they're detectives! Mondays on Fox.

This seems to me to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the Tribulation Force's mandate. They are clearly in a situation where it must needs be that offenses come. Any attempt to prevent or forestall or even mitigate the Antichrist's evil agenda would seem to be — literally — doomed to fail. Destiny always wins. It's as though the authors were suddenly confusing Darby's apocalypse with Ragnarok and thinking the important thing is to go down fighting.

More to the point, this seems like a complete reversal of how the authors and characters view history (and post-history). The seven-year Great Tribulation imagined in premillennial dispensationalist eschatology is really just a shorter, more condensed version of how they view all of life on earth. In this life — this world, this "dispensation" — they believe, evil has the upper hand and nothing can change that so there's no point in trying. In the end (the end of history, and then again at the end of the Tribulation) Jesus will come back* and make everything right. Until then, don't try to save the world, just try to save as many souls — immaterial souls — as you can.

This is the essence of what they're always saying. Until now.

Now, all of a sudden, they decide to pull a Bonhoeffer. Now that it's definitively and inexorably Too Late, they decide "to challenge the forces of evil."

The summary is getting a bit ahead of the story here though. The Tribulation Force has yet to do much challenging of evil forces. All their guerilla resistance force has actually done so far is agree not to include Loretta and stride through airports four abreast. Oh, and to tell a world-famous reporter all of their secrets just before he goes to meet with the mind-reading Evil Overlord. ("The minds behind every military, diplomatic and covert operation in the galaxy, and you put them in a room with a psychic.")

This reimagining or repackaging of the TF's mission seems to show that the authors recognize, on some level, that their normal concept of the Christian life isn't very exciting. "I have fought the good fight," St. Paul wrote, "I have finished the race." Both of those metaphors convey his sense that his life, mission and ministry had been a difficult adventure. But LaHaye and Jenkins' version of life, mission and ministry is neither difficult nor adventurous.

It's pretty dull, actually, consisting mainly of sitting around praying and abstaining from a long list of things until finally Jesus comes back to get us before we die.

Even Jerry Jenkins seems to realize that prayer, compulsive abstention and lots of sitting around and waiting would make a lousy plot for a series of novels. I'm not sure he appreciates that it also makes a lousy plot for anyone's life story. As such, it also makes a lousy basis for evangelism. "Want to join us?" "Join you doing what?" "Um, well, not much of anything, actually." Not a compelling invitation. Contrast that again with St. Paul and his idea of the life of faith as an epic race or as a battle "against powers and principalities." That may not be your cup of tea, but at least it sounds potentially interesting.

Apart from the relentless dullness of the standard PMD outline for the Christian life, this plot won't do because it doesn't tolerate heroes or heroism. Most of us like heroes, both in our stories and in our lives. And even if it's been a while since we ran around with a towel tied on as a cape, most of us want to be heroes. "We could be heroes," Bowie sings, his voice breaking, "just for one day." I've heard thousands of altar-calls, but very few were anywhere near as compelling as that.

So in the last several pages of Book 1 and again here in the first several pages of Book 2, Jerry Jenkins is desperate to assert that his protagonists are action heroes. This is what we are being told. What we are being shown, on the other hand, is a group of people who are neither active nor heroic. I'm eager to see whether or not that changes in the course of this book.

Meanwhile, Cameron — "Buck" — Williams, a senior staff writer for the prestigious newsmagazine Global Weekly, was on a quest of his own.

A quest! A heroic quest. Buck is a hero, too, the authors insist, and will no doubt soon be promoted to the prestigious position of senior hero.

Buck had been aboard Rayford Steele's plane when the Rapture occurred, and he was assigned to make some sense of the worldwide disappearances. His interviewing brought him into contact with one of the most powerful and charismatic personalities ever, the mysterious Romanian leader, Nicolae Carpathia.

Not quite accurate. Buck never interviews Carpathia on any subject having anything to do with the Event. The only people he interviews for that story are an airline pilot, a charter pilot and a handful of his Global Weekly co-workers. He meets Nicolae while he's researching a different story instead — a story about a vague, but lethally criminal, global conspiracy. Nicolae persuades him to bury that story. Buck also talks with Chaim Rosenzweig, the botanist responsible for the official "some kind of radiation" explanation for the Event. Yet Buck never discusses the Event with Rosenzweig either.

Within two weeks of the vanishings, Carpathia was swept to international power as the head of the United Nations, promising to unite the devastated globe as one peaceful village.

Yes, he strides the world like a colossus, like a latter-day Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Buck introduced flight attendant Hattie Durham …

Ahem. That's senior flight attendant, buddy.

Buck introduced flight attendant Hattie Durham to Carpathia, who quickly made her his personal assistant.

So that's what you kids are calling it nowadays.

After coming to faith in Christ under the influence of Rayford, Chloe and Bruce, Buck felt responsible for Hattie and became desperate to get her away from Carpathia.

He's so desperate to get her away from Carpathia that he leaves her with him, runs out of the building and doesn't stop running until he's on the next plane to Chicago. In the actual book, Buck hasn't yet given Hattie a second thought. It's possible that here in TF he eventually becomes des
perate to get her away fro
m Carpathia, but it hasn't happened yet.

Demoted for allegedly blowing a major assignment, Buck relocated from New York to Chicago, where he joined Rayford, Chloe and Bruce as the fourth member of the Tribulation Force.

On tambourine and background vocals.

Together these four have determined to stand and fight against all odds, to never give in. Representing millions who missed the opportunity to meet Christ in the air, they have resolved not to lose hold of their newfound faith, no matter what the future might bring.

Let me remind you, again, that for just a few thousand dollars, you too can enroll in the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild, where you too can learn to make your characters seem brave and heroic through Jerry's patented technique of bald, repetitive assertion.

Buck Williams had witnessed the murderous evil power of Nicolae Carpathia, and Bruce Barnes knows from his study of Scripture that dark days lie ahead. The odds are, only one of the four members of the Tribulation Force will survive the next seven years.

I really hate this tactic. "Don't miss this week's episode of Lost/Heroes — someone dies!" It's ghoulish and it suggests to me that the writers are running out of ideas for keeping their story lively. This example has something of the opposite effect of those TV promos, though. Those teasers make viewers think, "Oh no! I hope it's not Hurley." This one makes me think, "Only three out of four? Why not kill 'em all?" (Note to Lindelof et. al.: Seriously, don't touch Hurley.)

I also think they're understating the odds here. I haven't done all the math, but the seals, trumpets and bowls in Revelation are said to carry out a relentless, asymptotic whittling down of the earth's population — just by the end of Chapter 9, the population's been reduced by one fourth, then again by one third four times. So that's what? Less than one out of six people surviving, and the book is still a long way from done.

But only Bruce has more than a hint of the terror to come. If the others knew, they might not venture so bravely into the future.

As ponderous and inaccurate as most of this summary is, that's actually a pretty apt final sentence to read before we begin to work our way through the rest of Tribulation Force.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* The PMD scheme involves Jesus coming back at least twice more. First there's the "Jesus coming back to get us before we die," Irene spoke of, in which they believe Jesus will meet these believers "in the air." But since he doesn't actually touch down, they don't count this as the Second Coming. It's more like Coming 2.0, the limited, invitation-only Beta test. The real Second Coming happens after the seven-year "Tribulation" in which our story is set. That time, they believe, Jesus will come all the way down, so you can think of it as Coming 2.1 or — since they believe he will arrive with, like, lasers and a death ray coming out of his mouth and stuff — you can think of that third visit as "Jesus II: Your Turn to Die" (this time, it's personal).

After the second Second Coming, PMDs believe Jesus will reign as king for precisely 1,000 years. But the PMD story doesn't end there. After that, they believe, Satan will be loosed on earth to wreak havoc, briefly, before Jesus comes back yet again to, yet again, make everything right. John the Revelator's thrice-repeated refrain of evil and suffering prevailing for a time before Christ returns to restore justice might be seen by some as a recurring motif that hints at the theme of the book, but to PMDs that view is just a sinful refusal to accept the book's literal meaning.

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