T.F.: No shame

T.F.: No shame March 27, 2009

Tribulation Force, pp. 14-16

This vignette is a variation of a familiar evangelical pep talk/guilt trip. The text for this, implicit here, is usually 2 Timothy 1:8, "Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord." The point of this sermon is that Christians are called — required — to be bold, courageous and relentless in preaching the gospel to and at their friends at work or in school.

Friends is probably the wrong word there, actually, since part of the message here is that Christians must be willing to place this duty ahead of their own selfish need to form friendships or to get along with their co-workers and fellow students.

If you're worried about making friends then you'll wind up more concerned with what others think of you than you are with your duty and you won't be as single-mindedly focused as you need to be in witnessing at them. And let's face it, if you're at all concerned about how others perceive you, then you'll never find the courage to be as off-putting as this duty requires you to be. Treating others as friends, real or potential, involves treating them as subjects rather than how you ought to be treating them — as objects of your evangelism. So stop acting like you're in some kind of popularity contest and get busy proving that you're not ashamed of the gospel.

That's not the most charitable paraphrase of this stock sermon, but it's accurate.

And anyway I'm not inclined to view this particular sermon charitably. It's pointless and ineffective, for one thing. It doesn't work. The poor souls subjected to some variation of this lecture week after week do not go forth to boldy proclaim the gospel in the way the speaker describes. And that's probably a good thing, too, since if they did that wouldn't work. It encourages a form — and a spirit — of evangelism that is far more likely to repel than to attract. It offers no motivation other than guilt, and guilt is just a lousy, lousy motivator. Anything we do because of guilt we do, by definition, begrudgingly. There are very few things one can do begrudgingly and still do well. Guilt also tends to produce a self-defensive resentment of those who provoke or remind us of it. You can see that dynamic in the hostility some people display toward the homeless. This sermon sometimes prompts a similar guiltily hostile form of evangelism.

Hostility and evangelism don't mix well.

This sermon is also irresponsible. Pastors, evangelists and youth ministers stand up and explain that they spend all day, every day at their jobs talking about God, so there's no excuse for teachers, lawyers, doctors or airline pilots not to do the same. This confusion about vocations and obligations tends to create the confusing sense that only full-time professional pastors, evangelists or youth ministers are truly legitimate and obedient believers. This is particularly a problem in evangelical church youth groups, which tend to foster the impression that the only authentic form of Christian discipleship is to be a youth pastor.

The main result of this sermon is not a congregation inspired to spread the gospel, but rather a congregation haunted by inescapable guilt. First there's the external guilt served up by the sermon itself — the grievous burden of having to be always, relentlessly, making the same sales pitch to everyone you meet. Then there's the deeper, internal guilt that arises from the sense that reducing all relationships to marketing opportunities and treating other humans as nothing more than potential customers is, itself, some kind of sin. The pitiable believers on the receiving end of this sermon thus come to believe that they are, literally, damned if they do and damned if they don't.

So again, I'm not inclined to view this charitably. It strikes me as an example of precisely the kind of thing Jesus was talking about when he said, "Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them."

In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard recalls an encounter she had with one poor woman struggling under the hard-to-bear burden of this very guilt trip. Dillard had knocked on the woman's door to ask permission to hike along the stream that passed through her backyard:

The woman was very nervous. She was dark, pretty, hard, with the same trembling lashes as the boy. She wore a black dress and one brush roller in the front of her hair. She did not ask me in.

My explanation of myself confused her, but she gave permission. Yes, I could walk their property. … She did not let me go; she was worried about something else. She worked her hands. I waited on the other side of the screen door until she came out with it:

"Do you know the Lord as your personal savior?"

My heart went out to her. No wonder she had been so nervous. She must have to ask this of everyone, absolutely everyone, she meets. That is Christian witness. It makes sense, given its premises. I wanted to make her as happy as possible, reward her courage, and run.

She was stunned that I knew the Lord, and clearly uncertain whether we were referring to the same third party. But she had done her bit, bumped over the hump, and now she could relax.

The hand-wringing worry of this fretful woman is exactly what one expects from someone confronting the dual guilt of the obligation to proselytize as described by the standard sermon we're discussing here. It's hard not to share Dillard's response to such anxious souls — to pity them while looking for the first chance to flee.

But as pitiable as she may be, this poor neighbor at Tinker Creek comes across as infinitely more admirable than Rayford Steele does in today's slice of Tribulation Force. Rayford here is meant to be seen as a role model, as the ideal respondent putting into action the urgent call to fierce evangelism at the core of this sermon. All of which makes him seem again like some kind of sociopath.

Rayford and Chloe ate on the way home and arrived to an urgent message from Rayford's chief pilot. "Call me as soon as you get in."

Given the choice between recounting: A) the conversation between father and daughter as they share a meal together, or B) a phone call between the protagonist and his boss, Jerry Jenkins will go with B every time.

With his cap under his arm and still wearing his uniform trench coat, Rayford punched the familiar numbers. "What's up, Earl?"

"Thanks for getting back to me right away, Ray. You and I go back a long way."

"Long enough that you should get to the point, Earl. What'd I do now?"

Earl calls Rayford "Ray." And despite being the "chief pilot," he doesn't seem to be hung up on insisting that others refer to him as "Admiral." So that's two points in his favor. I'm guessing, based on his informal diction, that we're supposed to like Earl here. And yet despite that, on balance, I actually do. That's unusual in this book.

"This is not an official call, OK? Not a reprimand or a warning or anything. This is just friend to friend."

"So, friend to friend, Earl, should I sit down?"

"No, but let me tell you, buddy, you've got to knock off the proselytizing."

"The –?"

"Talking about God on the job, man."

"Earl, I back off when anyone says anything, and you know I don't let it get in the way of the job. …&

Earl's being tactful, but obvi
ously this is a warning and a reprimand. That's the point. Like so much of Tribulation Force, this scene has nothing to do with the post-Rapture world of the apocalypse. It's intended as a lesson in how the authors believe real, true Christians ought to be living now and Rayford here is the model for that lesson.

Rayford, we're being told, has become so outspoken and aggressive in evangelizing everyone he works with that his boss has had to warn him about it. If your boss hasn't yet taken you aside for a reprimand, then you're not living up to the standard. That's the gist of the lesson here. Like Rayford, you should "back off" when someone complains, but you must never back off unless or until someone complains.

And if they're not complaining, then you're not doing it hard enough.

"I'm just telling you, Nicky Edwards is gonna write you up, and I want to be able to say you and I have already talked about it and you've agreed to back off."

"Write me up? Did I break a rule, violate procedure, commit a crime?"

Since you asked, Rayford, Yes, yes and quite possibly yes. It's called harassment. You're creating a hostile workplace environment. Remember how you were always careful to tip-toe up to the line when it came to sexual harassment with Hattie? Well now you've crossed that line with Nick.

Lawyer-speak isn't usually as apt, insightful or evocative as that word hostile is in the context of harassment regulations. Hostility is the defining characteristic of both sexual and religious harassment. That's interesting, because hostility is anathema to either wooing or witnessing — the purported motives of such harassers. The harassers' hostility betrays the fact that their true motive is something else. In the starkest terms, they claim to be acting out of love but they're really acting out of hate.

Evangelism and hatred don't mix well either.

"… Can I just smooth everybody's feathers, tell 'em it was a misunderstanding, you're cool now, and it won't happen again?"

Rayford didn't respond at first.

"C'mon, Ray, this is a no-brainer. I don't like you having to think about this one."

"Well, I will have to think about it, Earl. I appreciate you tipping me off, but I'm not ready to concede anything just yet."

Our hero heroically refuses to compromise, to concede anything or to waver from his principles. Sing it with me:

Hold the Gospel banner high!
On to vict'ry grand!
Satan and his hosts defy,
And shout for Rayford's band.

Dare to be a Rayford,
Dare to stand alone!
Dare to have a purpose firm!
Dare to make it known.

That old Bible-school song is apt, because the temptation of Rayford here parallels the temptation Daniel faced. Earl warns Rayford that his increasing conflicts with co-workers due to his proselytizing may keep him from a promotion — from being chosen to pilot one of the airline's newer, bigger 757s.

"The idea of flying the 757 is attractive. I'll get back to you."

"Don't make me wait, Ray."

Happily for Rayford, this all works out just like the story of Daniel. He refuses to concede his principles and winds up getting the promotion anyway.

That seems to muddle the lesson here somewhat. LaHaye and Jenkins are trying to teach their readers that following their duty to aggressive evangelism might have consequences that could hurt their careers, because Christians are a persecuted minority and this world is Satan's domain. But L&J also believe that following one's Christian duty results in material success and career advancement, because this is a Christian nation and God is in charge. So I suppose the lesson here was bound to come across as muddled.

For me, the key to this whole vignette is that Nick Evans is presented here as the villain of the piece.

We're told that Rayford has, in only two weeks, developed a reputation for constantly speaking to everyone about his newfound faith. We're also told that he does this because he feels such a sense of urgency to lead others to salvation — to keep them from being deceived by the Antichrist and condemned to Hell. Yet from everything we've seen of Rayford's interactions with Nick, it seems like as far as he's concerned, his co-pilot can go ahead and go to hell for all he cares.

Nick, like Verna, does not rush to surrender to the charms of our hero, and thus he must be punished.

Who is Nick Edwards,* anyway? Does he have a family, a wife and kids? And are they still intact after the Event or has he lost someone? Maybe he's lost everyone. Where was he when the Event occurred? Was he, like Rayford, in the air? He, too, may have been suddenly forced to deal with the bewildering trauma of missing passengers, and then with an emergency landing amidst the wreckage of multiple burning planes followed by hours on the tarmac frantically trying to tend the wounded and rescue the dying, all while trying to somehow account for this incomprehensible, massive tragedy. Or maybe he was supposed to be in the air that night but then at the last moment something changed. Maybe he'd been scheduled to fly on a flight that crashed and burst into a fireball with no survivors and now his every waking moment is haunted by a sense that they should still be alive and he should have died.

Whatever his story is, it seems unlikely that he'd be receptive to Rayford's message that all of the suffering, loss and death of that night two weeks ago had a simple, tidy explanation and, properly understood, should be seen as Good News.

But we don't know Nick Edwards' story. Neither does Rayford. Nor do Tim LaHaye or Jerry Jenkins.

To know Nick's story, the authors and their hero would have to care about his story. They'd have to care about him. And they don't care about him. Not at all.

Who has time to care about people or to listen to their stories when there's so much urgent evangelizing to be done?

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* I initially mistyped this as "Nick Evans," who, as Bruce notes, is the left fielder for the New York Mets. Shows where my brain is in the spring.

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