T.F.: Not funny

T.F.: Not funny April 3, 2009

Tribulation Force, pp. 5-20

I have to admit that the Buck and Verna subplot has me back on my heels. This tale of the Humiliation of the Uppity Woman is stomach-churningly ugly and I'm finding it difficult to get through or over or around, so before we plow through the last of it, I just need to vent a bit.

It's a nasty piece of work and the authors revel in its nastiness. And that reveling is revealing.

Throughout most of Left Behind, the authors and their heroes displayed a kind of incidental cruelty born of obliviousness and disregard and a self-centered tunnel vision. That's no excuse for the behavior they depict and display and endorse. It makes them seem like Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, as careless people who smash up things and creatures and then retreat back into their religion or their vast carelessness or whatever it us that keeps them going, and let other people clean up the mess.

But here the malice and contempt is premeditated and intentional. Buck Williams' despicable behavior toward Verna Zee — and toward Alice, actually — is not merely weak and obtuse and fearful, but careful and deliberate.

And the authors celebrate this painstaking viciousness. It is our first glimpse of the newly saved and sanctified Buck Williams and the authors thus suggest that this is how godly, real, true Christian men ought to behave toward women or anyone else they regard as their inferiors.

The fruit of the Spirit, St. Paul writes, "is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."

If you sat down and tried to write a scene in which a character displayed the opposite of all of those characteristics, you'd come up with something like Buck's actions in the first 20 pages of Tribulation Force.

In urging the Galatian Christians to live up to these fruits of the Spirit, Paul warns them of the alternative. "Let us not become conceited," he writes, "provoking and envying each other." And again, if you sat down to write a scene in which a conceited character was driven to provoke others out of envy, you'd come up with something like Buck's actions in the first 20 pages of Tribulation Force.

In John's epistles, he gives a name to this behavior, this antithesis of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. He calls it "the spirit of antichrist."

That is, again, the only place in the Bible where the word "antichrist" appears.

The really horrifying aspect of this subplot is the way it's driven by a gleeful misogyny. It's like something out of an episode of Law & Order SVU.

The male supremacist dogma that so many evangelicals euphemistically refer to as "traditional gender roles" usually expresses itself through an emphasis on almost Victorian manners. Tim LaHaye's wife, Beverly LaHaye, is a leading proponent of this chivalrous, gentlemanly approach to male supremacy. The seething rage on display in this passage unmasks the hate that lies just beneath that polite veneer. But don't expect those advocates of chivalrous, gentlemanly noblesse oblige to condemn Buck's caddish, ungentlemanly treatment of Verna, or to condemn LaHaye & Jenkins' celebration of it. He's just keeping her in line, after all. It's her fault, not his. She brought it on herself. Etc.

Do you know why you never hear someone say, "Oh, Left Behind … my husband loves those books"?

Because her husband doesn't like it when she talks to other people and she doesn't want to upset him again.

That's not a joke. What we're seeing here is the furious reassertion of an arbitrary claim of supremacy and authority. Violence isn't merely a potential aspect of such claims. It's inevitable and it can surface at any time without any discernible external provocation. Anyone making such an arbitrary claim will be plagued by an ever-present, nagging insecurity — a peripheral glimpse of the unrecognized recognition that the claim cannot be justified, that it is not deserved. Such glimpses must constantly be swatted away like a cloud of gnats. And whoever else is around is likely to get swatted as well.

So quite seriously, if anyone ever does tell you that her husband loves these books, get her the 800-number for the local hotline and tell her to get a spare set of car keys made, and to start squirreling away some emergency cash, and to have a crash-bag stashed somewhere hidden but quickly accessible with a set of clothes and toothbrushes and all for her and the kids.

The somewhat grim seriousness of my response to these scenes would probably be dismissed by LaHaye and Jenkins as yet another example of the humorlessness of feminism. That whole trope — the Humorless Feminist — is another example of the reassertion of an undeserved claim of authority. The claim in this case, is that they know what's funny and we don't.

I'm guessing that Jenkins really did intend these scenes in the Chicago bureau to be a comic interlude. He thought he was being funny.

What he had in mind here, I think, was to portray Buck as the sort of charmingly rebellious cut-up that Bill Murray used to play in movies like Stripes or Ghostbusters. That attempt fails, utterly and spectacularly. The effect of these scenes, in fact, is exactly the opposite — portraying Buck as just the sort of uptight, incompetent, ridiculous and arrogant boss who richly deserved all the scorn heaped on him by the Bill Murray character.

At one basic level, these scenes fail because Buck's antics are not funny. We're told that he makes "wisecracks," but we're not told what they are. The few we are allowed to read are neither wise nor cracking. His clowning and mugging just comes across as preadolescent and dumb.

Buck Williams is, fundamentally, not a funny guy.

But even if he were a brilliant wit and a comic genius, everything he attempts here would still fall flat and he'd still come across as a despicable jerk because the whole scene is backwards. It's upside-down.

Or, rather, it's not upside-down. And therefore it can't be funny.

Comedy is essentially revolutionary. This scene is counter-revolutionary. That's never funny. Everything in these pages is about reasserting hierarchy and punishing anyone who challenges it. That's never funny either.

Buck Williams isn't the court jester, he's the sycophantic court prophet. The court prophet isn't funny. (Nor is he really a prophet.)

The jester is funny because he mocks the king. He deflates the over-inflated and humbles the proud. This is what comedy does. It's what comedy is for. It brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; it fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. (Mary knew from funny.)

That's what makes it funny. That's what makes us laugh.

Everything that Buck does in the Chicago bureau of Global Weekly is intended to tear down the lowly and lift the powerful onto their thrones, to fill the rich with good things and send the hungry away empty.

That's not funny. That's the opposite of funny. And I'm not laughing.

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