TF: Bible studies

TF: Bible studies May 15, 2009

Tribulation Force, pp. 38-43

Chloe Steele is smitten with Buck Williams. Lest we judge her too harshly for this, keep in mind that unlike the reader, she's never witnessed him in Buck-the-Player mode, working his charms on Hattie or Alice, and she's never seen him as Buck-the-D-bag smirking behind the back of his female boss.

Like Buck, Chloe is aware that the End of the World is not the most auspicious time to begin a relationship:

"Sitting here talking about my love life, or lack of it, seems pretty juvenile at this point in history, don't you think?"

Having read the back cover of the book, Chloe knows she's in a PMD apocalypse novel, and thus she considers a pragmatic approach to that predicament:

"It's not like there's nothing to fill my time even if I don't go back to school. I want to memorize Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation for starters."

Rayford laughed. "You're kidding."

"Of course! But you know what I mean, Dad? I never would have dreamed the Bible would even interest me, but now I'm reading it like there's no tomorrow."

Rayford fell silent, and he could tell Chloe was struck by her own unintentional irony. … "There aren't many tomorrows left, are there?"

I might like these characters a bit more if they occasionally expressed a hint of intentional irony. (If I were in their shoes, I don't think seven years would be enough time for "Hey, it's not the end of the world …" jokes to ever get old.) A lack of appreciation for irony is often considered a mark of innocence, but I can't fully trust someone who seems unable to appreciate or savor irony. That strikes me as a sign of a dangerous lack of perspective.

It's too bad Chloe was kidding about her plan to memorize "Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation for starters." That plan shows good instincts — heading upstream for the most primary sources available is normally the best approach.

In the case of premillennial dispensationalism, however, such unmediated contact with the supposed primary source material would only be confusing. Without prior knowledge of the PMD mythology, there's no way anyone could read those books of the Bible and arrive at anything like it's intricately convoluted framework. The only way such a course of study might be helpful in understanding the PMD apocalypse would be if Chloe memorized them from a Scofield Bible — not the text itself, just the footnotes.

The Bible, actually, is not a primary source for PMD eschatology. Pieces of it — chapters, verses, words, syllables — provide a portion of the raw material that people like Scofield, LaHaye or Hal Lindsay then combine with other ingredients to create, through textual alchemy, their finished product. But PMD eschatology is not found in, and does not come from, the Bible.

Consider just the events of our story so far. Russia destroys itself in an otherwise harmless nuclear attack on Israel. Every child on earth disappears, along with adults who are a very particular sort of Christian. Two men with guns trip and die while heckling two street preachers in Jerusalem. The pacifist president of Romania takes over the world, except for Israel, with whom he signs a peace treaty. Unless you were already steeped in the mythology and through-the-looking-glass logic of "Bible prophecy" delirium, you'd never guess that these events were meant to correspond to the Bible passages that Tim LaHaye says they "fulfill."

Or consider this sequence of events and see if you can find any rationale for reading the Bible in that particular order:

1. Turn to Ezekiel 38 & 39. Don't read the first 37 chapters of Ezekiel, they don't matter. And don't read Ezekiel chapters 40 to 48 — they don't matter either. You're supposed to start reading Ezekiel at Chapter 38. That's obviously why it's Chapter 38.

2. Turn from Ezekiel 39 to 1 Thessalonians 4:16, being very careful not to read verses 13 and 14 of this chapter. (Those verses introduce the section that follows as being about death, hope and grieving and you're going to have to try, instead, to read this section as though it is about the disappearance of all of the earth's children, which it doesn't actually mention.) Anyway, read on through the 11th verse of the following chapter and then jump to the obvious next passage in the plainest, most literal and logical reading of the Bible …

3. Revelation Chapter 11. Don't read the first 10 chapters of Revelation — not yet. First finish Chapter 11, then turn to …

4. Revelation 6:1-2. Don't read the third verse yet, because first you need to turn to …

5. The ninth chapter of Daniel. Skip the first 19 verses and start with Daniel 9:20.

If Chloe did, in fact, memorize Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation, then this hopscotch approach to the Bible would probably strike her as even more arbitrary and insane. This approach can be made to seem almost sort of somewhat semi-plausible if it's being presented from the pulpit by a preacher who talks very fast and uses lots of distracting, authoritative-seeming PowerPoint charts, but neither Chloe nor any other reader could sit down and read Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation and thereby conclude that such a course of events is prophesied to occur in such an order.

Within the fictional world she inhabits, memorizing Revelation might still be a prudent step. LaHaye's scheme doesn't follow the chronology that book presents as written, but for the most part he treats all of its seals, vials, trumpets and bowls as a straight timeline of Very Bad Things that Chloe would do well to be prepared to face.

But even in her fictional context, as a character inhabiting the world created by LaHaye and Jenkins, it would still be a waste of time for Chloe to memorize Ezekiel and Daniel. Don't get me wrong — Ezekiel is fantastic and reading it is not at all a waste of time. The dung-fires and dioramas of the trippy prophet's street theater are unlike anything else in the Bible. Some of Ezekiel's imagery — a wheel within a wheel, a valley of dry bones — is as indelible as it is inscrutable. But them bones them bones them dry bones would be nothing but a distraction for Chloe. That story would be no more practical during the Great Tribulation than would the story of Daniel and the Lion's Den (or the less-popular Daniel and the Miracle Vegetarian Exile Diet).

Meanwhile, Buck is thinking of Chloe too:

Buck Williams lay on his stomach in his new bed for the first time. It felt strange. His was a nice place in a good building …

Should there still be such a thing as "a good building"? Post-Event, an apartment building would either be filled with newly vacant units from which the stink of rotting food would seep into the hallways, or else it would be a building with no empty units, i.e., a building full of sinners. I guess this is a building filled with the better sort of sinner — the quiet, considerate damned who never play their devil's music loudly too late at night.

Like Chloe, Buck decides to do a little Bible-reading, and he too knows the short list of Prophetically I
mportant texts he's supposed to be studying. And yet,

… he found himself turning to the Gospels rather than the Old Testament or the Revelation prophecies. What a revolutionary Jesus turned out to be. Buck was fascinated with the character, the personality, the mission of the man. The Jesus he had always imagined or thought he knew about was an impostor. The Jesus of the Bible was a radical, a man of paradoxes.

This is interesting. And promising …

Buck set the Bible on the nightstand and rolled onto his back, shielding his eyes from the light. If you want to be rich, give your money away, he told himself. That's the gist of it. If you want to be exalted, humble yourself. Revenge sounds logical, but it's wrong. Love your enemies, pray for those who put you down. Bizarre.

Yes! Yes it is bizarre and that is, more or less, the gist of it. By George he's got it! Alright, now Buck, what does this mean for you as a new Christian? How does –?

His mind wandered to Chloe.

Aaaand that's that.

Buck's meditation upon the revolutionary, upside-down character of Christ and his kingdom evaporates as abruptly as it arose. And he never speaks or thinks of it again, never acts on it, never chooses or changes because of what it might mean.

It wasn't an epiphany after all, merely an observation — a fleeting, half-glimpsed observation that flickered at the corner of Buck's eye and then disappeared forever.

But what a strangely out-of-place observation that was here, from this character, in these books. Buck almost guiltily turns away from the PMD-approved "prophecy" passages and thus, for one brief moment, he is able to encounter the Jesus of the Gospels. The "gist" of Jesus' message takes shape in Buck's mind as almost the precise opposite of who he is and how he lives his life. The self-centered, self-aggrandizing, vindictive GIRAT summarizes that message as generosity, humility and love for enemies. And then:

… Bizarre.

His mind wandered to Chloe.

And nothing ever comes of it. Buck spends the next three pages praying about what to say to Chloe:

All he wanted to know was whether he should keep pursuing Chloe. He started praying about it, and all of a sudden he was thinking about marriage and children. Craziness. Maybe that's how God works, he thought. He leads you to logical, or illogical, conclusions.

Buck calls her, gets stuck on the phone with Rayford instead, and then he just goes right back to acting the way we're accustomed to seeing him: Oblivious to others, exalting himself, hating his enemies.

This is immensely frustrating. It's like that scene in every episode of The Sopranos when Tony comes to a fork in the road and sees that redemption is possible, that redemption is available and that here, at last, is his chance to be relieved of his burden, to be released from his bondage, his chance at last to be the father, the husband and the man he has always longed to be and … and he doesn't take it.

Except on The Sopranos that frustration was the point. Here, Buck Williams is supposed to be the good guy, the hero, a role model. To see Buck Williams offered this sudden opportunity only to shrug it away is just bewildering.

For three short paragraphs it almost seemed as though we were heading for a complete about-face. For a moment there, Buck resembles the Rev. Henry Maxwell — the hero of the only American publishing phenomenon to rival the success of the Left Behind series. One hundred years before Jerry Jenkins started typing, Charles Sheldon wrote a similar scene in the early pages of his novel, In His Steps. The Rev. Maxwell is offered almost the same epiphany that presents itself to Buck here, but Maxwell seizes it and runs with it. "What would Jesus do?" he asks, and the startling answer, he realizes, is to be found in that paradoxical, revolutionary message of the Sermon on the Mount. Maxwell embraces that message wholeheartedly and it turns his whole world upside down until not one stone is left on another.

Buck Williams is given that chance here, but instead of taking it, he rolls onto his back and shields his eyes from the light till human voices wake him and he drowns.

I doubt that's how I'm supposed to be reading this chapter. I don't really think LaHaye & Jenkins intended for us to view Buck here as a spiritual J. Alfred Prufrock. But if not that, then what on earth was this scene for? Why were we shown Buck fumbling the handoff on what might have been a life-changing epiphany?


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