TF: What's the story, Mr. Exposition?

TF: What's the story, Mr. Exposition? May 29, 2009

Tribulation Force, pp. 45-52

Buck drops by the New Hope Village Church to talk to Bruce, who welcomes him and says Hello.

For Bruce, inevitably, "Hello" consists of a half-page rant about his own extra-special heavy burden from God and the extra-special humility with which he's facing it:

"Another long feast on the Word. I'm making up for lost time, you know. … I'm trying to decide how to tell the congregation, probably within the next month, that I feel called to travel. People here are going to have to step up and help lead."

"You're afraid they'll feel abandoned?"

"Exactly. But I'm not leaving the church. I'll be here as much as I can. As I told you and the Steeles yesterday, this is a weight I feel God has put on me. There's joy in it — I'm learning so much. But it's scary, too, and I know I'm not up to it, apart from the Spirit's power. … But you didn't come to hear me complain."

Bruce is getting harder to endure. Whenever he's not kvetching about the enormous special burden God has laid on him, he's fretting about how essential and irreplaceable his special self is to the congregation at New Hope.

Everything Bruce says here about his obligation to the church is, again, based on the idea that this is a well-established, thriving evangelical community of long-term members, much like any other local evangelical congregation you might visit today. Since many such nondenominational congregations are held together by a dynamic and charismatic (in the secular sense) leader, Bruce imagines that he must be such a figure for the new believers stumbling together to form this hatchling community at NHVC.  It's hard to see how that could be the case, since this body of believers has largely formed on its own while Bruce was shuttered away studying his prophecies, emerging only occasionally and then only to speak to the three members of his exclusive "inner circle."

I doubt the rest of the congregation would mind if he took off on his travels. I doubt they'd notice.

In his absence, Bruce says, "People here are going to have to step up and help lead." But the church leadership model he seems to subscribe to discourages, or even forbids, such stepping up and sharing in leadership. It's an exclusive model, based on inner circles and inner-inner circles — one in which leadership is an invitation-only club and the apocalypse shelter only seats four. Bruce comes across as the sort of leader who might be OK with people stepping up in his absence, but only if they step back down on his return.

In just two short weeks, Bruce has gone from the deep shame of being left behind to an apparent belief that he is the irreplaceable man at the head of this reborn church. He seems to think it's all about him. That if he is the leader, then everyone else must be the followers — his followers, at that.

Thus we get this repeated refrain about Bruce's special burden and his special responsibility. That sense of specialness tends to carry with it the idea that such special people must also be entitled to certain special privileges. From there it's just a short skip down to the idea that these privileges must be defended against dangerous threats, like the idea of the priesthood of all believers.* What's special about being a clergyman if everybody is a minister?

Buck has come by to seek Bruce's advice on the Hattie Situation. The GIRAT has been behaving badly lately, but let's give him credit for realizing that he owes Hattie a favor. She set him up with Chloe — a nice, smart, attractive young woman he really likes. In turn, he set her up with the Antichrist, the ten-horned beast from the pit of Hell. So I think he's right to feel he owes her one — that he's obliged to try to rescue her from Nicolae and then, maybe, to introduce her to a nice podiatrist or a dentist or something.

"I just have two quick things, and then I'll let you get back to your study. First, and I've been pushing this from my mind the last few days, but I feel terrible about Hattie Durham. Remember her? …"

I'm disappointed — not surprised, of course, just disappointed — that Buck's questions for his pastor don't have anything to do with his recent abortive epiphany about the upside-down, revolutionary nature of the Jesus he accidentally bumped into while reading the forbidden Gospels instead of the prophetically correct parts of the Bible. But we should still note that something wholly unprecedented has quietly happened here: Buck Williams feels obliged to help someone other than himself. And he's even prepared to act on that obligation.

Bruce, of course, immediately tries to talk Buck out of this. Trying to help Hattie, he notes, would be dangerous — and surely no sense of obligation to others ought to entail danger (or discomfort, or effort, or anything else that might distract one from the only real moral obligation of maintaining one's personal purity). Plus, he reminds Buck, Hattie is a slut and therefore deserves her fate:

"The woman you introduced to Carpathia? Sure. The one Rayford almost had a fling with. … As I recall, you tried to warn her about Carpathia."

"I told her she might wind up being his plaything, yes, but at the time I had no idea who he really was."

"She went to New York on her own. It was her choice. … You want to rescue her from Carpathia, is that it?

"Of course."

"I don't see how you could do it without putting yourself in danger. She's no doubt enamored with her new life already. She's gone from being a flight attendant to being the personal assistant to the most powerful man in the world."

"Personal assistant and who knows what else."

"Probably so. I don't imagine he chose her for her clerical skills. …"

See? Hattie chose to take this apparently wonderful career opportunity, and therefore she deserves to be brainwashed and enslaved by the embodiment of evil. Plus just look at how she was dressed — she brought it on herself.

Yet Buck, uncharacteristically, seems determined. He plans to go back to New York where he's bound to encounter Nicolae Carpathia again, and so he needs Bruce to tell him what it is, exactly, he'll be up against.

"I don't know what to do."

"And you think I do."

"I was hoping."

This is Bruce's cue. This is what Bruce is here for. He's not the muscle or the comic sidekick or the girl — he's Mr. Exposition and they're playing his song. We recognize this scene from countless novels, movies and TV shows. Here he is in his study, surrounded by all of his books of arcane lore. This is where he's supposed to come through like Rupert Giles or Geordi La Forge or the head squint in the crime lab of every single detective show.

"According to my studies/research/test results/computer simulation …" he's supposed to say, and then he's supposed to explain to Buck just how to prepare himself for the villain he's about to face. This bit of requisite exposition equips the hero to deal with the challenge ahead while also outlining, for both hero and reader, the premise of the quest/case/adventure to follow.

More importantly, it explains the rules. There have to be rules — that's the only way readers can know that the heroes
and the authors aren't cheating. The rules explain how the archvilla
in works, what he/she/it is capable of and vulnerable to.

Such an explanation of the rules is dramatically necessary for a host of reasons, among the most important being that it explains why the hero can't Just Shoot Him. That always needs to be ruled out because, A) it doesn't make for much of a story, and B) it keeps the hero from wasting time and bullets on an ineffective approach or from looking stupid for not at least pulling the trigger and giving it a try. So Mr. Exposition will always explain to the hero that Bullets Won't Stop Him — you'll need to drive a wooden stake through his heart, to fire an arrow into the gap in the scales of his underbelly, to shoot photon torpedoes into the two-meter thermal exhaust port that leads to the main reactor, to slay him with the magical sword that can only be wielded by the Chosen One who bears the sacred mystic amulet, etc.

We have every reason to expect just this sort of exposition and explanation from Bruce right here. He's supposed to be the brains of the outfit, the one who can tell us what's really going on and what it is we're up against.

So what's really going on? Buck asks. What are we up against?

I don't know, Bruce says.

And apparently he really doesn't. He can't help Buck prepare for another encounter with the Big Bad and he can't help the reader understand how this story is supposed to work. He doesn't know what the rules are because the authors don't know either.

Take just the pertinent question of whether or not Just Shooting Him would be an effective response to Nicolae Carpathia. It takes the authors forever to get around to addressing this, and then when they finally do — in the form of Rayford contemplating crashing Nicolae's plane — they sidestep and evade and mumble because they just don't know. Nicolae isn't meant to be bulletproof, exactly, but he's destined to live for the next seven years because of the prophecy. Bullets Can't Stop the prophecy.

But why not? And how not? What would happen if our heroes decided to defy augury and pull the trigger anyway? The authors have no idea. They can't imagine.

As the expository surrogate for such authors, Bruce is stuck with an impossible job. What's the story? Buck asks him. And Bruce balks because he doesn't know.

The authors don't know. They've got a prophecy check list — a seemingly arbitrary sequence of events to be crossed off one by one — but they don't have a story. They don't have a central conflict or a problem to be solved.

The authors seem to dimly grasp that there is some sort of conflict going on, some kind of problem, but they can't make out the contours of it. And so, like their would-be protagonists, they don't have any idea what can or should be done about it.

We could try to help out poor Bruce here. We could skim ahead through LaHaye and Jenkins' favorite book of the Bible and see what unfolds in the book of Revelation. There we might find a hint of the kind of story we're dealing with when we see that all these beasts and dragons and such are defeated finally by, of all things, a lamb. Bullets aren't going to work, but the lamb that was slain knows the secret to defeating our arch villain.

We could do a little more digging, hit the library in research mode and see what else there is to learn about this "Antichrist." The word comes from the first epistle of John, which tells us that the "spirit of antichrist" is the opposite of the "Spirit of God." So we're getting closer, but what is this "Spirit of God," exactly? "Let us love one another," the author of 1 John continues:

"… for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love."

Aha. So it's that kind of story. That's what we're dealing with here.

It's not about finding the special power that can defeat the archvillain's powers, but about a deeper, older kind of conflict. It's not about Bad Power vs. Good Power, but power vs. love. You recognize this story. This villain can't be defeated by silver bullets or wooden stakes or photon torpedos or a magic ring. We don't need a super hero, we need a lamb. The ring must be destroyed. Worthy is the lamb, worthy is the lamb that was slain.

That's the story. That's always the story, really. I love to tell that story because I know 'tis true; it satisfies my longings as nothing else can do, and etc.

But LaHaye and Jenkins don't seem to know that story. The Left Behind books do not have room for the lamb that was slain. The only response L&J can imagine to the Antichrist's power is even more power and so, after seven years of stalling, they bring in their deus ex machina** — the T-2000 Killer Robo-Christ who stomps across Tokyo and zaps Nicolae to death with his deadly death-rays of deadliness.

So even though Bruce doesn't realize it here, in the end it turns out that bullets will stop the Antichrist — just so long as you've got really, really big killer-Jesus bullets.

The ultimate defeat of L&J's ultimate villain is thus something of a let-down. Their Antichrist turns out in the end to be less fearsome and less impressive than a Sauron or a Voldemort. And thus their Jesus turns out to be far less impressive than either Frodo or Harry Potter.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* John Howard Yoder noted that that idea of the priesthood of all believers is often misunderstood as — or is accused of being — an attempt to abolish the clergy. Actually, he said, the opposite is true. The priesthood of all believers requires the abolition of the category of laity.

That's interesting. It illustrates a pattern, I think. Try to abolish serfdom, declaring that everyone is a lady or gentleman, and you'll likely be accused of trying to abolish the aristocracy and to destroy all the finer things in life. Try to extend any privilege into a universal right and you'll likely be accused of attempting to destroy that which you're trying to expand while those who seek to keep it restricted, limited and tightly controlled will pose as its defenders. I wish I could think of some other example …

** Bad theology and bad mythology aside, this preordained deus ex machina ending is also what makes everything up to that point in these books seem like treading water and a time-wasting boondoggle. To the extent that there is a central conflict in this story, the authors' prophecy doesn't allow for it to be addressed until after seven years are spent, and even then our protagonists won't be allowed to play any direct role in resolving the conflict.

For all their grandiose talk, then, the Tribulation Force can never amount to anything more than a version of the Hardy Boys.

It tends to go unnoticed when you first encounter these books as a child, but the Hardy Boys don't actually solve any of their cases. They don't foil the schemes of any of the criminals they encounter and they never actually catch the bad guys. Frank and Joe display more curiosity, pluck and ingenuity than any member of the Tribulation Force does, but for all of that they never wind up as the heroes of their own stories.

What happens in every Hardy Boys book is this: Due to some elaborate coincidence involving Chet's latest hobby, the boys stumble into a situation
in which they overhear some criminals talking about crime
. The boys track the criminals back to their criminal hide-out, at which point they are inevitably captured (and often knocked unconscious — by the time they turn 20 they're both going to be punch-drunk from multiple concussion syndrome). The criminals politely explain to them the details of their scheme when, suddenly, the boys' father bursts into the room. By yet another coincidence, world-famous private detective Fenton Hardy always turns out to have been busily pursuing the very same group of criminals and he always arrives just in time to rescue his sons and send the bad guys to prison.

Throughout the many volumes of the Left Behind series, the collective actions of the Tribulation Force amount to less than the amateur sleuthing of Frank and Joe. Our heroes can't and don't do much of anything to solve the case themselves, and unlike the Hardy Boys they scarcely even bother to try. All the Tribulation Force really winds up doing is sitting around, waiting for Fenton/Robo-Jesus to show up to rescue them and arrest the bad guys.

(I'd love to read some of those Hardy Boys mysteries retold from the perspective of their father. One couldn't rework too many of the books as Fenton Hardy Mysteries, of course, since after the first handful readers would begin to wonder why this absentee father doesn't just send his sons off to military boarding school for their own safety.)

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