TF: That Guy

TF: That Guy July 3, 2009

Tribulation Force, pp. 59-60

It's the third Sunday after the End of the World and everyone's going to church:

Rayford was glad he and Chloe had decided to go early to church. The place was jammed every week. …

"Every week" here meaning that New Hope Village Church had been "jammed" the previous two Sundays. This is, again, kind of hard to explain. The Event whisked away every member of NHVC except for Bruce Barnes and Loretta. Now, despite the fact that Bruce has spent most of the ensuing weeks shuttered in his study, the place is overflowing.

We've already speculated that meta-Loretta must have been very busy indeed during this time. Somebody hired a church secretary, and a music director, and somebody to vacuum the sanctuary and take the trash out. Somebody also will have had to replace Bruce himself in his former role of "visitation pastor" — since that kind of one-on-one counseling would be more important than ever these days. Bruce didn't do any of this himself. He, and the authors, seems to think his showing up in the pulpit at 11 a.m. on Sundays is all that it takes to keep the church filled, relevant and meaningful to these newcomers.

The authors do — finally, 60 pages into the second book — acknowledge that most people would be traumatized after the Event, and they speculate that such traumatized people might be looking for comfort or answers:

People were grieving. They were terror-stricken. They were looking for hope, for answers, for God. They were finding him here, and the word was spreading.

When we get to Bruce's sermon in the next section, we'll see again just what kind of God these newcomers were finding at NHVC. I rather doubt it's the kind of God that grieving, terror-stricken and hope-starved people would be looking for, since it's not really the sort of God one looks for as much as the sort of God one hides from. (That's true even for Bruce, hence his plan to Dig a Really Big Hole.) Once these seekers find this God, and learn that he is the source of their grief and their terror, you'd think they might start looking somewhere else for a source of hope.

"The word was spreading" won't explain why the church would be packed each week. People who are eager enough for hope and answers to find the place all on their own, without any help from Bruce, wouldn't be satisfied with being given such hope and answers for a lousy two hours per week on Sunday mornings. A church that's "jammed" on Sunday mornings, will also be pretty crowded on weekday evenings and Saturday afternoons. It's abundantly clear that Bruce hasn't been available to the new congregation any time except for Sunday mornings, so who is it who's handling all of the ministry and study and outreach and disciple-making the rest of the week?

LaHaye and Jenkins love taking pot-shots at liberal denominations and hidebound traditionalists who don't accept the gospel of premillennial dispensationalist prophecy, so we should note that they missed a golden opportunity here to incorporate more of that sort of thing into this story. The new church staff at NHVC could have consisted of several lapsed or liberal clergy from other churches in the area. Their testimonies of repenting from their apostasies of mainline Protestantism or Catholicism would have given L&J a chance to weave in more triumphalist business about the supremacy and unique legitimacy of PMD theology while also providing an explanation for who's actually running things while Bruce is locked away with his exclusive inner-inner-inner-circle leadership elite. It would also help to explain why these newcomers are deciding to show up here, at NHVC, on Sunday mornings instead of at the local Episcopalian or Methodist or Catholic churches.

Rayford smiled at his daughter. Chloe looked the best he had seen her since coming home from college. He wanted to tease her, to ask her if she was dressing for Buck Williams or for God, but he let it go.

I must admit that I just don't get this "dressing for God" concept.

I suppose the core idea might be something laudable having to do with the desire to look our best when visiting the House of the Lord, but we Christians don't believe we're ever not in God's presence, and obviously we don't wear our Sunday best every day, otherwise we couldn't call it that.

So right there I've got qualms about the way we take the idea of the Lord's Day and twist it into something that suggests the other six days are something less. Plus this idea of "dressing for God" raises some warning flags having to do with class and vocation. Why is it that a farmer or factory worker has to dress like a banker when he goes to church, but the banker gets to attend dressed like himself? (Unless the banker is a she, in which case she's expected to dress like she's on a fancy dinner date — so let's add some warning flags, also, having to do with gender roles and sexism.)

If we're really "dressing for God," then shouldn't we be listening to what God had to say about clothes?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will God not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

Or this:

The man with two tunics should share with him who has none.

Or this:

I needed clothes and you clothed me. … I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.

In poorer, working communities, getting decked out in your Sunday best for Sunday worship can be a form of celebration, like a bottle of perfume spilled at Jesus' feet. But for most suburban American congregations, "dressing for God" is just a disingenuous spiritual varnish on dressing competitively to impress or outdo one another. All of which provides me an excuse to retell one of my favorite stories from Mother Teresa (from her book, No Greater Love):

Not so long ago a very wealthy Hindu lady came to see me. She sat down and told me, "I would like to share in your work" … The poor woman had a weakness that she confessed to me. "I love elegant saris," she said. Indeed, she had on a very expensive sari that probably cost around 800 rupees. Mine cost only eight rupees …

It occurred to me to say to her, "I would start with the saris. The next time you go to buy one, instead of paying 800 rupees, buy one that costs 500. Then with the extra 300 rupees, buy saris for the poor."

The good woman now wears 100-rupee saris, and that is because I have asked her not to buy cheaper ones.

I'm ambivalent about the idea of school uniforms. I either like them or dislike them depending on which set of rigid, merciless fascists is most in charge of the school in question. If the school is one where students lives are ruled by teachers and administrators who believe in keeping the children in line by any means necessary, then school uniforms will be just one more means of control and discipline and I'm against them. But if the school is the sort of place where students lives are ruled by other students — by the in crowd
, the Queen Bees and the caste system of popularity tha
t scorns and shuns and disenfranchises anyone who fails to conform by wearing the "right" clothes, then I rather like the idea of school uniforms. At a school like that, a uniform can be a kind of liberation from a cruelly and capriciously enforced fashion code. The sort of local churches where people talk piously of "dressing for God" seem to me to have more in common with this latter type of school, and I'm inclined to think that something like church uniforms might be, for them, equally liberating.

Anyway, we come next to a delightfully inadvertent and devastating piece of characterization — a sentence that tells us far, far more about Rayford Steele and about the authors themselves than they realize:

[Rayford] took one of the last spots in the parking lot and saw cars lined up around the block, looking for places on the street to park.

Yes, Rayford Steel is That Guy.

You know That Guy. He takes two parking spaces to protect his paint job. He races past the pregnant lady to grab the last seat on the train. He sends back his steak and undertips. He drives on the shoulder all the way to the front of the traffic jam, then bullies his way back into line. He sees all of this as evidence that he's cleverer than the rest of us suckers. That That Guy.

That's Rayford Steele.

My first boss in my first job after college was That Guy. This made our business trips a nightmare. He didn't believe in checking bags — that just slows you down. So instead he packed everything for a weeklong trip into a gargantuan bag three times larger than the size limit for carry-on luggage. (This was before 9/11 — back when you could still bully airline personnel into letting you break the rules.)

My boss's giant "carry-on" bag was so large that he had to wheel it around on this folding metal contraption. Getting both his massive bag and the not-small folding metal thing into the overhead bin on the plane took a bit more bullying. He'd board early. When some ticket checker had the temerity to point out that his row hadn't yet been called, he'd just act entitled and put-upon, sighing acidly, rolling his eyes and calling them by the name on their name tag in a condescending tone until they'd surrender and let him by.

The other passengers were never happy to arrive at their seats only to find that one of the overhead bins in their section was already full and that half of the other one was taken up with some weird folding metal thing. They were even less happy after the plane landed and, while it was still taxiing to the gate and the seat-belt sign was still lit, my boss would jump up out of his seat and lay claim to the aisle for the reassembly of the wheeled metal thing. This reassembly, getting the giant bag down from the overhead bin and strapping it back onto the metal thing took 10 to 15 minutes, during which everyone who'd been seated behind my boss on the plane had to wait, standing in the aisle, unable to exit the plane.

That Guy.

The authors don't seem to intend to portray Rayford this way. They don't see anything strange or embarrassing in his swooping in to grab the last spot while others are forced to circle the block. Like Rayford himself, they seem oblivious to his behavior. That Guy never realizes he's That Guy.

Poor Chloe knows better, though, and even though the authors and her father ignore her presence here, the rest of us can appreciate her wincing horror at having to ride along with That Guy. There she sits in the passenger seat, grimacing with embarrassment and mouthing "I'm sorry" out the window at the old lady with the walker on the sidewalk as her father diagonally straddles the line between the last two parking spaces close to the church door.

We can see in this moment the long, heartbreaking history of Chloe's childhood and teen years — all those times she's had to furtively apologize to those her father has cut in front of in line; the times she's had to surreptitiously supplement the 10-percent and not a penny more tip he's left at some restaurant after consulting the "Tip Calculator" card he's carried in his wallet since 1972; the times she's stared at her shoes in the car, wishing she were invisible, as her father cruised past a line of cars, driving on the shoulder in what he doesn't realize the rest of us refer to as the "Dickhead Lane."

Now think how even more excruciating things were for Chloe back when both her parents were present — when Rayford's extravagantly inadequate tips were left alongside Irene's evangelistic tracts, or when he cut someone off in traffic in Irene's car with its Jesus Fish magnet on the back.

"And what does the Lord require of you?" the prophet Micah asks. "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

Shorter Micah: Don't be That Guy.

"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment," Jesus said. "And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

Shorter Jesus: Don't be That Guy.

You don't need to find the words of Jesus or the prophets authoritative to appreciate this point — it transcends every religious tradition or moral system. The point is simply this: Follow the Golden Rule.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Not because this will get you into Heaven or keep you out of Hell; not due to your gratitude for the undeserved grace of God; not because you love Jesus, who asks this of you or because you're trying to follow his model of the best of humanity; not because of the law and the prophets or because of some Kantian or Rawlsian imperative or some utilitarian calculus. Simply follow the Golden Rule because it will protect you from becoming a gaping asshole.

One last note. Of course Rayford Steele would race to take the last spot in the parking lot while others have to park blocks away. That fits — unintentionally but perfectly — with everything we have read up until now about Rayford's character.

But now try to imagine Nicolae Carpathia doing this. He just wouldn't, would he?

What a strange moral universe we have here in these books — a world in which the embodiment of evil comes across as more considerate than our role model of virtue.

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