TF: Let us sing

TF: Let us sing July 10, 2009

Tribulation Force, pg. 61

This Sunday morning gathering at New Hope Village Church is a very strange worship service, mostly because the authors don't see anything strange about it. It's a church service and we all know what church services are like, so why should this one be any different just because the entire world is different?

Thus our service begins with some praise choruses, just like any typical evangelical church service would:

The music had begun. Buck stood to sing with everyone else. Many seemed to know the songs and the words. He had to follow as the words were projected on the wall and try to pick up the melodies. The choruses were simple and catchy, but they were new to him. Many of these people, he decided, had had plenty of exposure to church — more than he had. How had they missed the truth?

If you're at all familiar with the sorts of "simple and catchy" choruses that tend to get "projected on the wall," then you'll realize that it only takes about five minutes to learn "the songs and the words." Mindless repetition tends to be easy to pick up.

I'm having a hard time, however, imagining how any of the usual PowerPoint choruses would seem remotely appropriate or relevant for this particular group of people on this particular Sunday, just weeks after the instantaneous disintegration of every last one of their children. "Shout to the Lord" wouldn't seem to be the sort of thing one would sing to begin a funeral and it would seem equally out of place here.

Jenkins mentions this singing of praise choruses to give a sense of familiarity for his evangelical readers — to make them feel at home there at NHVC, reassuring them that it is their kind of church (the right kind, the good kind). That comforting sense of recognition is also intended, I think, to carry a warning to those same evangelical readers — a reminder that "many of these people" had attended just such evangelical churches and yet had still been left behind. Don't think you're saved just because you go to the right kind of church, Jenkins is reminding them, you must also say the Magic Words and correctly acknowledge the correctness of correct prophecy doctrines.

It's unforgivably lazy, though, for Jenkins to leave out the telling detail of what songs, specifically, the congregation is singing. This is an aspect of storytelling he rarely seems to bother with — the selection of just right details. Here was an opportunity to reinforce his themes and characters with a precisely chosen line or two of quoted lyrics. This would have, at the very least, made more tangible the effect he's going for of reassuring his fanbase that this is a familiar setting. More than that, though, it was a chance to season his prose with an allusive, evocative snippet of poetry, and how could any novelist ignore such an opportunity?

But this brings us again to the difficulty of choosing precise and apt details for this particular story. The story itself is so implausible that plausible details seem impossible to find. What on earth could such a congregation in such a setting possibly find to sing?

Choruses and hymns that mention children would be grossly insensitive. Most praise choruses would sound inappropriately pre-Event ("Our God Reigns," for example, comes from the wrong part of Isaiah), as would most southern gospel standards like "I'll Fly Away" or "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder." Classics like "Amazing Grace" clash with the authors' theology and contradict the sermon Bruce is about to preach.

My choice would be a hymn that wasn't written for PowerPoint slides or Yamaha keyboards. I'd have started out with "It Is Well With My Soul." That's a song that arises from and begins with grieving over lost children, earning its way toward a conclusion in which "the trump shall resound / and the Lord shall descend."

That would seem to be an apt hymn for this group of "grieving … terror-stricken" people gathered at New Hope Village Church, but I'm pretty sure I'm not looking at this the same way the authors are. Plus, when I hear this song in my head, the voice singing it is Mahalia Jackson's and her blues-on-the-verses, gospel-on-the-chorus rendition gives it a this-worldly grounding — more Exodus than Revelation — that I don't think the authors would like.

The sad truth is that there just aren't that many memorable songs espousing or even compatible with the prophecy mania of premillennial dispensationalism. And almost none of those few songs would still work after the Rapture has already occurred.

The only song I can imagine meeting that criteria would seem almost cliche here: Larry Norman's 1969 Jesus Freak anthem, "I Wish We'd All Been Ready."

Life was filled with guns and war,
And everyone got trampled on the floor,
I wish we'd all been ready
Children died, the days grew cold,
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold,
I wish we'd all been ready,
There's no time to change your mind,
The Son has come and you've been left behind.

The influence of that song among PMD types can't be overstated. For all the millions of books sold by Tim LaHaye or Hal Lindsay, it is this version, this telling of the story, that most PMD evangelicals have in mind when they speak of the Rapture and the Tribulation. It's influence on the Left Behind series is as obvious as that title, but it's also worth noting the differences between Norman's vision — in this song and many others — and that of LaHaye and Jenkins.

The biggest difference isn't in the lyrics above, but in the minor key and the mournful tone of Norman's song. He isn't happy about the scenario he describes. He isn't triumphalist. And unlike L&J he doesn't find the idea of a Tribulation filled with guns and war and dead children to be feverishly exciting. His song expresses an unrestrained millennialism, but it's inclusive — "I wish we'd all been ready." Because of that, the suffering he believes is prophesied is something dire and tragic and not the basis for gleeful, self-congratulatory distinctions between ourselves and those deserving of punishment (hence the inclusion of children in his scene).

For Norman, the "birth pangs" of apocalypse are a lamentable aspect of the coming rebirth, but the rebirth is what is most important — the day when, as he sings in another song, everything can happen like it first was planned and we're all invited to play in the band. That's from "The Sun Began to Rain," which featured Dudley Moore on piano and lyrics like:

Water swelled from fountains and then turned to wine
Rocks fell from the mountains in a chorus line
He came in tails and top hat and he looked so fine
Yes, the son began to reign

That's a Busby Berkeley apocalypse, one that takes no joy in the birth pangs, but is positively jubilant over the prospect of rebirth. The despicable thing about the Left Behind books is the way they turn
that emphasis upside-down. These books are fascinated by and preoccupied with all the doom and suffering and wrath they foresee in store for fools and sinners — that's what gets the authors' pulses racing. In Hal Lindsay's terms, L&J don't get excited about "There's a New World Coming," but they can't get enough of all the lurid details in store for the "Late Great Planet Earth."

As a young hippie, Norman's millennialism tended toward the otherworldly, the idea that we're "only visiting this planet." That's a strain of religion easily exploited by those with an interest in the status quo and it tends to be mostly harmless. Yet even that long-hair, drop-out variety of millennial fervor carries the implicit danger of the more militant varieties. Millennialism proposes an ultimate ending and thus an ultimate ends that can come to be seen as justifying any ultimate means. A final solution, as it were. That is the inherent danger of millennialism — that it propels itself toward a situation in which it will be used to justify atrocities.

What sets LaHaye & Jenkins apart is that they don't even bother using millennialism to justify atrocities — they just assert the atrocities without seeing any need for their justification. For them, the atrocities are the main attraction.

I don't know what sort of songs such people would sing, but I'm fairly sure I don't want to hear them.

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