TF: Do I love you, do I?

TF: Do I love you, do I? January 11, 2010

Tribulation Force, pp. 128-133

The annoying thing — well, OK, one of many annoying things — about what Jerry Jenkins is about to put us through is that none of this has anything to do with biblical prophecies or seal judgments or horsemen or Gog and Magog or any of that. This is just extra, bonus material. His gift to us.

This gift being, for the next dozen or so pages, the romantic awakening of 30-year-old virgin Buck Williams and Rayford Steele's Guide to Losing Converts and Alienating People. Both of those make the locusts and earthquakes and such seem a bit less dreadful by comparison.

Buck's epiphany comes midway through his conversation with Nicolae Carpathia. He's sitting in the Antichrist's office, listening to the details of the master plan for global despotism and evil, and then:

Buck's mind flew to Chicago, and he suddenly missed Chloe.

His mind did not, of course, fly to the Chicago office of Global Weekly. Nowhere, in all of this, does Buck ever once think, "This is a huge story. I've got to get this into print!" That's what any half-decent reporter would have been thinking if they'd so much as overheard a conversation like this one, but it doesn't occur to Buck even though these detailed statements of Nicolae's plans are being fed to him, directly, as part of a conversation about, of all things, Buck's journalistic ambitions. All he can think of is Chloe:

What was this? Something in him longed to simply talk with her. Of all the time for it to become crystal clear that he did not want to be "just friends," this was the worst. Was it merely Carpathia's shocking admission that made him long for something or someone comfortable and safe? There was a purity, a freshness about Chloe. How had he mistaken his feelings for her as mere fascination with a younger woman?

Throughout this chapter, Jenkins seems to be shooting for a kind of chaste innocence, but his targets show instead a cluster of hits more in the area of "stunted and immature," verging on "creepy gym teacher."

Buck seems unaffected by any particulars of Chloe's body, mind or character while obsessing over her unspoiled, virginal "purity" and "freshness." This makes his thoughts here read like something out of a diary uncovered by the Behavioral Analysis Unit on "Criminal Minds." (Note to CBS: Would it kill you to put your stuff on Hulu?)

This tells us less about Buck than it does about the authors and the constraints of the Christian-Brand fiction genre and its intended audience. Buck can't be allowed to think of Chloe physically because that would verge on lust. So he can't dwell on her eyes or hair or smile or the curve of her neck. And neither Buck nor the authors, it goes without saying, may so much as notice that Chloe even possesses any of those body parts usually covered by her clothing.

But Buck also can't be allowed to betray any attraction to Chloe's mind — her wit, her insight or whatever it was that the Stanford admissions office saw in her. That might keep a safe distance from the dangers of physical lust, but it would come perilously close to the forbidden realm of feminism.

And Buck can't be portrayed as attracted to Chloe's character. For him to admire her character, the novel and its authors would have to allow for some positive notion of virtue, some idea of good character that entailed something more than the eschewing of particular sins. For the authors and their perceived intended audience, that would be dangerously close to suggesting some kind of "works righteousness."

Ultimately, the only thing left for Buck or the authors to admire about Chloe is her "purity" — not Chloe herself, but her status as an unspoiled, untainted, innocent virgin. And once a character is portrayed as fetishizing "purity and freshness," he's bound to come across as creepy and Humbert Humbert-ish.

Buck gets so caught up in his reverie over the untapped and untainted object of his affection that he seems almost to have forgotten Nicolae is even there.

Carpathia stared at him. "Buck, you will never tell a living soul what I have told you today. No one must ever know. You will work for me, and you will enjoy privileges and opportunities beyond your imagination. You will think about it, but you will say yes in the end."

Buck fought to keep his mind on Chloe. He admired her father, and he was developing a deep bond with Bruce Barnes, a person with whom he would never have had anything in common before becoming a follower of Christ. But Chloe was the object of his attention, and he realized that God had planted these thoughts in him to resist the hypnotic, persuasive power of Nicolae Carpathia.

An alternative explanation suggests itself here. Carpathia is staring at Buck, speaking instructions — imperative commands. And the Antichrist likely knows that only defensive prayer and meditation can shield his potential victims from the power of his mojo. So maybe Buck's sudden, unbidden, obsessive thoughts about Chloe are actually thoughts "planted" by Nicolae to distract Buck from offering any such defensive prayers.

That's not what the authors intend for us to take away from this scene, of course. Their statement "God had planted these thoughts in him" to help Buck resist Nicolae's mojo is intended as a reliable description of what is happening.

But it is interesting that this divine resistance to Nicolae's mind control doesn't prevent Buck from effectively obeying every command Nicolae gives him here. He doesn't report this conversation. And after thinking about it, he does end up working for Nicolae.

So despite the divinely implanted vision of his Beatrice, the Virgin Chloe, Buck's "resistance" consists of him giving in on every point. This is something of a theme in this volume, a book that takes its title from the name of a resistance group that spends most of its pages capitulating.

"Resist" isn't quite the correct word here, anyway. Buck is portrayed as powerless — incapable of either resistance or surrender. He has no choice and makes no choice other than his gratitude that the thoughts that have been planted in his head were planted there (he believes) by God and not by Nicolae.

And thus he has no choice but to continue his cloying thoughts of Chloe.

Did he love Chloe Steele? He couldn't say. He hardly knew her. Was he attracted to her? Of course. Did he want to date her, to begin a relationship with her? Absolutely. And if she asked him with her eyes to ask again yes and then he asked her would she yes to say yes my mountain flower and first she put her arms around him yes and drew him down to her so he could feel her breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes she said yes she will Yes.

Sorry. I seem to have gotten the last sentence of James Joyce's Ulysses stuck onto the end of Jerry Jenkins' paragraph there. Disregard everything after "Absolutely."

Molly Bloom's abandon is actually the opposite of the sudden detachment Buck shows here. It's odd that immediately after deciding that "God had planted these thoughts" of Chloe, Buck's first impulse is to question them.

Molly's ecstatic surrender parallels one strain of evangelical Christian spirituality. Buck's fearful introspection reflects another. "Did he love Chloe Steele? He couldn't say." He has a hard time answering that question or even knowing how to answer it.

For Buck, loving or not
loving Chloe is not a choice he is free to make. It is, instead,
an external something which either has or has not been planted in him by God. Love is something he might feel, but not something he might do. And so Buck has to search his feelings for evidence of that particular feeling. And that evidence is the only kind that ever matters in these books: passionate sincerity.

This desperate examination in search of sincere feelings that somehow exist distinct from one's choices or actions is the source of great anxiety for many evangelicals when it comes to the much higher-stakes question of their eternal salvation. "Am I saved?" they ask, meaning, "Do I really, truly feel saved? Sure, I said the Magic Words, but did I recite them with the requisite passion and sincerity?" Prohibit any consideration of deeds, actions and choices and all one has left to answer such a question is a terrifyingly vague, subjective and variable something or other fluttering or not fluttering in an ill-defined quadrant of one's gut. This is one reason there are so many repeat customers for evangelical altar calls.

The abstract evidence of abstract love is never wholly convincing, mainly because "abstract love" is an oxymoron. (Such empty abstraction cannot be communicated without resorting to additional empty abstraction — "I really, really, really love you so very, very, very much." This accounts for both a large body of bad worship music and a large body of bad pop music.)

More than a chapter into their third or fourth conversation, the Antichrist Nicolae Carpathia finally gets around to the business of trying to get Buck to sell his soul, but Buck is initially so caught up in his quest for the inner sensation of sincerity that he fails to notice:

"Buck, if you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?"

Buck heard the question and stalled, pursing his lips to appear to be thinking about it. All he could think of was Chloe. What would she think if she knew this? Here he sat as the most-talked-about man in the world offered him a blank check, and all he could think about was a 20-year-old college dropout from Chicago.

He thinks of Chloe in such flattering terms.

"Where, Buck?"

"I'm living there now," Buck said.



… "Why would anyone want to live in Chicago?" Carpathia asked. "I know the airport is central, but what else does it offer?"

In Jenkins defense, I believe this is a deliberate joke — a Chicago joke told by a proud Chicagoan. And it's not a bad joke, even if it's smothered somewhat by the fact that Carpathia is trying to persuade Buck to move to the still-unbuilt New Babylon and Buck never counters with "Why would anyone want to live in the Iraqi desert?" (Nor, sadly, does he burst into song: "The Wrigley Building … The Union Stockyard … One town that won't let you down …")

"What if I offered you millions to relocate?" Nicolae asks, and Buck shrugs him off, so he tries again:

"What motivates you?"

That's a bit clumsily explicit for artful temptation — a bit too much like asking, "Which buttons of yours can I push?" But the question throws Buck for a loop:

Buck prayed quickly and silently. God, Christ, salvation, the Tribulation, love, friends, lost souls, the Bible, learning, preparing for the Glorious Appearing, New Hope Village Church, Chloe. Those were the things that motivated him, but could he say that? Should he? God, give me the words!

If "Should he say that?" isn't just a rhetorical question, then I vote No. I'm thinking that's pretty much a list of Topics One Should Never Discuss With The Antichrist.

Fortunately, even if God doesn't give him the words, he finds some from Jonathan Kent:

"I am motivated by truth and justice," Buck said flatly.

"Ah, and the American way!" Carpathia said. "Just like Superman!"

"More like Clark Kent," Buck said. "I'm just a reporter for a great metropolitan weekly."

"All right, you want to live in Chicago. …"

(Nicolae gets partial credit for recognizing Metropolis as the capital of the Midwest, but the "American way" bit really isn't strictly canon.)

"What would you like to do, if you could do anything you wanted?"

Suddenly Buck snapped back to reality. He wished he could retreat to his private thoughts of Chloe, but he felt the pressure of the clock. … He didn't like sparring with Nicolae, and he worried about the minefield represented by this latest question.

"Anything I wanted? I supposed I used to see myself one day in a publisher's role. … I'd miss the legwork though, the research, the interviewing and the writing."

He goes on for a half page or so, prodded by Nicolae, fleshing out this scenario of his dream job, which would mix the privilege and prestige of the publisher's office with the opportunity to write whatever stories he wanted to as a reporter. This is probably only slightly wiser than talking about all those things he listed as motivations above. (General rule: Don't talk about your dream job with Mephistopheles.)

Buck concludes in the same verb tense he uses throughout this long description, "I suppose that would have been the ultimate."

Nicolae picks up on that, of course, and asks Buck "why you talk about your dreams … as if you no longer have them."

There are two possible reasons for Buck to be speaking of those career dreams as what "would have been."

The first possibility is that Buck was being honest in his unspoken answer to the earlier question, "What motivates you?" He might be saying "would have been" because he used to be a career-minded ladder-climber driven by professional ambition and the vainglory of fame and prestige and the dream-job scenario he describes "would have been" his answer back then, before he was reborn as a new creation motivated, instead, by "God, Christ, salvation, the Tribulation, love …" etc.

But the authors quickly show that this is not why Buck said "would have been."

Buck had not been careful. … He had slipped. He knew the world had only seven more years, once the treaty was signed between Carpathia and Israel.

So the dream job Buck described is only something that he speaks of as "would have been" because he knows this dream will be interrupted by the impending End of the World. In other words, the dream he had when he was a man motivated by career ambition, greed and vanity did not change at all when he allegedly became someone motivated by a completely different set of things. Why would it?

"I can offer you a position, a publication, a staff, a headquarters, and even a retreat, that will allow you to do all you have ever wanted to do and even live in Chicago."

Carpathia paused, as he always did, waiting for Buck to bite. And Buck bit.

"This I've got to hear," he said.

That sentence — "And Buck bit" — seems unambiguous. The metaphor is from fishing, and there doesn't seem to be any way of reading that that doesn't suggest that Buck just took the bait and is now dancing on the end of Nicolae's line.

And that certainly seems to be where Buck deserves to be, considering he's just spent three pages saying, in effect, "I know you're the Antichrist, but if you really can make all my dreams come true and you promise there'll be no strings
attached, then why sho
uldn't I believe you?"

Yet nothing that follows in this book can be reconciled with that short little out-of-character sentence, "And Buck bit."

Buck spends much of the next hundred pages haggling over price with Carpathia, but once he returns to Chicago, Chloe, Bruce and Rayford all encourage him to accept the job. The other Trib-Forcers and the authors themselves unanimously assert that the dream job Nicolae tempts Buck with is actually "God's will."

The Antichrist paused, waiting for Buck to bite. And Buck bit.

But it turns out that it was God's will for Buck to bite.

Resistance and surrender are the same thing and God intervenes to enable Buck to obey the Antichrist. And suddenly I feel like I'm reading The Man Who Was Thursday.

"I am the Sabbath," said Nicolae, without moving. "I am the peace of God."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!