TF: GWFYL March 1, 2010

Tribulation Force, pp. 162-169

Buck … still longed to see Chloe, but it was not the idealistic dream he had imagined. …

The flowers are in the trash, he thought. Whatever in the world that meant.

In comments to the previous post, many noted that this sounds like a line from a spy movie or from one of those coded World War II radio messages for the French Resistance. (And several commenters offered hilarious riffs on this, which you really ought to read if you missed them last time around.)

Some quick background for those who haven't read up on such things or who never saw The Longest Day. Radio London was a BBC-based, French-language station broadcasting into Nazi-occupied France during the second world war. Its broadcasts included "personal messages" that might sound like weird non-sequiturs — "the dice are on the table," "It's hot in Suez" — but were actually instructions for particular resistance cells throughout occupied France. Gen. Eisenhower worked with Radio London to coordinate the activity of those resistance groups with the D-Day invasion that ultimately won the war.

Those messages had to be in code because the Nazi occupation and its Vichy collaborators might also be listening in. The "personal messages" couldn't be more explicit because that would only end up with the resistance cells being discovered and captured or killed.

This is all actually quite germane to the Left Behind books which are, the authors insist, based on a "literal" interpretation of apocalyptic biblical passages in books like Revelation and Daniel. Those books were, like Radio Londres, directed to an audience in occupied territory and so they too relied on a kind of coded messaging. "The abomination that causes desolation" or "a beast coming out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads" are variations on the same kind of resistance code as "the dice are on the table" or "there is a fire at the insurance agency" — a way of talking about the oppressive powers ruling the land that could be understood by the oppressed without getting them all arrested and killed.

Tim LaHaye's resolve to interpret this code "literally" is thus doomed to create a comically warped understanding of what these books are really saying. He's looking for literal dice on a literal table, a literal fire at a literal insurance agency.

Had someone with LaHaye's "literal" hermeneutic been in charge of a French Resistance cell, the "personal messages" would have produced disastrous results. His cell would have missed D-Day entirely, studiously practicing their literal violins in anticipation of a literal autumn concert.

That same clueless literalness, of course, is the basis for LaHaye's entire "prophetic" scheme. Premillennial dispensationalism is an elaborate, complex structure constructed for the sole purpose of explaining coded messages as literal truths, and the Left Behind series is nothing more than a depiction of the absurdities that result.

Anyway. One benefit from the romantic comedy debacle unfolding in these pages is that it gives Jerry Jenkins some much-needed urgency. He no longer seems to be stalling for time — and then Buck drove to the airport, and then Buck walked through the airport, and then Buck got on the plane … — but actually seems eager to move the story forward.

Buck's condo door nudged a stack of boxes when he entered. He'd have to send Alice a thank-you note. He only wished he had time to start arranging his home office, but he had to get going if he hoped to catch Chloe before the meeting.

This is just to underscore that he's thinking only of Chloe, regarding Alice with nothing more than a tangential professional courtesy and chastity. And anybody who says different, unjustly accusing him otherwise, is just a shrewish harpy who deserves to be put in her place, to be humiliated into a properly wifely submission.

He arrived at New Hope about half an hour early and saw Rayford's car parked next to Bruce's. Good, he thought, everybody's here. … He hurried into the office and knocked on Bruce's door as he stepped in. Bruce and Rayford looked up awkwardly. It was just the two of them.

"I'm sorry, I guess I'm a little early."

"Yeah, Buck," Bruce said. "We'll be a little while and we'll see you at eight, all right?"

Bruce is the leader of the Tribulation Force, a resistance cell sworn to fight against the Antichrist. Buck has just returned from an all-day, face-to-face meeting with that same Antichrist in which he learned of the evil one's master plans. But still, Rayford was here first, so Buck will have to wait his turn.

Buck settles in the lobby to wait for Chloe and we pick up the story from Rayford's point of view. Jenkins is so eager in this chapter to get to the impending rom-com collision that he abandons the multiple-blank spaces and horizontal line he's used up until now to distinguish between Buck and Rayford sections — switching back and forth here with a mere one-line gap.

Rayford, it turns out, arrived early to discuss his Air Force One job-offer. He's certain that Nicolae Carpathia is behind this offer, somehow, both manipulating him into taking it and conspiring against his doing so, and he's come to his pastor for advice on how to refuse this trap laid for him by Satan.

Bruce's response thus seems rather odd:

"Well, first of all," Bruce told Rayford, "congratulations. Regardless of what you decide to do, that is a fantastic honor and an accomplishment. I can't imagine many pilots turning down this offer."

Rayford sat back. "Truthfully, I haven't spent much time thinking of it that way. I guess I should be grateful."

Bruce nodded. "I guess you should."

Yeah. When the devil takes you to a very high mountain and shows you all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor and says, "All this I will give you if you will bow down and worship me" then the least you could do is try to show a little gratitude. That's a fantastic honor and it's hard to imagine many people turning down such an offer.

"You also have to consider whether this opportunity is from God," Bruce continues.

And here some of the macro-weirdness of these books begins to manifest itself on the micro-level. Nicolae Carpathia is the Antichrist, bent on defying God and carrying out the will of Satan. But at the same time every evil thing Nicolae does and even his very elevation to the role of Antichrist is also all part of God's big master plan for the End Times. (And when it comes right down to it, the destruction and suffering Nicolae wreaks is nothing compared to the divine wrath about to be unleashed by L&J's vengeful deity.) In the world of Left Behind, Satan's evil plan is just one aspect of God's master plan. Interfere with Satan and you interfere with God. Cooperate with Satan and you're just serving God.

And it turns out that this is just as true for individuals in these books as it is for the grand sweep of post-history. Nicolae's devious scheme to have Rayford and Buck come work for him also turns out to be God's plan for our heroes. Thus when Satan's emissary creates a new job opportunity for Rayford, Bruce advises him to consider "whether this opportunity is from God."

"I can't shake the thought that this opportunity with the president is a unique one you should seriously consider. Imagine the impact you might have on the president of the United States."

"Oh, I don't th
ink the president and his pilot interact much, if at all."

[Half a page or so of this, culminating in …]

"… Think of the privilege of telling the leader of the free world about Christ."

This entire conversation is insane. It's as though Bruce, Rayford and the authors have all forgotten that our setting is the End Times and the reign of the Antichrist's OWG. Buck has explained to them how Nicolae has already appointed his 10 princes to rule over their 10 realms in service of his One World Government. Bruce just finished preaching a sermon about this very thing — about how whatever authority the president of the United States might seem still to wield is illusory, because under the rule of the Antichrist, there is no longer such a thing as the United States and no longer any meaningful office as the presidency. President Fitzhugh cannot be "the leader of the free world," because the free world is long gone — that world evaporated along with Irene and Raymie and Bruce's wife and kids.

And yet here we have Bruce and Rayford discussing the potential influence Rayford might wield in this position as though the members of the Tribulation Force had no idea what living in LaHaye's End Times even means. Bizarre.

What's really going on here becomes clearer when Rayford abruptly changes the subject:

"Meanwhile," Rayford said, "let me bounce something else off you. How do you feel about romance during this point of history?"

Bruce suddenly looked uncomfortable. "Good question," he said. "Frankly, I know why you're asking. …"

Sadly, Bruce does not go on to say, "But I'm sorry, I just don't feel that way about you."

Instead, he goes on at great length about the:

"… Aching emptiness that I feel after losing my wife. I've thought about whether I'm to go on alone through the next seven or so years. I don't like the prospect. … I suppose I harbor some hope that God might bring someone new into my life. Right now is too soon, of course. I'll grieve and mourn my wife for a long time, as if she were dead. I know she's in heaven, but she's dead to me. There are days when I feel so alone I can hardly breathe."

I still can't make sense of this recurring insistence that "in heaven" and "dead" are exclusive, separate categories, but that's not the most disturbing or confusing thing in this speech. I have to agree with that "right now is too soon" bit. Bruce's wife disintegrated less than a month ago and he seems to have spent a good bit of that month thinking about how quickly he might replace her with the next Mrs. Barnes.

I don't want to suggest that there is a right way and a wrong way to grieve, or that there ought to be a one-size-fits-all timeline for when it becomes appropriate to think about moving on. But still. Signing up for e-Harmony while you're still dressed for your wife's funeral strikes me as a bit unseemly.

Not that there was a funeral, mind you, which may be part of Bruce's problem. The artificial distinction between "Raptured to heaven" and "dead" prevents Bruce and Rayford from the necessary rituals of mourning that might allow them a healthier means of coping with their loss.

The authors insist that it makes sense for their "Tribulation saints" to maintain this artificial distinction, but they never bother to explain why the rest of the world goes along with it as well. There are no funerals or vigils or days of mourning anywhere. The atheists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus and all the others who supposedly don't know about or believe in the RTC Rapture nonetheless all seem to have concluded, somehow, that their vanished children are "in heaven" but not "dead," and therefore ought not to be mourned. Whether the life insurance companies have also accepted this weird distinction, or whether it would even be legal for them to do so, is never addressed.

But anyway, the subject of romance arises here quite naturally from the subject of Rayford's career options because these two ideas are inextricably bound, in the minds of L&J's evangelical readership, with the question of God's Will For Your Life. That readership is, of course, not living in the post-Rapture world in which Bruce and Rayford find themselves, but rather is living here and now in our world. And since Bruce's approach to career and romantic advice is meant to guide that readership, his advice is shaped to conform to its context and not to his own or Rayford's.

This idea of God's Will For Your Life is not an easy thing to describe to those not wholly immersed as natives of the American evangelical subculture. I doubt I can fully convey the meaning or pervasive influence of this notion for those inside that world, but let me try.

God's Will For Your Life is far narrower and more specific than the notion of a divine "plan" that you might glean from Campus Crusade's Four Spiritual Laws tract — "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." (Or, as those of us more critical of Campus Crusade's genitalized Gospel sometimes put it, "God loves you and has a horrible plan for your wife.")

What it means, rather, is that your life and happiness have been mapped out ahead of time with a suffocating specificity. There is one job — one particular, singular job — which is God's Will For Your Life. And there is one potential spouse — one particular, singular spouse — who is GWFYL. And thus every decision which might in any way lead toward or away from either of those must be pondered with an agonizing consideration of just what is GWFYL. Every date (or "courtship"), your choice of college (or Bible College) and choice of major is a fork in the road leading closer to or farther from this narrowly appointed happiness.

This notion of GWFYL transforms the process of living into something like the fairy-tale path through the haunted forest — the Mirkwood trail or the Yellow Brick Road. Except that those paths in those stories are always clearly marked, whereas the trail of GWFYL is invisible and inscrutable and can only be intuited by some visceral sense of spiritual leading.

The idea is a kind of spiritualized version of the romantic pipe-dream of The One — and it tends to produce the same fearfully tentative, second-guessing approach to living. There's a bit of good advice in Conor Oberst's "First Day," in which he sings, "I'd rather be working for a paycheck / than waiting to win the lottery." But the notion of GWFYL or of waiting for The One turns that advice upside-down, viewing such practical work as a dangerous distraction from one's lottery-playing duties.

One reason I don't much care for this idea of GWFYL is that I've seen its effect on young evangelicals forced to shoulder its crushing burden. No one can live like that, governed by an ultimate-stakes gamble based on unwritten rules, offering no assurance other than that the potential for inadvertent-but-damning disobedience lurks in every decision.

Just as importantly, I don't care for the way this notion takes something explicitly clear and invariable — the will of God — and twists it into something mysterious, ever-changing and idiosyncratic.

What is God's Will For Your Life? the prophet asks, and then answers his own question, "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." That's from the Bible — a book that's rather repetitive and unambiguous on the question of GWFYL. On God's will for everyone's life, actually. See for example here or here or here or here or here or here or here.

But somehow none of that ever enters into evangelical conversations of career and romantic prospects and GWFYL. Whatever it is supposed to mean, GWFYL doesn't seem to have much of anything to do with acting justly or loving mercy or breaking the chains of oppression or setting the captives free or feeding the hungry or comforting the sick or giving freely to those in need or planting gardens or ensuring that the city prospers or loving one's neighbor as oneself.

So it's not surprising that when Bruce asks Rayford to "consider whether this opportunity is from God," he doesn't have any of that in mind either.

Bruce continues in the same vein for a bit, getting about halfway through an author-insert sermonette on finding the One True Mate who is GWFYL before Rayford suddenly realizes that this stock advice for readers doesn't really apply to his daughter and the quite different context she faces here in the post-Rapture world of Tribulation Force.

"I'm just curious about the logistics," Rayford explained. "If two people fell in love, what should they do about it?"

Logistically? Well, I guess you could look at these diagrams …

He quickly clarifies:

"Does the Bible say anything about marriage during this period?"

"Not specifically," Bruce said, "as far as I can tell. But it doesn't prohibit it, either."

Bruce is right about that. The Bible never specifically condones nor prohibits any behavior during this seven-year End Times Tribulation — although I tend to think that's mainly because "this period" isn't something the Bible discusses at all. What does the Bible say specifically about this particular dispensation that the premillennial dispensationalists just made up? Not a whole lot.

"And kids? Would it be prudent for a couple to bring children in this world now?"

"I haven't thought about that," Bruce said. "Would you want another child at your age?"

"Bruce! I'm not looking to marry again. I'm thinking of Chloe. I'm not saying she has any prospects, but if she did …"

Bruce squeaked back in his chair. "Imagine having a baby now," he said. "You wouldn't have to think about junior high school, let alone high school or college. You would be raising that child, preparing him or her for the return of Christ in just a few years."

I'm squeaking back in my own chair, here, trying to figure out what such "preparation" would entail. We've already seen, from the rapturing of every prepubescent child on earth, that LaHaye doesn't believe a 7-year-old can be capable of understanding the meaning of "the return of Christ." No child born into "this period" would ever reach the "age of accountability" at which LaHaye thinks they might be held responsible for being either prepared for unprepared for such an event. Such children would seem to be doomed to a kind of spiritual limbo throughout their short lives.

And, as Rayford notes, the Tribulation doesn't seem like a particularly child-friendly environment:

"You'd also be guaranteeing a child a life of fear and danger and a 75-percent chance of dying during the judgments to come."

Bruce rested his chin in his hand, elbow on the desk. "True enough," he said. "I'd have to advise a lot of caution, prayer and soul-searching before considering that."

Bruce is clearly torn. He seems convinced that "guaranteeing a child a life of fear and danger and a 75-percent chance of dying during the judgments to come" would be wrong. But on the other hand, he feels this "aching emptiness" and he can't face another seven years of feeling "so alone I can hardly breathe."

I think I may have a "logistical" solution for him. So, OK, where did we put those diagrams? …

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