TF: Morality and sex and all of that

TF: Morality and sex and all of that March 22, 2010

Tribulation Force, pp. 175-177

If you've ever been part of a small-group Bible study, then you're familiar with the routine of such sessions. After discussing the passage's "application" for our daily personal lives and before going around the circle to collect prayer requests, the leader usually takes a moment to check in with those members who spent the day in the lair of the Antichrist. You know, just casually checking in to see if they may have inadvertently betrayed the congregation to the embodiment of evil.

The Bible study in Bruce Barnes' office has now arrived at that moment:

Bruce turned to Buck. "How did your day go?" To Rayford, it seemed like an inside question.

"More to talk about than I can get into here," Buck said.

Rayford is jealous. Here he is in a closed executive session of the Tribulation Force — the inner circle of Bruce's inner circle — and yet it seems like Bruce and Buck have yet another circle of their own that's even more inner than that. He seems about to protest this point, to suggest that it's OK to keep secrets from Loretta and the rest of the congregation, but not from him, when Chloe changes the subject:

"More to talk about than I can get into here," Buck said.

"No kidding," Chloe snapped. It was the first thing she had said.

Buck glanced at her and said, "I'll debrief you tomorrow, Bruce, and then we can talk about it here tomorrow night."

"Oh, let's talk about it now," Chloe said. "We're all friends here."

Her snippy tone would be entirely appropriate if she actually knew what it was that Bruce and Buck were talking about. Buck, a member of this secret four-person resistance cell sworn to oppose the Antichrist, spent his afternoon ad-libbing his way through an interview with that very same mind-reading Beast. He put all of their lives in jeopardy without consulting the group and he came back with nothing to show for it.

But that's not why she's upset with Buck here.

Rayford, for his part, is embarrassed by his daughter's harsh tone:

Rayford wished he could shush his own daughter, but she was an adult. If she wanted to press an issue, regardless of how she came across, that was her prerogative.

Step back for a moment to let that sink in. He "wished he could shush his own daughter" because she's getting ready to tell off Buck Williams. This same daughter has spent the last two days in tears after learning that this man who had seemed interested in her was secretly engaged — that he was, it seemed, already living with his fianceé. And when his daughter begins to confront Buck about this, Rayford "wished he could shush" her.

What kind of father thinks like that — instinctively siding with the man who made his daughter cry? As we'll see next week, this gets worse.

"You don't even know where I was today," Buck told her, clearly puzzled.

"But I know who you were with."

The authors seem to wish they could shush Chloe too. Can't she see that poor, innocent, falsely accused Buck is "clearly puzzled"?

Rayford saw the glance Buck shot at Bruce, but he didn't understand it. Obviously, something had transpired between the two of them that wasn't public knowledge yet. Could he have told Chloe that Buck met with Carpathia?

Did I miss something here? As far as I can tell, Rayford shouldn't know any more than Chloe does about Buck's secret trip to New York. So that's a pretty amazing guess on his part.

The authors take a few more paragraphs to reaffirm Buck's innocence and to convey their dismay (and Rayford's and Bruce's) over what they regard as Chloe's inappropriate hostility. But then the conversation takes an oddly realistic turn: "I have a question and a prayer request for tonight," she says. "I'm wondering what you think about dating relationships during this time."

I was joking above about small-group Bible studies, but in all seriousness this very thing will be familiar to anyone who has participated in such a group: The passive-aggressive prayer-request accusation. This is how we evangelicals gossip and sometimes how we argue — via the loaded prayer request.

"I just feel we ought to be praying for Cheryl at this time." "Why?" "Oh, you haven't heard? …"

Or, "I just want to pray that God would give me a spirit of mercy, because someone has treated me unfairly and I'm just having a hard time finding forgiveness in my heart toward this person right now. …"

It can get really nasty without ever getting impolite. The description and implementation of this tactic here in Tribulation Force rings true, even if it seems terribly out of character for Chloe to be doing this.

"You're the second person who's asked me that today," Bruce said. "We must be lonely people." Chloe snorted, then scowled at Buck.

She must assume it was Buck who asked Bruce that earlier, Rayford thought.

Throughout this scene, Chloe's behavior toward Buck closely mirrors his behavior earlier toward Verna. The authors cheered and applauded Buck's every snort and scowl in that earlier scene, but here they go out of their way to tell us that Chloe's behavior is unacceptable. (The double standard here is only partly due to the fact that Buck is a man and Chloe is a woman. It's also partly due to the fact that Verna is a woman and Buck is a man.)

Bruce agrees to address the topic of "dating relationships" in the Great Tribulation at their next meeting, but Chloe isn't done yet:

"And can you add to it what the rules are for morality for new believers?" Chloe said.

"Excuse me?"

"Talk about how we're supposed to live, now that we call ourselves followers of Christ. You know, like morality and sex and all of that."

And there you have it. Morality is about sex. Morality means sex and it only means sex. Or, rather, morality means refraining from sex. "Moral" questions have to do with what one may or may not do with one's genitals. This is, for the authors, all you need to know about "how we're supposed to live" and all you need to know about "following Christ": Don't have sex outside of marriage.

It would take volumes just to list the ways in which this view distorts and shrivels the meaning of morality (and the meaning of sex), just to name or identify all the things this leaves out from the matter of what is good or "how we're supposed to live" and all the things it leaves out from the matter of what is not good or how we're not supposed to live.

And of course many volumes have been written critiquing this stunted notion of morality and offering a more comprehensive, holistic, practical and human vision for "how we're supposed to live." We don't have to repeat that critique here. (Some suggested authors who do a good job on the subject: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Paul, James.)

So what I'd like to highlight instead is how this little vignette illustrates the way this morality=genitals concept prevents those who adopt it from having any meaningful notion of sexual ethics.

Despite her father and the authors wanting to shush Chloe here for lashing out at Buck, her behavior makes sense given what she believes to be true. From where she's sitting, it seems she has bee
n betrayed and misled — that she has had her emotions toyed with by someo
ne who was trying to take advantage of her. Her misunderstanding of the Alice situation may be a mistake, but given that mistake her actions here have a certain emotional logic.

But, this being a book by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, that emotional logic is contradicted by the words the authors give Chloe to say. She isn't allowed to feel betrayed or to express anger over that betrayal. She is only allowed to feel and express an abstract indignation at Buck's perceived immorality.

The authors seem to think they're doing her a favor here. They don't think it's unflattering to portray Chloe as a prudish busybody. Rather, they imagine that by having her focus her anger on the sinfulness of Buck's premarital cohabitation, they're actually making her appear more virtuous. (Indignation over the sins of others is, for the authors, the hallmark of virtue.) They're also trying to protect her virtue. They can't allow Chloe to seem upset that she had been falsely led on by Buck because that would imply that she had been led on — that she was the sort of girl who might be led in a direction in which no virtuous woman would ever allow herself to be led.

Chloe's angry response here is confined to the terms of the authors' narrowly defined, or almost nonexistent, sexual ethic. What that ethic says is that sex is wrong. Sex is always wrong unless you're married and you're having sex with your spouse (in which case sex is always right). Chloe can't get upset over Buck's apparent betrayal because the idea of betrayal doesn't fit into the binary married-good/unmarried-bad sexual ethic of the authors.

To the authors, sexual betrayal is wrong because it is sexual — exclusively because it is sexual — and not because it involves betrayal. Sexual infidelity is wrong because it is sexual, not because it is infidelity. Exploitative and predatory and abusive sex are wrong because of the sex, not because of the exploitation or the predation or the abuse.

This binary married/unmarried sex ethic leaves people like the authors ill-equipped to articulate or to think about any of the other, more significant considerations that ought to be part of a mature ethical framework. And that can lead to some monstrous conclusions when people try to apply such an inadequate binary ethic to a matter such as rape. Or when, consulting this binary ethic, they find themselves unable to condemn anything a husband might wish to do to his wife.

Bruce Barnes, speaking on behalf of the authors, has nothing to offer beyond this binary ethic:

"I don't think it'll come as any great shock to you to know that the rules that applied before the Rapture still apply. I mean, this could be a short lesson. We're called to purity."

And "purity" here translates, roughly, into "abstinence until marriage." Taken as an exclusive rule, that has proven to be an inadequate approach to sex education. It is even less adequate as a sexual ethic or, worse still, as the entirety of morality and how we're supposed to live and all that.

"We're called to purity. I'm sure it won't surprise you –"

"It might not be so obvious to all of us," Chloe said.

"We'll deal with it tomorrow night then," Bruce said. "Anything else for right now?"

Before anyone said anything or even offered closing prayer requests, Chloe said, "Nope. See you tomorrow night then." And she left.

If only the authors had allowed Chloe to express human-type emotions in this scene. If she'd been allowed to be hurt and angry over Buck's alleged betrayal rather than just being offended by his failure to meet the Purity Standard, then her abrupt departure here might have been kind of cool. But as it is, not so much.

Her behavior in these pages is another place where I wish I could believe Jenkins was actually trying something subtle. It's almost possible here to impose a reading on this section that interprets her focus on Buck's alleged impurity as a mask for the more personal wound of betrayal she's feeling — the real source of her anger. That would be a realistic, human response — a way for her to strike back at Buck without giving him the satisfaction of her acknowledging that he had gotten to her personally. But Jenkins gives us enough clear cues that her indignation is meant to be genuine, and he provides nothing to indicate that she really is nursing a sense of betrayal.

And, again, the last thing LaHaye and Jenkins would ever want to suggest would be that the extravagant indignation of the virtuous might sometimes — or often, or almost always — be a pious disguise for nasty retaliation in response to a misperceived personal insult.

The authors are wearing that disguise, so they'd prefer not to draw attention to it.

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