TF: Lying to Stan

TF: Lying to Stan May 4, 2010

Tribulation Force, pp. 207-212

I've only ever read one novel by Louis L'Amour, and it wasn't a western. The Walking Drum is a historical picaresque set in 12th-century Europe in which the hero, an astonishingly omnicapable fellow named Kerbouchard, wanders the world to — well, I forget why. The plot wasn't really the point.

What L'Amour was interested in was the world itself — the texture, details, culture and ideas of life in Paris and Constantinople in a time very different from our own. He was so interested in all that that I couldn't help but be interested too — so much so that 20 years later, when I've forgotten the plot of the story, I still recall scenes and details from that engaging tour of some of the many different ways we humans were going about being human in that time and those places. So consider this a recommendation of The Walking Drum as a kind of middlebrow alternative to The Name of the Rose.

I bring this up because Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins and fans of the Left Behind series sometimes refer to these books as "historical fiction" set in the future.*

That characterization reveals a lot about how L&J and their readers perceive this sequence of supposedly prophesied events. It reminds us that they view it as certainty. All of it — the harmless nuclear assault on Israel, the miraculous crops, the disappearance of every child on earth, the OWG -1 and the Antichrist's temporary treaty with that -1 — all are things they passionately and sincerely believe will happen in just the way they have described just as surely as anything in history has already happened.

But thinking of these books as "historical fiction" also reminds us of how utterly they fail at all those things we turn to historical fiction to enjoy discovering. They don't show us the world of this time and place brought to life, allowing us to explore or experience what it would be like to be there. Nor do they make us feel like eyewitnesses to history, showing us what it would be like to live through the epochal events we can otherwise only read about in history books (or, in this case, in books of "prophecy").

The previous book at least attempted a few scenes that tried to show what it meant to live in a post-Rapture world — the parking garage bit, or Jimmy Bats' abruptly begun-and-ended spree of anarchy. Those scenes failed miserably, but at least Jenkins tried to create a few such snapshots there. In Tribulation Force, he doesn't even bother to try. Apart from the skin-crawling romantic comedy subplot, this book has thus far entirely consisted of scenes in which the main characters talk to their bosses or to their prospective bosses. You get the sense that Jenkins' working title for Volume 2 was "See Me In My Office As Soon As You Get In."

This preoccupation with mundane office politics would be frustrating even if it weren't such an unnecessary distraction from what ought to have been an interesting premise. Here is a book centered on the least interesting, most annoying aspect of everybody's job.

I could see this working if it was played as satire — some kind of acerbic commentary on the mindless drudgery of corporate America, slogging on, unchanged in the slightest detail even as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse gallop by. Like in Shaun of the Dead or in the (unfortunately true) story of Michael "Brownie" Brown's FEMA sending firefighters and EMS personnel not to post-Katrina New Orleans, but to Atlanta for a two-day corporate training session on sexual harassment awareness and the history of FEMA. Jenkins isn't trying to present such a satire, but he comes pretty close. This is a book, after all, in which the Antichrist rises to power by cannily rearranging office furniture and offering an attractive salary and benefits package.

Anyway, as Buck's latest phone conversation with his boss stretches on for the rest of this chapter and into the next, Jenkins gives us more of the same: office politics, practiced as though the Event never happened.

Buck mentions to Stanton Bailey that "Steve" has invited him to Jerusalem for Nicolae's signing of the peace treaty with Israel. He doesn't agonize over lying to his boss this way, despite having spent much of an earlier chapter taking painstaking care to avoid lying to the Antichrist. He simply decides to tell his boss that the invitation came from Steve and not from Nicolae Carpathia himself. Nor does he mention that this invitation was made in person after Nicole paid his way to New York and offered him a job.

"We've got a slew of people going, Cameron. I was going to put the religion editor on the cover story."

"Jimmy Borland?"


"Well, first, I don't see it as a religious story, especially with the one-world religion meeting going on in New York at the same time, the Jews talking about rebuilding the temple, and the Catholics voting on a new pope. And this is going to sound self-serving, but do you really think Jimmy can handle a cover story?"

Buck spends half of the next chapter on the phone with this same Jimmy Borland, saying things like "I'm not your enemy" and apologizing to Jimmy for "unintentionally" giving him the mistaken impression that he was some kind of backstabber, belittling his co-workers to steal their assignments. So just keep in mind when we get to that part that Buck's exact words here were, "Jimmy Borland? … Do you really think Jimmy can handle a cover story?" And then be grateful that that one brown-nosing, backstabbing weasel you have to put up with in your workplace is at least not as duplicitous and conniving as Buck Williams.

Buck goes on to suggest that the bigger story now unfolding in Jerusalem is that of the Two Witnesses. He knows that the treaty signing marks the official LaHaye-appointed onset of the Great Tribulation and the official beginning of Nicolae's seven-year term as Ten-horned Beast, but he's angling for a cherry assignment from the boss, so he spends the next few pages downplaying the significance of this ceremony.

And suddenly, upon mention of the Two Witnesses, the formerly crafty, experienced newsman Stanton Bailey is transformed into a guffawing buffoon with zero news judgment. Abruptly, Stanton becomes just plain Stan Bailey. See if you can find any trace here of the silver-haired, sophisticated establishment executive we were introduced to in the previous book:

"Yeah, what's with those crazies? Those two said it wasn't going to rain in Israel for three and a half years, and so far it hasn't! That's a dry land as it is, but if they go that long without rain, everything's gonna dry up and blow away. How dependent is that scientist guy's — uh, Rosenzweig's — formula on rain?"

"I'm not sure, sir. I know it requires less rain than if you tried to grow without it, but I think there still has to be water from somewhere to make it work."

"I'd like to see Jimmy get an exclusive with those two," Bailey said, "but they're dangerous, aren't they?"


"Well, two guys tried to kill them and wound up dropping dead on the spot, and what was this thing the other day? A bunch of guys got burned up. People said those two called down fire from heaven!"

"Others were saying they breathed fire on them."

"I heard that too!" Bailey said. "That's some kind of halitosis problem, eh?"

The initial appearance of the two street preachers was, oddly, tre
ated as the biggest news since that thing with all the kids a few
weeks ago. The deaths of the trip-and-die guys was breathlessly chronicled in wall-to-wall CNN coverage. But now that the Two Witnesses are finally breathing fire (as we were promised in a literal reading of Revelation 11), news editors are bored and turn away.

Softened up by his own jokey dismissal of the newsworthiness of video proof of fire-breathing humans, Bailey agrees to take the story from Jimmy and give it to Buck.

Back in New York, Buck had been trying desperately to avoid having to cover this story. But then he prayed about it and asked God to guide him. Providentially, God directed him to the opportunity to undermine his colleague and steal the assignment. With such a clear sign from God, Buck knows he can't say no. The Lord truly works in mysterious ways.

Bailey offers to bump a photographer to make room for Buck on the Jerusalem trip.

Buck was eager for a photographer to get some supernatural evidence on film. "No, don't do that," he said.

This is confusing. Does he mean the "supernatural evidence" of the Two Witnesses breathing fire? Because it seems like the CNN crew videotaping those two 24/7 have already got that covered. And if he doesn't mean the Two Witnesses, why not? It seems to me that two bullet-proof, returned-from-the-dead prophets controlling the weather and breathing fire would be the sort of thing that would make the Amazing Randi say, "Fair enough, you win, here's the check."

To ensure a full complement of photographers on his Holy Ghost Hunters International expedition, Buck decides to tell Bailey about "Steve's" offer to fly him to Jerusalem as part of the official delegation.

"I don't know about that, Cameron. I'm impressed that they've apparently forgiven you for stiffing them last time, but how do you maintain objectivity when you're on their dime?"

"You have to trust me, sir. I have never traded favors."

"I know you haven't, and Plank knows you haven't. But does Carpathia understand journalism?"

"I'm not sure he does."

Well, somebody doesn't understand journalism, but I'm not thinking it's Nicolae who's the problem.

When Buck says he "never traded favors" he seems to be relying heavily on an imagined distinction between being bribed and being threatened. Several chapters of the last book, after all, detailed Buck's pursuit of a deal with Nicolae in which he agreed to bury the Stonagal story in exchange for a guarantee of his personal freedom. That quid-pro-quo arrangement sure sounds like "trading favors" to me. But maybe I don't understand journalism either.

Buck reveals another small drip of information about "Steve"/Nicolae's offer, still avoiding any mention of the whole Chicago Tribune job aspect of their conversation:

"He actually wants me to sit in on the signing as part of his delegation."

"That would be totally inappropriate."

"I know."

"Unless …"

Buck and Bailey agree that it would be "totally inappropriate" for Buck to become a member of Nicolae's official delegation while simultaneously covering that delegation as an objective journalist. So far, so good. Unless …

"Unless you could make it clear that you're not part of the delegation. … Maybe you wear a patch on your jacket that makes it obvious you're with Weekly."

"I could do that."

So OK, then. Patch on jacket, ethical problem solved.

"I'll spring for an extra ticket on a commercial flight before I'll see you go over there at U.N. expense. I don't want you owing Carpathia any favors, but there's not much I wouldn't do to see you peeking over his shoulder when he signs that treaty."

So there we go. All of our questions about this treaty have now been answered.

Except for the one about why this treaty even exists in the first place. Or why Israel seems to be the only nation excluded from Nicolae's OWG. And without this treaty, would the U.N. be at WAR with Israel? And were the authors misleading us in the previous book when they told us that Israel already was "at peace" with all her neighbors? And seeing how Israel just defeated a superpower (and Ethiopia) without lifting a finger, would they really feel any safer from a treaty like this? And what's with the seven-year expiration date? Why isn't Israel asking what the U.N. has planned for Year Eight? And what's the U.N.'s official explanation for pursuing this treaty? We know that Nicolae is pursuing the treaty so that he can rebuild the temple and then break the treaty and desecrate the temple, but that's not the official explanation, is it?

But apart from those, all of our questions about the treaty have been answered.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Historical fiction remains a popular genre among American evangelical Christian readers. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Ben Hur are still widely read among evangelicals. This popularity is due I think mainly to the fact that historical fiction is accepted and permitted in a way that most stories in a more contemporary setting are not. This factor of permission — of being allowed to read some books but not others — accounts for much of the ungodly popularity of the World's Worst Books as well.

The unofficial evangelical imprimatur for historical fiction can have some surprising consequences. Consider, for example, a book like The Scarlet Letter. If Hawthorne's tale had been written today, with a contemporary setting in which Hester Prynne wore jeans and raised Pearl in a trailer park outside of town, it would no doubt be condemned as offensive. But somehow all the "thees" and "thous" make it acceptable literary fare for evangelicals.

Hawthorne also benefits from reputation and age. Pre-20th-century "classics" are almost always permitted reading even in the most culturally sheltered evangelical and fundamentalist enclaves. This, like the loophole allowing historical fiction, can be exploited to sneak in all sorts of subversive volumes, from Austen to Dickens to Huckleberry Finn (yes, even Mark Twain, although Letters From the Earth would probably be pushing it).

And so, in the unlikely event that we can't find anything else to discuss in comments here, I'm soliciting suggestions for titles that might be smuggled past the unofficial evangelical censors as respectable, acceptable evangelical reading. This would include classics grandfathered in due to the patina of age and respectability or more contemporary historical fiction rendered magically acceptable due to period costumes and the assumption that most sins weren't invented until the 20th century.

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