TF: Last supper

TF: Last supper June 15, 2010

Tribulation Force, pp. 231 – 235

We're nearing the end of the largest section of this book — the part
involving Buck and Rayford agonizing over their respective
more-prestigious job offers.

Their new jobs place them closer to the center of the action
Antichrist-wise, allowing both to witness the global events that Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye want to portray
in these books. That narrative convenience accounts for the fact of
their respective job offers, but it can't account for why the authors
decided to spend more than half of this volume having both characters
agonize over the decision, vow not to take the jobs and insist that they
would never take the jobs before finally taking the jobs.

The only reason for all of that — the bulk of the inaction of
Tribulation Force thus far — is self-congratulation by proxy. It's not
enough for L&J to portray Buck as a great reporter and Rayford as a
great pilot. They must also be the best reporter and the best pilot.

And still that isn't enough. It has to be said, repeatedly, that no
other reporter or pilot can begin to compare or to compete with them.
Buck and only Buck can write cover stories and run the Antichrist's
Chicago operation and recognize that the unification of the world's
nations, languages, religions and currencies is newsworthy. Rayford and
only Rayford can be regarded as capable of piloting the president's
and/or the Antichrist's plane. Everyone everywhere
looking to hire a pilot must be shown to regard their possible choices
as either Rayford or some inadequate Not-Rayford.

This goes on for so long because the same insecurity that fuels this
piling on of superlatives about our heroes also means that the authors
can never be secure in knowing that they've fully conveyed the
incomparable awesomeness they're desperate to get across. The same
nagging sense of inadequacy that leads them to write such characters
also leads them to fear that their portrayal of those characters is
similarly inadequate. The result is the first 200+ pages of this book,
in which the promised fireworks of the apocalypse are put on hold so
that readers can be introduced to a parade of minor characters trotted
out just to assert that Buck/Rayford is the greatest reporter/pilot of
them all and that every other reporter/pilot is awestruck and jealous of
their mad skills.

Thus today we read of yet another phone call from Rayford's boss, Earl,
who sings Rayford's praises and pleads with him to take the Air Force
One job because if any other, lesser pilot were to get the gig it would
be a traumatizing injustice. This isn't the first time and it won't be
the last time that Earl has made this argument. And in the next chapter, his boss — the CEO of Pan-Continental Airlines — will be introduced
just to allow him to make the same argument too.

This is, again, Bad Writing. Which is to say it's boring. That's quite
an achievement considering the B-movie potential promised by the premise
of these books. John of Patmos re-imagined all the plagues of Egypt
striking the Roman Empire to bring about a new Exodus. John Nelson Darby
and Charles Scofield and Hal Lindsey, in turn, re-imagined John's
litany of plagues as prophecies of a "Great Tribulation" soon to strike
the entire world.

Make of that whatever you will, but it shouldn't be boring. It ought at
least to be entertainingly bad after the manner of a drive-in creature
feature. Giant bug movies may involve hack writing, hasty one-take
acting and laughable special effects, but the spectacle of a
50-foot-tall radioactive Katydid destroying Cleveland ought to be at
least somewhat diverting (even if it's rather obviously a guy in a Katydid costume smashing a bunch of miniatures). But the model for these books seems to be the slapdash second
feature — the kind with two reels of dull padding failing to provide any
anticipatory build-up before the disappointing third-reel climax.

We're now 200+ pages into the second book and only one horseman into the
apocalypse. We've covered nearly 700 pages of build-up and none of it
has included any actual building up. No foreboding or foreshadowing. No
sense of storm-clouds on the horizon. No palpable sense of impending
anything. With even a minimal effort along those lines we might have
been able to forgive this long slog preceding the proclamation — still
140 pages off — that "Thus begins the last terrible week of the Lord!"
We might even have been able to forgive the anticlimax of the as-it-is
unforgivable title card beginning the 18th chapter of this book:
"Eighteen months later."

But without any such buildup, the impression one gets from Tribulation
is that the "Great Tribulation" itself will be relentlessly dull
— seven years of phone calls and meetings with the Human Resources
department. Not with a bang but a whimper.

The whimpering in today's
passage comes from Earl:

"Rayford, can you come in?"

"When, Earl?"

"Right now. Big doings with the new Air Force One. Have you heard?"

"Yes, it's all over the news."

"You say the word, and you'll be flying that plane to Israel with
Nicolae Carpathia on board."

Earl explains — in more words, but no more subtly — that every pilot
in the world wants this job, but they all know it rightfully belongs to
Rayford should he deign to accept it. As in the nearly identical
conversation in the previous passage between Buck and Steve, Rayford
brusquely reasserts that he doesn't want the job while simultaneously
refusing to turn it down definitively. If he just said, "No, thank you,"
then people would stop calling him to tell him that he ought to take it
because he's the best-est best pilot that ever was. And where would we
be then?

There's a secondary purpose to this particular phone call from Earl.
He's asked Rayford to drop everything and come to the office, but
Rayford is in the middle of Family Time. This allows the authors to
recycle a stock lecture on the priorities of work and family, the
sacredness of Family Time and putting family first, etc., etc.

"Can you come in or not?"

"Not today, Earl. I'm in the middle of something here, and I'll have to
see you tomorrow."

"What's so important?"

"It's personal."

"What, you've got another deal cooking?"

"I'm cooking, but not another deal. I happen to be preparing dinner for
my daughter."

It's all about priorities, you see, family comes first. That's nice,
noble even, and I respect Rayford's choice here. But this particular
moralistic cliche still bugs me because this example, like nearly every
similar slogan, sermon or lecture, presumes that everyone has such a choice. Most
people don't. They don't have the job security and financial security
that Rayford enjoys, meaning that if the boss calls during Family Time,
then Family Time is over — otherwise it might be the last Family Time
the family will be able to afford for a long time.

It's true that for a privileged few, like Rayford, "putting family
first" might mean working less. But for most people, putting family
first means working as much as you can. A lot of fathers would love to
tell their bosses to wait until tomorrow because they're cooking dinner
for their daughters, but their more urgent priority is making sure that
her next meal is paid for.

I don't mean to single out L&J for criticism here. The same little lecture,
with the same presumption of affluence, is made all the time by people
of nearly every religious and political persuasion. It often includes
the trite platitude that, "No one ever lay on his deathbed wishing he'd
spent more time at the office."

Which is silly. Consider the long-term unemployed, for example. I'd bet
that's exactly what they'd be wishing. And I'm sure there are plenty of
people who found themselves headed to an early grave due to backbreaking
jobs who wished they'd spent their days doing something as cushy and
callous-free as "spending time at the office."

For those who can afford them, I suppose these moralistic platitudes are
true. But only for those who can afford them. If you're such a person,
then: 1) You might want to follow Rayford's example and deliberately set
aside time with your family free from the demands and distractions of
your career; and 2) You should also thank your lucky stars that the
universe has conspired to allow you to be one of the very, very few
people in such a position. (Don't ever forget this. I'm sure you're very
gifted and you've worked very hard. Good for you. But billions of
people work much, much harder and have little to show for it. And plenty
of gifted people never get the breaks you've gotten. There's a reason
it's called a "fortune," you know.)

What's strange about encountering this extremely familiar bit of
moralizing here, in this book, is that Rayford is in a very different
context from that of the audience at the local Christian Businessmen's
Prayer Breakfast. Rayford's world is ending. The clock is ticking and he
knows, with extreme certainty and precision, how very little time he
has left. One would think that would color a person's reflections on
finding the balance between family and career.

But weirdly, this doesn't seem to color any of Rayford's thoughts on
this matter. And Rayford, Buck, Bruce and Chloe don't ever seem to
engage in any reflection on this point. This is something that ought to
be constantly in the thoughts and actions of our heroes in the
Tribulation Force. They have all just gotten the news from the cosmic
oncologist and that news isn't good. It's terminal. Seven years, at
most. And it's going to get painful and ugly before the end.

I can't imagine how such news would change a person, but it seems
unimaginable for these four people to receive such news and not be changed at all. Yet it hardly ever comes up in this book.

That analogy of terminal illness isn't quite precise, of course,
beccause when we think of dying we think, inevitably, of what we will
leave behind — the things and the people we care about here, our memory
and legacy. The members of the Tribulation Force, however, are facing a
different situation. When they go, everyone and everything else goes
too. They don't have to worry about life insurance or drawing up a will
or finishing their memoirs or training their successors. There will be no successors, no one left to read those
memoirs, no one left to inherit their estates. No estates, no
legacies, no memories. Nothing.

Again, I can't begin to fathom how such knowledge would change a person
— how it would change both their agenda and their experience of that
agenda. But I cannot accept that anyone could be, like our four heroes,
unchanged by knowing it.

There's a funny bit in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in which
Arthur Dent struggles to come to grips with the fact that the Earth has
been destroyed:

There was no
way his imagination could feel the impact of the whole Earth having
gone, it was too big. He prodded his feelings by thinking that his
parents and his sister had gone. No reaction. He thought of all the
people he had been close to. No reaction. Then he thought of a complete
stranger he had been standing behind in the queue at the supermarket
before and felt a sudden stab — the supermarket was gone, everything in
it was gone. Nelson's Column had gone! Nelson's Column had gone and
there would be no outcry, because there was no one left to make an
outcry. …

England no longer existed. He'd got that — somehow he'd got it. He tried
again. America, he thought, has gone. He couldn't grasp it. He decided
to start smaller again. New York has gone. No reaction. He'd never
seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, had sunk
for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he
said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonalds, he thought.
There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald's hamburger. Arthur passed out.

Douglas Adams and Arthur Dent gave this more thought than L&J or
Rayford Steele ever do.

Rayford is just blithely making shrimp scampi for dinner, going
about this as though he hasn't just very recently learned that in about
seven years there will be no more shrimp, no more butter, no more
garlic. There will be no more cloves of garlic in the stands at the
farmer's market, no more farmer's market, no more farmers and no more
farms. There will be no more shrimp displayed on crushed ice at the
seafood store, no more seafood stores, no more ice, no more ocean.

How would you go about making and eating shrimp scampi if you knew that
to be true? It couldn't possibly make no difference to you.

I get that Rayford embodies L&J's shiny happy view of the End of the
World. They're focused on the positive side: Heaven is going to be better than
life on earth, so who cares about the end of life on earth? It's a good swap.

But I don't think I completely believe Tim LaHaye's aggressively
cheerful anticipation of the End of the World. The man lives in San
Diego. Go there some time if you get the chance. Go to Point Loma at
sunset and just look at it. Then see if there's any possible belief
system or construct that might tell you it was going to be destroyed
soon and you should be happy about that. I don't think such a belief
system is really possible.

Every once in a while some enterprising reporter gets a hold of the
financial statements or planning documents of some "Bible prophecy"
ministry and writes an expose on the life insurance policies and
long-term investments held by these people who claim to believe that the
world is about to end. It seems hypocritical. If they really believed
what they claim to believe, shouldn't they be short-selling the whole
world? Shouldn't they be, instead of investing, leveraging their
ministry with long-term balloon-payment loans?

But maybe it's not hypocrisy so much as simply denial. And maybe that
denial is necessary for them to go about their lives believing the
horrors they believe. Otherwise, they'd be unable to do even something
as simple as making shrimp scampi without breaking down and sobbing.

One of the more insidious aspects of the World's Worst Books is the way
they require the reader to embrace something like that kind of denial
just to keep turning the pages.

The page after Rayford's conversation with Earl, for example, relates
a brief conversation between Chloe and Buck as they meet by chance in
the church parking lot. It's not horrible. Parts of it seem like human
conversation. Jenkins even offers up a credible approximation of
flirting. Buck asks Chloe if she's free to talk later that night, after
the Trib Force meeting:

She shook her head. "I was up too late last night. Some guy, you know."


"Yeah. Couldn't get rid of him. Happens to me all the time."

That works. Or, rather, it would work if it weren't a conversation
between two people who have just learned that they have about seven
years to live and the world is about to begin its death throes. And if
there were still children.

But they ignore these things, so the reader has to ignore them too just
to follow along. And when they spend the bulk of their conversation
talking about Bruce and the flowers they suspect he sent Chloe, the
reader has to play along with this obsessive topic of conversation,
pretending it's as important as the authors and their characters make it
out to be over the coming pages. Bruce and the flowers dominate those
pages — more than the Antichrist, more than the coming plagues, more
than the imminent end of all flowers everywhere and of all the people
who grow them and give and receive them. And the reader has to play
along. "Yes, yes," one must say, "tell us more about Bruce and the flowers,
this seems like the most important thing to be reading about just now."

Chloe arrives home to the smell of shrimp scampi and rewards her dad
with the enthusiastic response he was hoping to see.

"Dad! What possessed you?

"I just got in touch with my feminine side," he said.

"Oh, please!" she groaned. "Anything but that!"

You see Chloe, like all women, even the ones who pretend to be
independent-minded Stanford students, secretly yearns for traditional
gender roles and stereotypes. Real women want real men who …

Oh, never mind. You start trying to unpeel all the layers of misogyny in
something like that and alps on alps arise. I haven't the time or the
energy here to enumerate, let alone discuss, all the many appalling
sentiments packed into that brief exchange.

And besides, the Antichrist is consolidating his power and fire is about
to start raining from the heavens as the world is destroyed, so don't
we have more pressing matters to discuss?

"And what about Bruce?"

She nodded. "What about Bruce?"

By the time Rayford and Chloe were doing the dishes, Rayford had heard
all about her awkward encounter with Bruce. "So he never owned up to
sending the flowers?" Rayford said.

It's all they talked about at dinner. Well, that and the big news about Air Force One.

Browse Our Archives