TF: I'm gonna take you by surprise and make you realize

TF: I'm gonna take you by surprise and make you realize January 4, 2011

Tribulation Force, pp. 310-312

Alone in the pilot's living quarters on Air Force One, Rayford Steele reflects on his new circumstances:

How proud Irene would have been of this moment, when he had the top job in the flying world. But to him it meant little, though he felt in his spirit that he was doing what God had led him to do.

I'd have thought the "top job in the flying world" would have involved working for NASA rather than for the president of Romania, but then I'm not a pilot.

It also strikes me as odd that ferrying the Antichrist around the planet is what Rayford thinks "God had led him to do." In one of my favorite songs, Mark Heard sings "Hang onto the wheel for the Highway to Hell / Needs chauffeurs for the powers that be," but I never took that as him advising me that it was God's will to take the job.

Rayford's evidence for God's "leading" here consists of two factors: 1) The Antichrist offered him a job; and 2) Rayford "felt in his spirit" that he should take it. The latter is subjective and dubious and not to be unquestioningly trusted even if you're the most sanctified saint who ever lived. And the former doesn't so much belong in the category of "God's leading" as it does in the category of "temptation."

I don't think either the authors or the members of their Tribulation Force appreciate that temptation doesn't always announce itself as temptation, doesn't always look like what it is. But that's not really the problem here. The temptation to which Rayford is succumbing here looks exactly like temptation and not like anything else. Rayford is lying here, basking in the prestige and luxury of his position, congratulating himself and never questioning why what he "felt in his spirit" as God's leading should be so remarkably congruent with the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life.

Most of this book has dealt with the protagonist's glacial acceptance of their role as deputies of the Antichrist and with their and the authors' rationalizing that service as somehow the will of God. So we've already discussed quite a bit the practical aspects of this — the potential advantages of such jobs for espionage and sabotage on behalf of the resistance and the utter failure of both Rayford and Buck to even imagine, let alone act on, that opportunity. But we haven't addressed quite as much the spiritual peril of these job offers or the way that peril is compounded by the self-serving rationalization that working for the Antichrist might be what God wants you to do.

This is a rather important point because it's the most realistic aspect of these books so far. Nearly all of the action in this story is implausible and impossible, but this is something that can and will happen to every person who reads these books and to every person now reading this blog.

At some point in your life, the Antichrist is going to offer you a job.

Don't take it.

And especially don't delude yourself into imagining that taking it might actually be God's will because, conveniently, God's agenda for you and the Antichrist's agenda seem to perfectly overlap. The job offer itself is a trap set for you by others. The rationalizing delusion is a trap set for you by yourself. Just say no.

Rayford's delusion here might be the stuff of a better novel. He's supremely confident in the infallibility of his spirit-feelings, even when those feelings are leading him to become a henchman of the Beast. That smug confidence is the stuff of classic tragedy — hubris, then a precipitous fall. I'm picturing a story in which Rayford is portrayed as someone like Alec Guinness' Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, enthusiastically devoting himself to the work of the enemy with lots of grand, self-congratulatory speeches right up until that final horrified "What have I done?"

But of course this isn't a David Lean film or a Pierre Boulle novel. It's a slap-dash piece of pulp-heresy by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, and for LaHaye & Jenkins, hubris doesn't precede a fall. They regard it, instead, as a sign of godliness.

Rayford calls Chloe from the airplane:

They had discussed that the plane-to-ground communications were likely under surveillance, so there would be no disparaging talk about Carpathia or anyone else in his orbit. And they would not mention Buck by name.

Their clever scheme for protecting Buck's identity involves dialogue like this:

"I miss you already. I wish I could be there."

"I know who you miss, Chloe."

"I miss you too, Dad."

"Ah, I'll be chopped liver to you within a month. I can see where you and what's-his-name are going."

Then the authors suddenly remember that Rayford gets married on page 425 of this book and here we are on page 312 and so they'd better get on with introducing his love interest, even if it comes across as kind of abrupt and out-of-the-blue:

"Bruce … got a strange phone call from some woman named Amanda White, claiming to have known Mom. She told Bruce she met Mom at one of the church's home Bible study groups and only just remembered her name. She said it came to her because she knew it sounded like iron and steel."

"Hm," Rayford said. "Irene Steele. Guess I never thought of it that way. What'd she want?"

"She said she finally became a Christian, mostly because of remembering things Mom said at that Bible study, and now she's looking for a church."

So we're told that Amanda — Rayford's soon bride-to-be — became a Christian due to her pre-Rapture conversations with Irene Steele.

I'm not buying it. It doesn't make sense.

First off, what was unsaved Amanda doing regularly attending a home Bible-study group? The authors present this as something completely ordinary, as though lots of people who aren't already Christians do this, but I doubt they've ever seen more than a handful of such cases in all their combined decades of experience in evangelical churches.

If you're reading this you may be, like me, an evangelical Christian who has spent many an evening at such a small-group home Bible study. If so, do you recall encountering any regulars at such meetings who were not also themselves already evangelical Christians? Me neither.

You may also be reading this as someone who is not an evangelical Christian and who has never been a member of such a weekly home Bible-study group. If so, has it ever occurred to you to commit to spending a couple of hours every Tuesday evening hanging out with a bunch of evangelical Christians, studying the Bible and taking turns praying? Probably not.

So why do the authors off-handedly suggest that this is a routine practice rather than something so rare as to be virtually unheard of?

I think it arises from the insubstantial, contentless notion of discipleship that characterizes many American evangelical churches, particularly those like LaHaye's in which an obsession with "prophecy" leads to an almost exclusively otherworldly focus. ("Otherworldly" here meaning roughly what's sometimes pithily described as "So heavenly minded you're no earthly good." See earlier: "In the sweet by and by.")

For those who hold to such an otherworldly faith, just about the only legitimate act for Christians here in this world is evangelism — proselytizing or "witnessing" in order to win new converts. For these otherworldly believers even the most basic acts of spiritual formation and discipleship — Bible study or Sunday worship — must be legitimized by pretending that they are mainly something else, that they are mainly about evangelism. That's not what those things are supposed to be about, and pretending that this is what they're for leads to some rather absurd rituals.

Sunday worship turns into a pretext for weekly altar calls as otherworldy pastors can imagine no other meaning to "preaching the gospel" than bringing every message back to an introductory invitation for new converts. They give this same introductory invitation each week in sanctuaries filled with the familiar faces of lifelong believers. As awkward as that ritual can be, it's less absurd than the idea suggested here — that a home Bible-study group consisting of a half-dozen or so devout believers is somehow "really" about outreach to the unconverted.

Such absurdities are an inevitable consequence of contentless otherworldly faith. It reduces Christianity to something like a computer virus — a program that does nothing other than replicate itself ceaselessly. I sometimes call this "Amway without the soap" or "Amway without the vitamins," because it seems like a pyramid-marketing scheme, but one without any actual product. Such a "Christian" is a conversion machine programmed to create other conversion machines which will, in turn, go forth to create still more conversion machines. But none of them seems to know or care or question just what it is they're being converted into.

Anyway, the notion of faithless Amanda faithfully attending home Bible-study sessions is strange enough, but it becomes even harder to believe that Irene was the cause of her conversion when we read this next bit:

"She said she finally became a Christian, mostly because of remembering things Mom said at that Bible study, and now she's looking for a church. She wondered if New Hope was still up and running."

"Where's she been?"

"Grieving her husband and two grown daughters. She lost them in the Rapture."

OK, so Amanda's husband and her daughters were rapture-obsessed RTCs. Hardly a day of her life would have gone by without being told by her spouse or by one of her children that Jesus was coming soon, any day, any moment. When that happened, they told her, they would vanish into thin air — every believer and innocent child would disappear in the twinkling of an eye — and she would be left behind with the other unbelievers.

And then that happened. It happened just exactly the way her husband and her daughters had told her it would. Amanda found herself with an empty house and with explicit, overwhelming proof that her husband had been right and her daughters had been right and that she had been wrong for not listening to her husband and her daughters.

But in the Steele-o-centric universe of Left Behind, the proof of seeing the rapture occur and the lifelong testimony of her own husband and daughters cannot be allowed to be the reason for Amanda's conversion. Those things apparently didn't persuade her as much as dimly remembered "things [Irene Steele] said."

"Your mom was that instrumental in her life, and yet she didn't remember her name?"

"Go figure," Chloe said.

This is meant as a pep talk, a bit of encouragement for the conversion-machine pyramid marketers of LaHaye's contentless otherworldly faith. It may seem like all of your witnessing and proselytizing is having no effect, the authors are telling them, but unbeknownst to you, your words will actually prove to be "instrumental" in others' lives.

That neighbor who always ducks back inside when she sees you coming? Someday your words will get through to her and she will be grateful to you. That waitress at the Applebee's you go to after church, the one who always looks disappointed when you sit in her section? She may not appreciate you now, but some day you'll be the most important person in her life. Whether or not she even remembers your name, she will be eternally grateful that you left her those evangelistic tracts instead of the ephemeral cash tips left behind by other diners.

This desperate self-replicating virus of contentless conversion may seem frustrating and pointless and unrewarding now, but just you wait. One day, when you arrive in the next world, it will turn out that you were secretly instrumental. Go figure.

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  • @Brin (not Meir): But…but that doesn’t make any sense even if you accept the premises.
    Even if racism was a thing of the past, we should still learn about it to try and keep it a thing of the past. “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it” and suchlike.

    Actually, their response helps one to understand why right now Americans are bogged down in a war in a land that has defeated mighty empires in the past. Many Americans (certainly those of the culture from which my students came) don’t think that they have anything at all to learn from the past. They are modern and exceptional and dammit it is just rude and mean to even suggest that they might make the kind of mistakes that people in the past did.
    And I am hardly exaggerating.
    This attitude is tied up with why they have trouble realizing that racism still exists. As they see it, Americans like them (non Emperor Palpatine, mustache-twirling villains) could never BE racist. The past happened because people weren’t educated and well-bathed and didn’t have the Internet or cell-phones. Nothing to learn from that, nothing to learn.

  • @Jason: Thank you. Thank you especially for doing rather than just complaining.

  • Darth Ember

    I can’t wait til my son is ready for OWL. (UU sex ed).
    And here, I was imagining Wizarding Sex Ed. Which I imagine involves uterine protective charms.

    It still might be. UU = Unseen University sex ed? (Which would consist of ‘women or magic, pick one.’)

    True, I guess. I’m just used to people holding the assumption that even virgins will eventually want sex, even if they’ve not got around to it. Because “everyone wants sex, right? Or else they’re repressed/in denial/a prude.”
    Which has led to me at times feeling like I don’t quite… count. Not being interested in sex is not automatically a dysfunction or symptom thereof. *grumble*

  • Brin (not Meir)

    >Because “everyone wants sex, right? Or else they’re repressed/in denial/a prude.”<
    What's wrong with being a repressed prude?
    If they tried to force others to be like them, then that would be wrong. As a person who suffers from heterosexuality, I can say from personal experience it’s not for everyone. Being at war with your own sexuality is hard, and ought to be freely chosen.
    (This has been a public service message from the Prudes for Peaceful Co-Existence.)

  • Darth Ember

    Brin, ‘prude’ generally suggests a general air of “I don’t like to think about sex, so you shouldn’t either!” At least to me, the word carries that implication.
    What do you mean by ‘at war with your own sexuality,’ though? I’m not quite understanding that.

  • hapax

    And here, I was imagining Wizarding Sex Ed.
    I think I first saw this from someone here. I passed it on to my kids, who both said it was far more informative and accurate than the classes they received in school.

  • Brin (not Meir)

    >’prude’ generally suggests a general air of “I don’t like to think about sex, so you shouldn’t either!” At least to me, the word carries that implication.What do you mean by ‘at war with your own sexuality,’ though?<
    I often use military metaphors, describing my relationship with my (rather anthropomorphised) sexuality as the leaders of two opposing sides of a war.
    Battles (erotic dreams, mostly), weapons (willpower, David Tennant…)

  • (Some servers I’ve talked to like working for tips, they point out on a good day with generous tippers they can take home a lot more than minimum wage. This is especially true of servers who are young and attractive, or who are especially good at building rapport with customers, or where alcohol is being served in quantities that lubricate the passage of money from the wallet to the table/bar, or all of the above.)

    In short, a small subset of a larger population statistically makes out like bandits with tips.
    This is not, IMO, a valid argument for artificially depressing wages for that profession, and I wish people would think not just of the cute Hooters girls, but also the older woman who’s literally put in the last ten years at Denny’s and needs that lousy few bucks an hour to see her kids through high school, and for whom the tips let her occasionally let the kids have Nice Things.

  • Darth Ember

    I see, now, but the first comment bothered me a little, because it sounded as though the only real way to be uninterested in sex was in your eyes to be at war with one’s sexuality. Which seriously set my hackles up. So I’m sorry for misunderstanding you.

  • Hawker Hurricane

    In response to: Posted by: ajay | Jan 06, 2011 at 04:13 PM
    Thank you for correcting and improving on what I said.
    I have learned that, while I often know more than most, I do not know more than all.
    @Deird: You know Carrie White?
    Posted by: Dick Laurent | Jan 06, 2011 at 05:53 PM
    Know her? I took her to my prom!
    Start of WW2: Well, first we have a local war between China and Japan, then we have a European war between Poland, France, the British Commonwealth and Germany, then we added more European countries, then it expanded into Northern Africa then into Russia, then Japan expanded the local war to include the United States and the British Commonwealth then Germany declared war on the United States linking the European/North African/Atlantic war with the Asian/Pacific/Indian Ocean/Australian war…
    So, ok. I think it became a officially a “World” war with the German declaration against the U.S. on 11 Dec 41. But there was combat on every continent and every ocean before that.

  • sophia8

    There’s something deeply screwy about the whole Tribber attitude towards death. After all, they KNOW the people are in Heaven, AND that they will see them in a few years, tops. Yes, it sucks to be separated, but still, though they keep saying that they don’t mourn like unbelievers (“those without hope”), they still do, really.
    This is striking not only with Rayford, but with David, when his fiancee is killed. And he only has three and a half years to wait (at most…turns out to be actually a month or so), while Rayford has about five years.

    As it happens, I’ve just been reading the transcript of a Maya Angelou interview, where she talks about love and separation:

    When I love somebody, I like him to be around; I like him to take me out to dinner; I like to look at the sunset with him. But if not, I love him and I hope he’s looking at the same sun I am. Loving someone liberates the lover as well as the beloved.

    I really like that last line.

  • @Hawker Hurricane: So, ok. I think it became a officially a “World” war with the German declaration against the U.S. on 11 Dec 41. But there was combat on every continent and every ocean before that.
    Have to disagree. I think that the governments and people of countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India (among many others) were quite convinced it was a world war long before December 1941.

  • Hawker Hurricane

    Lot’s daughters – presumably the same ones offered to the rapacious mob?
    Posted by: hagsrus | Jan 06, 2011 at 09:39 PM
    Yes. By the only ‘rightous’ man in Sodom. To keep them from knocking down his door.
    Posted by: Jason | Jan 07, 2011 at 12:06 AM
    Jason, thank you. My son-in-law is currently in Afghanistan.

  • ajay

    Well, I think the best thing to say is that there’s no right answer – for that matter, if you count “participants from all over the world” rather than “fighting taking place all over the world” as the measure, then Korea was World War Three, Vietnam was World War Four, Desert Storm was World War Five…
    The best you can do is talk about “the start of $COUNTRY’s involvement in the Second World War”, which will be fairly unambiguous. Or just pick an arbitrary date like 1 September 1939 and make it clear that you know the limitations…

  • Hawker Hurricane

    I’ve got Bible Studies, Pap Smears, Cowboy Hats and the National Guard.
    Worst birthday party theme ever.
    Posted by: ajay | Jan 07, 2011 at 07:07 AM
    I’ve been to some rough parties, but never seen the National Guard called out for one.
    Have to disagree. I think that the governments and people of countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India (among many others) were quite convinced it was a world war long before December 1941.
    Posted by: mmy_whose ‘to read’ list keeps getting longer | Jan 07, 2011 at 12:35 PM
    Yes, I see. A matter of definitions. I think yours is more accurate.

  • Hawker Hurricane

    What Americans call the French and Indian War was a small part of a world wide conflict. And the Napoleonic Wars too. And there were others. I’m pretty sure we’re up beyond WW9 or WW10 now.

  • And the Napoleonic Wars too.
    I found it rather depressing to discover recently that people (at least in Britain) used to refer to the Napoleonic Wars as ‘The Great War’. Until the Great War.
    No worst, there is none.

  • Ellen Brand

    Darth Ember, I’m asexual myself, and a virgin at age 32. It took me a long time to realize why I wasn’t really interested, and I assumed I was bisexual because I was equally interested in males and females. (I found them both aesthetically pleasing, but didn’t realize until my late twenties that I wasn’t actually ATTRACTED to anyone.) It’s a real pain when people assume that the only reason you’re not interested is that you’re traumatized or repressed.

  • (Must. Catch. Up. With. Thread.
    Turning. Into. Shatner.
    So many opinions, so little time to opine …)
    Pius Thicknesse: I discussed the Land/Range Rover thing here, if you’re curious.
    Okay, I went and read the excerpt, and boggled at the fact that Buck’s ego apparently gets even larger over the course of these books, but mostly I wanted to comment on this:
    “Chloe,” Buck said carefully, “look at this rig. It has everything. It will go anywhere. It’s indestructible. It comes with a phone.[…]”
    I just. *helpless laughter* Of course it does. It is, after all, a LB car.
    (Also: “It comes with a fire extinguisher,” which, that’s a noteable extra, now? Jerry Jenkins, you are a strange man.)

  • I found it rather depressing to discover recently that people (at least in Britain) used to refer to the Napoleonic Wars as ‘The Great War’. Until the Great War.
    One of the sources on Wellington’s army I read for my fiction research did this. Copyright date was 1913. I found it…eerie…and felt sorry for the writer who couldn’t know what was about to hit him.

  • Xavier

    I know I’m very late, but Jason?

    Jason, not to sound like a pompous ass, but in a very real sense, if you have helped American soldiers look a little less vicious and bigoted to the rest of the world, you may have well saved someone’s life — maybe not your friend’s, but someone’s.
    He may not think that he’s YOUR friend, but you have surely proved yourself to be HIS.
    And I’d be proud to call you mine.