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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