TF: Suspending suspense

TF: Suspending suspense January 24, 2011

Tribulation Force, pp. 325-326

Rayford returned from a quiet dinner with part of his new crew …

Oh no, here we go again. Let me guess — a quiet dinner with the young, single, female part of his crew. Just an innocent candlelit dinner during which much is implied but nothing is overtly stated and Rayford is able to reassure himself that it's all perfectly appropriate because he never touched her.

Eventually, after months of such quiet dinners, she'll confront him and demand that he clarify what's going on. At that point, he'll condemn her as a slut and become disgusted with her, and then he'll move on to quiet dinners with some other part of his crew.

Once again, a reminder to parents reading the Left Behind series: Study Rayford Steele. Learn to recognize such people. Teach your daughters how to avoid them. Make sure your sons do not become them.

Rayford returned from a quiet dinner with part of his new crew to an urgent message from Chloe.

Tribulation Force, remember, was written in 1996, before the ubiquity of cell phones. In 1996, I didn't have any inkling of the soon-to-come communications revolution that would quickly make scenes like this — scenes involving urgent phone messages left at hotel desks — seem like quaint anachronisms from an earlier century. The suddenness of that cultural change underscores again how difficult it is to try to portray the kind of near-future setting that Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye set out to portray.

But Jenkins' failures to capture that setting aren't so much a function of the task's difficulty as of his own lack of effort. Apart from Dr. Rosenzweig's magic formula, Jenkins' future doesn't contain a single technological change from the time it was written. And he can't be bothered even to explore the technological, economic or social implications of even that one development.

Imagining the future is not a strong-suit for Jenkins and LaHaye. Their primary assumption about the future is that there won't be one. If you had asked Tim LaHaye back in 1980 what he expected 1996 would be like, he would have told you that he was confident Jesus was coming back before then. In 1996, he seemed unable to imagine that we'd all still be here in the distant future of 2011.

This is true of most premillennial dispensationalists who share this obsessive belief in an imminent rapture heralding the End of the World. They believe that the rapture, as John Hagee likes to say, could come before I finish writing this sentence.

PMD preachers have been using that line for decades and they've finished the sentence every time.

Hagee must be surprised to realize that he's lived to be 70 years old — not because he expected to die young, but because he's spent much of those 70 years insisting that the world was going to end any moment now. Hal Lindsey certainly never expected he'd still be walking the "Late Great Planet Earth" at age 81, and over the past several decades Tim LaHaye had all but guaranteed he and this world would be long gone well before he reached the age of 84. Yet here we all still are.

PMDs' preoccupation with an urgently imminent rapture instills a short-sightedness that affects much more than their ability to write a convincing near-future setting. Ask almost any "Bible-prophecy" preacher about climate change and they'll tell you not to worry because Jesus will be coming back long before the seas rise or the ice caps melt.* Such long-term concerns, they say, only set the stage for the diabolical plans of the Antichrist.

Oddly, though, if you ask those same PMD preachers about Social Security, many will tell you that massive benefit cuts are needed today in order to avert a prophesied catastrophe, decades from now, of possible small future reductions in benefits. Bible-prophecy shapes partisan ideology, but partisan ideology also shapes Bible-prophecy.

The lesson here, I think, is that if someone doesn't believe in the future, then you probably shouldn't trust what they have to say about it.

The urgent message from Chloe is due to her having seen TV-news footage of the Two Witnesses murdering an unconscious militant. Chloe spotted Buck in the crowd at the scene and saw him fall to the ground, but she didn't see him get up again after the whole spewing-fire business. She's desperate to learn if her father has heard what happened to Buck.

He hasn't, so the Steeles spend the next two pages in a third- and fourth-hand rehashing of the scene we readers just finished in the previous pages. It's a superfluous scene that adds nothing. One gets the sense that it was only included because Jenkins feels obliged to inject the occasional Rayford scene — whether or not its warranted — just to reassure LaHaye, his nominal "co-writer," that his Mary Sue surrogate (Rayford) isn't being neglected at the expense of Jenkins' own fantasy avatar (Buck).

This two-page phone conversation might have had some purpose if it had come sooner. If Jenkins had inserted this earlier, before readers had already learned that Buck was unharmed, then it might have added a measure of suspense.

Militant Gap model charges at the Two Witnesses, firing his gun wildly. Buck and Rabbi Ben-Judah hit the ground and Buck looks up, in horror, to see a jet of flame shooting out toward them from the mouth of the preacher.

Line break. Abrupt cut to Rayford on the phone, fielding desperate questions from Chloe:

"Do you know what hospital he's in?"

"What?"

"You didn't see it?"

"See what?"

"Dad, it was just on the morning news here. The Two Witnesses at the Wailing Wall burned some guy to death, and everybody hit the ground. One of the last two lying there was Buck."

"Are you sure?"

"No question."

"Do you know for certain he was hurt?"

"No! I just assumed. He was just lying there next to a guy in a black suit whose hat had fallen off."

Then you can cut back to Buck and the rabbi, the charred corpse and the melted necklace.** Do it that way and readers, having been kept in suspense as to Buck's fate, will sigh in relief/disappointment to learn for the first time that he was not harmed as Chloe had assumed.

Keeping readers in suspense there would also have allowed them to share Chloe's anxiety, making her seem more sympathetic and less like a whiner who hasn't yet learned her lesson about jumping to conclusions. As it is, a diminished regard for Chloe is about the only thing readers can take away from these two pointless pages.

Unless you're looking for evidence that Jerry Jenkins is a sophisticated traveler who has spent time in hotels. Demonstrating that seems to be the only point of this bit:

"Where's [Buck] staying?"

"At the King David. I left a message for him. They said they had his key, so he was out. What does that mean?"

"Some people leave their keys at the desk whenever they go out. It doesn't mean anything special. I'm sure he'll call you."

Apart from such fascinating logistical discussions, I suppose we do learn one other thing from these two pages. We learn that the fire-breathing incident was broadcast around the world. Tens of millions of viewers witnessed this sign and wonder, this undeniable miracle and unavoidable demonstration of the supernatural.

Now, granted, this demonstration is too vague to be regarded as proof of the existence of God. If I saw something like this on the news and it was then satisfactorily demonstrated that it wasn't trickery or CGI of some kind, I wouldn't think I had just witnessed a divine miracle but merely the confirmation that, contrary to what I had previously believed, comic-book supervillains are real. My working theory would be that this man must have been bitten by a radioactive bombardier beetle.

Other viewers might come to some other conclusion about what they have just witnessed, but this display could not be ignored. What this supernatural act means, exactly, would be something every viewer would need to work out for themselves, but that it does mean something would be undeniable. Everyone who saw this would be forced to alter something about how they previously thought the world worked. This new fact — a man with super-powers — would have to be accommodated.

But the authors don't seem to think that this manifestation of the supernatural would change anything for anyone. They wouldn't think that even if the miracle had been something even more explicit and more precisely sectarian — if the face of God had appeared in the sky like in some Terry Gilliam animation, and then the hand of God appeared, holding a microphone, and the voice of God were heard throughout the world saying, "Excuse me, can I have your attention for just a moment …" The way the authors view things, that wouldn't be a game-changer.

In their view, additional proof of the existence of God would be redundant. Everybody everywhere already knows that God exists — already knows that the particular and peculiar God of PMD prophecy teaching exists. Unbelievers are simply in rebellion — not ignorant, not unpersuaded, just perversely denying what they know to be true.

I'm not sure if the authors would want to state it as baldly as that, but this is the inescapable conclusion one draws from reading this series. It's an odd view — not one shared by most American evangelicals. I suspect it arises from a combination of two sources.

First, there's LaHaye's supreme confidence that definitive proof exists for his particular concept of God. He loves to state that there are 2,000-some specific "prophecies" in the Bible and that nearly all of these have been "fulfilled." (Prophecies and fulfilled are in scare-quotes there because he conveniently fails to define those terms consistently.) He refers to this as evidence and proof and cites it — along with a large serving of inane Josh-McDowell-style sophistry — as a demonstration that this is all a settled question, a matter not subject to doubt or requiring faith.

And second there's that ever-present evangelical anxiety — the crushing guilt that comes from the belief that you are entrusted with saving others from an eternity of torment in Hell. If anyone you ever meet winds up in Hell, it will be your fault if you didn't do everything you possibly could have done to convert them. Evangelicals constantly barraged with this responsibility will do almost anything to relieve this oppressive guilt — almost anything short of actually becoming the perpetual-proselytization machines they're told they must become.

Earlier popularizers of rapture mania such as Lindsey or A Thief in the Night auteur Donald W. Thompson seemed compelled by this guilt to try to scare people into Heaven. LaHaye's response to this guilt is to reject it — to insist that the prophesied destiny of humankind proves that most people deserve to suffer and then die and then suffer even more, eternally. They've brought it on themselves, he constantly reassures his chosen-few readers. No need to pity them, they chose rebellion, chose to reject the proof of prophecy-God. When Vengeful Jesus comes back to slaughter them all, LaHaye says again and again, it will be cause for celebration.

Put those together — we have proof and they know it so it's their fault that they're damned — and you wind up with a world in which explicit miracles broadcast around the world wouldn't change anything for anyone.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* The one delightful exception I've encountered to this response was from the late Jack Wyrtzen, the gregarious founder of Word of Life ministries. If you've read Randall Balmer's Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America then you may remember Balmer's affectionate portrait of Wyrtzen there.

Organizing the Evangelical Environmental Network in the early 1990s, we took the usual strategy of contacting every conceivable prominent evangelical in the hopes of collecting enough endorsements from "gatekeepers" to achieve subcultural legitimacy. That's the ecclesiological model of American evangelicalism — fame as proxy for spiritual authority, a hierarchy of celebrity. We even reached out to unlikely candidates for support — including Jack Wyrtzen who, to my surprise, provided an enthusiastic endorsement and signed on to our creation-care "declaration." He also enclosed a hand-written note in which he said that he expected Jesus to come back very, very soon, but that this was "God's world" and we had better take care of it until then.

Heedless short-sightedness is a common corollary to belief in an imminent rapture, but it is not a logically necessary consequence of such a belief any more than it is a logically necessary consequence of belief in imminent, inescapable death.

** Worst Harry Kemelman mystery title ever.


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