TF: Proof and madness

TF: Proof and madness March 7, 2011

Tribulation Force, pp. 346-352

The set-up:

The man at the counter handed Buck a message from Rayford, but since it was not marked urgent, he decided not to call him until morning.

Rayford Steele had just learned about the implausibly rapid takeover of every media outlet in the world by Nicolae Carpathia, creating a global monopoly — the Antichrist’s One-World Media. Jerry Jenkins devotes quite a bit more space and readers’ time to this set-up, orchestrating a situation in which everyone else seems to know about this except for Buck Williams. Jenkins lays this on pretty thick over the next several pages, so thick that even though I should have known better by now, I was actually expecting something to come of all this.

This kind of set-up can lead to all sorts of scenarios. Withhold one piece of key information from one character and send him into a situation in which everybody else knows what he doesn’t and you’ve got the recipe for all sorts of comic or tragic possibilities. (Witness what ensues, for example, when Norman Wisdom is the only one not to know that a new boss has taken over at Burridge’s.) We’re familiar with such scenarios and so we recognize what Jenkins is doing with his belabored set-up here. We anticipate that something is about to happen, that there will be some consequence from Buck’s not responding to Rayford’s message. That anticipation builds when he speaks to Chloe on the phone and she avoids the topic, figuring it would be too painful for him to discuss. (“I just talked to Buck,” she tells her father, “but I didn’t have the heart to tell him about the media stuff.”) And it builds further in a series of missed and neglected phone calls.

But then nothing comes of it. Six pages of set-up and nothing happens.

And that, class, is just one of the many secrets professional writers use to turn a trilogy into a 16-book series.

We do encounter something interesting in these six pages, though. Buck has just witnessed something inexplicable — a miracle or a paranormal event that he saw first-hand, up-close, even as it was broadcast on television around the world. Jenkins gives us Buck’s reaction to this encounter with the supernatural, then follows it with Jimmy Borland’s reaction, with Jimmy in this case standing in as the representative of all people everywhere who are not real, true Christians like Buck. That sort of parallel and contrast is more ambitious than what Jenkins is usually up to in these pages. So before looking at the appalling attempt to execute this idea, let’s first commend Jenkins for at least making that attempt.

Buck reflects that “he had been eyewitness to some of the most astounding works of God in the history of the world.” Peter, James and John would probably disagree with the superlative there, but it’s certainly true that Buck has witnessed some astonishing events — evidence of God’s direct and unambiguous intervention that cannot be ignored. Buck has been granted what no actual believer or nonbeliever in any religion today can claim. He has seen proof.

Proof matters. I’m not sure of what such proof would look like, but if Tom Cruise were to knock on my door tomorrow and present to me proof — irrefutable evidence — that Scientology is the undeniable truth, then it would do me no good to protest that I was skeptical of Scientology and that I, as a Christian, had embraced a very different notion of what was true, of who we are, who I am, and what life is all about. The proof, being proof, would sweep aside my skepticism. I would no longer be able to honestly continue being a Christian, having seen the proof that it was not true. Dishonest denial is no way to live. Real, undeniable proof would have to make me a convert. Real, undeniable proof doesn’t leave one with any choice in the matter. Having seen Tom’s proof, my only question for him would be, “Do you take debit cards, or do I need to write a check?”

Jenkins and Tim LaHaye here present Buck Williams as a person who has encountered proof and who responds as anyone would — by accepting it and embracing it as true.

He had been in Israel when the Russians attacked less than a year and a half before. God had clearly destroyed the threat to his chosen people. Buck had been in the air when the Rapture had occurred … and had been supernaturally protected while witnessing two murders by the Antichrist himself. This very day he had seen Scripture fulfilled when a would-be killer was thwarted by fire from the throat of one of the two witnesses.

Granted, as actually described by the authors each of these events remains open to some alternative explanation. The authors have mocked the space-alien theory, but it still seems viable — particularly if we posit some kind of Star Trek V type alien who is devious enough to play-act as “God” in his encounters with less-powerful creatures. At this point in the series, a reader could still cling to the space-alien theory and it could account for everything Buck has thus far seen. (It actually makes the books more interesting to read them that way.)

But the authors’ intent here is for these events to be explainable only as what LaHaye regards them as — undeniable acts of God directly intervening to fulfill specific prophecies known to faithful biblical scholars. What the authors want for readers to find here is a series of implausible predictions coming true in sequence, exactly as predicted, such that both the fulfillment of those predictions and the events themselves cannot be perceived as anything other than total proof of the existence and activity of God as defined by Tim LaHaye.

So pondering all the proof that he has witnessed, Buck surrenders:

“All I can do,” he whispered huskily into the night air, “is to give you all of me for as long as I have left. I will do what you want, go where you send me, obey you regardless.”

Buck and Chloe respond to the proof they have received of this LaHaye-God with joyful gratitude, as though they were encountering the Lamb of Revelation rather than some kind of divine uber-Beast.

Chloe wept with him. “Buck,” she concluded at last, “we wasted so many years without Christ.”

In contrast to this joyful submission, the authors give us the example of Jimmy Borland. Borland, again, is the religion editor who recently swapped assignments with Buck so that he could cover Nicolae’s big treaty-signing.

JB has seen almost everything Buck has seen, but he simply refuses to accept it as proof. He saw the fire-breathing witnesses on television just as everyone else did, but he can’t bring himself to believe what he saw:

“Get serious. You believe that fire story?”

“I saw the guy, Jimmy. He was toast.”

“A million-to-one he set himself on fire.”

“This was no immolation, Jim. He hit the ground, and one of those two incinerated him.”

“With fire from his mouth.”

“That’s what I saw.”

“It’s a good thing you’re off the cover story, Buck. You’re losing it.”

These are the only possible responses the authors can imagine in the proof-abundant context of the post-Rapture world. And they’re the only two responses — the only binary possibilities — they seem to allow for here, now, today in reality.

Jimmy Borland, in other words, doesn’t just represent the active denial of post-Event unbelievers, he represents the denial of all of us, now, who believe anything other than LaHaye’s idiosyncratic prophecy scheme and the warped notion of God it entails. Jimmy Borland is you and me. LaHaye believes that just like Buck we have access to all the proof that anyone could ever require, but that we stubbornly, obtusely refuse to accept it.

This seems unfair not just to us but to poor Jimmy Borland. His response here — denying what he just saw, undeniably, on CNN — doesn’t make much sense. “That fire story” happened and he saw it happen just as surely as Buck did. But the meaning of what he just saw could still be open to a variety of interpretations.

Buck has been attending Bruce Barnes’ special secret Bible studies, so Buck views the fire-breathing preachers through the lens of Bible prophecies about fire-breathing preachers. But for JB and everyone else watching there wouldn’t be any obvious reason to interpret this strange event as evidence for LaHaye’s Bible or LaHaye’s God.

If I saw an old bearded man in a robe, carrying a staff, shielding himself with an invisible forcefield and breathing fire like a dragon, I wouldn’t be thinking Moses, I’d be thinking Merlin. This scene wouldn’t make me drop to my knees, sobbing, “Everything Tim LaHaye told us was really true!” but rather “Everything Gary Gygax* told us was really true!”

This scene just says “magic” more than “miracle.” And that raises the question of whether this is actual magic, or just a magic trick. Absent overwhelming proof that it’s the former, one would have to suspect it’s the latter. So if I’m Jimmy Borland or Buck Williams or any other journalist covering this story, my next phone call is to Penn & Teller, James Randi, Ricky Jay, Rick Baker or even Cris Angel or David Copperfield — any of the professionals who might be capable of creating such an illusion. What they’d tell me, I think, is that it’s a nifty trick, but not impossible. The tricky part is pulling off the disappearance of your confederate in the middle of a huge crowd outdoors, replacing him with the prop corpse without any of the bystanders noticing or any of the news cameras picking anything up. That’s not easy, but it gets easier if you’ve first got your confederate firing off dozens of rounds of blanks and then you provide cover with a bit of pyrotechnics.

But that kind of reasonable skepticism seems to be against the rules the authors intend for characters here in Tribulation Force. The supernatural events here are meant to be explicit, obvious evidence of divine intervention. They are not intended to be open to any other interpretation. As such, the only conceivable responses are those of Buck and Jimmy — either unquestioning acceptance or stubborn denial.

Yet I think there’s at least a third possible response, more critical than Buck’s and less willfully ignorant than Jimmy’s. And I suspect it’s the response that most of us would have if we were transported into this strange world of tangible, undeniable, unambiguous proof.

Jimmy Borland’s willful denial isn’t something I would consider a valid response. If I encountered the proof that he and Buck had been confronted with then, just like Buck, I would be forced to accept the truth of it. And so would you, probably. With that level of proof, you and me and Barbara R. Rossing and Richard Dawkins and Harold Camping** would all have to say, “Yep. I used to be certain that Tim LaHaye was full of it, but now I must concede that he was right all along.”

To be clear, I do not believe what Buck Williams believes. I have prayed prayers very similar to the one Buck prays here. I still pray them. But I have never addressed the God he is addressing because I do not believe that such a God exists.

I believe the God Buck is praying to here is, like Buck Williams himself, the unconvincing fictional creation of Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. I believe this God is a distortion of the God of the Bible. I believe this God is nothing like the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, nothing like the God of Isaiah and Amos, nothing like the God of John of Patmos, nothing like the God we Christians believe was most fully revealed in Jesus Christ. The God LaHaye and Jenkins have concocted here is not at all like the God I pray to. If this God, the God of Left Behind, were real, then the God I pray to could not be. If the God of Left Behind were real, then Jesus was not the Christ, merely the anti-Antichrist.

What I’m saying, in other words, is that coming to believe that the Left Behind God of Buck Williams is true would be, for me, a big freakin’ deal. It would mean abandoning what is most central to who I am now and what I believe. And I’m sure the same is true for you, whatever it is that is most central to you and to what you believe.

But if we had seen the nuclear nerfing and the textbook Rapture, followed by the realization of Nicolae’s impossibly absurd agenda, and then if after all that Moses and Elijah had spoken to us personally to reassure us that, “Yup, LaHaye was right” — and if all that occurred without any possible explanation other than divine intervention by a God like the God Tim LaHaye describes — well, then everything that we previously believed would have been proved false and it would have to go. Confronted with irrefutable proof, we would change our minds.

That’s what “irrefutable” means, after all.

Yet conceding this newly proven truth still wouldn’t lead me to pray the prayer Buck prays here, not to that God. If I learned that such a God was real, I think I’d be done with praying. Learning — encountering absolute proof — that the universe is governed by power rather than by love, and that the only hope for survival was to pledge one’s allegiance to power against love, I would still not be inclined to offer that allegiance.

Faced with all that proof of the Power God, I think I would come to a Puddleglum moment.

Puddleglum, for those who don’t recognize the name, is a Narnian marshwiggle in C.S. Lewis’ children’s book The Silver Chair. The dour, toad-like wiggle is the one who saves the day in that story in a scene in which, as often happens in Lewis’ stories, the Christian allegory is set aside in favor of a Platonic one. Our heroes are trapped underground in the domain of an evil enchantress who has just about convinced them all to stay there as her servants because there is no other world, nothing else besides this dark cave.

“One word, Ma’am,” Puddleglum says:

“I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

Or, in Mark Twain’s shorter version, “All right then, I’ll go to Hell.” The proper response to proof of LaHaye’s God would be neither submission nor denial, but opposition.

That’s not a response that LaHaye and Jenkins imagine anyone having when coming to terms with the proof of the cruel Power God of their story, this Almighty destroyer and co-conspirator with the Antichrist in the destruction of the world. But if you love this world or if you love anything or anyone in it, then what other response could you possibly have?

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* For those of you who don’t own a collection of multi-sided dice and/or who dated in high school, I should note that Gary Gygax was the creator of Dungeons & Dragons.

** Camping, if you’re not familiar with him, is a radio preacher and, like Tim LaHaye, a premillennial dispensationalist “Bible prophecy” enthusiast. But he disagrees vehemently with LaHaye about the arcana of the End Times check list. Camping created a sensation years ago by predicting that Jesus would return in September 1994.

That didn’t happen, of course, but now that the embarrassment of that failed prediction has faded, he’s back in the news with an even more confident and more specific prediction: “The Rapture will occur May 21, 2011.” Yes, that’s right, 75 days from now.

Camping’s followers, poor souls, are now busily preparing for the end by writing letters to the editors of their newspapers like this one in which they rail against LaHaye’s false teachings:

God in his great mercy (Romans 9:15-18) has given proof May 21, 2011, will be the day of the rapture. Those who have refused to leave their church (Revelation 18:4) and have followed pastors such as Dr. Tim LaHaye, who helped author the book “Left Behind” ironically will be those left behind.

They will then argue with God. See Matthew 7:21-23. After all, the church members flocked to see the movie and now believe there will be a secret rapture and we cannot know when that will be. But please see Amos 3:7-8.

On May 21, 1988, none of us knew God had loosed Satan (Revelation 20:3) to rule in the churches and removed the Holy Spirit (2 Thessalonians 2:7), thereby ending the church age. See 1 Peter 4:17 and Revelation 8:1-12:12.

Feel free to look up any of those Bible passages, but they won’t help to make sense of what this poor man is arguing. You could also try to double-check his arithmetic —

There are exactly 722,500 days from April 1, 33 A.D. the day Jesus died on the cross until May 21, 2011. Astronomers have known there are 365.2422 days in a complete year. A day is added every fourth year (leap year) and every 128 years a day is dropped to maintain accuracy.

In order to find the spiritual meaning of these days, we must multiply the years between these events by the number 365.2422 to know the days between them. April 1, 33 A.D. to April 1, 2011 equals 1978 years. This equals 722,449 days. From April 1, 2011 to May 21, 2011 inclusively is 51 days. To this number is exactly 722,500 days.

Some numbers in the Bible can convey a spiritual truth and each number is a word. The 722,500 days is made up of 5x10x17x5x10x17.

The atonement demonstrated on April 1, 33 A.D. (the number 5) is 100 percent completed on May 21, 2011 (the number 10) when all the true believers are raptured into heaven (the number 17). Remarkably, this number sequence is doubled to indicate that it has been established by God and will shortly come to pass (Genesis 41:32, Pharaoh’s dream).

— but that can probably wait until May 22, when these folks start publishing the usual stuff about failing to properly account for the switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian, etc., and recalculating their figures to try to account for why we’re all still here.

Even more fascinating to me than the fevered numerology is the way Camping’s disciples seem to conceive of the world as consisting of a spectrum of beliefs that stretches from Camping himself only as far as Tim LaHaye and John Hagee at the opposite end. It’s Overton’s Pinhole.

Anyway, the point here is that Camping — just like Rossing, an orthodox Lutheran theologian, and Dawkins, an outspoken atheist — is adamantly certain that Tim LaHaye is wrong. Yet if any of them were to find themselves, as Buck Williams does, in a mad world in which LaHaye was proven right, then they’d all have to concede the point. And so would you and I. But conceding that we were living in LaHaye’s mad world still wouldn’t compel any of us to worship his mad God.

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