TF: Waiting for my man

TF: Waiting for my man May 3, 2011

Tribulation Force, pp. 375-379

Chapter 17 begins with almost the archetypal Jerry Jenkins sentence:

Rayford Steele sat in a phone booth at Ben Gurion Airport.

Airport. Phone. Hero just sitting there. Check, check, check.

The Great Tribulation has just “officially” begun, evil has been enthroned, Israel has been set up for betrayal and destruction, and the wrath of God is about to be poured out on the world like all the plagues of Egypt. So Rayford calls his daughter back home in Illinois to find out how he looked on TV.

“I saw you, Dad!” she laughed. “They tried to flash names with each shot. They had yours almost right. It said you were Raymond Steel, no e on the end, and that you were the pilot of Air Force Once.”

Rayford smiled … “And the press wonders why no one trusts them.”

This riff goes on for a bit, with the Steeles chuckling over the hapless media being incapable of properly identifying random people in a crowd of world leaders. The silly press got Buck’s name wrong too — more hilarious proof that readers shouldn’t ever trust anything they see on the news.

It’s an odd little tangent. Rayford and Buck are here, as always, surrogates for the authors. The complaint here seems to have arisen from their experience promoting the first book in this series. That left them with conflicting senses of validation from having appeared on TV and indignation that famous subcultural celebrities such as themselves were not always immediately recognized and properly identified. After selling a million copies of their novel, the authors regarded themselves as celebrities who ought to have been as instantly and universally recognizable as the pilot of Air Force One.

“Buck’s all excited about this rabbi,” Chloe says, and then is amazed to learn that Rayford will be able to watch the Tsion Ben-Judah Variety Hour on CNN during his flight to New Babylon. Rayford assures her that the plane has all the latest technology, ensuring that the TV “reception will be better than we get on cable at home.”

And so now my mental image of Global Community One includes a giant rabbit-ear antenna on the roof.

Buck Williams, meanwhile, is hanging out with Chaim Rosenzweig. He has decided yet again that the timing isn’t yet right to tell his old friend what he knows, to tell Chaim that Nicolae Carpathia is not the good man that he appears to be.

And yet again Buck is frustrated and short-tempered with his friend for not knowing what he hasn’t been told:

Buck felt an overwhelming sadness. Chaim Rosenzweig had embraced him at least three times after the ceremony, exulting that this was one of the happiest days of his life. He pleaded with Buck to come along on the flight to Baghdad. “You will be working for Nicolae in a month regardless,” Chaim said. “No one will see this as conflict of interest.”

“I will, especially in a month when he owns whatever rag I work for.”

“Don’t be negative today, of all days,” Chaim said. “Come along. Marvel. Enjoy. I have seen the plans. New Babylon will be magnificent.”

Buck wanted to weep for his friend.

Readers are intended to share Buck’s pity and impatience with his friend’s delusion, overlooking Buck’s essential role in maintaining the deception that keeps Chaim from knowing the truth.

The way Buck treats Chaim in this section reminds me of bickering couples who nurse their grievances without ever coming out and stating why they’re upset. He projects an air of pouting hostility, but refuses to explain why or even to acknowledge that something is bothering him. It’s as if he’s waiting for Chaim to ask him what’s wrong so that the can respond, “Well, if you can’t figure that out on your own then I’m sure I can’t explain it to you!”

Such aggressive sulking is a time-honored form of communication between unhappy couples, but I don’t recommend it as either a healthy expression of friendship or as a strategy for evangelism.

When would it all come crashing down on Chaim? Might he die before he realized he’d been duped and used? Maybe that would be best. But Buck also feared for Chaim’s soul.

And so, worried about the eternal fate of his friend’s soul, Buck turns to the classic evangelistic ploy of trying to lure Chaim into watching a broadcast that might tell him what Buck is himself reluctant to say:

“Will you watch Dr. Ben-Judah on live television today?”

Those of us who grew up in the American evangelical subculture will recognize this tactic. We were urged, constantly, to witness to our unsaved friends — told repeatedly that our failure to do so would make us guilty of ensuring that their souls were eternally damned. And yet we feared or hesitated to do so. We weren’t even sure how to go about it if we wanted to. The urgent imperative for evangelism did not come with a great deal of practical advice. How does one segue comfortably from stickball to the Four Spiritual Laws? How does one casually swing the conversation around from Star Wars to the Wordless Book? Our embarrassment and trepidation was compounded by the sense — probably accurate — that such a conversation couldn’t possibly go well. So instead of attempting to fulfill this evangelistic duty directly ourselves we would invite our friends to accompany us to youth group, or to a Christian concert, or to one of the many events organized for just this purpose.

That’s what Buck is doing here. He desperately wants Chaim to know what he knows, but instead of just telling him, he takes the indirect approach of hoping that Ben-Judah will handle it in his broadcast.

Buck is briefly encouraged to hear Chaim describe Ben-Judah as “my friend since Hebrew University,” but his hopes falter when Chaim goes on to describe what he expects the rabbi will say about his research on Messiah:

“Like most Orthodox Jews, he will come to the conclusion that Messiah is yet to come. There are a few fringe groups, as you know, who believe Messiah already came, but these so-called Messiahs are no longer in Israel. Some are dead. Some have moved to other countries. None brought the justice and peace the Torah predicts.”

Tim LaHaye promotes himself as an expert in “Bible prophecy” and that is how his followers regard him. And yet he thinks the prophecies of a coming Messiah and a coming messianic age are found primarily in the Torah. Or maybe he thinks Isaiah is part of the Torah. Or, at least, he thinks that this is what Jews believe — with Chaim Rosenzweig here representing LaHaye’s condescending and presumptuously ignorant ideas about Judaism.

The Jews, LaHaye believes — and that is how he thinks of them, as “The Jews” — are benighted and deluded for failing to have recognized Jesus as the Messiah. That is the purpose, of course, of the entire Ben-Judah subplot here, illustrating LaHaye’s belief that the only possible interpretation of any “literal” and self-evident reading of the Hebrew Scriptures forces one to conclude that Jesus was the Messiah. Those poor The Jews, LaHaye thinks, just don’t understand their scriptures as well as he does.

We’ll get back to this point in more detail when we reach the sections on Ben-Judah’s TV show, but here just marvel at Buck’s response to Chaim:

“You know there are Gentiles who also believe Messiah has already come,” Buck said carefully.

Buck, like the authors, assumes this is something The Jews have not heard before — as though Christians’ belief in “Jesus Christ” is brand new news to them. As though this were an idea they had never given any consideration.

This idea is not unique to LaHaye and Jenkins. Millions of American Christians will speak with great confidence about what The Jews believe about Messiah without ever citing a single Jewish speaker or writer or text that offers such purported beliefs. This produces a distortion not just of these Christians’ ideas about Judaism, but of their own ideas about Christianity.*

“Yes, yes, I know, Cameron. But I would sooner believe Messiah is not a person but more of an ideology.”

He began moving away and Buck suddenly felt desperate. He held Chaim’s arm. “Doctor, Messiah is more than an ideology!”

Chaim Rosenzweig has lived in Jerusalem his entire life. This likely is not the first time that someone has grabbed his arm, wild-eyed and desperate, urging him to believe what they believed about the Messiah.

“Cameron, we can discuss this,” Chaim says, “but if you are going to be so literal about it, let me tell you something.”

Readers of this series should be aware, by now, that this opposition to an attempt “to be so literal” signals that we’re supposed to reject and be appalled by what Chaim is about to say. Literalism is the key virtue of the protagonists in this story and a rejection of literalism is the most vicious vice of the villains.

“If Messiah is a person, if he is to come to bring peace and justice and hope to the world, I agree with those who believe he is already here. … Don’t you see, Cameron? Nicolae himself fulfills most of the prophecies.”

Buck is horrified to hear his friend say this, and we readers are meant to be horrified as well, but it shouldn’t be surprising. The Antichrist is supposed to be a false Messiah — that’s what anti-Christ means. If he is to be at all capable as an Antichrist, then, he will have to provide a convincing impersonation of a such a Messiah. The whole point of this wolf putting on sheep’s clothing is that he’s trying to look like a sheep.

The Left Behind books are inconsistent on this point. They flip back and forth between portraying Nicolae as a credible, convincing impostor and portraying him as a transparent and obvious fraud. This inconsistency stems, I think, from an underlying contradiction regarding the culpability of those this false Messiah deceives. On the one hand, the authors say, the Antichrist will have the power to control the minds of others, forcing them to follow him. But on the other hand they insist that such people deserve damnation even for choices they were powerless to refuse, for actions they did not have the option of avoiding. Portraying the mass of humanity both as puppets unable to act autonomously and as responsible agents wholly accountable for their actions is such a huge contradiction that it runs like a faultline throughout the rest of the story.

Encountering this conversation between Buck and Chaim was strange for me after recently finishing Michael Chabon’s wonderful book The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Chabon’s detective story centers on the death of a young man believed to be the Tzaddik Ha-Dor — the righteous one of the generation whom some sects believe to be a potential Messiah in waiting. The obsessive watchfulness of Chabon’s Sitka Hasidim waiting for Messiah closely parallels the obsessive watchfulness of premillennial dispensationalists like LaHaye who are even more eagerly waiting for Antichrist.

This is true of most PMD “Bible prophecy” enthusiasts. They maintain a mental check list of supposed prophesies about the Antichrist and are ever on the lookout for the Rasha Ha-Door** — the wicked man of the generation, a candidate who might, if prophecies align, become the Antichrist they yearn to see.

Chaim has to catch his flight to New Babylon, so he says his farewells:

“Cameron! Give me a smile on this historic day!”

But Buck could not muster one.

They part and Chaim, tragically, never realizes that his friend is only scowling and sulking out of concern for his soul.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* That dual distortion can be seen in the way many Christians approach the writings of a single person — Paul of Tarsus, the apostle of Jesus Christ, who before his conversion was Saul of Tarsus, a first-century Jewish pharisee. Rather than studying to ascertain what Saul really believed, we tend to project onto him the opposite of whatever it is that we want Paul to mean. So, for example, if we’re looking to support an Augustinian interpretation of Paul, then we presume that Saul must have been a kind of Pelagian, and that becomes what we assume first-century Judaism taught. Or if we’re looking to support a Lutheran interpretation of Paul, then we turn Saul into a kind of late medieval Catholic and begin to regard Judaism in that light.

Anglican theologian N.T. Wright makes this point in his helpful book What Saint Paul Really Said, in his discussion of Saul:

The picture I have drawn is very different from the picture of the pre-Christian Saul that I grew up with. I was taught, and assumed for many years, that Saul of Tarsus believed what many of my contemporaries believed: that the point of life was to go to heaven when you die, and that the way to go to heaven after death was to adhere strictly to an overarching moral code. Saul, I used to believe, was a proto-Pelagian, who thought he could pull himself up by his moral bootstraps. What mattered for him was understanding, believing and operating a system of salvation that could be described as “moralism” or “legalism”: a timeless system into which one plugged oneself in order to receive the promised benefits, especially “salvation” and “eternal life,” understood as the post-mortem bliss of heaven.

I now believe that this is both radically anachronistic (this view was not invented in Saul’s day) and culturally out of line (it is not the Jewish way of thinking).

** Did I get that right? My Hebrew is not strong.

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