TF: Cucumber sandwiches

TF: Cucumber sandwiches May 10, 2011

Tribulation Force, pp. 379-386

Buck walks back to his hotel to find Tsion Ben-Judah parked out front. The rabbi invites him to lunch.

I’m paraphrasing there. This actually takes up two pages with Buck walking into the hotel, getting a message from the front desk clerk, walking to his room before reading the message from TB-J inviting him to lunch, calling the desk clerk to call him a cab, having the desk clerk put through a call to Tsion, agreeing to meet Tsion out in front of the hotel, and then calling the desk clerk to cancel the cab.

We’ve noted many times that Tribulation Force would have benefitted greatly from the services of an editor, but it also could have been vastly improved by the eye of a producer, a stage manager or an actor — any of whom would have told Jerry Jenkins to cut all this useless business in the hotel and just have Tsion parked there when he walked up. An actor would have pointed out that no one would ever want to play the meaningless part of the desk clerk. A stage manager would have balked at four set changes where none was necessary. A producer would simply have refused to pay for any of it.

Jenkins’ tenure as writer of the syndicated newspaper comic strip Gil Thorp began after this book was written. One would think that the constraints of a four panel strip would have been a useful lesson in dramatic economy, but pointless meandering scenes like this one remain a feature throughout the Left Behind series.

Tsion’s presence livens things up a bit. He suffers from the malady of ethnicity in lieu of character but — slender praise though it may be — he’s still more likable than either Buck or Rayford.

Mainly though, he’s new. More than 800 pages in this series has encountered the problem that plagues many soap operas and long-running sit-coms: characters who never grow get stale. One solution to that problem is to allow characters to grow and change the way we humans ought to do. Another, more common, solution is to introduce a new character who hasn’t yet had time to become as stale and stagnant as the original cast.

So think of Tsion as Cousin Oliver.

“We have shared an incredible experience,” he tells Buck, referring to their conversation with the fire-breathing witnesses. “Now I am nervous about informing the world of my findings, and I need to talk.”

It’s hard to imagine either Buck or Rayford feeling such nervousness, let alone admitting to it.

The rabbi directed his driver to a small cafe in a busy section of Jerusalem. Tsion, a huge, black, three-ring binder under his arm, spoke quietly to the waiter in Hebrew, and they were directed to a window table surrounded by plants. When menus were brought, Ben-Judah looked at his watch, waved off the menus, and spoke again in his native tongue. Buck assumed he was ordering for both of them.

And Buck is right, lunch arrives quickly and turns out to be:

… an unsliced loaf of warm bread, butter, a wheel of cheese, a mayonnaise-like sauce, a bowl of green apples, and fresh cucumbers.

As the rabbi elaborately prepares cucumber sandwiches for both of them he explains his custom of always ordering lunch for his guests. It began when he brought another American to this same cafe, “some sort of religious leader”:

“I made the mistake of asking if he wanted to try one of my favorites, a vegetable and cheese sandwich. Either my accent was too difficult for him or he understood me and the offering did not appeal. He politely declined and ordered something more familiar, something with pita bread and shrimp, as I recall. But I asked the waiter, in my own language, to bring extra of what I was having, due to what I call the jealousy factor. It was not long before the man had pushed his plate aside and was sampling what I had ordered.”

The detail about the shellfish makes this odd little story seem like a deliberate satire of Ugly American tourists in the Holy Land. But — it’s hard to tell — it doesn’t seem intended as such. The authors seem as heedless as the man in the story about his ordering something trayf while eating with a rabbi in a Hebrew-speaking cafe in Jerusalem. I wouldn’t be surprised if this story was actually based on some anecdote Tim LaHaye shared with Jenkins about such a lunch on one of his many trips to Jerusalem — an anecdote in which he was the Ugly American in question.

In any case, this bit goes on for quite a while. The cucumber sandwich scene in this book is longer than the one in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Each man, in turn, takes a moment to silently but visibly pray before eating. For Buck, this is partly an effort to prod Tsion into asking him about God so that he will have the chance to convince the rabbi to pray the magic words. This is Buck’s agenda throughout the meal.

Buck bowed his head briefly, praying again for Tsion Ben-Judah’s soul. He raised his eyes …

“You are a man of prayer,” Tsion observed. …

“I am.” Buck continued to pray silently, wondering if now was the time to jump in with a timely word.

He doesn’t jump in yet, but bides his time, impatiently tolerating Tsion’s long description of his years of research, offering mild encouragement but mainly just looking for the chance to cut in and steer the conversation toward the magic words. And because that’s what he’s praying for, that’s what happens. “I want to ask you a question,” Tsion says:

“Last night you asked me my conclusions on the Messiah question, and I told you, in essence, that you would have to wait until the rest of the world heard it. But let me pose the same question to you.”

Praise the Lord, Buck thought. “How much time do we have?”

… And Buck was off and running with the story of his own spiritual journey. He wasn’t finished until the rabbi was out of makeup and sitting nervously in the green room.

Now that is storytelling economy. In a single sentence Jenkins wraps up their lunch and transports them across town to the television studio and the verge of Tsion’s live broadcast. Well done.

There is one small problem, however, in that we readers never get to hear Buck’s account of his “spiritual journey.” I’m not suggesting that I actually want to read a transcript of Buck’s half-hour monologue on the topic, but I do wonder what he said.

I can easily imagine a two-minute version of Buck’s spiritual journey, perhaps even a five-minute version that might, with some effort, get padded out into a 10-minute rendition. But everything we’ve read about Buck’s spiritual journey thus far wouldn’t take even five minutes to tell. And everything that the authors have told us so far about their idea of the “spiritual journey” of a real, true Christian suggests that any such account could not and should not take much longer than five minutes to convey.

So what on earth did Buck say in his half-hour or longer version? And how on earth did Tsion survive just sitting there and listening to the whole thing? (Yes, I know, by now it’s obvious to readers, if not to the GIRAT, that the rabbi is himself secretly an RTC. But I keep picturing that recurring gag from Airplane!, whenever Ted Striker would lapse into a flashback of his life story and the camera would pull back to show that his unfortunate seatmate just couldn’t endure such a lethally dull tale.)

Buck finally stops talking and a “young woman with a battery pack on her hip, earphones and mouthpiece in place” tells Ben-Judah, who is still sitting in the green room, “We are ready for you in the studio for sound check, and 90 seconds to air.”

Buck had been hoping, maybe even expecting, that his long testimony would conclude with the rabbi kneeling to pray the magic words that would save his soul. When that doesn’t happen, he seems frustrated and confused:

So that was it? No response? No thank you? No “you’re a fool”?

But Tsion is silent for a moment and then simply says:

“Buck, I deeply appreciate your sharing that with me.”

And that is an excellent response. I don’t think I’ve ever said this before about anything from these books, but you might want to consider memorizing that phrase for the likelihood that you may, at some point, find yourself in a similar situation. It’s polite, respectful and kind, yet noncommittal.

Whatever else may be true of a proselytizer, try to remember that they, like all salespeople, are making themselves vulnerable. Salespeople may be pushy, rude or overly slick, but even the most aggressive of them are, at some basic level, exposing themselves to the possibility of rejection.

A man knocked on our door a while back hoping to sell me a vacuum cleaner. My first reaction was a startled disbelief at the clichéd anachronism of it all. Door-to-door vacuum salesmen were, in my mind, the stuff of Abbot & Costello routines. I was bewildered just to realize that this is a real thing — still, now, today — a real thing that real people really do.

And then the real person really there on my front porch came into focus. He was older than me. Quite a bit older. His shoulders had straightened when I opened the door, but they began to sag again by degrees as I appeared less than eager to purchase his wares. I didn’t want or need a new vacuum. And he caught us on the wrong side of payday, so I couldn’t have bought one then even if I’d wanted to. We went through the motions of my gently declining and him reciting the phrases he had practiced in the hopes of turning “No, thank you” into “maybe” and “maybe” into “yes.”

He was heartbreakingly unslick. I wished I could have bought a new vacuum cleaner. I wished I could have bought 20 new vacuum cleaners. I fumbled for some way of having pity without showing pity.

I did not buy a vacuum cleaner. I’m not sure what I ultimately said to this poor salesman, but I hope it was as kind and gracious as what Tsion said here to Buck.

Buck, for his part, is not as impressed with Tsion’s remark as I am. He seems to have been unprepared for any response other than enthusiastic acceptance or hostile confrontation.

But instead Tsion heads toward the studio where he is due before the camera in less than two minutes:

Tsion Ben-Judah rose with his notebook under his arm and opened the door, standing there with his free hand on the knob. “Now, Buck Williams, if you would be so kind as to do me a favor while you wait here.”


“As you are a man of prayer, would you pray that I will say what God wants me to say?”

Buck raised a fist of encouragement to his new friend and nodded.

I am quite certain that this gesture was not intended to make me giggle, but after picturing several possibilities I haven’t yet settled on one that doesn’t.

Browse Our Archives