TF: 788,400 moments so dear

TF: 788,400 moments so dear June 27, 2011

Tribulation Force, pp. 398-399

Buck and Tsion Ben-Judah arrive at Tsion’s home where the former rabbi’s nameless wife wails, “Our lives are ruined!”

That’s technically true. Tsion’s broadcast will certainly entail some big changes in the Ben-Judah household. He worked for decades to establish a position as a distinguished scholar and a respected figure within Judaism and he just left all that behind him, burning his bridges with a very public rejection of both Judaism and scholarship.

But Mrs. Ben-Judah also seems to be overlooking the more urgent part of her husband’s message, i.e., the world is ending. The next seven years will be a nonstop stream of death and destruction, an evil madman will rule the whole earth with an iron hand, and then, precisely seven years from today, God will destroy everything in an orgy of wrath.

So yes, it marks a change in their life that her husband will no longer have a place of honor in the faculty dining room, but that faculty dining room — along with the faculty, the university, the city, the nation and everything else she has ever seen, everywhere else she has ever been or heard of or read about — will be gone in six years, 364 1/2 days anyway, with the intervening time marked by earthquakes, hail, demon locusts, famine and oceans of blood.

That kind of puts Tsion’s loss of tenure into perspective.

The phone rings. It’s Elijah. All those years they’ve been setting a place for him at the Seder and he never once showed up, but now he’s calling the house. I guess being on television really does change things.

Tsion answered the phone and motioned for Buck to pick up the extension in the other room.

Tsion Ben-Judah just became Buck Williams’ favorite person in the whole world. Share your telephone with Buck and you’ve got a friend for life.

“This is Eli. I spoke to you last night.”

“Of course! How did you get my number?”

Again, “How did you get my number?” is a legitimate question, but perhaps not the first thing most of us would ask when a biblical figure from the Iron Age calls. But then Tsion is probably nervous and a bit frightened. He was just on TV describing Daniel as “the greatest of all Hebrew prophets,” then his phone rings and he finds out that Elijah and Moses want to have a word with him. Oh, and they can breathe fire. I’d be scared too.

Elijah says he called the number Tsion gave out on the TV and the student who answered gave him Tsion’s home number. “Somehow I convinced her who I was.”

I can’t help but wonder what that means. Did he “somehow” convince her that he was, indeed, the prophet Elijah, returned in the flesh nearly 3,000 years after the sweet chariot swung low for to carry him home? Or did he simply convince her that he was one of the anonymous fire-breathing street preachers from the Western Wall? Either way, that was surely an interesting conversation and one I’m sorry we readers didn’t get to hear.

“I rejoice with you, Tsion my brother, in the fellowship of Jesus Christ. Many have received him under our preaching here in Jerusalem. …”

The authors have decided to try to make Elijah sound authentically “biblical” by having him talk like the King James translations of the formal introductory parts of Paul’s epistles. Elijah didn’t talk like that. Even Paul didn’t talk like that. Just because he wrote formal salutations in his letters doesn’t mean he went around shaking hands with people and introducing himself in person that way:

“Hi, I’m Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

“I’m sorry, ‘Paul’ was it?”

“Yes, Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for …”

“Good to meet you, Paul, I’m Bob. From accounting.”

The character of Elijah in this story apparently watches TV and knows how to use a telephone. There’s really no need for him to sound like the NKJV.

I also don’t want to read too much into a single preposition, but you may be wondering why someone would say “under our preaching,” rather than the more normal-sounding “through our preaching.” I suspect that if you attended Tim LaHaye’s church then the peculiar choice of that word would make more sense. In some circles it’s a common idiomatic reminder of who is expected to “submit” to whom. I have many friends and acquaintances who speak this way, sometimes telling me of what they’ve learned “under” their pastor’s teaching and never quite recognizing that the biggest thing they’re learning might be who is “under” whom.

Elijah and Moses have apparently outgrown the venue of the Western Wall courtyard and they’re looking to begin their stadium tour.

“We have arranged for a meeting of new believers in Teddy Kollek Stadium. Would you come and address us?”

“Frankly, brother Eli, I fear for the safety of my family and myself.”

“Have no fear. Moishe and I will make clear that anyone who threatens harm to you will answer to us. And I think our record is plain on that account.”

Don’t worry, Tsion, Elijah is saying, you’re a made man — anybody threatens you and I’ll go all Mount Carmel on him.

Even without the fire-breathing, that’s a pretty serious threat coming from Elijah. And if anything, Moses is even scarier. This is plagues-of-Egypt Moses, we’re talking about here. Red Sea Moses. Just ask Korah, Dathan and Abiram if Moses is someone you want to mess with. Oh, wait, you can’t ask Korah, Dathan and Abiram because “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up … so they … went down alive into Sheol and the earth closed over them.” As Proposition Joe would say, that guy has more bodies on him than a Chinese cemetery.

So I buy that “Eli’s” threat is a credible one, but hearing him talk all gangster like that gives me this incongruous mental image of two bearded old men in sackcloth and aviator shades.

Thus we come to the end of Chapter 17 and the action seems to be picking up a little bit. Buck is set to accompany Tsion on his stadium evangelism tour, and Rayford is about to land in New Babylon to witness the construction of Nicolae Carpathia’s equivalent of the Death Star. It’s refreshing, after nearly 400 pages of aimless flights and phone calls, to turn to the next chapter with the sense that, finally, something may be about to happen.

And here, instead, is what one finds on the next page, page 399 of a 450-page book, the first words of Chapter 18:

Eighteen months later.

Didn’t see that coming.

On the positive side, this story had been mired down in a whole lot of nothing for hundreds of pages and it clearly needed something to jolt it back to life. Flashback can also be a powerful narrative device, and one could even argue that the episodic story that LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are trying to tell here is particularly suited to being told in that way.

It’s almost as though 90 percent of the way through typing this book Jenkins suddenly realized that and, after spending 400 pages slogging through every commute, meal and phone call, he decided that telling this story through the characters’ memories would be a way to focus mainly on what was actually memorable. But then, being the lazy novelist that he is, he didn’t go back and rewrite those 400 pages, he just abruptly lurched ahead 18 months to allow for a different narrative approach in the last 50 pages.

This spasm of a time-skip is incredibly jarring for the reader. We have just finished reading about the day of the big treaty signing — the event that starts the final countdown ticking. According to the rules of this story, the universe has exactly seven years remaining. And then, suddenly on the next page — “Eighteen months later” — the universe has exactly five and a half years remaining.

Here on page 399 we can’t yet know whether this jarring shift in Jenkins’ approach to telling this story will turn out to be a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, the approach he’s taken up until this point has not worked at all, so we can figure that any change in that approach — even one executed as artlessly and clumsily as this one — is bound to be an improvement. But then on the other hand, that belief is based on the assumption that these books couldn’t possibly get any worse, and after more than 800 pages of this series we’ve come to realize that this is never a safe assumption.

As we’ll see in the pages ahead, this leap forward in time doesn’t lead to a series of vivid flashbacks, but mainly to a series of dull conversations in which characters tell us second-hand and past-tense about key scenes that we will never get to see for ourselves.

But on the positive side, again, at least we’re spared 18 months of cab rides, cookies and phone calls. For that much I’m grateful.

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