TF: A case of do or die

TF: A case of do or die September 26, 2011

Tribulation Force, pp. 413-417

We come today to the first kiss between Buck Williams and Chloe Steele.

Jerry Jenkins is not a writer I trust to handle such a scene, and the involvement of Buck Williams as one of the parties to this kiss introduces a significant “ick factor,” so I’ve been anticipating this passage with something like the disgust expressed by a young Fred Savage in The Princess Bride — “Do we have to read the kissing parts?”

I do, however, feel some compassion for Jenkins here. It can’t have been easy writing such a scene for Tyndale House and for an audience that includes a significant number of fundamentalist readers who regard premarital kissing as scandalously sinful behavior.

The audience for “Bible prophecy” stories like the Left Behind series includes a good many Gothardites and the sorts of people who send their children to places like Bob Jones University or Pensacola Bible College. I haven’t the time or bandwidth to describe for you here the full strangeness of Bill Gothard’s teaching on “courtship” and “purity” or to fully contextualize the cult-like popularity that teaching has throughout many of the same sorts of churches in which Tim LaHaye’s “prophecy” ideas are taught. (If you’re in the mood for a trip through the looking glass, here’s BillGothard.com* and here’s the website for his Institute in Basic Life Principles.)

We’ve previously discussed some of the similarities and affinities between romance Left-Behind style and the sorts of things taught by Gothard — such as the stilted, formal approach of “courtship,” or the creepy notion of fathers as surrogates for future husbands (and husbands as surrogates for their wives’ fathers). But here, on the matter of premarital kissing, we see a clear break from the Gothard/Bob Jones approach, which emphatically teaches that a couple’s first kiss ought to come at the prompting of their pastor, following their exchange of wedding vows. “You may now kiss the bride,” the preacher says, but you couldn’t do so before that.

That idea of No Kissing Before Marriage wouldn’t be something that a majority of Left Behind’s potential readers would believe in, but a significant minority of them — including many loyal members of Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America — were likely shocked and scandalized by the racy scene we’re about to read.

To his credit, Jerry Jenkins seems to have thought that having Buck and Chloe abide by the strict standards of the Gothardites would have seemed unnatural and unrealistic, so he chose to risk offending some readers by including this scene of his young lovers’ first kiss. That doesn’t mean Jenkins actually achieves a realistic or natural-seeming romantic scene, but I’m willing to give him partial credit for the attempt.

As usual, Jenkins can’t resist building things up too much. A first kiss can and ought to be memorable, but to announce beforehand “This is going to be memorable” tends to be true, but for all the wrong reasons.

We’re still in flashback mode at this point in Tribulation Force. We’re catching up with the romantic developments that occurred during the 18 months the authors skipped past. Jenkins here is in a bit of a rush to get readers up to speed on what transpired in that interim so that, by the end of this chapter, he can return us to the 18-months-later present and have everyone get engaged in time for Bruce to perform the double wedding before he gets killed off. This all needs to happen in less than 40 pages, so Jenkins speeds up the process by having the couples double-date and by having each couple spend much of their time alone discussing the other couple.

Buck is pleased to see Rayford dating Amanda White:

“He’s not going to want to be alone if we decide to get more serious.”

“Seems to me we’ve already decided.” Chloe slipped her hand into Buck’s.

Hand-holding remains a Big Deal in these pages, a romantic milestone fraught with significance and thus, like most small gestures in a subculture obsessed with “purity” and abstinence, oddly eroticized. Yet Chloe’s aggressive initiation of brazen hand-holding still doesn’t ease Buck’s raging insecurity.

“I just don’t know what to do about timing and geography, with everything breaking the way it has.”

Buck was hoping for some hint from Chloe that she would be willing to follow him anywhere, that she was either ready for marriage or that she needed more time. Time was getting away from them, but still Buck hesitated.

Buck’s hesitation might be partly due to his realizing that every word and gesture he exchanges with Chloe will soon thereafter be related, in detail, to her father. On the very next page:

“I’m ready when he is,” Chloe told Rayford. “But I’m not going to say a word.”

“Why not?” Rayford said. “Men need a few signals.”

“He’s getting all the signals he needs.”

“So you’ve held his hand by now?”

“Dad!”

“Bet you’ve even kissed him.”

“No comment.”

“That’s a yes if I ever heard one.”

“Like I said, he’s getting all the signals he needs.”

So third base, then, I guess. Saucy hussy.

In fact, Buck would never forget the first time he had kissed Chloe.

In fact, that “in fact” is tone-deaf and woefully misplaced.

In fact, Buck would never forget the first time he had kissed Chloe. It had been the night he left for New York by car, about a year before. Carpathia had bought up the Weekly as well as any of the competition worth working for, and Buck seemed to have less choice than ever over his own career. He could try bootlegging copy over the Internet, but he still needed to make a living.

No, he doesn’t. One only needs to make a living if one plans or expects to be living, and Buck knows he can’t expect that. His decision to stick with his job because “he still needed to make a living” is even more foolish than Rayford’s denial-driven decision to put his furniture into storage.

The way Buck still thinks of his finances, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he’s still making the maximum contribution to his 401(k) plan. That may be a responsible thing for a 32-year-old reporter to do here in the real world, but Buck doesn’t live here in the real world — he lives in the fictional world of Tim LaHaye’s Great Tribulation. For Buck, the countdown to The End has begun. The world is going to end in 66 months. Sometime before that, the global economy will collapse and be replaced with the economy of the Mark of the Beast. And the odds are pretty high that Buck will be killed by one of the seals, trumpets or vials of divine wrath long before then.

When your maximum possible life expectancy is 5½ years, then it’s time to cash out your retirement plan. Yes, you may take a hit on the taxes, but that’s probably the least of your worries. If Buck cashed out all his savings, I’m guessing he’d have more than enough money to last him until the end of the world, or to the end of his life, or to the end of the value of cash, whichever comes first. In fact, he no longer needs “to make a living.”

It’s not just Buck and Rayford who are confused on this point. Even Bruce — whose office study is papered in charts and graphs illustrating precisely how little time remains for anyone — seems to think that earning an income is still a necessity and priority for his followers.

Bruce, who was at the church less and less all the time due to his ministry all over the world, had encouraged him to stay with Global Weekly, even after the name was changed to Global Community Weekly. “I wish we could change that last word one more time,” Buck said. “To Weakly.”

The word-play continues in the next paragraph, kind of:

Buck had resigned himself to doing the best he could for the kingdom of God, just as Chloe’s father had done.

That’s a biblical phrase — “the kingdom of God.” I know what it means when it’s used in the Gospels and I know what it means when it’s used by most Christians. I also know what it means when it’s used, very differently, by premillennial dispensationalist prophecy enthusiasts like LaHaye. But that latter PMD sense makes no sense here. For LaHaye, and thus for Buck and Bruce and the rest of the Tribulation Force, “the kingdom of God” refers to a future kingdom — a literal kingdom to be established by Jesus in a coming “dispensation” after his second Second Coming.

That’s not what Buck seems to mean here. Instead he seems to be talking about the kingdom of God the way that most non-PMD Christians do (although most of us try to be a bit more positive than saying we’re “resigned to” the kingdom). He seems to be speaking of the kingdom of God as something already present in this world, the reign of peace and justice that is both now and not-yet. Buck wouldn’t talk like that. He wouldn’t use that phrase that way. And anyway, as far as he and the rest of the Trib Force are concerned, there’s nothing he or Rayford can or should do for the kingdom of God other than to avoid sin while waiting for its literal arrival in about 5½ years.

He still hid his identity as a believer. Whatever freedom and perceived objectivity he had would soon be gone if that truth was known to Carpathia.

I wish that were intended as a sly piece of satire, but I think it’s merely an honest description of Jenkins’ idea of the role of the journalist — maintaining one’s “perceived objectivity.” Jenkins and Buck seem to believe about objectivity what George Burns believed about sincerity — “If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

I also can’t help but wonder if anyone else would notice if Buck were to stop hiding “his identity as a believer.” That would make his life and his actions different how, exactly?

That last night in Chicago, he and Chloe were in the apartment packing the last of his personal things. His plan was to leave by 9 o’clock that night and drive all the way to New York City in one marathon stretch.

I suppose we should be grateful, considering all we’ve read in the previous 800+ pages about cab-rides and airports, that we’re not given a more detailed description of Buck’s planned route. But finally we get to “the kissing parts.”

As they worked, they talked about how much they would hate being apart, how much they would miss each other, how often they would phone and email each other.

“I wish you could come with me,” Buck said at one point.

“Yeah, that would be appropriate,” she said.

“Someday,” he said.

“Someday what?”

But he would not bite.

There’s an undercurrent here of something rather unhealthy — a hint of the way that a fear of rejection often turns into a battle for control, twisting every expression of affection into a challenge or accusation. That battle plays out as a subtext in this romantic scene.

He carried a box to the car and came back in, passing her as she taped another. Tears ran down her face.

Yes, score! See, that’s just what Buck was hoping for. If you can make her cry, that proves she must really love you.

“What’s this?” he said, stopping to wipe her face with his fingers. “Don’t get me started now.”

“You’ll never miss me as much as I’ll miss you,” she said, trying to continue to work with him hovering, a hand on her face.

“Stop it,” he whispered. “Come here.”

She set down the tape and stood to face him. He embraced her and pulled her close. Her hands were at her sides, and her cheek was on his chest. They had held each other before, and they had walked hand in hand, sometimes arm in arm. They had expressed their deep feelings for each other without mentioning love. And they had agreed not to cry and not to say anything rash in the moment of parting.

Just when the scene starts to get kind of sweet you’re suddenly jolted out of it by puzzling thoughts of what sort of rash things they might have been tempted to say to one another. (I’m thinking of Liza Minelli and Michael York in Cabaret: “Screw Maximilian!”)

“You can’t say you care for me as much as I care for you,” one of them tells the other one. I think it was Chloe saying it to Buck, but it doesn’t really matter which.

Buck had already planned his first kiss. He had hoped to find a reason to simply brush her lips with his at the end of an evening, say good night, and slip away. He didn’t want to have to deal with her reaction, or deal with kissing her again just then. It was going to be meaningful and special, but quick and simple, something they could build on later.

I believe Erica Jong referred to this as the “zipless kiss.”

He stepped back and took her face in his hands. She resisted at first and tried to hide her face in his chest again, but he insisted she look at him. “I don’t ever want to hear you say that again,” he said.

“But, Buck, it’s true –”

He lowered his head until he eyes were inches from hers. “Did you hear me?” he said. “Don’t say it again. Don’t imply it, don’t even think it. There’s no possible way you could care for me more than I care for you. You are my whole life. I love you, Chloe. Don’t you know that?”

Did I mention something about a creepy subtext of a battle for control?

He felt her nearly recoil at that first declaration of his love. Her tears rolled over his hands, and she began to say, “How would I –?” But he lowered his mouth to hers, cutting off her words. And it was no quick touch of the lips. She raised her hands between his arms, wrapped them around his neck, and held him tight as they kissed.

She pulled away briefly and whispered, “Did you only say that because you’re leaving and –” But he covered her mouth again with his.

As far as “kissing parts” go, that wasn’t nearly as squirmingly awkward as I expected it to be. It was unpleasant, but browse through the nominees of The Guardian’s annual “Bad Sex award,” and you’ll appreciate that the bar for excruciating literary romance is set pretty high. (Or low — you know what I mean.) And Jenkins handles the physical logistics of the scene in a plausible enough manner. If you set aside the content of the dialogue and you try to imagine this as a scene from Growing Pains instead of from Tribulation Force — that’s not Buck Williams, it’s Mike Seaver — then the actual kissing scene almost seems sweet.

But it’s hard to set aside that dialogue, and with those needy, grasping words ringing in your ears, it’s hard to find much that’s sweet in this scene.

“Don’t doubt my love for you ever again. Promise.”

“But, Buck –”

“Promise.”

“I promise. And I love you, too, Buck.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to think that the big “I love you” scene shouldn’t read quite so much like a “Say ‘Uncle!’ Say it!” scene.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* The URL for Gothard’s website actually isn’t case-sensitive, which I find far funnier than I probably should.


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