NRA: It was the worst of books

NRA: It was the worst of books May 18, 2012

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist: pp. vii-1

Every book in the Left Behind series begins with a prologue summarizing “What Has Gone Before.” This is good to know because it means you can skip ahead to Book 12 and just read the prologue instead of slogging through the horror of the previous 11 volumes.

The prologue here in Book 3 presents a challenge for Jerry Jenkins. How do you recap what happened in Tribulation Force when nothing actually happened? Those who joined in our tour of Book 2 here will recall that the first 400 pages are uneventful, then the story abruptly skips ahead 18 months to the outbreak of World War III. That’s the book: 400 pages of treading water, then “18 months later” and our heroes get stuck in traffic only to discover, second-hand, that Washington, New York and London have been destroyed.

Jenkins’ recap of the previous book is almost entirely focused on those final 50 pages — paying particular attention, of course, to the enormity and inconvenience of the traffic jam. Here is nearly all of what he writes to sum-up the earlier four-fifths of that book:

Rayford, Chloe, and Buck, along with their mentor — young pastor Bruce Barnes — become believers in Christ, calling themselves the Tribulation Force, determined to stand against the new world leader. Nicolae Carpathia of Romania becomes head of the United Nations seemingly overnight. And while he charms much of the world, the Tribulation Force believes Nicolae is Antichrist himself.

Through a bizarre set of circumstances, both Rayford and Buck become employees of Carpathia — Rayford his pilot; Buck, publisher of Global Community Weekly.

This helpfully reminds us of key aspects of both the setting and the plot of these books.

Regarding the setting, it shows again that this story of “the end of the world” isn’t about the end of this world, but of the end of a fictional world very much unlike our own. In this fictional world, becoming the “head of the United Nations” means becoming the most powerful person on earth. The UN, in these books, is a kind of planet-wide federation to which every nation — except the United States and Israel — belongs in the same way that the American states belong to one, united nation.

This framework is never stated outright, but it is assumed and implied because, apparently, this is how Tim LaHaye understands the actual United Nations. This is what he thinks the name “United Nations” means — just as he seems to think that the word “Christianity” refers to a kind of cheerful maltheism. In LaHaye’s mind, this is how the world works. He seems to think that Ban Ki-Moon has more power than the actual president of a country like Romania — that Ban has more power in Romania and over Romania. In LaHaye’s imagination — and thus in his fictional world in these novels — the UN secretary-general outranks every actual head of state, with the various presidents and prime ministers of every nation obediently answering to the secretary-general. This is, of course, radically different from the actual United Nations — a mostly toothless international diplomatic gathering with a figurehead diplomat whose minimal influence comes mainly from issuing strongly worded statements that the world is free to ignore.

The point here is that LaHaye’s UN is radically different from the real UN in a way that makes his supposed “Bible prophecies” more possible and plausible. This is true of all the ways in which the fictional world of these books differs from our own. LaHaye can’t imagine changing his prophecies to make them even remotely possible in this world, so instead he changes this world into one in which his prophecies might have a chance. Sometimes this requires a massive revision of the structure and function of institutions like the UN. Other times it involves something even more radical — such as rewriting human nature to eliminate parental affection, national pride and religious devotion.

The world of these books bears some resemblance to our world — but only at the most superficial level. It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of familiarity due to all the recognizable names and places. You recognize words like “Chicago” or “Israel” or “United Nations” and assume you know what they mean here. Don’t be fooled. The world of Left Behind is not our world. It is an alien universe inhabited by alien creatures and ruled by an alien god.

Regarding the plot, the excerpt above reminds us that we can’t read these books with the usual expectation that the heroes will be heroic, or that their actions ought to make sense. Here are the two things we need to know about these heroes: 1) they aim to “stand against” the Antichrist; and 2) their plan for doing so involves working for him and following his orders. Neither these characters nor the authors seem to understand that resisting and assisting are not the same thing.

The phrase “through a bizarre set of circumstances” seems to be Jenkins’ way of summarizing the first 400 pages of the last book. The circumstances there aren’t really bizarre as much as belabored. Rayford and Buck vow that never, ever, under any circumstances would they ever work go to work for Nicolae Carpathia. And then they both agree to go work for Nicolae Carpathia.

The truly bizarre set of circumstances comes next, in Jenkins’ unintentionally hilarious summary of the beginning of World War III:

They [Rayford, Amanda, Buck and Chloe] discover that Bruce is in the hospital, but on their way to visit him, global war erupts. American militia factions, under the clandestine leadership of Carpathia-emasculated President Gerald Fitzhugh, had joined forces with the United States of Britain and the former sovereign state of Egypt, now part of the newly formed Middle Eastern Commonwealth. American East Coast militia forces have attacked Washington, which lies in ruins.

Carpathia, whose hotel was leveled, is spirited away safely. His Global Community Forces retaliate by attacking a former Nike base in suburban Chicago, within sight of the hospital where Bruce Barnes was suffering from a deadly virus. An assault on New Babylon is quickly thwarted, and London is attacked by Global Community Forces in retaliation for Britain’s collusion with the American militia.

I’d read all of that at the end of Tribulation Force, but there it was padded out over a whole chapter and muffled by pages of tedious prose. Seeing it distilled here into two paragraphs highlights just how deliriously weird this is.

The authors’ idea of World War is like some dadaist game of Risk. (“My 13 armies from Kamchatka invade Baltic Avenue with Professor Plum and the candlestick … Uno.”) Each step seems random, nonsensical, and unrelated to whatever just happened. The Americans attack and destroy Washington and in response to this American invasion of America, Nicolae bombs the Chicago suburbs. An Egyptian army tries to march undetected all the way to Iraq and gets wiped out by Antichrist fighter jets on their way to obliterate London.

Jenkins’ two-paragraph summary above is such a jumble of arbitrary non-sequiturs that one almost suspects it’s his deliberate attempt at Pythonesque humor. But then one remembers that Jenkins is simply listing the events from LaHaye’s End Times check list in the prescribed and prophesied order, and thus neither author sees anything absurd or humorous about any of this. It’s something they believe will actually happen, very soon.

After this, the prologue stops summarizing and just starts reprinting. The remaining iv pages simply repeat the final four pages of Tribulation Force, recounting Rayford’s anguish over the death of Bruce Barnes and the traffic on I-94.

It’s worth noting some of the many things this introductory recap did not review from the previous books. It tells us twice about Rayford’s marriage to Amanda White, but says nothing about Buck and Chloe tying the knot. Nor does it say anything about the Two Witnesses, about Tsion Ben-Judah, or about the Tribulation-initiating peace treaty between Israel and the Antichrist. We’re reminded of the details of Rayford’s recent flight schedule, but not of any of the prophetically significant events from the End Times check list.

Those “Bible prophecy” elements were what initially prompted the authors to write these books, but now they seem distracted from them. They’ve gotten so caught up in the fantasy of their “heroic” Marty Stu surrogate characters that even LaHaye seems less concerned with the fulfillment of his prophecies than with reminding readers that studly pilot Rayford Steele is widely respected and envied and is getting laid by his hot new wife.

Which brings us, at last, to the pages with Arabic numerals and the proper beginning of Book 3, Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist.

Here is Jenkins’ first sentence:

It was the worst of times; it was the worst of times.


First of all, this isn’t even accurate. We’re only 18 months into the seven-year Great Tribulation, so Rayford knows better than to imagine that this is “the worst of times.” This apocalypse has barely gotten started. We’ve got five more seals, seven bowls and seven trumpets of divine wrath still to come — with each septet progressively worse than the one before.

The worst of times? Rayford has seen the Big Chart and has been studying the check list for months. He knows he ain’t seen nothin’ yet. He’s only half-way through the horsemen. If he somehow manages to survive another few years, he’ll be dodging demon locusts and flaming hail while the stars fall and the oceans bleed and he’ll be looking back to this time as “the good old days.”

And second, if Jenkins wants to play with classic opening lines, then he needs to put a bit more effort into it than this lazy, half-baked spoof of Dickens.

Dickens himself certainly did. Here’s a bit more of his original opening sentence from A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …

Dickens establishes his setting and his theme at the same time while making it sing. That’s genius. Appropriating that genius was a smart idea for Jenkins — “steal from the best” — but he makes a mess of it. He was aiming, I think, for the kind of playful twist that would evoke all the poetry and emotional force of the original. But the clumsiness of the allusion instead just invites an extremely unflattering comparison.

Jenkins would have been better off taking a cue from Snoopy and ripping off Bulwer-Lytton instead of Dickens: “It was a dark and stormy apocalypse.”

Or maybe borrowing instead from an American classic: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of Tribulation Force, but that ain’t no matter.”

We could play this game all day:

  • In a plane in the sky there lived a pilot.
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single Antichrist in possession of global power, must be in want of two assistants.
  • This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly odd white men on a planet which was dying fast.
  • Call me Nicolae.
  • There was a man called Rayford Eustace Steele, and he almost deserved it.
  • Real, true Christians are all alike; and every sinner is sinful in the same way.
  • God is a sick god … god is a spiteful god. I believe there is something wrong with god’s liver.
  • Only the real, true Christians would have believed, in the last years of the 20th century, that this world was being watched by a divine intelligence greater than humanity’s; that as people busied themselves about their various concerns they were being scrutinized and studied, even more narrowly than a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
  • You better not never tell nobody ’bout God.
  • A screaming comes across the phone.
  • Hattie, light of my life, fire of my loins.

I hope you’ll add to this list in comments below.

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