NRA: Bible-prophecy and phlebotinum

NRA: Bible-prophecy and phlebotinum April 26, 2013

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; pp. 141-143

We’re still in the middle of a long re-hash and review of Buck Williams’ relationship with the Israeli botanist Chaim Rosenzweig.

I’m happy to give the authors a pass on Rosenzweig’s miracle formula. They never really bother to describe it, and the explanations of its purpose and its effect are only ever presented in the sketchiest terms, but we can generously allow that bit to fall under the generally accepted rules for applied phlebotinum.

That’s the generic term for “the versatile substance that may be rubbed on almost anything to cause an effect needed by a plot.” Tim LaHaye’s “prophecies” and Jerry Jenkins “plot” require a miraculous formula that will make the desert bloom. Storytellers are entitled to be allowed such plot devices without being required to actually invent a working prototype. That’s part of the deal.

I’m not sure that deal applies to LaHaye as well as to Jenkins, though. It’s one thing to say, “I’m telling a story, and in this story there are wizards, or warp drives, or Kryptonian supermen, so please just accept those as part of the terms required for enjoying this story.” But it’s quite another thing to say, “The Word of God, as interpreted by me, declares that certain actual events are about to happen, here in reality, very soon, and these will in fact involve miraculous fertility formulas.” The willing suspension of disbelief is something we readers should grant to storytellers, but if the “Bible prophecies” of a “Bible prophet” require the suspension of disbelief, we should not be quite so willing.

It also would have been helpful if Jenkins had bothered to do a better job selling the phlebotinum of Rosenzweig’s miracle formula. Readers don’t ask for much in that regard — the judicious application of scientific-sounding terms like “ionized” or “molecular bonding” or some such would have been enough. (The “science” of phlebotinum doesn’t have to make perfect sense, it just has to sound sufficiently authoritative.)

Unfortunately for the authors, though, the rules of applied phlebotinum don’t apply to fundamental human nature. A storyteller can bend the laws of physics to allow humans to travel faster than light if the plot requires it, or she can invent whole new rules to allow humans to wield magic if that’s what the story needs. But those humans flying at warp-speed or practicing their wand-craft at Hogwarts still need to be recognizably human.

And that’s the problem with the Rosenzweig subplot. It doesn’t matter to readers that there’s not really any such thing as a magic formula to make the desert bloom. But it does matter, a great deal, that there has never been any such thing as humans who would respond to the existence of such a formula the way the alleged humans in these books do.

It had been Chaim Rosenzweig who had first mentioned the name Nicolae Carpathia to Buck. Buck had asked the old man if any of those who had been sent to court him about the formula had impressed him. Only one, Rosenzweig had told him; a young midlevel politician from the little country of Romania. Chaim had been taken with Carpathia’s pacifist views, his selfless demeanor, and his insistence that the formula had the potential to change the world and save lives.

So leaders from all over the world came to talk to Rosenzweig about the potential use of his miraculous agricultural formula, yet only one mentioned that it might be used to help feed the hungry.

No. That’s not possible. That’s less believable than warp-drives or wormholes or wizardry.

It also suggests so many missed opportunities. Nicolae could have persuaded Rosenzweig with a speech about turning stones into loaves of bread — echoing the words of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness and exploring a nice contrast between Christ and Antichrist. Or Nicolae could have made the case that employing Rosenzweig’s formula all over the world instead of just in the tiny state of Israel would be an effective way to recapture carbon in the atmosphere — thus saving the world from the worst potential effects of climate change. (The authors don’t believe in climate change, of course, but that’s all the more a reason to make fighting it a part of the Antichrist’s agenda.)

Buck could hardly remember when he had not been aware of Nicolae Carpathia, though his first exposure even to the name had been in that interview with Rosenzweig. Within days after the vanishings, the man who had seemingly overnight become president of Romania was a guest speaker at the United Nations. His brief address was so powerful, so magnetic, so impressive, that he had drawn a standing ovation even from the press — even from Buck. Of course, the world was in shock, terrified by the disappearances, and the time had been perfect for someone to step to the fore and offer a new international agenda for peace, harmony, and brotherhood.

Carpathia was thrust, ostensibly against his will, into power. He displaced the former secretary-general of the United Nations …

Again, there are impossibilities and implausibilities here that no amount of applied phlebotinum can fix. We read Carpathia’s speech at the U.N. and it was awful — an alphabetical listing of the nations of the world, in nine languages. Even that is fixable, I suppose, with an appeal to another bit of phlebotinum in these stories — Nicolae’s supernatural powers of spellbinding charisma and mind-control. But even if we grant that, there’s still the problem of the authors’ complete misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what the United Nations is and how it works.

In these books, the U.N. is not an international forum for diplomacy, but a federation of nations. The secretary-general of the U.N. is thus not a toothless diplomat impotently pleading for co-operation, but the most powerful person in the entire world. He is king over kings, president over presidents, prime minister over prime ministers. The U.N. secretary-general rules over and can over-rule any national leader, by fiat apparently. His word is law.

That’s so far removed from anything like reality that this plot development simply cannot be salvaged. And since this plot development is central to the plot of the series, it’s a fatal, un-fixable flaw that sinks the entire story.

If he were simply given free-rein as a storyteller, Jenkins might have been able to fix this. He could have explained that in the alternate universe in which this story is set, the United Nations isn’t like the U.N. we have, but that it instead works like the planetary hierarchy described here. Readers could have gone along with that.

But the rules of this series don’t allow for that. This story is, and must be, set in our world — in this world and in no other, with the same nations, institutions, economics, politics, physics, chemistry and human race we see all around us and read about in the newspaper. Jenkins can make minor cosmetic changes — turning Newsweek into Global Weekly, or turning United into Pan-Continental airlines — but he cannot change anything substantive, transforming the world of his story into a different place unrecognizable to residents of the real world and irreconcilable with the real world we know.

That’s non-negotiable, again, because these books are supposed to be a depiction of the fulfillment of LaHaye’s “Bible prophecies,” and those prophecies, if they are to mean anything, have to unfold in this world and not in some alternate universe with an alternate U.N.

What it really means, then, when we read that “Carpathia was thrust … into power [as] secretary-general of the United Nations” is that Jenkins story can be allowed to stagger along, but LaHaye’s prophecies are henceforth proved to be nonsense. They cannot be fulfilled in this world, only in the alternate universe of Jenkins’ story. And since we do not live in that alternate universe, we do not live in a world in which Tim LaHaye’s interpretation of the Bible is possible.

It’s also not obvious to me that a world “in shock,” from the instantaneous disintegration of every single child would be ripe “for someone to step to the fore and offer a new international agenda for peace, harmony, and brotherhood” as much as it would be ripe for an authoritarian tyrant who promised to avenge their loss and protect them from future harm. Nicolae’s kumbaya message might have persuaded some to trust him, but I think just after the vanishings he could have gained more popular support by standing up and saying, “Christ took your children. I am the Antichrist. I will make him pay. Who’s with me?”

Carpathia was thrust, ostensibly against his will, into power. He displaced the former secretary-general of the United Nations, reorganized it to include ten international mega-territories, renamed it the Global Community, moved it to Babylon (which was rebuilt and renamed New Babylon), and then set about disarming the entire globe.

There are seven verbs in that last sentence. Some of them are merely absurdities while the others are impossibilities. Several are both absurd and impossible.

And none of that can be fixed with an appeal to our willing suspension of disbelief. Poor Jenkins has been given an arbitrary list of “prophecies” that must be fulfilled, whether or not they make any sense. Why would Nicolae want or need to do any of that? Why would anyone else watch him do it without assuming he’d lost his mind? Jenkins’ only answer is the answer LaHaye supplies him: It’s what has been prophesied. And there’s no way to make any of that seem acceptable by reversing the polarity or reconfabulating the tachyon pulse or reassembling all the pieces of the lost amulet of power.

Jenkins half-heartedly tries to wave Rosenzweig’s formula like a magic wand that can transform all this nonsense into sense, but he winds up digging a deeper hole:

It had taken more than Carpathia’s charismatic personality to effect all this. He had a trump card. He had gotten to Rosenzweig. He had convinced the old man and his government that the key to the new world was Carpathia’s and the Global Community’s ability to broker Rosenzweig’s formula in exchange for compliance with international rules for disarmament. In exchange for a Carpathia-signed guarantee of at least seven years of protection from her enemies,* Israel licensed to him the formula that allowed him to extract any promise he needed from any country in the world. With the formula, Russia could grow grain in the frozen tundra of Siberia. Destitute African nations became hothouses of domestic food sources and agricultural exports.

And there, at the end of that paragraph, we get a tiny hint of the one way I can imagine that we could still salvage Jerry Jenkins’ plot.

The formula, Jenkins says, made it possible for every nation on earth to grow rich through “agricultural exports.” Now, we could just take that as further confirmation that Jenkins doesn’t have the first clue about real-world economics. “Export to who?” we could ask, and then laugh at the absurdity of the authors’ ignorance and incuriosity.

Or we could assume that the authors have thought this through and really mean what they’re suggesting. If every nation on Earth is now exporting agricultural products, that can only mean one thing: Extra-terrestrial markets for Earth produce.

And what would we Earthlings get in exchange for the “flowers and grains” that Rosenzweig’s miracle formula would allow us to sell to our new interplanetary trading partners? Unobtainium. Huge, vast amounts of unobtainium — more than any desperately plot-patching storyteller could ever dream of.

With that inexhaustible supply of pure unobtainium, the people of Earth would be able to fuel a planetary phlebotinumizer — a machine so powerful and so incomprehensible that it might even be used to make Tim LaHaye’s “Bible prophecies” slightly less absurd.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* It’s not clear why a “guarantee of at least seven years of protection from her enemies” would mean anything to the state of Israel described in these books.

We were told — way back on page 8 of the first book — that:

The prosperity brought about by the miracle formula changed the course of history for Israel. Flush with cash and resources, Israel made peace with her neighbors.

So what’s the incentive to sign a treaty promising short-term protection from “enemies” that we’ve already been told don’t exist?

The only remaining “enemies” Israel had were Russia and Ethiopia, and those nations have already taken their best shot — exhausting their entire national arsenals and sacrificing their entire militaries in an all-out assault on Israel that failed to produce a single injury due to the explicit, miraculous intervention by the hand of God.

So here comes Nicolae Carpathia, asking Israel to trade him the miracle formula in exchange for a “guarantee of at least seven years of protection from her enemies.” But Israel has no remaining enemies. And the last enemy they did have was destroyed by the very hand of the Almighty. With God personally intervening to swat down any attack against them, what’s the appeal of a short-term non-aggression pledge from the president of Romania?

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  • Jamoche

    You could pull it off, if you did it Douglas Adams style:

    “You’ve said this contract is good until the end of the Earth, but here it says seven years.”
    “Lawyers, what can you do? Always being literal. I’ll get someone right on that.”

    “Myself I’d trust him to the end of the Earth,” said Ford.
    “Oh yes,” said Arthur, “and how far’s that?”
    “About twelve minutes away,” said Ford, “come on, I need a drink.”

  • Pleasepleasepleasewritethis.

  • Didn’t Pol Pot adhere to a kind of bizarre agrarian-utopia version of Communism? Also, the Nazis did propound a kind of odd agrarian-utopia mythos of the Reich, but IIRC once in power they tended to talk it up more than actually do anything about it.

  • Pol Pot is certainly who I thought of at the mention of genocidal agrarian dictators, though I take it he limited his attempts at genocide to his own people.

  • I like “TimandJerry” as a name of our authors. Puts me in mind of Tim And Eric, which is about their intellectual level.

  • ngotts

    Some European Protestants (Ian Paisley is one IIRC) think the EU is just a stalking horse for the Roman Catholic Church. Its founding document is the Treaty of Rome, you see.

  • ngotts

    On the Nazis and agriculture, I recommend Adam Tooze The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, particularly Ch.6 “Saving the Peasants”, and for what was planned for eastern Europe, Ch.14 “The Grand Strategy of Racial War”.

  • “Christ took your children. I am the Antichrist. I will make him pay. Who’s with me?” There’s a heck of a story in there… I guess in a sense Armageddon/Pantheocide already covered some of it?

    On that note, there’s ~800 years between the penultimate and last chapter of Kingdom Come in which a lot of stuff seems to happen, but is barely poked at.

  • The notion of all countries getting rich by exporting food reminds me of the old joke of the village where all the people supported themselves by taking in each other’s washing.

  • Carstonio

    Wow. I’ve never heard of water politics having anything to do with the regional tensions, although it obviously makes sense. I had always assumed that the surrounding nations had religious objections to a non-Muslim nation on land sacred to Muslims, or that the leaders of those nations were using wars against Israel as a diversion to quell dissent at home.

  • Mark Z.

    Pol Pot was mainly who I was thinking of under “Mao and his followers” (along with Che Guevara, who wasn’t nearly as successful). “Bizarre agrarian-utopia version of Communism” was Mao’s big idea, and Pol Pot’s genocide was pretty much the Cultural Revolution with more axe-murder.

  • Dawkins is a good stylist, but he’s been a bit of a sexist arse recently. (See kerfuffle on Twitter, as annotated at Shakesville and at Ana Mardoll’s.)


  • If L&J hadn’t told enough story in the first book, there never would have been a second.

    …did you not notice how little story L&J managed to tell in the first book? Oh, there was a fair amount of data-dumping in the first book (Rapture! Evil Bankers! U.N.!) but precious little story-telling.