NRA: Cringe with those who cringe

NRA: Cringe with those who cringe December 6, 2013

Nicolae: Rise of the Antichrist; pp. 200-208

Back in the second book of this series, Tribulation Force, readers were subjected to the scene of an “inner circle” prayer meeting in Pastor Bruce Barnes’ office. Maybe you remember that scene. Or maybe you’ve suppressed that memory in the hopes that you’d never be forced to live through such extreme discomfort again.

If the latter is true, you’ll probably also want to skip these pages in Nicolae, because here again we encounter the same doubly awkward, cringe-inducing attempt to present the authors’ idea of worshipful ecstasy.

Buck and Michael beach their riverboat on the eastern shore of the Jordan River and set off, “through the underbrush,” to the secret hideout where the messianic underground has hidden renegade ex-rabbit Tsion Ben-Judah:

Buck had forgotten how long five kilometers could be. The ground was uneven and moist. The overgrowth slapped him in the face. He switched his bag from shoulder to shoulder, never fully comfortable. He was in good shape, but this was hard. This was not jogging or cycling or running on a treadmill. This was working your way through sandy shoreline to who knew where?

In our world, the eastern shore of the Jordan River is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In the world of Left Behind, the nation of Jordan does not exist and its nearly 7 million residents have mysteriously vanished. Not, like, Rapture-vanished — they’re simply absent from this world, displaced from their homes without a trace and with no mention of where they have gone or what happened to them. That was established in a parenthetical flashback-within-a-flashback in the first chapter of the first book. Here we learn that, apparently, after the Jordanians were peacefully ethnically cleansed and their country was absorbed into the Greater Israel of Tim LaHaye’s prophesied Middle East, the former nation of Jordan reverted to a scrubby, post-human wilderness. (Or, maybe, LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins just vaguely remember reading that John the Baptist ministered along the Jordan, and since he was described as “a voice crying in the wilderness,” they figure this is what the area must be like today.)

Anyway, this long hike gives Buck a chance to prepare for his first meeting with Tsion Ben-Judah since his friend’s wife and children were slaughtered in the streets:

He dreaded seeing Dr. Ben-Judah. He wanted to be reunited with his friend and brother in Christ, but what does one say to one who has lost his family? No platitudes, no words would make it better. The man had paid one of the steepest prices that anyone could pay, and nothing short of heaven could make it better.

It’s not meant to be foreshadowing, I don’t think, but after reading those words — “No platitudes” — here in the conclusion of Chapter 10, can you guess what we’ll find when Buck is reunited with his friend in the beginning of Chapter 11?

Buck enters Michael’s “underground shelter invisible to anyone who hadn’t come there on purpose” and the very first thing he noticed is “that there were no real beds and no pillows” — just as the Bible prophesied 2,000 years ago!

Three other gaunt and desperate-looking young men, who could have been Michael’s brothers, huddled in the dugout, where there was barely room to stand. … He was introduced all around, but only Michael, of the four, understood English.

And only Michael, of the four, gets a name. Think of the others as henchmen or redshirts or just set-dressing extras. What strikes me most about this whole bunch is how depressed and depressing they all seem. This isn’t a merry band of outlaws, burning with zeal to reach the whole world with the glorious good news of their joyful message of salvation. It’s just a bunch of sad, hungry men hiding in a hole.

Buck squinted, looking for Tsion. He could hear him, but he could not see him. Finally, a dim, electric lantern was illuminated. There, sitting in the corner, his back to the wall, was one of the first and surely the most famous of what would become the 144,000 witnesses prophesied of in the Bible.

At some point we’ll need to step back and discuss this whole “144,000” business. Tim LaHaye has a slight variation to the usual premillennial dispensationalist take on the passages from Revelation that give us that number, and we should talk about the way he and other “Bible prophecy scholars” regard the 144,000 as opposed to the way actual biblical scholars treat those passages. For now, let’s just say this: When you read a number like that which do you think is likelier: That this is a precise figure denoting a precise whole-number amount greater than 143,999 and lesser than 144,001? Or that this big round number — a dozen dozen thousands — may be a figure of speech suggesting something other than such a precise quantification?

Buck whispered that he would like a moment alone with Tsion. Michael and the others climbed through the opening and stood idly in the underbrush, weapons at the ready. Buck crouched next to Dr. Ben-Judah.

“Tsion,” Buck said, “God loves you.” The words had surprised even Buck. Could it possibly seem to Tsion that God loved him now? And what kind of a platitude was that? Was it now his place to speak for God?

Jenkins reach exceeds his grasp here, but I won’t judge this bit too harshly because at least he’s reaching for something ambitious. Better writers have also struggled, and failed, with how to discuss the inadequacy of words — even of truthful words — in the context of suffering. Jenkins is grappling with something difficult and meaningful here, and that’s to be encouraged, so I don’t want to come down too hard on him for the way this particular attempt fails.

But still, it fails. After half-acknowledging there that anything Buck says is going to sound here like empty, pious platitudes, Jenkins and Buck plow ahead with a litany of empty, pious platitudes:

“What do you know for sure?” Buck asked, wondering himself what in the world he was talking about.

Tsion’s reply, in his barely understandable Israeli accent, squeaked from a constricted throat: “I know that my Redeemer lives.”

“What else do you know?” Buck said, listening as much as speaking.

“I know that He who has begun a good work in me will be faithful to complete it.”

Praise God! Buck thought.

And then Tsion’s voice transformed into a deep, Paul-Robeson baritone, and he began to sing “When peace like a river atten-en-deth my waaayyyy …”

I imagine we caught a glimpse there of meta-Tsion trying to surface in protest of this whole scene and it’s attempt to mine his suffering for uplift. Buck hears that first answer — “I know that my Redeemer lives” — as an inspirational affirmation of Tsion’s unshakable faith, and that’s how Jenkins frames it here. But it’s also imaginable that Tsion’s throat is constricted with anger and that he’s citing the book of Job there as a warning — “Back off, Bildad! The last thing I need right now is a recitation of the theodicy of half-wits.”

Alas, though, Buck isn’t done yet. And neither is Jenkins, who wants to be sure he hasn’t been too subtle in clubbing readers with his message here:

Buck slumped to the ground and sat next to Ben-Judah, his back against the wall. He had come to rescue this man, to minister to him. Now he had been ministered to. Only God could provide such assurance and confidence at a time of such grief.

“Your wife and your children were believers –”

“Today, they see God,” Tsion finished for him.

Tsion asks Buck if he brought his Bible with him. “Not in book form, sir,” Buck says. “I have the entire Scripture on my computer.”

And thus we embark on a two-page tangent in which Buck ponders the cutting-edge Bible software of 1997 while still not quite getting it right. As he digs out his computer, Tsion asks if he would “happen to have the Old Testament in Hebrew?” (Because rabbis always refer to the Old Testament as “the Old Testament” — just as they’re more likely to quote Philippians or James, in the King James, than anything from that Old Testament.)

“No, but those programs are widely available.”

“At least they are now,” Tsion said, a sob still in his throat. “My most recent studies have led me to believe that our religious freedoms will soon become scarce at an alarming pace.”

It took this guy “study” to figure out that the Antichrist might be hostile to religious freedom? Wait until he continues his “studies” and finds out that “the 144,000 witnesses prophesied of in the Bible” are actually described in Revelation as 144,000 martyrs.

“I sometimes find the Psalms comforting,” Buck said.

Tsion nodded, now covering his mouth with his hand. The man’s chest heaved and he could hold back the sobs no longer. He leaned over onto Buck and collapsed in tears. “The joy of the Lord is my strength,” he moaned over and over. “The joy of the Lord is my strength.”

Joy, Buck thought. What a concept in this place, at this time. The name of the game now was survival. Certainly joy took on a different meaning than ever before in Buck’s life. He used to equate joy with happiness. Clearly Tsion Ben-Judah was not implying that he was happy. He might never be happy again. This joy was a deep, abiding peace, an assurance that God was sovereign. They didn’t have to like what was happening. They merely had to trust that God knew what he was doing.

In retrospect, that “No platitudes” bit at the end of the last chapter was far more ominous than I realized.

“Ask the others to join us for prayer,” Tsion says to Buck, and the reader’s eyes involuntarily scan ahead to see an unbroken block of text that continues for the next two pages. Oh no. No, not that, not again. They’re going to pray and we’re going to have to watch.

What follows is, like that earlier scene in Bruce Barnes’ office, wincingly awkward in two ways. First because of what Jenkins is attempting to portray, and secondly because of the failure of that attempt. This prayer is meant to be a time of transcendent spiritual ecstasy, but witnessing the ecstasy of others without being a participant in it is either mortifying or, for a certain kind of voyeur, titillating. Either way, it seems cheapened, which is why storytellers who are not pornographers know when it is wisest to fade to black.

Jerry Jenkins does not fade to black. He makes us watch:

A few minutes later, the six men knelt in a circle, Tsion spoke to them briefly in Hebrew, Michael quietly whispering the interpretation into Buck’s ear. “My friends and brothers in Christ, though I am deeply wounded, yet I must pray. I pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I praise you because you are the one and only true God, the God above all other gods. You sit high above the heavens. There is none other like you. In you there is no variation or shadow of turning.” With that, Tsion broke down again and asked that the others pray for him.

Buck had never heard people praying together aloud in a foreign language. Hearing the fervency of these witness-evangelists made him fall prostrate. He felt the cold mud on the backs of his hands as he buried his face in his palms. He didn’t know about Tsion but felt as if he were being borne along on clouds of peace. Suddenly Tsion’s voice could be heard above the rest. Michael bent down and whispered in Buck’s ear, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

Buck did not know how long he lay on the floor. Eventually the prayers became groanings and what sounded like Hebrew versions of amens and hallelujahs. Buck rose to his knees and felt stiff and sore. Tsion looked at him, his face still wet but seemingly finished crying for now. “I believe I can finally sleep,” the rabbi said.


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