NRA: Suspending suspense

NRA: Suspending suspense September 23, 2014

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist, pp. 246-250

Occasionally in the Left Behind series, Jerry Jenkins achieves an almost respectable level of hackwork. We see glimpses of that here. The reader has to strain to see it, squinting past several implausible tangents and blocking out the background of incoherent, contradictory world-building. But there are moments here, at the end of Chapter 12, where Jenkins hits some of the right notes.

On the last page of the chapter, for instance, as Buck nervously restarts the school bus to pull away from the border crossing: “He executed the fragile dance between clutch and accelerator and got the rig moving.” That’s not terrible.

It helps that this stock scene is familiar — we already know how it’s supposed to go and where we’re supposed to feel the beats of suspense. That lets readers connect the dots, volunteering the emotional response it seems Jenkins was trying to elicit. But while we’re still the ones who have to connect those dots, Jenkins has, for once, supplied just enough of them for us to be able to make those connections. So compared to most of what we’re reading in these books, this section is relatively successful. Relatively.

In recognition of that, I will refrain here from making any jokes in this post about the awkward way Jenkins employs the name “Anis.”

Buck hurried into the processing building. He was as distracted as he’d ever been, but he couldn’t let it show. He wanted to turn and see if Tsion was dragged off the bus. No way he could escape on foot as he had on the road not long before. There was nowhere to go here, nowhere to hide. Barbed wire fences lined each side. Once you got in the gate, you had to go one way or the other. There was no going around.

I still don’t really know what this “processing building” looks like, but Jenkins has finally supplied a sketchy sketch of the lay of the land. We’ve settled on a dim sense of who is doing what and where they are. Buck and the Older Guard are in the building, going over his papers. The Younger Guard is outside, inspecting the school bus on which Tsion is hiding. Got it.

It’s not exactly Hitchcock, or Christoph Waltz smoking his pipe in Inglourious Basterds, but the scene is set well enough to provide some tension. Now that we know who, what and where, we’re able to worry about what next.

The original guard had Buck’s papers spread out before him. “You entered Israel through what entry point?”

“Tel Aviv,” Buck said. “It should all be there –”

“Oh, it is. Just checking. Your papers seem to be in order, Mr. Katz,” he added, stamping Buck’s passport and visa. “And you are representing …?”

“International Harvesters,” Buck said, making it plural because he meant it.

The reference here is to John 4:35b, as typically excerpted and extracted from all the surrounding verses and story in the fourth chapter of John’s gospel.

Soul Harvest
The Soul Harvest Festival

That verse, referenced in that way, is a longtime favorite of evangelistic pep rallies and mission conferences: “Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.”*

That verse also provides the name of the fifth book in this series — Soul Harvest — which is also what Tim LaHaye calls the mass evangelism he believes is prophesied in the book of Revelation. (That name strikes me as downright creepy — a Soul Harvester sounds like something Buffy or the Winchester brothers would hunt as a monster of the week. Either that or “Soul Harvest” is what Don Cornelius would have called the funkiest Autumn Festival of all time.)

Buck’s pious punning deflates some of the tension we were trying to allow here, but he and Jenkins just couldn’t help themselves.

The guard asks Buck a few more mostly plausible questions, as Buck worries about what’s going on out in the school bus. And then:

The guard was on the computer. “This shows you were detained in Beersheba earlier this morning?”

“Detained is overstating it a bit. I was adding water to the radiator and was questioned briefly by a G.C. peacekeeping officer.”

I have given up, entirely, on any attempt to make sense of the jurisdictional issues this raises. Why is a Global Community officer operating within Israel? Doesn’t Israel have a peace treaty with the GC as a separate, sovereign nation? Start to ask those questions and the yawning holes in Jenkins’ world-building open before us. So don’t ask. Don’t even look. If we look at questions like that, we’ll never get past them.

“Did he tell you the previous owner of your vehicle has been arrested in connection with the escape of Tsion Ben-Judah?”

“He did.”

“You might be interested in this, then.” The guard turned and pointed a remote control device at a television up in the corner. The Global Community Network News was reporting that a Michael Shorosh had been arrested in connection with the harboring of a fugitive from justice.

The text doesn’t say so, but we’ll assume that the OG is using that newfangled “remote control device” to turn up the sound on the news because he glanced up from the computer and saw that this report was coming on. That’s pretty remarkable timing, but not the amazing timing the other way of reading this scene suggests — with him saying, “You might be interested in … this!” and then clicking on the TV to a report on precisely the subject he expected.

That would be silly, but the scene as written seems to suggest it. And it’s not any sillier than the rest of this news broadcast, which goes into the kind of expository detail that wouldn’t be of interest to any viewers or reporters — only to Buck and to the good Christian folk reading this story:

“Global Community spokesmen say that Ben Judah, formerly a respected scholar and clergyman, apparently became a radical fanatic fundamentalist, and point to a sermon he delivered just a week ago as evidence that he overreacted to a New Testament passage and was later seen by several neighbors slaughtering his own family.”

Buck watched in horror as the news ran a tape of Tsion speaking at a huge rally in a filled stadium in Larnaca, on the island of Cyprus. “You’ll note,” the newsman said, as the tape was stopped, “the man on the platform behind Dr. Ben-Judah has been identified as Michael Shorosh. In a raid on his Jericho home shortly after midnight tonight, peacekeeping forces found personal photos of Ben-Judah’s family and identification papers from both Ben-Judah and an American journalist, Cameron Williams. Williams’s connection to the case has not been determined.”

Buck prayed they would not show his face on television. …

See how the servants of the Antichrist use “fundamentalist” as a slur against the innocent? You know exactly how that feels, don’t you, dear real, true Christian readers? Of course you do. Savor that. Bask in that. For in the same way shalt they persecute the Tribulation Force which cometh after you.

OK, then. The report is implausible, but it does help ratchet up the tension here. At any second, the news channel could show Buck’s picture and the jig will be up. But then Jenkins steps on the moment:

Buck prayed they would not show his face on television. He was startled to see the guard look over his shoulder to the door. Buck whirled to see the young guard come in, staring at him. The young man let the door close behind him and leaned back against it, his arms folded over his chest. He watched the news report with them. …

We can still salvage some suspense from this, though. The TV still might be about to reveal his identity. Plus, now the Younger Guard is standing there, mum. Is he standing there quietly because he didn’t find Tsion’s hiding place in the school bus? Or is he just playing coy to see what Buck might reveal?

For just a moment, this is actually sort of suspenseful. The scene is almost working.

And so Jenkins decides to heighten the suspense by having a news report quote a huge chunk of scripture, and then he pauses to congratulate Buck for understanding the New Testament in a way that these ignorant, evil Jews would never be able to do:

The tape showed Ben-Judah reading from Matthew. Buck had heard Tsion preach this message before. The verses, of course, had been taken out of context. “Whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;’ and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.”

The news reporter said solemnly, “This just a few days before the rabbi murdered his own wife and children in broad daylight.”

The passage here is from Matthew 10. It’s part of the speech Jesus gives as he sends out his disciples. That passage actually makes sense as something Tsion Ben-Judah would have quoted in his stadium tours commissioning his own army of 144,000 virgin evangelists.

As with all scripture quotations in the Left Behind series, the words here are from the New King James Version — the updated 1982 translation that tries to preserve some King James-y sounding stuff while shaving off the thees and thous that might trip up modern readers. That’s a very odd English translation for Tsion Ben-Judah to be quoting from, but then the man is supposedly more fluent in Hebrew and Greek than he is in English, so it’s odd for him to be using an English translation at all.**

This entire news report, though, underscores the incoherence of this whole Escape from Israel subplot. Buck is desperately trying to get Tsion across the border and out of Israel, because it is only there, in Israel, that Tsion Ben-Judah is a wanted man. Earlier in this chapter, Jenkins calls him “the most recognizable and notorious fugitive in Israel.” But if they can get him safely across the border, he’ll be safer, because in the rest of the world he’s not big news.

Except that here, according to this lengthy, leading segment on the Global Community News Network, we see that Tsion Ben-Judah is recognizable and notorious even in the Globa–

Don’t look at the world-building! Try to make sense of that and we’ll never be able to keep turning pages. Just turn away.

“That’s something, isn’t it?” the older guard said.

“That’s something all right,” Buck said, fearing his voice betrayed him.

Note: When your cover story involves you just this moment learning that you purchased a vehicle from the accomplice of a man your cover story says you believe is a vicious murderer, then it might be best to restrict your comments to the kinds of reactions that reinforce that cover story. Mugging and gratuitous asides are best saved for later. Wait until you’re out of harm’s way, then smirk at the villains for not sharing your proper understanding of the real, true meaning of the Bible.

More seriously, the attempt at cracking wise by Buck/Jenkins here undermines Jenkins’ previous attempts to create tension. I enjoy the kind of story in which the heroes make jokes when confronted with danger, but the danger in such stories is never meant to seem as real as the kind of danger Jenkins’ wanted to suggest here. I like watching Shawn and Gus crack wise or bicker obliviously while the Bad Guy points a gun at them on Psych, but part of the bargain with the viewer in such scenes is that we know we’re not watching the kind of story in which the Bad Guy might actually shoot the heroes dead.

The guard at the desk was stacking Buck’s papers. He looked past Buck to the young guard. “Everything all right with the vehicle, Anis?”

Buck had to think quickly. Which would look more suspicious? Not turning to look at the young man, or turning to look at him? He turned to look. Still standing before the closed door, arms over his chest, the rigid young man nodded once. “All is in order. Blankets and supplies.”

Buck had been holding his breath. The man at the desk slid his papers across. “Safe journey,” he said.

Buck nearly wept as he exhaled. “Thank you,” he said.

So finally Buck exhales and finally Anis unclench…

Oh, right. I promised I wouldn’t be doing that. Rats.

He turned toward the door, but the older guard was not finished. “Thank you for visiting Israel,” he added.

Buck wanted to scream. He turned around and nodded. “Yeah, uh, yes. You’re welcome.”

He had to will himself to walk. Anis did not move as Buck approached the door. He came face-to-face with the young man and stopped. He sensed the older guard watching. “Excuse me,” Buck said.

“My name is Anis,” the man said.

“Yes, Anis. Thank you. Excuse me, please.”

Finally Anis stepped aside and Buck shakily left.

That guy just would not get out of his way. Man, what an —

Arrrrgh. I should’ve promised something else.

His hands trembled as he folded his papers and stuffed them into his pocket. He boarded the rickety old bus and fired it up. If Tsion had found somewhere to hide, how would Buck find him now? He executed the fragile dance between clutch and accelerator and got the rig moving. Finally up to speed, he shifted into third, and the engine smoothed out a bit. He called out, “If you’re still on board, my friend, stay right where you are until the lights of that border crossing disappear. Then I want to know everything.”

That’s where the chapter ends and, to Jenkins’ credit, it’s the right place for the chapter to end. We’ll turn the page asking a question, and for once it’s the question Jenkins wants us to be asking: How did Tsion manage to hide from the younger guard when he searched the bus?

That’s a much better question than the ones we’re usually asking at the end of a chapter in this book — the ones that start “Why am I …” or “What the …”

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* In context, that’s Jesus’ reply to his disciples’ unspoken question. They’ve just found him speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well and they are “astonished.” It didn’t astonish them when they witnessed a bunch of miraculous signs in the previous chapter, but this — talking to a woman, in Samariathat was “astonishing.”

John’s Gospel says they were too afraid to just come right out and ask, “Why are you speaking with her?” Or to ask, “Why are we here, in Samaria, surrounded by Samaritans?

And Jesus, in reply to that astonishment, starts talking about harvests and sowing and reaping, and about sowers and reapers rejoicing together.

Maybe that’s not wholly inappropriate for a missions conference or an evangelistic pep rally, but whatever it means, if we treat it as having nothing to do with women and Samaritans, then we’ve certainly missed something vital and central to whatever it was Jesus meant.

** You can tell it’s the NKJV because of those pretentiously pious Capital Letters for all Divine Pronouns that it appends onto the text (“not worthy of Me,” etc.). One thing the translation gets right in this passage, though, is the secondary quotation marks that indicate where Jesus is quoting from something else. That something else, in this case, is a passage from the book of Micah. Which means the Jewish border guard shouldn’t find Jesus’ words here to be so shockingly foreign and exotically New Testament-y.

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