NRA: Conspiracy theories should be fun

NRA: Conspiracy theories should be fun March 10, 2015

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; pp. 298-301

Rayford’s post-Rapture second wife Amanda greets him at the airport in Milwaukee to drive him back to their former home in the suburbs outside of the bombed-out ruin that used to be Chicago. (The Antichrist bombed the city itself, not the suburbs, so it’s perfectly safe and simple for Amanda to make the drive.)

“Something on a TV monitor” catches Amanda’s eye as they walk through the airport, and they stop to watch a “CNN/GNN report” on the news.

This, it seems, is how readers finally get to hear about the third and fourth “seals” of judgment from the book of Revelation as they come to life here in our story. Fourteen chapters into the third book of the series and the other two horsemen of the Apocalypse are finally making an appearance — third-hand, off-stage, in an after-the-fact TV news report.

They stood watching as a CNN/GNN report summarized the extent of the damage from the war around the world.

Readers don’t get to see this damage. We don’t even get to hear a news report summarizing the damage. We only get to be told that the characters hear such a summary. That’s even worse than Jerry Jenkins’ usual “Tell, don’t show” approach to writing. Here he’s not even telling — he’s telling us about someone else being told.

They stood watching as a CNN/GNN report summarized the extent of the damage from the war around the world. Already, Carpathia was putting his spin on it. The announcer said, “World health care experts predict the death toll will rise to more than 20 percent internationally. Global Potentate Nicolae Carpathia …

No. If he’s really the “global potentate,” then the word “internationally” should no longer mean anything.

That “more than 20 percent” figure is, I think, meant to suggest that Nicolae’s “spin” is downplaying the death toll. This report is meant to describe the aftermath of the first four seals of judgment from Revelation 6, the famed four horsemen. The passage says, “Power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth.”

So the death toll, apparently, is supposed to be 25 percent, internationally globally.

John’s odd language — “to kill … with death” — usually gets interpreted to mean some kind of plague or pestilence, which also seems to fit well with the image of a “pale horse.” Despite his insistence on a “literal” reliance on the literal words of Revelation, Tim LaHaye seems to follow this non-literal tradition of including Pestilence as one of the four riders.

Global Potentate Nicolae Carpathia has announced formation of an international health care organization that will take precedence over all local and regional efforts. He and his ten global ambassadors released a statement from their private, high-level meetings in New Babylon outlining a proposal for strict measures regulating the health and welfare of the entire global community.

We got the first hint of Carpathia’s capacity for evil earlier in this book, when he arbitrarily began nuking major population centers all around the world. Now we see his diabolical nature confirmed as he announces … nationalized health care!

The news report brings on a doctor — “renowned cardiovascular surgeon Samuel Kline of Norway” — to discuss this new global health organization. This is a case of the authors accidentally getting a detail right. Imagining that a skilled surgeon must also therefore be competent to speak on public health and disease prevention is just the sort of bone-headed thing that cable news reporters really would do.

Rayford whispered, “This guy is in Carpathia’s back pocket. I’ve seen him around. He says whatever Saint Nick wants him to say.”

That seems to be setting up the nefarious Dr. Kline as a new character. It’s not. He’s not. This is his big scene.

I do like to imagine Dr. Kline back home in Norway — er, I mean, in the Global Community Federation of United Scandinavia, or whatever it should be called since Norway isn’t supposed to still exist — watching the TV news with his wife and catching a glimpse of Captain Rayford Steele, Personal Pilot of the Potentate. I imagine him whispering to Mrs. Kline: “This guy is in Carpathia’s back pocket. I’ve seen him around. He says whatever Saint Nick wants him to say.”

And then I imagine him saying the same thing when the TV shows a picture of Global Community Weekly Chief Editor Buck Williams.

The doctor was saying, “The International Red Cross and the World Health Organization, as wonderful and effective as they have been in the past, are not equipped to handle devastation, disease, and death on this scale. Potentate Carpathia’s visionary plan is not only our only hope for survival in the midst of coming famine and plagues, but also it seems to me — at first glance — a blueprint for the most aggressive international health care agenda ever. Should the death toll reach as high as 25 percent due to contaminated water and air, food shortages, and the like, as some have predicted, new directives that govern life from the womb to the tomb can bring this planet from the brink of death to a utopian state as regards physical health.”

Did you catch that “as high as 25 percent … as some have predicted”? Did you get the joke? That is a joke, see. It is a Revelation 6:8 joke. It is a joke that only “Bible prophecy” students would get.

And that’s what makes it funny. That is what “funny” means — it means things that confirm that we know the truth and others do not. That is why we laugh. At them. As they die from nuclear attacks, “famine and plague … contaminated water and air, food shortages, and the like.”

The doctor’s description of Nicolae Carpathia as a “visionary” is another form of this joke. The deluded and the damned will think of him as a visionary leader, but we know that he’s really the epitome of evil. Funny!

Also a joke: the way this poor, deluded doctor thinks that disease, contaminated water, food shortages, etc., are things that government leaders ought to address. Silly fools! They don’t understand what “Bible prophecy” students all know — a “health care agenda” is the devil’s business.

That’s why the Antichrist, as the embodiment of all that is evil, must establish a new “international health care agenda” — sweeping aside the commendable work of agencies like “the International Red Cross and the World Health Organization” to create a new, evil, global health agency from scratch.

Do you see what just happened there? LaHaye and Jenkins seem to have just praised and commended the World Health Organization.

Throughout the first book of this series, the United Nations was portrayed as an insidious threat to American sovereignty and an organization that exists, primarily, to plant the seeds of the coming one-world rule of the Antichrist. Tim LaHaye hates the United Nations. He subscribes to two different conspiracy theories — PMD “Bible prophecy” mythology and the fever dreams of the John Birch Society. Both of those are built on the presumption that the UN is the essence of earthly evil, a menace whose machinations will bring about the end of America and the end of the world.

But then LaHaye turns around and says nice things about the World Health Organization — apparently unaware that it’s part of the UN.

This is just shoddy craftsmanship. You can’t produce a good, juicy UN conspiracy theory if you also can’t be bothered to learn anything about what the UN is or how it works. You can’t come up with a satisfactorily scary conspiracy of how it “really” works behind the scenes unless you have at least a basic idea of how it “claims” to work in real life.

Here my frustration with Tim LaHaye’s lack of conspiratorial imagination slumps into depression. He’s drawing from two fecund pools of conspiracy theorizing here, and yet he can’t be bothered to make any of this interesting.

Conspiracy theories are supposed to be fun. A well-constructed conspiracy theory should offer the same rewards and entertainments as any good puzzle. It should confront the true believer with a series of disparate facts and then provide the sense of delight and satisfaction that comes from seeing how all of those pieces can be made to fit together.

AncientAntichristIt doesn’t so much matter if many of those facts aren’t actually facts at all. The important thing is that they provide a challenge. The joy comes from finding, or inventing, the connections. It’s about making all the pieces fit.

This is, I think, a big part of the allure of every through-the-looking-glass conspiracy subculture — whether it’s Alex Jones or anti-vaxxers or Moon-landing troofers or “scientific creationism” or Ancient Aliens. It’s the challenge and the fun of trying to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

And it can be great fun, even for those who aren’t truly true believers.

Take an absurd premise and try to defend it by reconciling it with reality as we know it. Try to account for all of its seemingly impossible conclusions and implications. That calls for mental agility, creativity, attention to detail, storytelling and intuitive hypothetical leaps — all of which can be greatly entertaining. It can provide something like the joy of scientific discovery, but without all the boring constraints of hard work and study and failure that actual scientific discovery requires.

This is what I think accounts for the enduring popularity of the Scofield Reference Bible.

Many Christians will, at some point, resolve to read the entire Bible. Their initial zeal carries them through all the strange stories in Genesis and the early chapters of Exodus, but then they start to get bogged down in all the laws of Moses and come to a complete stop by the time they reach Numbers and passages like this:

The one who presented his offering the first day was Nahshon son of Amminadab, of the tribe of Judah; his offering was one silver plate weighing one hundred thirty shekels, one silver basin weighing seventy shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of choice flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; one golden dish weighing ten shekels, full of incense; one young bull, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; one male goat for a sin offering; and for the sacrifice of well-being, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of Nahshon son of Amminadab.

On the second day Nethanel son of Zuar, the leader of Issachar, presented an offering; he presented for his offering one silver plate weighing one hundred thirty shekels, one silver basin weighing seventy shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of choice flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; one golden dish weighing ten shekels, full of incense; one young bull, one ram, one male lamb a year old, as a burnt offering; one male goat as a sin offering; and for the sacrifice of well-being, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of Nethanel son of Zuar.

On the third day Eliab son of Helon, the leader of the Zebulunites: his offering was …

That’s not a story — it’s tax records and census data. It’s boring. It must mean something — it’s in the Bible, after all — but it’s hard to see passages like that as life-changing or inspiring. No matter how hard you try to psych yourself up by reciting 2 Timothy 3:16, it’s going to be hard to convince yourself that plowing through all these lists of names and offerings is in any way “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”

(Let’s be honest — you probably didn’t even read that whole excerpt above. That’s OK. I didn’t either.)

The genius of Scofield’s Bible and the premillennial dispensationalist mythology it promoted is that it offers a way to make reading the Bible fun and exciting. The Bible, it says, is a conspiracy theory. It’s a puzzle you get to try to solve. It turns reading the Bible into a game.

One fantastic feature of this game is the “dispensational” part of “premillennial dispensationalism.” That means you get to skip the boring parts (and also the challenging parts — like the Sermon on the Mount and most of the rest of the Gospels). All you have to worry about are the parts of the Bible that apply to the important “dispensation” — the coming End Times. Those are the parts of the Bible that provide the pieces of the puzzle — Revelation, Daniel, bits of Ezekiel, a handful of apocalyptic stuff from the Gospels, everything Paul writes about death.

Putting all those pieces together into a single, semi-coherent narrative makes for a real humdinger of a puzzle. But, as with all conspiracy theories, there are no constraints on how you decide to go about putting this puzzle together. You can get as creative as you like. You’ve got hundreds of mysterious names and symbols to work with — all of them are variables that can be assigned whatever value you need to make your formula work. You can resort to numerology, or to alpha-numerology (with three different alphabets to choose from!), and you can switch back and forth freely from the crudest forms of literalism to the wildest forms of allegory.

To be clear, this is a terrible way to read the Bible. It’s a terrible way to read anything. I’m not even sure that such an approach to a text can even be called “reading” at all. This approach will inevitably prevent you from understanding whatever it is you’re trying to “read.”

In working my way through the Left Behind series, I’ve mostly focused on that point — on how the awfulness of Tim LaHaye’s PMD “Bible prophecy” folklore and the way this pseudo-theology abuses, distorts and destroys the biblical texts it purports to interpret. LaHaye doesn’t read or interpret the text of the Bible, he turns it into a conspiracy theory, a puzzle, a game.

In that regard, LaHaye is no different from any of the other “Bible prophecy” authors popularizing this folklore. What sets him apart, though, is that he takes all the fun out of the game.

Instead of approaching his conspiracy theory as a gigantic puzzle to be pieced together, he treats it as a long list of disparate parts that need to be affirmed and accepted as disparate parts. He never tries to put the puzzle together. And where’s the fun in that?

This is doubly disappointing from LaHaye because, unlike most of his fellow “Bible prophecy” scholars, he’s working with two different conspiracy theories. That should be twice the fun.

Think of it this way: The no-longer “educational” channels on cable TV now feature a raft of shows that delve into the mythology of “ancient astronaut” conspiracy theories. They also feature a bunch of shows that purport to explore the supposed mystery (and cover-up) of Bigfoot. Imagine putting them together for a show that sets out to compile and piece together the “evidence” that would show that an ancient alien race of Bigfoots built the pyramids.

That’s the sort of dizzying, delirious fantasy we should be getting from Tim LaHaye. He wants to prove that the conspiracy theories of the John Birch Society confirm the arcane “prophecies” of PMD folklore. And vice versa. In the hands of a gifted conspiracy weaver, that could be awesome.

But LaHaye and Jenkins turn it into something tedious and dull. They work together to accomplish this. Jenkins supplies the mind-numbing “tell, don’t show” prose. And LaHaye provides the framework of a conspiracy that never conspires to put any of the pieces together.

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