(Originally posted in August, 2007. This got lost in the migration from TypePad to WordPress, recovered and reposted for the archives here thanks to Chris D., who saved a copy.)
Left Behind, pp. 321-324
With executive editor Steve Plank leaving Global Weekly to serve as the New York-based, English-language press secretary for the president of Romania, Buck Williams has been offered Steve’s old job (in addition to the job he already has). Buck spends the next three pages protesting that he really doesn’t want the job, saying things like “I just want to write.”
The idea here, apparently, is that Buck is too humble to be ambitious. That’s what Buck and the authors here seem to think they’re conveying. What comes across, instead, is the most arrogant kind of ambition — the ambition of someone who wants power and promotion, and who regards himself as so deserving of it that it ought to be thrust upon him over his own “humble” protestation. This dance gets performed all the time in American politics by men who desperately want to be president or governor or senator, but who seem to think it would be unseemly to admit it, so they strike a pose of reluctance, refusing to seek the office until others demand they do so. These candidates aren’t wrong to think that naked ambition is perceived with suspicion by many voters, but naked ambition is, at least, more honest than ambition cloaked in false modesty, and I’d prefer an arrogant narcissist to an insecure one.
We can’t really believe Buck’s protestations here because what he says — “I just want to write” — doesn’t match with what we’ve seen of him. We haven’t actually seen him write anything — not even about the two interviews he’s conducted in the past week. And despite his protests, Buck doesn’t really come across as all that humble:
“Bailey would never stand for my assigning myself all the best stuff.”
“Make that a condition of your acceptance. If he doesn’t like it, it’s his decision, not yours.”
For the first time, Buck allowed a sliver of light to enter his head about the possibility of taking the executive editor job.
That first sliver of light comes after three pages of Buck discussing all of the other conditions, assurances, affirmations and reaffirmations he would need to accept the job. Methinks the humble lad doth protest too much.
Those three pages started off with this exchange:
Buck followed Steve to his office: “Did you hear about those kooks at the Wailing Wall?” Steve said.
“Like I’m interested in that right now,” Buck said. “Yeah, I saw them, and no, I don’t want to cover that story.”
Here, again, is the try-to-make-readers-feel-smart-by-making-characters-look-dumb trick that Jerry Jenkins seems to have learned from bad detective fiction. We know those “kooks” Buck dismisses will play an important role in Bible Prophecy, so since we know something he doesn’t, we’re supposed to feel smarter. The real effect of this trick, though, is to make us feel stupid for wasting our time reading about these morons.
The most glaring example of this device in Left Behind has to do with our fledgling Antichrist, Nicolae Carpathia, who is all but walking around with a name tag reading, “Hello, I’m the Antichrist. Ask me about my plans for One World Government.” His true identity is flagrantly obvious. It’s something that every reader of the book recognizes as soon as he is introduced, but no character in the book picks up on this, not even Bruce Barnes, who is actively looking for a rising Antichrist, using all of the Antichrist-detection resources left behind by Pastor Billings.
This comical obtuseness reminds me of a scene from Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which every character, except Spike, is magically prevented from realizing that Glory and Ben are the same person:
SPIKE: You know, Ben is Glory.
WILLOW: You mean Ben’s with Glory?
XANDER: “With” in what sense?
ANYA: They’re working together?
SPIKE: Noooo, no. Ben is Glory. Glory’s Ben.
XANDER: So you’re saying Ben and Glory …
ANYA: … have a connection?
GILES: Do we suspect that there may be some kind of connection between Ben and Glory?
SPIKE: Is everyone here very stoned?
LaHaye and Jenkins conceive of their Antichrist as a creature like Glory — a minor, evil deity able to use his divine powers to deceive the world. Buck, Steve, Bruce and Rayford and all the other characters in Left Behind are in the thrall of Nicolae Carpathia’s magical spell. This is why we keep running into passages like this one, in which Steve says of Nicolae:
“I wouldn’t feel this way about anybody else. No U.S. president could turn my head like this, no U.N. secretary-general.”
“You think he’ll be bigger than that.”
“The world is ready for Carpathia, Buck. You were there Monday. You saw it. You heard it. Have you ever met anyone like him?”
Monday, here, refers to Carpathia’s speech at the United Nations — a recitation of trivia followed by an alphabetical listing of country names.
“You never will again, either. If you ask me, Romania is too small for him. Europe is too small for him. The U.N. is too small for him.”“What’s he gonna be, Steve, king of the world?”
Steve laughed, “That won’t be the title, but don’t put it past him. The best part is, he’s not even aware of his own presence. He doesn’t seek these roles. They are thrust upon him because of his intellect, his power, his passion.”
Just like the role of executive editor is being “thrust upon” Buck because of his intellect, power and passion, see? Except, wait, that makes Buck just like the Antichrist, so …
Steve isn’t done working himself up over his new job and his new Super Cool boss. “I’m sitting on one of the greatest rises to power of anyone in history,” he says. “Maybe the greatest. And I’ll be right there helping it happen.”
Buck agrees, “Except that I could never be anybody’s press secretary, I almost envy you. You are uniquely positioned to enjoy the ride of your life.”
Keep in mind that all of this adulation is being heaped on a man who has held public office for exactly one week; that the office in question is the presidency of Romania; that his track record as president of Romania has thus far consisted only of leaving the country; that he took office during the midst of a global chaos and crisis and has, thus far, failed to even comment on that crisis, let alone to suggest or take any steps toward resolving it; and that Buck knows him to be complicit in two homicides and that he offered only a non-denial denial when questioned about a third. So here’s a guy with no experience and no accomplishments. None. But despite this, he’s already tainted by association with scandal. Yet both of these journalists is certain, all evidence to the contrary, that this stumbling out of the gate is actually the beginning of “one of the greatest rises to power of anyone in history.”
This only makes sense once you understand that Nicolae has cast a spell over them.
Suddenly we’re reading a book with spellcasting and magic in it. I tend to like books with spellcasting and magic in them, and I have no problem with crossbreeding genres, but this hadn’t been that sort of book up until now and it doesn’t seem fair for the authors suddenly to be changing the ground rules like this. So far LB has presented itself as a kind of Tom-Clancy-wanna-be thriller set in the apocalyptic world of the premillennial dispensationalist End Times. The effect of suddenly introducing magic into this scenario is like if you were to read the new Clancy novel and learn that Jack Ryan was an alumnus of Hogwarts. The authors are violating the bargain they had established with the reader. That bargain had said that the world of LB was intended to be this world, or at least this world + divine wrath. This world + magic is not the same thing.
The rationale for Nicolae as sorceror supreme seems to come from the authors’ interpretation of Matthew 24, a passage sometimes called the “little apocalypse.” Jesus warns his disciples to “Watch out that no one deceives you,” because “many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. … False Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect — if that were possible.” Jesus’ reference to “false Christs and false prophets,” plural, “many,” is glossed over and ignored by the Lone Antichrist theorists of PMD “prophecy” studies — just as they ignore the plural use of “antichrists” in John’s epistles (the only place in the Bible the term appears).
“Signs and miracles” is, to L&J, indistinct from magic and spellcasting. And once those things are in play, it makes sense to them that this would be how the Antichrist (singular) could “deceive many people.” They also interpret Jesus’ suggestion that “the elect” cannot be deceived as further evidence of magic — a protective talisman against the spells of the Antichrist that comes to play a large role in this series of books.
The decision to have Nicolae’s rise to power result from magical deception allows the authors to avoid having to imagine how else such a rise to power might occur, or how a leader not possessing such dark magics might still be able to “deceive many.” This failure of imagination tends to have real-world consequences. L&J’s target audience of white American evangelicals and fundamentalists, you may have noticed, tends to be particularly susceptible to demagoguery and the machinations of Mayberry Machiavellis.
Here I think the PMDs obsessive vigilance against a single, future “Antichrist” does them a disservice. They’re so preoccupied with Satan that they ignore all the devilishness that ordinary, non-supernatural people are capable of. Convinced that their talisman protects them from the dark magic of the Antichrist, they become easy prey for nonmagical hucksters and con men of every sort.