L.B.: Fire-breathing Martians

L.B.: Fire-breathing Martians October 27, 2015

(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. 324-327

Here is the last normal and/or plausible thing that happens in this section of the book:

Marge interrupted on the intercom without signaling first. …

That’s both redundant and untrue, since the “interruption” occurs at the end of Buck and Steve’s conversation. Had she not interrupted, the other characters would have been sitting there awkwardly, with nothing else to say.

“Hit your TV, Steve,” Marge says, “or whoever’s TV it is now.” I admire Marge for not giving up. She’s still trying, despite everything she’s seen from this duo, to try to get them to do a little reporting once in a while. She acts like she’s working for a functional newsmagazine and alerts her boss (and former boss) to a developing story on CNN.

True to form, though, they turn on the TV, watch the story, talk about it a bit, dismiss it, and never even consider the idea that — as the people in charge of a newsmagazine — they might want to cover this story too.

The format of CNN’s report is also strange. “Dan Bennett” (who evidently never sleeps) is still reporting “live from Jerusalem,” but for some reason he waits until all the action is over, until all of the breaking news has broken, before filing his report in the past tense. “It was an ugly and disastrous confrontation,” he begins, and already the scene is less interesting, with less suspense and tension, than it ought to be.

Contrast this with, for example, the report filed by “Carl Phillips” the “Intercontinental Radio News” reporter in Orson Welles’ radio production of The War of the Worlds. Phillips, like Bennett, was on the scene, but he reported the action as it happened:

Just a minute! Something’s happening! Ladies and gentlemen, this is terrific! This end of the thing is beginning to flake off! The top is beginning to rotate like a screw and the thing must be hollow! …

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed. … Wait a minute! Someone’s crawling out of the hollow top. Someone or … something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks … are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be …

Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. …

That works. The confusion and the immediacy of “seeing” this unfold as it happens makes H.G. Wells’ creepy story that much creepier. That story is about the invasion of earth by deadly, three-legged Martians. But as outlandish and otherworldly as the events described by Wells’ & Welles’ reporter might have been, the events desribed by L&J’s are even more fantastical. War of the Worlds introduced unstoppable killers whose presence meant that “intelligences greater than man’s” wanted everyone on earth dead. Left Behind introduces unstoppable killers whose presence means that God wants everyone on earth dead. And yet, like everything in LB, this scene falls flat and winds up nowhere near as creepy as it should have been.

The scene here is the “Two Witnesses” from Revelation 11, a passage we looked at in an earlier post. The key part of that passage for this report from Dan Bennett is verse 5:

If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. This is how anyone who wants to harm them must die.

As a general principle, I would suggest that when you encounter a passage describing people shooting fire out of their mouths, you should probably lean towards interpreting that passage as something other than a straightforward, factual account of actual events. This particular passage follows after Rev. 1:1 through Rev. 11:4, so by this point people shooting fire out of their mouths isn’t nearly the biggest hint that some other way of interpreting it might be called for. But L&J insist that there can be no other way to interpret this passage.

Try to appreciate the challenge this presents them as storytellers. Try to imagine what it would take to tell a believable, meaningful, interesting story in which you had to convince your readers that Rev. 11:5-7 is an account of actual events:

If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. This is how anyone who wants to harm them must die. These men have power to shut up the sky so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying; and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want. Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them.

It’s not surprising, given the difficulty of such a task, that L&J have failed at it. But I don’t think this is so much a failure of imagination as it is a fear of imagination — or a recoiling from what imagination would suggest. To attempt to imagine such a passage as a description of actual events would require you to confront its overwhelming resistance to such reinterpretation. It’s one thing to tell yourself and others that you interpret Revelation “literally” and that you believe it foretells “literal” events that will occur exactly as it describes. But trying to imagine that playing out in any plausible, believable or recognizable way is another matter. It was possible for Orson Welles to carefully reimagine H.G. Wells’ story as it might have played out in the real-world setting of Grovers Mill, New Jersey. The story L&J are trying to tell refuses to comply with any such real-world setting.

This is, I think, one of the main reasons that Left Behind is such an awful book. Writing a bad book — a hastily written, shabbily imagined, incoherent story with wrenching lapses in continuity, hilarious factual errors, and characters that do not behave in recognizably human ways — was the only way for L&J to keep their prophecy beliefs intact. Had they tried to write a better book — one in which, at a minimum, there was a semblance of continuity and in which people acted like people — they would have been forced to realize that the thing they’ve been telling themselves they believe is an impossibility. They would have had to recognize that the future prophesied by the premillennial dispensationalists is an illogical, contradictory world — an inconceivable alternate reality in which people cannot be allowed to behave like people and God cannot be allowed to behave like God.

But let’s get back to the awful book itself and to the particular awful passage we’ve arrived at this week.

Dan Bennett, the CNN reporter, still talks funny. Reading his “report” makes you wonder if Jenkins has ever actually watched TV news himself, or if he’s just working here from a third-hand description:

“It was an ugly and dangerous confrontation for what many here are calling the two heretical prophets, known only as Moishe and Eli,” Bennett said.

Because, see, after all the Real True Christians have disappeared, everyone left behind will be busy trying to sniff out heresy.

“We know these names only because they have referred to each other thus, but we have been unable to locate anyone who knows any more about them. We know of no last names, no cities of origin, no families or friends.”

It’s probably a good thing Bennett didn’t have more information on these guys or he’d never get to the lede. If this guy had been on the scene when the Germans invaded Poland he’d have started his report with, “Fifty years ago, in Braunau am Inn, Austria, Alois and Klara Hitler gave birth to their fourth child, a son. …”

“They have been taking turns speaking — preaching, if you will — for hours …”

I picture Bennett making air quotes whenever he says “preaching,” like when Dr. Evil says “laser.”

“… and continuing to claim that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. They have proclaimed over and over that the great worldwide disappearances last week, including many here in Israel, evidenced Christ’s rapture of his church.

“A heckler asked why they had not disappeared, if they knew so much …”

Adding, no doubt, “Oy gevalt! Rapture? What do you know from Rapture?” Because, you know, all Israelis talk like they’re in a bad community theater production of Brighton Beach Memoirs.

“The one called Moishe answered, and I quote, ‘Where we come from and where we go, you cannot know.’ His companion, Eli, was quoted, ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions,’ apparently a New Testament quotation attributed to Christ.”

John 14:2 — the passage Eli cited was quoted [by unnamed persons, as reciting] — is familiar enough that an actual reporter would probably have tracked it down, saying something like “that’s a passage from the Gospel of John.” The passage Moishe paraphrases, John 8:14, is not as well-known and I can’t figure out why he would apply it to himself and to his “companion” (if you will), since doing so would seem to mean he is claiming they both are the Messiah.

“Surrounded by zealots most of the day, the preachers were finally attacked just moments ago …”

Finally. Phew.

“… by two men in their mid-twenties. Watch the tape as our cameras caught the action. You can see the two at the back of the crowd, working their way to the front. Both are wearing long, hooded robes and are bearded. You can see that they produce weapons as they emerge from the crowd.

“One has an Uzi automatic weapon and the other a bayonet-type knife that appears to have come from an Israeli-issue military rifle. The one wielding the knife surges forward first …

I don’t think they thought through this plan of attack. “I’ll go in first with the knife, see? Get in real close. Then you start spraying bullets …”

“… displaying his weapon to Moishe, who had been speaking. Eli, behind him, immediately falls to his knees, his face toward the sky.”

“Praying,” if you will. Evil secular humanist reporters, of course, would not recognize someone praying.

“Moishe stops speaking and merely looks at the man, who appears to trip. He sprawls while the man with the Uzi points the weapon at the preachers and appears to pull the trigger.

“There is no sound of gunfire as the Uzi apparently jams, and the attacker seems to trip over his partner and both wind up on the ground. The group of onlookers has backed away and run for cover, but watch again closely as we rerun this. The one with the gun seems to fall of his own accord.”

Suddenly Bennett reminds me of Joe Piscopo reporting that Buckwheat has been shot.

“As we speak, both attackers lie at the feet of the preachers, who continue to preach. Angry onlookers demand help for the attackers, and Moishe is speaking in Hebrew. Let’s listen and we’ll translate as we go.

“He’s saying, ‘Men of Zion, pick up your dead! Remove from before us these jackals who have no power over us!'”

A bit later, Bennett quotes Moishe as saying, “Carry off your dead, but do not come nigh to us.” So apparently not only does Bennett speak Hebrew, he speaks King James Hebrew.

This is partly a mere affectation, the common fundamentalist/evangelical notion that saying “nigh” instead of “near,” or “thy” instead of “your” is somehow more spiritual. It’s not uncommon to hear people pray like this in evangelical churches. But here L&J go a step further, suggesting that Hebrew (and ancient Greek and Aramaic, too, I suppose) is somehow intrinsically Elizabethan. There are layers of misconception to be unpacked here, but for now we’ll just note that this is typical of the strange sorts of conclusions one hears from “biblical scholars” like LaHaye who never consult a primary text.

“We will report any word we receive on the two who attempted to attack the preachers here at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. …”

You’d think, since he speaks Hebrew, that Bennett would say Western Wall.

“At the moment, the preachers have continued their shouting, proclaiming, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, King of the Jews, the chosen one, ruler of all nations.’

“In Israel, Dan Bennett for CNN.”

Compared to these guys, Nicolae actually seems like an engaging speaker. Shouting the same phrases over and over again for hours at a time is not preaching. Nothing we read here suggests that these guys were saying anything interesting enough to justify a crowd of onlookers or a camera crew from CNN. It’s a weekday. People have places to be and nobody’s going to stand around listening to a 10-second tape loop no matter how inflammatory it is.

I suppose L&J were thrown off by the fact that Revelation says the witnesses will “prophesy” for 1,260 days, but it doesn’t say what they will prophesy about. They decide that the witnesses’ message should be to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, but then they can’t think of anything more for them to say than merely that. (Even though they’ve got Moishe and Eli standing within a stone’s throw, as it were, of where Stephen gave his speech to the Sanhedrin.)

That word “prophesy” is interesting here. Prophesy, prophecy and prophet are used a great deal in the Bible and usually not in a way that has anything to do with a Nostradamus-like foretelling of the future. (Some variation of “You’re going to get what’s coming to you,” is a frequent message of the biblical prophets, and it is, in a sense, predictive, but it has more to do with judgment than with augury.) But Tim LaHaye insists that the foretelling of the future is the primary role of all of the biblical prophets. This, and only this, is what he means when he speaks of “Bible prophecy.” Yet here he seems to be saying that, in this one case of the two witnesses, the word “prophesy” is merely a synonym for “proclaim.”

Then there’s this, from LaHaye’s introduction to the coattail book, The Truth Behind Left Behind: A Biblical View of the End Times:

The fact is, unless you take the book of Revelation literally, you will never understand it. The key to understanding and receiving blessing from this very exciting book is to take it literally, just as the Lord intended.

He rejects symbolic, spiritual or allegorical interpretations of Revelation because:

Once you begin heading down that road, however, everything is up for grabs. You can invent any kind of “interpretation” you want.

(That last quote candidly admits the anxiety and fear that motivates the “literal interpretation” approach. We must have certainty or “everything is up for grabs.”)

I bring up these quotes because, as you may have noticed from Dan Bennett’s report, two attackers tried to harm the witnesses and then dropped dead, but neither of the witnesses shot fire out of his mouth. Here again is Rev. 11:5, in L&J’s preferred KJV:

And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed.

This is disappointing. I was looking forward to the proceeding and devouring bit and instead all we get are a couple of lame pratfalls.

I feel cheated.

Doubly cheated, since L&J apparently have decided, just this once, to interpret symbolic language as symbolic language. That makes more sense than trying to write a believable passage involving people shooting fire out of their mouths, but they’d better be careful. Once you begin heading down that road, everything is up for grabs.

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