T.F.: Section 4

T.F.: Section 4 October 27, 2015

(Originally posted May 25, 2010. This got lost in the migration from TypePad to WordPress, recovered and reposted for the archives here thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.)

Tribulation Force, pp. 219-226

Our scene opens with Rayford and Chloe breathlessly gathering around the television for a CNN special breaking-news report: President Fitzhugh has just announced that he is lending the plane that was to become his new Air Force One to the United Nations for use by Nicolae Carpathia.

This is big news for Rayford, specifically, but it’s a bit baffling as to why the authors think it would otherwise be newsworthy.* The way they tell it, CNN’s special breaking news report includes both a press-room appearance by the president and a “live response from Carpathia in New York.”

“This unusual gesture,” the anchor says, “came as a result of a meeting early last evening” between the two leaders at the White House. That meeting itself was apparently not regarded as newsworthy, only the bit about the airplane. Nor do the authors or their fictional CNN anchors see anything newsworthy or remarkable about the president’s comments following his announcement of the gift of a single plane. Those comments seem to me to be much bigger news — probably even the sort of thing that would force a president to resign mid-term:

“It’s time the world rallies round this lover of peace, and I am proud to lead the way by this small gesture.

“I also call upon my colleagues around the globe to seriously study the Carpathia disarmament proposal. Strong defense has been a sacred cow in our country for generations, but I’m sure we all agree that the time for a true, weaponless peace is long past due. I hope to have an announcement soon on our decisions in this regard. …”

The authors are contending that it would be possible to survive politically after publicly endorsing total, unilateral disarmament. Not nuclear disarmament, mind you, but “weaponlessness” — the complete disbanding of the military, the border guards, the national guards, the police.

More than that, the authors are contending that a president recommending such a thing would meet with unanimous approval.

That’s an astonishing thing to believe. Have Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins ever visited America? Where do they get this weird, unrecognizable picture of this country and the people who live here? It’s an extension, I think, of their premise that peacemaker = potential Antichrist = evil. Thus peacelover = potential dupe of the Antichrist = blind follower of evil.

But it’s also the end product of a self-confusing view based on the presumption that other people are deserving of being left behind and damned. Start with a dislike of hippie-liberals. That leads to the creation of over-the-top straw-man caricatures as a way of mocking those hippie-liberals. That, in turn, leads to an increasing confusion in which one loses the ability to distinguish between the actual, real-world hippie-liberals and one’s own imaginary versions of them, leading eventually to a situation in which one believes that Other People really are just exactly like the worst thing one can imagine imagining about them.

Once you get to that point, it no longer matters that these Other People don’t act like they believe the things you’re accusing them of believing, or that they strenuously deny believing the things you’re accusing them of believing. Their denials are obviously lies and their behavior is obviously some elaborate deceptive plot — that’s just the sort of thing those sneaky evil Other People would do.

Hence scenes like this one, in which CNN reports excitedly about the Air Force One non-story, mentioning only as an afterthought the fact that the president of the United States has just said he’s planning to abolish the military — a plan which meets with universal acclaim, because this is just what those hippie-liberals have wanted to do all along and now that the RTCs have all been raptured there’s no one left behind to stop them.

So the American president endorses “weaponlessness” and no one bats an eye. Not even Rayford and Chloe:

“… I’m sure we all agree that the time for true, weaponless peace is long past due. I hope to have an announcement soon on our decisions in this regard.”

“Dad, does this mean you would –?”

But Rayford silenced Chloe again with a gesture as CNN cut to New York for a live response from Carpathia.

That would be Carpathia responding to the important news about the airplane, not to that other thing about a weaponless peace, which he, like everyone else, finds unremarkable:

Nicolae gazed directly into the camera, appearing to look right into the eyes of each viewer. His voice was quiet and emotional. “I would like to thank President Fitzhugh for this most generous gesture. We at the United Nations are deeply moved, grateful and humbled.”

The more the authors describe Nicolae’s TV persona the less I picture him as a young Robert Redford and the more I picture him as Robert Tilton.

“Man is he slick.” Rayford shook his head.

“That’s the job you told me about. You’d be flying that plane?”

“I don’t know. I suppose. I didn’t realize the old Air Force One was going to become Air Force Two, the vice president’s plane. …”

Here is where, if this were a Michael Crichton novel, we would learn all sorts of fascinating details about the history, specifications, traditions and lore of Air Force One. Probably more than we wanted to know, since Crichton loved to over-research these things and then seemed like he couldn’t bear to leave any of that research out of his novels. This being a Jerry Jenkins novel, that factoid about Air Force Two is just about the only accurate item in a chapter obsessed with, but uninterested in learning about, the president’s plane. For instance Jenkins never explains, or thinks he needs to explain, why a commercial civilian pilot would be considered for a job that had previously only been performed by active-duty members of the Air Force. (Although I suppose Pres. Fitzhugh has just solved that riddle for us in his otherwise-ignored announcement that there will no longer be an Air Force.)

The back-and-forth between Rayford and Chloe about his taking this job ends, yet again, with Rayford insisting he’s “Surer now than ever” that he doesn’t want the position.

You can cross-reference that comment with this helpful Tribulation Force Plot Summary to see where we are in the story:

1. Rayford Steele and Buck Williams are summoned to meetings at which they are offered highly paid jobs working for the Antichrist.
2. Buck vows never to take such a job.
3. Rayford vows never to take such a job.
4. Repeat sections 2-3.
5. Repeat section 4.
6. Repeat sections 2-5.
7. Repeat sections 2-6. Twice.
8. Buck and Rayford accept the jobs.
9. Rocks fall, Bruce dies.

I’ve lost track of precisely where we are in that outline, but I think this is the third or fourth iteration of Rayford’s vow. And that can only mean it’s time to cut back to Buck vowing not to take his job, either.

Buck Williams is on the telephone.

Alice called to tell him that Stanton Bailey wants him to call, which she learned when Marge Potter called Verna. No, really:

Buck took a call from Alice at the Chicago office. “You’d better get two lines into there,” she said, “if you’re going to keep working from home.”

“I’ve got two lines,” Buck said. “But one of ’em’s for my computer.”**

“Well, Mr. Bailey’s been trying to reach you, and he’s been getting a busy signal.”

“What did he call there for? He has to know I’m here.”

“He didn’t call here. Marge Potter was on with Verna about something else and told her.”

Buck gets off the phone with Alice and dials Marge in Stanton Bailey’s office. I’ve decided, purely for my own amusement, that the part of Marge Potter will be played by Eve Arden.

I believe that almost any story can accommodate and benefit from the addition of an Eve Arden character, so for now I have her playing Marge.

“Buck, I miss you already,” she said. “What in the world happened?”

“Someday I’ll lay it all out for you,” he said. “I hear the boss has been trying to reach me.”

“Well, I’ve been trying for him. Right now he’s got Jim Borland in there, and I hear raised voices. Don’t think I’ve ever heard Jim raise his voice before.”

“You’ve heard Bailey raise his?”

Marge laughed. “Not more than twice a day.”

See? Eve Arden would have made that line work.

Marge puts Bailey on the phone. He’s dropped the har-de-har-ing jokey-yokel routine and he’s back in gruff executive mode. “Williams,” he barks, “you’ve got a lot of nerve …”

Buck is apparently accustomed to his boss’s sudden swings from one broad stereotype to another, so he’s able to calmly explain the lopsided horse-trade he worked out with Jimmy and he gets Bailey to sign off on it.

Three pages. Four phone calls. And the plot hasn’t budged an inch since the last time we checked in with Buck. Remarkable.

Rayford, meanwhile, is puttering around his house, reassuring himself yet again that he’ll never, ever, ever take the job flying Not Air Force One. This gradually morphs into a meditation on how proud he is not to be so hung up on pride anymore:

He couldn’t deny the prestige that would accompany being the president’s pilot. And being Carpathia’s might be even noisier. But Rayford’s motives and dreams had swung 180 degrees. Being known as the pilot of Air Force One — or even Global Community One — for seven years was simply not on his wish list.

Prestige, yes. Piloting Air Force One would be prestigious. But “being known”? Not so much. It’s not exactly a ticket to fame. (Quick, name the current pilot of Air Force One? OK, how about name any pilot of Air Force One ever? Yeah, me neither.)

There’s a bit more self-congratulation about how nice it is that he’s no longer obsessed with what others think of his expensive car and his big, suburban home. This allows him to relax and enjoy his expensive car and his big, suburban home without worrying about such vain, shallow concerns. (As St. Paul wrote, “Godliness with contentment and a fully loaded current year E-Class sedan is great gain.”)

But thinking about his big house eventually leads Rayford to remembering the people who no longer live there. It’s a bit treacly and maudlin, but at least we finally get to see Rayford acting like someone who’s just recently lost his wife and son:

Every room, every knickknack, every feminine touch reminded him of Irene. Occasionally something would jump out and flood his mind with Raymie, too. He found a piece of Raymie’s favorite candy under a cushion on the couch. A couple of his books. A toy was hiding behind a potted plant.

We could quibble — telling details are better when they include a bit more detail (which books?) — but generally speaking this is head and shoulders above Jenkins’ usual approach. He’s showing rather than telling. He’s finally resisting the urge to spell it out for us with clumsily explicit, yet still contentless sentences like, “Rayford was growing emotional.”

Rayford was growing emotional.

Oh well. Still, telling and showing is better than Jenkins’ usual telling instead of showing. So let’s give him an “E” for effort.

And anyway, I’m willing to cut both Jenkins and Rayford a little slack in this scene because of what our hero does next. He decides to cook dinner for Chloe. Shrimp scampi, her favorite.

That’s a nice gesture and I’m so moved by this uncharacteristic display of unselfishness on Rayford’s part that I’ll refrain from snarky commentary.

I won’t sardonically note that Chloe had better enjoy the shrimp while she can because in a few years the seas will boil and turn to blood and scampi will be hard to come by. And I’ll even skip over without discussion the half page of antifeminist stereotyping masked as Rayford’s self-criticism in which he laments his failure to fully express his gratitude to Irene for her womanly kitchen-work as an expression of her lovingly obedient submission to her husband. The retrograde ugliness of that would likely spoil our ability to enjoy Rayford’s otherwise lovely gesture, so let’s not even mention it. (And while we’re at it, we’ll also avoid speculating as to whether this passage might be read as a thinly veiled criticism of the way some wives seem to think it’s OK not to show such loving devotion to their husbands, abandoning them to a life of frozen dinners in San Diego while they’re off running some anti-gay lobby on the other side of the country).

This long passage of self-flagellation ends with Rayford bemoaning his inadequate and “perfunctory” expressions of gratitude to Irene for the home-cooked meals she served him every night:

Now there was no way to make it up to Irene, except to show up in the kingdom himself, with Chloe alongside.

By “the kingdom” Rayford means Heaven. This is pretty much the only thing you need to know about the premillennial dispensationalist beliefs of “Bible prophecy scholars” like Tim LaHaye. For them, “the kingdom” means Heaven. And only Heaven.

Nothing else. Nothing more. Nothing here.

You can see the problem with that idea if you’ve ever been to a service in a Christian church — even just for a wedding or a funeral. Because if you’ve ever been to a Christian church, then you’ve heard us pray that prayer we always pray whenever we get together. It’s a prayer that Jesus himself taught us and told us to pray: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. …”

See if you can make sense of that if “thy kingdom” and “heaven” are one and the same. It doesn’t seem possible.

PMD prophecy types say they avoid reciting the Lord’s Prayer because Jesus also cautioned us against prayer with “vain repetitions.” (The possibility of repetitions that are not in vain apparently hasn’t occurred to them.) But I think the real reason they avoid it is because it confounds them. It confronts them with the idea of the kingdom as both an actuality and an aspiration explicitly distinct from the otherworldly heaven to which they hope one day soon to be snatched without dying.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

* Despite their purported setting “in the not-so-distant future,” these books contain very little in the way of futuristic details. But we could pretend this is one of them.

Consider how CNN — a cable news channel — is delivered to our homes. For many of us, this content arrives through the same infrastructure that provides our access to the Internet. We might expect, then, that eventually the content of news channels like CNN will be personalized and prioritized according to the same sorts of preference-algorithms that tailor websites like Google News or Amazon.com for each individual surfing the Web. So while Rayford’s neighbors tuned to CNN might still be watching the standard news broadcast of actual newsworthy news (or, you know, the CNN equivalent), his feed from the station might be tailored to trigger news alerts for anything aviation-related, or even more specifically for any news related to Air Force One.

Cable TV is nowhere near this sophisticated yet — a childless, 30-year-old subscriber will still see the same advertisements for Pampers and Hoverounds as everyone else, wasting that viewers’ time, wasting those advertisers’ money, and wasting the cable provider’s chance to increase the value of its ads for all concerned. But I would guess that the medium will be moving more in this direction “in the not-so-distant future.”

That possibility raises all sorts of concerns about the way in which our privacy might be eroded or abused by data-miners at the cable and Internet companies, but it seems to me that such concerns are just the sort of thing one should be looking for if one is writing a story about the dystopian reign of a Big-Brother Antichrist.

** Having a second phone line for dial-up Internet connection is an accurate portrayal of current technology in 1996, when this book was written, but it’s also, again, a not very creative portrayal of the “not-very-distant future” as imagined from 1996.

I’ve tried to be forgiving of ’90s details in these stories that haven’t aged well. It is, after all, a difficult business for a writer in the last decade of the 20th century to try to imagine the way people would be living today in the Y.D.A.U. But still it just seems lazy not to have at least tried to imagine how the world might change between the present and the not-so-distant future. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that writers presenting such a setting either: A) read a few issues of Wired magazine, listen to a bit of Science Friday, and take their best guess at coming developments, or B) exaggerate and extrapolate from current trends to use the fictionalized future as a satiric commentary on the present (as in the “subsidized time” in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest — we’ll probably never see an actual “Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment,” but the satire of omnipresent corporate sponsorship still rings true).

Part of the problem for LaHaye & Jenkins, of course, is that their worldview is premised on the belief that the world is going to end in the not-so-distant future. Back in 1996, Tim LaHaye didn’t think the world would even be here in 2010. Given that, it’s no surprise he didn’t anticipate wireless broadband and cell phones.

In any case, it’s not the future as seen from 1996 that bugs me most in these books, it’s the way the authors get their present wrong too. Consider that the first book was written in 1995, which means all of that business about the all-powerful sovereign United Nations was written more or less at the same time as the real world was lamenting that same U.N.’s utter impotence and incompetency in responding to the genocide in Rwanda. That was the backdrop for L&J’s delusional rehashing of John Birch Society paranoia cloaked as Darbyite prophecy of a One-World-Government.

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