T.F.: The Religion Editor

T.F.: The Religion Editor October 27, 2015

(Originally posted May 11, 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. 213-217

Buck Williams gets off the phone with his boss and prepares for his next phone call.

Buck like the idea of taking the day off, not that he had anything ambitious planned anyway.

Stanton Bailey told him to take the day off as a reward for his cover story on the cause of the disappearances. While talking to Bailey, Buck also managed to line up his next cover story assignment — on Nicolae Carpathia’s United Nations peace treaty with Israel. He won’t end up with that assignment, actually, but Jerry Jenkins felt it was important to spend five pages reassuring us that Buck could have had the assignment if he’d wanted it. Because Bailey ony gives cover stories to the most awesomely cool reporter he has available, and Jenkins never misses the chance to remind us that Buck is the most awesomely cool of them all.

The problem, though, is that by angling for another assignment, Buck has ruined what would have been a perfect arrangement for himself, for the authors and for the readers.

Buck had been banished to Chicago and, once he handed in his story obscuring the cause of the disappearances, he was free to do whatever he wanted. He had no instructions other than to work from home and stay out of Verna’s way. This scenario was every reporters’ dream. With no deadlines to meet, no particular beat he was responsible for covering, no need to check in with the office and no requirement to turn in anything, he was completely free to explore his Big Story without any interference from the bosses. He would have all the independence of a free lancer, but with the steady paycheck and the hefty expense account of a top-tier, prominent national journalist. That was the ideal situation for pursuing and assembling all the disparate pieces of the Big Story, with no strings attached and no one looking over his shoulder. And the only deadline he’d have had to worry about would have been getting the story done before Nicolae Carpathia had succeeded in buying up every media outlet on the globe, leaving him nowhere to publish it.

That Big Story, of course, is the unfolding saga of the End Times — the story that would prove that the disappearances were actually the Rapture, prove that Nicolae Carpathia was the Antichrist, prove that everything in Rev. Billings’/Tim LaHaye’s End Times check list had come or was about to come to pass exactly as prophesied. To pursue any other story, one would think, would be to deny the responsibility Buck claims to feel for spreading this premillennial dispensationalist gospel. Refusing to write this story would amount to turning his back on every person on earth outside of his small circle of already-saved friends, withholding from them the information — the proof and evidence — that could have spared them from an eternity in Hell.

Just think of the article that Buck could be writing. Interviews with Bruce, Nicolae, Eric Miller’s widow, Moses and Elijah would be integrated with information from Billings’ notes and Dirk’s secret files to create what would become both the most compelling evangelistic argument of all time and the greatest journalistic scoop in the history of journalism. It would have explained the mystery of the Event and the missing children while also casting suspicion on the most prominent political leader on earth. And it’s reporting would be further supported by Buck’s ability to predict — with undeniably authoritative specificity — coming events that were soon to unfold. Anyone who didn’t believe his story when it first appeared would be forced to believe it once its predictions began coming true.

It’s unfathomable that Buck wouldn’t try to write such an article. But he doesn’t try. He and the rest of the Tribulation Force have nothing ambitious planned.

Choosing to write such an article would have meant surrendering cover stories in the meantime, and thus giving up his prestigious status as Alpha Dog of the Global Weekly hierarchy. And since Buck can’t imagine doing that, he can’t imagine trying to write such an article.

As a narrative device, the pursuit of that Big Story would also have provided Jenkins with a convenient framework for the coming volumes — allowing him to turn otherwise dry and clumsy exposition into a globe-trotting adventure story, thrilling readers with eyewitness accounts of dramatic events.

This is why so many global epics like this story was supposed to be have journalists as protagonists. It was why Sydney Watson chose a journalist as the protagonist of Scarlet and Purple, The Mark of the Beast and In the Twinkling of an Eye, his early 20th-century trilogy on the PMD check list from which Jenkins borrowed more than a few details.

But Buck Williams is no Tom Hammond and Jerry Jenkins is no Sydney Watson. Buck’s role as a journalist here is not used to turn exposition into adventure or to provide readers with eyewitness accounts. Buck works for a magazine, it seems, only because Jenkins used to work for a magazine and he imagines that readers will share his fascination for the petty office politics and ego-driven machinations of story-assignment fights that occur at the sorts of magazines where such things are viewed as more important than storytelling or truth-telling.

That’s why we had the strange inclusion, earlier in this book, of three chapters spent recounting Buck’s interview with Nicolae Carpathia. It wouldn’t have been strange to have a journalist-protagonist interviewing the Antichrist, but it was very strange indeed to have the Antichrist conducting an interview of our journalist-protagonist. Buck was the interview subject, not Nicolae. Nicolae did offer to provide a statement or quote for Buck’s article, but this offer was rebuffed. Buck actually seemed offended by the suggestion. He wasn’t there for a journalistic interview, he was there for a job interview.

And this is also why we have unnecessary, momentum-smothering interludes like today’s section, in which we are introduced to a new character — religion editor Jimmy Borland — mainly just as a means of reassuring us that he’s not as good a “journalist” as Buck Williams, by which Jenkins means that he’s not as skilled as Buck is at politicking with the boss and maneuvering himself into the choicest assignments.

Buck gets his e-mail set up in his new home office — the Internet, like cell-phone and landline service, was wholly unperturbed by the Event — and finds an angry missive from “James Borland, religion editor of Global Weekly“:

You knew full well that I was in line for the treaty signing cover story. The thing’s happening in the religious capital of the world, Cameron. Who did you think would handle it?

Who did I think would handle a story on peace talks in Israel? Not the religion editor.

This isn’t that unusual a story. I mean, the big, unnecessary treaty between the United Nations and Israel is a big development, but the subject of peace talks or the peace process or the lack thereof in Israel is a matter of routine daily news reporting. And that reporting is never, ever done by reporters from the religion desk. Why would it be? The subject matter is thoroughly secular.

Running into this sort of thing makes a reader again wonder if LaHaye or Jenkins ever watches the news or reads a paper. Where do they get the idea that this international-affairs-desk or Middle-East-bureau story ought to be covered by a religion reporter?

There are really only two factions who regard all such stories as intrinsically and primarily religious: American evangelicals like LaHaye or Jack Van Impe whose only interest in such stories is how they relate to their charts and check lists of imagined “Bible prophecy,” and Islamist militant groups like Hamas or al-Qaida. Both of those factions hold a fundamentally distorted view of the conflict over the occupied territory of the West Bank and their similar distorted views are both very bad news for the people who live there — particularly for the Palestinian Christians who live there whose very existence is hatefully disregarded by both religiously crazed groups of zealots.

Weirdly, Jenkins has Buck argue — first to Stanton Bailey and then again to Jimmy Borland — that the treaty-signing story is not a religion story. Thus here in Left-Behind-world, everyone except prophecy-driven evangelical Christians instinctively regards all Israel-related news as primarily religious in nature. That’s precisely the opposite of how such stories are viewed here in reality.

So despite Borland’s umbrage — “Who did you think would handle it?” — I wouldn’t have expected it to fall to him. He’s the religion editor and it’s not a religion story. But even if it were a religion story, I wouldn’t have expected Jimmy to write it because he’s not a writer. He’s the religion editor — the guy in charge of the religion writers, but not a writer himself.

“Just because I’m not your typical cover-story writer and haven’t done it before doesn’t mean I couldn’t handle it,” Borland whines. But this is silly. Borland may not have personally written a cover story, but he’s been the lead editor on one every eight or 12 weeks or whatever GW’s particular rotation schedule is for the religion covers. Such stories are a fixture of weekly news magazines — they do lots of them, every year, on a regular schedule.

Here is yet another thing LaHaye and Jenkins seem not to know. Their assumption is that such magazines would never put religion stories on the cover because they aren’t real, true Christian magazines, and they imagine that all non-RTCs view religion with disdain. This assumption couldn’t survive a trip to the supermarket, where every couple of months, like clockwork, the next Time or Newsweek religion cover story is right there by the counter. In the months before Tribulation Force was written, Time’s cover stories included a profile of Ralph Reed (“The Right Hand of God”) as well as stories such as “Is the Bible Fact or Fiction?” and “Can We Still Believe in Miracles?”

It may sound like I’m quibbling over details here, but these details are pretty remarkable when you consider what it takes to get them wrong. This isn’t mere sloppiness or a lack of research. When Jenkins describes the Jordan River as the Mississippi of the Middle East, complete with steamships navigating it from Jericho to Galilee, that’s laughable, but sort of understandable as a failure of research. (Not that it would have taken extensive research to correct that mistake — most Bibles have maps in the back, just a few pages past the end of Jerry’s favorite book.)

But how can we account for the authors’ apparent lack of awareness that peace-in-the-Middle-East stories are never covered by religion writers — particularly when the authors follow such stories obsessively? Or how can we account for their unexplored assumption that newsweeklies never do religion cover stories when those stories are always big news in the evangelical world? How can Tim LaHaye not realize that newsweeklies routinely publish religion cover stories when he himself has been the subject of several such stories?

The bungling of such details relates, I think, to LaHaye’s similar total misunderstanding of the United Nations. That subject, like the daily news from the Middle East, is a preoccupation of LaHaye’s. Yet for all his obsession with the U.N., he maintains an utterly and obviously mistaken sense of what that agency is, how it functions and what it’s for. He thinks of the U.N. as a kind of global federation — like the United States, only with countries instead of states. The delegates to the U.N. are therefore, in LaHaye’s view, something like America’s senators, while the secretary-general is a kind of global president.

It would seem impossible to maintain such a warped understanding of the U.N. after reading even a single newspaper article on the subject, yet for decades LaHaye has read everything he could get his hands on about the U.N. and somehow none of that has penetrated the wall of his misunderstanding. This sort of obvious wrongness can’t really be called misapprehension. It’s more like a kind of non-apprehension — a stubborn refusal to apprehend.

That refusal is, I think, the result of the locking oneself inside the epistemic prison of conspiracy-think. The details I’m highlighting in this section are just some of the thousands of examples of the distorted, non-apprehension of the world revealed in these books. For L&J, the conspiracy — the framework of End-Times prophecy and all that it imagines — trumps what even their five senses have to tell them. The requirements of the conspiracy overrule and outweigh reality. This is true whether the subject is the U.N. or reporting on Israel or religion cover stories or even fundamental human nature responding to the disappearance of the world’s children.

This illustrates how what I argued recently about the tea partiers also applies to the End Times Rapture prophecy crowd. They don’t believe these things because they are stupid. They become stupid by choosing to believe these things — choosing to believe things that require and cultivate stupidity. Belief in premillennial dispensationalist prophecy schemes requires a willful non-apprehension of countless realities that contradict it and that willful non-apprehension makes one stupid. Very, very stupid.

Anyway, after receiving this e-mail, Buck decides to call Jimmy Borland to talk to him about having stolen his assignment. This is, I suppose, somewhat commendable. It’s not really back-stabbing if you’re up-front about it, right?

Buck tells Jimmy he’s calling “to set the record straight,” then quickly concedes that, yes, he is a story-stealing ambitious weasel who would kill his own mother for a prominent byline:

“To tell you the truth, Jim, I did tell Bailey I saw it as more of a political than a religious story, and I even wondered aloud whether you were up to it.”

“And you don’t think that constitutes running me off the story so you can write it?”

“I may have, Jim, but it wasn’t intentional. I’m sorry.”

So having acknowledged that he swiped Jimmy’s assignment and apologizing for doing so, Buck offers to square things with his colleague by trading him back the story he just stole.

“If it means that much to you, I’ll insist that you do it.”

“Right. What’s the catch?”

“That I get your stories, and one new one. … You let me cover the one-world religion story, the rebuilding of the temple story, the two preachers at the Wailing Wall story, the vote for a new pope story, and another one in your bailiwick I haven’t told anyone about yet, and I’ll see to it you get to do the cover story on the treaty.”

The election of a new pope is always, always, always a cover story. That’s one. The rebuilding of the Temple is ridiculous, but if such a thing were seriously going to happen, it also would not be the sort of story that would get buried in the back of the magazine with the movie reviews. So that’s two. Plus I’m guessing that photographs of bullet-proof undead street preachers actually breathing fire might also find their way onto the front. So that’s three.

What Buck is proposing here, then, is a trade in which he gives back the one cover story he took in exchange for three future cover stories. I’ll give you back one of yours if you give me three of yours. Sounds fair. Here’s how Buck describes the offer: “I’m asking for Baltic and Mediterranean and offering Boardwalk and Park Place.”

Jenkins may not know the geography of Israel or Manhattan, but he’s pretty sharp when it comes to the Monopoly board.

“I’m not your enemy,” Buck adds. This is a friendly 1-for-3 trade he’s offering here.

That one other story Buck mentioned turns out to be the upcoming revelation of Rabbi Tsion Ben-Judah’s “research” on the Messiah (a thorough review of every Jews for Jesus T-shirt and bumper sticker ever printed). We’ll get to that episode in a few chapters. It’s ponderously self-congratulatory and grossly anti-Semitic, but it does have one positive side-effect. Once TB-J arrives to carry the biblical exposition, Jenkins will finally be free to put poor Bruce Barnes out of his misery.

Borland shrugs off that story as boring and inconsequential, not realizing that the conversion of a single rabbi will, in the chapters to come, be treated as a far bigger news story than the disappearance of every child on earth.

Borland is similarly dismissive of the one-world religion story. “Dry as dust,” he says. And the rebuilding of the temple? Yawn. “Nothing’s going to stand in the way of the Jews rebuilding their temple because no one but the Jews care.”

I realize that Jimmy Borland only exists as a character to display this sort of foolish ignorance — a bufoonish lack of news judgement that is meant to make Buck look shrewd by comparison. But this sort of Rumsfeldian ignorance of Islam is a bit hard to swallow from even a dim and incompetent religion editor.

Borland is also willing to surrender the fire-breathing story because, he says, his reporters are scared to go anywhere near those guys. And even the election of a new pope, in Borland’s view, is barely worthy of mention as news, since “Everybody knows who the new pope’s gonna be …”

The consensus, it seems, is that the vacancy left by the Rapturing of Pope Calvin Zwingli I will be filled by Archbishop Mathews of Cincinnati. The election of the first American pope does not strike Borland as a big deal for the readers of his American magazine.

You’ll recall that this same archbishop, Peter Cardinal Mathews, was the straw-man Catholic Buck allegedly interviewed even though the interview would have had to take place while Buck was somewhere else doing something else. Mathews was the sock puppet created to lose an argument with Buck over the danger of good works — an argument in which brand-new-convert Buck recited from memory a passage he had never read. This proved that the passionate sincerity of RTCs is clearly superior to the musty, incense-burning, candle-lighting, praying-to-Mary, vain repetition of silly, evil Catholics.

The rise of the Buckeye Pope will come to rival the conversion of Tsion Ben-Jewy for sheer, unmitigated religious slander. Catholic and Jewish readers of these books are urged not to get into a discussion of whether such characters make these books more anti-Catholic or more anti-Semitic. In the spirit of the upcoming “one-world religion meeting,” let’s just agree that these books are atrociously ugly on both counts.

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