L.B.: Gross estimate

L.B.: Gross estimate November 4, 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. 302-305

Rayford Steele has just finished watching CNN’s report that Moses and Elijah have returned from the dead as evangelical street preachers. He wonders if this might be meaningful:

Bruce had told him and the rest of the core group at New Hope that there would soon spring up 144,000 Jews who would believe in Christ and begin to evangelize around the world. Were these the first two?

OK, here we go with the whole 144,000 bit. This has led to far more and far stranger interpretative schemes than even the impenetrable “two witnesses” passage. That number has led to sectarian fantasies that make the Muggletonians seem mainstream by comparison. If you want to read everything the Bible has to say about these 144,000, see Revelation 7:1-8 and Revelation 14:1-5.

The first thing that may strike you about these passages is that 144,000 is a Big Round Number. Numbers like this tend to provoke two different responses from two different kinds of readers. Some people will, for example, read the Bible and think, Gee, what a coincidence that so many events take exactly 40 days or 40 years. Others will see a pattern at work and think, Hmm, “40” seems to be idiomatic shorthand for “a really long time.” The latter group will be criticized by the former for failing to read the Bible “literally.”

(This disagreement — the collision of idiom and “literalism” — is also the basis for a great deal of comedy. The fundamentalist hermeneutic corresponds with the classic comic type of the Confused Foreigner. The PMD response to this passage is roughly the equivalent of Borat’s asking, “Yes, but where do you keep this magnet?”)

The figure here, we’re told, is the total of 12,000 taken from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. (Sort of, good luck trying to reconcile John’s list of the tribes with any other such list. If I were a Danite, I’d be insulted.) This is an army of sinless, singing virgins. No one will be able to harm them, at least not until they all get martyred.

Again, passages like this tend to provoke two different kinds of responses. Some people, coming across this vision of an army of indestructible, sinless, singing, virgins will attempt to interpret this literally and thus will eagerly await the arrival of precisely 144,000 (not 144,001 and not 143,999) musical martyrs. Others will view this passage as containing many flashing red neon signs indicating that such a literal reading is probably not appropriate here and, noting that this passage is part of John’s apocalypse,* written for an audience for whom martyrdom was not an abstraction, these readers might choose to interpret this passage more broadly, as a reinforcement of eschatological hope in an unjust world.

But since the 144,000 haven’t yet really arrived in our story, we’ll set all that aside for now.

Rayford continues watching CNN, where the anchor’s TelePrompter has switched from “exposition” mode to “summary of what you’ve read so far” mode. After the report from Jerusalem, the next story is about Nicolae’s big coming out party at the U.N., followed by a story explaining that “award-winning senior writer” Cameron Williams is A) not dead; and B) no longer wanted by corrupt police. This takes up another three pages, almost none of which tells readers anything they didn’t already know. I suppose this is here to bring Rayford up to speed with what the rest of us have already read, or maybe just to put into all-capitals the already bolded and underlined notion that Buck’s interaction with Carpathia is a Momentous Event.

CNN’s reports track the plot of the book so closely it’s comical. You almost get the sense that there’s some futuristic sci-fi idea at work here, with some Gattaca-like technology that tailors TV-news for individuals based on signals from a chip implanted in viewers’ cerebral cortex. “Good evening, Rayford” the life-like, animatronic news anchor would say. “Here’s today’s news just for you.” But, of course, there are no such technological advances in the world of Left Behind. Despite its futuristic setting, and despite the authors’ obsession with technological developments as “fulfillments of biblical prophecy” (satellite TV! bar codes! microchips!), the world of the first volume of the series features only technology that was widely available when it was written, in 1995. Later books in the series follow this pattern, except they feature the technology that existed when they were written — none of which was anticipated by the authors back in ’95. This leads to some odd anachronisms as things like cell phones and the Web seem to spring into existence ex nihilo in the later books.

This three pages of News For Rayford does supply a couple of items that are also news for us. There’s this, from the report on Buck’s criminal status:

“Earlier this evening, Williams was considered an international fugitive, wanted by both Scotland Yard and Interpol … Both agencies have since announced he has been cleared of all charges and is considered lucky to have escaped unharmed.”

So we know that Buck did, in fact, sell out, cutting a deal with the cop-killing extortionists who murdered his friend Dirk, just to save his own cowardly hide. But we also learn from this that Nicolae works fast. Keep in mind that while Rayford is watching this back in Chicago, Buck is still sitting in a Plaza suite, still talking to Carpathia. Nicolae was able to arrange for Buck’s safety, contacting two European agencies and coordinating their statements to the press, all without ever leaving the room.

The CNN anchor also reported this:

“Associates of Carpathia have announced that he has already extended his schedule to include addresses to several international meetings in New York over the next two weeks …”

(I’m imagining his speech to the Parliament of World Religions: Warm up the crowd with some PWR trivia, followed by a litany of all the group’s executives, complete with their dates of service, and finishing off with a rousing, nine-language alphabetical listing of every associatednfaith group, reaching a crescendo as the Zoroastrian delegation leaps to their feet and all the world’s religions stand as one.)

“… and that he has been invited by President Fitzhugh to speak to a joint session of Congress and spend a night at the White House.”

Again, Carpathia hasn’t left the hotel suite since he got the invitation from “Fitz.” While he sits there talking to Buck, his people in the other room, apparently, were calling CNN to tell them about the invitation he had just received from the president. It might have been better protocol to allow the president to make this announcement, particularly since he can’t yet have had time to discuss this surprise joint session with congressional leaders, but you still have to admire the incredible efficiency of Nicolae’s PR machine. All of this without having yet hired his own press secretary. Impressive.

The anchor switches to other news —

“Major League Baseball teams in spring training face the daunting task of replacing the dozens of players lost in the cosmic disappearances …”

— and Rayford, bored by anything not involving Major Characters, switches off the TV.

That’s frustrating. I would have liked to have heard more about baseball’s efforts to carry on after The Event. The majority of players apparently have decided, like Rayford, not to let the disappearance of their young children deter them from getting back to work. And since the Antichrist is already in New York, I would bet that the Damn Yankees — their roster unaffected by the disappearances — would be inviting him to throw out the first pitch. Apart from the “daunting task of replacing the dozens of players lost” there might be a few other challenges too. The Father/Son games, one assumes, would be cancelled, as would all of those promotions for “fans 14 and under.” The evaporation of every member of the Boys and Girls Clubs would, presumably, force MLB to find a new official charity. Perhaps the players could volunteer their time helping out in the new homes for Parents Traumatized into Catatonia?

I realize I’m repeating myself here, but the authors’ consistent inability to comprehend the parameters of the context they themselves have created is just staggering. Yet again here they toss in a little aside intended to remind us of the reality of life after The Event, and yet again that reminder fails to grasp even slightly what that reality would really be like. The aside about baseball serves as yet another jarring reminder of how little care the authors have given to creating a coherent or consistent setting.

This is, mostly, a matter of Very Bad Writing, but it is not only that. Little of the plot that follows the Event would make any sense at all if the authors’ appreciated the chaos and trauma that would actually exist in the childless aftermath of this horror. They carry on with that plot anyway because it is, they believe, what will really happen according to what they believe is biblical prophecy. Recognizing the inhuman, unreal world they are describing would force them to recognize not just that the plot of their novel makes no sense, but that their whole “prophetic” scheme makes no sense.

They would not be able to do a better job telling this story even if they were better writers. If they were better writers, they would have to tell a different story.

The Longest Day is still not over yet, so Rayford figures he can squeeze in one more phone call:

He made himself coffee, then phoned the 24-hour line that kept track of flight and crew assignments …

He’s hoping to get another crack at his proselytee by having her assigned to his flight the next day, but it is not to be. Hattie is already taking the earlier flight to New York, the 8 a.m. nonstop into the arms of the Antichrist.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* David Dark provided one of my favorite descriptions of apocalyptic literature, contrasting it with George Orwell’s bleak prophecy. “If you want a vision of the future,” Orwell said, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face. Forever.” The apocalyptic response to this is, “No, not forever.” That, in a nutshell, is the theme of these passages from John’s apocalypse.

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