T.F.: My Lunch With Chaim

T.F.: My Lunch With Chaim November 4, 2015

(Originally posted October 16, 2009. This got lost in the migration from TypePad to WordPress, recovered and reposted for the archives here thanks to Loki1001 and the Library of Congress.)

Tribulation Force, pp. 97-104

Yes, as those page numbers indicate, we’re flipping back a bit this week to review a bit more of Buck and Chaim Rosenzweig’s conversation over lunch at the Manhattan Yacht Club. There are a few things we missed the first time through, including a bit of that discussion that lays the foundation for their next conversation in the pages we’ll turn to next week.

Much of this lunchtime conversation is taken up with Chaim Rosenzweig’s breathless praise of his new boss and patron, Nicolae Carpathia. Including a notable discussion of Nicolae’s humility.

Here the authors approach the edge of something sensible, but can’t quite manage to step across into it. Nicolae’s humility is the one quality of his that the authors seem to appreciate is bogus. Their Antichrist, they realize, must pretend to be humble, but cannot be portrayed as genuinely humble.

Thus we get three pages of Chaim lavishly extolling Carpathia’s vast humility while Buck — unbelievably unnoticed — rolls his eyes and sighs and thinks to himself things like “I’ll bet.”

The authors at least appreciate that Nicolae might be a lethally ambitious man who pretends to be humble. Yet they can’t imagine such duplicity when it comes to his other seeming virtues. They can’t imagine that his dedication to world peace or to feeding the hungry might also be disingenuous. Those aspects of Nicolae’s character, they assume, are the genuine article and therefore these other virtues, in the authors’ eyes, must be perceived as vices.

This is, again, the sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing problem. The authors are convinced that the Antichrist will be so disguised, so every sheep is suspect and anyone who speaks of feeding the hungry or of working for peace (or who, say, is given a Peace Prize) is regarded by them as nothing more than a candidate for Antichrist.

It’s interesting that the one exception to this is Nicolae’s humility. In Rosenzweig’s description, the Antichrist is:

“Probably as humble as any leader I have ever met, Cameron. Of course, I know many public servants and private people who are humble and have a right to be! But most politicians, heads of state, world leaders, they are full of themselves. Many of them have much to be proud of and in many ways it is their egos that allow them to accomplish what they accomplish. But never have I seen a man like this. …

“Think about it Cameron, he has not sought these positions. He rose from a low position in the Romanian government to become president of the nation when an election was not even scheduled. He resisted it! …

“And when he was invited to speak at the United Nations not a month ago, he was so intimidated and felt so unworthy, he almost declined. …”

What I find most interesting here is the way Nicolae’s ersatz humility is almost presented as a subversion of the myth of Cincinnatus, because that myth — not the story or the man himself, but the aura of meaning it conveys — is immensely important among the evangelical American readers who make up these books’ intended audience.

Cincinnatus was a Roman general who retired to work and live on his farm. When invaders threatened Rome, he was summoned to serve as dictator, a post he accepted reluctantly. He conquered Rome’s enemies, resigned from the role of dictator and returned to his farm.

This is, for many American social conservatives, a portrait of the ideal leader. Cincinnatus’ humility was proof of his virtue, and the people have nothing to fear from a virtuous dictator.*

By portraying Nicolae’s humility and reluctance to accept power as a sham — a pose to deceive the masses — the authors tip-toe right up to the line of recognizing that they, too, might be so deceived by such a ruler, and that the idea of trusting a ruler checked only by his own virtue is itself not to be trusted. But they can’t quite bring themselves to grasp this. Buck’s smug superiority (a surrogate for the authors’ own) reasserts itself in the scene and Chaim is ultimately portrayed as a fool not for naively supposing that a humble dictator can be trusted, but only for failing to realize that this particular virtuous dictator isn’t truly virtuous. Buck listens to Chaim’s ode to Nicolae the Humble and rolls his eyes because he knows better. He agrees with Chaim’s premise that a virtuous dictator is a Good Thing, but he realizes that Nicolae is only pretending to be virtuous.

Rosenzweig segues from his praise of Nicolae’s humility into praise of the Antichrist’s other virtues — virtues the authors don’t portray as mere pretense:

“Cameron, he has ideas upon ideas! He is the consummate diplomat. He speaks so many languages that he hardly ever needs an interpreter, even for the chiefs of some of the remote tribes in South America and Africa! The other day he shared a few phrases understood only by an Australian Aborigine!”

This is all intended to be perceived by readers as evidence of Carpathia’s true nature as the epitome of evil. Diplomats are presumed guilty. Polyglots doubly so. A knowledge of other languages and cultures, after all, is something that would only be sought by some fuzzy-headed relativist unconvinced by the self-evident cultural superiority of English-speaking Christendom. And learning to communicate with others is just too suspiciously irenic — why learn their languages when you might, instead, “invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” Plus, learning languages is too intellectual. Intellectual is bad.

Young crypto-Stalinists walk to a secret meeting. (Photo by Gadjoboy via Wikimedia.)
Young crypto-Stalinists walk to a secret meeting. (Photo by Gadjoboy via Wikimedia.)

It might be that we’re meant to understand Nicolae’s preternatural knack for languages as a super-natural gift — a kind of infernal miracle. It makes sense in a way that such a skill would go along with his brainwashing and mindreading powers. To read someone’s thoughts, you’d need to understand the language of those thoughts. To implant thoughts in another’s mind, you’d need that person to be able to understand those thoughts in their own language.

If that’s what’s supposed to be going on here with Nicolae then it’s an odd super-power for an Antichrist. I’d expect the Antichrist to be something like an End Times Jannes or Jambres — able to imitate or counterfeit the miracles associated with Christ. But this bit with languages instead seems to mimic the miracle of Pentecost — more the sort of thing one might associate with an Antichurch than an Antichrist.**

This is yet another reminder of the road not traveled in these books, the missed opportunity to explore the character of Christ through the character of the Antichrist. By portraying Nicolae Carpathia as an explicit opposite of Jesus Christ, the authors might have used him as a kind of mirror reflection, allowing us to picture Jesus more clearly.

For example, Nicolae has been granted a Satanic rule over all the kingdoms of the earth. It would have been a simple matter to portray his use of Rosenzweig’s miracle formula as a version of turning stones into bread and then to show him demonstrating his miraculous specialness by some equivalent of leaping, unharmed, from the highest point of the Temple. Those were the temptations Jesus faced, and rejected, during his 40 days in the wilderness. Seeing Nicolae grapple with those same temptations, succumbing to each in turn, would have been a potentially fruitful way of exploring their meaning from a different angle.

Denys Arcand’s wonderful film Jesus de Montreal offers such a reimagining of that account of Jesus’ temptation. Arcand’s movie explores the role of the artist through the story of Jesus (and vice versa). His Christ-figure confronts each of Jesus’ temptations in turn, with an oily show-biz lawyer standing in for Satan.

But Left Behind isn’t interested in exploring the character of Jesus. The authors are not at all concerned with how their portrayal of Jesus’ opposite might be a means to explore the meaning of Jesus’ own character, actions, words, ministry or mission. They’re not terribly concerned with Jesus at all.

And in any case, LaHaye & Jenkins’ Antichrist isn’t really presented as the opposite of Christ. They think of him more as a cheap, pirated copy. That is seen most clearly when Christ himself arrives in their books several volumes from now. That LB-Jesus doesn’t act like Nicolae’s opposite, but rather like a better, stronger, faster version of the same character — a superior, more powerful Antichrist.

And the authors’ account of Christ’s return offers what they neglect here in their introduction of Nicolae Carpathia — an explicit, if unintended, retelling of the Gospel story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. LB-Jesus flings himself from the sky and lands miraculously unharmed. He forces all the nations of the world to bow down before him and immediately sets about turning stones into steaming piles of produce. The authors’ Jesus, in other words, corrects what they perceive as the errors of the Jesus of the Gospels. Jesus 1.0 rejected the temptation of power. Jesus 2.0, they say, will return to seize power with relish. He will arrive as a conqueror bent on conquest — but with an even bigger bow and more impressive white horse than the one Nicolae rides.

Rosenzweig’s paean to Nicolae moves on to touch on the Antichrist’s admirable pacifism. Admirable to Rosenzweig, that is, but the authors and Buck know better. Nicolae’s pacifism, unlike his humility, is the real deal. There’s no point for him to pretend he’s a pacifist since all pacifism is itself, in the authors’ view, nothing more than a form of pretense. Thus Rosenzweig explains that Nicolae’s pacifist disarmament scheme will be enforced with the threat of nuclear annihilation:

“Knowing full well that some nations may hoard or hide weapons or produce new ones, the full agreement between the sovereign state of Israel and Security Council of the United Nations — with the personal signature of Nicolae Carpathia — makes a solemn promise. Any nation that threatens Israel will suffer immediate extinction, using the full complement of weaponry available to the U.N. With every country donating 10 percent, you can imagine the firepower.”

“What I cannot imagine, Chaim, is an avowed pacifist, a rabid global-disarmament proponent for his entire political career, threatening to blow countries off the face of the earth.”

“It’s only semantics, Cameron,” Rosenzweig said.

Not to get bogged down in semantics, but I’m trying to understand how Rosenzweig’s use of that term here makes any sense at all.

Buck sees the hypocrisy here of a pacifist issuing nuclear ultimatums, but the authors ultimately conclude that such hypocrisy is intrinsic to pacifism and shared by all supposed pacifists. This is what they think all pacifists are really like, deep-down. Here again Tim LaHaye’s John Birch Society roots are showing. To LaHaye, “pacifist” always means “crypto-Stalinist.” (Even the Amish? I’m not sure, but clearly they’re Up To Something.)

Nicolae’s nuclear ultimatum is somehow tied up with his soon-to-be-signed seven-year peace treaty with Israel, the prospect of which is really what has Rosenzweig so bewitched.

Buck asks his friend why Israel would want to sign such a treaty, what’s in it for them?

“What has Israel prayed for since the beginning of her existence, Cameron? And I am not talking about her rebirth in 1948. From the beginning of time as the chosen people of God, what have we prayed for?”

Buck’s blood ran cold, and he could only sit there and nod resignedly. Rosenzweig answered his own question. “Shalom. Peace. ‘Pray for the peace of Israel.'”

The authors seem to forget here that they’ve already told us that Israel has peace, stability and security. Here’s a bit from page 8 of the previous book:

The prosperity brought about by the miracle formula changed the course of history for Israel. Flush with cash and resources, Israel made peace with her neighbors.

And by “her neighbors” there, the authors mean Iran and Turkey, since the Israel of the Left Behind novels is a vastly larger nation than the one that exists today, peacefully swallowing up the territory of what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and much of Iraq to encompass everything “from the Nile to the Euphrates.”

Plus that book described an attack on Israel — a full-scale nuclear assault — that was swatted away by the hand of the Almighty. You’d think that experience would have helped the nation feel a bit more secure. But Rosenzweig says no:

“We know God Almighty supernaturally protected us from the onslaught of the Russians. Do you know that there was so much death among their troops that the bodies had to be buried in a common grave, a crater gouged from our precious soil by one of their bombs, which God rendered harmless? We had to burn some of their bodies and bones. And the debris from their weapons of destruction was so massive that we have used it as a raw resource and are refabricating it into marketable goods. Cameron,” he added ominously, “so many of their planes crashed — well, all of them, of course. They still had burnable fuel, enough that we estimate we will be able to use if for five to eight more years. Can you see why peace is so attractive to us?”

This awkwardly catalogued array of weird detail is meant to parallel the specifics of the biblical “prophecy” that this whole Russo-Ethiopian invasion was concocted to “fulfill.” It’s LaHaye’s imagined explanation of the “Gog and Magog” passages in Ezekiel 38 and 39. Those chapters say things like:

I will turn thee back, and leave but the sixth part of thee, and will cause thee to come up from the north parts, and will bring thee upon the mountains of Israel: And I will smite thy bow out of thy left hand, and will cause thine arrows to fall out of thy right hand. Thou shalt fall upon the mountains of Israel, thou, and all thy bands, and the people that is with thee … And they that dwell in the cities of Israel shall go forth, and shall set on fire and burn the weapons, both the shields and the bucklers, the bows and the arrows, and the handstaves, and the spears, and they shall burn them with fire seven years: So that they shall take no wood out of the field, neither cut down any out of the forests; for they shall burn the weapons with fire: and they shall spoil those that spoiled them, and rob those that robbed them …

So all of Rosenzweig’s rambling here is LaHaye’s attempt to reimagine a “literal” fulfillment of Ezekiel’s hyperbolic description of that supposed future conflict. (If by “literal” you mean that these two chapters of Ezekiel are meant to be literally divorced from the context of the rest of that book and literally spliced somewhere into the beginning of John’s apocalypse, wherein “shields and bucklers” might be regarded as an acceptably “literal” representation of jet fuel.)

But anyway that brings us, finally, to the main reason we needed to flip back to this conversation. In the following pages, Rosenzweig will introduce us to the character of Tsion Ben-Judah, who will quickly come to supplant Bruce Barnes in the role of Mr. Exposition while leading a worldwide network of Jews Against Judaism. And to really appreciate that character when we meet him, we first need to read Chaim Rosenzweig’s description of the meaning of Jewishness:

“Cameron, Cameron,” Rosenzweig said wearily, “history has shown our God to be capricious when it comes to our welfare. From the children of Israel wandering 40 years in the desert to the Six-Day War to the Russian invasion to now, we do not understand him. He lends us his favor when it suits his eternal plan, which we cannot comprehend. We pray, we seek him, we try to curry his favor. But in the meantime we believe that God helps those who help themselves.”

This isn’t just Rosenzweig’s description, of course, it’s also the authors’ idea of Judaism. The bottom line being that Jews simply “do not understand” God. Tim LaHaye, on the other hand, understands God perfectly. Alas, if only the Jews would recognize his superior knowledge and his superior superiority, he would be happy to respond by condescending to explain it all to them.

Playing out that fantasy is, more or less, the role of Tsion Ben-Judah in the remainder of this volume.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* This is another division distinguishing the social-conservative wing of the Republican Party from it’s libertarian, free-market faction. The myth of Cincinnatus illustrates social conservatives’ comfort with unchecked power and unlimited authority. That contradicts the Madisonian concern for limited government that’s central to conservatives of a more libertarian bent.

It also helps to explain why the partisan hypocrisy often demonstrated by this kind of social conservative isn’t only partisan hypocrisy. President George W. Bush was, in their view, a virtuous man with Jesus in his heart. That virtue, they believed, was sufficient as a check and balance against any potential misuse of power. President Barack Obama, they believe, is an evil man and therefore must not be trusted with even the constitutionally constrained, limited, checked-and-balanced power of his office. This is why former Vice President Dick Cheney belongs with the social conservatives even though he was, at best, unenthusiastic about their dual obsessions of criminalizing abortion and homosexuality. Cheney believes that virtue and virtue alone is a sufficient constraint on the use of power, and that power ought to be wielded unfettered by any other limit in pursuit of that virtue.

** In Luke’s account, the Apostle Peter stands to preach the gospel at Pentecost and those from every tribe and nation hear him speak in their own languages (while others think he sounds like a babbling drunk). That story presents the young church as a redemptive community — an expanding, inclusive body through which the divisions of Babel and the curses of our fallen world are being restored. That entails a very different ecclesiology and eschatology that what they authors present in the Left Behind books — a different vision of the nature and purpose of the church and its role in the destiny of human history. Given their vastly different take on those ideas, the authors don’t do themselves any favors by alluding, even slightly, to Pentecost.

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