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NRA: Third-hand excitement

NRA: Third-hand excitement January 25, 2016

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; pp. 298-301

“Bible prophecy scholarship” is all about the charts. The book of Revelation, it seems, proves impossible to read “literally” without the assistance of a good chart. I suppose one could make such a chart in an Excel spreadsheet, or with PowerPoint, but where’s the fun in that? The traditional approach, preferred by most “Bible prophecy scholars,” is to create a chart that’s every bit as deliriously strange as the imagery from Revelation that the chart purports to represent literally.

Personally, I’m a fan of H.A. Ironside’s hand-drawn charts from the early 20th century. I used to have a big atlas-sized collection of his many charts, with fold-out pages, and I’m still sad to have lost it in the Great Gayley Park Apartments Storage Area Flood of ’96:

Ironsides

But the real master and inventor of the form was Clarence Larkin, whose dazzling outsider art charting the dispensational reshuffling of Revelation and Daniel is still being imitated today, nearly a century after he first produced this:

Larkin

 

As an interpretive guide to John’s Apocalypse, Larkin’s chart is worse than useless. But as a landmark, influential work of American folk art, it could hang in a gallery alongside the works of Howard Finster or Daniel Johnston or Ralph Steadman.* Provided one doesn’t look to it for meaningful biblical exegesis, it rewards closer inspection. (If you’re reading this on your phone, be sure to revisit this chart later on a desktop computer with a big screen.) I kind of love the way his desperate need to force a template of seven sevens produces a final seven that contains only three items. And I’m awed by the way Larkin’s apocalyptic beasts appear to be modeled after the lions in Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom — a weirdly subversive or even self-refuting element that may be the closest Larkin gets to capturing something truthful about the Lamb at the center of the book of Revelation. (Or maybe he meant that as a bit of anti-Quakerism?)

Tim LaHaye, of course, has his own version of this chart. Everybody in the “Bible prophecy” racket does. And LaHaye’s, like all of them, builds on Larkin’s original template, adding in just enough variation to justify a new copyright and to allow him to argue that you should book him, and not one of those other pretenders, to speak at your church’s next “Bible prophecy” seminar. Ever the entrepreneur, LaHaye has packaged his version of the chart in a book, study guide accompaniment, 6-panel foldout (sold separately), and multimedia CD.

Unlike Larkin’s original, LaHaye’s are in color. Plus, they spell out in detail the full narcissism of small differences that allow LaHaye to denounce the heresies and errors of all the other “Bible prophecy scholars.” So if you have a deeply felt need to know exactly why, for example, LaHaye’s nonlinear literal reading of Revelation moves the Two Witnesses up to the beginning of the story, then perhaps it would be worth it to you to spend the $158.99 Amazon is now charging for that multimedia CD.

If you’re wavering on such an investment, though, let me reassure you that LaHaye’s chart is, broadly, indistinguishable from Larkin’s and everyone else’s in the Revelation-chart-making “Bible prophecy” industry.** The core of it is the same as the core of Larkin’s original — a “Great Tribulation” period of seven years based on the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls or vials described in the book of Revelation.

Charting those out is actually pretty tricky, since charts are linear and John’s Apocalypse really, really isn’t. It seems like three lists of seven plagues should give a total of 21, but then you’ve got to deal with some of them not seeming all that plague-y — like the silence in Heaven or the singing virgin martyrs. The seventh trumpet seems to consist of the seven bowls that follow (kind of a wishing for more wishes deal), and a lot of those bowls of wrath just duplicate earlier stuff, meaning, for example, that the oceans that already turned to blood, um, turn to blood again.

Apocalyptic literature is pretty weird stuff, after all. The only thing stranger may be the 20th-century “Bible prophecy” literature that pretends it isn’t.

Regardless of how one charts out the not altogether linear and reconcilable elements of these various “sevens” of divine wrath, though, all of these charts of seals and trumpets and bowls seem like they ought to be exciting. We’re looking at global conquest, war, famine, death, a “great earthquake” in which “every mountain and island was removed from its place,” hail and fire mixed with blood, “a great mountain, burning with fire … thrown into the sea,” the oceans and rivers turning to blood (twice!), and an army of demon locusts with scorpion stings that ignore plants and feed only on humans. Any one of those could serve as fodder for a blockbuster disaster movie. Put them all together and it should be epic.

That’s what we were promised we’d be getting here in the pages of the Left Behind series. We were told this would be the story of all those plagues and seals and trumpets come to life in a page-turning epic extravaganza. This ain’t just some minor tribulation, after all — it’s the Great Tribulation.

And yet here we are, 300 pages into the third book of the series, and we’ve barely made any headway at all into the epic events charted out above. Just look at the subtitle of this book: Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist. That’s Seal No. 1 — the rider on the white horse. And even that hasn’t been portrayed as anything interesting, let alone thrilling. This Antichrist didn’t “go out conquering and to conquer.” He just gave a speech in which he recited the countries of the world alphabetically and then everybody voluntarily surrendered their national sovereignty and yielded him complete global power.

We’ve gotten some weird, spastic glimpses of Seal No. 2 — the “fiery red horse” of war. That’s consisted of the Antichrist deciding to nuke a bunch of major cities for no apparent reason, thereby declaring a global war against himself. That global war has been so sketchily described as something so wholly tangential to the story that readers can’t be sure whether or not it’s still going on. Our heroes, Buck Williams and Rayford Steele, have been too preoccupied with other matters for either of them to tell us much of anything about this mass annihilation of everyone in (almost) every major city. Buck has been busy hiding a rabbi in the basement of his church (which sounds like a metaphor for something, but isn’t), and Rayford has been obsessing over giving an anti-abortion lecture to his ex-mistress who is now carrying the Antichrist’s infernal offspring.

The result is that we’ve plowed through more than 1,000 pages of this saga of the Great Tribulation and yet we’re still way over on the left-hand side of the “Bible prophecy” chart.

Screen shot 2016-01-25 at 3.44.50 PM

 

Jerry Jenkins seems to have noticed this here at the end of Chapter 14 of his third volume, as he types up the umpteenth scene of our protagonists walking through an airport. He pulls out LaHaye’s version of the charts above — the one he’s supposed to be using as an outline for these novels — and realizes that he needs to kick things into gear if he ever hopes to get to the fun bit about the demon locusts from the pit of Hell.

For another writer, this realization might have meant that the following chapters would unfold with harrowing scenes of the Third and Fourth Seals of judgment. We would see the arrival of the rider on the black horse, bringing global famine, and the rider on the pale horse, accompanied by death and Hades, bringing pestilence and calamity upon calamity, resulting in the death of “a fourth of the earth.”

But Jerry Jenkins is more efficient than that. The best way to really get this Tribulation moving along, he figures, would be to tersely inform that readers that these Third and Fourth Seals of the Apocalypse have already occurred without ever being noticed or remarked upon by any of our protagonists. And the most efficient way to do that, for Jenkins, would be to have our heroes doing what they do best — watching other people report the news on an airport television set:

They stood watching as a CNN/GNN report summarized the extent of the damage from the war around the world.

So, then, it’s not actually a report. It’s a summary of a report. And we don’t get to hear that summary, we’re simply told that Rayford heard it. This is how the authors choose to convey all the potentially exciting events in those “Bible prophecy” charts. They don’t show them. They don’t even tell us about them. They only tell us that the characters have been told about them.

Already, Carpathia was putting his spin on it. The announcer said, “World health care experts predict the death toll will rise to more than 20 percent internationally. Global Potentate Nicolae Carpathia has announced formation of an international health care organization that will take precedence over all local and regional efforts. …

Jenkins’ “Don’t Show, Don’t Even Tell” approach to storytelling doesn’t just suck every potential source of excitement out of his prose. It also leaves us as readers deeply confused as to what exactly has or hasn’t already happened. Earlier, we were told that the protagonists had been told that Nicolae Carpathia was now the absolute ruler of a global One-World Government. That’s what his title of “global potentate” was supposed to mean. But then we keep tripping over passages like this and have to try to make sense of what the word “international” could possibly mean in this context. Didn’t Carpathia already seize “precedence over all local and regional” everything?

But right after telling us about a “high-level meeting” between Carpathia and his “ten global ambassadors,” the CNN/GNN report goes on to introduce the Antichrist’s medical spokesperson as “Samuel Kline of Norway.” So Norway still exists? Does the global ambassador in charge of the Federated Decile of Europe know about this?

Dr. Kline is on our heroes’ airport TV in order to tell us about the OWG’s planned response to the global famine and pestilence that followed Nicolae’s declaration of civil war with himself. This is the first we readers are hearing of this global famine and pestilence. “Oh, by the way,” Jerry Jenkins is telling us, “The third and fourth seals of Revelation 6 have already happened.”

The OWG’s response to global plague and famine, it turns out, will be a new global health care system that Dr. Kline says will “bring this planet from the brink of death to a utopian state as regards physical health.”

Rayford Steele can’t bear to watch any more:

Rayford and Amanda turned toward the escalator, Rayford shaking his head. …

Rayford is disgusted by what he’s just heard. Not the news — news to him as well as to us — of a global famine and pestilence. That doesn’t upset him. But the news of this new global health initiative is intolerable.

Sure, Nicolae Carpathia has already instituted a totalitarian one-word government, a single world currency, a single mandatory religion, and a single legal language that everyone around the world will be required to learn and to speak. And then he nuked New York, London, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and just about every other city large enough to have its own professional sports franchise. But now this Antichrist is talking about some kind of health care reform, and that’s just going way too far.

Rayford Steele has just learned for the first time, after the fact, of a global crisis of “contaminated water and air, food shortages, and the like.” He has just been told, confirming what Bruce’s version of the chart above “prophesied,” that this crisis is expected to kill 25 percent of the world’s population. You might think, then, that it would be prudent for Rayford and his cohorts in the Tribulation Force to, perhaps, start stockpiling food and clean water.

But Rayford doesn’t need to worry about that. He lives in the suburbs, after all. In the world of Left Behind, the riders on the black horse and the pale horse, like the red horseman before them, only target the ungodly residents of major cities. Chicago may have been blown to Hell, but Rayford’s cul-de-sac in Mount Prospect remains blissfully unperturbed by war or famine or pestilence.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* This genre of folk art is so well-established that it also seems ripe for parody. I, for one, would like to see a version of Larkin’s chart that mixes in some of the more infamous SyFy originals — Sharknados and Piranhacondas and perhaps an odd Mansquito.

** More than 10 years into this series, you may be growing weary of the scare quotes I’m still using around every occurrence of the phrase “Bible prophecy.” I’m sometimes a bit weary of it myself. But then I look at that phrase without scare quotes and … well, I just can’t let it sit there with its legitimacy unchallenged. This stuff is neither biblical nor prophetic. To call it “Bible prophecy” without those qualifying quotation marks would just be wrong. It would be participating in or facilitating a lie.

 

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