NRA: Church board meeting

NRA: Church board meeting February 1, 2016

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; pp. 303-307

These pages, like so many in this series, are superficially dull. It’s a boring account of a boring event, as the leadership of the New Hope Village Church gathers to appoint Tsion Ben-Judah as the church’s new pastor.

It’s only when one steps back to remember the larger context for this scene that one realizes how dizzyingly weird it actually is. And the thudding dullness of it is part of what makes it so very strange.

As the last chapter ended, our heroes learned that all four horsemen of the Apocalypse were now on the march. The voices of the strange living creatures in Revelation 6 have boomed like thunder, “Come and see,” the seals of divine wrath have been opened and monstrous calamities have been unleashed, with “power given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth.”

A look inside the new parsonage at New Hope Village Church.
A look inside the new parsonage at New Hope Village Church.

Cities are being destroyed, food and water supplies are dwindling, disease is rampaging across the globe, a piece of bread would buy a bag of gold, etc. And our heroes are ignoring all of that, not even bothering with the sort of preparations one might make before a major snowstorm. They have no plan for ensuring their continued access to safe water other than turning the handle on the tap and continuing to pay their monthly bill to the Global Community Department of Public Works. They have no plan for ensuring they’ll be able to feed themselves during this global famine other than continuing to shop at the local supermarket.

The setting for this little church board meeting, in other words, is the same bizarre backdrop we’ve encountered in this series ever since Rayford obliviously traipsed through the burning wreckage on the tarmac at O’Hare back in the first book. God and Satan are tag-teaming the world with every form of destruction they’ve got, but our heroes don’t notice, don’t care, and apparently don’t need to notice or to care. The Great Tribulation doesn’t seem to affect them at all.

But that’s not the only very strange thing about the church board meeting that takes place here. Equally strange, in its own way, is the fact that these people are not actually the board of this church. The Tribulation Force meets at New Hope Village Church, but its actions and its lack of plans have nothing to do with whatever else might be going on in that congregation. That’s why they’re meeting, as always, in secret, to secretly appoint a secret replacement for the church’s pastor who will then be secreted in a secret shelter beneath the church.

Rayford Steele has just arrived back in Illinois for the funeral of the Rev. Bruce Barnes. Poor Bruce, you’ll recall, died at the end of the last book, but he’s had to wait more than 300 pages for a proper burial. Apparently it was unthinkable for New Hope church to mourn its late pastor without all of his super-secret, inner-inner circle of special friends present.

Bruce Barnes nominally served as the church’s pastor, but apart from preaching on Sunday mornings, he doesn’t seem to have interacted at all with any of the members of the congregation. He spent all his time locked away in his office, studying his Raptured predecessor’s notes, occasionally meeting secretly with the four members of his inner-inner circle, and occasionally leaving town to preach in other churches. But it doesn’t seem like he ever spoke with anyone in the congregation who wasn’t named Rayford, Buck, Amanda or Chloe.*

This “Tribulation Force” quartet now seems to assume that they’re the leaders of this congregation even though, like Bruce, they don’t seem to even know anyone else’s name at this church. Rayford imagines the congregation sees him as a key figure in their community even though he doesn’t even live on this continent anymore. He’s been living in New Babylon since Bruce died, and Buck has been out of town, helping the Jews for Jesus smuggle Tsion Ben-Judah in and out of Israel and into the safety of the Antichrist’s one-world government.

So who’s been preaching at New Hope Village Church since Bruce died? Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins aren’t interested in that question, but I am. I assume that the same nameless, faceless church members who’d been leading this congregation while Bruce was shuttered away with his four friends have now stepped up to select a new pastor or pastors, and that these folks are continuing, as they’d learned to do earlier, to carry on the business and ministry of the church, serving the spiritual and physical needs of the congregation, without anyone in the Tribulation Force noticing.

That’s why, I assume, the new pastor(s) haven’t inherited Bruce’s old office. That room was long ago designated for use by Bruce and his inner circle, and at this point it doesn’t really matter if it remains empty or not, as the congregation has learned to function without it.

Upon his brief return to New Hope, Rayford’s first step was to again commandeer that office so that he and his inner-circle friends can finish their plans for Bruce’s memorial service the following Sunday:

He, Buck, and Tsion went over and over Bruce’s material. More than once Rayford was moved to tears.

“Bruce’s material” refers to his notebooks filled with scholarly insights into the coming fulfillments of biblical prophecies — the very events now otherwise being ignored by our heroes. Since this involves poring over Bruce’s biblical studies, the session is boys-only — the all-male inner-circle of the inner-inner circle. Amanda and Chloe are, apparently, sitting idly off-stage, in the state of suspended animation they seem to occupy whenever the men are engaged in such manly activities.

Yet again we readers are told that “Bruce’s material” is extensive, illuminating, and moving. But yet again we’re not allowed to see any of it. And for the life of me, I still can’t imagine what it might look like.

Bruce’s studies remind us of a contradiction at the core of Left Behind, and of Tim LaHaye’s entire career, and of the entire “Bible prophecy scholarship” racket in general. It requires us to believe in two things that cannot both be true.

First, we’re told that all this “Bible prophecy” is based on a literal, plain, face-value reading of the book of Revelation — a text that’s only about 20 pages long. It also incorporates snippets from elsewhere in the Bible — passages totaling, at most, another 20 pages. And every “Bible prophecy scholar,” including Bruce Barnes and Tim LaHaye, insists that a face-value reading of those 40 or so pages, in translation (no need to bother with Greek or Hebrew), is sufficient to clearly explain and defend everything anyone needs to know about the Rapture and the Great Tribulation and all the rest. The English translation of Revelation, with the cross-referenced footnotes in a Scofield Reference Bible, should be all that anyone needs to easily understand everything there is to know about the End Times.

And yet we’re also told that “Bible prophecy scholars” devote years of their lives to this face-value, literal reading of 40 pages. They spend hours locked in their studies reading book after book expounding on this plain and obvious meaning of this short text. They have plumbed the depths of this surface and, thus, have become experts whose expertise and secret knowledge deserves our respect, deference, and speaking fees.

They decided amongst themselves that Tsion should be able to come to New Hope Sunday morning, possibly with Loretta, as a guest who appeared to be an old friend. There was enough difference in their ages that, except for his Middle Eastern look, he might appear to be a son or a nephew. “But I wouldn’t risk his exposure any further than that,” Rayford said. “If the shelter is ready, we need to sneak him in there before the end of the day tomorrow.”

Now that they’ve decided that no one at New Hope will be told who Tsion is, and that he will be hidden away before anyone learns he’s there, the only thing left to do is to hold a church board meeting to formalize his appointment as the church’s new pastor.

Later in the evening, a bleary-eyed Rayford called a meeting of the Tribulation Force, asking Tsion Ben-Judah to wait in another room. Rayford, Amanda, Buck, and Chloe sat around the dining room table, Bruce’s pages piled high before them. …

Wait, the dining room table? So they’re at Loretta’s house, I guess, maybe and not in Bruce’s study? I suppose if the authors can’t be bothered to tell us little details like the location of a scene, then we readers shouldn’t trouble ourselves over such details either.

“I suppose it falls to me,” Rayford said, “as the senior member of this little band of freedom fighters, to call to order the first meeting after the loss of our leader.”

Amanda shyly raised her hand. “Excuse me, but I believe I am the senior member, if you’re talking age.”

Rayford smiled. There was precious little levity anymore, and he appreciated her feeble attempts. “I know you’re the oldest, hon,” he said, “but I’ve been a believer longer. Probably by a week or so.”

“Fair enough,” she said.

You probably know married couples like this — people whose life together seems to be a kind of bargain struck with clenched teeth, whose long partnership seems built on mutual resentments and the inertia of the sunk-cost fallacy. I suppose I can imagine, as the authors apparently do, that Rayford’s sentiments here are meant to be genuinely affectionate. But I cannot imagine, as the authors do, that Amanda perceives his condescending barbs quite as affectionately. We can guess what Amanda is really thinking here, unbeknown to Rayford, just as we can guess what all the women the authors based this exchange on were really thinking, without those men ever picking up on it. One way or another, I suspect, Rayford will pay for this — even if he never understands why.

“The only order of business tonight is voting in a new member. I think it’s obvious to all of us that God has provided a new leader and mentor in Dr. Ben-Judah.”

As usual, after someone at such a meeting says there’s only one order of business, the group spends the next half-hour discussing several other unrelated agenda items. In this case that involves Buck reporting on (of course) “the new phones, the coming computers, how Bruce had outfitted the shelter for phone and computer. …” If Rayford, due to his extra week of Christian faith and his maleness, is the Tribulation Force’s de facto Senior Executive President, Buck is clearly the head of the group’s Subcommittee for Telephony and Electronic Communication.

They never actually do vote on Tsion’s membership, but given the unspoken consensus of the room, they decide at last to invite him in and deliver the good news:

“Tsion, my brother, we would like to ask you to join our little core group of believers. … As you can imagine, we need you not to be just one of us, but also to be our leader, in essence, our pastor. We recognize that the day may come when we might all be living with you in the secret shelter. Meanwhile, we will try to maintain as normal lives as possible, trying to survive and spread the good news of Christ to others until his Glorious Appearing.”

Tsion doesn’t know these folks well enough to understand how absurdly dishonest that last sentence is. What Rayford actually means by “try to maintain as normal lives as possible” is “work closely with the Antichrist to facilitate his reign by flying him all over and by ensuring that nothing critical of him ever appears in the press.” And as for “spreading the good news of Christ,” well, they mean as far as it’s possible to do so without jeopardizing their jobs as the Antichrist’s pilot or the Antichrist’s hand-picked propaganda agent — which is to say, not at all.

Tsion seems unbothered that this job offer didn’t involve any discussion of salary, but at least he’s assured of modest housing allowance. He accepts the offer:

“I do not like to live in hiding, but neither am I a reckless man. I will gratefully accept your offer of shelter and provisions. … I look forward to sitting with fellow believers in your church tomorrow and hearing more about your wonderful mentor, my predecessor, Bruce Barnes.

“I cannot and will not promise to replace him in your hearts. Who can replace one’s spiritual father? But … I will dedicate the rest of my life to sharing with you and anyone else who will hear it the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, my Messiah, and my Savior.”

So then, New Hope Village Church has its new pastor. Almost no one who actually attends the church participated in his selection, and the rest of the congregation will never even be told it occurred. He will visit the church only once, incognito, before going into hiding. None of the members of the church will ever be aware of his hiring or his presence in a secret shelter below the building.

But still, Bruce Barnes has been replaced and New Hope Village Church has a new pastor — whether they know it or not.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Or Loretta, I suppose. But she hardly counted for Bruce Barnes since, like the rest of the Tribbles and the authors themselves, they all imagine Loretta to be a hare-brained old lady who could, out of necessity, be entrusted with a tiny few of their secrets — just enough to enlist her help in keeping the rest of the congregation in the dark.

In my mind, of course, Loretta has been running everything at New Hope Village Church all along. She’s been organizing all of the church’s services and looking after widows and orphans in the community. She’s been coordinating their work in the underground and the black market they will all rely on once the Mark of the Beast becomes mandatory. And, perhaps most importantly, she’s been running interference to ensure that Nicolae’s little toadies in the “Tribulation Force” never learn of what the underground is really up to, lest they go running to their boss yet again to spill all their secrets.

In my mental version of this story, the part of Loretta is played by Dame Judi Dench. (Which might also account for her somewhat erratic and unplaceable American accent.)

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