Originally posted June 15, 2010.
You can read this entire series, for free, via the convenient Left Behind Index. The ebook collection The Anti-Christ Handbook: Volume 1, is sporadically available on Amazon for just $0.99. Seriously, though, what do they have on Lindsey Graham? Volume 2 of The Anti-Christ Handbook, completing all the posts on the first Left Behind book, is also now available. Volume 3 is coming someday.
Tribulation Force, pp. 231 – 235
We’re nearing the end of the largest section of this book — the part involving Buck and Rayford agonizing over their respective
more-prestigious job offers.
Their new jobs place them closer to the center of the action Antichrist-wise, allowing both to witness the global events that Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye want to portray in these books. That narrative convenience accounts for the fact of their respective job offers, but it can’t account for why the authors decided to spend more than half of this volume having both characters agonize over the decision, vow not to take the jobs and insist that they would never take the jobs before finally taking the jobs.
The only reason for all of that — the bulk of the inaction of Tribulation Force thus far — is self-congratulation by proxy. It’s not enough for L&J to portray Buck as a great reporter and Rayford as a great pilot. They must also be the best reporter and the best pilot.
And still that isn’t enough. It has to be said, repeatedly, that no other reporter or pilot can begin to compare or to compete with them. Buck and only Buck can write cover stories and run the Antichrist’s Chicago operation and recognize that the unification of the world’s nations, languages, religions and currencies is newsworthy. Rayford and only Rayford can be regarded as capable of piloting the president’s and/or the Antichrist’s plane. Everyone everywhere looking to hire a pilot must be shown to regard their possible choices as either Rayford or some inadequate Not-Rayford.
This goes on for so long because the same insecurity that fuels this piling on of superlatives about our heroes also means that the authors can never be secure in knowing that they’ve fully conveyed the incomparable awesomeness they’re desperate to get across. The same nagging sense of inadequacy that leads them to write such characters also leads them to fear that their portrayal of those characters is similarly inadequate. The result is the first 200+ pages of this book, in which the promised fireworks of the apocalypse are put on hold so that readers can be introduced to a parade of minor characters trotted out just to assert that Buck/Rayford is the greatest reporter/pilot of them all and that every other reporter/pilot is awestruck and jealous of their mad skills.
Thus today we read of yet another phone call from Rayford’s boss, Earl, who sings Rayford’s praises and pleads with him to take the Air Force One job because if any other, lesser pilot were to get the gig it would be a traumatizing injustice. This isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last time that Earl has made this argument. And in the next chapter, his boss — the CEO of Pan-Continental Airlines — will be introduced just to allow him to make the same argument too.
This is, again, Bad Writing. Which is to say it’s boring. That’s quite an achievement considering the B-movie potential promised by the premise of these books. John of Patmos re-imagined all the plagues of Egypt striking the Roman Empire to bring about a new Exodus. John Nelson Darby and Charles Scofield and Hal Lindsey, in turn, re-imagined John’s litany of plagues as prophecies of a “Great Tribulation” soon to strike the entire world.
Make of that whatever you will, but it shouldn’t be boring. It ought at least to be entertainingly bad after the manner of a drive-in creature feature. Giant bug movies may involve hack writing, hasty one-take acting, and laughable special effects, but the spectacle of a 50-foot-tall radioactive Katydid destroying Cleveland ought to be at least somewhat diverting (even if it’s rather obviously a guy in a Katydid costume smashing a bunch of miniatures). But the model for these books seems to be the slapdash second feature — the kind with two reels of dull padding failing to provide any anticipatory build-up before the disappointing third-reel climax.
We’re now 200+ pages into the second book and only one horseman into the apocalypse. We’ve covered nearly 700 pages of build-up and none of it has included any actual building up. No foreboding or foreshadowing. No sense of storm-clouds on the horizon. No palpable sense of impending anything. With even a minimal effort along those lines we might have been able to forgive this long slog preceding the proclamation — still 140 pages off — that “Thus begins the last terrible week of the Lord!” We might even have been able to forgive the anticlimax of the as-it-is unforgivable title card beginning the 18th chapter of this book: “Eighteen months later.”
But without any such buildup, the impression one gets from Tribulation Force is that the “Great Tribulation” itself will be relentlessly dull — seven years of phone calls and meetings with the Human Resources department. Not with a bang but a whimper.
The whimpering in today’s passage comes from Earl:
“Rayford, can you come in?”
“Right now. Big doings with the new Air Force One. Have you heard?”
“Yes, it’s all over the news.”
“You say the word, and you’ll be flying that plane to Israel with Nicolae Carpathia on board.”
Earl explains — in more words, but no more subtly — that every pilot in the world wants this job, but they all know it rightfully belongs to Rayford should he deign to accept it. As in the nearly identical conversation in the previous passage between Buck and Steve, Rayford brusquely reasserts that he doesn’t want the job while simultaneously refusing to turn it down definitively. If he just said, “No, thank you,” then people would stop calling him to tell him that he ought to take it because he’s the best-est best pilot that ever was. And where would we be then?
There’s a secondary purpose to this particular phone call from Earl. He’s asked Rayford to drop everything and come to the office, but Rayford is in the middle of Family Time. This allows the authors to recycle a stock lecture on the priorities of work and family, the sacredness of Family Time and putting family first, etc., etc.
“Can you come in or not?”
“Not today, Earl. I’m in the middle of something here, and I’ll have to see you tomorrow.”
“What’s so important?”
“What, you’ve got another deal cooking?”
“I’m cooking, but not another deal. I happen to be preparing dinner for my daughter.”
It’s all about priorities, you see, family comes first. That’s nice, noble even, and I respect Rayford’s choice here. But this particular moralistic cliche still bugs me because this example, like nearly every similar slogan, sermon or lecture, presumes that everyone has such a choice. Most people don’t. They don’t have the job security and financial security that Rayford enjoys, meaning that if the boss calls during Family Time, then Family Time is over — otherwise it might be the last Family Time the family will be able to afford for a long time.
It’s true that for a privileged few, like Rayford, “putting family first” might mean working less. But for most people, putting family first means working as much as you can. A lot of fathers would love to tell their bosses to wait until tomorrow because they’re cooking dinner for their daughters, but their more urgent priority is making sure that her next meal is paid for.
I don’t mean to single out L&J for criticism here. The same little lecture, with the same presumption of affluence, is made all the time by people of nearly every religious and political persuasion. It often includes the trite platitude that, “No one ever lay on his deathbed wishing he’d spent more time at the office.”
For those who can afford them, I suppose these moralistic platitudes are true. But only for those who can afford them. If you’re such a person, then: 1) You might want to follow Rayford’s example and deliberately set aside time with your family free from the demands and distractions of your career; and 2) You should also thank your lucky stars that the universe has conspired to allow you to be one of the very, very few people in such a position. (Don’t ever forget this. I’m sure you’re very gifted and you’ve worked very hard. Good for you. But billions of people work much, much harder and have little to show for it. And plenty of gifted people never get the breaks you’ve gotten. There’s a reason it’s called a “fortune,” you know.)
What’s strange about encountering this extremely familiar bit of moralizing here, in this book, is that Rayford is in a very different context from that of the audience at the local Christian Businessmen’s Prayer Breakfast. Rayford’s world is ending. The clock is ticking and he knows, with extreme certainty and precision, how very little time he has left. One would think that would color a person’s reflections on finding the balance between family and career.
But weirdly, this doesn’t seem to color any of Rayford’s thoughts on this matter. And Rayford, Buck, Bruce, and Chloe don’t ever seem to engage in any reflection on this point. This is something that ought to be constantly in the thoughts and actions of our heroes in the Tribulation Force. They have all just gotten the news from the cosmic oncologist and that news isn’t good. It’s terminal. Seven years, at most. And it’s going to get painful and ugly before the end.
I can’t imagine how such news would change a person, but it seems unimaginable for these four people to receive such news and not be changed at all. Yet it hardly ever comes up in this book.
That analogy of terminal illness isn’t quite precise, of course, because when we think of dying we think, inevitably, of what we will leave behind — the things and the people we care about here, our memory and legacy. The members of the Tribulation Force, however, are facing a different situation. When they go, everyone and everything else goes too. They don’t have to worry about life insurance or drawing up a will or finishing their memoirs or training their successors. There will be no successors, no one left to read those memoirs, no one left to inherit their estates. No estates, no legacies, no memories. Nothing.
Again, I can’t begin to fathom how such knowledge would change a person — how it would change both their agenda and their experience of that agenda. But I cannot accept that anyone could be, like our four heroes, unchanged by knowing it.
There’s a funny bit in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which Arthur Dent struggles to come to grips with the fact that the Earth has been destroyed:
There was no way his imagination could feel the impact of the whole Earth having gone, it was too big. He prodded his feelings by thinking that his parents and his sister had gone. No reaction. He thought of all the people he had been close to. No reaction. Then he thought of a complete stranger he had been standing behind in the queue at the supermarket before and felt a sudden stab — the supermarket was gone, everything in it was gone. Nelson’s Column had gone! Nelson’s Column had gone and there would be no outcry, because there was no one left to make an outcry. …
England no longer existed. He’d got that — somehow he’d got it. He tried again. America, he thought, has gone. He couldn’t grasp it. He decided to start smaller again. New York has gone. No reaction. He’d never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, had sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonalds, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald’s hamburger. Arthur passed out.
Douglas Adams and Arthur Dent gave this more thought than L&J or Rayford Steele ever do.
Rayford is just blithely making shrimp scampi for dinner, going about this as though he hasn’t just very recently learned that in about seven years there will be no more shrimp, no more butter, no more garlic. There will be no more cloves of garlic in the stands at the farmer’s market, no more farmer’s market, no more farmers and no more farms. There will be no more shrimp displayed on crushed ice at the seafood store, no more seafood stores, no more ice, no more ocean.
How would you go about making and eating shrimp scampi if you knew that to be true? It couldn’t possibly make no difference to you.
I get that Rayford embodies L&J’s shiny happy view of the End of the World. They’re focused on the positive side: Heaven is going to be better than life on earth, so who cares about the end of life on earth? It’s a good swap.
But I don’t think I completely believe Tim LaHaye’s aggressively cheerful anticipation of the End of the World. The man lives in San Diego. Go there some time if you get the chance. Go to Point Loma at sunset and just look at it. Then see if there’s any possible belief system or construct that might tell you it was going to be destroyed soon and you should be happy about that. I don’t think such a belief system is really possible.
Every once in a while some enterprising reporter gets a hold of the financial statements or planning documents of some “Bible prophecy” ministry and writes an expose on the life insurance policies and long-term investments held by these people who claim to believe that the world is about to end. It seems hypocritical. If they really believed what they claim to believe, shouldn’t they be short-selling the whole world? Shouldn’t they be, instead of investing, leveraging their ministry with long-term balloon-payment loans?
But maybe it’s not hypocrisy so much as simply denial. And maybe that denial is necessary for them to go about their lives believing the horrors they believe. Otherwise, they’d be unable to do even something as simple as making shrimp scampi without breaking down and sobbing.
One of the more insidious aspects of the World’s Worst Books is the way they require the reader to embrace something like that kind of denial just to keep turning the pages.
The page after Rayford’s conversation with Earl, for example, relates a brief conversation between Chloe and Buck as they meet by chance in the church parking lot. It’s not horrible. Parts of it seem like human conversation. Jenkins even offers up a credible approximation of flirting. Buck asks Chloe if she’s free to talk later that night, after the Trib Force meeting:
She shook her head. “I was up too late last night. Some guy, you know.”
“Yeah. Couldn’t get rid of him. Happens to me all the time.”
That works. Or, rather, it would work if it weren’t a conversation between two people who have just learned that they have about seven years to live and the world is about to begin its death throes. And if there were still children.
But they ignore these things, so the reader has to ignore them too just to follow along. And when they spend the bulk of their conversation talking about Bruce and the flowers they suspect he sent Chloe, the reader has to play along with this obsessive topic of conversation, pretending it’s as important as the authors and their characters make it out to be over the coming pages. Bruce and the flowers dominate those pages — more than the Antichrist, more than the coming plagues, more than the imminent end of all flowers everywhere and of all the people who grow them and give and receive them. And the reader has to play along. “Yes, yes,” one must say, “tell us more about Bruce and the flowers, this seems like the most important thing to be reading about just now.”
Chloe arrives home to the smell of shrimp scampi and rewards her dad with the enthusiastic response he was hoping to see.
“Dad! What possessed you?
“I just got in touch with my feminine side,” he said.
“Oh, please!” she groaned. “Anything but that!”
You see Chloe, like all women, even the ones who pretend to be independent-minded Stanford students, secretly yearns for traditional gender roles and stereotypes. Real women want real men who …
Oh, never mind. You start trying to unpeel all the layers of misogyny in something like that and alps on alps arise. I haven’t the time or the energy here to enumerate, let alone discuss, all the many appalling sentiments packed into that brief exchange.
And besides, the Antichrist is consolidating his power and fire is about to start raining from the heavens as the world is destroyed, so don’t we have more pressing matters to discuss?
“And what about Bruce?”
She nodded. “What about Bruce?”
By the time Rayford and Chloe were doing the dishes, Rayford had heard all about her awkward encounter with Bruce. “So he never owned up to sending the flowers?” Rayford said.
It’s all they talked about at dinner. Well, that and the big news about Air Force One.