LBCF: ‘Scream’ morality

LBCF: ‘Scream’ morality May 3, 2024

Originally posted April 4, 2004.

Left Behind, pp. 43-45

Rayford, Christopher and Hattie were the last three off the 747.

Christopher, you may remember, was Rayford’s first officer on the flight. Up until now he’s played little part in the story beyond handling the controls while Rayford talked to Hattie and wandered the plane. But we’re about to learn that Christopher Smith is a villain — at least according to the code of Left Behind — and therefore he is doomed.

… The bus driver insisted that the crew ride with him and the last passengers, but Rayford refused. “I can’t see passing my own passengers as they walk to the terminal,” he said. “How would that look?”

Christopher said, “Suit yourself, Cap. You mind if I take him up on his offer?”

Rayford glared at him. “You’re serious?”

“I don’t get paid enough for this.”

“Like this was the airline’s fault. Chris, you don’t mean it.”

“The heck I don’t. By the time you get up there, you’ll wish you’d ridden too.”

“I should write you up for this.”

“Millions of people disappear into thin air and I should worry about getting written up for riding instead of walking? Later, Steele.”

It’s not clear why Rayford would be able to “write up” Smith for accepting the airline’s preference that its crew ride back to the terminal. “It was a long walk,” we later read, “and several times they waved off rides.”

Smith seems to be doing nothing more than following the moral code clearly outlined by Buck Williams in the previous chapter: “It’s OK in a situation like this to think of yourself a little. That’s what I’m doing.”

But Smith here violates the strange code of chivalry that governs ethics in Left Behind. Even worse, he flouts the authority of Rayford Steele — and therefore of Tim LaHaye himself. No character can do that and live.

L.B. has its own moral rules that function like the rules for slasher flicks that Jamie Kennedy’s character outlines in Scream. By violating those rules, Smith dooms himself as surely as that teenager who says, “Don’t believe those crazy stories. Let’s sneak off into the woods and have sex.”

Hattie refuses to follow Smith off the cliff:

Rayford shook his head and turned to Hattie. “Maybe I’ll see you up there. If you can get out of the terminal, don’t wait for me.”

“Are you kidding? If you’re walking, I’m walking.”

“You don’t need to do that.”

“After that dressing-down you just gave Smith? I’m walking.”

“He’s first officer. We ought to be the last off the ship and first to volunteer for emergency duty.”

By “volunteer for emergency duty” Steele does not mean, you know, actually volunteering for emergency duty. Don’t be silly. He means not accepting a ride back to the terminal.

As they walk back, LaHaye and Jenkins tell us, “All around were ambulances and other emergency vehicles trying to get to ugly wreckage scenes.” Steele is, in other words, having to thread his way through people who were actually doing “emergency duty.” He does so, successfully, without volunteering in even a single case. The moral code of L.B. does not have anything to do with helping people in need.

Hattie fatally misreads Smith’s violation of L.B.’s code of chivalry:

“Well, do me a favor and consider me part of your crew, too,” she tells Steele. “Just because I can’t fly the thing doesn’t mean I don’t feel some ownership. And don’t treat me like a little woman.”

Just as it was a violation of the code for Smith to ride while little women walked, so too it is a violation for Hattie to act like a man by refusing the ride. She’s doomed too.

Left Behind, pg. 45

Rayford Steele and Hattie Durham make the long walk back to the terminal, carefully threading their way past the smoldering wrecks of various crashed planes. “All around were ambulances and other emergency vehicles trying to get to ugly wreckage scenes,” LaHaye & Jenkins tell us.

One pictures Rayford wheeling his little pilot’s bag behind him, muttering G-rated curses under his breath as it pops up onto one wheel and drags on its side after bumping over the still-twitching body of one of the thousands of injured. “Two square miles of tarmac,” Steele thinks, “and this jerk has to drag his fatally wounded self right here so I have to wheel around him? Like I don’t have enough trouble already?”

Okay, that last scene doesn’t actually appear in the book. LaHaye and Jenkins, like their hero, are wholly focused on moving along. The “ugly wreckage scenes” are not explored in any further detail — they exist only as obstacles between Rayford and his family.

Here we see the “profamily” ethic of Timothy LaHaye’s brand of religious conservatism at work. Rayford is, first and foremost, a husband and a father. The dead and the dying who surround him at the airport are strangers, untermenschen. They are not his family and therefore, according to LaHaye’s profamily view, Steele is right to ignore them on his way back to Irene and the kids. (Even though, by now, Steele has a pretty good idea that Irene and the kids are long gone.)

Rayford Steele’s single-minded tunnel-vision — his ability to avoid even seeing the suffering of those outside of his immediate family — is typical of the worst extremes of this profamily ethic as applied by the outer wing of America’s religious right.

I don’t wholly reject the idea at the heart of this “pro-family” approach. Marriage and parenthood are extraordinary bonds that would seem to entail some extraordinary responsibilities. Some of our obligations to our families do seem to take priority over some of our obligations to others.

Yet when these obligations are allowed to trump every other claim, something has gone horribly wrong.

I would suggest that what has gone wrong for “profamily” types like Steele and LaHaye is that they have confused priorities with boundaries.

My friend Dave Gushee is an ethicist, a Southern Baptist moderate who was among those purged in the conservative takeover of Southern Baptist Seminary. Dave’s dissertation work, expanded into a book, involved the Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust. Specifically, he explored why it was that some people, at great personal risk, helped their Jewish neighbors in Nazi-occupied Europe while the majority did not.

Much of Dave’s study involves what he calls “boundaries of moral obligation.” One such boundary, for many, was the fear of putting one’s own family at risk in order to rescue a neighbor or a stranger from certain death. Many of those who remained bystanders did so due to a kind of “profamily” ethic. They allowed a legitimate priority of moral obligation to become an illegitimate boundary of moral obligation.

It is only by erecting such boundaries that Rayford Steele is able to sidestep the suffering of strangers, picking his way across the airport to the terminal and refusing to let his gaze dwell on the “ugly wreckage” that surrounds him.

There’s something deeply perverse and inhuman about a story in which we are asked to consider such a man “heroic.”

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