LBCF: Sorrow floats

LBCF: Sorrow floats June 7, 2024

(Originally posted in June, 2004.)

Left Behind, pp. 48-49

Rayford Steele finally reaches a pay phone and places a call to his home. He’s already read the plot summary on the back of the book and, realizing that he’s in a novel about the “Rapture,” knows that his born-again wife Irene won’t be there to answer his call:

His answering machine at home picked up immediately, and he was pierced to hear the cheerful voice of his wife. “Your call is important to us,” she said. “Please leave a message after the beep.”

Rayford punched a few buttons to check for messages. He ran through three or four mundane ones, then was startled to hear Chloe’s voice. “Mom? Dad? Are you there? Have you seen what’s going on? Call me as soon as you can. …”

Here as ever we witness Jenkins’ tin ear for choice of detail. Those “mundane” messages from Rayford’s life before the calamity could have offered telling reminders to both the reader and the character of all that he has lost and how vastly his world has changed. Each of those messages would either be from someone now disappeared or from someone else left behind — a link, a connection, to some other survivor.

I wonder who would be calling the Steele household. Their impersonal answering machine message (“Your call is important to us”) seems more suited to a tech-support line than to the machine of a family that regularly gets phone calls from friends.

Irene is such a wholehearted devotee of her church and its subculture that she isn’t likely to know anyone else who might have been left behind. This points to one of the paradoxes of America’s insular evangelical world. For evangelical Christians, evangelism — spreading their faith to nonbelievers — is an essential obligation. Yet evangelicals have constructed a comprehensive, separate, parallel world that virtually ensures they won’t know any outsiders with whom they can share their faith.

As for poor Rayford, the guy doesn’t seem to have any friends at all.

The message from his daughter introduces another major character in these books. Chloe is LB’s ingenue. (For those keeping score at home, that’s three female characters: Chloe, the ingenue; Irene, the madonna; and Hattie, the whore.) Chloe was away at Stanford, where relatively few of those elite intellectuals were taken home by God.

Well, at least he knew Chloe was still around. All he wanted was to hold her.

One hopes that when Rayford finally greets his daughter, he does not do so by saying, “Well, at least you’re still around.”

This section of the book reminded me of the “Sorrow Floats” chapter in John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire — another story in which the mother and the youngest boy are suddenly lost. Irving’s book is deeply affecting as he poignantly shows the impact these losses have on the rest of the family. L&J’s book not so much. Yet here we do see the rare acknowledgement from L&J that the practical consequences of a sudden “Rapture” and of a sudden death are really no different. Does it really matter to those left behind whether it’s little Egg lost in a plane crash or little Raymie whisked off to heaven like Elijah? Gone is gone.

The “Rapture” idea, ultimately, is a pretty flimsy device for the denial of death. The scripture passages LaHaye cites in support of this idea were written to give believers hope in the face of inevitable death. For LaHaye and his followers, the fear of death overwhelms that hope. Thus “we will not all SLEEP, but we will be CHANGED” is twisted into “we will not ALL sleep, but WE will be changed.”

St. Paul was writing about what happens when believers die. LaHaye doesn’t want to believe that true believers will die. Rayford’s response to his wife and son’s undying deaths — albeit a response awkwardly rendered by Jenkins — offers a glimpse of emotional honesty not usually permitted by LaHaye’s fear- and denial-fuelled “Rapture” ideology.

I sometimes think that the best response, the best counter-argument, to End Times enthusiasts and apocalypse-obsessed “prophecy” nuts is not a comprehensive biblical and theological rebuttal, but rather to borrow a line from Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck: “Cosmo? I just want you to know. No matter what you do. You are going to die, just like everybody else.”

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