Sunday, May 16, 2004

Preposterous: Credo quia absurdum

Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days, by Timothy LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins, Read by Richard Ferrone, Recorded Books, 2000

Tribulation Force: The Continuing Drama of Those Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins, Read by Richard Ferrone, Recorded Books, 2001

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins, Read by Richard Ferrone, Recorded Books, 2001


Very few things worry me as much as the success of the bubblegum pop “religious” sensation of the Left Behind series of books. That these rather horrendously written books, brimming with improbable scenarios and bubbling over with a victimized sense of self-righteous hatred for everyone not like the authors, can seduce millions of people to plunk down their cash tells me more about the state of society than I’d like to admit. The characters are ridiculously zero-dimensional cardboard cutouts, but their ridiculousness pales in comparison to the authors’ style, the ridiculousness of which pales in comparison to the plotting.

A brief thumbnail of each book follows.

Left Behind tells the story of what happens when all the good Christians are raptured up to heaven and all the not-so-good Christians and the rest of the heathen muck are left to sort it out. We follow pilot Rayford Steele (yes, that’s really his name) as he comes to grips with this after his wife and son are among the raptured but he and his daughter are not. We also follow ace journalist Cameron “Buck” Williams as he covers this story for his investigative magazine Global Weekly. And the third strand is how low-level Romanian politician Nicolae Carpathia (again, I’m not making these names up), the Antichrist, rises to become first president of Romania, then Secretary General of the United Nations.

Tribulation Force follows hot on the heels of Left Behind. Four born again Christians, Buck Williams, Rayford Steele and his daughter Chloe, and the pastor of New Hope Church, Bruce Barnes, band together to study the Bible and fight the Antichrist. They don’t do much fighting in this book, instead Rayford gets a job being the Antichrist’s pilot and Buck becomes senior editor of Global Weekly after the Antichrist buys it. Sock it to him, boys! Meanwhile, the romance between Buck and Chloe deepens while Bruce Barnes travels the world setting up little churches to resist the Antichrist and be ready for Jesus to return. On the Antichrist side of things, as Secretary General of the U.N., Carpathia convinces all the countries of the world that they should turn over all their weapons to him to destroy, though he’ll keep 10% of them. The U.N., now redubbed Global Community and moved to the rebuilt city of Babylon in Iraq, now redubbed New Babylon, will take over peacekeeping for all the world. Nicolae alters the Security Council to have ten permanent members representing regions of the world, making various country leaders basically irrelevant. The President of the United States, now just a figurehead, doesn’t like this, and with the help of some militia groups attempts to attack Carpathia, sparking World War Three.

Nicolae continues WWIII and the fighting destroys London, Washington D.C., New York, Chicago, and Egypt (Egypt? Yes, Egypt. Apparently there was a decision made that these three nations would band together to fight back. I see, but … Egypt? Yes, Egypt. We assume a Biblical prophecy is behind this oddball choice of ally.) Pastor Bruce Barnes is dead now, having died at the end of Tribulation Force but not before marrying Buck to Chloe and Rayford to a new love, Amanda, a sort-of friend of his departed wife. Lots of places blow up, Buck helps a rabbi who’s embraced Jesus escape from Israel after his wife and children are murdered, and a giant earthquake rocks the whole world to end the book.

Got all that?

The ridiculousness of the plots isn’t confined to the broad strokes of the plotlines described above. Heavens no. In the first book, shortly before the Rapture, an Israeli scientist, Chaim Rosenzweig creates a magical fertilizer formula that allows plants to grow in the desert. In fact, apparently, as the series goes on, the properties of this formula stretch to such amazing abilities that it could help Russia grow food in Siberia. That’d have to be some damn good fertilizer to overcome frozen soil and lack of sun.

And because Jews are just so greedy and such moneygrubbers (obviously, right?) they won’t share this formula with anyone else. As such, they become the richest country in the world. If all it took were a program of intense agriculture to become the richest country on earth, wouldn’t lots of people have tried this earlier? I’ve looked at the states’ finances in this country and it strikes me that states whose primary industry is agriculture (say, Kansas and Nebraska) aren’t winning the race to Millionaire Row. Russia, of course, with their enormous plots of land, decides that if they have the formula, because they’re bigger, then they’ll become the richest country on the planet. Sneaky Russkies!

So what does Russia do? Well, in a book written by intelligent people, they’d have three options: 1.) Sneak into Israel and take some soil samples from all the farms then go back to their labs and analyze for the chemicals used. 2.) Break into a fertilizer farm and steal some of it, then back to the lab. 3.) Kidnap the fertilizer inventor and take him back to the gulag for a little softening up until he gives you the formula.

Of course, that’s not what happens in this book. Because there is a desperate Biblical prophecy necessity to have Israel attacked from the north, the moronic Russians decide the best way to secure their fortunes is to launch an all out nuclear attack on Israel.

God protects Israel and all the missiles fall and explode harmlessly on Israel with no radiation fallout, missing all the cities, all the people, and apparently all the vast new stretches of farmland opened up. Surprisingly, there are no global retribution issues for Russia for doing this. Beyond that, it is such a telling example of God working his will in the world that you’d think more people would have considered it a miracle and done more than ignore it. Instead, the world just toddles along.

When all of a sudden—

All the good Christians bodily disappear right out of their cars, their planes, their clothes even. Now, I don’t know about you, but to me it sure is a naughty naughty god that snatches naked pilots out of planes and lets all the other passengers die flaming deaths. But that’s me, I’m a soft-hearted not-born-again type (or as the authors would and do sneer in the third book “a self-styled atheist”).

It is a testament to how ridiculous these books are that this plot development is by far the easiest to swallow.

Consider how much ink is spilled in the book by members of the press and ambassadors from all over the world gushing about a performance where Nicolae Carpathia, in a speech to the United Nations, lists all the names of all the countries in alphabetical order. Really. A memory exercise within the grasp of a middle school student is praised as though it were a bravura performance of a one-man version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

As head of the United Nations, Nicolae works miracles in cutting through bureaucracy to convince everyone to restructure the global body into ten world leaders under his command. Even more miraculous is he convinces everyone to go along with changing the name from The United Nations to the ridiculous Global Community. Then they let him take the title of Global Community Grand Potentate. Most miraculous of all, people still believe him when he tells everyone he’s so modest. It sure sounds like it.

As part of the new Global Community structuring, Nicolae the Grand Potentate manages to convince all the world’s countries to move to a single world currency, the dollar. Even bigger, he convinces all the world’s religious leaders to set aside their differences and join together in one world religion which will also move to New Babylon. Since his real powers lie in absurd nomenclature, Nicolae’s new church (headed by the recently elected new Pope, naturally, as all Catholics are damned sure as dirt) is called — get ready for this — Enigma Babylon One World Church. I guess that’s not the kind of thing that would set off any suspicions among the world’s religious types.

Apparently also only certain Christian and Jewish sects decide not to go along with this. Because as everyone knows by now, Muslims don't take their religious beliefs very strongly and don't take offense if you blaspheme it. And Hindus, hell they’ll accept anything into their religion, right? Buddhism, that’s more of a philosophy, and who cares what the Massai think, eh?

Or what should one make of the Rabbi Tsion Ben-Judah, a scholar of ancient manuscripts who studies for three years (get it? get it?) various documents outlining qualities the Messiah should have. When he finally gets on television, worldwide television, to announce the findings of his study, your first question should be — in what world do scholars get the prime time satellite podium to discuss their studies? Isn’t that something you’d typically find on at 3:30am on CSPAN3, currently available in a whopping four American homes? But no, CNN gives him top billing so he can not surprise any readers by his announcement that Jesus was the Messiah and all you dumb Jews missed the boat. Then he shouts, shortly before he’s cut off, that Jehovah is with him.

Perhaps you’d have to be a real Bible scholar and not a pretend one like Tsion Ben-Judah or author Tim LaHaye to know that “Jehovah” is a mistranslation of the consonant-only name of the Jewish god YHWH. No self-respecting orthodox Jewish scholar, even one turned Christian, would say the name of God aloud and say the wrong name.

When Rayford and Buck find all the writings of their dead pastor, Bruce Barnes, Buck, who should know better as he’s in publishing, immediately suggests they should take all of it without any editing and print up one thousand copies to distribute. This supposedly intelligent investigative journalist believes they should print and bind five thousand pages of manuscript together and pass these out. For those of you who’ve been to an office supply store, that would be the contents of this box. Bound.

Absurdity upon absurdity follows in one book after another. When Rayford’s ex-senior flight attendant Hattie Durham is introduced to the Antichrist in book one, the two of them engage in a whirlwind romance, and by book three, she’s pregnant with Nicolae’s baby. But, true to boy meets girl form, there’s trouble in paradise.

Nicolae’s changed. Sure, he gives her a ring, but in his mind it’s more of a friendship ring than engagement ring, and besides he’s so busy ruling the world and they’re just not the same kind of people and he didn’t even want to have the baby in the first place — and then he doesn’t return her phone calls. Too chickenshit to break up with Hattie himself, this wimpy Antichrist tries to get Rayford to do it for him. It’s so sad. It’s also damned underwhelming to have the Antichrist turn out to be just another typical guy in the end.

Hattie wants to have an abortion. Rayford, however, has plans. Oh, no, Rayford tells her, horrified by the idea, and he tries to convince her to have the baby. He tries to convince her that she should bear the Antichrist’s baby. Whose fucking side are you on, Rayford? Isn’t it blatantly apparent that Satan’s emissary on earth might have a baby that’s a little less than sweetness and cream? Rayford is, to put it politely, not a big picture guy.

Is it possible that these right-to-lifers are so blinkered by their stance that even the devil’s child is okay by them? Rayford makes the argument, surely a winning one, that even victims of rape and incest should carry the pregnancy to term. Unspoken in all of this is the undercurrent that even if the mother’s life is threatened (as you might imagine it would be when you’re delivering Antichrist Jr.), abortion is not an option. Yes, you women are just vessels like cups and bowls and manure pens. Your wishes, your bodies, who cares?

Rayford suggests she could put it up for adoption and Buck briefly considers the possibility of he and Chloe adopting this baby. It’s not bad enough that these Christian folk get their paychecks from the Antichrist, but now they want to raise his baby as well. But, of course, Buck comes to his senses and decides against it. Typical right-to-lifer. All about telling other people what their responsibilities are but not about to step in and actually help. It’s all "thou shalt not" and no "I will."

It’s these nonsensical stories that make the Left Behind books so fun for me. I sit there and laugh my ass off at each amazingly dumb twist to the plot. With each book I don’t believe LaHaye and Jenkins can possibly surprise me with any more of their hokum, yet they do. They rarely fail to come right out with a whopper that is so strikingly fantastical that the giggles rush over me all over again. At first I thought that listening to these books would be a drag, and at times they are (more on that in the Style review), but for the most part there are enough unintentional laughs woven into these books that I’m eager against my own will to continue listening to this series.

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