Unfortunately for you, this is On the Other Side… meaning that we’ll be getting rather more of hell than of heaven. Say goodbye to human decency, good storytelling, basic common sense and all semblance of logic as we investigate probably the most notoriously horrendous bestseller of recent times - God's back and boy is he pissed.
Left Behind is the first in a series of novels about the end of the world. Actually, it’s intended to be more impressive than that; it’s about the literal apocalypse, what happens when God decides that enough is enough and delivers a Divine Smackdown to Satan. When you have the Ultimate Superhero squaring off against the Ultimate Supervillain, you really should have an impressive array of fireworks, but Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins shoot themselves in the foot from the beginning. This is for two reasons –
1) They are Christian fundamentalists. The important word here is ‘fundamentalists’. They really believe that the world will end within the next few years, and they will be swept up to Heaven along with the rest of the faithful before they see any of the Sacred Shit the rest of us will suffer. They claim there’s going to be an awful lot of Shit – earthquakes, nuclear wars, that type of thing – because they’ve read about it in the Bible. They claim to hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible, and they believe in the Rapture, the Antichrist, Christ’s second coming, and basically everything that gets the members of raptureready.com in a flutter. (Visit that site some time and discover how Alice felt). Despite the fact that people have been predicting the end of the world since, well, the dawn of man, they think that this time they have it right. Left Behind isn’t a work of fiction – it’s a dramatised documentary. This really will happen! Repent now and save yourselves!
2) The writing just isn’t very good. This has more to do with the writers’ fundamentalism than you might think, as it completely destroys their plotting and characterisation, as I will show. But as far as their mechanics go – vocabulary, narration, sentence structure, etc – it never rises above average and even becomes dreadfully amateur at times. I’m convinced this is because Jenkins cranks out novels in about a month. There’s no time for anything as thorough as a second draft.
To tell the truth, it reminded me a little of The Da Vinci Code. It’s easy to read, but that’s just about the only virtue it has.
I mentioned Jenkins specifically because the partnership isn’t equal. LaHaye is a famous American pastor, whose wife, Beverley, is head of Concerned Women for America. The CWA thinks that women rightfully belong in the home and that children should be shielded from the nasty gays – but of course you shouldn’t think that the CWA is a hotbed of religious bigotry, oh dear me no. They are Concerned, you see. How dare you accuse them of base motives, or of having the intelligence of an empty yoghurt pot?
As for LaHaye, I think all I need to say is that he is ideally suited to be Beverley’s husband. For the Left Behind books he provided the basic plot outline and the theology underneath it. (Once more, LaHaye really believes that what he’s writing will happen, based on his reading of the Bible) As the more famous partner of the Left Behind duo, his name also guarantees sales.
Jenkins has written over a hundred books and a syndicated newspaper comic strip. I believe most of his best-sellers have been the Left Behind novels. If Left Behind is anything to go by, you can recognise his work by its horrendous characterisation and utter lack of logic. In the Left Behind partnership he puts in the grunt work; the words you read on the page are most likely coming from Jenkins.
I usually don’t read bad books. I’ll gladly watch bad films, but bad films take less time and generally less effort. When you read a book you’re the director, the set designer, the casting director, the producer… I don’t have the time to waste on bad literature. But I’m wading through Left Behind because I thought it’d be an exception to the rule. When even evangelical christians, such as Fred Clark at Slacktivist, are calling these novels ‘the worst books of all time’, I sit up and take notice.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only reason I’m reading. I’m also reading because, as the book’s front cover claims, the series has sold over 20 million copies. It’s not that I’m concerned about badly written books becoming popular (though that’s bad enough), it’s that in November we almost got a fundamentalist American vice-president. We had election campaign adverts inferring that Obama was the Antichrist. Left Behind is a symptom of something dark, something I ultimately find frightening.
Incidentally, I do own a copy. I got it second hand for 1p.
I suppose the best way to start is by setting the scene. On a flight from Chicago to London are our two main protagonists, Rayford Steele, the pilot, and Cameron ‘Buck’ Williams, a reporter for Global Weekly. Williams is travelling to see one of his informers, who has told him that something rather underhand is going on in the world of international finance. Then, without warning, a significant proportion of the passengers simply disappear. There’s no sound, no fanfare – one moment they’re there, the next there’s a sad little heap of clothes and glasses, or hearing aids, or contact lenses. Steele hears from ground control; whatever happened on the plane has happened all over the world. Steele has a very religious wife, and he instantly puts two and two together. The Rapture has occurred. God has come and taken every true Christian and every child up into Heaven. Good for them; very bad for those of us remaining. It means that for the next seven years there will be turmoil and strife such as the world has never seen, and the only hope is to put your faith in God now before it’s too late.
Apocalypses need Antichrists, and that’s what’ll be concerning Buck during the novel. While Steele is coming to terms with shotgun theology, Buck will be busy discovering how the disappearances tie in with his informer’s sudden ‘suicide’ and with a charismatic politician from Romania, Nicolae Carpathia. Carpathia has just become President of that country and will soon be speaking at the UN. Everyone – literally, everyone - agrees that he’s a thoroughly nice chap, so obviously he can’t be the Antichrist (ahem).
You know, writing the above posed a bit of a challenge for me. If it seems vague, that’s because it has to be. I can’t say any more about the plot without it collapsing into an unsalvageable mess.
Take the Rapture. I’m going to spend a bit of time on this – imagine that every child in the world disappeared at once. Every child. A young mother is out on the street, wheeling her daughter along in a buggy. The child vaporises before her eyes. After a few seconds of shock, it sinks in. The child must, logically, be somewhere. The mother calls out for her daughter. She looks under the buggy, around the buggy, runs from one end of the street to the other. Unable to find her daughter, she knocks on people’s doors, trying to find out if her daughter is inside. As she gets increasingly hysterical, she notices another mother doing the same thing. And another. And another. And a father, looking for the ten-year-old who was on the back seat of his car not three minutes ago. A childminder is hunting for her own small boy, while scores of teachers are trying unsuccessfully to keep calm in primary schools.
Then it hits. This isn’t isolated. It’s not local. It’s national, and my God, what if the whole world- ?
Before long, massive groups have formed of parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, friends. They are prepared to ransack Buckingham Palace in the search for their children. They are looking for someone with an explanation, and someone to blame. Scapegoats are found and lynched, such as suspected paedophiles. More than a few parents commit suicide. The government is forced to turn to the police and army to keep things calm (and remember that many government ministers are themselves parents). Riots break out. If the government is not seen to act quickly, it will fall and anarchy will take over.
Suppose that the government does restore calm. What about the long term effects? What will happen to the education system? What will happen to industry – there’s no need for child clothing, toys, child medication, car seats, books, films. What will be the effect on the workforce, now that ten years’ worth of potential workers has been wiped from existence? The economy goes out of control, spiralling into the worst recession ever seen.
Notice in all of this I’m only talking about Britain. What about China? Somalia? North Korea?
Now, let’s add to the misery. Along with the children, various adults have gone as well. As yet, nobody has noticed a pattern. It’s been estimated that if the Left Behind Rapture occurred, about two billion people (out of six billion) would go. Some of them would go while piloting planes. While driving cars. While monitoring safety at power plants. While fighting fires. While performing heart surgery. And even if those gone had safer jobs, their employers now have enforced vacancies. So not only are we looking at multiple deaths as a side-effect of the Rapture, due to car crashes and so on, but the economy would entirely breakdown. Huge numbers of survivors would also go literally insane from the grief.
It would take not years but decades for the planet to recover. A good novel, exploring all the ramifications, would take hundreds upon hundreds of pages to play out.
Left Behind is not a good novel. For LaHaye and Jenkins all that’s important is that the Rapture happens, because they need to follow their view of the Bible. Once it’s happened, however, they have no interest in its consequences. By the end of the book, it seriously feels like nobody remembers that every child on the planet has died.
It’s interesting that when the Rapture hits, our two main characters (and the only three principal characters we know at that stage) are on a plane. Yes, people disappear, including all the children. But they’re on a plane – thousands of metres up in the air, isolated from the rest of the world. One can’t resist seeing this as Jenkins’s way of avoiding what’s happening back down on the ground. Back at the airport there have been numerous plane and car crashes. Flights are cancelled, emergency services are stretched to the limit; but, temporarily, we don’t have to deal with that. We are never shown the chaos happening, we only see the aftermath.
And what an aftermath. At times it appears that all the Rapture really means is that car parks will be blocked with empty vehicles. Seriously – no governments fall, we are told of lawlessness (looting, rape ,murder) but almost never see it, random strangers don’t break down sobbing on streets. People can still get groceries and petrol and dine in restaurants and even fly in planes a mere two days after the Rapture! (After the Rapture, airports are in ruins after all the plane crashes. Do you really think they’d be reopening that quickly? Wouldn’t everyone be terrified that it could happen again and the pilots would disappear?) A week after the Rapture, you’d have thought it had never happened. A small but beautiful example happens when Rayford Steele’s home is burgled. The thieves take his valuables and his son’s bike. The police advise him that he can probably reclaim everything on his insurance, and he agrees.
Perfectly ordinary, and in this world completely wrong. The thieves have a load of empty houses to loot, thanks to the Rapture, and they go for an occupied one. They steal a child’s bicycle – what the hell are they going to do with it, sell it to an activity centre for dwarves? And you’d think that after the Rapture insurance companies are either going to be too busy or too bankrupt for Steele’s claim.
Concentrating on the tiny, however, means we miss the thirty-ton mega-elephant with bronchial pneumonia in the room. Steve Plank is the editor of Global Weekly, one of the top tier news magazines in the United States, and when the Rapture hits he sends an email to Buck. Certainly, he writes, this is a huge story. But what’s really important is for his best journalist to do a piece on UN meetings!
No, I’m not joking. The email is a piece of unparalleled lunacy. Hey, Buck, never mind about a third of humanity dying instantaneously – our readers want to hear about a group of Orthodox Jews chatting about one world religion!
One of the bizarre things about this email is that it starts by informing Buck that he will ’head up this effort to get at what’s behind this phenomenon.’ Fair enough, but –
Three different department editors have turned in story ideas on various international groups meeting in New York this month… Need your brain on this. Don’t know what to make of it, if anything.
Steve, are you saying that Orthodox Jews and Jewish Nationalists are behind all this? No? Then what on Earth are you talking about? I get the feeling that if you were an editor in 1939 you’d be sending people to conventions on real estate to discover the causes of the Second World War.
I know all anyone cares about is the disappearances…
Yes. Yes, I think they do. I think they might even want to hear about why their children dissolved into thin air in front of them, or why the eight-month foetus they were carrying has suddenly disappeared. They might even regard this as a matter of urgency.
… but we need to keep an eye on the rest of the world.
The rest of the world? Oh, you mean those other countries that have lost their entire young en masse as well? I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking they’d have the same concerns as us right now. Those Orthodox Jews might even go so far as postponing their meeting, you never know…
To tell the truth, the last paragraph of the email is the killer.
Hey, friend, get word to me you didn’t disappear. As far as I know right now, I lost a niece and two nephews, and a sister-in-law I didn’t like, and possibly a couple of other distant relatives. You think they’ll be back? Well, save that till we get rolling on what’s behind this. If I had to guess, I’m anticipating some God-awful ransom demand. I mean, it’s not like these people who disappeared are dead. What in the world is going to happen to the life insurance industry? I’m not ready to start believing the tabloids. You just know they’re going to be saying the space aliens finally got us.
The tone of this is casual to the point of being psychopathic. Steve asks if Buck’s there like he’s asking if Buck’s going to be in town for the weekend. Disappearing family members? Interesting trivia, nothing more. Steve didn’t even like his sister-in-law (there’s no word on how his brother feels). He asks if they’ll come back but then says that they can deal with it later – when surely it’s the first thing a parent would want to know. And what does Steve sign off with? No mention of all the deaths caused by people disappearing, or the distraught agony of those left without their loved ones. Just a vague ponder on how this is going to affect insurance companies.
It appears that nobody at Global Weekly has any more compassion than Steve, incidentally. When Buck finally gets back to the office, everyone’s wanting to get the Big Jewish Story and ignoring the cries of agony from every parent on the planet. Of course, if Global Weekly were real it would be reporting on nothing but the disappearances for the foreseeable future. But the UN meetings do turn out to be related to the Rapture, and so in the addled minds of LaHaye and Jenkins a national news magazine has to assign every element equal importance.
One is forced to a very odd conclusion – LaHaye and Jenkins just don’t seem to be that interested in the Rapture. Millions of people disintegrate and LaHaye and Jenkins can’t really be bothered to imagine what such a world must be like. As I’ve mentioned, part of this is because it’s of no concern of theirs. They need the Rapture but not the aftermath, so they’re not going to waste time on it. This is of course crazy and shows clearly that LaHaye and Jenkins have no idea how to write a novel. I suspect, given the rest of the novel and its characterisation that they don’t have the imagination to deal with the aftermath either. It’s a massive task, though that does not excuse them from ignoring it. However, I also think that there are two other reasons for this omission, and they’re to do with LaHaye and Jenkins’ theology.
One reason is given by Irene Steele, Rayford’s devout wife. He remembers her asking joyfully ‘Can you imagine, Rafe, Jesus coming back to get us before we die?’ This is a really bizarre question, and it’s not because it’s religious. The key words are ‘before we die’. LaHaye and Jenkins don’t want to die and go to heaven, they want to get rid of death altogether, something that is made explicit later on. They interpret Paul’s ‘we shall not all sleep’ as ‘not all of us will die.’ But what’s the panic? Why worry about the road you follow so long as you reach your destination?
They worry, I think, because dying is often messy. People pass away in their sleep, true, but they also die in blood, in agony, in protracted suffering. And afterwards there is an ultimate severance. The dead cannot come back.
Hang on, though. Irene and the others have gone to heaven. She won’t be coming back either. Again, this is true – but it is something LaHaye and Jenkins refuse to acknowledge. Despite the fact that Irene has gone from this mortal plain, that she no longer exists in physical time and space, despite the fact that she’ll never be coming back, and the only way to see her is to go to her instead, LaHaye and Jenkins insist that she isn’t dead.
If two billion people suddenly died, the grieving would take months, even years. LaHaye and Jenkins sometimes talk of memorial services, but we never see them and (for example) Buck never gives a thought about missing a memorial service for his nephew, niece and sister-in-law. In order to accommodate their desperate, stubborn insistence that the Raptured have not died, LaHaye and Jenkins can’t have their characters truly acting as though they did. (We get some grief, but not nearly enough) The drawback is that this makes the characters look like inhuman monsters, whose first thought on seeing the carnage from a plane crash, the dead and dying strewn across the rubble, is to wonder how they’ll get home. Bad theology and an utter lack of imagination combine to make an unintentionally horrifying world, and certainly not one we recognise.
The second reason why LaHaye and Jenkins don’t want to deal with the Rapture’s implications is that their view of God depends on them not doing so. Look at the scenario I outlined above again. Then tell me how that can be reconciled with a loving god. God has just vaporised a third of the planet and along the way caused physical, emotional, political and economic devastation on an inconceivable scale. Not even Hitler, Stalin and Mao working as a team could dream of producing such destruction.
LaHaye and Jenkins are uneasily aware of this. Wisely or unwisely, they bring the matter up with Chloe Steele, Rayford’s teenage daughter. She asks why, if God is so loving, he’d do anything like this. Towards the end of the book she becomes as much a fundamentalist as LaHaye and Jenkins want – but she never gets an answer to her question. It’s not that the authors give us weak answers, it’s that they give us no answers at all! Instead they have to work hard to distract us, and they can’t do that if we’re staring in horror at the constant stream of empty-casket funerals taking place all over the world.
The fact that they think they’ve been successful at distracting us – and in a book written in just over a month – speaks volumes about the writer-reader relationship here. LaHaye and Jenkins like ‘em stupid, and they openly say so. Chloe Steele, who has been to university in California, is ‘pseudo-sophisticated’ when she claims she needs time to think. (Over in California they believe crazy things like UFO abductions, when the second coming of Jesus Christ is so much more plausible) Rayford Steele is called ‘analytical’ and afforded great intellectual respect because he is an airline captain – look, please just go with it – yet even ‘an organised, analytical airline pilot… had missed [the Rapture, even though he]…had a proponent, a devotee, almost a fanatic living under his own roof.’ At the beginning of the book, just before the Rapture hits, Steele thinks to himself about his wife –
’[She was] a more emotional, more feelings-oriented person. He didn’t want to articulate it, but the fact was, he was brighter – yes, more intelligent. He believed in rules, systems, laws, patterns, things you could see and feel and hear and touch.’
And Irene gets taken to Heaven whilst he does not.
It is impossible to reach the end of Left Behind without the feeling that LaHaye and Jenkins dislike the intellect. All that fancy book-learnin’ does nothing for you, and might even make you too sceptical for God!
Don’t tell me I’m reading too much into this. LaHaye and Jenkins can’t explain why a loving god would produce so much misery. If they did, they would have used it to answer Chloe. They talk about a church meeting at which sceptics are allowed to ask questions, but they never show us any of it; we never hear a single question or answer. LaHaye and Jenkins don’t even provide a token argument in favour of their views.
Words cannot express the utter contempt I have for all this. If you have no evidence, you have no evidence. Believe if you want, but don’t then pretend that other people are fools for not buying in to your belief system.
It might be thought that I’m being too harsh. After all, in this book the Rapture has occurred. That must surely be good evidence for the existence of God. Well, even if it is (I’ll get round to that in a minute), that’s not what LaHaye and Jenkins want to argue about. Left Behind is a warning of what’s to come. We are seriously expected to believe that it will happen, with no evidence whatsoever. And it’s worse than that; as I’ve said, their Biblical interpretation requires the world to look nothing like it actually does. We can’t believe because it just doesn’t make sense. At every turn the book refutes itself. And yet I’m still told that my education, that my capacity for reasoning, is getting in the way and I will burn in hell if I don’t throw it aside.
How could he have missed this? God had tried to warn his people by putting his Word in written form centuries before. For all Rayford’s education and intelligence, he felt he had been a fool.
But before, of course, there was just no reason to believe in it…
I resent this. I resent it on a personal level, and I resent it because it’s dangerous. If you get rid of the need for evidence you can justify anything. And they dare to call us the relativists?
I think we’d better move on before I – in a very calm, cool and British manner – set fire to something. We might as well see how LaHaye and Jenkins’s view is applied in the book. When Chloe is faced with a newly religious Rayford, she asks for some time to think about things before she decides whether to convert or not. Rayford’s reaction is panic – she could die at any time! She doesn’t have the time to think it through!
I’ve heard this one before. Superficially it might look good. When a man shouts ‘fire!’ in a crowded building, you don’t stop to check whether there’s actually a fire. But the analogy breaks down easily. Suppose that man shouted ‘fire!’ when it was clear that nobody had ever discovered any fire at all. Suppose you knew he was unable to give cogent reasons for believing that a fire was there. The situation now looks incredibly different, and the tactic is exposed for what it is, a form of Pascal’s wager. Pascal’s wager is one of the worst possible reasons for believing in a god.
Ah, but it’s different here. The Rapture has happened. The authors do something rather nasty to Chloe here. If you accept that the Rapture’s happened, you probably think it’s because you’ve got good evidence. It’s not a mere warm feeling in your heart, it’s direct proof. If Chloe doesn’t accept it, it’s because she’s too intellectual… and that’s the wrong conclusion to draw. If the evidence is compelling, the intelligent, reasonable thing to do is to follow it. On one level, LaHaye and Jenkins are constructing a strawman to attack.
But let’s look at it another way. What evidence do we have that the Rapture has occurred? The authors have told us, but they haven’t told Chloe. Perhaps Chloe has been reading some David Hume at university… It’s going to be too large a digression for this review to veer off into philosophy, but the upshot of it remains what I said above – if you don’t have the evidence, you don’t have the evidence. You don’t have any reason to believe in it. If Chloe has any good reasons against believing in god, ones that are better than the reasons for believing, then rationally she should go for the ‘against’ side of the argument. And in that case we simply head back to Pascal’s wager. Boys, you’re not going to convince us by trying to make us panic.
(You probably think that at this stage she’ll have no good reasons for not believing in god, but I don’t think that’s true. I promise I’ll discuss this in a future post, but for the moment ask yourself this – how can you verify that any event is supernatural, and that there will never be any natural explanation for it? Anyone who has come across the ‘God of the gaps’ argument – ie, ‘We can’t yet explain this, so it must be god’s doing’ – has quite a good reason to be suspicious.)
Before we get too involved in philosophy, let’s move on. There are many more targets in the novel for ridicule, such as its portrayal of the United Nations.
The UN turns out to be pivotal to Left Behind’s plot. One of the staples of LaHaye and Jenkins’s vision of the apocalypse is that there will be one world government, headed by the Antichrist. The trouble is that in the real world we don’t have anything that even remotely resembles one world government. It’s too implausible to think that one will rise out of nowhere. So what to do?
The solution is to take whatever’s handy and hammer upon it until it looks like what you want it to. The UN contains a lot of countries talking together and spending time passing resolutions about one thing or another, so hey! It’s like a one world government!
Yes, according to LaHaye and Jenkins the UN is the most powerful institution in the world. All nations must bow before the UN. When it talks, PEOPLE LISTEN. (I’m impressed I managed not to burst into laughter when I wrote that)
Since the UN is the Master of the World (snicker), it’s no surprise that Nicolae Carpathia, our resident psychopathic Antichrist, wishes to become Secretary-General, the most powerful man on Earth. So, after a display of diplomacy that I’ll shock you with in a while, he is offered the post and he immediately shares his goals with the world. In order of increasing insanity, they are –
1) The Secretary-General will change the set up of the Security Council and will choose ambassadors for the world’s countries. The reason why this is first on the list, even though it’s pretty daft, is that LaHaye and Jenkins seem to believe that the Secretary-General already chooses ambassadors in real life. The whole portrayal of the UN in this novel indicates that LaHaye and Jenkins never bothered to do any research before writing.
2) The UN headquarters are moved to Babylon. There are a few doubters who think he won’t be able to get this, but nobody ever asks why. The reason for this move is that it was ‘prophesised’ in the Bible, according to LaHaye and Jenkins, and it shows what I mean about the link between their theology and their writing. Their theology requires people to act like the world is a gigantic lunatic asylum, otherwise the Bible is wrong and that won’t do…
By the way, the UN agrees to the move in a single afternoon, with no resistance at all.
3) One world currency. When the novel opens the world has already streamlined to three currencies – the mark, the yen and the dollar. Can anyone see Burma agreeing to this? I didn’t think so. The Euro does exist, of course, but even within the European Union (with its twenty-seven members) there’s been a devil of a time getting everyone to accept it. A single currency for the globe isn’t going to happen any time soon.
4) Here we really reach Wonderland. Carpathia wants every nation on Earth to destroy 90% of its military weapons and turn the remaining 10% over to the UN. Everyone thinks this is a wonderful idea.
HELP ME I’M GOING BLIND
Nobody had ever heard of Carpathia a month ago, and everyone’s giving him the only army on the planet?! What have LaHaye and Jenkins been smoking? Who the hell would agree to this? And bear in mind that the Rapture occurred barely a week ago. Not many people in the novel believe it was the Rapture, and they’re going to be terrified about this new and deadly threat that has taken all their children. Now more than ever they’ve going to want to hold on to their nukes.
5) One world religion, with an exception for Jews. And everyone thinks this is wonderful. All the muslins and hindus and sikhs and buddhists and Not True Christians (the Christians who weren’t raptured, and thus aren’t Christians) and agnostics and pagans and atheists are going to get together in a big tent for a group hug and there will never be religious strife anywhere in the world again.
This is just batshit insane.
(Why the Jewish exception? I believe it’s because LaHaye and Jenkins still need the Jews to play a role in Armageddon, at least until all of them who haven’t converted to Christianity are thrown into Hell. In the real world, the Jews who have read the series are not overly impressed with this.)
The only explanation I can think of is that LaHaye and Jenkins have no interest in how other religions operate. There are only two options for them, Christian and Not-Christian. The Not-Christians may have their disagreements, but they are all fundamentally the same thing and there’s no reason they can’t get along if asked.
After all that, we have all the lunacy we need. It can’t possibly be topped. There is no way LaHaye and Jenkins can come up with anything more stupid –
Oh, shit. They can.
6) It’s in a single sentence, but it’s there. Carpathia wants one world language.
AGH! BRAIN CRAMP!
This wishlist should have seen Carpathia into some sort of care home, but everyone agrees with it. He’s such a wonderful man, you see, and even at his first speech at the UN he has the world eating out of the palm of his hand. Obviously he must be a fantastic orator to get that reaction, and we are privileged enough to see what he says!
Carpathia starts by saying how honoured he is to be there. Never mind the fact that the new President of Romania should be at home dealing with the worst crisis in its history, as opposed to swanning off for an international publicity tour. He gives a brief history of the UN, showing off what he’s gleaned from The Pre-schooler’s Big Book of the United Nations, and then he recites, in full, the name of every single member country. It takes more than five minutes.
Everyone is so enthhralled by this tedious trivia that they leap to their feet in spontaneous applause. If I were in the audience I’d have a migraine.
But wait! There’s more! Carpathia recites all the former Secretaries-General of the UN, including dates of service, and then all the major UN bodies, including the location of their headquarters and the current Director of each. (By this stage if I were in the audience I’d be in tears of boredom) Considering what’s just happened in the world, it’s a pity Jenkins doesn’t write about what happens when Carpathia mentions UNICEF.
Actually, Carpathia barely mentions the disappearance of two billion people. It’s only important enough for him to talk about it for thirty seconds with a vague ‘yeah, we’ve got someone trying to figure it out.’
What Carpathia does here is come over to the UN and drone on for god knows how long like he’s undertaking a memory test. As a result, People magazine suddenly declare him the winner of their yearly ‘sexiest man alive’ award, and no, I am not joking. The people in this world are seriously starved for entertainment (‘Honey! Quickly! He’s speaking at Congress and I can’t wait for him to name all the Senators, their States and their party affiliations!’). Either that, or I hope Jenkins never takes up public speaking lest he inspire mass audience suicide.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. ‘But Baron! It’s the Antichrist! He must be employing some sort of mind-control!’ And yes, he does exhibit such powers late in the book, when he proves to all how powerful he can be when he’s holding a gun. (I’m impressed) But at this stage there’s no hint of this. It feels like the public would applaud anyone suggesting one world religion. And would it really have killed Carpathia to have taken the oratory seriously?
(There’s a broad hint that Carpathia isn’t using mind control here, as he sounds convincing even to Rayford Steele and other characters who have just become Real True Christians. But his mind control at the climax does not work on Buck precisely because Buck is now a Real True Christian himself.)
I’m reminded of the vastly superior similar plot line in the 29th season of Doctor Who, the third season in the new run. The Doctor lands on Earth during election day in the United Kingdom, and the current defence minister, Harold Saxon, is running for government with a newly-formed party. Everyone rather likes him, but he has an earth-shattering secret; he is actually another Time Lord, like the Doctor. His real name – or real title, anyway – is the Master, and he is one of the Doctor’s most vicious enemies. Naturally his technological knowledge is phenomenal, and he is very good at mind-control. Plotting his way into the current government, he uses his position to influence the set-up of a satellite system called Archangel. He uses this to broadcast a low-level hypnotic frequency, which doesn’t do very much apart from making you well-disposed towards Saxon and thus more likely to vote for him.
The difference between Carpathia and ‘Saxon’ is that when he was running for Prime Minister Saxon did not stand on the insane platform of ‘one world religion’. In fact it was very hard for anyone to say precisely what his policies were, because if he was explicit he couldn’t pretend to be all things to all people. The hypnotic effect worked on most, if not all, people, but Saxon wasn’t about to push his luck.
Being better written, Saxon was naturally charismatic, if a bit reluctant to take anything seriously. Contrast this with Carpathia’s monumentally boring drivel at the UN, and his insistence during it that he must speak in nine languages. (Jenkins claims that Carpathia is fluent in English. He certainly knows the words, but he speaks so formally, even in personal conversations, that it’s like he trying too hard. It creates a paradox; sometimes Carpathia’s English is so correct that it ceases to be so, as nobody native would speak like that.)
Both Left Behind and the Saxon plotline also contain a moment where the villain turns on his allies and slaughters them; in this, too, Doctor Who holds the upper hand. Carpathia shoots his victims in front of an audience and then convinces everyone it was a murder-suicide through mind control. The Master gases his cabinet ministers to death during their first meeting and has much more fun doing so. Incidentally, his ministers are never aware of what’s really going on. To them, it was just a normal election process. Carpathia’s allies don’t know who he is, but they are themselves underhand and corrupt. In other words, Carpathia needed more help than the Master did, which is a little odd for the Son of Satan.
(The Master was played by John Simm from Life on Mars. For my money, this incarnation of the Master turned out to be one of the most frightening television monsters of all time, because he was willing to do anything to anyone and often did. This is a man who orders the deaths of 10% of the human race just because it sounds like a good number to him.)
Let’s just say that I infinitely prefer the Master to Carpathia and leave it at that.
It works the same way for the protagonists as well. The Doctor is a much more engaging hero than Rayford Steele and Buck Williams. There’s a lovely moment between the ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose Tyler, his companion. They are in the far future, trying to save the Earth from thousands of Daleks. It seems completely hopeless. We could leave, suggests the Doctor. No, says Rose. Besides, you’d never agree to it. True, says the Doctor – but the thought of leaving never even crossed your mind, did it?
It’s touching because it shows both the Doctor and Rose at their best. They will most likely fail in their mission and they will probably die, but they refuse to leave innocent victims to a horrendous fate. Eventually the Doctor traps Rose in the TARDIS, taking the decision out of her hands and forcing her to go. He’s quite prepared to stay and die, but he’s not about to let her do so.
So, set against this shining example of selflessness, how do Rayford Steele and Buck Williams measure up? Not very well. Very early on our main characters are revealed to be hypocritical, self-serving beasts. They will remain this way throughout the novel, so don’t start thinking that becoming born-again Christians will make them any better.
Take what happens when Steele’s plane arrives back in Chicago. Imagine the following – you reach Chicago. On leaving the aeroplane by an emergency exit onto the tarmac, you see death and destruction all around you. People are crying out for help. The emergency services can’t handle everything. You are either an employee of an airline or a renowned journalist, and have been plunged into the biggest crisis of your life. Do you a) help with the wounded, or b) go home?
Rayford Steele is appallingly two-faced (‘Rayford Steele’ – that’s either the name of an action hero or a porn star, I can’t tell which). The aeroplane lands a couple of miles away from the terminal. Passengers have to walk, but crew members can ride in a bus. Steele insists on walking, giving the evil eye to any crew member who takes up the offer. Crew members, he says, should be last off the plane and the first to report for emergency duty. Once he reaches the terminal, what does he do?
He takes advantage of his job status to get a free telephone line to contact his family (everyone else has to queue) and then he goes home in a helicopter specially commandeered for pilots. But not before bullying the helicopter pilot into taking the air stewardess he’s infatuated with as well. Emergency duty can just go hang, I guess. Although I’d be fascinated to know what the difference is between accepting a bus ride and accepting a helicopter ride.
Buck Williams is no better. He looks at all the rubble and the death, and practically his first thought is ‘How do I get back to New York?’ At the airport we have people like the doctor whose flight has been cancelled. There he is, with his first aid kit, and he complains that he has nothing to do. Doctor! Have you looked outside the window recently? Did the mass injured on the runways fail to attract your attention?
With other authors, this might be intentional. If only Christians are nice people, and all the Christians have left the planet, then those remaining would be loathsome, selfish brutes. But LaHaye and Jenkins simply don’t go in this direction. First, their theological view won’t permit them to do so. People are saved by grace, not good works. You could give all your money to charity, but it won’t make a lick of difference come judgement day. Therefore LaHaye and Jenkins would expect some nice people to stay behind. (Actually they’re a bit unclear on this point in their writing, I’m sure you’ll be amazed to hear. However they explicitly say that grace saves, not behaviour, so let’s be charitable)
Second, neither Steele nor Buck become different once they have converted. (Steele becomes ever more annoying, but that’s because he’s trying to convert everybody. His basic personality isn’t changed at all.)
Third, I think that LaHaye and Jenkins simply refuse to face up to the facts. For whatever reason, they don’t want to admit that Steele or Buck could do really bad things. Sure they may not have been saints in the past – Steele was very close to having an affair, for example– but their sins haven’t exactly set the world on fire. Steele’s pseudo-affair is a very good example; he could do it, he’s tempted, he keeps having dinner with the object of his infatuation, but he doesn’t. And, the authors claim, a ‘private necking session’ at a work Christmas party some years ago isn’t being unfaithful. (Yeah, try telling that to Irene, guys) All through the book both men treat those around them with unthinking contempt, and there is no better illustration of this than Hattie Durham. Hattie is a flight attendant, and the second person in Steele’s almost-infidelity.
The first sentence of the novel tells us that while Steele often thinks of her, he has never touched her. He has never made a move, even though they regularly request to fly together, dine together and are in each other’s company for much of their working life. He has, on the other hand, been giving signals to Hattie that she might be in with a chance…
LaHaye and Jenkins don’t view this as admirable behaviour, but they think that Steele is a good man for not caving in to his desires. I, on the other hand, call it stringing someone along. Steele isn’t actually interested in going to bed with Hattie. When she sits on his lap for the helicopter ride, his one impulse is that of revulsion. What he gets off on is something far nastier. He wants Hattie to become dependent on him, to keep waiting and waiting and waiting and to keep the possibility of an affair alive, even though he’ll never act on it. Funnily enough, Steele’s own daughter, Chloe, is more perceptive than the authors care to admit. She points out that Steele’s behaviour was horrendous. Hattie was available – Steele wasn’t, but he was acting as though he was. Who do you think was the more blameworthy here?
The authors think it’s Hattie. When his wife disappears, Steele realises what he’s lost. (The little we see of Irene makes her sound a pretty awful woman to live with, but let’s ignore that) Suddenly in his eyes Hattie becomes ‘young’, ‘immature’, unintelligent. They have ‘very little in common’. Even though Hattie feels awful about Steele’s wife and son disappearing, Steele can’t even pick up the phone to ask her about her family (even though he promised to). Why should he be concerned about a load of strangers?
This is monstrous. Basic human decency requires you to care more for a friend. Steele’s conversion should have made him more sympathetic towards Hattie, but it doesn’t look like it. He claims to now care about her ‘as a person’ rather than a sex object, but he’s still able to smile as he dumps her, watching the tears roll down her cheeks. And then he starts in with the sales pitch for Christian fundamentalism. (He tells Chloe it isn’t a sales pitch, but never explains the difference)
Basically, when Hattie tells him where to stuff it you can’t blame her. Well, I mean that I can’t, and you, the reader, probably can’t either, but LaHaye and Jenkins can. Since we never get out of Steele or Buck’s head, all the blame gets shovelled onto poor Hattie. It’s a little like watching Spike in season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer - everyone blames the ‘bad guy’ but you can’t tell what they’ve actually done wrong. In return for daring to take offence at Steele’s behaviour, she falls victim to the Antichrist and becomes his girlfriend.
Buck ultimately treats Hattie no better. In the midst of emotional turmoil, she calls Buck simply because she needs someone to talk to; given all the crises around them, you can hardly blame her for wanting to find someone, anyone for company. Buck’s reaction is to roll his eyes and hope she isn’t normally like this. Later on, when he has very good reason to believe she’s going to become the Antichrist’s girlfriend, he doesn’t even hint that her new beau is a dangerous man to know. Instead he just says that she’s ‘not that kind of woman’ and should be morally superior to all that. She rightly blows this off.
Buck is one of the most renowned journalists on the planet. We can only assume that the media in the world of Left Behind is filled with easily-scared and lazy hacks who couldn’t recognise a story if it sat on them. First of all, Global Weekly doesn’t seem to publish weekly. Actually it never seems to be published at all. Second, it’s more interested in UN meetings than the mass disappearance of every child on Earth. Third, it appears to pay its staff so little that its current editor gets a better deal becoming press secretary for the President of Romania. (Yes, Romanian government jobs pay better than the American private sector. News to me, I must say.)
This august publication obviously did the right thing by employing Buck, who got that nickname, we are told not once but twice, because he bucks the conventions. He certainly does. Nobody can run up a needlessly long expense bill like him. From Chicago to almost-London to Chicago, from Chicago to New York, from New York to London, from London to Germany, from Germany to New York, we never see him actually give his employers a story. We only rarely even see him write initial drafts. Later in the book Jenkins attempts a bit of retcon, insisting that Buck has been writing, but the evidence is against him.
So what does Buck do? Well, he travels a lot. We know this because pages and pages are spent detailing how he gets to places. Not so much is spent on what he does in these places, but hey, Jerry only has so much time to write the novel. Buck also spends a lot of time phoning people – an extraordinary amount of conversation in this book is done at the end of a telephone line. When Buck writes a ‘to do’ list it contains nothing but phone calls.
Buck might seem a bit ridiculous to you, but that’s because you don’t yet know enough to make him look really ridiculous. Buck’s London adventure puts him in real danger. A police inspector friend tells him that Joshua Todd-Cothran, the Director of the London Stock Exchange, is involved in a massive financial and political conspiracy. Todd-Cothran has ordered one of his employees to be murdered, an act that was carried out, and there is open corruption in New Scotland Yard to make sure that he is not brought to justice. (Todd-Cothran, it should be noted, is known to Buck as someone behind Carpathia’s rapid rise to power) Shortly after revealing this stunning news, Buck’s friend is killed in a car bombing that almost kills Buck as well. Faking his own death, Buck flees to Germany.
Buck then tells everyone he knows that he is in fact still alive. Buck’s not that good with this whole ‘secrecy’ thing.
Anyway, with this explosive news, you’d have thought – well, actually you’d have thought that Buck should be reporting on the sudden obliteration of two billion people. But let’s work with the novel here. Buck should be working feverishly to expose this story to the world. But then Nicolae Carpathia comes calling. ‘You’re in trouble, my friend,’ he says. ‘I swear on my mother’s grave I have nothing to do with this conspiracy and my fingers are not crossed behind my back. However, I can make it all go away for you.’
‘Ooh, would you?’ asks Buck, who agrees to bury the story entirely in return for the dubious assurance that nobody will attempt to kill him again. By the end of the novel it is a certainty that he’s on the Antichrist’s shitlist and should probably be hiding in a cave somewhere in the Australian outback.
Buck Williams. Good at finding things out, better at hiding them from the public. It’s somewhat laughable that at the end of the book, when Carpathia is trying his best to recruit Buck to his team, Buck feels revulsion at compromising his ethical integrity as a journalist.
Buck’s not the only wonder at Global Weekly. We’ve already met Steve Plank, who leaves to become Carpathia’s press secretary and buys immediately into the murderous conspiracy surrounding the guy. I’d just like to mention a third character though, Stanton Bailey. He’s the publisher of the Weekly, and though he’s a minor character in the book he is such a walking stereotype of the Newspaper Chief that I love it. Get a load of this dialogue –
’Let me tell you something… I like you. You’ve been a superstar for me. I sold you to the rest of the brass when nobody else recognised you had what it takes. You sold me on this punk here, and he’s made us all look good. But I paid you six figures long before you deserved it because I knew someday it would pay off. And it did. Now, I’m telling you that nothing you say here is gonna go past these four walls, so I don’t want you holdin’ out on me.
‘You brats think that because I’m two or three years from the pasture, I don’t still have contacts, don’t have my ear to the ground. Well, let me tell you, my phone’s been ringing off the hook since you left here this morning, and I’ve got a gut feeling something big is going down. Now what is it?’
Suddenly all becomes clear. Left Behind has already been made into a film, but if it’s ever remade the role has to be played by Dean Learner from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Watch him in the role of Thornton Reed six minutes into this clip, and tell me the part of Stanton Bailey was not made for him.
But wait – we were talking about Buck, not his boss. I’m sorry – the thought of a Marenghi Left Behind just puts a smile on my face. Anyway, Buck is also a romantic stalker. When he meets Chloe Steele for the first time –
Buck was stunned. He loved Chloe’s name, her eyes, her smile.
Note that they have not yet spoken together. Note also that Chloe is not only ten years younger than Buck, but they are being introduced to each other by her father. Less than a couple of hours later, Buck is trying to find out whether she already has a boyfriend. That evening, he discovers what flight she’ll be taking back to Chicago from New York and books a seat next to her without telling her.
It’s either love or hormonal idiocy. I’m not yet cynical enough to think these options are the same thing.
The two principal female characters are Hattie Durham and Chloe Steele. Hattie has the temerity to stand up for herself occasionally and is therefore bitch-slapped by the authors. Chloe Steele is a university student who still calls her father ‘Daddy’. Despite this slightly disturbing habit, she does show some independence and is often more rational than Rayford. Not that this will win her any brownie points with the authors. By the end of the novel, however, she’s skipping along with the rest of the born-agains and in love with Buck. She converted because God answered her prayer and had Buck sit next to her on an aeroplane. Funnily enough, the lethal miracle of the Rapture didn’t prompt her conversion, but Buck’s instant and unhealthy obsession with her did.
Though she’s long gone before we have a chance to meet her properly, we do get flashbacks with Irene Steele. I think the most diplomatic thing I can say is that I would not get along with her. There are few if any memories that Rayford has of her that do not revolve around her evangelism. As for Rayford’s own religious views, they’re somewhat puzzling. He was a Christian – not a Real True Christian, but a Christian – before the Rapture. He went to a church for years. He had friends in there. He served on the church board for a couple of years. No doubt he went and heard plenty of sermons, even if they weren’t the sort that Tim LaHaye gives his own congregation.
And yet, when he finally gets round to picking up a Bible, it’s like he’s never seen one before.
Though much of it was still difficult to understand, he found himself so hungry and thirsty for the story of the life of Christ that he read through all four Gospels until it was late and he fell asleep.
He served on a church board for two years, and yet never bothered reading any of the Gospels or learnt about them through sermons. I’d bet his school never did any religious education, either.
And again, when the pastor Bruce Barnes talks to him about the Rapture –
’Jesus took our sins and paid the penalty for them so we wouldn’t have to. The payment is death, and he died in our place because he loved us… That’s what Jesus is – the Son of God. When we becomes sons of God, we have what Jesus has: a relationship with God, eternal life, and because Jesus paid our penalty, we also have forgiveness for our sins.’
Rayford sat stunned… It was what he had suspected… but he had never put it all together.
I wish I could meet this guy. Hey, Rayford, did you know the Earth is round? That’s why you never see the edge of the world from your aeroplane, no matter how far you fly.
Rayford sat stunned… It was what he had suspected… but he had never put it all together
Let’s not forget either that he’s been sharing a house with a Real True Christian for years, who we are told could talk of little else. It seems that Irene wasn’t very good at this whole witnessing business. Not only did she fail to convince her husband, but he can barely remember anything she said!
Again I find myself asking why Steele should be written like this. It might be another symptom of the authors’ reluctance to show Steele in a really bad light. They want their protagonist to be ignorant so that he can be told everything from scratch, but they can’t quite bring themselves to make him anything other than a pseudo-christian (they certainly wouldn’t want to write him as an atheist). Or do they think that only Real True Christians know anything about the Bible?
I’m reminded of those ghastly little comics made by Jack Chick, the man who believes that Halloween is the devil’s day and that evolution never happened. Whenever anyone is told about Christianity, their first reaction is along the lines of ‘Jesus? Who’s he?’ or ‘What is praying?’ When they are further told that Jesus died for their sins, they cry out in confusion ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me?’
The characters in Jack Chick cartoons lead pretty insular lives, I think.
I’m rather hoping that LaHaye and Jenkins are smarter than this, though I can’t put too much confidence in it. When Rayford gets out a Bible to read on his flight, his co-pilot asks ‘What the - ?’ because, you see, he thinks that only demented nuts read the Bible! It’s so unusual, especially after a third of the planet has miraculously vanished.
(I’ve recently been reading the Bible on train journeys. I’m not yet noticing incredulous stares from my fellow travellers.)
What a weird world LaHaye and Jenkins must live in. A world where you can go to church for years without learning anything about the Bible, a world in which the UN is the most powerful institution, a world where nobody minds turning over global military control to an obscure East European politician, a world where nothing says ‘romance’ like stalking. I’m glad I don’t live in it.
LaHaye and Jenkins do not care. They don’t care about constructing a good story. They don’t care about reason. They don’t care about how other people might feel, and they never take the trouble to check out another viewpoint. Oh alright, I suppose they must care about something, namely getting their ill-supported and ill-judged message across. (This novel is supposed to bring people to Christ and yet it takes as a given that the Rapture will happen – stacking the deck in a pretty gigantic way) Of course, if I were to say this directly to them, they wouldn’t understand what I was going on about. That’s probably the worst thing of all. Left Behind is a very confident novel. The authors are completely secure in their beliefs, and this is the only reason why they can seriously write about their heroes running away from disaster scenes without lifting a finger to help. It never occurs to LaHaye or Jenkins that this might be less than admirable behaviour, even given Steele’s lecture on the subject.
The reason why I get depressed about this is because this isn’t simply a bad book in a vacuum. People believe in it. People think that Obama is the Antichrist, that abortionists do it for fun, that the Rapture is just around the corner, that gays should not be allowed to marry. Left Behind, a serious book from a famous author, is calculated to reinforce the fundamentalist believer in his delusions, and if the sales are anything to go by then it’s working.
Left Behind is ludicrously funny and bleakly depressing. It was written as a warning, and it is a warning – but one very different from what the authors intended.