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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Left Behind: Chapter 9, Part 2

Welcome back one and all to our regular feature on Left Behind, the book that makes stereo instructions seem entertaining by comparison. Last time... well, last time we had a cute little graphic file to make up for the lack of an episode on Thanksgiving. The time before that, however, we heard a bit more about Buck's future assignment and learned that one of his buddies has apparently been shot. What happens this week? Not much, really- just an argument between Chloe and Rayford about religion. That didn't take long, eh? She walks in the door and- BAM!- it's preaching time!

As always we have a comment of the week. This week that "honor" goes to JLT for his rather lengthy- but funny- missive that includes, in part, this fascinating passage:

And this conversation Buck and Nigel are having? That's almost Dada-esk.

- I'm taping.
- What's a tape.
- You don't know?
- I'll tape, too.
- Why would you?
- Why would you?

Kinda poetic.

It's hard to beat that. What's next? "The Left Behind Haiku Book for Teens"? I'd also like to give an honorary mention nod to Ken for his blunt, but apt, commentary on Buck's zoological knowledge.

And with that, let's begin! As always, page/line numbers are in bold, quotes from the book are in block quotes, my commentary is in regular print, and you can navigate the whole series with the provided tag.


Dramatis Personae

In an order found inscribed on stone tablets discovered in a discount market in Jerusalem...

Rayford Steele: Airline captain. Husband of Irene Steele. Possible former gay porn star. Ditherer. No longer attracted to Hattie. Bad father. Cries a lot.

Irene Steele: Wife of Rayford Steele. Born-again Christian. Not perfect, just forgiven. Reader of marriage books. Cleans obsessively. Likes egg in her coffee. Bakes really silly cookies. Likes butter churns.

Cameron "Buck" Williams: Reporter. Known for "bucking tradition and authority." Terrible Excellent writer. Spiritually attuned. Electronics wiz. Fast typist. Clumsy on slides. Travels a lot. Graduated from Princeton. Human alarm clock. Expert in Romanian politics.

Hattie Durham: Flight attendant. Toucher. Hottie. Hysterical female type. Girl power devotee. Unhealthily thin. Twenty-seven years old. Blonde. Claims no moral or religious code.

Chris Smith: Airline co-pilot. Worked with Rayford Steele. Father of two. Husband. Killed himself.

Chloe Steele: Daughter of Rayford Steele. Student at Stanford.

Chaim Rosenzweig: Israeli chemist. Kinda freaky. Friend of Buck's.

Steve Plank: Buck's boss at Global Weekly. Not the sharpest tool in the shed.

Nicolae Carpathia: Businessman. Romanian Senator. Romanian President. Antichrist. Favors arms reductions.

Raymie Steele: Son of Rayford Steele. Taken in the rapture.

Dirk Burton: English guy Buck knows. Graduated from Princeton. Kinda gullible. Killed himself.

Joshua Todd-Cothran: English finance guy.

Jonathon Stonagal: American ultra-rich dude. Involved in international monetary cabal. Has ties to duck lips.

Marge Potter: Steve Planck's secretary. Matronly.

Lucinda Washington: Fiftyish black woman. Raptured.

Ken Ritz: Pilot. Profiteering on the rapture. Actually quite polite. Fired for being too careful. Believes in aliens.

Juan Ortiz: Global Weekly international events editor.

Jimmy Borland: Global Weekly religion editor.

Barbara Donahue: Global Weekly financial editor.

Nigel Leonard: Employee of the London exchange.


Page 159- Line Mulch:

No quote to start us off, but we open with Rayford and Chloe who have been talking since she returned. They spend some time mourning for Irene and Raymie and generally putter. Eventually, however, their conversation turns to the issue of what the hell happened in the first place.

Page 159- Line 21-27:
"Daddy, in California they're actually buying into the space invasion theory." [Chloe whined]

"You're kidding."

"No. Maybe it's because you were always so practical and skeptical about all that tabloid newspaper stuff, but I just can't get into it. I mean, it has to be something supernatural or otherworldly, but-"

Okay, so, wow, what can you even say to that? First off, nice swipe at those wacky folks in California. Ha. Yeah, they believe in stupid shit like aliens. Why don't they believe in totally reasonable things like wine that turns to blood and a dry cracker that turns to flesh on your tongue? Our savior is like an M&M: melts in your mouth and not in your hand! Second, I once again feel compelled to observe that aliens are a more parsimonious explanation than god in that we know that technologically advanced organic species are possible since we are one. Invoking god is a much, much more burdensome response. And, third, given that you don't know what the hell caused the disappearances concluding that said cause must be, "supernatural or otherworldly" is just dumb. The simple truth is you don't have any idea and, in any case, the supernatural is a singularly unsuccessful way of explaining anything. Invoking the supernatural under conditions of such startling ignorance is just laziness.

Page 160- Line 1-8:
"But what?" [Rayford asked]

"It just seems that if some alien life force was capable of doing this, they would also be capable of communicating to us. Wouldn't they want to take over now or demand ransom or get us to do something for them?"

"Who? Martians?" [Rayford asked]

"Daddy! I'm not saying I believe it. I'm saying I don't. But doesn't my reasoning make sense?"

Well, I'm proud of her for at least trying to reason, no matter how bad at it she may be. In contrast, skeptical and practical Rayford just jumped to a conclusion that it had to be the rapture and has been more or less without demonstrated reasoning ability for some time. And you just have to love his flippant remark about Martians. Ha! Stupid Chloe, thinking the disappearances were caused by an intelligent being that we have no evidence exists. God is a way better- um... right. Yeah.

Page 160- Line 12-16:
Rayford hoped Chloe would ask his theory. He didn't want to start right in on a religious theme. She had always been antagonistic about that, having stopped going to church in high school when both he and Irene gave up fighting with her about it.

Ah. So, Chloe is either an atheist or, more likely, some species of agnostic or "unaffiliated". How cute. So at least we have her conversion to look forward to. In any case, Rayford recalls how Chloe was a good kid and never seemed to do drugs (despite her lack of religion) but that she did come home drunk one night. He had a talk with her, broke down crying, and then she agreed not to get drunk again. Sort of like an unusually bad Hallmark movie.

Page 162- Line 11-13:
He [Rayford] didn't recall ever having to discipline her again, and though she had not come back to church, he had started to drift by then himself.

I love that sentence because it's so damned weird. They might as well have written, "And even though ducks don't have lips, the Cowboys won the superbowl!" What does her not coming back to church have to do with Rayford "drifting"? For that matter, do the authors think that anyone who doesn't go to church is drifting? In a word: yes. Never mind all the perfectly happy, perfectly well-behaved atheists around.*

Page 162- Line 21-26:
He [Rayford] knew now what her [Chloe] crazy college friends and the typical Californian believed. What else was new? He always generalized that people on the West Coast afforded the tabloids the same weight Midwesterners gave the Chicago Tribune or even the New York Times. [emphasis original]

My comment in the margins here reads, "Oh my are these guys prejudiced, though perhaps no more than some academics about them." I think I'm comfortable with that, with the possible addition that Rayford apparently thinks that Chloe's college friends are, by definition, crazy (stupid edumacation!) and the she's a one-woman polling firm. In any case, they stop for lunch and then Chloe breaks down in tears, finally "whining" (the authors' term- page 163- line 18) about her desire to know where Irene and Raymie are. Let me make that point again: after the multiple chapters of guilt bukkake from Rayford, the instant Chloe- in her first fucking chapter- cries and wishes she knew what happened to her mother and brother, she's labelled as "whining." Just... damn.

Page 163- Line 19-22:
"You want to know where I think they are?" he [Rayford] said. "Do you really want to know?"

"Of course!"

"I believe they are in heaven."

And there we are! The cat is out of the bag and we're into the discussion we've all been waiting for. Now, in the margins here I scrawled, "And here we go- I expect apologetics" but, as you'll see, that isn't really what we get. I also wrote at the bottom of this page, "As a side note: this whole thing goes the way evangelicals wish conversations with unbelievers would go." We'll talk more about that later. Rayford explains that he thinks that Irene and Raymie were carried away by Jesus, just the way Irene said would happen. Chloe is unconvinced, and the resulting exchange is just bizarre.

Page 164- Line 10:
"That's as crazy as the Martian invasion theory." [Chloe objected]

No, it's actually crazy-er than the Martian invasion theory, so long as we assume that by "Martian" you just mean extra-terrestrial. Nevertheless, Rayford's counter is nothing if not instructive.

Page 164- Line 11-24:
Rayford felt defensive. "So what's your theory?"

Chloe began to clear the table and spoke with her back to him. "I'm honest enough to admit I don't know."

"So now I'm not being honest?"

Chloe turned to face him, sympathy on her face.

"Don't you see, Dad? You've gravitated to the least painful possibility. If we were voting, my first choice would be that my mom and my little brother are in heaven with God, sitting on clouds, playing their harps."

"So I'm deluding myself, is that what you're saying?"

"Daddy, I don't fault you. But you have to admit this is pretty far-fetched."

Now Rayford was angry. "What's more far-fetched than people disappearing right out of their clothes?"

This is an interesting exchange to me because she is simply reserving judgment but he takes it personally. Her reluctance to accept his explanation isn't, in his mind, attributed to a fault in the explanation, but to a fault in him. This is actually something of a theme, as we will see. In perfect honesty, I think this may stem from the emphasis on "personal witnessing" in this branch of Christianity (i.e. the authors'). If you believe that telling your personal story is the most powerful way to convert someone then, clearly, if it doesn't work it's because your target doesn't believe or respect you, personally. It can't be that your approach and arguments suck- it has to be that they think that you suck. So, basically, having a religious conversation with a certain class of believer resembles nothing so much as Thanksgiving dinner with your passive-aggressive grandmother. Beyond that, in my universe, I'd say not much is more far-fetched than people disappearing out of their clothes. In Rayford's, however, it isn't far-fetched at all since it's empirical fact. Nonetheless, that something weird and unlikely occurs does not give us free reign to just accept other weird and unlikely ideas as being true without evidence. Anyway, Rayford yells at her a bit more and then tries to invoke some "evidence."

Page 165- Line 5-7:
"Chloe, our own family is a perfect picture of what happened. If what I'm saying is right, the logical two people are gone and the logical two were left."

Only if god is one very specific guy. I hate to keep reminding us of this, but humans have a lot of gods. This is one of the main problem with chalking the unexplained up to god- okay, fine, god did it, but which god are we talking about here?

Page 165- Line 16-20:
"You're my daughter and the only other member of my family still left; I love you more than anything on earth. But if the Christians are gone and everyone else is left, I don't think anyone [who is still on Earth] is a Christian"

"Some kind of super Christian, you mean."

Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! No! It's SuperChristian, here to fight for heteronormativity, compulsory child-birth, and prudishness! Feh. Please keep in mind that the preceding snark was particularly meant for the brand of Christianity that the authors are representing in this book.

Page 165- Line 23-30:
"Daddy, what does this make God? Some sick, sadistic dictator?"

"Careful, honey. You think I'm wrong, but what if I'm right?"

"Then God is spiteful, hateful, mean. Who wants to go to heaven with a God like that?"

"If that's where your mom and Raymie are, that's where I want to be."

But, of course, that doesn't address the basic point. More or less what it boils down to is, "We're in a hostage situation with god, and we'd all better do what he says so that nobody gets hurt." Yep, that's some inspirational stuff right there. Anyway, Chloe responds by observing that she's not convinced that God is loving or merciful, Rayford claims support for his argument from the fact that nobody else knows for sure what happened (e.g "Nobody knows why thunder happens so my dumbass idea that it's Zeus being all pissy must be good!"), and then Chloe again responds. Sort of.

Page 166- Line 10-12:
"See? You've [Rayford] latched onto this heaven thing because it makes you feel better. But it makes me feel worse. I don't buy it. I don't even want to consider it."

And this is intriguing because the authors are treating her as rejecting god based on emotion because, I think, they accept god for the same reason. This is why we never get any decent arguments in this book- because at the end of the day the authors and unbelievers like me are not even approaching the question in the same way. They believe in their god because they feel that it's right, I disbelieve because my reasoning tells me I should disbelieve. Certainly I also feel that there is no god but when I approach the issue I do so using logic and argumentation. The authors approach the issue using feelings. And this, at root, is what I think leads to so many communications problems sometimes: each side is using an approach that, to the other, seems like a non-sequitur. I want them to give me arguments and, instead, I get feelings. They want me to "witness" and instead I reason. Regardless, Rayford decides to back off for a while and calls the airline about his upcoming flights. He learns that Hattie has requested to work with him and Rayford- ever the gentleman- asks the scheduler to prevent it. Then Chloe comes back and they make up, which seques into Rayford trying to guilt Chloe.

Page 168- Line 20-30:
"And I only wish you hadn't said one thing." [Rayford said]


"That you don't even want to consider my theory. You've always liked my theories. I don't mind your saying you don't buy it. I don't know enough to articulate it in a way that makes sense. But your mother talked about this. Once she even warned me that if I didn't know for sure I'd be going if Christ returned for his people, I shouldn't be flip about it."

"But you were?"

"I sure was, but never again."

Okay, this is reasonable enough. Rayford just wants her to take his "theory" seriously, even though it's rather nutty. Not too much to ask since, really and truly, they have a tough one to figure out. What comes next, however, just about made my head explode when I first read it, and frankly still makes me angry.

Page 169- Line 1-8:
"Well, Daddy, I'm not being flip about it. I just can't accept it, that's all."

"That's fair. But don't say you won't even consider it." [Rayford answered]

"Well, did you consider the space invaders theory?"

"As a matter of fact, I did."

"You're kidding" [Chloe said]

"I considered everything. This was so far beyond human experience, what were we supposed to think?" [underlining added]

And this is where Rayford, after castigating Chloe for not being open-minded about his theory, lies to her face about his willingness to consider alternatives. Because, you'll recall, Rayford has been convinced that the disappearances were due to the rapture since the end of the first chapter (Page 16- Line 28-30)! He has never, ever, considered the alien theory. Shit, space aliens didn't get mentioned until- so far as I can tell- page 58, and even then it was mentioned in the presence of Buck, not Rayford. And this bit just amazes me, because in this book where the authors can stack the deck as much as they want and make sure everything comes out just perfectly on their side, the guy arguing for god still comes off like a hypocritical asshole. GAH!

Page 169- Line 9-13:
"OK, so if I take it back that I won't even consider it, what does that mean? We become religious fanatics all of a sudden, start going to church, what? And who says it's not too late? If you're right, we may have missed our chance forever." [Chloe said]

No, you idiot. If you agree to consider his theory, that means you agree to consider his theory. It does not mean you agree with his theory. "Considering" does not equal "decide". Good lord, the stupid must run in the family. Anyway, Rayford tells Chloe about the videotape at the church he wants to go get and she scoffs at the notion.

Page 169- Line 24-27:
"Dad! A tape for those left behind? Please!"

"You're coming at this as a skeptic, so sure it sounds ridiculous to you. I see no other logical explanation, so I can't wait to hear the tape." [Rayford answered]

That last sentence should really read, "I'm coming at this as a credulous moron, so I can't wait to hear the tape." Additionally, it is manifestly apparent that the authors either do not know, or do not care, what a "skeptic" actually is. In any case, she agrees to come with him to the church because she's "not afraid of meeting someone [she] disagree[s] with" (Page 170- Line 7-8), thereby giving us at least one thing we can like about Chloe. And that, essentially ends the chapter.

So what have we learned? Well, first and foremost, we have learned once more that honest debate between believers and unbelievers seems doomed to failure because they don't approach the problem in compatible ways. I understand that some people believe in god because their heart tells them to, but I distrust my feelings as a way of getting reliable knowledge about the world. It feels to me as though the earth is stationary and the sun goes around us, but that just isn't so. As such, if someone wants to convert me, they have to use evidence and argumentation that doesn't rely on feelings. Likewise, using evidence against faith based in feeling is as pointless as trying to halt a tsunami with a court order. And I leave this chapter feeling nothing so much as despair over battles that will continue to be fought because each side is effectively immune to the other's weaponry.

Beyond that, I feel that I should mention something directly: what we just went through is, in fact, the closest thing to logical argumentation about god and religion that we will EVER see. There are no more arguments between Rayford and Chloe about this- absolutely none. Instead, the spirit just moves people. So, basically, if you were hoping for a rousing chapter or two of apologetics, just give up. The message comes down to, "God is bigger than we are and, if we don't do what he says, will fucking torture us for eternity." This is not a compelling message in the slightest. Lastly, we learned that in a darkly humorous twist even the authors seem unable to manage to advance an argument for god without depicting the pro-god side as hypocritical. And this is when they have all the odds on their side because they're CRAFTING THE ENTIRE NARRATIVE. It's just shameful.

Well, come back next time when we start in on chapter ten. What happens? I wouldn't want to spoil it for you, but we check back in with Buck and are reminded of how little the authors really know about the world. So, hey it'll be fun.


* This is too amusing not to relate but I should preface this by observing that it is hardly a compelling counter-argument. When I was a kid my family went to church quite regularly and our pastor was a very dramatic, very serious kind of guy. He had the sort of Abrahamic mystique that made you certain he had a direct line to god. That is, until the day his son- out of his mind from meth and crack- managed to flip a car over and land it atop another while trying to escape the police. Certainly this one incident does not invalidate religion but, you have to admit, it's a tad awkward. And as a further side note- do not tell me that his son must not have been a "true Christian."



Blogger scripto said...

""I believe they are in heaven."

We're not. Hell is an eternity parsing Left Behind

Thursday, December 03, 2009 11:40:00 AM  
Blogger Ken Houghton said...

"Now Rayford was angry. "What's more far-fetched than people disappearing right out of their clothes?""

Is it just me who is having flashbacks to Night of the Comet and thinking about a Catherine Mary Stewart/Kelli Maroney sandwich?

*sigh* Probably. But at least in that piece of pop culture, they knew when they were getting a laugh.

Thursday, December 03, 2009 11:54:00 AM  
Blogger scripto said...

"That you don't even want to consider my theory. You've always liked my theories. I don't mind your saying you don't buy it. I don't know enough to articulate it in a way that makes sense. But your mother talked about this. Once she even warned me that if I didn't know for sure I'd be going if Christ returned for his people, I shouldn't be flip about it."

"But you were?"

"I sure was, but never again."

Wait. Is God running regular flights? If you miss the first one you can catch the red eye? Or do you have to be tribulated for a while first?

Thursday, December 03, 2009 11:54:00 AM  
Blogger JLT said...

"Daddy, in California they're actually buying into the space invasion theory." [Chloe whined]

How does she even know that? Didn't she leave California with the first flight she could get?

Friday, December 04, 2009 12:55:00 AM  

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