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Left Behind Volume 11 (Armageddon, c2003) Discussion topics
(Added April 2007)
Discussion topic: In 2 Chronicles 36:22 and Ezra 1:1 we read that “The LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus” to do a good thing. Cyrus proclaims that the LORD (2 Chronicles 36:23, Ezra 1:2-4) “has appointed me” to rebuild the Jewish Temple. Cyrus also returns the sacred objects which Nebuchadnezzar had seized from the Temple (Ezra 1:7-11 and 6:5). All the king (Cyrus, Darius, or both) asks in return is that those he helps will offer sacrifices pleasing to God and will pray for the well-being of the king and his sons (Ezra 6:10). Many subjects of Cyrus (translated as “the neighbors”) give freewill offerings and gifts to the departing Jews, to finance their efforts (Ezra 1:6).
For reasons of local politics, the construction of the Temple is interrupted for the reign of a few kings. It is resumed when Darius finds the scroll of Cyrus’ edict. Darius decrees that all costs shall be paid from the royal treasury (Ezra 6:4, 8-9). He threatens human and divine judgment upon anyone who tries to change his decree and/or destroy this Temple (Ezra 6:11-12). These edicts brought great blessing to the Jewish people, who celebrated the Passover as their first feast in the new Temple. Yet Cyrus, Darius, and the “neighbors” who donated money were pagans, worshipping foreign gods.
In the novel, Otto calls Krystall a “gem” (page 222). Rayford calls her a “godsend” (page 230). Buck snorts that this is an “interesting thing to say about someone bearing the mark of the beast.” Even as Buck and Zeke disparage her, Krystall has been murdered for helping them (pages 235-6). Krystall never knew Albie, but she and Otto finished his work. Krystall failed to rescue Chloe, but (unlike Razor) she died trying. Do you believe that God uses only Christians to do God’s work in the world? Why or why not?
Related: Rayford claimed on page 40 that Krystall has no “free will.” Yet Krystall seems an ambiguous character. She is proud of her Uncle Gregory for refusing to join the side she chose. She helps the Tribulation Force simply because “being in trouble is no worse than being in [Carpathia’s] good graces” (page 94). If Krystall has no free will, where did her good deeds come from? How and why did she do them? Did she make a choice to help? Did God make her help the Tribulation Force, even though she thinks her actions are her idea? If Krystall died trying to save the life of a tribulation saint (which she did), would that make her a tribulation martyr? What if she was unmarked? (Note: amillennialists—who believe that the “seal” of God and the “mark” of the beast are internal as per Jer. 31:33—and rapturists—who believe the signs are external—may have different answers.)
Discussion topic: When Jesus traveled, he had compassion upon the crowds, because they were as sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:35-38). His response was to heal, teach, comfort, and to call for more workers. Jesus did this, knowing that all would desert him in his Passion. Probably some of them never came back. He acted upon His compassion anyway.
When the novel’s protagonists travel, they struggle with compassion. Rayford feels it in New Babylon. He even tries to act upon it by seeking food and shelter for the doomed woman on the tarmac. Still, the fact that he feels compassion torments him; he cannot reconcile it with his beliefs. Otto Weser (see Deut. 27.18) feels no compassion for the suffering crowds, until he gets to know one inhabitant personally. Then, when Krystall dies, he is horrified. Chloe and Tsion express frustration for their isolation from unmarked people, not compassion, as such; it is their personal frustration, not compassion, that ultimately leads to their deaths. Meanwhile, Buck, like most of the characters, takes no especial interest in the fate of outsiders until the day of battle. Did you find yourself feeling compassion for Krystall, for the woman on the tarmac, for the prisoners, for the crowds? Do we ever “give up” on situations or people out of a feeling that the task is too large, too confusing, too late, or too hopeless? Is that our call to make?
Discussion topic: Zeke comments that “of course” the protagonists will not try to stop prophesied events, “but it’ll be good to know exactly what’s happening” (page 203). Mordecai and Queen Esther did not consider it a good thing or a sufficient thing to merely “know” what would happen (Esther 4:12-16). Neither did Jesus (Matt. 16:21-28; 19:17-19; 26:54; John 13:18-38 and many verses). Neither did John the Baptist, or Paul, or the apostles.
In the novel, Zeke’s attitude, Chang’s ability to interfere with televised broadcasts (and disinclination to do so unless personally provoked), or Buck and Tsion and Chaim’s fascination with matching current events with specific Biblical verses, seem to be more about satisfying curiosity than about looking to the Bible for a holy call to repentance and/or an aid in righteous living. Do you agree with Mordecai’s caution to Esther that if humans say no to the chance to participate in God’s work, then that work will devolve to people more receptive to God’s leading? If humans can be summoned to help make a prophecy come true (cf. 2 Chron. 36:22; Luke 1:26-38), is the inverse also true? That is, do you agree with Zeke’s belief that humans could prevent a prophecy from coming true? Why or why not?
Related: What do you think about Otto’s belief that he should make a special effort to fulfill a specific prophecy? Did he do right by the six people who lost their lives following him? Otto does become a help and comfort to Krystall. Should he simply have gone to New Babylon alone?
Discussion topic: Chang Wong expresses a sensitive conscience. Naomi insists that he need feel no shame that he will stay home with his computers as other believers (including his “pope,” Tsion) face death in battle. Naomi wants Chang to live so that they can marry. “Let’s not risk that for the sake of your conscience” (page 321).
The Jewish elders insist that Chang need feel no shame that he bears the mark of the beast (pages 137-8). Tsion says he will pray that the mark of the beast will be removed from Chang’s forehead—but Tsion is okay with it if God’s answer is No. Tsion implies that if God’s answer is No, Chang should be okay with it too. (Since the mark equals an eternal doom, Chang understandably bursts into tears [page 138].)
Does Chang suffer from Scrupulosity and the other characters are correct, or is Chang’s conscience responding appropriately and the other characters have become insensitive of conscience? Are all characters correct? Are all characters wrong? Other?
Discussion topic: Chloe is visited by Caleb the angel. What do we know about angels? Have you had an encounter with one? (Bonus: consider a faith-based collection such as Where Angels Walk by Joan Wester Anderson for your next book club meeting.)
Discussion topic: Chloe tells a fellow prisoner, “If you know who I am, you know what I stand for.” The statement presupposes that a new character (or a new reader) would actually know who Chloe is, and what she stands for. It also presupposes that, if her reputation precedes her, then her reputation must be good. Newcomers would readily recognize who and what she stands against. Is that enough? In your own words, who is Chloe Steele Williams, and what does she stand for? (If possible, include in your study group both long-time readers and readers for whom Volume 11 is their introduction to the character and the series.)
Discussion topic: Tsion and Chloe quote many verses during their last days and their death scenes. Some readers find the quotes touching, rousing, and appropriate. Other readers find them excessive or mechanical, more like copying the Bible than living it. Did you find their words apt, or would you have liked the characters to more often speak in their own voices?
Discussion topic: Unlike Rayford’s relationship with his son Raymie, Rayford enjoys spending time with his grandson Kenny Bruce (pages 337, 345-6). Rayford realizes that, in ordinary times, his grandson would have started school within the year. Rayford wonders what the future holds. His questions are influenced by his belief that mortals and immortals (or, “naturals” and “glorifieds,” as they are called in Volume 16-called-13) will live together on earth for 1,000 years. Will Rayford and Kenny age, while Irene, Chloe, Raymie, and Amanda do not age? What will happen when the mortal Rayford is reunited with his two immortal wives? Without skipping ahead to Volume 12 or to Volume 16-called-13 (a.k.a. Kingdom Come), answer Rayford’s questions.
Discussion topic: Chloe admits a certain smugness” toward nonbelievers. “She was too polite to gloat, but she couldn’t deny some private satisfaction in knowing that one day she would be proved right” (page 232). Notice how Chloe was not even thinking about God being “proved right” (as if it were somehow necessary), but herself. Chloe later says that this attitude reflected an immature stage of her faith. Do you think this is a normal stage in the life of new believers, or is it just Chloe and her friends? Is it ever appropriate for a Christian to gloat? How can we overcome this response?
Discussion topic: In previous volumes, technology, personnel, and other random factors tended to operate in the believers’ favor. (Kirk: “You mean we’ve been lucky.” Spock: “I believe I said that, Captain.)
In volume 11, luck, or alternately divine favor, appears to be receding, at least for some characters. Unmarked individuals such as Mac McCullum (page 233), the team of “Woo and Associates” (page 270), and Double-M (page 98) simply are not examined for the mark, even though the bounty for unmarked individuals is 20,000 Nicks. (If a character left 20,000 dollars on the floor in the middle of a bus terminal, people would pick it up. Would not a character wearing a hat and gloves in the novel’s aforementioned hot weather look like walking money?) It has been proposed that the reason the men are not examined is that it is convenient to the plot that these characters live. Thus it is internally consistent that, when Chloe is arrested for refusing to show her unmarked skin, the reader begins to think that she is being written out of the story.
The other luxury that begins to fail the team is that all their alibis, all their moles, and all their impressive technology cannot tell them where to find the GC’s most notorious prisoner (Chloe). The characters do not express amazement and gratitude that they have lasted this long, only frustration that their charmed existence could not last one year longer. (Exercise: list at least ten to fifteen blessings the characters enjoy that are rare in end-of-the-world stories. We will help the reader get started with a list of six: health/medical care, adequate food/water, education, shelter and alternate shelter, reliable transportation, electricity, etc.)
Do we think about how much we like God when times are good, only to doubt when things turn toward the worse? Are we more likely to invite God to share our lives when our blessings are abundant, or are we more likely to turn to God primarily when times are troubled and we need something? How can we be more steady with God in changing circumstances, places, and times?
Discussion topic: The villains slander Chloe’s male relatives by calling them dissolute, arrogant murderers who could not hold a steady job. The villains slander Chloe’s identity by attacking her employment (i.e. she has a job, in addition to the job of homemaker), and by attacking her sexuality and her status as godly wife and mother.
The GC attacks Chloe as a businesswoman and as a homemaker. Instead of Woman as she who brings food from afar, she who opens her hand to the needy (cf. Proverbs 31:14, 20), Chloe is accused of stealing food to extract cruel profit from the starving. (The novel exalts her work by suggesting that it takes four people to do her job. Lionel Whalum inherits the Co-op, with Ming assisting. The unseen characters Leah Rose and Hannah Palemoon also join the staff [page 267]. The villains imply that she steals enough that it would take four people to replace her; that is how she “amassed a fortune.”)
The GC attacks Chloe as a mate and parent. Instead of Woman as giver of life, Chloe is accused of taking the lives of her children. Specifically, she is accused of two abortions, after a live birth, a girl, allegedly dies under suspicious circumstances. (There are two notable inferences. One, Chloe could be portrayed as a promiscuous woman, an unfaithful wife. Two, Chloe could be accused of “gender selection.” That is, since Chloe is not a Shaker, she needs to bear a boy-child before she can call her child “the reincarnation of Jesus.” Therefore, it is implied, Chloe methodically killed her children until she had a boy.)
Additionally, in the series, the term “abortionist” is one of the worst words any character can call any other character. It is so bad that, when new mom Chloe sinks into depression and contemplates taking her life and 14-month-old Kenny’s life to avoid capture (Volume 7, pages 56-60), Tsion talks her out of it by saying that Chloe would be “no better than an abortionist.” (As we see in Volume 11, Chloe certainly has reversed her position!)
Given that Rayford is the one with a decade-long “past” as an unfaithful husband—for all we know, the “dumped” (her word) Hattie Durham may have told the GC all about it—why is Chloe the one being portrayed as promiscuous? Given that Chloe dies to protect her child, why is Chloe the one being portrayed as a bad parent? Why do you think the novel includes this exchange?
Discussion topic: Reread Chloe and Albie’s memorial service. Some readers find Tsion’s remarks too generic. (Chloe’s label of Good Student, and Albie’s label as Hard Worker, could as easily summarize a teacher’s favorite second-graders.) Other readers find the service tastefully reserved, noting that it would be inappropriate to be too intimate with a million people watching. Write or tell your own memorial service for the characters; alternately, let a family member (Rayford, Buck, Kenny) add remarks to the service.
Discussion topic: Chloe Steele Williams eats supper at 7 P.M. and is captured at about 4 A.M. She is confined for approximately 55 hours. (In forward chronology, Chloe is captured at about 4 A.M. of Day 1 and dies approximately 11 A.M. of Day 3.)
Chloe goes 64 hours between supper with her earthly family and the feast of the Lamb with her heavenly family, whilst lightly snacking along the way. (In forward chronology, Chloe eats supper at home at 7 P.M. She eats an energy bar two midnights later. She drinks half a chocolate milkshake at 4 A.M., or four hours later. She eats lunch with Jock at noon, or eight hours later. She dies 23 hours after lunch with Jock. In reverse chronology, if Chloe dies at 11 A.M., it has been 23 hours since she ate lunch with Jock, 31 hours since the chocolate milkshake, 35 hours since the energy bar, and 64 hours since Chloe ate supper at home.) The food situation fascinates critics, some of whom have been less than kind. Your host would suggest that both Chloe’s situation, and the critics’ response to it, may be influenced by the school of “he jests at scars who never felt a wound.”
It once was the custom of able-bodied Christians to fast between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Some years past, your host decided to do this. Between bedtime on Holy Thursday to breakfast at church on Easter Sunday, your host was aiming for 58 ½ hours. Unfortunately, your host had certain experiences that made it seem prudent to take a bowl of chicken noodle soup at the 54 ½ hour mark, and it was cold by the time your host forced down the last of it. No doubt this had something to do with your host indulging in a lot of unnecessarily vainglorious exercise during that time. (You know how sometimes humans do things just to prove that they can?) Verily, verily, those who do it the wrong way for the wrong reasons have their reward. But it may give your host an insight into Chloe’s situation that those who have never tried it might not have. And perhaps it is appropriate that when your host reviewed this novel (Volume 11), it was again the season of Lent. (Edit: in 2016, it’s still almost Lent.)
Experience would suggest that Chloe should not feel “light-headed” from hunger only 14 hours from her previous meal (supper at 7 P.M.; page 85), or “weak” from hunger only 23 hours from her previous meal (lunch with Jock; page 255), unless she has a pre-existing health condition, or, alternately, has been indulging in the aforementioned unnecessary strenuous exercise. If the Gentle Browser has ever been punished for a childhood mischief by being sent to bed without any supper, you have already surpassed Chloe’s first missed meal in prison. If the Gentle Browser also missed breakfast because you overslept and had to run for the school bus, you have already surpassed Chloe’s second missed meal in prison. If the Gentle Browser missed school lunch because you had no time to pack a lunch and no money to purchase it, you have already surpassed Chloe’s third missed meal in prison. (It isn’t really about beating Chloe.)
Chloe has been consuming just enough calories to keep her ketones intrigued. Chloe does well to be hungry, but she should not be debilitated. She would have passed through headaches and nausea first, before going straight to woozy spells and physical weakness. (It isn’t really about Chloe’s symptoms.)
Chloe has a job feeding millions of people (Volume 5, page 346). Millions of people (Volume 11, page 264). From the nonexistent food shortages in Volume 1—when grocery stores were never looted, and were unaffected by the loss of truckers and trains hauling food—up through the characters literally living underground in bunkers in Volume 11, the believers eat very well. (Readers have suggested that this is the authors’ attempt to incorporate Rev. 6:6 into the storyline. Oil and wine were luxury items, or, alternately, necessities that people could not afford.) Chloe has not clung to life on a dying planet, only to weep with joy at the sight of a farmer’s stocked cellar (cf. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). Chloe has not strip-mined a grocery store on a dying planet so that her family can select one survivor and give that person the bulk of the family’s food (cf. Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It). Chloe has not mourned her friend “Megan”—who died of starvation—only to discover that Megan’s hero, “Reverend Marshall,” has always had enough to eat (Pfeffer). Chloe has not been so starving as to heat mud on a stove and tell her belly it is soup (cf. Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth). (It isn’t really about whether Chloe is in the right novel.)
Food is one of the great cultural identifiers. What one eats, and with whom one eats, defines who is in the group, and who is outside the group. But the fact that it is easily categorized does not make it tamed. If we cannot even ascertain whether Megan (Life As We Knew It) died of natural causes, misguided hero worship, holy asceticism, or anorexia, then the topic of whether Chloe Steele Williams is fasting or merely dieting is not a fair question. It may not even be a relevant question. (Only a Westerner could call liquid nourishment a “juice fast.” Jesus did not spend forty days and forty nights in the wilderness partaking of energy bars, or even zero-calorie diet colas. To be fair, there are those who would say that what your host did and does, does not qualify as fasting because your host drinks water.)
Chloe has fed her millions and herself, yet this is the character that the villains taunt with food. These same villains have enough to eat, too much in fact (cf. Florence and Jock). The characters in Petra have all the manna they can eat … which they devour in fifteen, ten, or five minutes and hasten back to work (page 136), thus losing the social connections nurtured by sharing meals. (Heavenly manna downgraded to fast-food: discuss.)
In contrast, the unnamed Mrs. Shivte (pages 348-9) is forced to choose between taking the mark to buy food for her family, or preserving her soul but being cursed by her hungry family—a choice that it was Chloe’s good fortune never to make. We see Chloe struggling “to keep her sanity” (page 132) before she has completed her first 24 hours in custody. Mrs. Shivte must endure the methodical harassment of her family, for weeks, or months, or years. And that was before she accepted Jesus and was harassed by her family for that as well. (When your host first posted this story in a public forum, a reader zinged back: “Band name alert: ‘Mama and the Shiftless Shivtes.’”) In all that time, it never occurred to her husband or grown sons to sell their own souls for food. They still wanted to sell Mom’s soul for food. Mom was not “Mom” anymore. She became disposable. If that is how the “good guys” behave, should we be astonished that the villains assume Chloe will respond the same way? Why wouldn’t she sell her soul to Hell for a Big Boy Breakfast Bar®? This novel has not one but two examples of mothers being told that that is what a good woman, a good mommy, would do.
No, the question is not about fasting, or dieting, or dying without food, or dying with food. It is about food as a blessing, and whether we make right use of that blessing. It is about the fact that when the believers meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper but their own. It is about food being used to tempt the characters into sin. It is about characters coping, or failing to cope, with that temptation. To what extent do the characters make food into an idol? To what extent do they make the denial of food into an idol? To what extent do we make food, and/or the denial of food, into an idol?
Discussion topic: Next, we consider what else the villains were not doing during the time they were not feeding Chloe. The authors do surprisingly little with the noise-pollution and sleep-deprivation angles. Chloe should have deteriorated from sleep deprivation fairly quickly. (Perhaps her four-hour nap in San Diego, her drugged sleep during transport, and her “dozing” in Joliet were more restorative than one would think.)
Chloe has been captured by the lackeys of Nicolae Carpathia, a character who repeatedly claims he wants to finish the job the Nazis started (pages 223, 297). If Chloe had been captured by people who truly grasped what that meant, she would have to worry about whether she would be sorted into the line for the Mengele tour or the line for the non-Mengele tour. Chloe herself testifies about Jews being “wasted, scarred, starved, beaten” (pages 25, 243) and scheduled to die slow and die hard. (Alternately, if she had been captured by a certain Axis power from the east, then Chloe, as a “woman,” might be put to work “comforting” the soldiers, in a place and time where Florence’s joke about “dates” was no joke.)
Chloe is not captured by a competent villain like Double-M, who wastes no time or energy with troublemakers. (Chloe’s smartest foe is probably Florence, the only one who knew how to cultivate her trust.)
Chloe is left unmolested for all but approximately four hours of her 55 hours in custody. (We can suggest one hour for booking, and for arguing with Florence, Nigel, and the custodian. One hour for Jock tempting her with his breakfast, and for loading her into the hearse. One hour in Joliet: about 15 minutes for the truth serum, with the rest of the time spent arguing with Jess, the night guard, and the reporters. Finally, Chloe spends one hour in the sun before it is her turn at the machine.) Chloe acquires bruises—but, except for the time she fell out of bed, all her bruises are reactionary. (It is debatable whether one could call them avoidable.) She is bruised primarily when she resists arrest, booking, transfer, and so forth. Jock backhands her, and that was a cheap shot, but even that was Jock’s reaction to his own mishandling of the transfer. No one hits Chloe to intimidate her, to obtain information from her, or even to pass the time.
Whatever the reason, Chloe, rich, white, and healthy, avoids the worst calamities. (Indeed, Chloe is captured in part because of a lack of calamities. In most end-of-the-world novels, breathable air and safe water are the first essentials to go, because of the recycling action of weather. If the air had not been crisp and sweet [page 43]—if it had been appropriately filthy—Chloe would not have been so tempted to sneak outside and breathe it.) Again, we do not idly dismiss her experiences; we weigh them, to determine their substance. Chloe certainly is not having fun here, but neither are her captors—a significant omission.
Chloe even avoids abuse-by-proxy. The villains threaten to take her son. Had they captured Kenny, they could have hurt him in violent and creative ways, to coerce information from Chloe that she would not otherwise have volunteered. As we know, the villains do not capture him. However, they do not lie to Chloe and claim they captured him, and, as critics note, everyone seems to just forget the whole idea. (In light of these threats, what do you think about Chloe’s comment to Ming Toy that family affairs are nobody’s business? Discuss.)
Finally, Chloe does not die hard, like Agatha with her bowl, or Catherine with her wheel. Chloe dies on a guillotine, a device invented by an eponymous doctor to be as painless as possible. (It should be noted that Rev. 20:4 does not use the word “guillotine.”) Chloe dies like the old aristocrats, whereas people who happen to be of a different race and status routinely are denied even this much.
None of this is to say that Chloe ought to suffer. It is to gently inquire why she was spared the worst of it. What is special about Chloe, that she lives well and dies well, whereas others equally beloved of God live and die hard? If Chloe is under divine protection, we are not told of it. An alternate conclusion is that she is under the authors’ protection, even if the effect is to make her look delicate, sheltered, out of touch. (Our dread for Chloe is influenced in part by the dread voiced by her family, who do not know what is happening to her. They think they can endure her death, but they cannot bear to wonder if she is suffering. See pages 74, 185.) The audience and the writers have come to care for Chloe. She is like their daughter. But the desire to spare her may do a disservice to the real star of the story, which is (or ought to be) God, made flesh in Jesus Christ. It may do the audience a disservice as well, by making promises it cannot keep, promises that may or may not be Biblical.
The Bible repeatedly reminds us that God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34-5, Rom. 2:11, Col. 3:25; I Pet. 1:17). To what extent does the novel make status and privilege into an idol? To what extent do we make status and privilege into an idol?
Discussion group project (optional): If there are enough participants in your book club or church study group, re-write, narrate, or speculate on the first half of the novel as it would unfold if the villains had captured one or more Jewish characters. (Examples: Tsion, Chaim, Naomi, Eleazar, Mrs. Shivte.) Chapters may include, but are not limited to: how the character is captured; how the family responds; rescue attempts; when and why rescue attempts might cease; what accusations the villains advertise against the character; how the believers’ Internet statement describes and defends the character; whether the character is missed enough or important enough to get an Internet statement; how the character is treated by the villains; how the character dies; and who speaks at the memorial service and what the service might be like.
Discussion topic: There is one more idol we must challenge before we let the beloved dead rest. That idol is survival. Not “perseverance.” Survival.
In McCarthy’s The Road, a man tells his little son, “I am your father. My job is to protect you. I was appointed by God to do this. I will kill anyone who touches you.” They are “the good guys,” and good guys “carry the fire.” (In Lord of the Rings, the angel Gandalf calls the Holy Spirit “the secret fire.”) The man is torn between his dead wife’s taunt to “curse God and die” (cf. Job 2:9) and his dread of being tempted to kill the child rather than leave him orphaned in this unspeakable place (cf. Chloe Steele Williams in L.B. Volume 7). The man’s response is to make an idol out of survival. He rebukes the child’s impulse to share their food with strangers. In time, the boy—not much older than Kenny Bruce—begs his papa to tell him no more bedtime stories. They make his heart sad because they are not true. The man says that “stories don’t have to be true. They’re just stories.” The little boy shakes his head. “In those old stories, we’re always helping people. We don’t help people.” (Significantly, the only character they help is the only character who receives a name, prompting readers’ speculation as to whether Ely is actually human, and whether he has come to test them.)
In Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, the narrator Miranda thinks that her friend died a bad death. Megan was oblivious to her mother’s need for her to live, a need that may outrank Megan’s private preferences. In time, Miranda faces her last days of starvation. She decides to walk “to get the mail” until she dies. She reasons that the cases are not parallel. If she stays, her little brother (the designated survivor) would be tempted to give her his food, in a futile attempt to keep her alive a few more days. This could cost him his life, and none of them would survive. Miranda realizes that there is nothing she can do to save her life. She can only act to save her brother’s life, by removing the temptation. Miranda leave home not to break her brother’s spirit, but to protect it. And her willingness to lay down her life for her loved ones is what ends up saving them all. (Readers’ tastes vary as to the appropriateness of the happy ending.)
In the Twilight Zone episode, “Nothing in the Dark,” an elderly woman thinks she can discern the spirits, one in particular. She barricades herself in her home to shut out Mister Death. One day, Death (played by a young Robert Redford) does get in. He does not disrespect her determination to live. It is that very strength which has kept her alive. Instead, he gently observes that, in her obsession to stay alive, she has forgotten how to truly live. She goes nowhere, she does nothing, she loves no one. She does not even see the sun, and she used to love it so much. Wanda replies that Mister Death does not look more attractive to her merely because he has prettied himself and speaks to her “nicely” and with respect. She does not want to die. Mister Death points her toward her motionless body. She was so preoccupied with him that she had not missed it yet. Death admits that he tricked her by appealing to her compassion. It was the one part of her spirit that was stronger than her desperation. Her willingness to risk her life to save another life becomes a good death, bespeaking a good afterlife. He takes her hand and welcomes her into her beloved sunlight.
In L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, a depressed spinster, living on the charity of relatives, learns that she has a fatal heart condition. Valancy discovers that she who has been afraid of everything in life, is not afraid of death. She resents death. She perceives how unfair it is that she must die when she has never truly lived. Therefore she decides to live like she is dying … which, for a character in the 1910s, includes such unorthodox activities as bobbing her hair, reading a book on Sunday, asking the love of her life to marry her, and getting her first job. After a few months of wedded bliss, Valancy learns from her doctor that she is the victim of a medical mix-up. Another patient with a similar name had the disease; Valancy’s symptoms being caused by her depression, she can consider herself cured. Crushed, she concludes that the proper thing to do is to abandon her husband and grovel to her mother as befits a destitute “fallen woman.” Her husband is aghast at how hastily his wife returns to her old idols and ways. (Valancy replies that this is an interesting observation from a man who has similarly impoverished his spirit by nurturing his idol of Pride.)
To close this volume in this season of Lent, let us consider the following quote. Kass was speaking of biotech, but it challenges other idols (technology, survival, self) as well.
Could life be serious or meaningful without the limit of mortality? Is not the limit on our time the ground of our taking life seriously and living it passionately? To know and to feel that one goes around only once, and that the line is not out of sight, is for many people the necessary spur to the pursuit of something worthwhile. “Teach us to number our days,” says the Psalmist, “that we may get a heart of wisdom.” To number our days is the condition for making them count. Homer’s immortals — Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Athena — for all their eternal beauty and youthfulness, live shallow and rather frivolous lives, their passions only transiently engaged, in first this and then that. They live as spectators of the mortals, who by comparison have depth, aspiration, genuine feeling, and hence a real center in their lives. Mortality makes life matter.
[Finally,] there is the peculiar human beauty of character, virtue, and moral excellence. To be mortal means that it is possible to give one’s life, not only in one moment, say, on the field of battle, but also in the many other ways in which we are able in action to rise above attachment to survival. Through moral courage, endurance, greatness of soul, generosity, devotion to justice—in acts great and small—we rise above our mere creatureliness, spending the precious coinage of the time of our lives for the sake of the noble and the good and the holy. We free ourselves from fear, from bodily pleasures, or from attachments to wealth—all largely connected with survival—and in doing virtuous deeds overcome the weight of our neediness; yet for this nobility, vulnerability and mortality are the necessary conditions …
Confronted with the growing moral challenges posed by biomedical technology, let us resist the siren song of the conquest of age and death. Let us cleave to our ancient wisdom and lift our voices and properly toast L’Chaim, to life beyond our own, to the life of our grandchildren and their grandchildren.
–Leon R. Kass
All these concerns, and many more, have been directed at the Left Behind series by its critics. From Buck’s refusal to witness to Gerald Fitzhugh in Volume 2, up through the present, critics repeatedly cite the characters’ reluctance to witness to outsiders whom the characters consider to be a poor risk. They feed prospective converts as an incentive and a perk, but they do not feed strangers as a form of witness in itself, as Jesus did. The Bible tells us that the souls underneath the altar of God held to their testimony and loved not their lives even unto death. In contrast, some members of the Tribulation Force love their lives so much that they will kill to protect it. In a purportedly Christian novel and series, these are serious charges.
It has been suggested that Chloe’s journey in Volume 11 is, in fact, the authors’ way of incorporating and responding to this criticism. Some of the first words out of Chloe’s mouth are a protest against the believers’ insular lifestyle. They are not doing enough to meet and help nonbelievers, she says. And when she is captured, the idol of survival is ultimately smashed. She refuses to choose the evil mark to keep her body alive. In previous volumes, it was not uncommon for God to rescue the believers from themselves. Under pressure, a character may grow to exhibit a quality that they did not necessarily need to explore when their lives were charmed: their capacity for courage.
Chloe is captured because she made a mistake. Nevertheless, Chloe dies doing what Jesus did: reaching out to the person who died beside Him. Chloe continues her ministry up to the very end, converting six people. Now, compared to superstars like Tsion—who seems to be able to convert thousands of people with one speech—perhaps leading six people, or one penitent thief, into paradise might not seem like much to the world. But to that one person, it is everything in the world.
And then there is everybody else. Buck comments that, after Tsion’s family was killed, it makes sense to Buck that “I know he’d rather have been carrying an Uzi than a Bible” (page 308). As Buck predicted, Tsion decides to learn the art of war to fight in the final battle for Jerusalem. He declares that if the Lord allows it, then no man can stop it (page 307). Tsion never actually states that the Lord blessed it. He assumes that if the Lord does not stop it, this constitutes approval. The novel presents Tsion’s decision as heroic. We see many individuals like that in the Bible. Not all of them are heroes. Tsion will smash the idol of survival by spraying it with his machine gun, “like a garden hose” (page 314). But has he set up another idol in its place? Is Tsion glorifying God, or himself?
Meanwhile, Krystall and Albie never see their deaths coming. Buck and Albie die of tactical mistakes, like Chloe did, but without the chance to redeem that mistake, as Chloe did.
So, rather than asking it time and again in all of the other volumes, we will ask it in this one, where so many characters die so closely together, and where so many other characters hire a plane and escape the whole business. To what extent have the characters made an idol out of bodily survival? To what extent have the characters made an idol out of dying for the cause? To what extent do we make idols of these things? To what extent have the characters overcome their idols? How about us?
Spoilers will appear in a separate post.