Sunday, May 30, 2010

Desecration: Book 9 in the Left Behind series

You never know what you'll get until you ask. I was in a used bookstore looking for some religious nuttiness to read (and possibly review) and I found the audiobook of The Indwelling, which is Left Behind book 7. I asked at the counter if they had any more of that kind of stuff - I'm dying to get my hands on a cheap copy of Glorious Appearing, where Jesus returns to Earth and starts disintegrating sinners - and was told they had one of the books in the discount bin. Then they went to that bin, pulled it out and handed it to me free of charge!

Sadly, it wasn't Glorious Appearing. It was Desecration (book 9), and it luckily proved to be a fun read.

Desecration, by authors Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, begins the way a good sequel should not - it leaps straight into the action without any regard for readers who haven't been following this thing from the beginning. Fortunately I've seen all three movies (and read the original novel so I had something to go on. I soon got the gist, which is as follows:

The Tribulation Force, led by plucky Buck Williams and Rayford Steele, are trying to help fellow believers stay alive during the reign of the Antichrist. They are also trying to Save as many non-believers as possible before they take the Mark of the Beast and become forever damned to Hell.

The Antichrist, Nicolae Carpathia, has been having an interesting time. Going from UN representative to the ruler of the world in three and a half years (and eight books), he's now risen to the level of deity. And he was assassinated. And rose from the dead three days later, now possessed by Satan. A global dictator, religious leader and divine being all in one, he remains blissfully unaware that his entire life (and death) have been prophesied in the Book of Revelations. You'd think he'd give that a look-see.

The Trib Force dudes certainly have. So much so, in fact, that they know what Nicky's going to do before he does. This time out, they know he's going to desecrate the Temple Mount (hence the title). At the same time the Tribbies are hoping to convince and convert the Remnant (the title of the next book), all the people of Israel who are not loyal to Nick. If they can get them all to Petra, they will be safe all through Armageddon (Book 11), according to the Bible. And in this universe, the Bible is infallibly true. Even the contradictory bits.

Anyway, the story. Buck and his buddies want to make sure the Prophesied events unfold the way they should, even though their source of prophecy is infallible... oh, never mind. Buck and Chaim Rosenwitz (a recent convert to the cause, and the dude who assassinated Carpathia, among other things) are in Jerusalem to help get the Remnant out. God has 'called' Chaim to assume the identity of Micah (which apparently means something) and confront Nicolae to negotiate the terms of his not shooting the Remnant while they are high-tailing it to Petra. God sends a plague of boils onto all who have taken the Mark, putting them all out of action. Chaim, or Micah, says God will lift the boils if the Antichrist lets his people go.

Nicky's not happy about it, but he agrees. Besides, he's got a temple to desecrate, which he does by slaughtering a pig. The same pig he rode into the temple upon. Don't ask. This makes a lot of non-boiled people mad at him; it seems killing a pig in a holy site and then messing around in its blood strikes more than a few as a little nutso. For some reason, their reaction takes Nicky by surprise. For a world-dominating demigod possessed by Satan, he's kind of a dum-dum.

He's not much of a bad guy, either. Nicolae Carpathia never rises above the level of Saturday morning cartoon villain. I mean, he's frickin' Satan, for gosh sakes, and yet he has to ask his staff for a gun every time he wants to kill someone! Dr. Evil has more style.

But I digress. Rayford Steele is just dying to be part of the plot, so Jenkins/LaHaye give him his own mission in Petra. The GC (Global Community) soldiers have arrived at this supposedly safe haven ready to tear it down, but they're all covered in boils and aren't up to destroying and killing anything. Rayford shares half that sentiment - he is not prepared to kill - but blowing stuff up is fair game. He and his buddies fire these high-powered superguns at the GC vehicles and armaments, destroying them but leaving the itchy soldiers alive. This sequence is one of the best in the book, going into detail about how the big guns work, how loud they are, what the recoil is like, and the damage they do. You really get a sense of what firing one would be like for the first time.

Most other parts of the book aren't nearly as interesting. For example, when Chaim makes the transition from scared old man into the authoritative Micah, the reader doesn't even get a peek into his mind. What is it like to be filled with the Holy Spirit, to the point where you have no fear, complete moral certainty, and the ability to paralyze people with your mind? And take a bullet from point blank range and remain completely unharmed? We experience none of it, and are meant to simply witness it the way Buck Williams does.

Back to Rayford. He's in charge of getting the Remnant air-lifted from spots around Jerusalem to Petra using a fleet of helicopters the Tribbies have acquired over the last three years. Before he can do that, however, he has to deal with two GC soldiers who didn't up and run when their vehicles blew up. Those guys kill David, a really important Trib guy I knew nothing about (I haven't read the book where he was introduced, and Desecration assumes I already know him). Those GC soldiers might potentially kill more important but underdeveloped characters, so Rayford shoots them with his supergun. This violates his own no killing rule, and the bang leaves him deaf. More attention is given to his deafness than to his moral anguish. This is the man who, three books earlier, tried to assassinate Nicky Carpathia and felt really bad about said attempt afterwards. Maybe that was even the reason for his thou-shalt-not-kill rule to the other Tribbies. Or maybe it was some line from the Bible. Either way, any moral agonizing over the deaths of those men is glossed over in favour of his ears.

And then, no less an authority than the Archangel Michael appears before him and heals his ears, which pretty much rules out any further moralizing right there. If the Angel of the Lord heals the injury you sustained killing some guys, then it must be okay.

Over to Carpathia. Even though he said he wouldn't attack the Remnant on their way to Petra, he does anyway. You can't even trust the Antichrist these days! And, even though leaving the Remnant alone was a condition of Chaim/Michah/God's for the lifting of the plague of boils, God lifts the plague anyway, leaving the GC troops fully healed and able to carry out the attack! But God's no dum-dum - he has it covered. The bullets from the GC's weapons pass harmlessly through the bodies and vehicles of the Remnants and Tribs, and end up destroying more GC stuff (and people). Oh, and random miraculous earthquakes swallow up the landbound GC, and in one scene an entire squad is gobbled up by the ground just seconds before they could run all the good guys down. With all this divine supernatural intervention, one wonders why the Tribulation Force even bothers to show up.

God also turns every ocean into blood, killing all marine life. I guess the fish were sinners.

The plot is basically over by this point, but Jenkins & LaHaye still have another 150 or so pages left to fill. Chloe, Rayford's daughter & Buck's wife (and Kenny's mom) ventures out of the Tribulation Force's safehouse in Chicago to investigate a flickering light in a distant building. The city's been abandoned and is supposedly irradiated (a cunning ruse to keep the GC away from the safehouse), so Chloe wants to know if there are more people out there. Nobody knows where she's going, so if those people are bad Chloe could be in some real trouble. Luckily they turn out to be Christians eager to join the Tribulation Force. Good for Chloe, bad for the reader. A potential source of suspense is diffused just like that.

Fortunately in Greece some actual bad stuff happens. This Greek character tries to get a couple of teenagers into the hands of the Tributaries, but what was supposed to be a routine operation turns into a trap. Everyone gets killed except for George, the guy who was supposed to get the kids through the airport to safety. Rather than relying on Jesus, George turns to his military training to get through his capture and torture, and his inner dialogue provides for some good reading. No doubt his rescue will become a major plot point in book 10.

Desecration ends on a cliffhanger, the way most books in this series seem to do. Tsion Ben Judah, the Trib Force's rabbi turned evangelist, travels to Petra to address the Remnant, only for Nicky to drop a billion bombs on their heads. Has the Tribulation Force finally met their doom? Or will God, Jesus or Archangel Michael save their butts at the last second, yet again? Book 10 is called The Remnant, so what do you think?

Not all of the Trib's last-second escapes and/or victories rely on supernatural help. They have a few friends in the enemy camp, one of whom (Chang) is a teenage computer wizard. Not only can this kid use the GC network against them while simultaneously covering all of his tracks, he's also managed to bug all of the Antichrist's 'secure' locations. Any time the bad guys get together for a secret talk, Chang and the Tribbles are listening in. How lucky Buck, Rayford et al are to have such a useful person so conveniently placed! There is nothing Chang can't do with a computer, and no way he can be traced. Even when Nicky realizes there is a mole in his organization and takes steps to smoke him out, there is no danger at all that Chang will be caught. Quite the tension killer, is Chang. The only interesting thing about him is that he's got the Mark of the Beast on his noggin. He chose Jesus, but his parents knocked him out cold and had him branded, leading him to wonder if he's damned like the rest of the baddies. It's a legitimate concern, one which even Ben Judah can't figure out. This would have provided some great tension, but Jenkins & LaHaye diffuse it quickly. No good guys go to Hell. At least, not on the page.

And yet, for all of its flaws in plot, storytelling and character development, Desecration was an entertaining read. I wanted to know what would happen next, and never felt bored. Jenkins has a decent style, too; the book isn't hard to read. It's such a shame that Jerry B. Jenkins hasn't used his talent for evil. Imagine what he could accomplish without Tim LaHaye holding his leash.

Morally, this book has a few issues that bother me. Ben-Judah points out that, once a person has taken the Mark (or rejected Christ's advances one time too many), God will harden their hearts to him. In plain English, that means that people who have taken the Mark (some out of loyalty, most to avoid death by guillotine) will never be convinced to accept Jesus. Even if they turn against the AntiChrist, they will not be able to turn to God.

What kind of a whacked up God is that? Well, the same kind of God who would put the whole end-times Tribulation nonsense into effect, I suppose.

Desecration, and indeed the entire Left Behind series, gives a revealing look into the born again/evangelical mindset. And that's about it, really, if you're not a believer. There are better thrillers out there, and they don't rely on divine intervention to stop bullets or swallow army vehicles in miraculous earthquakes. This book is so lame, I feel like going to the Temple Mount to kill a pig.

Likely to Convert - 0
Cover Art - 4
Ability to Hold Interest - 5
Unintentional Hilarity - 6
Level of Disturbing or Offensive Content - 4

Monday, May 24, 2010

And Now... Books!

Tracts are easy to review because they are so small and short, but I like to have some variety now and then. It is, after all, what I've been promising from the beginning. And I'll get around to reviewing some websites eventually.

For now, though, I want to take a look at some Christian-themed books. Or, to put it another way, books that are essentially very big tracts, in that they seem to share the tract goal of converting readers. To that end, I doubt my rating system will have to be changed much. I might substitute Artwork for Cover Art, although one of them has some nifty diagrams.

I've recently come upon some extremely cheap used copies of several Left Behind novels, one of them in audiobook form. I've also found something that rivals Bibleman for whackiness! Stay tuned, everyone; as with the videos, these reviews will take just a little bit longer to produce. I can, however, guarantee my usual reviewing standards. Enjoy!

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Ten Commandments

You'd think a tract called The Ten Commandments would, I don't know, LIST those commandments somewhere in its' pages. But no, you'd be wrong. This offering from Fellowship Tract League chooses instead to explore what the Commandments show. Without actually showing the Commandments.

"There is a lot of confusion about the Ten Commandments," the tract begins. "Many people believe that they must follow the Law so that they can go to heaven, but the Bible does not say that!" Just like this tract doesn't... sorry. "God never intended for us to keep (the Commandments) in an effort to go to heaven." Instead, God gave us the Ten Commandments in order to show us four things, displayed as paragraph titles. "The Commandments show our SIN," they "show our SUFFERING," they "show our STUMBLING," and they "show us the SAVIOUR." And you thought they were all about not coveting your neighbour's ass, huh?

The SIN paragraph says "the Commandments were given to show us that we are sinners." Huh, you say? I believe they mean it like this: God gave Moses the Commandments not to provide guidelines for living, but rather to show us the sins WE'D ALREADY COMMITTED. In other words, when Moses saw the Commandments for the first time, he must have slapped his forehead and said, "So that's what I've been doing wrong all these years!"

Does that make any sense to you? Me neither. Nevertheless, this is the premise the tract author embraces. "All men are under the curse of death in hell for breaking God's Commandments," says the SUFFERING paragraph. The STUMBLING section is broken into two subsections, which tell us the "two things that the Law cannot do." The Commandments can't forgive sin or give righteousness, both of which are prerequisites for a non-hell eternity. "If you think that you can become righteous by following the Commandments, you are replacing Christ's work on the cross with your works." Shame on you!

It almost seems as if the tract author is advocating a life of lawlessness. After all, the Law is only there to show us what we've done wrong. Following the Law is a non-starter; there's no point in keeping the Law if it can't do anything for you! I'm gonna go do some serious ass-coveting as soon as I'm done here.

The SAVIOUR section, as I'm sure you've guessed, tells the reader about Jesus and provides a get-Saved prayer. That, apparently, was God's plan: show people they are sinners by giving Moses the Commandments, then wait a few thousand years to become Jesus and finally give the people something they can do about their sinfulness. Too bad about all those people who died before Jesus came along, Moses included! God does work in mysterious ways, doesn't HE?

Still, I have to give this tract credit for one thing - at least they found a new approach to the Salvation story. Like The Fortune Teller, and unlike I Must Tell You This. And what a bold stand, declaring that the Ten Commandments are essentially useless! Poor Moses would be spinning in his grave, if he weren't burning in hell with Adam, Eve, Abraham, Ruth, Samson, King David, Joseph and his coat, and everyone else who lived before Jesus came along.

And do I even need to point out that this tract makes no attempt at all to prove its claims? No, I didn't think so.

"If you have been trusting the Commandments," the tract says, "you are not saved." Uh huh. And if you trust this tract, you're a dum-dum.

Likely to Convert - 0
Artwork - 5
Ability to Hold Interest - 3
Unintentional Hilarity - 2
Level of Disturbing or Offensive Content - 3

Sunday, May 2, 2010

I Must Tell You This

"I know something so wonderful that I must tell you!"

So begins this lame and predictable effort from the Fellowship Tract League. Gee, what could this wonderful something possibly be?

"Let me emphasize that this message is absolutely true," continues the uncredited author, "because God said it." Uh huh. Before the reader can wonder if the author actually spoke to the Almighty, said author reveals that the message "is an exact quotation from God's word, the Holy Bible." Too bad. Reading that a tract writer actually heard the voice of God would have at least been something new and different.

The message is John 3:16, the bit about God lovething the world so much he gaveth his only begotteneth Son, so that people who believeth in him should not perisheth but have everlasting life. Eth. "Did you ever hear such wonderful words?"

Yeah, I've heard them many times before, but I don't consider them particularly wonderful. Or relevant to my life. When it comes to wonderful words, I think of the words my wife said when I asked her to marry me ("Of course!"). I also think of phrases like: "We'd like to publish your book," or "There's a sale on at Toys R Us!" or "No, I can't finish my steak, would you like the rest of it?"

But no, I don't think it is wonderful that a deity sacrificed its only child so that the creatures it created won't have to burn for eternity in a fiery realm the deity also created, all because of some damned apple. Come on, how wonderful can it be that 'God' created a way out of the trap HE put us in?

To a Believer, the words of John 3:16 must be brilliant indeed. I do not think they are enough to encourage conversion from non-believers, who are clearly the intended audience for this tract. I doubt they'll make it past the second paragraph.

"Your time on earth is short, but your decision for Christ lasts for eternity." Maybe so, but you'll have to do better than this tract, League, if you want them to decide in your deity's favour.

Likely to Convert - 0
Artwork - 0
Ability to Hold Interest - 1
Unintentional Hilarity - 1
Level of Disturbing or Offensive Content - 1

The Fortune Teller

Here's a wacky and offbeat tale from Moments With The Book, yet another tract publisher. I found this and other MWTB tracts in a Christian bookstore on Finch, where you can buy batches of tracts to hand out anywhere to the Unsaved.

I have to give Moments With The Book credit for this one - finally, someone (the author is credited as W. L.) has found a new and different way to tell the same old story.

Five guys on a train are playing cards, and they ask a friend of WL's to join them. He declines, but he does offer to tell them their fortunes with the five of spades. He warns them that "it may not be very flattering," but the five card players insist that he go on. WL's friend (let's call him Smug Bastard) asks them for a Bible, but the card players don't have one. "You had one once," Smug Bastard says, "and if you had followed its precepts you would not be what you are today." He then produces his own Bible, suggesting he only asked them for one to gain a morally superior position. You see why I'm calling him Smug Bastard?

Smug tells them the five spades on the card represent their eyes, mouth and knees, then he reads Revelation 1:7 where Jesus comeths with clouds "and every eye shall see him." "The eyes are your eyes," Smug says, "which will see Him when you stand before Him to be judged. That is the future of your eyes." Smug Bastard reads another bit of scripture at them, foretelling "that your knees will bow to Jesus, and your tongue will confess that He is Lord of all."

But Smug ain't done, not by a longshot. He has another reading of the card for their listening pleasure. "These five spades," he tells them, "represent five actual spades that may, before long, dig the graves of you five sinners." Wait! There's more. "Then your souls will be in hell crying in thirst for even a single drop of water." Smug goes on to give them the Salvation pitch, assuring them that "I was no doubt worse than you all, and you will escape this terrible fortune if you will do what I did." Immediately after his pitch "the train then stopped, and the five rushed out as if the car was on fire." Can't say I blame them!

I really don't believe this story actually happened. For one thing, WL adds details about the five card players' thoughts that are suspect at best. When Smug Bastard tells them he used to know how to play cards a long time ago, WL writes: "Thinking they could win his money, they continued to coax him..." How did WL, or even Smug Bastard, know what they were thinking? That's guesswork, but WL includes it as if it were fact.

Smug Bastard also makes a lot of judgment calls on the five men. He calls them sinners to their faces, and assumes that they must be so because they don't have a Bible on them. If they had, "you would not be what you are today." Would anyone really make such comments to total strangers? Well, yes, if they were smug bastards.

The story ends ten years later, with one of the five card players catching up with Smug Bastard and wishing him a good evening. "It is a good evening," Smug replies, "if all your sins are forgiven." What a dick. The card guy, let's call him Twerp McStupid, tells Smug "that three spades had already dug their graves, and that the fourth man was anxious to be saved from the fortune he had been given." Twerp had already found Salvation; by a contrived bit of happenstance, his mother had died at around the same time as the fortune telling on the train. Her last words to the junior McStupid were, "Behold He cometh with coulds; and every eye shall see him." Exactly what Smug Bastard told Twerp on the train! Coinkidink? Twerp McStupid didn't think so. Those words followed him everywhere, even though he "tried to drink them away," until one final time that was "more than I could stand."

I know how you feel, Twerp. This tract was almost more than I could stand, too! Like I said, WL provides a new and fresh take on the Jesus message, and for that I say, kudos. However, the intolerable smugness of Smug Bastard wipes those kudos away. Why can't we have a tract in which the Believer doesn't judge people, and is actually open to other points of view?

I guess such a thing just isn't in the cards.

Likely to Convert - 3
Artwork - 2
Ability to Hold Interest - 4
Unintentional Hilarity - 4
Level of Disturbing or Offensive Content - 3