Sunday, October 30, 2016

Book Review: Tribulation Force

Title: Tribulation Force

Author: Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins

Jerry Jenkins' web site:

Date: 1996

Publisher: Tyndale House

ISBN: 0-8423-2921-8

Length: 450 pages

Quote: “Buck Williams has witnessed the murderous evil power of Nicolae Carpathia, and Bruce Barnes knows from his study of Scripture that dark days lie ahead…But only Bruce has more than a hint of the terror to come.”

The Left Behind series was an epic in more ways than one. As a series of novels it was an epic-sized work of what can only be called “Christian mythology,” the genre of fiction Christians invent by asking themselves “What if this or that variation on, or addition to, or even misunderstanding of, Christian doctrine were true?”

In the case of Left Behind, it was “What if both the ‘pre-tribulationist’ understanding of Scripture and the ‘Y2K panic’ about civilized life ending at the turn of the millennium were true?” Obviously the Y2K panic was not true; to a considerable extent it was whipped up by computer technicians to motivate people to update their computers. My understanding of the prophetic apostasis is not the familiar version of “The Rapture,” either.

As a publishing phenomenon, the way Left Behind appealed to so many people on so many levels as to become a whole publishing industry in itself was a different sort of epic; something writers will dream of being able to reproduce as long as this world may last.There were almost two dozen big fat novels, counting the prequels, plus forty short paperback spin-offs, and millions of people wanted to read all of them.

Not everybody liked them. They were written fast. They were adventure stories, more about plot than about character development; you knew from the beginning that Rayford Steele was going to embody the steely strength children attribute to their fathers, Buck Williams was going to be the more vulnerable but still heroic character boys identify with themselves, and Chloe Steele was going to be the sweet but strong heroine girls identify with themselves. You knew Buck and Chloe were going to fall in love and, if you were Protestant enough to know where the plot was heading, you regretted that they’d never get to live happily ever after, with children. Jerry Jenkins wrote the storylines for some of the most popular adventure comics of the twentieth century, so you already had a vivid, if two-dimensional, picture of the resolute set of Rayford’s jaw, the swing of Buck’s arms, the perkiness of Chloe’s bosom, and so on. Comics are easy to laugh at, even when the cartoons and stories aren’t particularly funny…and some readers did laugh at the stereotypical quality of the characters. LaHaye and Jenkins had written other stories in which characters developed in more of a realistic way; in Left Behind, although they hadn’t been especially heroic before, the main characters were supernaturally transformed into almost “super” heroes, and at least one really “super” villain, by the force of the apocalyptic adventures they were acting out.

There is in fact an historical precedent for this kind of storytelling, in Christian hagiography. The prospect of being executed, it has been observed, “concentrates the mind.” Many an early Christian who might never have done anything interesting, if not faced with martyrdom, was dragged to a Roman arena for some form of torture that allowed him or her to exhibit epic-quality fortitude. Knowing they had little time to live in any case, they packed wonderful demonstrations into that time.

Tribulation Force was volume two, numbered and published and originally conceived before the three prequel volumes of Babylon Rising, which made it, in a way, volume five of the story. The characters have reconciled themselves to the loss of most of the nice people in their world. They’ve met Nicolae Carpathia, who is still only starting out as a villainous would-be world ruler but will later embody the Evil Principle itself as the super-villain; he’s still trying to act like a nice guy but the Steeles, Bruce, and Buck know he’s not one.

The Left Behind series was meant to be solidly Christian, but never anti-Jewish. Differences between whole-Bible Christians and Messianic Jews are cultural; you are one or the other, but mixed groups meet and worship together.  In Tribulation Force our newly baptized Christian protagonists form alliances with a few newly religious, newly Messianic Jews. One of the “signs and wonders” that make false Jews and Christians think Nicolae is an angel of light, but warn true ones that he’s “the” Antichrist, is his ability to sweep Muslims aside—literally—reclaiming the Dome of the Rock on behalf of his “Global Community.”

There’s no real resolution in these novels. Each one points forward to the next one. The world in which they’re set is ugly, and will get uglier; that’s why all the covers are dark up to the final white-and-gold one.Some of the plot threads in Tribulation Force seem to resolve by the end of the book. Others don’t. One of the main nice characters dies; to preserve some suspense, this review won’t say which one.

Should you buy this book from me? Realistically, I imagine that most of the people who were interested in Left Behind have already read it. If you need Tribulation Force to complete your collection, I have it. If you’ve not already read the whole series and would like to, however, you can and should buy all the Left Behind books as Fair Trade Books. Tim LaHaye no longer has any use for a dollar per book. (Sniffle. I miss him. I knew he was older than the pictures he chose to publish looked, but not how much older; when he e-mailed that he was starting a new speculative fiction series, earlier this year, I thought he was likely to live long enough to finish it.) Jerry Jenkins doesn’t seem to need a dollar either, but he’s active online and probably has a longish list of charities to support by any residual sales of his books.

So if you buy Tribulation Force, it's still a Fair Trade Book. Regular readers know the drill: $5 per copy, $5 per package, at least one more of the full-size novels would fit into the package, add $1 per online payment, and since it's no longer possible to send the $1 per copy to Tim LaHaye we'll send it to Jerry Jenkins or the charity of his choice. Note that this series went into multiple printings; if you care very much which cover design you get, let us know, but currently used copies of all three editions cost the same.