Book Review:

The Left Behind series

By Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins. Tyndale House Publishing, $14.99 each

Nicolae Carpathia, the man who turned the United Nations into a one-world government with himself as dictator, has just decided on genocide. In his palace in New Babylon, capital of the world, Carpathia -- alias the Antichrist -- barks instructions to his top aide. "I will sanction, condone, support, and reward the death of any Jew anywhere in the world," he says. "Imprison them. Torture them. Humiliate them. Shame them. Blaspheme their god. Plunder everything they own. Nothing is more important." The aide rushes to obey, not knowing that he's fulfilling one more divine prophecy about the final days of history before the Second Coming.

But as readers of this scene in The Remnant, the Rev. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' latest novel, soon learn, many Jews will survive the new Holocaust by becoming born-again Christians. As a rabbi-turned-pastor explains later in the book, Jews need to make up for the "national sin" of rejecting Jesus. Their choice in the last days therefore comes down to an old one: convert or die.

Such classic religious intolerance might matter less if The Remnant hadn't levitated to the top of The New York Times bestseller list immediately after publication in July (with an initial print run reported at 2.75 million copies), or if the previous nine installments of LaHaye and Jenkins' Left Behind series of thrillers hadn't already sold 33 million copies since they first appeared in 1995. Literary quality doesn't explain Left Behind's popularity; the writing makes Robert Ludlum look like William Shakespeare. Rather, the books sell because they base fiction on fundamentalist theology, and they've succeeded in spreading that theology far beyond its original audience.

Nor is contempt for Judaism the books' only disturbing message. They promote conspiracy theories; they demonize proponents of arms control, ecumenicalism, abortion rights and everyone else disliked by the Christian right; and they justify assassination as a political tool. Their anti-Jewishness is exceeded by their anti-Catholicism. Most basically, they reject the very idea of open, democratic debate. In the world of Left Behind, there exists a single truth, based on a purportedly literal reading of Scripture; anyone who disagrees with that truth is deceived or evil.

Jenkins, a prolific ghostwriter, does the actual writing. LaHaye provides the ideas, the outline of apocalypse. That is reason enough to pay attention. For even if the back-of-the-book bio says nothing of his career as American culture warrior, LaHaye has served as a prominent comrade-in-arms of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Along with Falwell, LaHaye was a board member at the time of the Moral Majority's 1979 founding. He created the mid-1980s American Coalition for Traditional Values, which got out the vote for the religious right and played a key role in Ronald Reagan's re-election. In 1987 he served briefly as co-chairman of Republican Jack Kemp's presidential campaign, resigning after The Baltimore Sun revealed that he'd labeled Catholicism "a false religion" in his writing.

But the Left Behind series may be LaHaye's most successful effort yet to spread his ideas. Yet given the sales, the books have received remarkably little notice in bastions of mainstream American culture. When Assassins, book six in the series, was perched high on The New York Times bestseller list, top staffers at a major New York publishing house told me they'd never heard of it. Scholars of American religion admit to not having opened the Left Behind books. Media coverage remained sparse until a recent Time magazine cover story on The Remnant. Bizarrely, though, that report opined that "the Left Behind books for the most part avoid overtly conservative political statements." Surely, no elephant in this living room.

In fact, the series is intensely political. Read critically, it provides a window on how theology can drive right-wing activism -- sometimes in bizarre ways, as when vocal supporters of Israel look forward to the conversion or death of the Jews. Read uncritically, the Left Behind books are giving millions of people an interpretive paradigm in which extreme views seem sensible. Propaganda in the guise of fiction, they demand our attention. And to make sense of the politics, we must look at the theology.

Left Behind, the first book in the series, opens in midair, as befits airport fiction. While Captain Rayford Steele pilots his Boeing 747 over the Atlantic, his mind strays to a flight attendant and his plans to seduce her. He has reason: His wife has become a religious zealot from listening to Christian radio. But when Rayford strolls back into the cabin with lust in his heart, the terrified attendant tells him that dozens of passengers have vanished -- their clothes left behind on their seats -- in a single moment. Worldwide, we soon read, millions are gone, including all young children, and fetuses out of wombs. Pilots have vanished from cockpits, their planes crashing; drivers have disappeared from behind their wheels, strewing highways with piled-up cars. Among the missing are Rayford's wife and young son.

Those who remain are clueless in trying to explain the disaster. But Rayford knows the truth, thanks to his wife's warnings, and so do many readers. The disappearance is a stock scene, described in countless books, sermons and even cartoons for the self-defined "Bible-believing" audience: The "Rapture" has taken place, Jesus has returned, and sincere believers and innocent babes have been physically lifted to heaven to meet him. Now those left behind will face the "Tribulation": seven years in which the Antichrist rules earth and all the cryptic predictions of plagues, wars and disasters in the New Testament's Book of Revelation come true, culminating in Armageddon and the establishment of God's kingdom.

The "Rapture of the Church" is a phrase popularized by John Darby, a 19th-century British preacher. It's a key element of a theology known by the unwieldy name of dispensational premillennialism, which builds a complex scaffolding of interpretation around the Bible yet claims to be nothing but the simple intent of Scripture. Today, dispensational premillennialism pervades evangelical Christianity. And between one-fifth and one-quarter of all Americans are evangelicals, researchers of religion report.

A bit of background: "Millennialism" refers to the belief that history as we know it will end, to be followed by the establishment of a divine kingdom. The term is based on the Book of Revelation, which describes the godly era as lasting 1,000 years. Millennialism is intrinsically radical: It asserts that our world is flawed and must be utterly reconstructed. In its acute form, it says that the existing order must be razed by cataclysm before the new order can be built -- and that the cataclysm is near. That radicalism is one reason religious establishments normally oppose millennialism. Another is that every millennial movement has brought bitter disappointment: History refuses to end. Millennialism is a form of public manic depression, so profoundly embarrassing to religion that established faiths try to repress the very memory of outbursts. Yet millennialism was the fevered spirit of 17th-century British Puritanism, and has been an essential part of American religion since the Mayflower. "America," states historian Richard Landes, head of Boston University's Center for Millennial Studies, "was born in an apocalyptic stew."

Premillennialists insist that the Second Coming will take place before the 1,000-year era, so Jesus can rule during that period. Darby added a further element. Calculating from obtuse verses in the Book of Daniel, he said history should have ended in Jesus' time -- if only the Jews had accepted him as messiah. Because they didn't, God began a new era, or dispensation: the Church Age, an immense parenthetical clause between the First Coming and the Second. The Church Age could end anytime with the Rapture, so believers need to remain perpetually worthy of being transported heavenward. But Darby also taught that before the end, God would fulfill his promises to the Jews: to return them to their land and to rebuild their temple. Dispensationalism preserved the view of Jews as lost in error, while making them stars of the drama that brings about the end of an evil world.

Darby's doctrine spread among conservative American Protestants. The establishment of Israel and its victory in the 1967 Six Day War provided an immense boost. So did the late 20th century's upheavals and the weakening of traditional authority and mores. In 1970, an ex-tugboat captain and campus preacher named Hal Lindsey published a popularization of dispensationalism called The Late Great Planet Earth, which suggested that the Rapture would come in 1988, 40 years after Israel's founding. Current events were leading to the Antichrist's one-world government, Lindsey asserted, and nuclear weapons were essential to fulfilling prophecies of the end. As dissident evangelical theologian Darrell J. Fasching argues in an incisive rebuttal (The Coming of the Millennium), Lindsey virtually made it an obligation for Christians to welcome nuclear conflagration.

Planet Earth became the top nonfiction bestseller of the 1970s. The results showed in the following decade, says University of Southern California communications professor Stephen O'Leary, an expert on how apocalyptic ideas are presented in the mass media. The book, O'Leary asserts, was "both a harbinger and helped to create" the religious right of the 1980s. As O'Leary shows in his Arguing the Apocalypse, the doomsday themes of the Christian right suffused Reagan's rhetoric.

The first Left Behind book, appearing a quarter-century after Planet Earth, did its predecessor one better as a popularization. Instead of arguing their case, LaHaye and Jenkins present a story: This is what the Tribulation will look like if it begins now, in a world of jumbo jets and the Internet. A total of 12 novels are planned, with Jesus appearing in the last one to inaugurate the millennial kingdom. In the meantime, their hero, Rayford Steele, belatedly recognizes the truth, bands together with others who have done the same and leads "Tribulation saints" in battling evil.

The plot is driven mostly by the series of disasters borrowed from Revelation, with that book's symbolic poetry read as if it were a meteorology text, each horseman, trumpet and vial forecasting a specific disaster. It's the literary equivalent of interpreting William Blake's "The Tyger" by describing the precise size of the anvil and hammer. LaHaye and Jenkins work sermons into the story to explain all this, but these are short intervals between long chase scenes in which the faithful drive souped-up cars or fly jets while shooting large-caliber guns and engaging in atrocious dialogue on satellite phones. The heroes also get divine help in their escapes -- as in The Remnant, when four saints hop into a plane to flee the Antichrist's men and find the archangel Michael in the pilot's seat.

That formula helped the series to leap from religious bookshops to mainstream stores, where it's reached an audience beyond evangelicals; members of mainstream denominations are reading it, says Brenda Brasher, author of Give Me That Online Religion and an expert on American fundamentalism.

But fiction is more than a marketing technique. The medium matches the message. The unstated principle of millennialism is that history itself is one long narrative. It has a beginning and a clear central conflict, and it's moving toward an inevitable denouement that's known to the author if not the characters. There, the plot will be resolved, the antagonist will get his comeuppance and the heroes will receive their deserved recognition. Life's seemingly random events are all clues pointing to the outcome for those with the eyes to see. In his or her own conception, the millennial believer is the story's Sherlock Holmes, aware of where the plot leads while others aren't. Despite the story's vast sweep, millennialists assume the last chapter has begun. The purpose of the Left Behind books is to imagine how that last chapter will look.

Still, the puzzling question of readership remains: Why should born-again readers identify with the heroes? The books' saints failed to get the message until the Rapture, while today's believers disappear in the first pages. The answer is that in the guise of describing the last days, the books are portraying our days -- but as conservative Christian readers would like them to be, without agonizing cognitive dissonance between belief and the real world. The Antichrist operates openly, rather than in secret, and both the persecution and heroism of born-again Christians is obvious. Angels appear. Jews recognize that Jesus is the messiah. In The Remnant, a million converted Jews who gather in a desert refuge live on manna and water from a supernatural spring, proving that the supernatural events of the Bible also took place literally. And if the books offer a guide for our times, the political agenda they lay out is meant to be followed.

The politics begin with conspiracy: Early in the first book, a source in London tells a journalist that "a secret group of international money men" meets in a French chalet and controls global economic developments. The reporter dismisses the idea -- until the source is murdered, followed by the detective who investigates the killing.

Then the conspirators, aiming to create a single world currency, pull strings to have Nicolae Carpathia appointed UN secretary-general. Doubters of conspiracy theory have been proven wrong, and readers can deduce that the cabal of bankers is already using economic unions and shared currencies to subjugate once-free countries. The conspiracy is demonic, for it will crown the Antichrist -- using the United Nations as its tool.

Belief in an evil conspiracy isn't incidental. Millennialists, to use historian Landes' apt phrase, are "semiotically aroused": Everything has meaning and everything fits. The world is a novel in which every detail is part of the plot -- precisely the perspective of the conspiracy theorist, who ties every headline to shadowy rogues. The conspiracy's existence shows that one villain is behind every crime in the detective story that is human history.

Conspiracy theories have a particular allure for the religious right, notes Chip Berlet, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America, because they project a Manichaean perspective: Any dispute is between good and evil. "The Enlightenment tradition rejects the Manichaean worldview. It says we can struggle to find the truth through public debate," Berlet explains. Religious rightists, he adds, "reject the Enlightenment. For them, truth is in a book from God that has just one meaning." Everyone who disputes that truth is serving evil. In years of researching the right, Berlet says he's regularly run into an "apocalyptic paradigm" that includes demonizing opponents and linking them to conspiracies. Examples include Pat Robertson's 1991 book The New World Order, with its infamous tie between Freemasons, Jewish bankers and Bolshevism -- and LaHaye's own writings.

By book two of the Left Behind series, Tribulation Force, Carpathia is transforming himself into world dictator. "I want peace. I want global disarmament," he declares. Obediently, nations destroy most of their weapons and give the rest to the United Nations, renamed the Global Community. By implication, every form of international cooperation, from arms control to UN peacekeeping forces, hints at the Antichrist's machinations.

But disarmament has its foe: the American militia movement. In Tribulation Force, the militias gather heavy weaponry, then launch a hopeless rebellion against the Antichrist. Here LaHaye is engaged in a polemic within the radical right. The story, as Berlet comments, "tells us that the militia movement's intent is good, but they don't understand the real dynamic. They recognize that the true traitors are the government. But they don't have the shield of faith." Guns are great, but the real heroes have Jesus, too.

Carpathia's program also includes "proper legislation regarding abortion," which is of a piece with "reduction of expensive care for the defective and handicapped." The pro-choice position, there- fore, isn't just wrong -- it's diabolical.

Indeed, the underlying theme is that anyone who opposes the authors' views is doing the devil's work. That includes supporters of interfaith dialogue. In a parody of ecumenism, leaders of the world's religions join to create the "Enigma Babylon One World Faith," sponsored by the Antichrist. Its creed asserts "the basic goodness of humanity," in contrast to human sinfulness. To show their view of theological feminism, the authors make the evil religion's second-highest cleric a woman who speaks of "the great one-gender deity."

But the new faith's central pillar is the Catholic Church. The Antichrist designates a Catholic archbishop as the global "Supreme Pope." Catholicism is not just a "false religion," but the devil's handmaiden -- or, in apocalyptic jargon, the "whore of Babylon." Not that prostitution helps: In the second half of the series, Carpathia discards the papacy and orders the world to worship his own image, which he installs in the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem.

That, too, is a stock scene in dispensational texts: Based on an interpretation of the Book of Daniel, dispensationalists say the Antichrist must desecrate the Temple halfway through the tribulation. That requires a temple. "There remains but one more event to completely set the stage for Israel's part in the last great act of her historical drama," Lindsey enthusiastically wrote in Planet Earth, soon after the Israeli conquest of Jerusalem's Old City. "That is to rebuild the ancient Temple."

The expectation is a key element in the Christian right's vocal support for Israel. Dispensationalists regard the creation of Israel as proof of their correct reading of prophecy, and they look forward to Jews acting out the remainder of the millennial novel. Rather than people, Jews are figures in a Christian myth -- a point inadvertently underlined in The Remnant when Carpathia's forces attack the desert refuge set up by the books' heroes for converted Jews. "We could lose four people, not to mention all the Israelis we promised to protect," Rayford Steele's daughter comments. Much of the series takes place in Israel, but the country's geography is entirely a product of the authors' imagination. So is the central Jewish character, Tsion Ben-Judah, a rabbi who announces that a three-year study has led him to recognize Jesus as messiah, and who immediately begins speaking like a fundamentalist preacher.

Droves of other Jews also convert. More are slaughtered, though the job of murdering them is conveniently displaced to the Antichrist. Here, too, LaHaye has plenty of company. Televangelist Jack Van Impe's Web site (www.jvim.com/israel) offers the full text of his book Israel's Final Holocaust. Chuck Missler, another popularizer of dispensationalism, says in a cassette lecture that Auschwitz and Dachau were "just a prelude" to the Tribulation. Missler sees no contradiction between looking forward to that horror and backing Israel; in an interview, he told me that "there is more support for the State of Israel from fundamentalist Christians in America than from ethnic Jews." But the success of the Left Behind series, coming as some American Jewish organizations are strengthening ties with Christian rightists, raises a question: Are the tactical benefits worth the cost of an alliance with those who regard Jews as mythical creatures fated to forfeit their lives or their religion?

Naturally, those who describe future holocausts reject responsibility for their vision; they insist that they are only illuminating the literal meaning of Scripture. Jerry Falwell used a defense along those lines after his public assertion in 1999 that the Antichrist is probably alive today and "he must be male and Jewish" -- a return to the medieval demonization of Jews. But as theologian Fasching says, the Bible "does not interpret itself, human beings do the interpreting." Exegesis implies both a sacred text and human autonomy. Literalism is an ideological stance intended to deny human autonomy.

Perhaps the most striking scene in the Left Behind series is the climax of book six, The Assassins. Carpathia is speaking at a mass rally in Jerusalem. Out in the crowd is Rayford Steele, armed with a high-tech handgun. He prays for God's guidance, and finds himself firing what appears to be a fatal shot at Carpathia. Intentionally or not, this is an eerie rewrite of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination at a Tel Aviv peace rally in 1995 -- but the authors are on the side of the fanatic killer. In the next novel, Rayford Steele's daughter asks Ben-Judah if her father is a murderer. "I believe we are at war," answers the voice of truth. "In the heat of battle, killing the enemy has never been considered murder." Having demonized religious and political opponents, LaHaye and Jenkins suggest a method for dealing with evil leaders.

It's fair to state two provisos. First, the Left Behind books aren't the product of a right-wing conspiracy, nor do they represent the views of a monolithic religious community. This is LaHaye's version of dispensationalism (though other prominent promoters of the doctrine would agree with much of what he says). Influential as dispensationalism may be, it's not the only theology among fundamentalists or evangel- icals, and even for those who accept the doctrine, it may not be the center of their religious lives. The Left Behind books reveal something important -- but only a part -- of what is happening in that subculture. That said, LaHaye's vision is the one that millions of evangelicals and other Americans are reading.

Second, yes, this is fiction. Without necessarily buying the sermons or being conscious of the politics, you could pass Tribulation Force to a friend for beach reading. On the other hand, it's fiction explicitly intended to teach. Inspiration is part of the appeal. Subliminally, so is the all-encompassing paradigm the books offer for understanding the world. Here's how the global economy (which may have cost me my job or halved my retirement savings) works. Here's what lies behind debate over abortion or foreign policy. Some people serve God, and some serve falsehood. Here's why a believing Christian can feel left out: Today's society is controlled by evil. And here's why cataclysmic war between the forces of good and the axis of evil is inevitable.

Fiction is hard to argue with, as religion scholar Brasher notes; rather than presenting logic, it creates a mood. It leaves you with a set of images and a receptivity to a style of argument -- particularly if you don't consciously weigh the ideas it presents. The vast reach of the Left Behind books provides preachers with allusions they can use to spread a particular style of faith -- and gives spokespeople of the right an audience already exposed and responsive to their ideas. Just as The Late Great Planet Earth did in the 1970s, the Left Behind series reflects a mood and intensifies it.

Given the books' audience, the response must not be to ignore them or the ideas that drive them. Neither should it be to demonize the advocates of those ideas. The Left Behind series rejects the principle of truth arising from democratic debate. Ironically, though, it has placed a set of arguments in the democratic arena, and the proper response is to debate them -- to make the ideas woven into the fiction explicit, to analyze and rebut them. This responsibility falls upon both political advocates of an open society and religious advocates of a humanistic faith. The preachers of intolerance should not go unchallenged.

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