June 8, 2000, New York Times

Success of Christian Thriller Reflects Rising Interest in Religious Fiction


Todd Buchanan for the New York Times

Tim Lahaye, left, and Jerry Jenkins, right, sign books on the "Left Behind" tour. Credit: .

WHEATON, Ill. -- The latest thriller in a hugely popular Christian fundamentalist series about the Apocalypse will enter the New York Times fiction best-seller list at No. 1 on Sunday, an unparalleled achievement for an evangelical novel.

The book, "The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession," by Tim F. LaHaye, a retired evangelical minister, and Jerry B. Jenkins, a professional writer, is the seventh installment in the "Left Behind" series, which in the last five years has sold some 17 million copies in the United States, about three million less than the Harry Potter series. In April, before its official publication, it reached No. 1 on the best-seller list, based on advance orders.

On the Times fiction best-seller list, it is displacing "Easy Prey," a detective novel by John Sandford. The authors of "The Indwelling," who say they have so far made $10 million each from the series, are on a 10-city tour, and their stop in this college town last weekend had all the panoply of a revival meeting. They attracted 900 people who paid $12 to $25 each to hear them talk about the book in a Wheaton College auditorium.

LaHaye and Jenkins were accompanied by a retinue of 17, including a blind singer, Ginny Owens, and a singer-guitarist, Wayne Watson, who played with a throbbing rock sound as the authors sat on thronelike black leather chairs bathed in cyclamen-colored lights. Two huge candelabra lent the scene a "Phantom of the Opera" ambience as they took questions from a rapt audience.

The latest book combines traditional elements of science fiction with the authors' unorthodox interpretation of the Book of Revelation to create a Rambo-style potboiler with a strong conservative ethos and noticeably contemporary characters who drive Range Rovers, use the Internet and have everyday worries.

The star of the series is Rayford Steele, a married commercial airline pilot who in an early scene in the first book flirts with a stewardess and minutes later discovers that more than 100 of his passengers have disappeared in midflight. As it turns out, his devout wife and son have vanished, too. All of them have, in evangelical parlance, "accepted Christ" and have been summoned by Jesus to the Rapture, a precursor to the Apocalypse.

In "The Indwelling," Steele is suspected by the authorities of assassinating Nicolae Carpathia, the Antichrist, a former secretary general of the United Nations. But the false god is resurrected, battle rages between Heaven and Earth, and the Beast takes control again.

Since its publication on May 23, the book has sold 1.9 million copies. "This is a phenomenal number of books we're talking about," said Daisy Maryles, executive editor of Publishers Weekly.

The book's remarkable success reflects a rising interest in religious fiction among not only among fundamentalists but a broader audience as well, and the growing popularity of such pop genres as Christian rock. The Times bestseller list does not take into account sales from Christian, or other specialized, bookstores.

"I really love the character development and the real people, and you can relate to them," said Drid Wilson, who came to the event at Wheaton College with her husband and two children. Best of all, she said, "there's hope for a Second Coming."

To capitalize on the book's potential, the book's Christian publisher, Tyndale House, has advertised not only in Christian trade publications but also on "The Rush Limbaugh Show" and other conservative radio programs and in USA Today as well. It has financed special displays in general-interest bookstores and superstores like Wal-Mart.

Until now, the five-year-old series seemed propelled by the national fixation on the year 2000, with its apocalyptic themes. But even though interest in the millennium has died down, "The Indwelling" is doing better than previous books in the series.

Sales of the series may be unprecedented, but it is by no means the only Christian novel to achieve big numbers. The novels of such contemporary writers as Janette Oke and Frank Peretti have sold millions of copies.

Mainstream book critics have been less than overwhelmed by the series. "The books read like artifacts of a time machine sent to retrieve pulp science fiction -- and our morality -- from the 50s," Douglas E. Winter wrote in a review in The Washington Post.

The "Left Behind" books reflect the apocalyptic beliefs of LaHaye, Jenkins and other fundamentalists. They say that their interpretation of the Book of Revelation is a literal one. Their belief is often referred to as "pre-millennial dispensationalism."

Under this teaching, the Rapture will be followed by a seven-year period of Tribulation and the rule of the Antichrist, who will establish a single world government and monetary system. (The authors believe the United Nations and the euro are signs of the impending Tribulation.)

The Tribulation will culminate in an Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ. Christ will reign for 1,000 years; there will be another great battle and then, the creation of a new Heaven on Earth.

Like many fundamentalists, LaHaye and Jenkins say that before the Second Coming can occur, there must be an "indwelling" of Jews to Israel. During the tour stop at Wheaton College, an interdenominational Christian college, LaHaye explained that this had come to pass with the founding of Israel in 1948.

One hero of "The Indwelling" is Tsion Ben-Judah, the spiritual leader of the Tribulation Force, a Jew by birth who has accepted Christ as the Messiah. He announces his conversion on international television. LaHaye says that according to his interpretation of the Book of Revelation, 144,000 Jews must be converted to Christianity after the Rapture, before the Second Coming can occur.

He acknowledged that this view was abhorrent to many Jews. "Jews have a deep-rooted conviction that the Messiah has yet to come," he said." They will not accept Jesus as the Messiah."

Most Roman Catholics and mainstream Protestants do not have this level of fascination with the end of time or focus on this elaborate and literal prediction of events. Nor do most mainstream denominations focus on the conversion of Jews, particularly since the Holocaust.

Yet with its enormous popularity, the "Left Behind" series may ultimately "influence the theology" of Christian end-time belief, said Charles Strozier, author of "Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America" (Beacon, 1994), and a professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the City University of New York Graduate Center.

"When the textual evidence is so slim, it lends itself to elaboration by interpretation," he said. "Vivid factual interpreters selling millions and millions of copies are adding something important."

Several explanations have been offered for the books' success: the readers' identification with recurring characters, the popularity of the action-adventure genre in general, and the belief of large numbers of Americans in the Rapture and the eventual return of Christ.

Beyond that, there are characters who are recognizably human living through supernatural times. Contemplating the disappearance of millions during the Rapture, Steele, the airplane pilot, reflects: "Everyone had lost someone, and not a second could pass when one was able to forget that. It was the fear of missing the school bus, losing your homework, forgetting your gym clothes, knowing you'd been caught cheating on a test, being called to the principal's office, being fired, going bankrupt, cheating on your wife -- all rolled into one."

In another passage, a character experiments "with five-minute catnaps every few minutes, fearing he would otherwise sleep through the resurrection of the Antichrist."

LaHaye, 74, a soft-spoken evangelical minister from Palm Desert, Calif., attended Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. He calls himself "a prophecy scholar," and has established three churches, a Christian school system and the Christian Heritage College with 900 students, all in the San Diego area.

Jenkins, 50, of Colorado Springs, Colo., helped write Billy Graham's memoir "Just As I Am," and is the author of best-selling sports books, including one with Orel Hersheiser, the baseball player.

"Our message is the greatest message of hope in this world," LaHaye said in the interview. "There is a new age coming resulting in the coming of the most benevolent King of Kings, who's already demonstrated his compassion by dying on the cross."



Jenkins, who has a self-deprecating sense of humor, said: "There are some times when I think I was born for this project. Other times I think I was born to play golf." He called the drama inherent in Revelation "a novelist's dream."

To keep pace with the demand for "The Indwelling," Tyndale House has built a new warehouse at its headquarters in Carol Stream, Ill. Four printing plants worked for 40 days around the clock and 79 semi-trailer trucks were required to deliver the first print run of two million books to the warehouse. The series also includes children's and audio books.

The next novel in the projected 12-book series is "The Mark," already completed and scheduled to be published on Nov. 14. A movie based on "Left Behind," adapted by Alan B. McElroy, a writer for the 1997 horror movie "Spawn," is to be filmed by a small independent production company in partnership with a producer of Christian videos and is scheduled for release next February.

The authors say that business matters less than the testimonials of people who say have "received Christ" by reading their books. "We've heard from more than 2,000 people who tell us that," said Jenkins. They say they have donated nearly half their earnings to religious institutions.

Onstage at Wheaton College, where he and his co-author were interviewed by Mike Trout, the co-host with Dr. James Dobson of the radio program "Focus on the Family," Jenkins told of receiving a letter from a man on death row in Texas who was scheduled for execution last fall.

"He said, 'I've read 'Apollyon"' -- the fifth book in the series -- "and I've grown in the Lord. The problem is I would like to read 'Assassins,"' -- the sixth book," a volume that had not yet been released.

"We called our good friends in Tyndale House and they rushed a copy to him," Jenkins said proudly.

The man has still not been executed, but LaHaye says that if he has accepted Christ, he will go to heaven.