By Josh Getlin and K. Connie Kang, Times Staff Writers
April 3, 2007
'Somehow, God has blessed these books to reach people like me who would never touch the Bible. And I am so hungry for knowledge.'
– Sandra Adams, L.A. school district office manager
NEW YORK - The books are ready for shipment, fans are waiting breathlessly for the final installment, and tables in bookstores across America will soon be piled high with stacks of the newly published thriller. But we're talking heaven, not Hogwarts.
This week, "Kingdom Come," the 16th and last novel in the hugely successful "Left Behind" evangelical series, will be released, and the publication marks the culmination of a sea change in the American book world. Before the first installment in Tim LaHaye's and Jerry B. Jenkins' modern-day stories based on the Book of Revelation appeared in 1995, Christian fiction was typically tucked away in Christian bookstores. Now, 43 million books later, the Left Behind titles have paved the way for these books and others like them to be sold in chain outlets, discount stores and big box retailers.
And while more secular readers, and even some evangelicals, may find the novels off-putting, their cultural stamp is unmistakable: A 2005 episode of "The Simpsons" satirized the Left Behind books. The series was a question on "Jeopardy!" As George W. Bush's faith-based presidency has boosted the visibility of evangelical thought in American political life, the books' themes have echoed in the wider culture - Mel Gibson's smash-hit "The Passion of the Christ," for example, followed the path blazed by the series.
It has all been a blessing to the book world, where a variety of Christian genres is flourishing. Rick Warren's inspirational book, "The Purpose-Driven Life," has sold more than 25 million copies, making it one of the largest-selling hardback books in U.S. publishing history. New Christian titles in fields as far-flung as chick-lit, science fiction and weight loss are appearing all the time. And Tyndale House Publishers Inc., the Illinois-based house that produced the Left Behind books, has become a major publishing player.
The series has also been a wake-up call for the normally secular-minded, New York-based book business. Before the Left Behind novels came along, said Lynne Garrett, religious books editor for Publishers Weekly, "I don't think people in this business had a clue that the potential Christian market was so large."
LaHaye, a longtime activist on the Christian right who helped organize the Moral Majority, offered a more blunt assessment: He said the books didn't break into mainstream stores until sometime in 1998-99 because of the publishing world's bad attitude toward evangelical Christians. "In some cases it was because of religious bias, people didn't want to give Christians a corner of the market," he noted. "The Left Behind series just blew that away."
The timing was perfect. These thrillers appeared as the world was gearing up for the end of the millennium in 2000. "We all wonder what it all means and where it's all heading," said Craig Detweiler, a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. "So, anyone who is willing to step into that fray and say, 'I have a theory, I have a possibility ...' has a built-in fascination." As millennial anxiety grew, Detweiler said, "the speculative fiction satisfied a felt need."
Like any marketing phenomenon, however, there have been peaks and valleys. "Desecration," the ninth installment published in 2001, was the bestselling hardback novel of the year. More than 300,000 copies of "Kingdom Come" will arrive in stores today telling the story of the final, post-millennial battle between Jesus and Satan. While the outcome is never in doubt ("I'll give you a hint, the good guy wins," as Jenkins put it in an interview), the first printing is down from previous books, which ran as high as 1.9 million copies. And the reason, the co-author suggested, is because the series ran its course - "maybe the edge is off as far as it being a novelty."
If market fever is cooling a bit, the angry debate sparked by the authors' treatments of "nonbelievers," including Jews and Muslims, shows no signs of diminishing. The novels tell of a future in which some Jews convert to Christianity and are saved in the tumult over the Second Coming. But those who don't are doomed.
LaHaye and Jenkins have said their books are based upon a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation, and that their philosophical intention was not to belittle or humiliate anyone. The controversy with Jewish critics "breaks my heart," said Jenkins. "We believe that the Bible is God's love letter to everybody, including people of the Jewish faith.... We live in a pluralistic society and we believe in freedom of religion.... If somebody scoffs at or disagrees with us, we don't hate them. We say that we will share our view."
But others don't feel the love. Rabbi Michael Cook, a New Testament scholar and professor of Judeo-Christian studies at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, said in an e-mail that the Left Behind series "strikes me as disrespectful of the Church, disrespectful of Christian theology, detrimental for Jews and detrimental for humanity."
"The series' underlying premise is that, had the Jews accepted Jesus in the 1st century, God would never have created the Church, which has now lasted 2,000 years purely as a stopgap measure until the Jews accept Jesus," Cook wrote. "This is implicitly insulting to Christianity. It means that God created the Church only as an afterthought to fill the interim," and thus the books suggest that "the onus for delay in completing Jesus' work is implicitly held to rest upon the Jews."
For millions of other readers, however, the Left Behind books have offered a thrilling message of hope and redemption, a life-changing promise that the rapture - the sudden reuniting of true believers with Jesus - is truly imminent.
The series features airline pilot Rayford Steele, who does battle with one Nicolae Carpathia, revealed in the first book to be the antichrist. As Steele tries mightily to assassinate Carpathia, the dashing Carpathia himself - who at one point has himself named People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive - claims he is God.
As "Kingdom Come" begins, Jesus has established his thousand-year reign on Earth. But there are still people who do not accept him as their savior. And as Lucifer returns, scheming one last time to impose a Kingdom of Darkness, Steele and his people clash with his massive army in an apocalyptic fight to the finish.
"I am dying to read it," said Sandra Adams, a 44-year-old office manager for the Los Angeles Unified School District. She said the Left Behind books inspired her to become a Christian last year. Since her conversion, Adams has shared the books with family and friends: "Somehow, God has blessed these books to reach people like me who would never touch the Bible. And I am so hungry for knowledge."
Amid the debate, New York publishers have come around. Major houses have launched Christian divisions or acquired religious publishers. This year, a seminar at the Book Expo America convention in New York, the nation's largest trade book gathering, will focus on spotting and marketing rising stars in the Christian market.
To be sure, the Left Behind sales pale in overall comparison to the Harry Potter books, which have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide. But as the J.K. Rowling series comes to an end, and booksellers hunt for the next big hit, the long-run future for a broad range of Christian books seems quite rosy. According to Mike Ferrari, director of merchandising for Barnes & Noble, "The top religious fiction book for us last year was 'Dinner With a Perfect Stranger,' a parable book, kind of like 'My Dinner With Andre' but with a Christian theme," he said. "The market is really growing."
The Left Behind books have spawned children's literary spinoffs plus audio books and a newly launched line of Christian video games.
The rapture is good business. But the irony may be that those who initially embraced the message are now so comfortably ensconced in American life, they may be hoping that the final reckoning, the End of Days, might be somehow postponed.
"Evangelicals have become upwardly very mobile, very content with their suburban lifestyles and watching their stock portfolios, and so the mantra is, 'Yeah, Jesus is coming. But take your time. We're doing pretty well,' " said Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Columbia University's Barnard College and the author of the forthcoming "Religion and the Presidency From JFK to George W. Bush."
"I'm not being facetious about this," he continued. "What I don't hear from evangelicals now is the same sense of urgency. For them, the Left Behind novels have become a very comfortable set-piece. They're almost kind of nostalgic."