Left Behind


Bill Berkowitz


Who would have
imagined that when Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole lashed out at
Hollywood during the 1996 campaign, it would bear fruit four years later? In
fact, the Bush presidency may usher in a golden age for evangelicals in the
entertainment industry, giving them their biggest opening in many years.

By the end of
the year 2000, Cloud Ten Pictures had shipped more than two million copies of
the video version of Left Behind-The Movie. The film, made with a $17
million dollar budget, set a record for a Christian production. It is based on
the first book in the wildly popular Left Behind series that has sold
close to eight million copies—heading Amazon.com’s bestseller list for a
month. If you haven’t heard about this movie, don’t worry, you will. Left
Behind-The Movie
was released in early February. The man behind the
Left Behind
book series is no stranger to fundamentalist Christians and
those following the political developments of the Christian Right over the
past 25 years.

With the Rev.
Jerry Falwell he co-founded the Moral Majority. He’s a graduate of the ultra-
conservative Bob Jones University. In 1987, he was forced to resign as
national co-chair of Representative Jack Kemp’s presidential campaign. He was
the paid chair of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s now defunct Coalition for
Religious Freedom. His latest novel in the Left Behind series was on
the New York Times bestseller list for more than three months. He’s the
Rev. Tim LaHaye and he’s having the time of his life.

LaHaye and his
co-author Jerry B. Jenkins are the creators of the Christian fundamentalist
Left Behind
series. Their latest installment, the seventh book in the
series, is called The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession. According
to the New York Times, with more than 1.9 million copies in advance
orders, this work has accomplished “an unparalleled achievement for an
evangelical novel”—a brief, yet historic appearance in the number one spot on
both the Amazon.com and the New York Times’ best-selling fiction lists.

According to
USA Today
, Rev. LaHaye, a retired Southern Baptist minister, has written
about 40 nonfiction books on subjects ranging from religion to relationships
and family.” However, the Rev. LaHaye doesn’t write the novels, he is the
“engineer” and Jenkins is the “mechanic”; LaHaye provides the vision and plot,
while Jenkins does the writing. (Jenkins has been on bestseller lists several
time before, having written biographies for sports heroes, including former
Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser and Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan,
and assisting Rev. Billy Graham with his best-selling memoir, Just As I Am.)

Born in 1928,
the 73-year-old Rev. LaHaye has a long history of involvement in Religious
Right organizations and activities. In 1989, the Unification Church-owned
Washington Times
newspaper described him as “one of the lightning-rod
clergy of the Religious Right.” Rev. LaHaye earned a doctorate from Western
Conservative Baptist Seminary, was president of Family Life Seminars,
co-founder of the Moral Majority, founder of the American Coalition for
Traditional Values, and an organizer of the Council on National Policy (CNP),
a highly secretive, ultra-conservative organization comprised of almost every
major right-wing leader and personality in the country. (In October 1999, then
Texas Governor George W. Bush addressed the CNP; the transcript of his remarks
remains unreleased.)

LaHaye’s wife,
Beverly, whom he met at Bob Jones University, is founder of the conservative
Concerned Women for America, an organization that claims to be America’s
largest women’s public policy group. Beverly LaHaye was most recently seen
rallying the troops on behalf of Senator John Ashcroft’s confirmation as
Attorney General. She is also co-author, with Terri Blackstock, of two very
popular Christian-themed novels, Seasons Under Heaven and Showers in
Season: Book Two
.

Guy Manchester,
author of Acts of the Apostles, a novel about theocracy in America,
writes in Freedom Writer, a publication of the Institute for First
Amendment Studies: “Today, LaHaye has gone from activist to novelist. Instead
of using sensational fundraising letters to exploit people’s fears, he writes
sensational novels. One might say that he’s exchanged one form of fiction for
another. Yet, in his new role, he’s reaching more people than he ever dreamed
of back at the Moral Majority.”

In an article
for the Southern California Christian Times, Rev. LaHaye wrote, “Most
of all, I believe God has chosen to bless this series. In doing so, he’s
giving the country and maybe the world, one last, big wake-up call before the
events transpire.”

What is the
message behind the Left Behind series? Manchester writes that the
phrase “left behind” derives from “the Christian fundamentalist belief in the
Rapture, that is, at the sound of a trumpet, Jesus will soon appear in the
clouds to take believers up to meet him, thus escaping the horrible calamities
foretold in the Book of Revelation.” Those who do not believe [in Jesus] are
left behind to “engage in a three-and-a-half year battle with the forces of
Satan.”

According to
the dogma, Jews, amongst others, will be left behind to suffer during “the
Great Tribulation” as this period is called. But before it’s over “144,000 of
them will accept Jesus as their savior. The rest will perish.” The message, as
Rev. LaHaye told Larry King, is that you must accept Jesus or be left behind.
These ideas may lend themselves to fiction, but in politics these views get
you into heaps of trouble, particularly with some of those slated to be left
behind. In 1987, in some of his more incendiary writings, LaHaye called
Catholicism “a false religion” and wrote, “the reason for Jerusalem’s historic
troubles was the rejection by Jews of Jesus.”


For Rev.
LaHaye, getting the message out via fiction is proving to be more profitable
than sending out fundraising letters. To date the Left Behind series
has earned its authors more than $10 million.

What’s next for
LaHaye and company? Several books remain in the Left Behind series.
Then there’s the movie based on the first book in the series, which, if
successful, could spawn several sequels. Actor Kirk Cameron, best known as the
star of the hit television series “Growing Pains,” plays the lead role in the
film. According to AFR News, Cameron, a committed Christian, is excited
by the part. “It’s just a great, great story that will make people consider
their life in light of the truth of the Rapture,” Cameron says. “If the
Rapture were to happen tomorrow…if people were to start really thinking about
that and thinking about the genuineness of their faith…would they be left
behind?”

Although the
Left Behind
series is rewriting the record book for sales of Christian
books, many Christians in the entertainment industry believe that film and
television will become the most effective venues for spreading the word. In
The Intersection of Hollywood and Christianity
, appearing in the December
2000 issue of NRB, the monthly magazine of the National Religious
Broadcasters, Doug Trouten, senior editor for Beard Publications and a
journalism teacher at Northeastern College in St. Paul, MN, writes
optimistically about the future of “movies with a message”: “If Left
Behind, The Omega Code
and The Ride show that it’s possible to
create a film with a strong Christian message and to have it succeed in the
world of secular movie distribution, then ABC’s “The Miracle Maker” breaks the
same barrier for network television.” Judith Tukich, a Christian who is
director of synergy and special products for ABC, was largely responsible for
bringing “The Miracle Maker” to the air. She tells Trouten, “The single
greatest way to evangelize the world is through the media…. We send our kids
off to Borneo and New Guinea, but I reached more people that night than
probably every church on the Pacific Coast…. This is the reality of it; this
is where the power lies. Clearly we touched a lot of people that night.”


Barry Werner,
director of operations for World Wide Pictures, the film division of the Billy
Graham Evangelistic Association, notes, “Christian filmmaking is probably
where Christian music was 10 or 15 years ago—it’s really on the edge of
breaking loose.” Peter LaLond, President of Cloud Ten Pictures and co-producer
of Left Behind with his brother Paul, is also optimistic, asserting
that Left Behind-The Movie could usher in a new era for the making of
“good films” in Hollywood. “When Star Wars came out it started the
science fiction trend,” he says. “Die Hard started an action trend, and
Airport started a disaster trend. Left Behind could amaze
Hollywood. If we fill the theaters, it will empower other independent
filmmakers to rise up and make good films.” Whether these films wind up
leaving behind the majority of us remains to be seen.             Z

Bill
Berkowitz is a freelance journalist covering the religious right and related
conservative movements. Research assistance by Greg Paroff.