Religion: The Pop Prophets

This photo shoot isn't going so well. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, coauthors of the best-selling "Left Behind" series of apocalyptic Christian novels, get to see each other only a few times a year, and they'd rather schmooze than pose for the cover of NEWSWEEK. The desert wind near LaHaye's home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., is kicking up, and the 78-year-old LaHaye's suspiciously brown hair won't stay down; Jenkins's wife, Dianna, solves that with a paper clip. OK, big smiles? "I gain 15 years on my face when I smile," LaHaye says, smiling. Now, what to do about the fact that Jenkins towers over his partner by about a foot? "Is there something LaHaye can stand on?" the photographer asks. "You can sit on my lap," Jenkins tells LaHaye. Finally LaHaye fetches a stack of phone books. "I understand this is how Tom Cruise poses," he says. OK, Tim? Put your arm on Jerry's shoulder. Jenkins grins and puts his hand lovingly on top of LaHaye's. Dianna Jenkins says, "Such a cute couple."

They're an odd couple, for sure: LaHaye, the golden-ager in polyester, veteran culture warrior and cofounder of the Moral Majority; Jenkins, the bearded baby boomer in jeans, best known (until now) for channeling the autobiographies of such Christian athletes as Orel Hershiser. They're also, arguably, the most successful literary partnership of all time. And if you define success in worldly terms, you can drop the "arguably." Their Biblical techno-thrillers about the end of the world are currently outselling Stephen King, John Grisham and every other pop novelist in America. It's old-time religion with a sci-fi sensibility: the Tribulation timetable comes from LaHaye; the cell phones, Land Rovers--and characters struggling with belief and unbelief--come from Jenkins. And their contrasting sensibilities suggest the complexities of the entire evangelical movement, often seen as monolithic.

The first volume, "Left Behind" (1995), kicks off with the Rapture--the sudden snatching up of millions of the faithful into heaven--and subsequent volumes follow airline pilot Rayford Steele and journalist Buck Williams, left behind to tough it out down here on earth through the seven-year Tribulation and the rule of the Antichrist. The 12th and final installment (not counting a planned sequel and prequel), called "Glorious Appearing," has the return of Jesus, the battle of Armageddon and the Judgment. It sold almost 2 million copies even before its March publication; it's still tied for No. 2 on The New York Times's list--which doesn't count sales at Christian bookstores. In all, the "Left Behind" books have sold more than 62 million copies.

Who's buying? Jenkins recalls a puzzled Chris Matthews asking a "Hardball" guest the same question. "I'm sure I don't have the quote exact, but it was something like 'Certainly not the people in the cities and the suburbs.' And I'm thinking, 'What does that leave? Barefoot people in the hollers handling snakes?'" Jenkins takes issue with a previous NEWSWEEK piece that called "Left Behind" a "Red State" phenomenon, but statistics from the publisher, Tyndale, bear this out: 71 percent of the readers are from the South and Midwest, and just 6 percent from the Northeast. (Hence Tyndale's sponsorship of a NASCAR racer, with the unlucky logo LEFT BEHIND.) The "core buyer" is a 44-year-old born-again Christian woman, married with kids, living in the South. This isn't the "Sex and the City" crowd--which helps explain why it took so long for the media to notice that one in eight Americans was reading all these strange books about the end of the world.

And why are so many people eager to do that? Well, check the news tonight. As the world gets increasingly scary, with much of the trouble centered in the Mideast--just where you'd expect from reading the Book of Revelation--even secular Americans sometimes wonder (or at least wonder if they ought to start wondering) whether there might not be something to this End Times stuff. After September 11, 2001, there was such a run on the latest "Left Behind" volume, "Desecration," that it became the best-selling novel of the year. And it's no coincidence that the books are a favorite with American soldiers in Iraq.

LaHaye and Jenkins--the prophecy teacher and the pop novelist--combine the ultimate certainty the Bible offers with the entertainment-culture conventions of rock-jawed heroism and slam-bang special effects. "Left Behind" gives believers an equivalent of such secular sagas as the "Lord of the Rings" books: a self-contained, ordered world with a wealth of detail in which a reader can become blissfully immersed, and the assurance that good must win out--but not so quickly that the audience can't indulge the human fascination with evil. Scholars reconstructing the popular history of the first years of the 21st century--if there still are any--will have to grapple with the phenomenon of "Left Behind." In an age of terror and tumult, they may find, these books' Biblical literalism offered certitude to millions of Americans amid the chaos of their time.

The many critics of the series see a resonance between its apocalyptic scenario and the born-again President Bush's apocalyptic rhetoric and confrontational Mideast policies. And they see LaHaye's far-right political agenda behind having fetuses Raptured from pregnant women's wombs, and making the Antichrist the secretary-general of the United Nations. Roman Catholics aren't happy that the Antichrist's assistant is the pope, and while "Left Behind" shows the common evangelical sympathy for Jews, they exist to be converted and to fulfill Christian prophecy. (For Jenkins and LaHaye, of course, so does everyone else.) And minorities may find the books' attempts at multiculturalism condescending. "I ain't seen no Bible for years," says one character, a "heavyset Latina." "What got me was that it wasn't fancy, wasn't hard to understand... All them Scriptures sounded true to me, 'bout being a sinner."

The other principal critique comes from some of Jenkins's and LaHaye's fellow Christians, who find the books more interested in God's wrath than God's love--as well as scripturally questionable. "It's pulp fiction, based on a particular reading of the Bible," says Randall Balmer, chair of the religion department at Barnard College. "It diverts attention from the mandate of the New Testament to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself." According to Tyndale's research, more Jews, agnostics and atheists read the series than mainline Protestants, and back in 2000 even the president of the Lutheran Church's conservative Missouri Synod denounced the "Left Behind" series as "an unbiblical flight of fancy." Most establishmentarian Christians agree with Tina Pippin, a professor of religious studies at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., in saying "Left Behind" "encourages people to see the world in terms of black and white, good and evil, with us or against us."

Certainly LaHaye and Jenkins promulgate what might be called outsider theology. But they are outsiders: they grew up that way, and they're proud of it--much as they might also like to be insiders. And they do see the world in terms of good against evil: isn't that what their reading of the Bible tells them? "The liberals have crafted a Jesus that's unscriptural and to their liking," LaHaye says. "They want their God to be a big, benevolent grandfather who lets them into heaven anyway. The worst thing a person can do against God is to deceive people about the Bible. That's satanically inspired."

LaHaye won't be along next month when the genial Jenkins appears at the secular BookExpo America's first-ever Religion Day. They may not be quite ready for LaHaye. With Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, he was one of the most divisive figures of the 1980s religious right, and he's still a loose cannon. He can't resist an opportunity to get in a dig about school prayer, the United Nations, homosexuals or "libertine living"--or to question a NEWSWEEK reporter about his personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Jenkins, too, is an evangelical Christian, and if pressed, he'll acknowledge he's a pro-life conservative. But he's neither a proselytizer nor a polemicist. He says he's "not blind to the mistakes this country has made" over the years, has Christian pacifist friends and harbors no regrets that his weight kept him from serving in the Vietnam War. ("Too fat to fight," as he puts it.) During a taping for "60 Minutes," when Morley Safer accused the series of promoting American triumphalism, Jenkins kept out of the line of fire. "He hit a hot button with LaHaye," Jenkins recalls. "And so LaHaye says, 'If Jerry and I were cut, we'd bleed red, white and blue,' and I'm like, 'Oh, man, I know that's gonna be on TV'." Still, he and LaHaye share more than a faith, a father-son bond and a fortune: the call to help you to salvation.

Tim LaHaye greets you at the entrance to his building, in a lush, green country-club condominium off Rancho Mirage's Frank Sinatra Boulevard. "He lives on a golf course," says his old friend Ed Hindson, assistant chancellor at Falwell's Liberty University, "and he plays maybe twice a year. He's too busy thinking, writing and praying." He's come armed with a quotation to break the ice: not from Scripture but from Winston Churchill. " 'Writing a book is adventure'," he reads. " 'It becomes a mistress. Then it becomes a master... The last phase is that... you kill the monster and fling it to the public'." Did he just say "mistress"?

The premise for LaHaye's mistress-master-monster came to him by chance--if you believe in chance. ("I'm not one of those charismatics," he says, "but every now and then God gives me an inspiration.") On an airplane he noticed a pilot, wearing a wedding ring, flirting with a flight attendant. What if this were the moment God had picked to Rapture the faithful, leaving behind only their clothes and a lot of bewildered unbelievers? He tried to write a novel about it--done well enough, it might even sell 100,000 copies!--and quickly recruited a collaborator who flubbed the tryout; then his agent mentioned this new writer he'd just signed. "Jerry," LaHaye says, "was a real answered prayer." They devised a unique working method: for each book LaHaye sends Jenkins a 70- to 100-page outline of prophecy, with scriptural commentary. "And then he has the liberty to use his fictional gift to convey my message."

Despite what his critics say, LaHaye considers it a message of comfort and hope, and its roots are as much personal as Biblical--though that's a distinction LaHaye probably wouldn't make. He was 8 years old when he accepted Christ, 10 when his father died. "At his graveside, I was in despair," he recalls. "And the minister--I remember it as if it was yesterday--looked up at the sky and he said, 'This is not the end of Frank LaHaye. The day is going to come when Jesus will show himself and the dead in Christ will rise. And we who are alive in the Name will be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.' And one of my driving passions has been to help laypeople understand that the word of God means what it says and says what it means."

LaHaye's common-sense reading of the Bible is also tied up with a still-aggrieved sense of social class. "Those millions that I'm trying to reach take the Bible literally. It's the theologians that get all fouled up on some of these smug ideas that you've got to find some theological reason behind it. It bugs me that intellectuals look down their noses at we ordinary people." His family had been hard-pressed when his father lost his job at a Ford plant in Michigan during the Depression; his widowed mother worked in factories while going to night school to become a Bible teacher, and gave a tenth of her income to the church. ("Can you imagine? She made 60 cents an hour.") LaHaye worked himself through Bob Jones University; his first pastorate, in Pumpkintown, S.C., paid him $15 a week. "I wake up every morning," he says, "and I see this beautiful place, and that drop-dead gorgeous view of the mountains, and I think, 'This is fantastic.' Because God is faithful." How does he reconcile that with Jesus' injunction to sell all you have and give to the poor? "I can accomplish far more from my present lifestyle and the giving that I do to Christian work," he says. "If I just sold everything and gave it to the poor, I can't see where that would advance the Gospel as much as I'm doing." But wouldn't it advance the poor? "Well," he says, "you know how much I pay in taxes?"

To LaHaye, spreading the Good News is far more compassionate than redistributing the wealth. "He's like a boy when he gets up to preach," says Hindson. "He's smiling ear to ear." This is the motivation behind his conservative politics--for him, traditional moral values are a matter of spiritual life or death--and the "Left Behind" books, which he and Jenkins credit with bringing some 3,000 people to Christ. As Jenkins puts it, "Whatever people say about Dr. LaHaye--he's polemical, he's not politically correct--he really cares about souls." It's why he never gives up, even with that unsaved NEWSWEEK reporter, to whom he gives a copy of "Glorious Appearing" to pass along to his mother. There's that smile.

The first thing you see when you walk into Jerry Jenkins's office in his compound outside Colorado Springs is a pair of what look like size-XXL Yankees jerseys framed on the wall, celebrating his weeks at the top of the secular world's most prestigious best-seller list. On the back of one is the name JENKINS and the figure 1; on the front of the other, the word TIMES under the NY logo. They probably still fit him, even though he's lost 115 pounds on a low-carb diet. Jenkins had wanted to be a ballplayer ("Didn't we all?") until he hurt his knee in high school; later, he says, "it was my dream to compete in the mainstream-fiction market." Those shirts are pure autobiography, up there for anyone to see.

Jenkins is chronically modest: about his lack of a college degree, about his 150-odd books--"I don't sing or dance or preach; that's all I do"--and most of all about his literary gifts. "I was in Sam's Club the other day, standing behind a woman carrying a copy of 'Left Behind' in one hand and a fifth of whisky in the other. Something was going to put her to sleep that night." But it's clearly cost him some struggle to come to terms with what sort of writer he is. "Pedestrian writing, thin characters--I can handle the criticism," he says. "I write to pedestrians. And I am a pedestrian. I write the best I can. I know I'm never going to be revered as some classic writer. I don't claim to be C. S. Lewis. The literary-type writers, I admire them. I wish I was smart enough to write a book that's hard to read, you know?"

Jenkins's populism sounds much like LaHaye's, though any rancor against highbrows is tempered by his generosity. Like LaHaye, he grew up in "a good Christian home"--his mother led him to Christ when he was 6--in Michigan and the suburbs of Chicago. His ex-Marine father was a police chief and a "man's man"--who also wrote hundreds of rhymed love poems to his wife. Like his father, he's full of surprises. His favorite novelist is Stephen King, whom some evangelicals refuse to read because of his demonic supernaturalism. He calls John Irving's "The Cider House Rules" "a brilliant piece of work," despite its pro-choice agenda. He even stands up for the Harry Potter books, which much of the evangelical world--including LaHaye--calls propaganda for black magic. "I love 'The Wizard of Oz'," he says, "and I didn't want to grow up to be a witch."

Jenkins, a sportswriter since his teens, published novels for the evangelical market, including a series of Christian mysteries. His one shot at the mainstream, a 1987 novel called "The Operative," didn't sell. "I remember thinking, 'I've still got a pretty great career. I could pay our house off, put our kids in college.' And I would have been perfectly content." The success of "Left Behind," whose proceeds he splits 50-50 with LaHaye, seems to make him more uneasy than his partner about "the dissonance between the kind of means we have and the way we were raised, and our faith. I don't think this is going to keep me from heaven, because my salvation is based on faith in Christ, but if I love the money more than God, I'm going to answer for that." But Jenkins's friend Chris Fabry, who met him back when they both worked at Chicago's Moody Bible Institute, isn't worried that it's all gone to his head. "He's no different now than he was in the 1980s. He's still as excited about 'The Rookie' [his 1991 novel about a 13-year-old who gets to play for the Chicago Cubs] as he is about any of the other books."

At first Jenkins had purely professional doubts about LaHaye's project. "On the way to meet him," Jenkins recalls, "I was thinking, 'I don't know if I want to do this'." Other people had written End Times novels, and he remembered the apocalyptic film "A Thief in the Night," a church-basement favorite in the '70s. "I'm hesitant to say how cheesy it was because I know the guy who did it." Besides, he was busy working on Billy Graham's memoir "Just as I Am." And what was the intended audience--the evangelical market or a mass readership? Both, LaHaye told him. Bearing in mind the Epistle of James' warning not to be a "double-minded man," Jenkins tried to talk him out of it with a witticism. "A double-minded book," he told LaHaye, "is unstable in all its ways."

But Jenkins soon found the 21 increasingly dire plagues of the Tribulation "a novelist's delight." (Does he know how funny that sounds? "Well, sure," he says.) It was in "Glorious Appearing" that the going got tough. How should the Savior talk? "Am I going to have him be colloquial? There's the potential for sacrilege. 'Hi, how you guys doin'? Didja miss me?' " (He chose to stick close to Scripture.) And he and LaHaye came up against the limits of Biblical literalism. "The Bible says Jesus is going to slay his enemies with a sword that comes out of his mouth," he says. "We don't believe there's an actual sword in his mouth. The sword is his word." And if hundreds of millions of people got even 30 personal seconds with Jesus at Judgment, how long would they be standing there? Jenkins tried to work this out on his calculator, and opted for a simultaneous pluripresence--as in everyday prayer--in which "everyone has the same experience, all personal, in their own language and using their name."

Readers identify with the "Left Behind" characters in part because they seldom speak in Christian cliches: as Jenkins says, starting out with the Rapture means "anybody who would use evangelical lingo is gone after the first chapter of the first book." More important, Jenkins uses such characters as Rayford Steele's daughter Chloe to voice his own wrestlings with his faith. "To me there's a value in questioning, and even doubting sometimes. Chloe's big deal is, how does this sound like a loving God? People disappear, planes crash, people die--even people who might have believed, but it's too late. There is indication in the prophecies that God will harden some people's hearts. I don't get it myself; I don't understand how that fits in with God's plan. Yeah, those are hard things." Jenkins is nearly as troubled as his critics by the apparently vengeful elements in the books, such as that episode in "Glorious Appearing" in which too-late penitents are sent to hell vainly bleating, "Jesus is Lord." "One of the toughest things I deal with is that there are some evangelicals, with familiar faces, who seem to like that part of it. You know, 'We're right, you're wrong, that's what the Bible says, someday you're going to kneel and admit it.' That should break our hearts."

Still, Jenkins knows that is what the Bible says, at least ashe and LaHaye read it, and "we sort of have a responsibility to tell what it seems to say to us." For them--just as for Christians who think LaHaye and Jenkins have it all wrong--this is ultimately about love, for God and for their fellow humans. As they see it, they're on a rescue mission, with time running out. "We don't know when the Lord's going to come," LaHaye admits, and he likes to quote Matt. 24:35: "Of that day and hour no one knows, no, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only." But don't the signs seem to be coming thick and fast? Even for evangelical Christians, of course, LaHaye and Jenkins's uncompromising reading of Scripture and of current events isn't the only choice. But if you assume, with them, that it's all true, the end won't be pretty for those left behind. While for those who listen up in time, it'll be a whole other story.