Apocalypse Now

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 2000, Cloud Ten Pictures had sold more than 2.8 million copies of the video version of Left Behind -- The Movie, the most for an independent studio release last year. The movie's $17 million dollar budget set a record for a Christian production. It's based on the first book, which to date has sold close to eight million copies, from the wildly popular Left Behind series -- heading Amazon.com's best seller list for a month. If you haven't heard about this movie, don't worry, you will. In early February Left Behind -- The Movie could be playing in a theater near you.

The man behind the Left Behind book series is no stranger to fundamentalist Christians and to those following the Christian Right over the past twenty-five 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-chairman of Representative Jack Kemp's presidential campaign. He was the paid chairman 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 best seller 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, created the extraordinarily popular fundamentalist "Left Behind" series. The latest installment, the seventh book in the series, The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession. According to The New York Times, with more than 1.9 million copies in advance orders this work 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. Thus far, the "Left Behind" series has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. (The Indwelling only dropped down the best-seller lists when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Book 4) was released in early July).

According to USA Today, the 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 actually write the novels -- he's the "engineer" and Jenkins the "mechanic." The Rev. LaHaye provides the vision and plot while Jenkins does the writing. (Jenkins has been on the best-seller lists several times 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.) When the Rev. LaHaye and Jenkins appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live" a while back, I was struck by the benign and almost playful persona the Rev. LaHaye had refined -- perfect for a best selling author on tour.

However, behind this new kinder, gentler image is a seasoned veteran of the "culture wars." 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 Sen. 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.

In an article for the Southern California Christian Times, the 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."

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" (http://www.ifas.com).

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, the 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 is clear the Rev. LaHaye told Larry King -- you must accept Jesus or be left behind.

These ideas may lend themselves to fiction, but in politics these views can get you into heaps of trouble, particularly with those slated to be left behind. In 1987, some of the more incendiary writings of LaHaye, then an honorary national co-chair of Jack Kemp's presidential campaign, came to light forcing him to bail out of the campaign. In those writings, the Rev. LaHaye called Catholicism "a false religion" and wrote "the reason for Jerusalem's historic troubles was the rejection by Jews of Jesus."

For the 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 millions of dollars. Tyndale House, publisher of the series has established the official web site "of the #1 best-selling apocalyptic series" where you can find "excerpts from the books, opportunity for discussion on the message board, the chance to dialog with 'Left Behind' authors in chat sessions" -- in short, a complete online community for "true believers" (http://www.leftbehind.com).

On the web site you'll also discover a brief biography, describing Dr. LaHaye as a "noted author, minister, counselor, television commentator, and nationally recognized speaker on family life and Bible prophecy." The site does manage to exclude any mention of LaHaye's right-wing political activities. This is also true of the dust covers of the books as I discovered during a visit to my local Christian bookstore.

What's next for the Rev. LaHaye and company? First off, several books remain in the Left Behind series. Then there's the movie based on the first book in the series that, if successful, should spawn several sequels.

Actor Kirk Cameron, best known as the star of the hit television series "Growing Pains," plays the lead role in the first film. According to AFR News, Cameron, a committed Christian, is extremely 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?" Cameron says that Christians should support the movie and send a message to Hollywood that "we want to see more movies like this."

During the past several years the market for Christian fiction, particularly novels with apocalyptic themes, has grown steadily. In fact, if the keepers of best-seller lists had bothered to check with Christian bookstores, other Christian-theme novels would have appeared on the lists years ago. The Rev. LaHaye's genius has been his ability to convert a noxious political message into an entertaining work of fiction.

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 eventually 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 that "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, declaring 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 there's a universal market for Left Behind -- The Movie will become apparent when they tally up the receipts from its first February weekend.

Research Assistance by Greg Paroff. Bill Berkowitz is an Oakland-based freelance journalist covering the Religious Right and related conservative movements. Contact him at wkbbronx@aol.com.


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