Book dissects ‘Left Behind’ message
Morningside prof offers examination of social, political repercussions
By Jody Ewing
June 10, 2004
The “Left Behind” series of apocalyptic Christian fiction — co-authored by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins — has become a best-selling phenomenon. It also has raised many questions: What does it say about pop culture and religion? Is there any significance to biblical references in the books? And what are the social and political implications of some of this kind of thinking?
Dr. Bruce Forbes, professor of religious studies at Morningside College, addresses these questions and others in “Rapture, Revelation, and The End Times: Exploring the Left Behind Series,” a book he co-edited and wrote with five other historical and theological scholars.
In his opening chapter, Forbes briefly summarizes the ‘Left Behind’ series and helps readers who may not have read all the books or be familiar with the authors.
“We’re trying to write in a way that’s pretty understandable to the general public,” says Forbes, a United Methodist minister. “There is a great disagreement among Christians about what will happen in the end times, and there are quite a few different ways to read the book of Revelation. We’re trying to answer questions, but show that different people might have other viewpoints.”
Though sales for the LB series are approaching 60 million, many readers, Christians, historians and scholars have accused them of being both anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish. Controversy abounds with the series’ singular viewpoint, called “dispensational premillennialism.”
“It says that at some unexpected time, there’s going to be a rapture when all true Christians are lifted from the earth and then that’s going to start the clock ticking,” says Forbes. “Things are going to get worse and worse and the anti-Christ will arise and take over the earth. There will be wars and people will die, and this ‘tribulation’ period will last seven years. After the seven years, Christ will come back to earth to do battle with and defeat Satan and inaugurate a thousand year reign on earth.”
That interpretation, Forbes says, differs from most mainline Protestants and Catholics and even some conservative Protestants. Another big debate in the LB series is the central role Jews play in the books; every Jew must convert to Christianity or else they’ll go to hell.
The 1995 publication of “Left Behind” — the first in a series of 12 — sent political chills worldwide by likening international organizations to the anti-Christ. In the first book, the anti-Christ starts to rise in the form of a handsome and charismatic man. He becomes a world leader and by the end of the novel becomes Secretary General of the United Nations. The book inundated Internet message boards with discussions of whether the introduction of the Euro was a sign of the anti-Christ.
In “Rapture, Revelation,” Forbes and the other contributors address questions raised by the LB series but encourage readers to come to their own conclusions. ‘Rapture’ also includes a glossary and reading group discussion questions.
Co-editor and historian Jeanne Kilde, a visiting assistant professor in the Dept. of Religious Studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., writes a chapter on the history of what Christians have believed about the end times. Yaakov Ariel, a Jewish teacher at the Univ. of North Carolina, has studied how Christians tried to evangelize Jews and writes “Judaism and Left Behind,” a chapter about Christian-Jewish relations and how it relates to the LB books.
Bethel College teacher Mark Reasoner writes about the Bible and what it says about the end times. Author Stanley Grenz summarizes the four major beliefs and Duke’s Amy Johnson Frykholm covers social and political views.
Forbes, who also co-edited the book “Religion and Popular Culture in America,” says knowing the “Left Behind” authors’ backgrounds also helps readers come to their own conclusions.
“Tim LaHaye, now in his 70s, has been involved in conservative evangelical Christianity in very prominent ways for 30 to 40 years,” Forbes says. “He and his wife were very active campaigning against the equal rights amendment way back, and he’s also published books against homosexuality.”
In last week’s front-page Newsweek story, chief political correspondent Howard Fineman cited LaHaye’s close connections with President George Bush. Within the last year, LaHaye also gave Jerry Falwell a 4.5 million gift for a student center at Falwell’s Liberty University.
Though his name is not as widely recognized, Jerry Jenkins actually writes the LB series and has an established career as a prolific author. The conservative Christian’s credentials include helping Billy Graham with his recent autobiography and writing Christian mysteries for adults and children.
“People are curious after reading the Left Behind books, but want a brief book that answers some of their questions,” says Forbes. “The people who contributed to [Rapture, Revelation] have a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints, but I think the main one that we would all say is that the Left Behind view is not the only view. We hope fans will find it interesting and skeptics will, too. They both might be stretched a bit to understand viewpoints other than their own.”