“I have never had such a bad feeling about a war ever before,” wrote Sha Twa Nee on the Prophecy Club message board in April. This war, she said, “has given me such a ‘heaviness’ in my heart, a knowing that it is only the beginning of more to come…. I do believe we are living in the end times and that this war with Iraq is the precursor war to Armageddon…never have there been so many signs as now in history.”
As conflict in the Middle East raged this spring, many evangelicals were afire with fears and hopes that they were witnessing the quickening of God’s plan for the “end of times.” The discussion, which traversed the Internet, Christian radio talk shows and church sermons, was intensified by the fortuitously timed publication of Armageddon, the latest novel in the Left Behind series. Conceived by evangelist Tim LaHaye and written by collaborator Jerry Jenkins, Left Behind is a fictionalization of a particularly incendiary school of biblical prophecy. The eleven books published so far describe the adventures of a group of evangelical Christians who face the rise of the Antichrist, a series of terrible plagues and judgments from God called the Tribulation, the battle of Armageddon and, ultimately, the Second Coming of Jesus. Like the previous four books in the series, Armageddon debuted at number one on the New York Times and other bestseller lists. With sales of well over 40 million (not counting its graphic novels and children’s books), Left Behind is a publishing juggernaut.
The series is also a cultural phenomenon that goes well beyond books. Since the eponymously titled first novel in the series was published in 1995, there have been two films, several CDs, an interactive game, mugs and T-shirts, and an impressive web presence, with many active discussion groups (including “The Prophecy Club”), fan fiction, screen-savers, etc. The Apocalypse is at the heart of a growing evangelical popular culture industry, which is aimed at the approximately one-third of Americans who claim to be evangelicals or “born again.” This industry includes a rapidly expanding book market, which has major publishing houses, notably Warner Books and Bertelsmann, rushing to sign up evangelical authors for their new “Christian” imprints. Contemporary Christian music is the fastest-growing segment of the music industry. And conservative Christian films, videos, radio, national conferences and community events have evolved into mass-marketed sites for talking about evangelical concerns, from family life to weight loss to global missionary work. Instead of condemning popular culture, as they did in the past, many evangelicals are now feverishly adopting its forms to create a parallel world of entertainment, a consumer’s paradise of their own. Just ten years ago, it was still a fledgling subculture; today, it is anything but.
Having carved out this distinct universe, born-again Christians are now able to find almost total product substitution for mainstream media: There are evangelical versions of everything from rock music and films to romance novels and true-life tales. Much of this sprawling cultural universe is not oriented around discussions of biblical prophecy–many committed evangelicals aren’t particularly interested in the subject–but an impressive subset takes the “end times” as its subject. Novels and films are churning out an intricate set of narratives that blend fundamentalist orthodoxy and conservative politics in a nightmarish vision of the world’s imminent demise. Given that a recent Time/CNN poll showed that 59 percent of Americans believe that the events in Revelation are going to come true, the extraordinary popularity of the apocalyptic Left Behind series is something to be taken seriously indeed.