An Empire of Their Own
"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.
The series, which will include fourteen novels in all, is one long story. The opening book tells of a group of Americans, either nominal Christians or secularists, who, because they lack sufficient faith, are "left behind" when God takes all true believers into heaven in an event known as the Rapture. These unbelievers soon realize their mistake, and convert to evangelical Christianity. In preparation for the horrific yet enthralling events of the "end times," they form themselves into an underground "Tribulation Force." Rayford Steele, a strong-willed pilot in his 40s, is the head of the group. He is joined by his daughter Chloe and her husband, Buck Williams, a tough-minded crack journalist. The team is soon joined by Tsion Ben-Judah, an Israeli rabbi who has come to understand that Jesus was in fact the Jewish Messiah. As the plagues begin, bringing locust-looking demons and terrible natural disasters, from the drying up of seas to the darkening of the sun, Ben-Judah becomes an end-times prophet, teaching millions of new converts on his Internet site about the biblical meaning of the unfolding events.
Meanwhile, the rising Antichrist is Nicolae Carpathia, a handsome, urbane and lethally devious Romanian national who started his ascent to power as Secretary General of the United Nations (a longstanding object of fundamentalist wrath). Before long, Carpathia establishes himself as a global dictator and foists onto a gullible population a totalitarian, one-world government, a single global currency and a syncretic universal religion that combines Catholic-style pomp with New Age rhetoric. Soon the Antichrist builds himself a massive capital city from which to rule the world--in New Babylon, Iraq. (Obviously, this plot element connected impressively with the recent war, though it was already in place in Left Behind novels from the late 1990s.)
As the series progresses, and the final confrontation between good and evil approaches, the Antichrist intensifies his persecution of all who resist his power, particularly Jews and Christians. Opposing him, the Tribulation Force expands rapidly, gathering other committed converts all over the globe. The revolving cast of characters features not only whites, blacks and Native Americans but also Chinese, Greeks, Arabs and countless numbers of Israeli Jews. They are a tough, multinational cohort of guerrilla warriors, including military men, housewives, computer hackers and pilots--many, many pilots. They fly back and forth between their secret hide-outs in the United States and the sites of the real action, in Israel and Iraq. They manage to keep an eye on the goings on at New Babylon via deep-cover operatives and untraceable bugging devices. In short, they are highly competent and modern people, who whip around the world at a moment's notice in fighter jets or private planes, e-mail one another over highly encrypted computers and rescue those in danger.
In Armageddon, the members of the Tribulation Force join the "Remnant" of Israel, a core group of Jewish converts who have taken sanctuary at Petra, in Jordan, where they are fed manna from heaven each day. This group of Jews is held in special favor by God, thanks to their conversion. When Jesus returns (in the next novel), it is to fight on behalf of Israel against the massed power of the Antichrist. And, as the characters in Left Behind reassure one another repeatedly, biblical prophecy has already made the outcome clear: "We know how it ends. We win."
If this plot summary seems bizarre, the remarkable thing is that the scenario laid out in the novels is in no way outlandish or even very creative, if measured against the rich tapestry of evangelical fiction and nonfiction literature and film over the past twenty-five years. Since 1970, when Hal Lindsey published the hipster-styled book of prophecy interpretation The Late Great Planet Earth, which went on to become the bestselling nonfiction book of the decade, evangelical prophecy scholars have published one popularizing book after another, many of which were Christian bookstore bestsellers. In the mid-1970s, a low-budget film about a group of teenagers facing the Rapture traveled widely on the church-basement circuit. Its theme song, "I Wish We'd All Been Ready," became a staple of youth groups and Christian concerts for a decade. By the 1980s, several authors, including Pat Robertson, started turning the pious tracts into rollicking adventure; Frank Peretti's This Present Darkness (1986) sold several million copies; and the 1999 film Omega Code was the year's most successful independent release. In the late 1990s prophecy also moved to the Internet, with sites like raptureready.com and prophecynewswatch.com.
Left Behind readers are likely to have been immersed in that cultural milieu. The publisher, Tyndale House, says that 85 percent of its readers describe themselves as "born again," and almost 65 percent first heard about the series through friends or relatives. The average reader is a white married woman from the South, between 25 and 54 years old, who attends church weekly. Latinos make up 9 percent of the readers; African-Americans are 7 percent. These latter numbers are striking. More than 15 percent of Left Behind readers are people of color--that's certainly a lot higher than the percentage of blacks or Latinos who watch Friends--and it indicates more racial diversity than talk about "white evangelicals" generally suggests. Then again, given that two-thirds of the African-American population identifies as evangelical or born-again Christian, the number of African-American readers is actually rather low.
Different authors and preachers have offered their own specific visions of the apocalypse prophecy scenario: Ardent prophecy watchers may be biblical literalists, but their interpretations are developed by piecing together passages that are scattered across the "prophetic" books of the Bible, in acts of constructive meaning-making that would make any English professor proud. Still, the basic outlines are not really up for grabs, and by now certain stock images--the clothes left on an empty airline seat when a believer is Raptured, or the smooth-talking Antichrist holding forth at UN headquarters--have become ritualistic markers of a highly politicized religious culture.
The links between global politics and the "prophetic calendar" are matters of doctrine among the large swath of evangelicals who are also ardent prophecy watchers. For these true believers, the Middle East, particularly Israel and Iraq, is deeply important, both religiously and politically, as the theater of God's actions in the final days. LaHaye has often argued that the founding of Israel--the return of the Jews to their land--is the "supersign" that the Second Coming is approaching. In Left Behind, as in virtually every other prophecy adventure, Israel is the only nation God favors. Despite the well-documented nationalism of many Christian conservatives, most interpreters argue that the United States as a nation hardly figures at all in the end times. After all, as several Internet commentators have pointed out, America is not mentioned in the Bible. Jerry Falwell suggested something similar back in 1985, when he announced that "if we fail to protect Israel, we will cease to be important to God."
If he's right, then the United States must matter to God a great deal these days. The remarkable influence of the Christian right and more specifically Christian Zionism on the current Bush Administration's Middle East policy has been hard to miss. Right-wing figures in Congress like Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe and House majority leader Tom DeLay have close working relationships with evangelicals like LaHaye, Falwell and Ralph Reed. These evangelists and politicians are in turn deeply connected to the Israeli right, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his financeminister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The relationship has deepened in recent years--it seems as if some Jewish pro-Israeli organization is always giving Pat Robertson an award, and among grassroots Christian conservatives, there are multiple campaigns to raise money to settle immigrant Jews in the West Bank and Gaza--but the connections pay off particularly well in times of crisis. When the Israelis pushed into Jenin last year, for example, killing dozens of Palestinians and leaving thousands homeless, Falwell organized a massive e-mail campaign to call for the United States to "stand firm" behind Israel, while DeLay spearheaded Congressional opposition to any weakening of the Bush Administration's pro-Sharon stance. At about that time, DeLay discussed his recent trip to the Middle East before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "I didn't see any occupied territory," he told the appreciative audience. "What I saw was Israel." More recently, DeLay declared himself "an Israeli of the heart" in a rabid speech before the Knesset.
Not surprisingly, some Israelis and American Jews have expressed profound unease with this kind of support. Gershom Gorenberg, author of The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, has called this evangelical embrace a "strangely exploitative relationship," in which evangelicals love Israel primarily because they believe its existence proves that biblical prophecies are true. The history of conservative Christian anti-Semitism is no small issue here, and LaHaye himself is no small contributor to that history. LaHaye was active in the Moral Majority in the 1980s and was later forced to resign as co-chairman of Jack Kemp's 1988 presidential campaign for having called Catholicism a "false religion" and for blaming Jewish suffering on the Jewish rejection of Jesus. More recently, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in Slate magazine, LaHaye announced that "some of the greatest evil in the history of the world was concocted in the Jewish mind." "The Jewish brain," he added kindly, also "has the capacity for great good." LaHaye's crude views are hardly the norm among evangelicals, but the suspicion remains that the pro-Israeli positions emerging from the Christian right are at best instrumental and at worst a dangerous enthusiasm for the impending destruction and/or mass conversion of Jews. The criticisms have led a few evangelical leaders, including Pat Robertson, to deny that biblical prophecy plays a primary role in their pro-Israel positions.
This general caveat undoubtedly holds some truth; many evangelical Christians, even those who don't hold a particular interest in prophecy, are deeply committed to a pro-Israel stance. But if we pay attention to the lively world of evangelical popular culture, it becomes clear that prophecy narratives mobilize a particular kind of energy and enthusiasm. A generic sense of support for God's Chosen People becomes something far more exciting and more emotionally powerful when placed in the context of what many evangelicals believe to be the most religiously significant events of all time. On the multiple web message boards on leftbehind.com, for example, enthusiastic posts situate Israel's history and current politics within an ongoing series of discussions about "Are We Living in the End Times," or "How Soon Will It Be?" Recently, one contributor wrote in to say that she is anxious and feels the world is spiraling out of control. The reply from another poster: "Relax! Enjoy seeing the Bible come to life! It's proof that it IS REAL!"
Quite a few moderate and liberal evangelicals have criticized the theological bent that turns every current event into an occasion to prove that the end is near. Randall Balmer, an evangelical who has written a series of influential studies of the movement, says that the focus on prophecy emerges out of a "theology of despair" based on a "slavishly literalistic" reading of Revelation. He describes Left Behind as "camp fiction," and calls it both triumphalist and self-righteous. Other commentators aren't nearly so generous: Christian Century magazine described Left Behind as simple-minded "beam me up theology."
But that "beam me up" theology is central to the books' appeal. At the level of fundamentalist doctrine, the Left Behind series is unreconstructed and proud of it: There is only Jesus Christ, and Christianity is the only truth. Winning converts is the primary moral duty of the characters (and, one presumes, of the novels themselves). The narrative inveighs repeatedly against abortion, sexual "immorality" and false religion. At the same time, the fast-paced chase scenes, direct visitations by angels and humorous banter among the tough-minded fly-boys lend excitement to the long didactic messages in which Tsion Ben-Judah details the meaning of particular biblical verses, or the endless repetition of scenes in which yet another character recounts how he or she found Jesus. What makes these novels work is that they seamlessly integrate an apocalyptic religious view with a strongly conservative political vision, and locate both in a universe of supernatural action adventure in which good and evil are fully and finally revealed.
The war between good and evil is the moral heart of the series, and the utter lack of ambiguity in the situations it evokes is the utopian lamp in the dark world of the end times. Religiously, the purity of believers is contrasted with the evil religion propounded by the Antichrist and his henchmen. Those on the wrong side of God suffer the kind of tortures that right-wing radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh have sometimes seemed to wish on "Feminazis": They are bitten by demon-locusts and suffer terribly for five months; they are struck down by flashes of fire and sulfur, trampled by ghostly, death-dealing horsemen who ride the skies and attack only nonbelievers. Believers, on the other hand, are immune from much of this suffering, though they do face death and danger, and occasionally become martyrs for their cause.
A more earthly right-wing political critique is fully integrated into this narrative, and all the traditional far-right bugbears make an appearance. The one-world government of the Antichrist, for example, has its origins in a shadowy conspiracy between a group of Trilateral Commission-like financiers and the fearful members of the UN, who are so desperate for "peace" that they allow themselves to be taken over by a dictator. And that totalitarian rule embodies every conceivable form of liberal tyranny. It is simultaneously economic (the Antichrist introduces a single currency), cultural (he has a monopoly on world media) and political (his police state employs "Morale Monitors" who patrol the streets, hunting down and executing any dissidents). Oh, and the Antichrist also tries to make his lover have an abortion. So it is that when one of the Antichrist's henchmen describes the Tribulation Force members as "right-wing, fanatic, fundamentalist faction," we as readers are invited to consider the source and take it as a compliment. We know whose side God is on, and who will be destroyed at the end.
Of course, the Left Behind series is fiction, and fiction is not a hypodermic needle, injecting beliefs into unwary victims. The fact that we watch a particular TV show or read a particular set of novels doesn't mean we buy their entire world-view. I am a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I'm not at all inclined to believe that there is a hell mouth in California. (I do, however, occasionally allow myself to imagine that Martin Sheen is President.) We cannot assume, then, that every Left Behind reader is, or becomes, a prophecy-talking, Bible-believing, UN-bashing conservative Christian. Nor can we assume that all evangelicals, even politically conservative ones, share the ideology of the prophecy set. Indeed, there is some evidence that fans of the series read the books as if they were Stephen King novels, and the series has received reviews on both science fiction and horror websites. Even on the official leftbehind.com chat-rooms, many younger readers announce that their other favorite books are the Star Trek and Star Wars series, or novels by Marion Zimmer Bradley and even Anne Rice.
But Left Behind is more than a collection of novels. It exists within an evangelical milieu both broad and deep. That universe is both highly interactive and intimately familiar to most of its readers, filled with stock apocalyptic imagery, detailed biblical exegesis and action-adventure realism that marries contemporary evangelical fascinations, conservative political values and popular-culture pleasures. This kind of thick context makes it much more likely that the Left Behind novels will be received as prophecy, not dismissed as fluff, by the evangelicals who form their core audience.
Left Behind also highlights something important about the way mass culture works. Rather than creating a homogenized McWorld, as so many critics have claimed, popular culture can and does reinforce ideological and cultural divisions, fostering sharp distinctions between communities. The evangelical population in the United States is becoming more numerous, more politicized--particularly around foreign policy--and more powerful than ever before. This transformation is as much cultural as political, or rather, it is inextricably both at once. Those of us who care deeply about the future of politics, domestic and international, cannot afford to ignore the fact that evangelicals are no longer merely a subculture. They are fast becoming a--perhaps the--dominant force in American life. As the Middle East smolders, many people have debated the role of George W. Bush's Christian beliefs in his foreign policy, and we are daily confronted with the lobbying muscle of the Christian right. But if we want to understand conservative Christians as a political force, we must pay attention to the galvanizing power of culture. The astonishing success of the Left Behind series suggests that the conservative obsession with biblical prophecy is increasingly shaping our secular reality. I wish we'd all been ready.