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.)