Writing for Godot
In the beginning of the end, as Tim LaHaye tells it, millions of people will disappear off the face of the earth, “raptured” up to heaven. Over the following seven years, tribulations of all kinds--demon locusts, seas of blood, nuclear war--will claim billions more. The city of Babylon in modern-day Iraq will be rebuilt, as will the first temple in Jerusalem, on land now occupied by one of the most sacred sites in Islam, the Dome of the Rock. By then, though, all of the Muslims in the world will have been eliminated, either horrifyingly killed or converted to Christianity. Nearly all Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and other “unbelievers,” even some Christians, face the same fate. Finally, after all the carnage, when the world is ready for Jesus to walk the earth again, the savior’s very words will cause the last of the unfortunates to fall gruesomely dead.
LaHaye, an early organizer of the Moral Majority and a longtime activist in conservative politics, has brought that vision vividly to life in an astonishingly popular series of page-turning action novels collectively known as the “Left Behind” series. Co-authored with Christian novelist Jerry B. Jenkins (Jenkins does the writing, LaHaye supplies the biblical underpinnings), the books so far have sold about 62 million copies, according to their publisher.
Since 1995, loyal readers of the series have followed the adventures of a gang of clean-cut Christian yuppies as they have battled the forces of evil and the antichrist across 12 novels, the last of which, “Glorious Appearing,” was published last month. It features a chatty Christ returning to a battered and depopulated earth to lead all believers and many converted Jews into a new millennium. But fans need not despair: No one involved in this publishing phenomenon is ready to call it quits, particularly at a time when popular culture is embracing Christian-themed stories with extraordinary fervor. Two more Left Behind books--a sequel and a prequel--are in the works for publisher Tyndale House that will further expand on the struggle between God and the antichrist.
Still, if LaHaye had settled for being the John Grisham of the Christian book market, his story would be important only in that insular world. But in addition to helping the Christian publishing industry, including music and related products, grow from $1 billion in sales in 1980 to $4.2 billion in 2002, the Left Behind titles became the first Christian book series to be sold in mainstream outlets such as Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble. According to the agent who represented LaHaye on the Left Behind books, Rick Christian, the series’ fans also could buy Left Behind Bible covers, novels for teens, even Bible study guides. Two movies have been produced featuring the Left Behind characters, which LaHaye dismisses as “church-basement videos,” though they have been seen by millions.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that in 2002, a mainstream publishing company finally acknowledged LaHaye’s crossover popularity. LaHaye says his new publishing deal with Bantam Dell for a four-book series of biblically based novels called “Babylon Rising” is worth $18 million, although some reports have put the number as high as $42 million. (Writer Jenkins, however, has been left behind for another co-author.) It was among the biggest book deals of that year, according to Forbes.com, and the first of those books came out in October 2003. The next is due in August.
But his Midas touch in the publishing world is not the most important thing to understand about Tim LaHaye, who now lives in Rancho Mirage. It is his commitment to impress his end-is-near worldview upon the rest of the culture. He’s certain that the fictional events of the Left Behind books--the Rapture of believers to heaven, the wholesale destruction of nonbelievers, the emergence of a murderous antichrist, all of it--will unfold essentially as he describes it, and soon, possibly before he dies. For a man who wants to save as many souls as he can before that happens, time is running out. And no one is more aware of that than LaHaye, who will be 78 years old on Tuesday.
The end may be near, but that possibility has not led to any falloff in a remarkable boom in Christian-themed entertainment. “I keep thinking the whole thing is going to peter out,” says Lynn Garrett, religion editor at Publishers Weekly. “We thought it was tied to the turning of the millennium, but it just kept going.”
The reason may be that fundamentalist, literal Bible belief now is an irrefutable force in American public life. Political leadership may have something to do with it. So might terrorism and the occasional talk of a global religious war that have made Americans increasingly uncertain since Sept. 11, 2001. But even that doesn’t explain the popularity of the Left Behind series, which was selling briskly long before that defining cultural trauma. The growing appetite for Christian-themed entertainment “may be helping people satisfy a hunger for a story line to explain what is going on now in the world,” says Barbara R. Rossing, associate professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and author of “The Rapture Exposed.” “Left Behind gives a sense of black-and-white answers--a fight between good and evil [in which good wins].”
Whatever the underlying reasons, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which opened Feb. 25, earned more than $260 million in its first three weeks and inspired some industry insiders to dream of its numbers surpassing “Star Wars” and “Titanic” as the all-time box office leader. More than 1 million people also bought Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life” in 2003, a “blueprint for Christian living,” placing it second in scanned adult nonfiction sales last year, right behind “The South Beach Diet.” According to the Barna Group, a marketing firm that specializes in research for Christian ministries, 83% of Americans now identify themselves as Christians, 60% identify themselves as “committed” Christians, 38% are “born-again” Christians and 7% are “evangelical” Christians. Those numbers, if true, might help explain the vocal opposition to gay marriage and the harsh reactions to Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl breast-baring incident. Might Clear Channel have moved with those numbers in mind when it recently cracked down on mass-media vulgarians Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge?
Not all evangelical Christians--those who believe in the importance of professing their beliefs to others--say that the end of the world is near, or that it will unfold as LaHaye and his fellow believers suggest. But that doesn’t stop a lot of people from simply enjoying stories about that possibility. A 2001 Barna Group survey found that while the average reader of the Left Behind series is a female born-again Christian, 17% are mainstream churchgoers, 24% are Catholic and 9% are “self-described atheists.”
LaHaye had a reported income of about $15 million in 2002, the year he struck the Bantam Dell deal, but for him the money he earns from Left Behind, Babylon Rising and his other projects is just a means to an end. During a recent break at one of the Left Behind Prophesy Conferences that LaHaye holds regularly in churches across the nation, he began by emphasizing that “the money is not a primary motivator--it’s the opportunity to get the message out to more people.” That message--that the end is near and we’d better get ready--has without question struck a resonant chord.
LaHaye’s desire not to be left behind has deep roots. He was born in Detroit, and his family later moved to rural Farmington, Mich. Since he was 9, he says, he has looked forward to the day when he will see his father again in heaven. Frank LaHaye, an auto worker at Ford and the son of a French Canadian immigrant, died of a massive heart attack at age 34, two weeks before Tim LaHaye’s 10th birthday. At his father’s funeral in Detroit, he remembers that “the pastor of my church said, ‘The world has not seen the last of Frank LaHaye.’ Then he pointed to the sky of a gray Michigan day. The sun suddenly peeked out and I came up off my knees with hope.”
That hope, and LaHaye’s conviction to share it with everyone, keep him on the road to spread the word about the coming Rapture. On this particular day, he’s speaking to about 500 evangelicals at a prophesy conference in Palm Beach, Fla. LaHaye certainly doesn’t dress like a rich man. For today’s event, he has donned a cheap beige sports jacket, navy polyester pants and worn Austin Powers-style ankle boots. Under the jacket, his denim shirt displays a Left Behind logo hot-glued to the pocket. Asked if he’s wearing it to sell books, he admits that he picked it up for free from his publisher. His only concession to vanity is a head of preternaturally brown hair and the lean, hungry look of a runner. Although he has a pacemaker and takes medication for a heart condition, he says he still jogs four or more days a week. From a distance--and on his book covers--he could pass for a chiseled man of 60, instead of one nearing 80.
LaHaye is not the charismatic pulpit-thumping preacher you might expect, given his success in reaching audiences. During sermons and at prophecy conferences, he grabs the lectern on both sides and sticks with his PowerPoint, even though he has given versions of his talk about Bible prophesy and the signs of “end times” for years. Nor is he expansive in person. He tries to keep incendiary remarks to himself, knowing it only helps the “liberal media” portray him as a wild-eyed radical. For the most part, he stays on message: Sell books, don’t reveal too much, don’t say anything controversial. He speaks in the well-modulated tones of a pastor who has spent his life counseling fairly reasonable people to do fairly reasonable things. And yet it’s easy to tell when he is about to say something that he believes will give his listener pause. His cornflower blue eyes turn a piercing steely gray, and he almost vibrates with energy.
LaHaye sees evidence everywhere of the end of the world as we know it and three of his 10 Bible prophesy books focus on the end times. He even contributes to his publisher’s online newsletter, “The Left Behind Prophesy Club,” to reassure evangelical Christians that things are proceeding right on schedule and that they should be happy about it. “These are easily the most exciting days to be alive,” he wrote in “Are We Living in the End Times?” which he also co-authored with Jenkins. “We 21st century Christians have more reason than any generation before us to believe that Christ will return to take us to His Father’s house.”
For one thing, he is absolutely convinced that the turmoil in the Middle East is a sign that Jesus’ return is imminent. Asked about the newsletter’s report that “Saddam’s removal clears the way for rebuilding Babylon,” LaHaye smiles as he explains that this was indeed one of the clearest signs he had seen. So President Bush is bringing the Second Coming closer by rebuilding Iraq? “Totally inadvertently, yes.”
Another hopeful sign for believers, according to the newsletter, is a world “desperate for peace”--preparing the way for the antichrist. At prophesy conferences, LaHaye tells rapt audiences that reporters ask him whether he believes the antichrist already has been born. “I always tell them: ‘Yes, I do.’ ” He declines, however, to name names.
Still, signs of the end times would be of little relevance outside of fundamentalist churches, except for one thing--Tim LaHaye wants the whole world to believe as he does. Apparently, he’d also like them to vote that way.
Spend a few hours talking with the soft-spoken, grandfatherly LaHaye, and you begin to understand why he continues to write and speak at a furious pace, and is even helping lead a Left Behind prophesy tour and cruise to Greece with prices ranging from $2,800 to $3,000, depending on the point of origin. What drives him is that he wants everyone in the world to go to heaven.
Still, LaHaye was content to be the pastor of a small but growing Baptist congregation, Scott Memorial in San Diego, until he was 55. Then he decided the time had come to expand the church’s ministry. The City Council wouldn’t allow him to extend the church complex because of concerns about preserving a wildlife habitat. “After $200,000 and three years of effort, we lost 6 to 2. For the first time I realized that men and women largely hostile to the church controlled our city,” LaHaye wrote in one of his books.
The defeat transformed LaHaye into a Christian political activist. He eventually took over a parochial school in El Cajon, which has become the 4,500-member Shadow Mountain Community Church. The facility now is home to Christian Heritage College and one of three campuses of Christian Unified Schools of San Diego, all founded and run for a time by LaHaye. Once the schools were operating smoothly, LaHaye started an organization called Californians for Biblical Morality to encourage California Christians to become active in politics. The group, formed in 1979, caught the eye of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who enlisted D. James Kennedy and LaHaye to establish the Moral Majority, which was the first national organization to encourage evangelical Christians to vote and to become politically active.
Falwell remembered the organization’s heady first days in a recent phone conversation: “Within months we had 7 million laypeople on our mailing list and helped elect Ronald Reagan president. It was the most explosive thing in American politics. George W. Bush would not be president without that fallout of the organizing of religious conservatives.”
The Moral Majority came apart in the wake of scandals involving televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart in 1989. LaHaye’s own American Coalition for Traditional Values, which he founded in 1984 to promote voter-registration drives in churches, also waned. But by then evangelical Christians had many voices promoting their views, including the Christian Coalition, which declares on its website that it distributed 70 million voter guides in a recent national election.
In the midst of all his political organizing, in 1981 LaHaye left the ministry in San Diego. After three years of leading family-life seminars, prophesy conferences and “writing an awful lot,” he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1984 so that his wife, Beverly, could be a more effective lobbying force with the abortion-opposition group Concerned Women for America, which she founded. He had founded the Council for National Policy, whose influence far exceeds its $1-million annual budget. The organization aims to bring together the leading conservatives to influence public policy. Among its current leaders is conservative activist Grover Norquist, whom the Wall Street Journal described as “the V.I. Lenin of the anti-tax movement.” (It was Norquist who famously said, “I don’t want to abolish government, I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it to the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”) LaHaye was relieved of his role as Jack Kemp’s 1988 presidential campaign co-chair when his written statements about Catholicism being a “false religion” became public, so he decided to try his hand at Christian-themed fiction.
“There was a day it dawned on me that I could reach more people with my pen than with my mouth,” he says after deprecating his skills as a preacher and scholar. After having been a force in kicking off the Christian political movement, LaHaye now wanted to reach beyond the true believers to a wider circle of people who might be willing to accept both his political and spiritual beliefs. It’s the kind of strategic approach Falwell admires. LaHaye’s novels are reaching “an audience heretofore unreached,” Falwell said, and “his impact subliminally is probably greater than it has ever been, such that if you were to ask him he would tell you that he’s no longer crusading, he’s evangelizing.” He added, “Once his converts get in our churches, we pastors have a tendency to tell them how to vote.”
The books have allowed LaHaye to put political organizing behind him. Whether he is active in politics or not, though, he’s clearly using his fortune to support his causes. According to a story in Time magazine, LaHaye and Jenkins have earned an estimated $50 million each just from the Left Behind series and related merchandise in the 10 years since the series was launched. His Tim LaHaye Ministries generates nearly $500,000 per year in total revenue through the prophesy conferences and book sales. Based upon his own claims and government filings, large chunks of that money end up in the hands of nonprofit groups that promote his agenda.
One of those is the Free Congress Foundation, whose Center for Law and Democracy researches “the past voting record, opinions and qualifications of people nominated for the federal judiciary.” Other LaHaye beneficiaries are the Madison Project, a “family values” advocacy group; CWA PAC, the political arm of wife Beverly’s Concerned Women for America; and Falwell’s Liberty University, where he donated $4.5 million for a student center named after him and his wife. The LaHayes also support services for the needy in Central America, as well as the “Pre-Trib Research Center” to “express and defend” the view that believers soon will be raptured to heaven.
Other than that monetary support, though, LaHaye now lets his novels do his bidding. Yvonne Dahlstrom, a Riverside homemaker with two children, is one who became an evangelical Christian after reading the first Left Behind book. “God used the book to save me,” she says. She identified with the main character, airline pilot Rayford Steele, whose wife and child are “snatched to heaven” with other evangelical Christians one ordinary day. “I realized that I definitely would have been left behind,” Dahlstrom says. Reading the Left Behind books convinced her that she needed Jesus in her life so that she wouldn’t be.
Asked why he thinks his novels are so popular, LaHaye gives a quick and certain answer: “Comfort and hope. That sense of knowing what will happen in the end of time attracts many people.”
If LaHaye’s life was preordained from the moment of his father’s premature death, it still was shaped by events beyond his control. The fatherless family eventually ended up moving back to Detroit, where LaHaye sold magazine subscriptions door to door. He lost his job at age 12, he says on the Concerned Women for America website, because child labor laws were passed in Michigan. “I remember coming home and telling my mother what I thought of politicians who mess around with our lives.” His mother, Margaret, supported her two sons and a daughter by working at a hospital and later at a defense plant while studying at Detroit Bible Institute.
After a stint as an Air Force sergeant stateside in World War II, LaHaye studied for the ministry at conservative Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. He met Beverly Davenport there, and soon they were married in Detroit. (Generally, students at BJU are not allowed to hold hands when dating and must be chaperoned when off campus.) Even before their graduation in 1950, the LaHayes already had a daughter, Linda, and so he took the first pastorate he was offered, in the tiny village of Pumpkintown, S.C.,--at a $15-a-week salary that LaHaye says he augmented by working nights at a cotton mill. Three more children followed, and while moving from Pumpkintown to Minnesota to San Diego he completed work on his doctorate degree, which he was granted in 1975 from Western Conservative Seminary.
LaHaye also had begun writing books. His first was “Spirit-Controlled Temperament,” published in 1966; it became a Christian bestseller and is still in print today in revised form. In it, LaHaye posits that each of us is influenced by the “four humors” that come down to us from ancient Greek physicians: choleric, phlegmatic, sanguine and melancholy, and combinations thereof. Although many Christians see these formulations as occult or even blasphemous, LaHaye believes that knowing your temperament can help you build better relationships with people and with God.
Churning out a new nonfiction book about once a year--sometimes several in a year--and giving “Family Life” seminars with Beverly on how to create a Christian home kept him busy. The family’s income grew. Somewhere along the way, as LaHaye regularly recounts in sermons, he also witnessed “an airline pilot with a wedding ring flirting with a pretty stewardess.” He began to wonder how such sinful scenarios would play out if the Rapture occurred at that moment. Would the pilot and the flight attendant be left behind? The idea (and title) for a novel based on the Book of Revelation was born--and LaHaye began his search for a co-author who shared his beliefs.
LaHaye went on a ski trip with Rick Christian, a book agent who also represented Jenkins, the author of more than 100 books, most of them Christian-themed novels. The agent arranged for LaHaye and Jenkins to meet at a hotel near O’Hare Airport in Chicago in 1992. “LaHaye had two character names and an opening scene when we met,” says Jenkins, but the two saw eye to eye about what they brought to the table. LaHaye would supply detailed outlines of end-time events predicted in the Bible, and Jenkins would write the books, a story line that would, they hoped, save a lot of souls.
Does Jenkins, a lifelong evangelical Christian, feel he was inspired by God to write runaway bestsellers when he had never experienced sales on this level before? Not directly. “I don’t want to imply that I’m writing [God’s] words,” he says. But “when I get a computer glitch or unexplained fatigue, I know that [Satan] is trying to stop me. It’s a nuisance, and it seems to be only these books.”
Even with an expert novelist as co-author, however, LaHaye and agent Christian couldn’t interest any publishers in the proposal for a single Left Behind book that covered the whole Book of Revelation. “The [rejections] were all along the same lines: ‘The ending is already known--the world ends--we wouldn’t be able to sell something like that,’ ” Christian says. They shopped the idea to about a dozen publishers, and in the end two were interested, both offering about $50,000 for the book. Then LaHaye’s nonfiction publisher, Tyndale House, matched their offers and predicted that Left Behind, in its original incarnation, could sell “half a million copies”--a forecast that persuaded Christian and LaHaye to accept Tyndale’s offer.
If that was a sign, it was way off the mark. Released in 1995, the first Left Behind book eventually sold 8 million copies, and it continues to sell. And even before the first book was published, LaHaye and Jenkins had decided that it must be a series: They were only able to cover the first few weeks of the seven-year tribulation with the first one.
LaHaye sees the hand of God behind his astonishing rise from fatherless child to seemingly unbeatable publishing juggernaut. He says he wants for nothing even though he says he gives 50% of his income to charities and uses half of what’s left to pay his taxes. In fact, he says there is only one other thing he feels he must accomplish before he meets Jesus: to see his Left Behind heroes presented on the big screen in a film created to his high standards.
As LaHaye tells it, he first realized the power of film to change minds while sitting in the dark as a young man watching “Ben-Hur.” Last year, in the introduction to a new Signet Classic edition of “Ben-Hur,” he recounted a speech he once gave to 400 screenwriters, producers and other Hollywood insiders who were looking for ways to produce more “faith-based” movies. Urging them to be “unashamedly Christian,” LaHaye told them to remember the way that “Ben-Hur” conveyed author Lew Wallace’s faith, with a rivulet of Christ’s blood that eventually flowed out to the whole world.
“Movies are the most powerful vehicle to the human mind ever invented,” LaHaye said at the prophesy conference, unclasping his hands and jabbing at the cocktail table with an index finger for emphasis. “All it takes is success with one [Christian-themed movie], and movie theater managers might earmark one screen for faith-based movies, or at least movies that won’t offend Christian sensibilities.”
By late March, he was quite pleased by the success of Gibson’s movie, despite the controversy it ignited because of its depiction of Jewish culpability in Christ’s death. “It was the best movie I have ever seen. It faithfully presents the real story of Jesus’ sacrifice for mankind in a gripping and respectful manner that deepens a person’s love and respect for him. It also opens the door for many other faith-based, family-oriented movies with high-quality production and viewer appeal to millions.”
He hopes that many of those movies will have Left Behind in the title, and he regrets selling the movie rights to those titles for a mere $350,000. He sued in federal court to have the contract he signed with a producer of Christian films declared void, but did not prevail in his efforts to reclaim the film rights to the first two Left Behind books. Both he and Jenkins have launched separate production companies aimed at turning out wholesome and “worthwhile” films, and hope to produce a big-budget film based on the third book in the series, “Nicolae.”
Will theaters soon be full of heroic Christians battling the antichrist and his minions for the souls of the world? Everything LaHaye touches seems to acquire a special dispensation. Any successful person can point to luck or skill of the same sort. But you have to wonder who arranged such a fitting close to LaHaye’s prophesy conference in Palm Beach--high in the sky until the wind blew the skywriting away, you could just make out the words: “Hi World. Love God.”
Researcher Jessica Gelt contributed to this story.
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