Moving forward after 'Left Behind'

Times Staff Writer

Evangelical Christian authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are publishing superstars famous for the after-the-rapture "Left Behind" thrillers, which have sold more than 62 million copies and inspired three low-budget movies, a video game, a lawsuit and charges of anti-Semitism. Now, the pair have begun a new project: "The Jesus Chronicles," a series of four novels based on the New Testament. This time, they're likely to rile biblical purists, even as they aim for "Da Vinci Code" fans hungry for less strident approaches to the mysteries of the Bible.

Though the books aren't built on premises as controversial as those underlying their last series, in which Jews and others who don't convert die in a bloody battle, LaHaye and Jenkins say their message is still the same: The end is coming. Be ready. Know the Bible.

"John's Story: The Last Eyewitness (Book One of the Jesus Chronicles)" follows the last living apostle as he records the miracles of Jesus and later, after months of hard labor in the marble mines, writes the psychedelic Book of Revelation. Here, John is 89, leading Christians in secret, spreading Jesus' teachings by word-of-mouth. Then Cerinthus, a new celebrity preacher, hits the Roman Empire, and his Gnostic sermons gather huge crowds. So along with two sidekicks, twentysomething acolyte Polycarp and aspiring martyr Ignatius, John sets out to write his Gospel.

Jenkins lives in the evangelical stronghold of Colorado Springs, Colo.; LaHaye and his wife, Beverly, founder of Concerned Women for America, live in Rancho Mirage, outside of Palm Springs. Last week, midway through a weeklong media tour, the diminutive LaHaye and his younger, grayer co-author Jenkins shared a sofa in their Marina del Rey Ritz-Carlton hotel suite and wearily defended their mission. They don't hate Jews, or for that matter, anyone whose faith differs from theirs, they said. They don't, as some have said, expect to clear land or convert Jews in Israel to prepare for their Messiah's return.

They are, however, afraid for nonbelievers. "The Da Vinci Code," for example, shouldn't be given "an exalted position above Scripture," noted LaHaye, because the archeological evidence points to Jesus' divinity. And, he added, more signs of an imminent rapture are evident now "than ever in the history of the world."

"That theme 'left behind' is a warning we want to give everybody in our world," said LaHaye, who at 80 still has a youthful head of dark brown hair and a blinding white smile. "You need to come to grips on who Jesus is so that you can decide to accept him or, if you choose to reject him, that's your choice. At least you should come to that decision or you're going to be left behind in a biblical sense. Our new book is not about prophecy, but we're still motivated by the same thing: recognizing the identity of Jesus."

"John's Story" is the first big title to be released through Putnam Praise, a new Christian program of G.P. Putnam's Sons, and the publisher is capitalizing on the book's potential mass appeal, releasing it in time for the Christmas season, with a mammoth initial print run of 277,500 copies. Two weeks after its Nov. 21 publication, the book was already in its second printing. And it's being marketed as a bestseller with several full-page ads in USA Today, a public relations blitz of Christian radio stations, a mailing of more than 10,000 book samplers to "prophecy" conferences and a Christmas appearance on "Good Morning America."

"We were even on NPR in New York," Jenkins said, with a half-smile.

LaHaye and Jenkins are by now pros in the publishing game, having hit gold with "Left Behind: A Novel of Earth's Last Days" in 1995, which led to a 16-book series. Those books revealed an untapped marketing behemoth, clearing the way for other Christian blockbusters, including Mel Gibson's 2004 film "The Passion of the Christ" and Rick Warren's 2002 book "The Purpose Driven Life."

The movie side of things has not gone as well. LaHaye and Jenkins admit that they naively sold the movie rights to "Left Behind" too early and ended up with what Jenkins called glorified "church basement movies," starring Christian actor Kirk Cameron. But they've learned a lot over the years.

Around the time that the first of three films was released in 2000, LaHaye sued Canadian film production company Cloud Ten Pictures and Namesake Entertainment, claiming they made a lower quality film than the contract demanded. LaHaye said he's still fighting to win back the rights to the series.

"We thought we had a chance to reach millions of people with our message," LaHaye said. "And you don't do that with videos."

As for the new series' movie prospects, their agents are pitching to studios and "we're hopeful," Jenkins said, that a film or series of films will result.

They switched publishers from the Christian house Tyndale for "John's Story" primarily because of Putnam's marketing plan.

"It's estimated that there are 80 million evangelical Christians in this country," LaHaye said.

Jenkins completed the thought.

"We don't want them to buy more than one per person," he quipped.

Although "Left Behind" hit the rapture-apocalypse theme hard, "John's Story" attempts to draw people to the Bible with a less polarizing story. It comes as the evangelical Christian community's hold on national power may be loosening.

It's not unusual now to hear evangelicals, among them LaHaye and Jenkins, eager to stress their tolerance in the same breath that they warn people to repent or face the dire consequences of being left to fight the anti-Christ after Christians are called up to heaven.

"People assume we fall into this camp of evangelicalism that is sympathetic to Israel for some self-serving reason, that we want to get certain numbers of them converted so that Jesus can return or we need certain things to be in place in the Holy Land so that Jesus can return," Jenkins said. Those kind of characterizations, he said, misunderstand the nature of their mission in writing their books. "We believe Jesus is the Messiah, but we're not looking for a fight."

The book opens in A.D. 95 as John is being boiled in oil for refusing to worship the evil Roman emperor Domitian. He survives unharmed and is ordered to end his days toiling in a marble mine. Then the story flashes back a year earlier as John begins sharing his memories of Jesus. The plot moves swiftly enough but the dialogue is stiff, perhaps because much of it is taken straight from the Bible, peppered liberally with words such as "verily."

LaHaye and Jenkins attempted to plump up the Bible stories with color and plot, even though they expect that to upset some sects of Christians. They said they added historical context that came from LaHaye's years as a biblical scholar and from Jenkins' recent visit to Israel.

They didn't change Scripture, they said. In fact, the last 91 pages of the book include the biblical text from which the book is drawn.

"I like to call it fiction based on fact," LaHaye said. Jesus, for example, is described as a "man's man," who is so soft-spoken his disciples wonder how he'd fare in a fight. And John doesn't censor his own embarrassing gaffes, like, for instance, his suggestion that he and his brother James "command fire" from heaven to burn some Samaritans who turn Jesus away.

"Jesus himself taught in parables which are clearly fictitious stories," Jenkins said. "People have said they're earthly stories with heavenly meanings. He was clearly making up stories to make his point. And so that's what we're doing too."

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