Lunch with “Left Behind” author

Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the wildly popular “Left Behind” series of religiously themed adventure novels, wants me to know that he’s not an anti-Semite.

“Left Behind”
What really gets left behind in this widely popular book is something no one can afford to leave earth without: truth.

“The last thing we want to do,” he says, referring to himself and his co-author, evangelist Tim LaHaye, “is offend God’s chosen people.”

And, as if to underline the point, he’s even ordered a bagel.

Still, as we talk over breakfast at the Great Street Restaurant inside the Renaissance Chicago Hotel, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the books — 11 of them now, with another coming next spring — describe a “rapture” in which devout Christians are swept up into heaven and the rest of us are, well, left behind. In the novels’ post-rapture world, people either redeem themselves by realizing the error of their ways and converting to Christianity, or side with the evil Antichrist. Jews play a prominent role in the story lines, first welcoming the Antichrist as a leader — oops — and then, later, helping bring about his overthrow when 144,000 of them convert to Christianity.

Whatever else you can say about the books, at least you can’t accuse them of being too politically correct.

“It used to be that Christian publishers would sort of sneak up on you,” says Jenkins, who, before the runaway success of the “Left Behind” books, headed the publishing arm of the Moody Bible Institute, “[by promoting something as] a book about motivation or inspiration…. But, here, you can’t hide this. It’s a book about the rapture.”

Jenkins thought the books — which were LaHaye’s idea but are fully written by Jenkins — might appeal to a base audience of evangelical Christians but was never expecting that all 11 books would be best sellers or that five of them would hit the top spot on the New York Times list.

But if he’s surprised about it, others are stunned.

“I was watching the weekend ‘Today’ show, and they were doing a segment on hot books,” he says, spreading blackberry jam on his bagel. “When our books were mentioned, the host said, ‘Who’s reading this? Certainly not people in the city or suburbs.’ . . . And I thought, ‘Who does that leave, barefoot people in the hollers?'”

Jenkins, who after breakfast will head to a suburban Wal-Mart for a book signing, is — I’m pretty sure — just making a joke about what the liberal-media-elite thinks of his books and their readership. But he’s not far off. The ”Left Behind” series has been virtually ignored by mainstream reviewers. When the series does get written about, it’s generally in a “who-knew-Christians-would-buy-books?” marketing-trend story that includes, ahem, a snarky mention of Wal-Mart.

“People talk about an anti-Christian conspiracy,” he says, “but I think it literally just puzzles [the media]. As a rule, marketing and media don’t know what to make of it. Even Publishers Weekly, they’ll have an article on the [Left Behind] ‘juggernaut’ and then have a list of summer reads, and it’s not there.”

This is the sort of thing that bothers Jenkins, but not so much that he can’t laugh about it, calling himself “the most famous writer no one’s ever heard of.”

More than 55 million copies of the ”Left Behind” series have been sold so far, but Jenkins’ name recognition doesn’t come anywhere close to John Grisham’s or Stephen King’s. That’s due in part to the credit he shares with LaHaye, who was already well-known in Christian circles as an evangelist and co-founder of the Moral Majority. But it also, unquestionably, has something to do with the fact that the books’ content just really creeps out a lot of non-Christians.

In every ”Left Behind” book there is what Jenkins calls “a believable, reproducible conversion experience,” a scene in which some character renounces his former religion, or lack thereof, and becomes a true believer. The scene is there, Jenkins says, because the books themselves are supposed to convert people. And they do.

“I’m constantly hearing stories from people who will say they did what the character did,” he says, “or prayed what they prayed.”

When I shift uncomfortably in my seat and mention some of the criticisms of this kind of proselytizing, Jenkins explains patiently that “we see conversion as a social good.”

It is also, to Jenkins’ surprise, a very good business. He is building a Christian media empire, including the Christian Writers Guild, which offers correspondence courses for aspiring writers, and Jenkins Entertainment, the Los Angeles film company run in part by one of Jenkins’ three grown sons. Another son, Chad, writes the syndicated Gil Thorp comic strip, which lists Jerry Jenkins as its writer.

After spending 29 years working full time at the Moody Bible Institute, while writing books on his own time, Jenkins, a preacher’s grandson and former sports reporter who grew up in Elk Grove Village, now holds the title of writer-at-large and serves on the institute’s board of trustees but is no longer involved in the institute’s day-to-day management. He and his wife, Dianna, still have an apartment in Chicago, where they’ve lived most of their adult lives, but they moved to Colorado Springs in 1999.

In addition to all of that, and working on the ”Left Behind” books with LaHaye, Jenkins still finds time to work on his own writing projects, like Soon (Tyndale, $24.99), released in September.

Jenkins says he got the idea for Soon when he read a pair of letters to the editor in Time magazine in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Both writers suggested the world would be a more peaceful place if organized religion was outlawed.

Soon is set 35 years after the end of World War III, and religion has, indeed, been banned. Its hero, Paul Stepola, is an agent of the National Peace Organization, charged with exposing and destroying religious zealots. Of course, as the plot unfolds, he repents for his sin. By the book’s end, he’s rejoicing that “the mighty Lord and Creator of the universe had withdrawn every drop of water in the wicked city,” punishing the Los Angeles evildoers — yes, L.A. is the wicked city in question — who’ve been oppressing Christians.

It’s not exactly subtle, but Jenkins makes no apologies. “I’m writing for a conservative, evangelical publisher, and I’ve worked in that space for a long time,” he says. “There are certain expectations.”

It’s hard to know what to make of Jenkins, who looks like a cross between a teddy bear, an English professor and a Hollywood producer. At times, he wears his beliefs lightly, making comments like, “When I was in high school — not to make it sound too mystical — I felt called to be a full-time Christian. And I thought that meant I’d have to be a preacher or minister, even though I wanted to be a sportswriter.”

But, at other times, he seems to have an enormous blind spot. He refers to LaHaye’s writings about the rapture as if they were established truth, when, in fact, the word “rapture” doesn’t even appear in the Bible. And neither, incidentally, does the “seven-year tribulation” that is the premise of the ”Left Behind” books. Jenkins speaks of LaHaye as a renowned scholar, yet it’s unclear what, exactly, he’s been studying.

I’m still thinking about this long after Jenkins has been summoned by his schedule-keeping chief of staff and they’ve headed to his Wal-Mart book signing.

The closest I can come to figuring out how serious Jenkins is about converting others to his religion is a note on his Web site, www.jerryjenkins.com. In answer to the question, “I’m still not sure about a Pre-Tribulation Rapture. Can you convince me?” Jenkins suggests reading his and LaHaye’s “nonfiction” book, Are We Living in End Times? (Tyndale, $14.99).

“After you read the extensive scriptural reference you’ll be in a much better position to decide for yourself what makes sense on this crucial issue,” he writes. “However, no matter what you think of our perspective, the key point is we must all be ready for the return of Jesus Christ . . . and tell our family, friends and neighbors the Good News so that they too will be ready for the Glorious Appearing of our Savior!”

Apparently, none of Jenkins’ family, friends and neighbors would be offended by that.

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