December 18, 2006

Milking the Sacred Cow

They are the greatest success the industry has to offer. Everything they publish is turning to gold. Their books fly off of our library shelves, and I reluctantly feed the flow of fundamentalist fiction to faithful fans fastidiously awaiting their reserved titles as they are released. Money talks, and it says that this is what Christians want to read; the work of two writers who have set Christian fiction back at least 3 decades: Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye.

It all started in 1995, when the first book in their interminable saga (Left Behind) erupted. I was 12, and I don't even remember clearly what nationally best-selling Christian fiction for adults looked like before this. Did it exist? (Frank Peretti's This Present Darkness comes to mind as an example of a big hit in the Christian world, but did it get this kind of attention? Plus, he stopped after two.)

I'm certainly aware that the school of End Times thought represented by Left Behind is nothing new (hence a great deal of its success, I'd say). And, of course, popular accounts of it aren't exactly original either . . . The subject caught fire in the United States during the early '70s, continuing through the '80s with movies (A Thief in the Night), "nonfiction" books (The Late, Great Planet Earth), and so forth.

Still, something has clearly changed, and I don't think any of the apocalyptic grist flowing out of the Christian fiction mill has spawned a franchise on the order of Left Behind. In fact, I don't believe there has been a franchise this shameless in Christian marketing history. Back at the beginning, the series was conceived as a trilogy; three books examining the rapture, tribulation, and second coming. When I began the series late in 1999, there were 6 books out with a 7th on the way and a parallel series for young adults with several published titles under its belt.

I personally read the first 10, and then I simply couldn't continue. 10 was at least 3 too many. Hey, I'll be generous . . . I was younger, but I did get some enjoyment out of them at the time. I once sprinted across a shin-to-knee-deep pool that I knew was full of scalding hot water. I started off moving so fast that I was about halfway across before I noticed how much it hurt. I couldn't turn around, I couldn't stop, and I was terrified of tripping and landing on my face, so I kept moving. I emerged from the other side with feet and lower legs as red as boiled lobster. Similarly, I used to read some things so quickly, I could go a very long way before realizing how awful they were. I also read somewhere around 50 Hardy Boys mysteries shortly before beginning this series. It wasn't until my late teens that I learned to occasionally just stop reading something.

Meanwhile, here we are at the end of 2006. Left Behind: The Kids has hit critical mass with 40 (forty!) books in its series. Left Behind appeared to have ended with book 12. Then (and my chronology on this is a bit fuzzy, but who cares?) Jenkins and LeHaye went back and wrote three prequels: The Rising, The Regime and The Rapture.

This prequel trilogy begins 27 years before Left Behind and brings its characters up to the instant the series begins. A good half of The Rapture is devoted to the experiences of the raptured and, in a shockingly ego-centric display, a sizable chunk of that concerns the equivalent of an Academy Awards ceremony in heaven. Only, instead of the best movies of the year, Christ is handing out acclaim to the greatest Christians EV4R (sic). The atmosphere of these scenes is very drippy, with billions of happy fundies drooling over the scrupulously righteous (perfect, even) lives of such (apparently) superstar giants as Billy Graham, Dr. Bill Bright, and Ken Taylor (of The Living Bible translation).

Meanwhile, amidst the publishing of the prequels, Jenkins and LaHaye both went their separate ways, each beginning a new series that would cover the End Times in an alternate universe from the one they'd created together. So far, Jenkins has a trilogy whose titles begin with the letter "s" starring a Christian James Bond, and LaHaye has a trilogy called "Babylon Rising" starring a Christian Indiana Jones. Both are obviously derivative, although LaHaye's is doubly so since Peretti has been-there-done-that a good decade and a half ago.

However, the pièces de résistance of this eschatological spread are still to come. You'd have thought that the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment would be a good place to conclude one's account of the End Times (book 12 even featured the sub-title "The End of Days"). Not so, small sage. This coming March will see the release of book 13: Kingdom Come.

The horrors of the Tribulation are over, and Jesus Christ has set up his perfect kingdom on earth. Believers all around the world enjoy a newly perfected relationship with their Lord, and the earth itself is transformed. Yet evil still lurks in the hearts of the unbelieving. As the Millennium draws to a close, the final generation of the unrepentant prepares to mount a new offensive against the Lord Himself--sparking the final and ultimate conflict from which only one side will emerge the eternal victor.

Do they seriously propose to fill an entire book with that plot? Won't it run something like:

Evil, unrepentant guy: I'm still evil and unrepentant! Victory shall be mine! God's going d-

God: *casual smite*

Evil, unrepentant guy: Smoted! Ow, my eternal soul!

The End

Are people still paying real money for this? Oh, and I did say pièces earlier. Just a few days ago, I received this book from Tech Services, ready to go out to the shelf:

The Jesus Chronicles: Book One
John's Story: The Last Eyewitness
by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye

Before the Tribulation, before the Rapture, before there was a legacy that could be left behind . . . there was Jesus. Now the authors of the phenomenal Left Behind series introduce The Jesus Chronicles, four books that individually and collectively paint a vivid portrait of the Prince of Peace told in the voices of those who knew Him best: the Gospel writers, John, Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

Yes, Jenkins and LaHaye will now be fictionalizing all four gospels. Finally, we can hear this story retold again. This is such a necessary and worthwhile effort, what with the originals being so long out of print and all. And I'm so glad that they'll be putting the story of Christ in proper perspective, as a small foreshadowing of the much grander story arch presented in the Left Behind series.

As I reflect on the literary wreckage that these two men have wrought over the past decade, I come to a deeply disturbing realization: Jenk and LaHa have an infinite of time to work with, stretching in both directions along the timeline they have created jointly, and an equal scope along an infinite number of alternate timelines which they could create separetely or together as they please. There is no reason for them to ever stop, and at this point, odds are pretty damn good that Christ will come back before they run out of Christian bestsellers.

Y'know, Dr. Olson is always talking about all the literary types she wants to meet in heaven (despite a salvation status which, for many of them, is dubious at best). Well, I think I'd like to hunt down these two guys in the sweet by-and-by . . . and just laugh and laugh and laugh.

Posted by Jared at December 18, 2006 10:29 AM | TrackBack