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Danger lurks in the fringes

Left Behind, 320 pp., $14.99 paper Tribulation Force, 450 pp., $14.99 paper Nicolae, 432 pp., $14.99 paper Soul Harvest, 448 pp., $14.99 paper Apollyon, 404 pp., $14.99 paper Assassins, 448 pp., $14.99 paper The Indwelling, 416 pp., $14.99 paper The Mark, 382 pp., $14.99 paper Desecration, 432 pp., $14.99 paper The Remnant, 432 pp., $14.99 paper Armageddon, 426 pp., $24.95, forthcoming Books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins Available from Tyndale House

March 02, 2003|Zachary Karabell | Zachary Karabell is a contributing writer to Book Review and the author of "Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal" and "The Last Campaign."

The literary landscape of the United States is dotted with familiar landmarks: the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books anchor the East Coast; the paper you have in your hand does the same for the West. People magazine supplies capsule reviews of popular fiction and history, while the Today show touts a few fortunate authors each week. The Book of the Month Club sends its selections to hundreds of thousands. Local papers publish reviews and carry the few ads that publishers still subsidize, and the bestseller list of USA Today shows the dominance of books that seek to entertain by publishers who care less about the judgment of the literati than about the verdict of the marketplace.

And yet, this landscape, as diverse as it is, has an uncharted quadrant. Ask people who they think are the most popular authors in the United States, and they will come up with a variety of responses ranging from Stephen King to Anne Rice to James Patterson. Very few will come up with the Rev. Tim LaHaye and his co-author, Jerry B. Jenkins, whose books have sold at least 50 million copies. There are now 10 titles in the "Left Behind" series (12 are planned), and another two dozen books in a related series called "Left Behind: The Kids." There is also a privately produced movie version of the story, available by mail order, and several nonfiction books published by LaHaye ministries.

The "Left Behind" series is a dramatization of the Book of Revelation as the story might play out in the near future. The first book, "Left Behind," was published in 1995, and its success went unnoticed by mainstream culture. Whatever the literary merits of the novels, the story exerts a powerful pull on millions of Americans. Sales have accelerated since Sept. 11, and the most recent book, "The Remnant," published last year, had a first printing of nearly 3 million copies. The next book, "Armageddon," scheduled for April, will probably exceed that.

The series is part of a larger trend of Christian publishing but, unlike the simple, slightly treacly novels of Jan Karon, the "Left Behind" books are dark and disturbing. They fuse the apocalyptic nightmare of Revelations with the conspiratorial, nativist underbelly of American society. And their wild success raises two rather unsettling questions: How many Americans embrace the story not as fiction but as prophecy? And how much is the public policy of the country driven by a stark conviction that a final battle between good and evil is fast approaching?

The series begins with Capt. Rayford Steele piloting a commercial transatlantic flight and contemplating having an affair with an attractive young flight attendant named Hattie. Suddenly, she bursts into the cockpit, hysterical. A number of the passengers have disappeared, though their clothing remains crumpled in their seats. Steele soon realizes that the problem is not limited to his flight: All over the world, millions of people have spontaneously disappeared, including all young children and newborns.

Global panic ensues, but Steele quickly realizes what has happened. When he finally makes his way home to find his wife and young son gone, he has a dark night of the soul and sees the truth. The Rapture has begun, and God has called the pure souls in preparation for the coming of the Antichrist.

Halfway through the first book, LaHaye and Jenkins reveal the full dimensions of what has transpired. Steele goes to his wife's church, where the entire congregation, save one assistant pastor, has disappeared. But the former pastor has left a videotape that explains the Rapture and prepares those left behind for what lies ahead: "Anyone ... who has placed his or her trust in Christ alone for salvation has been taken to heaven by Christ." Those who remain must prepare for seven years of tribulation, beginning with the death and destruction of the Seven Seal Judgments. There is one hope for those left behind: to "convert to Christ." Doing so will not spare anyone bodily harm or gruesome death, but it will mean an eternal reward in heaven.

By the end of the first book, the core characters are in place. Rayford is joined by his daughter Chloe, who also places herself in God's hands. Together with a former journalist named Buck Williams and others, they form the Tribulation Force, dedicated to saving as many souls as possible before it is too late. The subsequent books chart the successive cataclysms that afflict the planet, from a global earthquake to the agonizing death of untold millions at the hands of demons.

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