2016-06-30
I recently caused a stir at my church's book group by divulging a secret about me and "Left Behind." Once a month, a dozen of us meet and discuss a book with "spiritual import": We've read books by evangelical mystic A.W. Tozer, memoirist and children's writer Madeline L'Engle, and a biography of Teresa of Avila. We've read Jan Karon's "At Home in Mitford," and a new novel called "Grace at Bender Springs." We try to alternate fiction and nonfiction.

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Last month, our book was "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," an investigation of America's evangelical subculture, which meant the next month was slated for fiction. As our discussion of "Mine Eyes" wrapped up, we began to debate what to read for next month. This is usually a pretty easy conversation: We each take turns suggesting a book, and unless almost everyone else has already read it, that's the book we read.

This week, Dara suggested we read "Tribulation Force," the second novel in the "Left Behind" series. Surely a reasonable book to suggest since it is one of the most influential Christian books of our day. It's not great literature, but then, neither are the Mitford books.

But there was an uproar. "I really don't think that's the best book for us to read," said Camilla. "In fact, if that's the book we pick, I think I'll probably stay home next month."

Terri echoed the sentiment: "Yeah, agreeing to read that book would be signaling our approval of it, and I just can't approve of the "Left Behind" books."

"But we often read books we don't agree with," protested a perplexed Dara.

"We may read books we disagree with," replied Terri, "but we don't read things that are absolutely beyond the pale. We wouldn't read something heretical, or Wiccan, or a book by Jack Spong."

But the "Left Behind" novels are hardly Spong-like heresy, I thought. Tim LaHaye, one of the authors of the series, has been an evangelical leader for decades. Sure, some people have said that the novels' vision of the End Times is off-base--but Christians have been arguing for centuries about whether the millennium will proceed or follow Christ's return to Earth. So why were some of the women in my book group getting so bent out of shape about the "Left Behind" novels?

Not, it turned out, because they were sticklers about the End Times, but because they were sticklers about evangelism.

The "Left Behind" books, the members of my book group recognized, are not just preaching to the converted; they are also geared to non-Christian readers. "And they use," said Terri, "scare tactics. They try to get people to become Christians by frightening them. They say to non-Christian readers, you ought to become a Christian because otherwise you will have to face this scary and terrible doom when the End Times come. And that is not why I want people to become Christians," Terri went on. "I want to tell people about the love of God, not about the terrible things that will happen to them if they don't love God in return. After all, Jesus did not convert people by telling them that otherwise their lives would be terrible."

More on Left Behind

'Desecration:' Chapter One

What is the rapture?

End Times Soap Opera
Why Left Behind is a best seller

Was 9/11 a sign of End Times?
An interview with Jerry Jenkins

The Insignificance of the Antichrist
I hadn't contributed to the discussion until this point. Then I asked, "But what if people are, in fact, brought to Christ by reading these books? Do the means really matter? Isn't it the end that is important?"

The members of my book group hedged--they couldn't bring themselves to say that conversions inspired by fear didn't count. The best they could do was wonder how many people are, in fact, converted by the "Left Behind" books. "I mean, I don't know anyone who read these books and decided to become a Christian," said Camilla.

Then I silenced them all: "I did," I said. I read "Left Behind," the first novel in the series, in September 1996. A pilot and his daughter are left behind after his wife and son are taken in the Rapture. They band together with a pastor, Bruce Barnes, also left behind because, although he pretended to believe, he did not live a life wherein he truly served the Lord.

That September, I realized I was like Pastor Barnes. I claimed to be a Christian, but I wasn't.

I had grown up in a Christian family. Had a pollster asked me my religious identity, I would have said "Protestant." But I was not a real Christian. I would have been left behind, just like Pastor Barnes, having claimed to be a Christian but having failed to live a life in personal communion with the Lord. On October 1, 1996, I put down my copy of "Left Behind," picked up a copy of the Bible, and dedicated my life to following Jesus. I began going to church, praying every morning, and reading whatever Christian books I could get my hands on. When I moved to Wisconsin in 1998 and joined my current church, I was thrilled that there was a book group ready to join. I had never thought to tell the group that it was through reading a novel that I had come to faith.

Until, that is, last month, when my sisters in Christ attacked the very books that had brought me into a relationship to Christ.

I explained to my book group that I was not brought to Christ through fear, exactly, but through sorrow. I saw that Pastor Barnes was a sad figure. He thought he was living a godly life, but that life turned out to be a sham. I was moved to rededicate my life to Christ not because I feared getting left behind after the Rapture but because I wanted my pre-Rapture life to be meaningful. Pastor Barnes and I had both thought that our lives were plenty meaningful.

For Barnes, it took getting left behind to realize how wrong he had been. Thanks to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, I didn't have to wait for the Rapture to realize the same thing.

The next month, we discussed "Tribulation Force."

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