What is most surprising about "Left Behind: The Movie" is that it's pretty good. The convoluted plot of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' first of eight best-sellers is improved by translating it into a 95 minute movie. While the film's characters and dialogue are cliché-ridden, they are improvements over their print counterparts and on a par with most popular movies today. Kirk Cameron, the boy star of the old sitcom "Growing Pains," plays a believable and likable Buck Cameron, a world-famous TV journalist. In the film's first few moments, we watch Buck watch God intervene in a sneak-attack on Israel, blowing away hundreds of enemy planes, helicopters, and tanks. And this is just the prelude to the real action in the movie: the "rapture," the disappearance of all deserving Christians around the globe.

With that dramatic start, how can an audience fail to be entranced? Well, the producers of the movie, which was billed as the first evangelical Christian blockbuster, mostly due to the success of the book series, had only $17.5 million to spend. At that price, you aren't working with the full menu of special effects. What you get are supernatural disappearances suggested only by empty plane seats, with clothes and wedding rings on them.

Gripping drama, of course, can overcome a low budget. But with seven books ahead of them, the filmmakers obviously didn't want to get ahead of themselves. As a result, the movie feels like the first installment of a television miniseries. All that really happens after the disappearances is the conversion of the main characters and the unveiling of the Antichrist. This merely sets the scene for the real outworking of the drama. Nothing is wrapped up or fully explained, and I'm not sure there is enough here to create a Star Wars-like cult of expectation for the next installments.

For instance, what is the Antichrist really up to? A Romanian diplomat named Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie), he truly seems to be a saintly, peace-loving man, whom some jokingly refer to as "Mr. Teresa." When he is catapulted to secretary-general of the United Nations, the world breathes a sigh of relief. Only gradually do we see the evil he is capable of. He murders two of his associates and brainwashes the witnesses so they see what he wants them to see. He is handsome, winsome, and, by the end of the movie, very scary. But he is neither victorious nor defeated. He's just warming up.

Meanwhile, the good guys, Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson), a hardened pilot who lost his wife and son in the disappearance, and Bruce Barnes (Clarence Gilyard), a chastened pastor who discovered that he merely talked the walk, find encouragement in each other's new zeal but do not hatch any major plans. Their role so far is to bring Buck Williams into the fold, which they do. We last see them hanging out in the foyer of a Chicago church.

With a bigger budget, "Left Behind" had great promise for both entertainment and evangelism. "Prophecy and film are two of the best tools evangelicals have to reach the world," said the movie's producer, Peter Lalonde, recently. Last year, "The Omega Code," an evangelical thriller starring Michael York, was a Top 10 film its opening weekend. Done right, the end-times scenario has crossover appeal: The removal of all true Christians to heaven before the tribulation, the coming of the Antichrist, the conversion of Jews to Christianity, and the literal return of Christ could be an irresistible visual stunner.

Is it too "Christian" a theme for a wider audience? The particular end-times scenario shown in "Left Behind" is only 100 years old, and it is theologically embraced by only a minority of evangelicalism's professional theologians and Bible scholars. "Dispensationalism," as this end-of-the-world plot is called, was hatched at the turn of the century by J.N. Darby, and has never won its battles in academic circles, but in direct appeals to the laity. Many discovered dispensationalism in the beloved notes and cross references of the Scofield Reference Bible, and it was introduced to a mass audience through Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth," the best-selling book of the 1970s.

So despite being a minority position among their own theologians, most lay evangelicals think of the rapture, because of its savvy media saturation, as a doctrine as old and as sacrosanct as the Trinity.

The latest propaganda vehicle for dispensationalism has been the "Left Behind" books themselves. The first seven volumes sold over 25 million copies, and the eighth, "The Mark," jumped to No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list on its release November 14. "Left Behind" is poised to become the No. 1 selling fiction series of all time. (And some worry that America is becoming secular.)

But there are serpents in the garden of dispensationalism. LaHaye and Jenkins sold the film rights to the first two volumes to Namesake Entertainment, back when sales were merely in the hundreds of thousands. Namesake promised the pair a $40 million Hollywood production, but could not find a major studio to back them.

Instead, Namesake hooked up with the Lalonde brothers at Cloud Ten Pictures, who specialize in prophecy movies for the Christian market and whose movies have steadily gotten better with each production. But this was not the Hollywood production that was promised. LaHaye and Jenkins have asked that their names be removed from the film and any of its promotional copy. LaHaye has also filed suit against both companies for breach of contract.

Instead of having a proper theatrical debut, "Left Behind: The Movie" has been available on video in Christian stores since Halloween. Enclosed in each video were two coupons for discounted tickets for the big screen version. This unique strategy was aimed at getting the Christian audience so jazzed by watching the video that they will back the project, fill theaters across America for its February 2 theatrical premiere, and force "secular Hollywood" and a "hostile media" to stand up and take notice.

The plan succeeded almost too well: Last month, the producers were worried that wildcat viewings in church basements would actually sap the movie's theatrical release on 1,000 screens February 2. Despite their appeals to save it for the big screen, the producers have a lot of faith to believe people will buy tickets to something they have already paid money to own and have watched and discussed 20 times with their family and church small group.

But as Kirk Cameron's character says to close the movie, "This is just the beginning. The next seven years are going to be the worst the world has ever seen. Our only hope is for us to stick together and trust God. I don't have all the answers, but for now faith is enough." Amen.

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