Respond to this Article June 2004

Jesus Christ, Superstar

When Hollywood stopped making Bible movies,
right-wing Christians took over.

By Amy Sullivan

Not too long ago, I attended a party thrown by my evangelical next-door neighbors in our Capitol Hill neighborhood. In the past, these gatherings--an evening packed in a house with 50 or 60 conservative evangelicals, most of whom attend the same Baptist church--were rife with social minefields. There may have been beer in the refrigerator and Madonna on the stereo, but the conversation was not similarly secular; it was only a matter of time before I was identified as a recovering-Baptist-turned-liberal-Episcopalian. Introduced as "the Democrat" to partygoers who work for Sen. Rick Santorum, write for conservative publications, or work in the Bush White House, I often found myself patiently explaining that, yes, it was possible to be a Christian and a Democrat. "I once knew a guy in college who was a Democrat!" one friendly fellow exclaimed upon meeting me, cementing my impression that, in this crowd, I was a rare and somewhat baffling specie.

On this particular evening, however, I had a foolproof plan for fitting in. I had just read the first two books in the 12-part Left Behind series that has sold more than 60 million copies worldwide, primarily in evangelical circles. Beginning with the onset of "the Rapture" (the event that some Christians believe will result in the spontaneous ascension to heaven of all true-believers), the books paint a picture of what would happen if the events predicted in the biblical Book of Revelations occurred now. Modern-day heroes Rayford Steele and Buck Williams lead a merry band of recent converts--the "Tribulation Force"--through action/adventure plots that are more Tom Clancy than Thomas Aquinas, with a fair amount of right-wing politicking thrown in for good measure. I was prepared to discuss the series with any and all comers at the party.

There was just one problem. No one I talked to would admit to having read any of the books. A number of people conceded, "Oooh, yeah, my mom read those," wrinkling their noses and giving embarrassed shrugs. Several women offered that they had thought about reading the books after the former "Growing Pains" star, and heartthrob of our teen years, Kirk Cameron made a movie adaptation of the first installment. But after even some Christian publications panned the film, they had reconsidered.

I was surprised. Yes, they were all well-educated Washington wonks, but these same people weren't above devouring a Tom Clancy or John Grisham book at the beach. Most of them didn't require a leap of faith to accept the theological premises of the books. They were familiar with the teaching that says the Rapture will be followed by seven years of trials and tribulations, at the end of which Jesus will come to earth once again to lead the forces of good against the forces of evil in the battle known as Armageddon. In between the two cataclysmic events, those who are left behind at the Rapture have the chance to become faithful Christians and thus make it to heaven in a sort of divine do-over. While my friends are poised to be precisely the kind of Christians who are not left behind, they would have more than a passing interest in the adventures of the Tribulation Force as it struggles to convert the rest of mankind while simultaneously disrupting the plans of the Anti-Christ, who rules the earth during the seven terrible years of the Apocalypse.

Left Behind: Armageddon
by Tim Lahaye & Jerry B. Jenkins
Tyndale House Publishers, $14.99

Nor was it the book's politics that kept them away. Most of the partygoers would agree with the general political thrust of the series, in which any number of liberal causes come under attack. In this particular imagining of Revelations, the Anti-Christ isn't just any world leader, but the Secretary General of the United Nations (a title he changes to "Global Community Supreme Potentate"). And his nefarious plans to take over the earth include the standardization of the world's currencies and languages, global disarmament (requiring our heroes to stockpile weapons, militia-like, in order to stand up to Satanic forces), and a peace treaty in the Middle East. Throughout the series, journalists and academics--two prime conservative targets--come in for a special beating, their skepticism and intellectualism being the main obstacles, after all, to truly embracing Christian belief.

If neither the politics nor the theology of the books turned off this crowd, it wasn't immediately clear why no one had read a single installment in the series. The real answer came from one woman who grimaced as she told me, "I heard they were really poorly written."

And how. The books are overrun with stilted dialogue and cardboard characters, and they require the near-complete suspension of disbelief. For the average evangelical, the occurrence of the Rapture is a perfectly envisionable event. What is unbelievable is the premise that the Ted Koppels of the world would set aside their skepticism and fall all over themselves to praise the Anti-Christ (known in the series as Nicolae Carpathia, a Romanian businessman), swooning over his dazzling ability to name every country in the world. Or that the Anti-Christ could just up and relocate the United Nations to Babylon (modern-day Iraq), without so much as a peep of dissent from any world leader. And when, after 12 books, the second coming, Armageddon, and the Judgment of Satan, all of the saints from throughout history return to earth and Jesus's thousand-year rule begins, the series ends thus: "As Buck and Chloe continued to interact with Irene and Amanda, Rayford borrowed Raymie. 'There are so many people I want to see, Son. You must meet them all. And we've only got a thousand years.'"

Given that these books are so god-awful, why then have they sold more than 60 million copies? Part of the reason is the growing size and power of the evangelical subculture in America. Indeed, for some anxious liberals, the popularity of the series has been taken as proof that the Apocalypse is indeed almost upon us, and that it will come in the form of a society overrun by John Ashcroft and Charlton Heston mini-mes who scan the horizon for black helicopters and stride around quoting scripture. But there is another explanation: Millions of Christians, not all of them right-wing or even evangelical, have been devouring these badly written books, crackpot politics and all, because there is virtually no other entertaining Christian-themed fiction out there. The staggering popularity of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ owes much of its success to the same source. The film may be anti-Semitic and grotesquely violent and represent one man's conservative interpretation of the gospels, but at least it's a Jesus movie. When was the last time Hollywood produced one of those?

Lens Commandments

America's mainstream entertainment industry has not always been so oblivious to the Christian market. Hollywood studios used to churn out biblical epics at a steady pace, raking in millions of dollars--and, sometimes, Oscars--with predictable crowd-pleasers. Cecil B. DeMille directed a number of biblical movies, including the silent screen classic King of Kings and the 1949 film Samson and Delilah with Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature. Gregory Peck starred in David and Bathsheba, Anthony Quinn headed a star cast in Barabbas, Kirk Douglas starred in Spartacus, and a pre-political Charlton Heston brought down the house in both The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. To the extent that any political bias was discernible in the films, it was vaguely liberal, taking on the status quo and the established political power. Around the same time, Christian writers like C.S. Lewis were international superstars, selling millions of copies of The Screwtape Letters, a satirical correspondence between two devils strategizing about the best way to tempt their human target and thus bring him to spiritual ruin.

And then, sometime in the 1960s, religiously-themed entertainment simply disappeared. Why that happened is anyone's guess; a hip disdain for traditional cultural mores, perhaps, or a heightened fear of offending religious minorities. In any event, it was a major, if underappreciated, break. For nearly 2,000 years, the story of Jesus and broader biblical epics had infused the cultural environment of the average Westerner. Now those influences were suddenly nowhere to be seen. In the rare instances that movies did center on religious topics, they took the form of the irreverent (The Life of Brian), the mildly heretical (Jesus Christ Superstar), or the controversial (The Last Temptation of Christ). On television, Linus's recitation from the second chapter of Luke at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965 was perhaps the last respectful reference to Jesus that Hollywood offered America's children. In general, with the exception of a few bland made-for-television movies, popular culture has limited religion to the rather harmless, generic use of angels as gimmicks--"Touched by an Angel," Angels in the Outfield--or poorly made and under-funded Bible films such as last fall's The Gospel of John, described by one catatonic reviewer as "the longest Sunday School class ever."

At about the same time that popular culture began to ignore, if not irritate, traditional Christians, the evangelical movement--long a subculture--took off. This was perhaps not a coincidence. Evangelicals, with their heightened sense of the sinful nature of the secular world, have traditionally cultivated a feeling of separateness from mainstream American life. A series of political and cultural trends in the 1960s and'70s--from court decisions legalizing abortion and outlawing prayer in schools to the spread of sex and violence in popular entertainment--both mobilized this group and reinforced their sense of cultural isolation. When the entertainment industry also stopped reflecting their religious values and history, evangelicals had just one more reason to feel set apart.

By the 1980s, conservative Christian leaders and institutions began to fill the void. First came nationwide cable talk shows like the 700 Club (which launched Pat Robertson's briefly successful GOP political career). Soon, a nascent infrastructure emerged to produce and distribute other kinds of Christian entertainment, such as the music of Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith.

Missing Cecil B. Demille

Then, too, came the novels of conservative Christian author Frank Peretti. If you grew up Baptist in the 1980s, as I did, you probably read his books. In This Present Darkness, Peretti's first novel, the innocent little town of Ashton becomes the site of a thrilling spiritual battle when the forces of evil (in the form of a New Age cult) try to take over the town, and are held at bay by a young pastor, the local newspaper editor, and a small band of prayerful believers. As the human drama plays out, skirmishes also take place between angels ("the heavenly host") and demons ("the armies of Lucifer"). Growing stronger as the prayers of the faithful multiply, the surprisingly witty angels swoop and soar, brandishing swords of fire and dispatching demons with a glee that matches that of the warriors in The Lord of the Rings. For their part, the sulfurous demons--including Complacency, Deception, Lust, and Greed--use talons to attach themselves to humans and wreak havoc, repelled only by the rebukes and prayers of Christians on their knees.

In addition to spiritual action and adventure, Peretti's books served up a heavy dose of conservative politics. In This Present Darkness, Satan's minions set up shop in the psychology department of the local liberal arts college; the New Age cult is led by a professor who preys on intellectually curious students and by the minister of a namby-pamby Protestant church who preaches moral relativism. The villains in the sequel, Piercing the Darkness, are only loosely disguised as the ACLU and show up to harass good God-fearing folk by shutting down private Christian schools.

I always rolled my eyes or cringed at these conservative bits, even as I thoroughly enjoyed the stories. When I reread several of the books at the beach recently, I still found them fascinating. With masterful pacing, humor, and the help of some butt-kicking angels, Peretti crafted thrillers certain to capture the imagination of anyone who was raised to think of prayer as an active experience. I've long since forgotten whether I first heard of the books at a Baptist youth group convention or an Amy Grant concert, but I can still remember how to rebuke a troublesome demon.

At the height of their popularity, Peretti's well-written books sold half a million copies. The horribly written Left Behind series, by contrast, has sold 120 times as many. This disparity is not explained by a sudden decline of reader taste, but by the increasing sophistication of the Christian entertainment industry. Peretti's novels could only be purchased in Christian bookstores or special-ordered by a church librarian. The Left Behind books, while similarly marketed that way, were also packaged to evangelical churches with study guides for book groups, comic book versions, a kids series, a Web site, trivia games, a special military thriller series, greeting cards, calendars, and a special "Prophecy Club," complete with a weekly newsletter. More than that, the books can also be found on the shelves of every airport bookstore in the country, are carried in mass quantities by chain bookstores and Wal-Mart, and regularly top the sales ranking at Amazon.com.

Bold Testaments

A similar story explains the monumental success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Just as Left Behind authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins had exploited a vast market of Christian readers underserved by New York publishers, Gibson tapped the public hunger for a high-quality depiction of Jesus's life that Hollywood has ignored for decades. While controversial, Gibson's production was inarguably well-made, with the look and feel of a studio blockbuster. It had the success of one, as well. Opening on 4,400 screens, the movie was number one for three weeks in a row and in the first week alone nearly doubled Gibson's investment of $30 million to make the film and $25 million to market it. What was billed by many as a "Christian movie" has become simply one of the most successful movies of any kind, generating impressive revenues even in self-consciously secular countries like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Anybody who cares about both the spiritual and political health of the country has to have mixed emotions about the runaway success of The Passion and the Left Behind series. The fact that there is a hunger for religious entertainment isn't surprising nor is it a big deal. The fact that the only books and movies available come packaged with a heavily right-wing slant is. And not just because I, and millions of other Christians, would like to sit down with a spiritual thriller or watch a Jesus movie without being bombarded with conservative politics.

This is a problem because when the only Christian-themed entertainment in the marketplace is laced with conservatism, Christianity itself will increasingly take on a conservative cast. The faith of Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr is not the faith of Tim LaHaye and Mel Gibson. Yet the more that single interpretation of Christianity dominates airwaves and bookshelves, the more people of faith are tempted to believe that the only way to be a "good" Christian is to be a conservative.

It's impossible to know whether the Left Behind books would still sell 60 million copies if they had a little competition. Or if a star-studded, well-financed liberal movie about the resurrection would have stolen some of The Passion's audience. But there's no reason not to try. Open up the Bible to practically any page (okay, skip Lamentations) and you can find enough classic morality tales and adventure stories to fill dozens of books and movies. Looking for war? Romance? Spy thriller? Buddy movie? Fantasy? Action/adventure? It's all there. Reclaiming some of the Christian market would cut into the profits of Tim LaHaye and Mel Gibson; provide a richer interpretation of Scripture; fatten the bottom lines of Hollywood and New York, and just might save American politics, to boot. Amen.

Amy Sullivan is a doctoral student in sociology at Princeton University and the author of Political aims, www.politicalaims.com.


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