Chuck Carlson and his disciples are taking it to the streets, demanding that pro-life churches practice what they preach and condemn war in Iraq

Another 26 volumes for teens, called Left Behind: The Kids, have also been published by the writing team of "pre-Trib" expert Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, who before teaming up with LaHaye had ghostwritten autobiographies for several baseball players. And despite 2000's box office dud starring Kirk Cameron, based on the first of the novels, more films are planned, as well as a Canadian television series soon to begin taping. (When an online poll was conducted in December to determine which North American city would host American Idol-like open auditions for the TV series, Phoenix placed third, behind Washington, D.C., and Seattle.)

Left Behind, the book that started it all, reads like an evangelical's wet dream. It features the character Rayford Steele, an earnest, if self-doubting, commercial airline pilot with an annoyingly religious wife back home, whom he's thinking of cheating on with the hottie stewardess serving on his recent 747 flights. But during one of his runs from Chicago to London, about half of the passengers suddenly vanish. As the remaining passengers awake in the gathering dawn, they realize that piles of clothes, rings and other items worn by the missing people are all that's left of them. By the time Steele lands the plane, he discovers that similar vanishings have happened simultaneously around the globe. In the ensuing chaos pile-ups caused by suddenly unmanned vehicles are tying up intersections from Katmandu to Kiev boneheaded journalists and mystified scientists propose all sorts of excuses for the disappearances. But Steele and the reader know instantly what's happened. It's the "Rapture," the taking away of Christ's faithful in the wink of an eye, which means that the seven years of tribulation and the rise of the antichrist lie ahead for those left behind.

Part potboiler thriller, part cleverly packaged Bible study, Left Behind never becomes too preachy. A main character, for example, is a wunderkind national newsweekly journalist who belittles religious explanations for the disappearances, but slowly comes to the realization that Steele and others are right about the Rapture. The book manages to spin a fairly entertaining tale provided readers have only a cartoonish understanding of how journalists do their jobs and how politicians make decisions. And they also have to buy the suggestion that in a matter of days, a charismatic Romanian named Nicolae Carpathia can so enthrall the world's leaders and media that he will be promoted from his country's lower house to Romanian president and then, seemingly hours later, to U.N. secretary general, on his way to becoming leader of the new world order. (His first point of business: moving U.N. headquarters from Manhattan to, naturally, "New Babylon.") Vowing to fight this interloper (LaHaye and Jenkins try to create some tension over whether Carpathia's actually the antichrist, but there's never any real doubt) is a small group of newly born-again Christians plotting righteous rebellion in suburban Chicago, including the converted journalist, the pilot Steele and Steele's feisty college-age daughter, who had been too corrupted by liberal mumbo-jumbo at Stanford to make the disappeared list. In ensuing volumes, Steele and the rest of his "Tribulation Force" fight Carpathia's designs as a final battle approaches.

all photos by Jackie Mercandetti
Pastor Mark Martin of Calvary Community Church tells his large flock about the end times.
Pastor Mark Martin of Calvary Community Church tells his large flock about the end times.

Left Behind does for evangelicals what Red Dawn did in 1984 for survivalist wingnuts. It plays on frustrations with and fears of an urban elite, and panders to desires to be at the center of a global drama. Suburbanites with a passion for scripture become the heroes of the biggest story in the history of the world, and though there's no cursing and only the most innocent suggestions of sexuality, well, there are still enough explosions and assassinations to keep things moving along.

As a tale, Left Behind is laughably unreal. But it has proved amazingly compelling to many Americans.

"If you're part of the end times, you play a heroic role in the Christian story," Chip Berlet points out. "When you pick up the morning paper and read about AIDS in Africa or the latest tornado, you know in your heart of hearts that God is ready to punish the world and that you are a soldier in Christ's army of Armageddon. What greater role can you play in history?

"There's a tendency among secular folks not to take seriously how successful religious groups can be at organizing," Berlet says, explaining how the Left Behind series and dispensationalist views can be so popular and yet barely register with the rest of America. "There's a bias in liberal secular circles, that you can't be very smart if you believe this stuff, and that you can't be a significant force. But I think there's a whole lot of people in the country and in the Bush administration who share this apocalyptic vision of the world."

Carlson nods when he hears that Calvary Community Church's bookstore carries multiple copies of all the books in the Left Behind series, as well as dozens of copies of a LaHaye book that spells out in colorful charts the biblical prophecies behind the novels. He admits that it will be difficult to make inroads against such a popular social phenomenon.

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