As co-author of Tyndale's Left Behind series of apocalyptic fiction, Jerry Jenkins is one of the most commercially successful Christian novelists of all time. But he has written much more than end-times fiction: among his 150+ other books are the high school football novel Hometown Legend (recently made into a movie, which Jenkins produced with his son), and as-told-to biographies of Hank Aaron, Brett Butler, Bill Gaither, Orel Hershiser, Luis Palau, Walter Payton, Nolan Ryan, and others. He is also the owner of the Christian Writer's Guild.
Today, Tyndale releases a new futuristic novel, this time by Jenkins alone: Soon: The Beginning of the End.
Before we talk about Soon, let's talk about the success of Left Behind. Did you have any idea that this was going to take off like it did?
Oh sure. We thought it would sell 55 million copies.
Doesn't everybody when they sit down and write a book?
Actually, we thought that we had something pretty good, and that it might do 100,000 or 200,000 copies. And we would have been thrilled with that.
But one thing this phenomenon does is to make it impossible for us to try to take any credit for it. After a while you just have to admit that Somebody Else is involved.
But now you've thought about the success of the series, read the articles about it, and have heard the different theories. Obviously, Left Behind was not the first, nor will it be the last, end-times series. Why did the public, both Christian and those outside of the faith, find something absolutely captivating about Left Behind?
There is a God-hunger out there, and people are looking for things beyond themselves. They're buying books by the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and healing gurus.
But, as you say, there are other series like this. Part of me is gratified that the fiction itself must work in some fundamental way. People care about the characters, they keep turning the pages, and they want to know what happens next. Past that, without sounding too cliché, I think God clearly had his hand on this and wanted it to go.
Do you think 9/11 had much to do with the series' success?
We had a spike in sales, especially of the non-fiction book, Are We Living in the End Times, through the end of September, two years ago. But the series was already going crazy, and it's stayed at that pace since then.
But 9/11 did set the stage for Soon, because what I'm dealing with here is the potential loss of our right to practice our faith.
And at first with 9/11 we were all encouraged, because it seemed like all of a sudden God was okay with everyone again. But actually, God was okay but Jesus wasn't, because now we're getting into something divisive and exclusivist.
I think it behooves evangelicals to find some way to express that what we believe is the truth, yet we want people to know it breaks our hearts, too. We can't just be smug and condescending and say, "Well, Jesus is the only way to God. That's what the Bible says. Good for me, too bad for you." That's going to turn people to the point where they don't want to hear any of it.
We can't shrink from that truth, and yet we have to find ways to say it, because the truth of it alone is offensive.
In fact, the success of Left Behind has given you a media platform where you're regularly asked to defend that position.
I think some interviewers are halfway hoping that I'm going to be the sort of polemic evangelical who sits there smugly and says, "That's what it says, too bad for you." Instead, I say, "I realize this is offensive, and I realize that not everybody is going to accept this, but I feel my job is to share this news and what they do with it is up to them. But if they reject it, I would still pray for them, still love them, still associate with them."
And when I say that, the interviewers are intrigued. It's not what they expected to hear.
I know this sounds like false modesty when I say it, but I really do wish that if God was going to do this, he'd have picked a better writer for it. But I guess I have been prepared for sharing some of these truths on the air.
What are you commonly asked about?
They really home in on the whole idea of believing that Jesus is the only way to God. What does that say in our pluralistic society, in our tolerant age? You know, so you're better? You've got the inside track, and everybody else is going to hell?
It would be more newsworthy for us to just trumpet that and act proud about it and smug about it. And I try to say, you know, there should be no smugness. It should break our hearts. Yet we need to share this because we do believe it.
How has 9/11 affected your writing?
It was a tricky thing for me in the Left Behind series, because those books are set in the future, so you can't all of a sudden start talking about 9/11 because it pre-dates it.
But of course, 9/11 changes the whole tenor. It's all the country's thought about for the last two years. You can't shake it. Any time anything happens—when the power goes out, you think, was it terrorism?
Soon is set in the future, after World War III, and I refer to 9/11. It's 45 years before the events in the book, and people are still talking about it as something that helped start World War III. I hope it isn't true, but that's the scenario.
Why did you write Soon? What is it that drew you to this story?
I saw a couple of letters to the editor of Time magazine after 9/11, where people said, "It's these religious extremists that have caused all of our wars. If you really study war, you're looking at people who think God is on their side. Therefore, eradicate religion and you'll eradicate war."
Now, obviously that's short-sighted. But I got to thinking, as most novelists do, what would that world look like? What would the ramifications really be?
I did an online chat recently and someone said, "With Left Behind, you and LaHaye are clearly saying this is going to happen someday. What are you saying about Soon? Did God tell you this is going to happen?"
No. I'm hoping and praying it won't happen, but we're on a slippery slope. And if we don't find compassionate ways to share the truth of John 14:6, or if the tolerance police get their way and tolerate everything except the exclusivity of Christ, we're going to lose our freedom to share our faith. And this is what's going to come of it.
The premise for Soon is that World War III is so devastating that the planet barely survived it. And everybody says, "Whatever we have to do, we have to eliminate war. What does it take?" And the international government says, "No more religion." And most people say, "Fine, if that's what it takes." And only the true believers are forced underground. And that strengthens the church, because you have to mean it if you're going to live it there.
Your faith only grows for real when you're really persecuted. I've been laughed at and smirked at. But compare that to what people go through in prison and overseas. I'm saying, "Be careful because we may get tested."
So this is the answer to John Lennon's "Imagine no religion." But there are also biblical allusions.
Right. My main character is, interestingly enough, a guy named Paul, and he is a parallel to the biblical Paul because he's assigned by the National Peace Organization to root out believers and kill them. Eradicate this underground movement.
But along the way he sees the light. And yet, instead of coming out and writing the New Testament, he keeps working for the government, but he's really a supporter of the church now, so his life is on the line every day.
So it's not just a polemic—there's positive themes and humor here.
That's a hard thing to do in a book that's so dark. People know that I like to be funny. How can you find any humor in that kind of situation?
But usually it's by making bureaucrats into buffoons. That always works.
But there is always hope. And in fact, that's the difference between this novel and the competition in The New York Times best-seller list. When my wife and I visited Romania back before the fall of Communism, I despaired. I thought, these poor Christians are living underground, they can't get permits for anything and are persecuted for their faith. How will it ever change? And when the revolution came, a lot of people made the mistake of thinking it was a political revolution. It was a spiritual revolution. These people stood in the square, 200,000 of them, and chanted, "God is alive."
Between 9/11, the Left Behind series, and now writing Soon, how has everything helped you focus on your own calling and mission as a writer and as a Christian?
Well, it really has sobered me. And I find that I have the same reaction to the writing that the reader does: I feel more urgent about my faith, more aggressive about it, more expectant of the return of Christ.
And there's this feeling. I heard it when I was a teenager and speakers tried to wake us up—and I don't think I woke up until I was 50. But they said that at some point they are going to have to choose up sides and pay the price. At some point when we're adults we realize we don't have time for anything else. This is it.
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