Evangelical thriller is No. 1

Culture | Not just on Christian lists, but on the New York Times bestseller list

Issue: "Nifty 50 Books," July 1, 2000

For the first time, a book from an evangelical publishing house opened at number one on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Crowding out Harry Potter, John Grisham, and the usual summer beach-reading titles, The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, published by Tyndale House, took possession of the top spot for hardcover fiction in its very first week (see page 14 for nonfiction). This is an astounding accomplishment, since the prestigious New York Times list has always had a way of excluding evangelical titles.

The list is based not on actual sales figures, which have been almost impossible to gather, but on surveys of selected bookstores. In the past, these have consisted mostly of tony independent shops on the East Coast. Christian bookstores were not included. Today, the Times consults with Barnes & Noble and other big chains, so the rankings are far more accurate than they were in 1983 when Francis Schaeffer's How Shall We Then Live racked up far more sales than the Times' bestsellers, but was never so much as mentioned on the charts. Still, when a Christian title gets on the list, that shows a significant penetration into the secular marketplace.

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The Indwelling is part seven of the Left Behind series, a projected 12-volume series on the end of the world. Essentially a dramatization of premillenialist eschatology, the books depict the Rapture, the anti-Christ as a one-world political dictator, 666 numerology, the conversion of the state of Israel, and all of the other elements of The Late Great Planet Earth--another huge seller in its day--rendered this time in fiction.

Christians who do not agree with Mr. LaHaye's theology will be dismayed that when a Christian title at long last breaks through into the secular culture, it is not a work of profound theology nor a literary masterpiece but a horror thriller.

Still, there is no denying that the series, capitalizing on turn-of-the-millennium speculation, has struck a chord. Since its publication on May 23, The Indwelling has sold more than 2 million copies. The Left Behind series, whose other titles have also made bestseller lists, has sold over 17 million copies in the United States.

In the new economy, nothing that makes money will be excluded. It is fashionable to lament the decline of independent bookstores and their "personalized service," but those bookstores and their owners were cultural gatekeepers who closed the gate on Christians. Today's mega-chains are willing to offer anything and everything. This means even more cultural junk, but it also gives Christians a more level playing field.

Christians participate in the marketplace of ideas not only as producers but as buyers, and the fact is, most Christians buy their books from secular bookstores rather than Christian bookstores.

This is becoming a major challenge for Christian bookstores, which attract a surprisingly small percentage of Christian readers. Studies show that most customers of Christian bookstores are women. All of the sentimental plaques, the cutesy figurines, and the plethora of books on "relationships" apparently give the majority of Christian men the creeps. The Left Behind books, though, with their apocalyptic violence and techno-thriller prose style, have a true macho appeal. Now that secular bookstores are stealing their customers and their market share, Christian booksellers-which still play an essential role-might do well to confront the feminization of their industry and learn from the big players how to offer more books to more Christians.

Though multitudes of Christians are buying The Indwelling from secular bookstores, non-Christians are buying it as well. The commercial success of the Left Behind series disproves the conventional wisdom about what it takes for a Christian work to cross over into the secular market. The assumption has often been that Christians need to soften their message to appeal to non-Christians, that the hard edges of the faith need to be toned down in order not to offend a larger audience.

Perhaps the Left Behind series offers a simplistic theology that can indeed be more palatable to a mass audience than the full complexities of the biblical teachings about sin, grace, Christ, and the Christian life. Still, to their credit, Mr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins are far from politically correct in what they say about sexual sin, political corruption, and false religions. They do not water down their message but give it to their readers full-strength, no matter how uncomfortable it may make them feel.

This even may be part of the appeal of the series. Today, after a century of trying to do without God, it is the weak, vacuous, modernized, doctrine-free Christianity that is unworthy of attention. People interested in religion want a real religion, hard edges and all. Christianity may do better in the marketplace of ideas when it is closest to the real thing. Perhaps The Indwelling will prove to be a lead blocker for better books to come.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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