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Jerry B(ruce) Jenkins (1949) - Sidelights

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Jerry B. Jenkins describes himself in interviews as "the most famous writer no one's ever heard of." Indeed, by 2000 Jenkins could claim book sales of more than ten million, putting him in the company of such publishing giants as John Grisham and Stephen King. But if Jenkins's name is not well known, his line of fiction certainly is. Jenkins, along with the Reverend Tim F. LaHaye, are co-creators of the Christian apocalyptic thrillers known as the "Left Behind" series.

A native of Michigan, Jenkins worked as a journalist and publishing executive before turning to authorship in the 1970s. He wrote in a variety of nonfiction genres, but all his books were grounded in his evangelical Christian faith. The author also earned a reputation as the writing talent behind celebrity memoirs; his "as told to" autobiographies include those of sports heroes Henry Aaron, Orel Hershiser, and Brett Butler. But Jenkins told a Marriage Partnership interviewer, "fiction was always my first love. I wrote nonfiction to pay the bills, in the hopes that the fiction would hit."

The fiction did hit—first with a set of youth-oriented mysteries, then with the debut of the "Left Behind" books. The books were conceived by LaHaye, a well-known evangelical minister who left the pulpit in 1981 to devote time to writing and politics. According to a People article by Thomas Fields-Meyer, LaHaye developed the idea for the series during his travel days: "Sitting on airplanes and watching the pilots," he commented to Fields-Meyer, "I'd think to myself, 'What if the Rapture occurred on an airplane'?" LaHaye searched for three years for someone to shape his idea into a novel, and fellow evangelical Jenkins was his selection. Though nearly twenty-five years apart in age, the two were comfortable working together. "It's like a fatherson thing," Jenkins said in People. Jenkins is the author of the novels; LaHaye serves as consultant for prophetic accuracy.

In 1995, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days was published by Tyndale House. True to LaHaye's vision, the novel opens on an airplane en route to London. Pilot Rayford Steele, who is contemplating an extramarital affair with flight attendant Hattie Durham, is surprised when Hattie bursts into the cockpit with startling news: several of the passengers have disappeared in an instant, leaving only their clothes and other possessions piled on their seats. Making an emergency landing in his hometown of Chicago, Rayford returns home to find his wife and son, both recently born-again Christians, vanished as well. The conclusion: Christian true-believers have been spirited to heaven (the Rapture) while those back on Earth are faced with the biblical prophesy of war and pestilence leading to the Apocalypse, as heralded by the rise of the Antichrist.

Among those "left behind" is crusading journalist Cameron "Buck" Williams, who takes on the story for his magazine. His investigation leads to a charismatic Romanian politician, Nicolae Carpathia, who quickly rises to power by advocating a one-world government. Nicolae, appointed Secretary General of the United Nations, reconstructs the nations of the Earth as the Global Community and plans to reign supreme over the world. When it becomes apparent that Nicolae is the Antichrist incarnate, it is up to Rayford, Buck, and their band of believers, who dub themselves the Tribulation Force, to defend their world. As the last line of Left Behind puts it, the rebels' task was clear: "their goal was nothing less than to stand and fight the enemies of God during the seven most chaotic years the planet would ever see."

Left Behind was followed by a steady stream of sequels, one every six months, all advancing the apocalyptic plot. While few mainstream critics praised the stylistic aspects of the novels, many acknowledged that Jenkins's tales had value as thought-provoking page-turners. "I found [the first novel] rattling good reading, professionally terse yet fluid," commented J. C. Furnas of American Scholar. "Suppose the late Ian Fleming [of James Bond fame] had got End-Times religion and built on it a portentous Scripture-based epic in 007 style, only with a certain paucity of toothsome women." While Atlantic Monthly reviewer Joseph Gross noted Jenkins' reliance on easy characterization—"everyone in the books is above average. The characters' brains and physical beauty are sometimes described with clumsy cultural references"—National Review contributor Matthew Scully had a different view. He thought Jenkins had "a gift for plot and dialogue" which would serve the author well through the book series.

Some criticism of the "Left Behind" books focused on the way non-evangelicals were portrayed. "The authors' perception of the Jews as a great people gone wrong streaks the books with a queasy, forced amiability teetering on contempt," stated Commonweal writer Richard Alleva. The Catholic church "takes its lumps, too," Alleva continued. "The latest pope is raptured, but that is because he had stirred up controversy in the church with a new doctrine that seemed to coincide more with the 'heresy' of Martin Luther than with historic orthodoxy." "Catholics' chances of making the Rapture are slim," noted Teresa Malcolm in a National Catholic Reporter piece, but in her opinion, the saving of the fictional pope reflected that "overt anti-Catholicism was deliberately toned down to give the novels a wider appeal."

But the books' severest barbs are aimed at the United Nations, "which practically hands itself over to the Antichrist and becomes the arm of his will," according to Alleva. "And what is his will? A world government, a world capital called New Babylon, a world army, and a world religion—all the usual suspects placed at the service of Satan's minion. In a country like ours, where fear of centralization and government interference has led to bombings, mass slaughter, and the creation of various thug militia-groups, how could the 'Left Behind' series fail?"

The timing of a tale about the Rapture coincided with the end-of-the-millennium mood in the United States. Worldwide political unrest and "Y2K" technological concerns fueled the interest in end-times literature, and the "Left Behind" series played into that interest. Jenkins and LaHaye's books, promotional items, and Web sites have drawn massive attention, leading a Publishers Weekly editor to tell People's Fields-Meyer that the stories comprise "the most successful Christian-fiction series ever." "Left Behind is truly newsmaking stuff," remarked Alleva.

Still, Jenkins maintains that money is not the primary force propelling the series. "Neither [LaHaye] nor I grew up in families where success was defined by money," he said in the Marriage Partnership interview. His ministry, he said, was always more important. And he takes pleasure in writing the novels: "Discovering what happens is as much fun for me as it is for readers. I don't kill my characters off; I find them dead."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 39, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.

LaHaye, Tim F., and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days, Tyndale House (Wheaton, IL), 1995.

PERIODICALS

American Scholar, winter, 2000, J. C. Furnas, "Millennial Sideshow," p. 87.

Atlantic Monthly, January, 2000, Joseph Gross, "The Trials of Tribulation," p. 122.

Booklist, February 1, 1992, review of Off the Map, p. 1005; November 1, 1995, John Mort, review of Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days, p. 455; October 1, 1996, John Mort, review of Tribulation Force: The Continuing Drama of Those Left Behind, p. 304; March 1, 1997, John Mort, review of The Rookie, p. 1111; July, 1997, John Mort, review of Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist, p. 1775, and Ray Olson, review of Homecoming: The Story of Southern Gospel Music through the Eyes of Its Best-Loved Performers, p. 1788; June 1, 1998, John Mort, review of Soul Harvest: The World Takes Sides, p. 1669; October 15, 1998, Toni Hyde, review of 'Twas the Night Before, p. 374; February 1, 1999, John Mort, review of Apollyon: The Destroyer Is Unleashed, p. 940; August, 1999, John Mort, review of Assassins: The Great Tribulation Unfolds, p. 1987; January 1, 2000, John Mort, review of Though None Go with Me, p. 874; December 15, 2000, Bonnie Smothers, review of The Mark: The Beast Rules the World, p. 763; July, 2001, John Mort, review of Hometown Legend, p. 1951, and Jeanette Larson, review of The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession, p. 2029; November 15, 2001, Judy Morrissey, review of The Vanishings, p. 591.

Christianity Today, September 1, 1997, Michael Maudlin, review of Left Behind, p. 22.

Christian Reader, September, 2000, review of The Indwelling, p. 7; November, 2000, review of The Mark, p. 6.

Commonweal, January 12, 2001, Richard Alleva, "Beam Me Up: A Repackaged Apocalypse," p. 17.

Electronic News, November 28, 1994, Grace Zisk, review of Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, p. 34.

Free Inquiry, spring, 2001, Edmund Cohen, "Turner Diaries Lite," p. 58.

Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1991, review of Off the Map, p. 1514; September 15, 1998, review of 'Twas the Night Before, p. 1330.

Library Journal, June 1, 1996, Henry Carrigan, Jr., review of Left Behind, p. 92; September 1, 1996, Henry Carrigan, Jr., review of Tribulation Force, p. 164; October 1, 1997, Michael Colby, review of Homecoming, p. 84; June 1, 1998, Melissa Hudak, review of Soul Harvest, p. 94; November 1, 1998, review of 'Twas the Night Before, p. 127; May 15, 1999, Melissa Hudak, review of Left Behind, p. 147; September 1, 1999, Melanie Duncan, review of Assassins, p. 172; November 1, 2000, Melanie Duncan, review of The Mark, p. 62; November 1, 2003, Tamara Butler, review of Soon, p. 64.

Marriage Partnership, fall, 2000, review of The Indwelling, p. S4; summer, 2000, "Riding the Wave," p. S1; fall, 2001, review of Desecration: Antichrist Takes the Throne, p. S4; spring, 2002, review of Desecration, p. S4.

Nation, September 22, 2003, Melani McAlister, "An Empire of Their Own: How Born-Again Christians Turned Biblical Prophecy into Big Time Profit," p. 31.

National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001, Teresa Malcolm, "Fearful Faith in End Times Novel," p. 13.

National Review, December 21, 1998, Matthew Scully, "Apocalypse Soon," p. 62.

New York Review of Books, October 12, 1989, Wilfred Sheed, review of Out of the Blue, p. 49.

New York Times, February 11, 2002, David Kirkpatrick, "A Best-Selling Formula in Religious Thrillers," p. C2.

New York Times Book Review, June 4, 1989, Charles Salzberg, review of Out of the Blue, p. 23.

People, December 14, 1998, Thomas Fields-Meyer, "In Heaven's Name," p. 139.

Publishers Weekly, September 14, 1998, review of 'Twas the Night Before, p. 50; November 15, 1999, review of Though None Go with Me, p. 56; November 13, 2000, review of The Mark, p. 88; May 7, 2001, Cindy Crosby, "Left Behind Fuels Growth at Tyndale House," p. 18; July 16, 2001, review of Hometown Legend, p. 156; August 20, 2001, Daisy Maryles and Dick Donahue, "Making a Mark," p. 23; March 11, 2002, review of The Youngest Hero, p. 53.

Time, July 1, 2002, John Cloud, "Meet the Prophet: How an Evangelist and Conservative Prophet Turned Prophecy into a Fiction Juggernaut," p. 50.

Today's Christian Woman, November, 2000, "Five Minutes with Jerry B. Jenkins," p. 78; March, 2001, "Down the Fiction Aisle," p. S4; September, 2001, review of Desecration, p. S4.

Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1991, review of The Rookie, p. 312.

Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2000, Susan Lee, "Something of a Revelation," p. W11.

West Coast Review of Books, February, 1991, review of The Rookie, p. 7.

ONLINE

Jerry Jenkins Web Site, http://www.jerryjenkins.com/ (March 15, 2002).*

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