Tuesday, January 16, 2001
Until lately, Jerry B. Jenkins would have described himself as the "most famous writer no one's ever heard of." As the author or co-author of more than 140 books and a syndicated comic strip, Jenkins has been more of a behind-the-scenes man than a front runner. In recent years, however, his wildly popular "Left Behind" series of novels (co-written with Dr. Tim LaHaye) has brought Christian fiction to the attention of the secular publishing market in a huge way. Jenkins recently sat down with News & Culture Editor Stephen McGarvey to talk about his faith, his most recent books, and his son's upcoming movie.
Crosswalk: You have a new "Left Behind" book coming out soon, "Desecration." Did you have any idea when you and Tim LaHaye started the "Left Behind" series that it would get as big as it is right now?
Jenkins: Seeing as how they tell us it's the fastest selling adult fiction series ever, Christian or secular, anybody who says they had an idea that would happen must be lying. We thought we had something special. We hoped it would do well. In my economy 100,000 to 200,000 copies would be fantastic for any book. "Left Behind" is just astronomical; we're at 40 million copies for the series. The first print run for the next book, "Desecration" is going to be 2.8 million copies. It's so far past where anybody can take any human credit for. It's folly to think it's anything but a God thing.
Crosswalk: So can you give us a teaser from the new book?
Jenkins: Well, there'll be a couple of characters that you start out with on page one that aren't still there at the end. I can't say who, and of course, the title "Desecration" refers to the desecration of the temple, so the Antichrist is going into the temple and calling himself God. The new believers from the Tribulation period and the Remnant of Israel finally see him for what he is and oppose him. That's when he turns on them and wants to destroy them, so there's a mass exodus out of Israel, similar to the exodus in the Old Testament. God has promised protection for these people, but the Antichrist has at his power every technological weapon there is. So it's gets to be the start of the most dramatic point and we're still at the mid-way point of the Tribulation.
Dr. LaHaye always says each next book is the most exciting. He's a great cheerleader. I send him 100 to 200 pages at a time, and besides making sure I'm straight theologically, he's just a great cheerleader. He'll say, "Send me more -- I want to find out what happens." So he really likes this one. His instincts are usually right. There's some good buzz at Tyndale about it, too.
Crosswalk: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently quoted you saying, "Tim LaHaye was around when the Dead Sea was still sick."
Jenkins: Yeah. [Laughing]
Crosswalk: What's it like working with Dr. LaHaye, who's practically a living legend in the Christian community?
Jenkins: He's the age of my parents, so there's a sort of father/son thing between us. I sort of tease him about that. He always says that people ask him when he thinks the Rapture will happen, and he always says he hopes it happens in his lifetime. And I say, then it's going to have to be really soon then, isn't it? We really hit it off in the beginning and he's a very serious-minded guy and theologian. But I think I've loosened him up a little bit. He says he's learned to take life a little less seriously.
Crosswalk: You've also just co-authored Sammy Tippit's re-released biography, "God's Secret Agent." Can you tell me a little bit about that project and how you ended up getting together with Sammy to do his book?
Jenkins: That actually was the first book I ever wrote. I was 23 years old, and Sammy was 25. I interviewed him for a Sunday School paper that I was editing, a Scripture Press paper called Freeway. At the time (early 1970s) I felt like, even though he was young (and I was younger) that there was a book there. And, of course, when you haven't written a book before, you do it without a contract. So I wrote the book of Sammy's story with Sammy, and I tried to get it published with Broadman (it wasn't called Broadman at the time) since it was a Southern Baptist publisher, and Sammy was a Southern Baptist preacher. It was kind of fortuitous because I sent in the manuscript, and they called and said, "You know, the day before the manuscript came in, we had a meeting about who should we do books about who's up and coming," and they thought of Sammy Tippet and were wondering how to contact him and here comes this manuscript. So they published it.
And I've done probably 20-25 of these "first person as told to" books. A lot of them are famous sport stars. Sammy, even though he was my first subject, was the most prepared person I've ever interviewed. He came with outlines and legal pads and notes and stories that really spoiled me.
But Sammy is really my hero. He's the most devout person I've ever met, and just absolutely sold out for Christ. I've served on the board of Sammy Tippet Ministries now for several years and have traveled overseas with him a few times. We updated the book some years ago, and it was called "No Matter What the Cost" and then the most recent incarnation is this new one, "God's Secret Agent" (2001 Tyndale Pulishers) and really re-did the whole thing. I think a lot of people don't realize that "God's Secret Agent" is latest incarnation of the very first book I ever wrote. But there's always new stuff to add. We can tell Sammy's story to a whole new generation who'd never heard it.
Crosswalk: What was the most memorable part of Sammy's story to you?
Jenkins: Probably his conversion story. Sammy was a typical southern high school kid athlete, wild, and a real partier, boozer and chaser. He was on his way to college, but that summer he was dating a girl whose father was a deacon in a local church. The father said, "before you guys go out tonight, you've got to come this James Robison meeting." James Robison is a TV evangelist. And so Sammy went and sat in the back row. His friends are there with him and they're all having fun, but something really captivated Sammy. He was really under conviction and more so even than this girl that was from this church. By the time the invitation came, he just ran down the aisle, feeling not only was he led to Christ but called to preach like this young evangelist he was listening to. Sammy had been a debate champion in high school and was a gifted a speaker. He immediately, the next day, started preaching in town and preaching in bars. So it became sort of the hallmark of his whole life. He still does that. He preaches, of course, in great stadiums all over the world but in places no one else will go. He was behind the Iron Curtain for many years, Romania and other closed countries. He's just a courageous powerful witness. Always has been.
Crosswalk: Tell me a little bit about your latest novel "Hometown Legend."
Jenkins: We first saw "Hometown Legend" in movie script form. My son worked for a few years in development at a film company and found out that film business is a lot like a publishing business, in that you rarely see good scripts. This one really jumped out at him, and he showed it to James Anderson, who's working for a Paramount company. James liked it too, and both of them had been in the film business long enough to know when they saw a good one, but the companies were not interested in it. So we decided to form our own film company and produced it as well as directed it. Then I wrote a novel based on the film. The movie is really more of a pre-evangelistic bridge between secular media and Christian media but the book is overtly evangelical. It's the first novel in Warner Publishing's line for the Christian market as well. The movie we hope to release in theaters by around Nov. 1.
Crosswalk: Can you just tell us a little about the plot?
Jenkins: It's a story of a small town in Southern Alabama. Their high school football team is legendary and they often win the state championship. Their coach is this great winning coach, but in 1988 (it's fiction, of course) his son is killed on the field and he quits coaching and leaves town. Then, 12 years later, he's talked into coming back for one last year of glory. The story is chronicling that last year, a sort of a "David versus Goliath" story. In the book, I'm able to play out all the relationships. There's the coach and what happened to his wife and how they overcame this tragedy and how the town is revived.
Crosswalk: Who would you say is the most intriguing person that you've ever worked with?
Jenkins: Of the athletes I've worked with, Orel Herschiser does tend to stand out. We've kept up over the years, and he's really a real guy, down to earth and fresh in his faith. But I still list Sammy Tippet as the most intriguing and, really, as I said, (I don't know how else to put it) he's my hero. He's the kind of Christian that I'd like to be. Everybody should strive to be a really courageous, obedient, devout guy. I've worked with some great ones, Nolan Ryan, Hank Aaron, Walter Peyton, Joe Gibbs, Mike Singletary, they're all fascinating in their own way, and a lot of them become Hall of Famers. But Sammy's right there at the top of the list.
Crosswalk: You've written a lot of books over the years but it's clear that "Left Behind" is eclipsing a lot of your past work. But a hundred years from now, what do you want people to look back on as the most memorable book you've written? Is it "Left Behind" or is there something else?
Jenkins: I think there's no getting around that, even if I said "Though None Go With Me" is my best work of fiction or "Hometown Legend" or "Rookie." You know, I've got some favorites. To say that "Left Behind" is eclipsing some of my other stuff is an understatement because the "Left Behind" series has about a million copies a month. That's more than all my other books put together sold in their lifetimes, so there's no way around the fact that I'll be remembered for the "Left Behind" series. I doubt anybody will remember me in a hundred years, but if they do I want to be remembered more as a good husband and father primarily. I really do keep my family priorities straight.
My youngest son is going to go off to college this fall but all the time my kids were growing up I had a policy I wouldn't do any writing or work from the office from the time I got home from work until the time the kids went to bed. For many years, I worked at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and lived in the suburbs. Once I got home from work it was their time. I really challenge other people to do the same thing. You'll always regret the time you didn't spend with them. Kids hear what you say, but they believe what you do. So if I tell them that they're top priority, I have to prove it by not being behind a closed door or having a project that's more important than they are. So in spite what most people would say is prolific output, my kids are my best friends and we still do a lot together.