I think it's safe to use the word "industry" when talking about the "Left Behind" books, especially since the novels are only a part of the story. In addition, there are a children's series, non-fiction books (including devotionals and testimonials), movies, videos, CDs, clothing, calendars, cards, and more. The latest "Left Behind" product may be its most controversial: a video game, "Left Behind: Eternal Forces," that features plenty of mayhem, violence, and military equipment — and aimed (no pun intended) at teenagers (duh!). Back in May, The Los Angeles Times reported on the newly released video game:
The game's heroes belong to a group of fighters called the Tribulation Force, people whose husbands, wives or children disappeared in the Rapture. This is the moment referred to in the title when, some Christians believe, God calls the faithful to Heaven, leaving the rest behind to face seven years of tribulation.
The game is set in New York City, where the Tribulation Force clashes with the Antichrist's Global Community Peacekeepers in a tale that makes the United Nations a tool for Satan. Each side attempts to recruit lost souls in the battle for the city. "Eternal Forces" is a so-called real-time strategy game — players act as battlefield generals for their virtual armies, deciding where to place units and when to order attacks or retreats.
In the game, Tribulation squads unleash the usual arsenal against the Antichrist: guns, tanks, helicopters. But soldiers lose some of their spirituality every time they kill an opponent and must be bolstered through prayer. The failure to nurture good guys causes their spirit points to drop, leaving them vulnerable to recruitment by the other side.
The player's choices prompt intervention by angelic forces or unleash demons who feast on the faithful. As players progress through the increasingly difficult levels, they see Scripture passages presented as secret scrolls and hear inspirational music.
In multiplayer games, participants can choose to command the Antichrist's forces.
Unlike many earlier religious games, "Eternal Forces" looks and plays like a big-budget production. That's because 41-year-old Lyndon knows how to develop a game for a broad audience. He was part of the original team that created one of the most bankable sports franchises: Electronic Arts Inc.'s "Madden." In his long career, Lyndon has worked on more than 50 titles.
Here is how the LeftBehindGames.com site describes the games:
Wage a war of apocalyptic proportions in LEFT BEHIND: Eternal Forces - a real-time strategy game based upon the best-selling LEFT BEHIND book series created by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Join the ultimate fight of Good against Evil, commanding Tribulation Forces or the Global Community Peacekeepers, and uncover the truth about the worldwide disappearances!
· Lead the Tribulation Force from the book series , including Rayford, Chloe, Buck and Bruce against Nicolae Carpathia – the AntiChrist.
· Conduct physical & spiritual warfare : using the power of prayer to strengthen your troops in combat and wield modern military weaponry throughout the game world.
· Recover ancient scriptures and witness spectacular Angelic and Demonic activity as a direct consequence of your choices.
· Command your forces through intense battles across a breathtaking, authentic depiction of New York City .
· Control more than 30 units types - from Prayer Warrior and Hellraiser to Spies, Special Forces and Battle Tanks!
· Enjoy a robust single player experience across dozens of New York City maps in Story Mode – fighting in China Town , SoHo , Uptown and more!
· Play multiplayer games as Tribulation Force or the AntiChrist's Global Community Peacekeepers with up to eight players via LAN or over the internet!
There has been, of course, controversy over the violent nature of the game. And there should be. (Unless, of course, you choose to use the "It's just a game!" argument. Turns out that some progressive Christians aren't settling for that argument, although they do use the "It's just fiction!" line when it comes to The Da Vinci Code. Hmmmm....) But what interests me even more is how this video game is being marketed to Evangelicals and Evangelical groups/churches as a means to sharing the Gospel that isn't traditional, boring, backwards, doctrine-heavy, intellectually demanding, logical, or preachy. From the LATimes article:
• Games "will be a new tool to get the two-minute generation to think about matters of eternal importance in a way that isn't religious," said Troy A. Lyndon, one of the "Left Behind" game's creators.
• "'Left Behind' has the Antichrist, the end of the world, the apocalypse," said co-creator Jeffrey S. Frichner. "It's got all the Christian stuff, and it's still got all the cool stuff." [Note: Because, like, you know, Christian stuff could never be, like, cool.]
• "The reason that I think this game has a chance is that it's not particularly preachy," said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities. "I will say some of the dialogue is pretty lame — people saying, 'Praise the Lord' after they blow away the bad guys. I think they're overdoing it a bit. But the message is OK."
• The game is based on the best-selling series of "Left Behind" books, which offer an account of the end times as predicted in the biblical book of Revelation. One of the series' authors, Tim LaHaye, said the game had the potential to communicate ideas such as salvation to people who might not think of themselves as particularly interested. "We hope teenagers like the game," LaHaye said. "Our real goal is to have no one left behind."
Since the 1960s the dominant culture has obsessed over the need to orient nearly everything, from clothes to music to food to cars, around the likes, needs, desires, ideas, and opinions of people between the ages of 13 and 25 (give or take) — the very people who are usually (exceptions do exist, of course) the most self-absorbed, illogical, immature, and short-sighted. This culture of perpetual youth — or perpetual adolescence — has resulted in two or three generations of people who not only believe that their impulses and feelings are sacred, but that to even challenge those impulses and feelings is the epitome of intolerance, narrowmindedness, and stupidity. In the words of Roger Kimball, in the excellent book The Long March, the Sixties resulted in a "'youth culture' that never ages, a new permissiveness together with a new affluence: Dionysus with a credit card and a college education" (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2000. 248).
It is tragic and scandalous, even if commonplace, when Christians succumb to the leading sins of a particular age. But it is equally disturbing when Christians attempt to change culture by simply mimicking culture. Or, more specifically, simply use the lowest forms of culture because, after all, "that's where people are." Yet there is a substantial, if not always obvious difference, between trying to present the Gospel in fresh and relevant ways and simply wrapping the Gospel in clothes not meant for it. The great saints didn't inspire people to consider and contemplate the Gospel by merely being like everyone else, but, rather, by being different from everyone else in a real and obvious way while remaining human, accessible and approachable.
One part of the problem is that some American Christians too often choose American, not Christian, means of proclaming the Gospel and presenting the person of Jesus Christ. We become enamored with programs, techniques, technology, and methods that are pragmatic, practical, and utilitarian. We think that dumbing down the message makes it more accessible, but it really only makes the message dumb — or to appear dumb. We think that specializing the message for this or that group or context makes it more relevant, but it often makes the message seem isolated and divorced from the real world. We think that surrounding the message with lights and activity and loud music makes it hip, but it usually only makes it appear to be one more product being hyped by yet another producer of goods.
Can video games filled with violence be used to somehow affect lives for the better? Perhaps. It could be that I'm officially middle-aged, but I don't care for video games (and I really never have, even though the first video games were all the rage when I was in my teens). The challenge, it seems to me, is at least three-fold: 1) understanding the nature of the technique/form of communication, 2) knowing its limits, and 3) realizing how it might be used for a certain end. Video games, from what I understand, are forms of entertainment. As are movies. As are so many other things that are touted as wonderful ways to present the Gospel to those whose lived revolve around being entertained.
But could it be that in trying to be "cool" and avoid being "preachy," many Christians are simply going along with the unquestioned assumption that we reach the lost by entertaining them, or by using entertaining forms of communication? Can we really change lives through diversion and escapism? Or by spending hours shooting and killing the forces of evil via a video game? Perhaps I'm cynical, but it seems to me that when Christianity becomes another form of entertainment, it also becomes disposable, temporary, and of little lasting value.
Although I have little love for the "Left Behind" franchise (as my first book, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, makes abundantly clear), my intention is not to pick on Fundamentalist or Evangelical Christians. But, for better or worse, they are far better at marketing and being "hip" to popular culture than are Catholics. It would be difficult, I think, to even exaggerate the different levels of competence shown by the two groups, generally speaking, when it comes to marketing. The difference is such that some Catholics apparently think it a sin, or at least a moral weakness, to put time, effort, and talent into marketing. It could be that they recognize the temptation to always be in line with the latest trends and fashions. Yet there is nothing wrong with good marketing, nor with creating attractively designed products (books, DVDS, etc.). Again, the issue comes back, in the end, to the form and purpose of the product: Is it good? Is it necessary? Why is it being produced? To make money? To entertain? To instruct?
Games "will be a new tool to get the two-minute generation to think about matters of eternal importance in a way that isn't religious." I'm hardly convinced. I believe that people of all ages really do want more than entertainment coated with a thin "Christian" veneer. We shouldn't be afraid to demand more of people. But first we need to demand more of ourselves.