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But the complexity of the situation makes Bock and other theologians uncomfortable. "The church never wants to get in a position of defending Israel at the expense of at least some Palestinians who are Christian," Bock says. In 1984, mainstream Christian denominations formed the group Churches for Middle East Peace, hoping to heighten awareness of Israel's responsibilities to the Palestinians. "The Christian evangelist [sic] movement takes over large numbers of people, and they have large rallies celebrating Israel in the streets," says Corinne Whitlatch, the group's director. "I think that's very comforting to the Israelis, and I don't think they're aware of--or even care to know about--some of the dark side." That would be the part where, according to one literal reading of the book of Revelation, a group of 144,000 Jews would be set aside before the Tribulation to serve God while the rest would be left to convert or die.
Pat Robertson suggested Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke on January 5 was God's revenge for ceding land to the Palestinians. At DTS, Pentecost believes that Robertson had a point. "We have said all along there will be no peace until Israel submits to the Prince of Peace," Pentecost says. "So here it looks as though things are developing contrary to what the Bible pictures, and then suddenly that whole thing blows up. Now I'm not anticipating or saying when the Messiah will come, but things that would seem to make his coming unnecessary, that Israel was going to establish its own peace, current events have shown they can't do it."
The claim to literalism is one of the most cherished aspects of dispensationalism. The underlying rationale for Darby's system is that all Scripture, including prophecy, should be taken as literally as possible, using one hermeneutic, or system of interpretation. "We are using that normal hermeneutic used by Protestants to interpret the Bible," says traditional dispensationalist Tommy Ice. "Dispensationalists simply applied it consistently to eschatology."
Dispensationalism is the sum total of the leaps of logic it takes to make that literal reading possible. There is, however, one drawback: The canon of the King James Bible, the most popular English version and the basis for the Scofield Reference Bible, was not decided until the early 1600s. Before that, which Scriptures were included varied widely. As religious studies professor Bart Ehrman notes in his book, Misquoting Jesus, one of the most popular stories in the Bible, about a woman accused of adultery that Jesus saves from stoning by shaming her would-be executioners, was likely added to the Gospel of John by an anonymous scribe in the 12th century. Progressive dispensationalists like Glenn Kreider see the dilemma. "Sometimes defenders of the system have argued too much from the text, from a word in the text, rather than reading the Scripture as a whole," Kreider concedes.
"It's become kind of a political racket now in the sense that Lindsey and LaHaye and others are heavily involved in right-wing political causes," Rossing says. "They're trying to get their theology to be the policy of the United States, particularly Middle East policy, and I think that's very dangerous." Some evangelicals aren't shy about their political aspirations. Falwell, for example, titled a 2004 article on Iraq for a Christian Web site, "God Is Pro-war." The theologians at DTS are more circumspect. "Eschatology for me is kind of knowing where the end of the story is heading, but it's not my role to help get it there," Bock says.
Exactly how much pull dispensationalists have with the White House is the subject of debate. President George W. Bush is a self-identified evangelical Christian, but he has carefully avoided specifying a denomination, even when he speaks to evangelical groups. Yet Falwell openly flaunts the access he gets to the White House as a member of the Council for National Policy, a lobbying committee for right-wing evangelicals (LaHaye was the group's first president). "We often call the White House and talk to Karl Rove while we are meeting," Falwell told Vanity Fair last year. "Everyone takes our calls."
Such are the political perks of running a $200 million mega-ministry, or in LaHaye's case, co-writing a series read by an estimated one in 10 Americans. But the runaway success of Left Behind and its illustrious predecessor, The Late Great Planet Earth, isn't easy to duplicate. A much better-written trilogy of apocalyptic novels by James Beauseigneur called the Christ Clone Trilogy has developed only a modest following. Novelist Frank Peretti won critical acclaim with his Christian thrillers in the 1980s but garnered only a fraction of LaHaye's audience. Even a big production and promotion budget is no guarantee: Last year, NBC's lavish new Christian-themed mini-series, Revelations, was quietly canceled amidst resounding indifference.