Motivations for Reading the Left Behind Book Series:
A Uses and Gratifications Analysis
Religious fiction includes “novels about clergy and religion as well as novels of personal salvation” (Henry, 1995, p. 244) and is a genre that has morphed into various distinct categories, such as romance, apocalyptic fiction, or apocalyptic narratives. The sixteen-book series known as Left Behind, which debuted in 1995, is the most successful work of religious fiction in history (Crosby, 2001; Left Behind, 2008; Memmott, 2005). In addition to the original collection, the Left Behind franchise includes numerous prequels, sequels, and even an extended children’s series. Video games and a series of movies are also part of the Left Behind phenomenon, including one by A-list Hollywood actor Nicholas Cage (Tucker, 2014).
Left Behind is a work of apocalyptic religious fiction that tells the story of the biblical Tribulation beginning with the Rapture (i.e., where Christians are taken up into heaven and all others are “left behind”) and concluding with the battle of Armageddon and Christ’s 1000-year reign (Gross, 2000, p. 125). Timothy LaHaye, retired Christian pastor and series originator, wondered what it would be like for those flying in a plane when the Rapture occurred. This thought inspired him to write a book about those who had been “left behind” (Davis, 2001, p. D-1).
Left Behind has amassed substantial sales and the latter books in the series made the New York Times bestseller list. Six novels debuted at number 1 on the USA Today list (Malcolm, 2001; Memmott, 2005; Harrison, 1998, p. S6). The books have sold more than 63 million copies and the series was included among the top 10 books of the twentieth century by barnesandnoble.com and ivillage.com (Left Behind, 2008). The series’ publisher, Tyndale House, generated about $175 million during the 2001 fiscal year alone, and once sales began to proliferate in mainstream retailers such as Costco and Wal-Mart, the numbers skyrocketed (Crosby, 2001, p. 18). In 2002, the first printing of more than two million copies of The Remnant, the tenth book in the series, put Left Behind in the elite company of Tom Clancy, J. K. Rowling and John Grisham, the only other authors to record a first printing of two million books. The overall popularity of the Left Behind series has accounted for a rise in fiction sales in both religious and secular book outlets (Cella, 2001). Its popularity has also strongly influenced worldwide religious culture (Frykholm, 2004) and sparked the growth of evangelical Christianity in the decade following its publication (Anderson, 2004; Zelizer, 2004).
Although the Left Behind series had definable success and influence, there is noticeable lack of research on the books’ readership. Barna’s (2001) nationwide study is the most extensive to date. Barna described several characteristics of Left Behind readers but did not ask respondents why they read the series. Besides Barna’s study, several qualitative studies have analyzed the books’ theology (Dart, 2002; Forbes & Kilde, 2004; Frykholm, 2004; Guest, 2012; Jones, 2001; Long, 2001), portrayal of women (Gribben & Sweetnam, 2011; Maudlin, 1997), and characterizations of certain cultural and socioeconomic philosophies (Cloud, 2002; Goldberg 2002; Gross, 2000; Shuck, 2005). Others examined the books for anti-Catholic (Alleva, 2001; Gribben & Sweetnam, 2011) and anti-Jewish biases (Gorenberg, 2002; Lampert, 2012; Scully, 1998). More recently, Chapman (2013) investigated the role of agency in reader engagement with the Left Behind narratives, neoliberal influences in the storyline, and the books’ perspectives on homosexuality and gays.
Additionally, although researchers have considered print media including religious newspaper use (McEwen & Hempel, 1977; Roberts, 1983; Sobal & Jackson-Beeck, 1981; Stamm & Weis, 1986; Westley & Severin, 1964) and religious magazine use (Swatos, 1988; Waters, 2001; Waters, 1996), religious books have received far less attention (Longinow, 2008; Schultze, 2003). Overall, the bulk of research on religious media use over the last five decades has focused on electronic media including radio (Creasman, 1996, 2008; Johnstone, 1971; Parker, Inman, & Snyder, 1948; Parker, Barry & Smythe, 1955; Schultze, 1988; Seward & Dodds, 1993), television (Abelman, 1987, 1988, 1989; Abelman & Neuendorf, 1985; Bruner, 2008; Buddenbaum, 1981; Gerbner, Gross, Hoover, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1984; Hamilton & Rubin, 1992; Schultze, 1990; Welch, Johnson, & Pilgrim, 1990), and the internet (Armfield, 2003; 1998; Bentley, 2012; Campbell, 2005; Laney, 1999; Schultze, 2008).
In light of Left Behind’s success and influence, the lack of corresponding research of its readership, and the paucity of research in media studies on reasons for consuming religious books, the current survey investigates why people read the Left Behind series and how their motivations relate to media use patterns and religious commitments.