They are among the most popular children’s books on the market today, inspired by the evangelical Christian “Left Behind” book series, which features gory depictions of the annihilation of Jews and other nonbelievers at Armageddon.
“Left Behind: The Kids,” an ongoing series aimed at evangelical Christian children ages 10 to 14, revolves around the adventures of evangelical teenagers who band together to form the “Young Tribulation Force,” a group dedicated to overcoming physical and spiritual dangers brought on by the End of Days.
With 40 titles and counting, the series has sold 11 million copies. It is published by Illinois-based Tyndale House Publishers and based on the original best-selling “Left Behind” books, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, which the company says have sold more than 60 million copies.
A new report has found that the junior Left Behind series and the latest wave of evangelical children’s books are marked by an increased emphasis on converting Jews.
“The past 12 years have seen a proliferation of evangelical Christian novels written for children and young adults that feature Jewish characters,” Mark Stover declares in his report, “A Kinder, Gentler Teaching of Contempt? Jews and Judaism in Contemporary Protestant Evangelical Children’s Fiction.”
“Many of these books are, at their essence, conversion narratives,” Stover wrote. The children’s books stress the importance of “Jews converting to Christianity” and “the implicit emptiness of Jewish spirituality,” according to Stover, a reference librarian at San Diego State University.
The conversion theme is alluded to in a blurb promoting the 31st installment of the junior “Left Behind” series, “Escape to Masada,” which finds Israelis and Christians rushing from Jerusalem, fearing for their lives. Even amid such chaos, the blurb declares, the evangelical teenagers “continue their search for more people who need to hear the truth” about the return of Jesus.
Mark Taylor, president of Tyndale House Publishers, told the Forward in an e-mail that Stover has accurately portrayed evangelical Christianity as an exclusivist religious system that allows only one way to find salvation and that considers the proselytization of Jews to be an imperative.
In sharp contrast to evangelical denominations, the Roman Catholic Church in 2001 declared that Jews could achieve salvation through the Torah.
The conversion of Jews “is never a major plot in Tyndale’s children’s books,” Taylor wrote in his e-mail. “To the degree that it is a subplot,” he added, “it is because of the inherent and historical connection between Judaism and Christianity.”
“While there would be value in presenting a ‘dialogue between the two faiths,’ that is not the purpose of the books in the study,” he wrote. Asked if Tyndale has an editorial policy regarding the depiction of Jews, Taylor said no: “We rely on the sensibilities of our authors and editors to use appropriate language and depictions.”
Stover’s report comes as several Jewish organizations are increasingly joining forces with evangelical leaders to build support for Israel. However, some Jewish groups object to such an alliance, arguing that evangelical Christians are only motivated by their desire to bring the return of Jesus. This can only occur when Israel controls the Holy Land and all Jews move there, whereupon they will either convert or be killed.
Evangelical leaders, on the other hand, have sought to downplay the importance of their messianic theology in explaining their pro-Israel activism, pointing instead to biblical verses declaring that the Holy Land belongs to the Jewish people.
For his 18-page study, Stover examined 29 children’s books released in the United States between 1992 and 2003 by Christian publishing houses, including Bethany House, Tyndale House, Multnomah, Word, Moody, and Baker. The study was published in the latest edition of the Journal of Religion & Society, an electronic academic journal supported by the Rabbi Myer and Dorothy Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Creighton University.
“These conversion narratives should be placed in the context of American evangelicalism, which tends to be triumphalist, exclusivist and literalistic in its biblical hermeneutic,” wrote Stover, who was raised an evangelical Christian and converted to Judaism five years ago.
But he credited the recent evangelical books for at least portraying Jews as committed religious people and rejecting classical anti-Jewish stereotypes.
“Antisemitism in word or deed is condemned by evangelical Christians,” the report found. “Depictions of antisemitism in these books are almost always accompanied by a Christian character’s intervention, or at least a decrying of the hateful behavior or speech.”
Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligous adviser of the American Jewish Committee, said he was troubled by Stover’s findings.
“What’s missing from all of this is there is no sense of mutual understanding and mutual respect,” Rudin said.
Other Christian and Jewish religious experts expressed no surprise at the proliferation of the proselytizing of Jews in the children’s literature.
“I think it is pretty standard,” said Dr. Timothy C. Tennent, director of missions programs at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts.
Tennent defended the core evangelical belief that “Jesus is the fulfillment of the messianic hope of Judaism.”
“I have a right to make a case for that,” he said. “I want to see people transformed within their Judaism.”
Gary Parrett, director of Christian education programs at Gordon-Conwell, said he was impressed by the accuracy and thoroughness of Stover’s report. “If anything, I was pleasantly surprised at the fairer treatment of Jewish characters and of Judaism in general” in recent evangelical children’s books.
Tennent and Parrett both called on Christian missionaries to be more sensitive and careful in evangelizing Jews. They each said they were unaware of any evangelical children’s literature that advocates the conversion of Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus.
Parrett said that the evangelical movement has only recently, in the last 20 years, begun to understand its Jewish heritage, and this excitement is reflected in the focus on Jews in the children’s books. “What’s happening is discovering roots,” he said. “What’s not happening is an insidious, conspiratorial ‘Let’s get at the kids’ movement.”
Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, was also unfazed by the study’s findings.
“What do you expect?” he told the Forward. “It’s wholly consistent with what we know is going on in the evangelical community at this moment.”
The rabbi added: “What this calls for is further dialogue with our friends in the evangelical community to recognize that Judaism and Jews have a unique and ongoing covenant with God and that is something they need to wrestle with.”
Echoing the evangelical academics, the rabbi said he was “pleasantly surprised” to find the children’s books “trying to accurately portray Jewish practice and present Jews correctly.”
According to Stover, the books tend to follow a standard plotline: Christians present the gospel message to a Jewish person, who at first responds with resistance; this resistance is then overcome by logical reasoning, proof texts from the Hebrew Bible, and an exemplary life of self-sacrifice and generosity.
“In the children’s books,” Stover said, “Jews refusing to embrace Jesus often face severe consequences — including suffering the torments of hell and losing one’s soul for all eternity.
“In some books the evangelism is subtle and low-key, but in most of these stories the proselytizing is direct and to the point.”
None of the conversions results from professional missionary activity; instead they occur through normal friendships or family relationships.
“In every case, the evangelical Christian characters feel an ardent desire for their Jewish friends to become Christians.”