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I once had someone advise me to stop playing the piano in favor of the glockenspiel.

This was not because I wanted to play a different instrument.  Far from it.  I had been taking piano since I was eight years old and was good enough that I accompanied my high school choir on certain classical pieces.  My teacher, an intimate of Enrico Caruso's daughter Claudia, was one of the best in the area, and her only complaint was that I only practiced for an hour a day instead of the two to three hours that would have made me good enough to consider minoring in music in college.  My only complaint was that Mum wouldn't spring for voice lessons once I made glee club and realized that I was a better than average singer, and it was easy enough to compensate by singing along to the classical records I bought at the local National Record Mart.

No, the advice to give up the piano and learn to play the glockenspiel came from a well meaning but not overly perceptive classmate.

We were sitting at one of the tables in the luxuriously mediocre cafeteria at Millard Fillmore High School, home of the Fighting Geoduks, pushing dispiritedly at the remains of our lunches and waiting for the bell so we could go to our next class.  Cassie, the class beauty, was talking about that afternoon's pep rally, her friend Danielle was checking her afternoon schedule, and I was reading one of Harry Harrison's Death World books.  It was all very typical, and then, of course, I had to open my mouth.

I'm not sure exactly what sparked my sudden emergence from the adventures of Jason din Ahlt and his heterosexual life companion Meta.  Perhaps it was a need to cover my nerves when Laila Watson, the class bully, came close enough to remind me that she could, would, and had made my life a living hell since middle school for reasons best known only to herself.  Perhaps something Cassie or Danielle had said about the football team caught my attention.  Perhaps I'd come to a chapter ending and was reluctant to forge ahead when the bell would ring any moment.

Perhaps I was simply bored.

Regardless, I looked up from my paperback and spotted a couple of football players lounging about the room like the lords of all creation.  And like the idiot I was, I decided to end lunch by making a disparaging remark about the unfairness that placed these blow-dry mesomorphs and their cheerleaderly consorts squarely at the top of the Fillmorean hierarchy simply because they were Geoduks.  Cassie and Danielle, neither of whom were either Geoduks or pompom girls, nodded sympathetically and agreed that no, it wasn't necessarily fair, but that's the way it was, so we all needed to get behind the team and support the Geoduks against the Ringgold Rams even though the Rams' star quarterback, dweeby little Joe Montana, had graduated two years earlier.

"Yeah, you're right, but it's still not fair," I grumbled, shutting my book and stuffing it in my purse.  "The jocks, the cheerleaders, and the band get everything, and the rest of us get nothing."

"Some of them get college scholarships," Danielle pointed out.  "It's not just the jocks, either.  One of the cheerleaders is getting a free ride to Duquesne because she's a folk dancer, and Fuzz is up for a band scholarship."

"That's another thing!"  I might have raised my voice slightly.  "The band got new uniforms and went to Disney World, but the choir's lucky to have our robes cleaned ever couple of years!  It's not fair."

Cassie furrowed her perfect brow.  "Sure it is.  The band represents the school every week, just like the football team and the cheerleaders.  The choir only has two or three concerts a year."

"Yeah, but - "

"Besides, all you'd have to do is join the band and you'd get to go to Disney World.  I'll bet they'd take you, too."

I blinked.  "Cassie.  I play the piano.  They're not going to shove one of those on the field every Friday night so I can play the Moonlight Sonata."

She blinked back.  "Who says you have to play the piano?"

"I don't know how to play anything else."

"You could learn," she said brightly.  "They're looking for someone to play the glockenspiel.  Why don't you take lessons and try out?"

Fortunately the bell went off right about then, or I might have said something true, obnoxious, and quite, quite regrettable.

As you've probably gathered from the above, I'm not much for football.  Not only was Millard Fillmore completely gaga over the Fighting Geoduks, the Steelers were veritable gods lately sprung up from the mud of Three Rivers Stadium thanks to the genius of Chuck Noll, the strong throwing arm of Terry Bradshaw, the brawn of the Steel Curtain, and the fleet grace of Franco Harris.  Add in the sacred talisman of the Terrible Towel and the nasal bray of sportscaster Myron Cope, and what opponent had a chance?

And the dominance of Steeltown's favorite sons, almost none of whom were actually from Western Pennsylvania, extended well beyond the playing field.  Terry Bradshaw's signature peanut butter could be purchased at Foodland, after all, and if the commercials appeared to have been filmed in the great man's backyard, so what?  The Steelers shopped downtown, lived in the North Hills, sent their children to local schools - Lynn Swann, the magnificent wide receiver, even took classes with the Pittsburgh Ballet to stay limber and fit, and got good enough that he appeared more than once as the distinguished visitor to Clara and Fritz's home in the annual Christmas production of Nutcracker.

Was it any wonder that my fellow Fillmorites were mad for football?  Or that I, contrary little beast that I was, refused to go along with the crowd?  Or that my dislike of high school football quickly extended to all other high school sports, whether the excellent and underfunded girls' basketball team, the gallant track team, or the swim team that had to practice at another facility because the genius that had designed the hallowed halls of Millard Fillmore had neglected to put in a swimming pool?

I will not even mention the day a 290 fullback doing backwards wind sprints down the hallway nearly turned me into an oil slick one fine afternoon when I was walking to my locker after choir practice and he didn't look behind him before taking off…but let's just say that the coach was amazed that the only casualty was the plastic frame on my prescription glasses, and that there's nothing quite like coming to the cries of an overgrown boy crying, "Oh my God, I killed her!  I'm so sorry!" and wringing his hands like a bosomy old lady from a Ma and Pa Kettle movie.

Is it any wonder that I've never once understood the appeal of fiction about high school sports teams?

No lie.  For all that I can and have devoured stacks and stacks of mysteries, science fiction pulps, comic books, fantasy quest trilogies, D&D manuals, trivia books and weird little pamphlets and histories of everything from the phlogistonal theory of matter to the fool-proof work out system of Billy-Bing, I have yet to understand the appeal of stories of derring-do on the underage gridiron, hook shots in the junior varsity cage, or dedicated gymnasts performing a triple backflip dismount in the pike position onto a bed of nails and rosebuds to win the state championship.  Frank Armstrong…the heroes of BJ Chute…the Rover Boys…alas, alack, and well-a-day, they leave me about as cold as a freezer pop on the Ross Ice Shelf.

And then there's Gil Thorp.

You remember Gil Thorp, don't you?  This square-jawed creation of comic strip veteran Jack Berrill has coached the football, basketball, and baseball teams at fictional Milford High School since 1958.  Along the way he's married, fathered twins, and overseen stories that mix teenage concerns such as afterschool jobs and parental problems with exciting sports action, or at least as exciting as one can get in a daily black and white comic strip.  And though social mores have changed enough since the 50's that recent strips have tackled issues such as teen pregnancy, divorced parents, and even steroid abuse by boys eager for college scholarships, Gil, who began as an homage to baseball great Gil Hodges and multisport legend Jim Thorpe, has remained as clean, fresh, and all-American as a loaf of freshly baked Wonder Bread.

This may be one of the reasons why Gil Thorp is rarely (if ever) mentioned in the same breath as classic American strips such as Gasoline Alley, Prince Valiant, or Terry and the Pirates. For all its longevity and reliance on middle American staples like the travails of teenaged sports stars, Gil Thorp is ultimately rather bland.  None of the artists who've drawn Gil, his family, and the rotating cast of athletes of Milford High has approached the lofty heights of Milton Caniff or Hal Foster, or even the lesser Marvel artists who've had to drawn the daily Spider-Man strip.  Jack Berrill was a decent, workmanlike writer, but the life and work of a suburban high school football coach is scarcely conducive to swashbuckling adventure, or even much in the way of soap opera.  In many ways Gil Thorp is like a pair of worn, broken down, ragged but still wearable sneakers:  not good enough to be great, but not bad enough to discard.

The sole exception to this comfortable mediocrity has been the eight year reign of a writer named Jerry Jenkins, who used the stability of his gig at Gil Thorp as a fallback while he collaborated on a series of books that are notoriously, epically, dare I say cosmically So Bad They're Good.

Little about Jenkins' resume would have indicated that he had such talents when he was chosen to replace Jack Berrill after Berrill's death from cancer in 1996.  Jenkins, a prolific journeyman of the type that has appeared so often in these diaries, had carved out a career writing children's and young adult book series, "as told to" biographies of famous people, series mysteries and sports fiction, and articles for worthy publications such as Reader's Digest and Parade.  He'd been in negotiations with Tribune Media Services, the syndicate that distributed Gil Thorp, about turning some of Gil's earlier adventures into young adult novels when Jack Berrill died, so the syndicate asked him to take over the scripting.

This he did in 1996.  The changeover was handled with such skill that few readers noticed the change…until a certain tone of, shall we say, religious fervor began to pervade life at the heretofore nonsectarian Milford High.   It wasn't overt – Gil suddenly wasn't putting up posters of Touchdown Jesus in the locker room or beginning every game by intoning prayers begging the Lord of Hosts to SMITE the opposing team HIP AND THIGH (in His Mercy) – but story lines that never would have occurred in Jack Berrill's safely little version of America began to crop up.  

One in particular was somewhat problematic, as Gil not only talked the pregnant girlfriend of one of his star players out of having an abortion, he invited the girl to live with him, his wife, and their children until she delivered, all with arguments that sounded uncomfortably close to the Operation Rescue playbook.  The syndicate handling the strip was flooded with complaints, at least one newspaper reportedly cancelled the strip over the storyline, and Jenkins himself refused to answer questions on the grounds that he was “in isolation” finishing up a book.  Alert reporters then learned that Jenkins, a devout evangelical Christian who had collaborated with Rev. Billy Grahan on his memoirs, not only was himself firmly anti-abortion, he was the writer-in-residence at the Moody Bible Institute, the Chicago-based evangelical seminary that has trained missionaries, ministers, and parachurch workers for well over a century.

This was scarcely Jerry Jenkins' only foray into faith-based fiction; around the same time Gil Thorp opened his spare bedroom to a fallen angel, Jenkins purchased the Christian Writers' Guild, a professional organization devoted to improving the quality of evangelical writing through an apprentice/master system that assigns aspiring Christian writers to established professionals.   He'd written several “as told to” books with religious leaders who were not Billy Graham, too, including Luis Palau and former Moody Institute chancellor George Sweeting.  And lest one think that this was a new development in his life, Jenkins had previously written several articles for Guideposts, the little inspirational magazine full of heartwarming and quite possibly fact-based stories about the power of prayer and a nonsectarian God.  

These solid evangelical credentials, plus his proven ability to tell a story, were likely why one of the most important, influential, and illustrious religious leaders in America chose Jerry Jenkins as his co-writer on what became the biggest selling series of religious novels in history.

Was it Billy Graham?  No, too busy with his crusades.

Jerry Falwell?  No, too busy with his university.

Pat Robertson?  No, too busy with his university.

Ted Haggard?  No, too busy hiring gym queens to beat him up and supply him with meth with his ministry.

No, gentle readers, the religious leader who hired Jerry Jenkins to help him turn the last book of the Bible into a series that would storm the bestseller lists, spawn three movies, a quartet of video games, two spin-off series, and no fewer than forty books aimed at young readers was none other than...

Are you sitting down?  Good!

...Tim LaHaye.

If this name sounds familiar, it should.  LaHaye, a Bob Jones University alumnus from the days when it was segregated (and unaccredited), is married to conservative political activist Beverly LaHaye of Concerned Women For America fame.  A former pastor, he's best known for his own political activities, which included encouraging Jerry Falwell to found the Moral Majority, founding the influential but little known Council on National Policy, attempting to get the late Jack Kemp elected President, and rallying evangelicals 'round George W. Bush in 2000.  He's also written or co-written a couple dozen books espousing ultra-conservative religious doctrines, several of which involve gay bashing, Catholic bashing, the role of the Illuminati and other mythical conspiracists taking over American life, and an interpretation of the Book of Revelation that is, to put it mildly, literal in the extreme.

As for the books he hired Jerry Jenkins to help him author as a means to warn/convert/terrify/confuse unbelievers into giving their lives to the Fightin' Jesus, you may have heard of them, or read them, or read the Slacktivist's hilarious and insightful evisceration of the first volume of...

The Left Behind Series.

That's right.  Jerry Jenkins went pretty much right from writing a bland comic strip to co-authoring a novelization of the strangest book in the Bible.  Not only that, he and his boss/co-author have thrown in plenty of conspiracies, paranoia, Catholic-bashing, plot devices that would not pass muster in a teenager's Harry Potter roleplaying game, and theology so literalist, ahistorical, and downright silly that LaHaye and Jenkins have been slammed by their fellow evangelicals for bad eschatology verging on outright heresy.

I am nowhere near as familiar with these books as the Slacktivist, so I would direct the curious to his masterful critiques for more information.  However, I will say that the Left Behind empire are perhaps the single greatest, most important fictional exploration of the strange little world of “Rapture Theology,” which holds that believers will be taken bodily into heaven just prior to the Tribulation, the huge political/social/environmental/religious cataclysm that God will inflict on the sinful and unbelieving just before Jesus returns, punishes everyone who doesn't agree with Tim LaHaye's interpretation of Revelation sinners, and ushers in the Millenium.  There's plenty of explicitly described gore, plenty of death, plenty of reporters who aren't phased or particular impressed by multiple airplane crashes after pilots inexplicably disappear, lots and lots of parents who seem more happy that their kids have been Raptured than worried that maybe something else has happened, several theological contradictions (the saved can receive the Mark of the Beast AND the Seal of the Lord without exploding, glory hallelujah!), and a Beast (Nicolae Carpathia, and could they have picked a more obvious name for a bad guy?) so initially sympathetic that I once had to spend about half an hour explaining to a sobbing neighbor that yes, even the Anti-Christ could potentially be saved.

Yes, really, and believe me, it was not nearly as easy as it sounds since I'm a Universalist.

All of the above magnificence is told in prose that makes Gil Thorp look like Shakespeare; Jerry Jenkins may be the most successful writer to have cut his teeth writing for Guideposts, but a stylist he is not.

Behold hero Buck Rayford's reaction to the Rapture:

Rayford wanted to be strong, to have answers, to be an example to his crew, to Hattie. But when he reached the lower level he knew the rest of the flight would be chaotic. He was as scared as anyone on board.
His reaction to learning that a buddy now works for the Anti-Christ:
Buck settled into his room on the third floor of the King David Hotel. On a hunch he called the offices of the Global Community East Coast Daily Times in Boston and asked for his old friend, Steve Plank. Plank had been his boss at Global Weekly what seemed eons ago. He had abruptly left there to become Carpathia’s press secretary when Nicolae became secretary-general of the United Nations. It wasn’t long before Steve was tabbed for the lucrative position he now held.

It was no surprise to Buck to find that Plank was not in the office. He was in New Babylon at the behest of Nicolae Carpathia and no doubt feeling very special about it.

Buck showered and took a nap.

Buck's reaction to learning that his family is safe:
In his and Amanda’s own apartment, as comfortable as air-conditioning could make a place in Iraq, Rayford disrobed to his boxers and sat on the end of his bed. Shoulders slumped, elbows on knees, he exhaled loudly and realized how exhausted he truly was. He had finally heard from home. He knew Amanda was safe, Chloe was on the mend, and Buck — as usual — was on the move. He didn’t know what he thought about this Verna Zee threatening the security of the Tribulation Force’s new safe house (Loretta’s). But he would trust Buck, and God, in that.
The depth of emotion in these passages rivals is truly something, isn't it?  I mean, I don't know about you, but I haven't read anything this gripping, this insightful, this emotionally honest since the last time I did the crossword puzzle in the New York Times.  No wonder Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye own the evil, secular bestseller lists!  

Of course, for all the glories of its prose, for all the souls it's amused to the point of asphyxiation saved, the Left Behind series has done much more than simply produce a dozen increasingly popular albeit ridiculous books.  There have been three movies none of which has made as much money as the opening week of Iron Man 3, four video games featuring the inventive twist that shooting unbelievers instead of attempting to convert them costs players “spirit points,” an album of “music inspired by Left Behind” that includes curious selections like “Eve of Destruction” (??), and no fewer than forty books about the children of the characters in Left Behind even though the pure, innocent children of Earth were supposed to be raptured.  

There were even graphic novels of the first two books in the series...but curiously, these failed to sell well enough to stay in print despite the modern popularity of the form.  My personal theory is that most graphic novel fans are way too cynical and sarcastic to do anything more than laugh themselves into a stupor over the adventures of Buck Rayford and his Tribulation Force, but I could very well be wrong.

All of the above meant that Jerry Jenkins (and Tim LaHaye) not only had a priceless opportunity to win souls for Jesus, they were also now very, very rich (glory to God in the highest!).  LaHaye now had more money than ever to pour into political causes, while Jenkins, who did the bulk of the actual wordsmithing, turned Gil Thorp over to Detroit News veteran Neal Rubin because he simply didn't have time to write terrible bestsellers, run the Christian Writers' Guild, and continue the neverending saga of Milford High, its unaging football coach, and its ceaseless athletic activities.

The Left Behind series has concluded now, but Jerry Jenkins is still writing (over 180 novels and non-fiction books) and still hitting the bestseller lists.  He shows no sign of missing the days when he wrote about Gil Thorp and his friends/family/athletes, but little wonder; even when he was actively writing the strip, this was the best he had to say about it:

Gil Thorpe is a great diversion and is to book writing as poetry is to prose.

That anyone, anywhere, at any time, in any universe, could think of Gil Thorp as the literary equivalent of poetry, speaks volumes about the literary insight and skill of Jerry Jenkins.  Need I say more?

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So, my friends – did you ever pick up a copy of Left Behind at the laundromat or the airport?  Read Gil Thorp?  Play high school football?  Combine any of the above?  Have a 290 football player wind sprint into you backwards?  It's Saturday night, so don't be shy....

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Jun 15, 2013 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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