THE SUNDAY must have been June 11, 1967. As recalled by Jim DeSaegher, then a member of Scott Memorial Baptist Church, the minister opened his sermon with the exclamation, "Guess what happened yesterday?"
"I thought of it," says DeSaegher, "as a moment of exaltation that Israel is victorious. Israel is put there for a purpose in 1948. Now they've validated their position, and God seems to be on their side. That's the feeling you got."
Israel's victory against Soviet Union allies Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six-Day War is what had caught Dr. Tim LaHaye's attention the previous day. On Sunday mornings from 1956 to 1981, pastor LaHaye preached to the congregation at Madison Avenue and Oregon Street in Normal Heights a strong New Testament message, including large doses of biblical prophecy. The prediction of Israel's return to its ancient land is a pillar in Christian teaching about the world's end-times.
These days LaHaye and coauthor Jerry B. Jenkins, who made the cover of Newsweek on May 24 of this year, are world famous for their immensely popular Left Behind series of novels about cataclysmic events during the last seven years before the end of the world. The 12 books have sold over 62 million copies total. Left Behind, the first novel, is what gives the series its name. The book opens with a Russian attack on Israel that God thwarts through a miraculous intervention. That is followed immediately by God's snatching His faithful into heaven from the clothes they are wearing. Whoever has not confessed Christ genuinely is left behind to face seven years of worsening world catastrophes until the Day of Judgment.
In 1967, however, for weeks leading up to the Six-Day War, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser had rattled his sabers with threats to wipe Israel from the face of the earth. All across the world people feared the worst for the fledgling country in the face of its Arab enemies. For Syria had assembled troops on the Golan Heights overlooking Israel. And Egypt had filled the Sinai with its own battalions ready for battle. Nasser's was no idle threat.
But on Monday, June 5, 1967, Israel's leaders ordered surprise air attacks on enemy positions. The fighting raged until late in the week, when Israel took Jerusalem from Jordan. The Arab antagonists surrendered on Saturday.
"So you had the prophecy of Israel being established in the land," says Jim DeSaegher, who still today is a member of Scott Memorial (the church changed its name to Scott Memorial Community Church several years ago), where he serves as the congregation's director of music. "God then protects them as a nation from their worst enemies when they should have been annihilated. Instead they were incredibly victorious within a short period of time. So I think Tim took that as a strong prophetic resonance to undergird his position."
Jim DeSaegher says he "grew up in a preacher's home," where he heard a lot of biblical prophecy. He also studied the Book of Revelation in college. "So when I came to LaHaye as a young man in my 20s, I was ready for what he was offering."
Not long before coming to San Diego in the early 1960s, DeSaegher earned his Ph.D. in American literature from UCLA. Later he would become a professor of literature at San Diego's Point Loma Nazarene University. In June of this year he retired from the university after 34 years of teaching.
In DeSaegher's early days at Scott Memorial, something irritated him in Tim LaHaye's sermon and classroom deliveries. "I noticed misspellings in his handouts," says DeSaegher. "Especially when he preached prophecy on Sunday nights, he would deliver chapters to the audience. So we would get the sermon in print, and it was those prints that upset me. Later we tried to clear those up, though that was long before he started publishing books. He was a visual-verbal person, and he always wanted the [accompaniments]. The idea of merely preaching was never enough for him. He needed charts, maps, illustrations of a book, handouts. He did this for Sunday school, and he did it for the Sunday-morning service all the time."
In 1965, LaHaye wrote a book called Spirit-Controlled Temperament that had great publishing success. But Scott Memorial members had already seen its ideas in note form. "When the publishers finally came to him and started printing his Temperament series, that's when I got involved," says DeSaegher. "Later he probably averaged a book a year." LaHaye would go on to write over 45 books on a range of subjects.
DeSaegher's involvement was to become Tim LaHaye's editor, a role he played for close to the next 30 years. He kept it up even after the minister left Scott Memorial in 1981.
He has not read the Left Behind books, although his wife is close to finishing them now. "She tells me about them as she goes along," he says.
DeSaegher has a vague recollection of doing a little editorial work on an effort by LaHaye in fictional form sometime around 1994. "I think that was the novel," says DeSaegher in reference to Left Behind. "It was the last thing I saw. It would be interesting to find out whether I'm correct that the first version was his version, and then he redid it through the novelist [Jerry Jenkins]. I'd love to know that myself."
In the authorial teamwork of the two writers, LaHaye supplied the biblical and theological ideas and Jenkins narrated the story. On his own, Jenkins has written 15 books that have made the New York Times best-seller list.
Not long before working on Left Behind, LaHaye had published a more traditional theological presentation called No Fear of the Storm, one of many books the author has written on biblical prophecy. No Fear of the Storm, says DeSaegher, "had all LaHaye's theories with regard to the tribulation period right before he was getting into the novel.
"LaHaye is not an artsy, literary person. He's an objective thinker, and I was so surprised that he went in a literary vein to communicate the message. But he must have realized that the artistic forms create audiences that more standard religious forms do not. After he got the idea, he tried it firsthand. And he began to realize how deficient he was, so then he went to a pro. But I think the first version of the first novel that I edited was straight from him, not from the novelist," says DeSaegher.