Jewish Christians

Terrorism, fiction and the Truth

WASHINGTON -- One of the most sobering sights that novelist Joel Rosenberg has ever seen was the glitter of Manhattan outside the windows of a Learjet a few months after Sept. 11.

Since this was a private plane, its passengers did not pass through a metal detector and have their ID cards checked. There were no security procedures at all.

"It was the middle of the night and we were flying right over Ground Zero," he said. "I remember saying at the time that there was nothing -- literally nothing -- except our own morality that could stop us from taking a private jet like this one and doing pretty much whatever we wanted to do with it. That's still true."

This moral blind spot in the war on terror has bugged Rosenberg for years. That's why his first novel -- the 2002 bestseller "The Last Jihad" -- opened with a private jet exploding into a presidential motorcade in the not-so-distant future.

Rosenberg was writing the final chapters of that book on the morning of Sept. 11. That meant he had some rewriting to do.

But those kamikaze pilots were front and center in chapter one, written in 2000. So was the author's emphasis on faith. This is what happens when a Jewish Christian who used to work for Rush Limbaugh and Israeli politico Benjamin Netanyahu starts writing thrillers about nuclear terrorism. The religious content increased in the 2003 sequel, "The Last Days," which earned Rosenberg a $1 million advance.

Many secular critics have been brutal, including the Washington Post's infamous verdict that his work was "an act of terrorism on the reader's brain."

Rosenberg is unapologetic. He said he simply started asking "what-if questions" about terrorism in America and the Middle East and tried to figure out the answers. As it turned out, the timing was right to ask big questions about good and evil.

For example, one of Rosenberg's fictional heroes is a retired Israeli spy who is convinced that American leaders cannot wage a war on terror because they no longer believe that evil is spiritual reality. Thus, they also doubt the existence of eternal, absolute truth.

This theme shouldn't be surprising, said Rosenberg, because his ancestors were Orthodox Jews who fled the pogroms of Russia. The writer's father was Jewish and his mother Methodist. Both converted as adults to evangelical Christianity, as did their son.

"Because of my own faith and my family's experiences, I truly believe in the reality of evil. ... But many, many people in this town do not," said Rosenberg, sitting in a coffee shop on Capitol Hill. "That includes lots of people in the U.S. intelligence community and the state department. They had a hard time conceiving of a 9/11 because they didn't BELIEVE it could happen.

"What we had was not so much a failure of intelligence as it was a failure of moral imagination. ... It was a worldview problem."

All Rosenberg did was take these religious convictions and blend them with what he knew about politics, economics, world affairs and intelligence work -- creating fiction. It also didn't hurt that his political roots gave him bullet-proof ties to the rulers of talk radio. During one blitz, he was on 160 radio and television programs in a month.

Some of these shows were religious, but the vast majority of them were secular. Also, his books were published by a mainstream company, rather than a religious one. This was intentional, he said, because the Christian writers he admires the most -- such as J.R.R. Tolkien and John Grisham -- dominate shelves in secular bookstores.

Now it's time to navigate the minefield of making a movie in mainstream Hollywood. Rosenberg also faces hard decisions about the content of his future books. What happens to his themes of moral absolutes and religious conversion?

"I don't know if Hollywood producers are going to want those scenes in a movie," he said. "We'll have to see. Whatever happens, it won't weaken my conviction that Christians and other conservatives have not been doing enough to tell these kinds of stories in the secular media.

"We have to try. Who knows? We may have stories that people want to hear and see. That is, if the stories are good enough."