The flames outside Waco, the FBI, David Koresh and the mysteries of Bible prophecy

The flames outside Waco, the FBI, David Koresh and the mysteries of Bible prophecy

The recording tape was rolling on Feb. 28, 1993, when Branch Davidian leader David Koresh called Larry Lynch at the McLennan County sheriff's office.

In the background, gunfire continued as Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents raided the 77-acre Mount Carmel complex near Waco. Koresh was wounded early in a two-hour firefight in which four agents and six civilians died.

Koresh kept talking about Bible prophecies. Lynch kept interrupting, trying to get him to pay attention and help stop the fighting.

"All right, we can talk theology," Lynch said, frustrated. "But right now …"

Koresh fired back: "No, this is life. This is life and death! … Theology … is life and death!"

For Koresh, everything hinged on Book of Revelation texts about the Seven Seals and "the Lamb," a mysterious figure who would open those seals in the Last Days.

That was the infamous Branch Davidian drama summed up in one tense exchange, according to the creators of the six-part Paramount Network miniseries "Waco," which runs through Feb. 28. The complex community inside the compound -- including some believers who debated with Koresh -- kept trying to tell FBI leaders and their handpicked experts why they were doing what they were doing and why they believed what they believed.

In the end, federal officials saw everything through a "cult" lens.

"Something dehumanizing happens when you start using the word 'cult,' " said John Erick Dowdle, who with his brother Drew spent four years creating the miniseries. "No matter what happened, no matter what anybody said, the FBI people thought it was just a matter of time before they would kill themselves."

Making the case for a great Christmas comet over Bethlehem

It's hard to imagine Christmas without images of a giant star in the night sky over Bethlehem, with one supernaturally bright beam pointing toward a stable.

For carolers, the key words are in "We Three Kings of Orient Are" where everyone sings: "Star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light."

"The Christmas carols are surprisingly accurate when it comes to the details of what we know" from scripture, said New Testament scholar Colin Nicholl of Coleraine, Northern Ireland. "In many cases where they fill gaps in the biblical narratives, they end up including material that is pretty sound -- at least based on my research."

The problem is that this heavenly object simply does not behave like a star. Thus, in his new book "The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem," Nicholl blends material from history and science to argue that this phenomenon can best be explained by charting the path of what he calls "undeniably the single greatest comet in recorded history."

The language familiar to most readers is found in Matthew's Gospel, which states: "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he that is born King of the Jews?' for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him."

About those 'Left Behind' readers

When it comes to describing the end of the world, millions of readers are convinced that the "Left Behind" books contain the gospel truth.

This isn't surprising since these 12 novels -- backed by sequels, movies, video games and comic books -- have sold 70 million copies. For most readers, the page-turners cranked out by writer Jerry Jenkins and preacher Tim LaHaye form a pop-culture catechism that explains some of the Bible's most mysterious passages, said researcher Robert Woods of Spring Arbor University.

But a recent survey of "Left Behind" readers did yield one big surprise. While nearly 69 percent were, as expected, evangelical and mainline Protestants, 8.6 percent of the readers were Catholics and the remaining 22.8 percent said they practiced Islam, Judaism, Buddhism or another world religion. Why did they dig into these books?

"Curiosity was a big reason," said Woods, who teaches communications at the evangelical campus in Michigan. "It also seems that many of them thought that by reading these books they could learn about

Christianity. ... So now they think that what the 'Left Behind' books teach is what ordinary Christians believe about the end times."

For many non-Christians, he said, the words "Left Behind" and "Christianity" are now tightly linked. They have been fed a pop version of "premillennial dispensationalism," a complicated 19th Century doctrinal system that says Jesus will reign for 1,000 years on earth after the last trumpet sounds, the dead rise and the true Christians are "raptured" to meet Christ in the air.

Many Christian leaders will find this disturbing. This is especially true since there is a born-again believer in the White House and the daily news is full of explosive headlines about the Middle East, the

tense region that dominates the apocalyptic plots in these novels.

"I don't want people to pigeonhole the Protestant view of the end times," said Woods. "But you know, there are lots of people who, if you tell them you are an evangelical, then they are immediately going

to say, 'That means you're one of those Pat Robertson, Jesus freak Christians.' Now there are people who, if you say you are an evangelical, they are going to say, 'Oh, you're one of those 'Left Behind' Christians.' "

The Spring Arbor team -- Woods, Kelly Skarritt and statistician Caleb Chan -- began with a 33-item survey that was posted at the official Tyndale House website used to promote the "Left Behind" series. This invitation drew 16,916 voluntary responses. The researchers then did an in-depth, random study of 1,312 readers drawn from this larger flock.

Once again, many of the results were predictable. No one was surprised -- because of previous research by evangelical pollsters -- that the typical "Left Behind" reader is a female, married, white,

evangelical, politically conservative, Bible-Belt resident who is between 30-something and 50-something and who goes to church almost as often as she consumes Christian mass media.

On the other side of this divide were those least likely to appreciate the fiction of LaHaye and Jenkins. These readers were more likely to be male, single, black or Hispanic, politically progressive and residents of the American West or Northeast.

However, most of the readers -- their denominational ties didn't matter -- said they believe that the "Left Behind" books are highly accurate portrayals of what the Bible teaches about the end of the world or, at least, the beliefs of conservative Christians about that subject.

When readers were asked about their motivations, the most intense clusters of responses came from those who affirmed that they read the books in order to compare what they "say about the 'end times' with what the Bible says" or because the series explains the "events described in the book of Revelation in an understandable way."

The goal, said Woods, is to do more research into why so many non-Christians read the "Left Behind" series and the impact the books had on their beliefs.

"Most forms of Christian entertainment just 'rock the flock' that already lives in our gospel ghettos," he said. "But it does seem that this form of media -- apocalyptic fiction -- is reaching some new people in our post-9/11 culture. It appears that there really are people out there who are curious about ultimate issues. We may be on the verge of another wave of rapture culture."