For almost a decade now, religion books have been the publishingindustry's "big story," surprising even the most savvy and sympathetic experts by both their sustained growth and the increasing sophistication and range of their topics. Now, as the first year of a new millennium ends, publishing's big story itself has a big story. Religion fiction. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' "Left Behind" series has led the way,growing steadily in popular appeal and audience during the past 18 months. "The Indwelling," the seventh volume in the projected 12-volume "LeftBehind" series, was published in May to huge sales, but by this fall, whenvolume eight, "The Mark," appeared, the buzz of anticipation had grown so exponentially that its publisher, Tyndale House, ordered up an nearly unprecedented first printing of two and a half million copies, only tohave to rush back to press for an additional 300,000 copies immediately upon the book's November 11 release. In total, "Left Behind" products (includingaudio and kids' books as well as the adult titles) number more than 30 million units.

Though LaHaye and Jenkins have undoubtedly spearheaded the Christianfiction push, readers have bought all kinds of Christian fiction for pleasurethis year. Vinita Hampton Wright's "Velma Still Cooks in Leeway" has enjoyednot only reader approval but strong critical acclaim; reviewers have pointedto "Velma" as a strong sign that Christian publishers are starting to care about literary fiction.

Other titles, like Sharon Ewell Foster's "Passing by Samaria" and Lynne Hinton's "Friendship Cake," though less piercing than "Velma," have alsowon reader loyalty. Remarkably accomplished for a first novel, Foster's "Samaria" crosses another border by featuring an African-American heroine, Alena, whose story deals openly and movingly with the consequences of racism in post-World War I Chicago. Hinton's "Friendship Cake"moves far more quietly through a circle of women who, in swapping recipes,manage as well to swap intimacy and their own unpretentious lives.

Conservative groups say Americans want their stories without violence or overt sex or foul language. The accuracy of that assertion accounts tosome degree for the commercial success this year of such books as "Velma" and "Samaria," but attributing these novels' success to a moral codeexternal to the books themselves is unfair as well as simplistic. Morally correct fiction has long been a staple of evangelical Christian publishinghouses. But the new Christian authors have jumped out of thatvenue--"Friendship" is published by commercial publisher HarperSanFrancisco, forinstance--and have shown a marked willingness to tell a story with credible realism as well as spiritual candor and literary skill. Foster, Hinton, Wright, and several others to break out into larger markets this year may see life through a Christian lens, but they record that vision as would honestand creative artists of any stripe who trust their material and whose first loyalty is to the story.

The continued boom in religion books has not been limited to Christian fiction, nor simply to fiction for adults. Dvora Waysman's "Esther--A Jerusalem Love Story" from SimchaPress is the quintessential example of the emergence of more sophisticatedbooks for Jewish readers. The nearly autobiographical story of ayoung woman's moving to Israel at all costs has moved hearts (as well as cash registers) all fall.

As for kids' books, no book in publishing history, not even JohnGrisham's novels, have created the furor that the new "Harry Potter and theGoblet of Fire" triggered last July. But this fall, concern about Harry's total dominance of young minds and souls began to pale, however, with the publication of "The Amber Spyglass," the long-awaited and final volumein Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy.

Borrowing heavily from John Milton's "Paradise Lost," Pullman's serieshas commanded large audiences from the beginning, but response to thetrilogy's concluding volume has exceeded every expectation. "The Amber Spyglass," which had placed high on every major best-seller list (and has earnedthe recommendation of Potter author J.K. Rowling herself) is overtly anti-Judeo-Christian. God, according to Pullman, is nothing more thanthe first creature to evolve from the dust of proto-time, and the accretionof centuries of theology is humankind's greatest encumbrance.While fiction may have dominated the religion market, its first cousins of autobiography and memoir ran a close second. The year saw two appealing and warmly received biographies by two of America's most controversial theologians. Bishop John Shelby Spong moved many readers with thepoignancy of "Here I Stand," while he enraged others with what they saw as self-aggrandizing associations with the life and times of Martin Luther and the first Reformation. Dominic Crossan's "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" bothendeared this Jesus Seminar veteran to many with its love stories and annoyed those who find heresy resident among all historical Jesus scholars. One of the more arresting phenomena of the reading year was the presence on list after list of Annie LaMott's memoir, "Traveling Mercies." Publishedin 1999, "Traveling" came into its own this year as that thing everypublisher dreams of: a word-of-mouth sensation. LaMott, often referred to as "the Christian with a truck driver's mouth," has a salty, no-nonsense faiththat is accessible and credible.
The other shining star in the memoir category was Hannah Green'sposthumous "Little Saint." The story balances Green's expatriate life in the south-central French village of Conques and the life of a fourth-century Christian martyr, Sainte Foy, whose remains are venerated in Conques. "Little Saint" carefully and exquisitely renders one Protestant woman's struggle to engage and finally understand the business of saints and of their place in the life of faith This year was a lucrative as well as productive time for serious or thoughtful nonfiction as well. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's "A Guide toJewish Prayer" will stand for years as a masterful and comprehensive treatmentof its subject. David Noel Freedman's "The Nine Commandments" first rousedand then sustained public interest with its thesis that the 10th Commandment underlies all the others. Keith Hopkins' "A World Full of Gods" took a quirky but scholarly and refreshing approach to what the author callsin his sub-title "The Strange Triumph of Christianity." By the time Hopkins, a real-life British scholar, has finished moving his paid time-traveler assistants back and forth from his own real-time university offices to the sites and events of early Christianity, even the most sober reader is charmed as well as informed.