2017-07-12
For almost a decade now, religion books have been the publishing industry'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 "Left Behind" series, was published in May to huge sales, but by this fall, when volume 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 to have to rush back to press for an additional 300,000 copies immediately upon the book's November 11 release. In total, "Left Behind" products (including audio and kids' books as well as the adult titles) number more than 30 million units.

Though LaHaye and Jenkins have undoubtedly spearheaded the Christian fiction push, readers have bought all kinds of Christian fiction for pleasure this year. Vinita Hampton Wright's "Velma Still Cooks in Leeway" has enjoyed not only reader approval but strong critical acclaim; reviewers have pointed to "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 also won 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 to some degree for the commercial success this year of such books as "Velma" and "Samaria," but attributing these novels' success to a moral code external to the books themselves is unfair as well as simplistic. Morally correct fiction has long been a staple of evangelical Christian publishing houses. But the new Christian authors have jumped out of that venue--"Friendship" is published by commercial publisher HarperSanFrancisco, for instance--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 honest and 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 Simcha Press is the quintessential example of the emergence of more sophisticated books for Jewish readers. The nearly autobiographical story of a young 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 John Grisham's novels, have created the furor that the new "Harry Potter and the Goblet 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 volume in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy.

Borrowing heavily from John Milton's "Paradise Lost," Pullman's series has commanded large audiences from the beginning, but response to the trilogy's concluding volume has exceeded every expectation. "The Amber Spyglass," which had placed high on every major best-seller list (and has earned the recommendation of Potter author J.K. Rowling herself) is overtly anti-Judeo-Christian. God, according to Pullman, is nothing more than the first creature to evolve from the dust of proto-time, and the accretion of 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 the poignancy 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" both endeared 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." Published in 1999, "Traveling" came into its own this year as that thing every publisher 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 faith that is accessible and credible. The other shining star in the memoir category was Hannah Green's posthumous "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 to Jewish Prayer" will stand for years as a masterful and comprehensive treatment of its subject. David Noel Freedman's "The Nine Commandments" first roused and 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 calls in 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. One of the year's surprises was the number and commercial success of patently Catholic titles. "I Like Being Catholic," edited by Michael Leach and Therese J. Borchard, landed almost instantly on Publishers Weekly's religion best-seller list, presumably selling to non-Catholic as well as Catholic audiences. Another highly successful title that clearly appealed to Protestant as well as Catholic audiences was Bert Ghezzi's "The Voices of the Saints," which tries to make the saints accessible to untheologically trained readers. "The Catholic Youth Bible," according to publisher St. Mary's Press,
had youngsters lined up two and three thousand deep waiting to buy a copy of the age-specific, niche Bible. Garry Wills' "Papal Sins," an informed, controlled, and at times wrenchingly personal exposition of the theological and psychological errors of Vatican policy over the centuries was another major Catholic book this year. At the other end of the spectrum, Oprah continued to push her "Oprah's Book Club" titles to the top of the lists, in large emphasizing spirituality over established traditions. Americans' desire to escape the social, cultural, and political expectations and characteristics of institutional religion, while maintaining a spiritual life of their own making has created, as Oprah understands so well, a huge market for books of spiritual and individual inspiration as well as for how-to's on spiritual growth. Oprah isn't alone in pursuing this market. Gary Zukov, a wildly popular writer in the field, followed his 1990 "Seat of the Soul" with "Soul Stories." The equally touted Neale Donald Walsch scored as well with his "Communion With God," the much-anticipated sequel to his 1996 best-seller, "Conversations With God." This generalized spiritualist apparently lends great credence to the Zen mode of living. Zen-of-cooking-sweeping-and-your-kitchen-sink books have been ubiquitous this year. Readers can bone up on "Zen Sex" (by Philip Sudo), "The Zen of Organizing" (by Regina Leeds), and even the Zen of housekeeping (in Gary Thorp's "Sweeping Changes: Discovering
the Joy of Zen in Everyday Tasks"). Budding Taoists can try out "The Tao of the Jump Shot" (by John Fitzsimmons Mahoney). What began several years ago as a kind of rebellious pushing away from established religion seems to be moving now, however, toward a spirituality more rooted in both tradition and thoughtfulness than was the case originally. Two substantial and highly disciplined volumes bear witness at year's end to the truth of that change. Both "The Best Spiritual Writing 2000" and "Ordinary Graces: Christian Teachings on the Interior Life" are proving to be commercial as well as critical successes. "The Best," edited by Philip Zaleski, has an introduction by popular spirituality author, Thomas Moore, while "Ordinary Graces," is edited by Lorraine Kisly and has an introduction by Zaleski, an indication perhaps of the limited number of writers presently publishing into the area of more visceral spirituality or, perhaps, just proof that as this growing field of public appeal enters 2001, it already enjoys the guiding hand of some of our best and most able authors.
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