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.
Borrowing heavily from John Milton's "Paradise Lost," Pullman's series
commanded large audiences from the beginning, but response to the
concluding volume has exceeded every expectation. "The Amber Spyglass,"
which had placed high on every major best-seller list (and has earned
recommendation of Potter author J.K. Rowling herself) is overtly
anti-Judeo-Christian. God, according to Pullman, is nothing more than
first creature to evolve from the dust of proto-time, and the accretion
centuries of theology is humankind's greatest encumbrance.
While fiction may have dominated the religion market, its first cousins
autobiography and memoir ran a close second. The year saw two appealing
warmly received biographies by two of America's most controversial
theologians. Bishop John Shelby Spong moved many readers with the
of "Here I Stand," while he enraged others with what they saw as
associations with the life and times of Martin Luther and the first
Reformation. Dominic Crossan's "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" both
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
1999, "Traveling" came into its own this year as that thing every
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
is accessible and credible.
The other shining star in the memoir category was Hannah Green's
"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
Prayer" will stand for years as a masterful and comprehensive treatment
its subject. David Noel Freedman's "The Nine Commandments" first roused
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
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.