Serious readers of literary fiction should be warned that Philip Gulley's novels are strictly a guilty pleasure. Set in the midwestern town of Harmony, where the Sausage Queen still rides in the annual parade, Philip Gulley's four novels chronicle the familial squabbles at a small but active church. The congregation, like Gulley, is Quaker, but the people and problems he gently lampoons are familiar to anyone who has worshiped in a small church anywhere.

If the comfort of Gulley's fiction is its predictability, however, its delights are nonetheless unique. Gulley, an ordained minister, holds to a serious, radically inclusive idea of grace that informs his humor, and distinguishes him from both Garrison Keillor and Jan Karon, to whom he is often compared. We talked to Gulley recently about his books, his life and his faith.

Which came first, preaching or writing novels?
They let me have a church when I was still an undergraduate, so I'm in my 20th year of pastoral ministry. I've been writing since 1996. I started in a small country church. I lasted two weeks. My first Sunday a lady asked me if I believed in hell, and I told her I didn't. The next week they told me I had to believe in hell. I said, "No, I don't believe in a hell," and that was pretty well it. After that I went to another church-the joke goes that I was there for four years and by the time I left I believed in hell.

My third church, Irvington Friends Meeting in Indianapolis, had about 12 people in it. They asked me to write an essay for the newsletter, and I just loved it. I started taking writing classes at Earlham School of Religion's ministry and writing program. One Sunday [radio host] Paul Harvey's son came to our church. He passed on a copy of the newsletter on to his father, who read it over the air. A publisher heard it and contacted me. That's when I started writing.

Your books are about life in a town called Harmony, centered on a Quaker church pastored by Sam Gardner. You're a Quaker minister and today you live in a place a lot like Harmony.
Right, in Danville, the town where I grew up. It's a town of about 6,000 people.

Do your parishioners ever worry they'll end up in one of your books?
We were having new toilets put in our restrooms recently and there was a discussion over whether they should be round or oval. After about a half hour, I just started laughing and they realized how preposterous it was. They started laughing and said, "You'd better not write about that in your book."

In "Home to Harmony," the face of Jesus appears in a quilt the ladies circle has made.
Oh, yeah, the Shroud of Harmony.

But Jesus turns out to be a coffee stain.
...Maxwell House. [Laughs]

That summarizes your books for me, because God does turn out to be in the coffee. As much redemption and salvation happens in the coffee shop as much as any place else.
Yeah. How wrong we are to think that that only happens inside the church.

What do you say your novels about?
Mostly they're about human struggle and also a bit about God's grace, about how despite our efforts to really screw things up, things tend to work out OK for the most part. And never because of our own genius or initiative but because there seems to be this benevolent force at work in the world, which saves us from ourselves.

And that benevolent force is God?
Yeah. For me, the essence of what God is about-this grace which permeates and upholds the world in spite of those, like [my character] Dale Hinshaw, who think that religion is all about rules. In fact, it isn't about that. It's about being open to God's presence wherever we find it, which is everywhere, of course.

Do you mind being compared Jan Karon?
Well, it never hurts the sales. {Laughs.] I think I'm more cynical than Jan Karon. It's clear to me that Jan Karon has never pastored a church. Father Timothy is just too perfect. I mean, pausing every five minutes to pray--come on!

Do you think of yourself as a Christian writer?Christian writers always seem have the agenda of making people become Christians. That's not what my agenda is. I just like writing, and so I write about what I know, which is life in a small Christian community that happens to be a Quaker Church.

My previous publisher always wanted me to include a story about some scoundrel being saved. That probably wouldn't happen at Sam Gardner's church and if it did, everyone would be so shocked, they wouldn't know how to handle it. It's a Quaker meeting in the Midwest. People don't get saved, they just start acting a little nicer maybe. Maybe throw an extra $20 in the offering plate. They don't fall off their horse.

But isn't the Christian story kind of a universal story?
Sure--the story of fall and redemption, these beautiful moments in all our lives where we are allowed to see beyond ourselves and catch a glimpse of a larger world. That's in all religions, and I think that's what religion is--a way of expressing something beautiful that happened to us.