Religious Reading Digs Deeper
Tom Beaudoin's PhD thesis on Generation X and faith was not written with a mass market in mind. But that may not matter. Publisher Jossey Bass will release it next spring as "Irreverent Spirituality" - hoping to tap a hot religion book market.Skip to next paragraph
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In fact, the Gen X manuscript set off a small bidding war among publishers when a Harvard divinity professor showed it to his own book agent. Now Mr. Beaudoin is busy rewriting his look at the spiritual life of his generation for a large audience. His editor's advice: Make it relevant. But don't dumb it down.
Whether due to God, mammon, or both, religion titles are a publishing phenomenon for the first time in decades.
Works on religion and spirituality rose 112 percent between 1991 and 1996, according to the American Booksellers Association (ABA). For the past two years, they have been the only type of adult nonfiction whose sales are rising, according to the ABA.
Today, secular bestseller lists average five religion titles among the Top 15. Last week half the titles on the Washington Post Top 10 list had religious themes, including "Conversations with God," by Neale Donald Walsh (Putnam), and "Simple Abundance," by Sara Ban Breathnach (Warner).
Yet already within this trend, another is emerging: a deepening of the genre.
Today's new mantra for religion titles is: Make it popular and serious. What publishers want, as witnessed by recent sales, are books that bridge the gap between scholarly depth and everyday spirituality; between poetic insight and knowledge of Scripture.
Publishers describe a new audience of sophisticated readers who are skeptical of easy answers, but who still desire a sense of the sacred. They want accounts of daily worship experience and illumination - of what is known in the scholarly world as "lived religion."
New readers for the Bible
Peter Gomes's recent bestseller, "The Good Book" (Morrow), for example, tries to introduce the Bible to a secular, educated audience - offering a discourse on subjects like joy, evil, wealth, and so on.
Protestant Kathleen Norris's "Cloister Walk" (Riverhead), out last year, is a fine-grained meditation about her rediscovery of stillness and listening in Benedictine monasteries - and how "the simple magic of hearing the Bible read aloud opened my eyes to recognize the extent" to which "the resistance of the world to good" had shaken her faith.
"A lot of people are tired of the watered-down popular fluff and the amorphous spirituality, and want some structure and depth," says Henry Carrigan, religion book editor of Publishers Weekly. "Norris's 'Cloister Walk' is like that - complex, sophisticated, Annie Dillard-gone-spiritual," he adds.
Other bestsellers of readerly heft in a style that used to be called "high journalism" include "God: A Biography" (Vintage), by Jack Miles, which won a Pulitzer Prize for biography, and "A History of God" (Knopf), which came out two years ago, by Karen Armstrong, a British intellectual and former nun now interested in Islam. This year it is "Spiritual Literacy" (Scribner), Frederic and Mary Ann Brussatt's piece on exploring the practical side of living faith.
"You have a maturing of the religion books now being published," says Phyllis Tickle, an expert on the religious book market and author of "God Talk" (Crossroads). "It's a long way from the angel stuff of the early '90s to books like 'God: A Biography.' There are more bestsellers with intellectual depth."
There's even a literary equivalent to the religious nonfiction. John Updike's recent "The Beauty of the Lilies" (Knopf) is an example, as is Doris Betts's "The Sharp Teeth of Love" (Knopf).