BOSTON — The Monitor's quarterly review of the bestselling books on religion offers readers a one-stop opportunity to sample popular works that reflect the resurgent interest in religion and spirituality. Such books, numbering in the thousands, continue to be a publishing phenomenon. Unlike our bestselling fiction and nonfiction pages, this list does not include ratings of the books.
1. Chicken soup for the teenage soul, Health Communications, $12.95
101 stories and poems by and about teenagers bear witness to the power of love to transform lives. Some stories are joyous, some sad, but most emphasize that our choices and actions make a huge difference. Tales range from the story of a boy who communicates with dolphins to a girl who saves her friend from suicide. Most of the accounts are touching and motivational, not sentimental or preachy. A few stories get bogged down in sorrow, and some of the poems are trite, repeating often-heard sentiments, but overall, the book is uplifting and shows teens and their parents and friends progressing beyond limitations and flaws. By Juniper Remmerde
2. CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE PET LOVER'S SOUL, Health Comm., $12.95
We have all lost count, but the fearless authors forge onward in this latest variation of a formulaic theme. With this pet-friendly installment, veterinarians, Buddhist monks, and high-profile professionals join ranks with ordinary citizens to praise the metaphysical attributes of the animal world as they bridge the broken lives of humans with deeds of heroism, healing, teaching, and befriending. To those privileged enough to share their world with creatures "great and small," the stories will echo their own favorite experiences of the transforming qualities of animals in making this a better world to inhabit. Have your tissues at hand! By Joy Bencivenga
3. THE GOOD BOOK, by Peter J. Gomes, Morrow, $25
With a scholar's scope, a black homosexual's perspective, and a minister's heart, Gomes presents an "apologia" on the Bible. Although Americans revere the Bible, he says, they really know very little about it. With a good heart, but a controversial message, he devotes chapters to the way racism, anti-Semitism, discrimination, and preservation of the status quo have been driven and perpetuated by misreadings and abuses of Scripture. But the pastor in Gomes also embraces anyone wanting to know the Bible better, especially "the marginalized and the excluded" who feel, or have been made to feel, the Bible isn't theirs. By Linda Giedl
4. Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Tyndale, $12.99
"Left Behind" provides an interesting alternative to science fiction. The theory put forth by the authors is that the rapture as told in the Book of Revelation has occurred. Jesus Christ has come for those who have let him into their lives and taken each to his or her glory in heaven. Call it Bible- or Christian-fiction. The date is the not too distant future. Amazing events take place in Israel: peace and prosperity. The plot and characters are satisfying, and the tone is more fiction than preaching. As the book ends, the reader hopes struggling individuals will succeed in their new mission, to rejoin loved ones taken into heaven. By Janet C. Moller
5. I KISSED DATING GOODBYE, by Joshua Harris, Multnomah, $9.99
If you are tired of the dating game, Joshua Harris has some advice to offer - just don't. Remaining God-centered instead of date-centered is the best answer to today's fast sizzling romances, he says. Harris sets high standards for dating that would make even the most pious squirm (the author plans to give his wife her first kiss at the altar). There is some wisdom in this book that challenges young Christians to examine their motives behind dating, but it reads like a long-winded sermon.
By Kendra Nordin
6. THE BIBLE CODE, by Michael Drosnin, Simon & Schuster, $25
"The Bible Code" has international intrigue, quasi-supernatural mystery, even a touch of celebrity name-dropping. But none of this eases the strain on the reader's credulity. Michael Drosnin's premise, that scores of prophetic messages are encoded in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, is supported by flawed assumptions and unexplained methodologies. "The Bible Code" sadly ignores the inspiration of the Scriptures in favor of millennarian gobbledygook.
By Judy Huenneke
7. CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE MOTHER'S SOUL, Health Communications, $12.95
Do women need the moving stories presented by J. Canfield, M.V. Hansc, J. Read Hawthorne, and M. Shimoff in this third rendition of the original bestseller "Chicken Soup for the Soul" more than do men? The authors think they do. "Chicken Soup" spreads 101 recipes/images on the table for the soul to savor. This batch stirs the reader to recognize the hunger women feel to love and to be loved, to experience the higher human ways inspired by goodness. This book, perhaps, relies too heavily on positive thinking and not enough on spiritual insight. Spirituality is the more substantial meal women want served. By Mari Murray
8. Chicken Soup for the CHRISTIAN SOUL, Health Communications, $12.95
The kettle of nourishment of this good-news series continues to cook in the latest effort to feed the hungry soul of America. Serving up the tried-and-true recipe of past "Chicken Soup" bestsellers, the co-authors (both motivational speakers) dish up 101 stories of tangible good for the purpose of healing the heart. Pared from 7,000 submissions, the list includes such notables as Corrie ten Boom, Norman Vincent Peale, and Dick Van Dyke. But the real kernel of appeal comes in the form of everyday people weaving selfless acts of Christian love and kindness into one another's lives, offering tangible proof of goodness in a battered world. By Jim Bencivenga
9. TRIBULATION FORCE, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Tyndale, $13.99
This second book (sequel to "Left Behind," see paperback review No. 4 above) continues the lives of struggling individuals in the newly formed Tribulation Force, those recent converts who were "left behind" in the previous book. Again members of the Force are rallying against the New One-World Order headed by the smooth-talking Nicolae Carpathia, who is actually the antichrist. This second book is well paced but could have been faster if some of the repetitious prophecy and theology had been edited out.
By Janet C. Moller
10. JUST AS I AM, by Billy Graham, HarperCollins/Zondervan, $7.99
For almost 80 years, the Rev. Billy Graham has been converting people to born-again Christianity, and this book is certain to reap more converts. Graham is as objective as one can be in recording his own life. He admits to his own mistakes and failings with an obvious honesty. And he takes responsibility for his actions. Don't be daunted by the 730-page length. If a man can captivate congregations for more than 50 years, he knows how to keep an audience. The book is an engaging account of his life.
By Janet C. Moller
1. SOUL HARVEST, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Tyndale, $22.99
Book 4 in the popular apocalyptic saga set in a future where the world is afflicted by the wrath of God. Rayford Steele and Buck Williams, members of the Tribulation Force, an underground Christian army, search desperately for their loved ones amid the ruins of a global earthquake. This fast-paced, roller coaster of a story reads as if it's written for the big screen. Jenkins and LaHaye, however, steep the adventure in biblical references and religious symbolism, so it may alienate readers who are not evangelical Christians.
By Caitlin Shannon
2. Conversations with god, Book I, by Neale D. Walsch, Putnam, $19.95
Written in a simple, accessible style, this book is based on what the author, the founder of an Oregon-based organization called ReCreation, describes as a three-year conversation with God that he transcribed. It contains some substantial insights and flashes of humor. God is described as an all-good, omnipotent Being, who is constantly communicating with all people. Prayer is described as a process, not a petition. This is the first of three books.
By Abraham T. McLaughlin
3. AMAZING GRACE: A VOCABULARY..., by Kathleen Norris, Riverhead, $24.95
Norris's third work on her spiritual journey, "Amazing Grace," springs from the poet's intimate awareness of the power of language to shape lives. This is the deeply moving story of how she reclaimed the once-rejected religion of her childhood by making the sometimes off-putting words of faith her own. She explores their meaning (from "eschatology" and "antichrist" to "worship" and "grace") through stories of daily living and what it means to be an active member of a community of faith. Challenging those who scorn "organized religion," this book is a hymn to the power of the Word and the joy of shared Christian experience. By Jane Lampman
4. WHY CHRISTIANITY MUST CHANGE OR DIE, by John S. Spong, Harper, $24
A self-described "believer in exile," Episcopalian Bishop Spong is no stranger to theological controversy. His latest book courageously reexamines the creed of the Christian church to strip away what he sees as outmoded, exclusive dogma and tradition. His journey includes redefining God, heaven, ethics, prayer, worship, and the distinction between Jesus and the Christ. While some may question certain conclusions, many will respond to his passionate conviction that Christian faith and practice - and the church institution - can be made relevant to today's searchers. By Valerie Parrott
5. LET THE JOURNEY BEGIN, by Max Lucado, Word, $12.99
There's nothing new about Max Lucado's latest book, "Let the Journey Begin: God's Roadmap for New Beginnings." It's entirely composed of excerpts from Lucado's previous books. The advantage of this one, however, is that it's organized nicely into specific topics and subtitles for easy reference. Lucado's casual style is warm and welcoming, even though the book delves into deep religious issues, such as finding direction in God's love and surviving what he describes as God's anger for human sins.
By Amy Catherine Hoyle
6. SERMONS: BIBLICAL WISDOM... , by Peter J. Gomes, Morrow, $25
By popular demand, Harvard's Rev. Peter Gomes has published 40 of his sermons. They are all surprisingly accessible - intelligent but not elitist. Gomes has a rare feel for contemporary oratory, the ambiguities of being human, and the Bible. He is controversial to some (being admittedly homosexual), but there is nothing political here. Baptist Gomes remains the mainline Protestant preacher, offering wise, witty, stimulating, albeit orthodox, insights on baptism, the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and other "doctrines of the faith," as well as biblically based lessons on patriotism, identity, heroism, reconciliation, and miracles. By Linda Giedl
7. WHAT'S SO AMAZING ABOUT GRACE?, by Phillip Yancey, Zondervan, $19.99
Like the heart-rending old spiritual tune "Amazing Grace," this book will bring tears to your eyes. Yancey sets out to explore the meaning and power of 'grace' and finds it at the heart of spirituality. He also asks a tough question: Why is it that Christians and other religious types so often seem to emit the stench of self-righteousness or 'ungrace' rather than the aroma of grace? Some may balk at Yancey's portrayal of humankind as one big AA meeting - sorry sinners, all - but his underlying point is that Christianity offers to everyone, whether it's asked for or not, God's unconditional love. By Karla Vallance
8. THE BIRTH OF CHRISTIANITY, by John Crossan, Harper, $12.95
What can we know about the earliest Christians, the men and women who followed Jesus in the 30s and 40s, between his crucifixion and Paul's letters? Crossan tackles this question like a modern Sherlock Holmes. He sifts the evidence, meticulously expounds his deductions, and tells a fascinating story of peasant prophets wandering the Galilean countryside, promoting a kind of religious land reform, while Jesus' closest associates huddled together in Jerusalem, awaiting his triumphal return. Readers will decide how much weight to give to Crossan's conclusions. By David K. Nartonis
9. NICOLAE, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Tyndale, $16.95
In this third book of the apocalyptic fiction series (beginning with "Left Behind" and "Tribulation Force" - see paperback reviews Nos. 4 and 9 this page), the antichrist figure of Nicolae Carpathia assumes his role as Potentate of the Global Community and continues his takeover of the world. To the Tribulation Force, this appears to fulfill the prophecy from the Book of Revelation. In covering the events around the globe, the authors have written too many short scenes that get choppy. If you didn't read the first books, you'll find this one filled with plenty of background. One reads this book more from curiosity than empathy. By Janet C. Moller
10. THE WEIGH DOWN DIET, by Gwen Shamblin, Doubleday, $21
This diet book is much more about spiritual lifestyle than food choices. While it does espouse a primarily fundamentalist theological view of good and evil, its message of filling one's insides with spiritual strength rather than empty foodstuffs is valuable. It relates compulsive appetite for food to other acquisitive tendencies such as that for money or popularity. Shamblin suggests that greediness, in whatever form it takes, can be replaced with a focus on more substantive spiritual values. Herein lies true reward. By Terry Theiss
RELIGIOUS BESTSELLER RANKING FROM PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, JULY 1998