Little light bulbs of faith

Sales of devotional books take off, feeding the inner need for

Every evening for the past 25 years, Judy Turner has followed a comforting routine. Before going to bed, she reaches for a well-worn copy of a classic devotional book and reads a page, drawing inspiration and sustenance from its biblical message. For variety, she also buys contemporary devotional books from time to time.

"They're very practical," explains Mrs. Turner of Ocala, Fla. "Sometimes when you read the Bible, you're wondering if it applies to today. Devotionals help you figure out how you can make your faith really apply to your own life. They light up the little light bulb sometimes."

Lighting up little light bulbs of faith and understanding is big business these days as devotional and inspirational books roll off presses in record numbers. There are devotionals for caregivers, couples, and singles, for grandmothers, teachers, and dieters, for preteen girls, African-American men, and "busy dads," not to mention "drama people" and "hurting people."

"They're like magazines, in that they're audience-specific," says Fran Salamon, president of Spring Arbor Distributors in Belleville, Mich.

The resulting category, which spans all faiths, constitutes what Lynn Garrett, religion editor of Publishers Weekly, calls "a huge part of the religious book market." Although no statistics track devotionals alone, sales of books on religion increased 16 percent overall from 1993 to 1998, compared to a 9 percent increase in adult trade books.

So great has been the flood of titles that Sean Fowlds, books and Bible editor of Christian Retailing, now sees "somewhat of a glut of devotionals."

Books on prayer date back to the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer in the 16th century. But what really created the genre of modern devotional books, according to Ernest Martin, chair-elect of the Christian Booksellers Association, was "My Utmost for His Highest," by Oswald Chambers. Published posthumously after World War I, it remains the all-time bestselling devotional book.

Contemporary titles include everything from meditations, Bible verses, and prayers to what some observers term "secular spirituality," such as affirmations of self-worth.

Publishers, booksellers, theologians, and culture-watchers offer varied reasons for the popularity of devotional and inspirational books. Heading the list is a growing interest in spirituality. In a recent Gallup poll, 82 percent of Americans said they feel a need to experience spiritual growth.

Joseph Price, professor of religious studies at Whittier College in Whittier, Calif., also notes that in the 1990s, "religious attendance at formal meeting houses, churches, and places of worship of established religious traditions was higher than at any other point in US history."

Jim Reimann, a writer and editor in Ada, Mich., who updated the language of "My Utmost for His Highest," traces interest in devotionals to "a fast-paced society, and people wanting answers to their needs. The needs are great, but people want a quick answer to them."

Parallels with voluntary simplicity

Kathy Collard Miller, editor of "God's Abundance: 365 Days to a Simpler Life," which has sold more than 100,000 copies in two years, also sees parallels between the growth of devotional books and the voluntary simplicity movement.

"People are saying, 'My inner soul, my spirit, needs simplicity,' " she explains. "We're all good at complaining about our harried lives, but it's hard to find something specific to correct that. Devotional books show that there needs to be an inner change first."

Short selections, Mrs. Miller adds, enable readers to "grab a little tidbit of inspiration. In the three minutes of time you have, you can get something really valuable to munch on mentally and spiritually."

Stan Jantz, co-author with Bruce Bickel of the devotional bestseller "God Is in the Small Stuff," also uses a food analogy. "We're like a bowl of sherbet between the heavy courses in your meal. You need that sometimes to get perspective in what your relationship with God is."

But does such an approach risk reducing religion to sound-bite spirituality, a quick fix, McPrayers for those on the run? Mr. Jantz echoes other authors when he calls books like his "a tool to get people started in the Word of God with just a few minutes a day. My prayer is that they would begin to spend more time after that."

Turner agrees that devotionals alone are not enough. She also studies the Bible. "They're not a replacement, they're a supplement," she says.

To Mr. Martin, owner of Whittemore's religious bookstore in Needham, Mass., the driving force behind the success of devotionals is "a search for meaning." The great majority of people, he says, believe there is something after life and are trying to discover what that is "through the eye of religious experience as provided by organized churches."

Yet that search often leaves people disappointed, Martin finds, prompting many to turn to the Bible on their own to supplement their church experience. "The place many will start in the hour of deepest need will be books on prayer and devotionals."

Other readers use meditations and devotionals as a substitute for organized religion. Martin notes that a "very significant proportion" of his customers are "unchurched and formerly churched." Some had a "bad experience" with one or more churches and shy away from membership. Others are "church-hoppers."

What a church teaches as doctrine, Martin finds, is often not as important as offering a "warm and welcoming fellowship." People want satisfying human dynamics at church, he says, not just spiritual dynamics. "But when they turn to the Bible, prayer, and devotionals, they're able to put human dynamics aside."

Single adults snap up self-help

Demographics also play a role. David Shi, a cultural historian who now serves as president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C., points out that because of later marriage and higher divorce rates, more adults are living alone today than ever before in American history. Many also feel detached from neighborhoods and communities.

"There's a sense of alienation, loneliness, anomie," Dr. Shi says. "To the extent that self-help or self-inspirational literature promises the reader fulfillment and meaning through individual reflection, then it provides a convenient option or solution to their malaise."

In addition, Shi continues, the dynamics of modern white-collar society - longer-than-average work weeks, a higher percentage of couples who both work - "leach our lives of meaning by robbing us of the kinds of activities and relationships that in earlier times endowed our lives with meaning. So grab the little book on the shelf in a panic."

Or turn on the computer for solace. One Web site encourages users to sign up to receive "a new scripture, devotional, and prayer every day!"

Some readers hope devotionals will show them the "right" way to pray. Explains Lois Murphey, store manager of Whittemore's, "A lot of people are so afraid of doing it the wrong way that they don't pray, as opposed to accepting the fact that however one reaches out for communication with God, God is waiting for that communication."

When the Parable Group, retailers of Christian books in San Luis Obispo, Calif., surveyed 2,800 frequent church attendees last fall, 35 percent said they would buy inspirational and devotional books for themselves. Martin estimates that one-third of the devotionals he sells are bought as gifts for those who have expressed an interest in spirituality.

People are attracted to such literature, Shi says, because "they are struggling, either with the direction of their life, the meaning of their life, the inadequacy of their faith, or with other concerns, such as frustration with their appearance or sociability, their work, their family, their marriage."

Explaining the surge in such books, Shi speculates that one major factor in the last quarter century has been the steady decline of institututional religion as the "primary mooring for the self and the soul in modern American culture." People are exploring a variety of alternatives, which are often lumped together under the phrase New Age.

One aspect of that, Shi continues, is a nontheological approach to physical, mental, and spiritual improvement. "It's more amorphous than conventional religions," he says. "It's in some respects easily individualized rather than requiring the kind of collective structures and disciplines associated with the traditional denominations."

Yet that free-form, individualistic approach raises concern among some religious leaders. Dorothy Savage, director of a new ecumenical program on Christian spirituality at the National Council of Churches in New York, finds that when people speak about spirituality today, they are often referring to the contemplative part, the "more interior practices" of religious tradition, such as meditation, devotionals, and retreats.

"If we're not careful," Dr. Savage warns, "we could find ourselves with a religious movement that could draw people into that part of spiritual practice as an escape from the problems of the world, from helping in the complex issues of injustice and holiness of life."

She adds, "Established religions need to call people, to tell them that by withdrawing, they are taking only part of what it means to be a religious or a spiritual person, because the other side of all major religious traditions has to do with love of neighbor and compassion, and helping to reach out to the neighbor who is suffering.

"If we withdraw from that," Savage says, "we have just gone down the road of individualism and insensitivity, which is not true religion."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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