Bridget Jones gets religion

Imagine a Bridget Jones who tallies calories, but not sex partners. A witty young woman more familiar with the four Gospels than with four-letter words.

Meet Whitney Blake. She's single, savvy - and Christian.

Chick lit, that genre made famous by Helen Fielding's 1998 megahit, "Bridget Jones's Diary," has inspired a flock of new disciples: sophisticated heroines who hold fast to their faith.

With books like "The Whitney Chronicles," Harlequin - the romance publishing powerhouse - hopes to win the hearts, minds, and souls of hip but faithful singles. These readers have said "Get thee behind me" to preachy religious fiction, but publishers think the genre could be born again.

Like her secular sister Bridget, Whitney speaks in an ironic, clever voice. She worries about impressing her boss, deflecting her mother's interference, and finding Mr. Right. But she's holding out for a Mr. Right who will sit in the pews come Sunday.

"It's about figuring out how to live an authentic, contemporary Christian life," says Joan Marlow Golan, senior editor at Harlequin's Steeple Hill imprint. A still-unnamed subgenre of the imprint will launch Judy Baer's "The Whitney Chronicles" in October 2004.

Sales of Christian fiction have doubled since 1995, according to Ms. Golan. And Romance Writers of America reports that inspirational novels grew from 6.4 percent of the romance market in 2001 to 7 percent in 2002.

The new Harlequin line will carry the tag: "Life. Faith. And getting it right."

But getting this new religious fiction right may be harder than walking on water. These readers are sharp and exacting. They want more than pious plots and language borrowed from secular chick lit. Among other things, they want humor - an element sorely absent from much inspirational fiction.

That's a challenge, says Jennifer Holberg, an English professor at Calvin College, a Christian school in Grand Rapids, Mich. This single, 30-something Christian - smack in the middle of Harlequin's target demographic - says women have enjoyed seeing virtue rewarded since the 19th century. She points to Jane Austen, chick lit's mother hen - and Fielding's inspiration for "Bridget Jones's Diary."

Still, says Ms. Holberg, the contemporary Christian author must unravel a whole new set of questions: "How do you flirt? How are you seductive without becoming crass or vulgar?"

"There's something seductive about a little repression," she says, "but it takes a genius to pull it off." Holberg teaches "Bridget Jones" in her English classes, yet wonders if Austen's genius can be replicatedtoday.

In writing "The Whitney Chronicles," Baer says she didn't have any trouble reconciling sassy with saintly.

It's the same story found in chick lit, she insists - just told through the filter of faith: "I think you should be able to put Christians in any situation, and they should be able to call upon their values to make the right decisions."

Golan, Harlequin's senior editor, even suggests that the genre's constraints could be its salvation. "Because they don't have the filler of sex and graphic violence to pad the pages, [these books] have to be better. They have to be more entertaining. There has to be more story," she says.

Who can find a virtuous woman?

Bridget Jones must have gotten something right with that dastardly diary. It sold 2 million copies and both "The Whitney Chronicles" and Penny Culliford's "Theodora's Wedding" have adopted a Bridget-style journal.

In "Theodora's Wedding," to be released in March by Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins, our earnest heroine writes: "I may not have grown very much spiritually, nor am I any nearer to finding my ministry ... but it has been an eventful year ... I have gained a fiancé, even if at times I think he is spiritually degenerate. And to cap it all, I weigh half a stone less than I did this time last year."

Except for occasional passages of scripture and droll commentary on faith - which Bridget might have devoted to her bible, the self-help book - these two characters could be one: They're both British, sprung of British authors, with the same British tastes.

But even as this subgenre starts up, a swirl of rumors in the publishing world suggests that interest in chick lit may be waning. And Christian chick lit could become lost in a sea of spinoffs like Mom lit, bridal lit, Latina lit, and the African-American "sisterfriend novel."

One saving grace may be crossover appeal. "There are a lot of readers who like these books but prefer [their chick lit] to be tamer," says Zondervan's senior acquisitions editor for fiction, Karen Ball.

The genre has piqued the interest of Kristen Sharpley, a 20-something opera singer. "I don't find most Christian literature to be very stimulating," says the Los Altos, Calif., resident.

Ms. Sharpley enjoys the secular stuff. "But I don't really relate to the characters, with my Christian sensibilities," she says. "It's not a lifestyle that I lead, or want to lead."

Hip novels with faith may be more about entertainment than divine inspiration, but if done well, they could spark ecumenical conversation. Maybe, suggests Sharpley, her non-Christian friends would read the books as well. "It would be interesting for them to read about our faith," she muses. "Sometimes it's a difficult dialogue."

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