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.

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).

Norman Mailer's new "The Gospel According to the Son" (Random House) did not win critical acclaim. But it's another attempt by a major author to find a religious voice or subject.

Much of the new genre may not interest those with an already-developed faith; some of it runs counter to various spiritual traditions.

Nor does the genre yet capture the depth of a Reinhold Niebuhr or a Paul Tillich, whose books were popular at midcentury. But given the paucity of challenging works accompanied by significant sales for the last 50 years (e.g., Harvey Cox's "The Secular City"), say experts, the new trend highlights a "growing hunger in the public reading market for answers that go past the secular or materialistic cultures," as Willard Dickerson of the ABA puts it.

The boom in religion titles overall comes out of the self-help and "recovery movement" bestsellers of the 1980s. For years, religion and spirituality were the province of small houses and denominational presses.

Yet the 1980s sales of titles like ordained minister M. Scott Peck's "The Road Less Travelled" (Lectorum) and new-age works like Marilyn Ferguson's "The Aquarian Conspiracy" (J.P. Tarcher), to name a few, showed a huge market of Americans trying to supplement their spiritual diet.

Sales of inspirational books and books on alternative medicine, the interrelationship of world religions, religion and science, and the wisdom of saints have remained high.

By 1994, half the bestsellers on the Publishers Weekly religion list were from industry leaders like Avon, Bantam, Doubleday, Knopf, Ballantine, and HarperCollins.

$6 million for a paperback

The watershed moment for the religion market came in June 1994 when Bantam paid $6 million for the paperback rights to Betty J. Eadie's "Embraced by the Light" - an account of a near death experience. The book, one of the first titles of a small press, spurred bigger houses to pay attention. In 1992 Publishers Weekly added a religion bestsellers list for the first time.

The everyday religion bestseller runs a gamut of subjects. Evangelist Billy Graham's recent autobiography, "Just As I Am" (HarperCollins), vies with highly marketed titles like the "The Bible Code" (Simon & Schuster), by Michael Drosnin, about a supposed hidden code in the Pentateuch that can predict events like the Oklahoma City bombing. (The work has been debunked by the scholarly community.)

Examinations of the upcoming millennium, and esoteric works like the recent "The Jew and the Lotus" on a Jewish-Buddhist dialogue, are expected to increase in coming years. So are books in the "popular but serious" genre.

Buyer profiles in the more serious market cross all categories - age, race, class, sex. Many are baby boomers: "I was a Catholic, then a Deadhead, and now I need some help in figuring things out' - that's not untypical," says one expert. The wide viewership of the Bill Moyers' PBS Genesis series is an example.

Most are people who want more than just a quick infusion of "angel talk," marketers say. Many are hard-edged professionals, but feel there is more to the heavens and earth than is found in the various gods of academe, science, and commercial enterprise.

Some are believers-in-exile - those who have left the church but who are still spiritually restless. Others add to their church life with the reading, or are using the books to deepen their own return to a religious tradition. As Ms. Norris notes, the readers are those who have not completely allowed the world to "put out the fire in their hearts."

Publishers today say steady-selling, solid, intelligent works are more desirable than one-shot blockbusters. But they expect no immediate end to either type.

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