You are what you read

Books Special Report | Sales of Christian books are so strong, secular sellers are looking to grab a slice of the lucrative market. But is the quality as great as the quantity? An analysis of CBA bestsellers shows how readers are engaging-or ignoring-the culture

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002

Christians are reading, even while other Americans are just watching TV. Book sales overall are stagnant, but even The New York Times took note that sales of Christian books are growing. Last year, for the first time, Christian titles from evangelical publishers topped the bestseller lists in both fiction (the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, from Tyndale House) and nonfiction (The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson, from Multnomah).

The book industry as a whole last year brought in $11 billion worth of sales. Evangelical publishers earned a whopping $1.77 billion of that total-16 percent of all books sold. In response, secular publishers are adding religious, even evangelical, lines. Christian titles can now be found in mainstream bookstores, from the Barnes & Noble megastores to airport news stands.

By economic standards, Christian books have certainly penetrated the culture. The question remains: What are they saying about that culture? Are the books-and, more importantly, the Christians who read them-appeasing or transforming the culture? Or ignoring it altogether?

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On the principle "you are what you read," the books that are most popular among Christians provide a snapshot of American Christianity. The issues that most concern them, the nature of their theology, and their engagement in the culture around them are all evident from the Christian bestseller lists (see p. 28.)

The Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) posts on its website (cbaonline.org) the topselling titles in the evangelical book industry. The CBA list is based on sales from its member stores. As a result, what it tracks is the buying habits of those who shop in Christian bookstores, as opposed to general sales that would include Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and other secular retailers. The CBA's top 100 sellers of 2001 thus represent what evangelical Christians bought from stores catering to evangelical Christians.

The No. 1 bestseller was The Prayer of Jabez. Left Behind novels took up six of the top 10 slots. The prolific Church of Christ pastor Max Lucado had a remarkable six different titles in the top 100.

One fourth of all the CBA bestsellers had to do with family. Books on building a strong marriage and raising children were the dominant category by far. "Family values" is not just a code word for cultural conservatives. Judging from their reading habits, Christians really are preoccupied with their families. They study how to be good spouses and parents.

Complementary to the family books were six titles directed to the special needs of men and 21 titles to the special needs of women. This latter category, which ranges from Hugs for Mom to Bad Girls of the Bible, reflects the fact that most buyers of CBA books are women. If the titles for men and women are added to the books about family, they account for nearly 40 percent of all CBA bestsellers.

Theology does not fare nearly as well. Of the top 100 books, only four could be described as even popular theology. One of them, coming in as the 26th bestselling volume, is The Catechism of the Catholic Church. That evangelical bookstores would even carry a Roman Catholic book, much less its primary teaching text, is remarkable and a sign of how things have changed. Either evangelicals are learning about Catholicism, or, far more likely, Catholics have started shopping in evangelical bookstores.

There are three books of apologetics, dealing with evidences for the faith and how to answer its critics. Those seem to be the only books that are focused on evangelism.

Of the top 100 books, only six are about the Bible. (This does not count an additional eight books on "God's Promises" or "Bible Promises," two series consisting of scriptural texts arranged topically and addressed to various issues and stations in life.)

One of the bestsellers (No. 78) purports to be an extrabiblical revelation based on a vision, something else unusual for Protestants, who, historically, have stressed that God's revelation is to be found exclusively in His Word. Mary Baxter's A Divine Revelation of Hell tells about a tour of that foul place given her by Jesus Himself, not as a work of symbolism, as in Dante, but as plain geographical fact, going into detail about what the place is like and how the damned are tormented. Ms. Baxter has also written about her vision of heaven, but it is not nearly as popular and did not make the bestseller list.

Of these 100 most popular Christian books, only four are about Christ. The Holy Spirit rates two. Billy Graham's book about angels still made the list, though barely, coming in at No. 99.


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