Culture > Books

Changing Times

Books | The world's most celebrated best-seller list suddenly is crammed with religious titles

Issue: "Left behind," June 28, 2008

When Cecil Murphey first started teaching at writers conferences in the mid-'70s, he didn't know there was any such thing as a "Christian" writers conference. So Murphey, who had by then published several books with Christian publishers, taught at general-market conferences, where he heard the same comment over and over again: "People would come up to me and say, 'I think most Christian books are so badly written . . . but, of course, I like yours.'"

Clearly, a lot of people like 90 Minutes in Heaven, the megawatt best-seller Murphey co-authored with Don Piper, a pastor who describes in the book his experience while clinically dead. Since 2006, 90 Minutes has ridden The New York Times best-seller list, having risen as high as No. 2.

Only a little over a decade ago, such a performance by a book with an overtly Christian message was unheard of. But this spring, The New York Times list-easily the world's most influential list, and, among many publishing insiders, the only one that counts-has featured a bumper crop of at least arguably evangelical titles.

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Remarking on the number of Christian titles on the April 20 list, Thomas Nelson publishers president and CEO Michael Hyatt wrote on his blog, "I can't remember there ever being more." That week, there were 11 such books. On June 15, there were 14, spread across every major category, including fiction, nonfiction, advice, and business, in both hardcover and paperback.

Publishing industry professionals pinpoint several reasons for the trend, not the least of which is what Blaise Pascal called the "God-shaped vacuum" in the human heart.

"The growth of religious books, Christian and in general, are more indication that people continue to seek answers, whether they lead to Christ or to other places," said DeWayne Hamby, books section editor for Christian Retailing magazine. "The trend underscores the importance of our emphasis on providing the right answers, on providing better content that will connect with seekers."

In 2007 the sale of religious books grew 5.6 percent after growing 6.3 percent in 2006, according to Book Industry Trends 2008, a report on U.S. publishing sales. The category includes books relating to all faiths, including atheism. At least two books on belief in unbelief have enjoyed respectable stays on the NYT list in 2007 and 2008-Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. (Hitchens' book hit No. 1.) Several New Age titles, including the No. 1-selling The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, have attracted enormous audiences. But Hyatt speculates that book buyers are propelling a higher proportion of Christian titles into best-sellerdom because counterfeits fail to nourish the soul.

"You can read a New Age book, or a book like The Secret, and there is a certain appeal, just as when you visit the county fair and have some cotton candy. It's momentarily satisfying, but not nourishing," said Hyatt. "But there's something deeply satisfying about historic Christianity. It corresponds with reality as God created it. It aligns with the way things really are."

Still, prior to the late 1990s, secular bookstores mainly ignored Christian publishers. Occasionally, a breakout best-seller slipped through, such as Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, a dispensationalist take on end-times prophecy. But writers producing works grounded in the Bible were left preaching mainly to the choir from the shelves of Christian stores.

Then came Left Behind.

In 1995, Tyndale House published the end-times novel by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. The book languished at first but then caught fire, waking secular bookstores and big-box retailers to the idea that Christians buy books, and their money is just as green.

"Ultimately, it is the reader that drives the market," said Michael Covington, information and education director for the Evangelical Christian Publishing Association. "Retailers have to respond to consumer demand."

Left Behind demolished doors that had previously been closed to Christian publishers and opened the way for other Christian titles, such as The Prayer of Jabez and The Purpose-Driven Life, to nab shelf space in non-Christian stores-a prerequisite for landing on the NYT list. Now, books by evangelical publishers are consistently making their way to the list, said Lee Hough, a literary agent with Alive Communications in Colorado Springs: "But they often have to work twice as hard to get there, because The New York Times doesn't count sales in Christian bookstores."

For example, two books on the June 15 list, 90 Minutes in Heaven and Same Kind of Different as Me (co-authored by WORLD features editor Lynn Vincent), had each been out for two years and sold more than 100,000 copies through word-of-mouth before cracking the Times tally.

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