Retailers are riding the wave of popularity of Christian-themed books

Janis McWilliams is a devout Christian and an avid reader, but she doesn’t much enjoy novels that are “dripping in Jesus” — and she admits she has usually found Christian novels poorly written, and a little boring.

But like an increasing number of readers, she’s been attracted by an innovative generation of authors who have breathed new life into Christian fiction.

Moving beyond prose that reads like either a Bible study or a dime-store romance, Christian writers have started a literary renaissance by exploring serious religious themes in everything from futuristic thrillers to historical epics.

In the process, they’re dispensing with old formulas by incorporating spiritually conflicted, swashbuckling heroes and touchy issues such as AIDS and domestic abuse. And they’re doing it while avoiding what some see as gratuitous sex and violence found in mainstream novels.

A decade or so ago, said Clint Kelly, a Seattle-based writer who is part of the new generation of authors, Christian writers didn’t feel free to grapple with Biblical teachings in novels.

“It’s sort of like we have permission now,” said Kelly, who works at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian liberal arts college. “People of faith are now seeing it as another way of coming at our faith — it’s OK to ask questions. It’s not heretical.”

Reliable sales figures for Christian fiction are hard to come by — many of the hottest Christian titles don’t show up on, or are undercounted by, mainstream bestseller lists. But this year 2,200 titles in that category will be published, an increase of more than 80 percent from 1,200 a decade ago, according to Carol Johnson, editorial vice president at Bethany House, a major player in the field.

And fiction now accounts for 15 percent to 20 percent of the Christian book market, up nearly fourfold from about 5 percent in the early 1990s.

Where to find them

Christian novels can be found everywhere from religious-supply stores to www.amazon.com to discount outlets like Wal-Mart and Costco. For online ordering, as well as book descriptions and recommendations from a Christian perspective, visit www.christianbook.com. Another option is the Good Girl Book Club, www.goodgirlbookclubonline.com, a national reading network that includes titles of interest to Christian women, with a wide selection of novels featuring women of color. The club, with 10,000 members, also features online book-discussion groups.

“There are Christians who are discovering fiction and there are general-market readers who are looking for stories they can feel good about,” Johnson said. “Public librarians call it ‘the gentle read.’ “

“Left Behind” heads pack

Nationally, two names resonate more than all others as signs of Christian literature’s ascendance.

Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, the authors of the hugely popular, apocalyptic thriller series “Left Behind” (Tyndale House) toured the country like rock stars on a fan-appreciation bus this spring, greeting hundreds at each stop.

Their evangelical, 12-book series — capped off by the release of “Glorious Appearing” in March — has sold more than 40 million copies since the first installment was released in 1995.

Newsweek recently put the author duo on its cover, labeling them America’s best-selling writers.

“Ten years ago, Christian fiction was primarily Western romance, women getting on a covered wagon and going West — we’ve gotten way past that,” said Doug Ross, outgoing president of the Tempe, Ariz.,-based Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.

A turning point, he said, came in 1986 with the release of Frank Peretti’s “This Present Darkness.”

“It just broke the sound barrier at that point” in terms of quality, Ross said of the book, a novel rich in battles between angels and demons.

Today’s Christian-themed fiction is a bona fide cultural trend that keeps pushing boundaries.

Kelly, for example, said the Bible fascinates him “as much by what it doesn’t say as what it does say.” His novels try to fill in the blanks on well-known figures in the Bible such as Noah.

“The challenge for me was to try to put more flesh and bone on the figure of Noah,” Kelly said. “How did his friends and associates speak of him? What kind of warnings did he give them? What kind of agonies did he go through as a man?”

Kelly brings these issues up-to-date using scenarios that are closer to our own time; his books are concerned with how people maintain their humanity and hope in adverse circumstances and periods of doubt.

His most personal character is Reg Danson, an Indiana Jones-type hero who sets out to find Noah’s ark in 1993′s “The Landing Place” and along the way struggles with his Christian world view.

“The doubts about his faith that he is struggling with were the doubts that I was struggling with,” Kelly recalled. “It was really kind of therapeutic.”

Marek Halter’s just-released “Sarah” (Crown) deliberately plays up the roles of women whose lives were not fully shaped in the Bible itself.

“I asked myself what were the sentences and voices that the editors of the Bible were cutting out,” said Halter, a Jew who spent part of his childhood in the Warsaw ghetto and who now lives in Paris. “I decided that it was the women’s voices.”

So in “Sarah,” Halter tells the story of monotheism and the development of civilized society through the experiences of one of the most revered woman in Sumerian times.

Unlike Kelly’s work, which merely expands on characters such as Noah, Halter puts forward a distinctly feminist point of view.

Bette Nordberg, a Puyallup-based writer, takes chances in a different way by confronting issues that sear in present times. She visited shelters and retreats for abused women to research her 2000 novel “Serenity Bay” (Bethany House) about a victim of domestic violence who receives strength from a Christian friend.

By taking new approaches and addressing sensitive topics, she has built a loyal following.

Nordberg quipped that she’s now the token Christian author at the South Hill Borders bookstore in Puyallup, where she’s invited regularly to speak on Christian literature.

Christian inspiration

McWilliams belongs to a book club of Christian women that meets each month at a south end Borders bookstore.

While her group reads all types of literature, it recently read “Blessed Child” (WestBow), a novel about child-miracle workers by Ted Dekker, another of the new generation of Christian writers.

“Christian fiction brings in all the modern-day settings with the Old Testament applications — that’s what it does for me,” McWilliams said.

The book club has read two novels by Nordberg, who’s also a member of the group.

“She has taken Christian fiction to another level,” McWilliams said. “It isn’t syrupy and it isn’t politically motivated.”

Christian novels aren’t the only religious fiction gaining in popularity.

The Sisterhood of Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Bellevue has read several novels of Jewish interest in recent years, said the group’s president, Marianne Bundren. Among the titles the sisterhood’s book club has tackled is “Jane Austen in Boca” (St. Martin’s Griffin) by Paula Marantz Cohen, a comedy about matchmaking among Florida retirees.

But novels inspired by Christian ideals and figures make up the vast majority of new religious fiction, publishing experts say.

Christian authors like Nordberg are reveling in a newfound freedom to tell interesting stories that tackle spirituality head-on through characters in the midst of crises.

“The characters — some of them, not all of them — are overtly Christian and they are trying to figure out how to make the tenets of their faith work in their everyday lives,” Nordberg said. She also said she was an adult before she ever held a Bible in her hands and took religion seriously. “The more flawed they are, the more readers seem to love them.”

Her latest book, “Season of Grace” (Harvest House), tells what happens when a woman answers the front door one day and finds her long-lost brother, who’s dying of AIDS.

Nordberg’s next book is about a white woman who is faced with raising the mixed-race child of a friend who is killed in car accident.

Costco bites into trend

Even Christian retailers and publishing houses are surprised by the public’s interest in the genre, which has risen in the same way the public’s taste for Christian pop music exploded in the 1990s.

“When a book is being sold at Costco and airport kiosks and that sort of thing, it’s being bought across the board,” said the ECPA’s Ross, referring to works such as the “Left Behind” series. Lately, the trend has been fueled by Mel Gibson’s controversial film about Jesus’ last hours.

‘The Passion of the Christ’ told us that the market for the Christian message is far larger than we had imagined,” Ross said.

Some in the Christian book world, however, say Christian bookstores have been slow to pick up on the popularity of fiction titles, even as mainstream discount chains, like Costco and Wal-Mart, and general booksellers, such as Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, have seized on the trend by carrying an array of Christian titles.

“It’s taken a long time for even the Christian booksellers to accept that fiction is valid,” said Nordberg. “Even the notion of reading for pleasure is a new idea. That’s an iffy concept” among some in the Christian community.

Christian authors, riding the wave of popularity, will no doubt continue spreading the gospel, even as they toil with it.

“The Bible is a huge canvas and you can come at it from so many different angles,” Kelly said. “The fiction platform is just another way to come at it — wrestling with issues together, reader and writer.”

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