Spreading the Word in Just-the-Basics Style

New York Times, Nov. 2, 2002

James S. Bell Jr. may be the most prolific condenser of sacred truths on the planet.

The co-author of the recently released “Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Reformation and Protestantism,” Mr. Bell has also written three other religion titles in the Idiot’s Guide series. He wrote four “No-Brainer’s Guides” on similar themes for Tyndale House, a religious press, and he worked for 12 years at Moody Press, a Christian publishing company that produces the “World’s Easiest Guides” to topics like the Bible and understanding God.

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To some, the Reformation may sound like an unlikely topic for an Idiot’s Guide. It was Martin Luther, after all, who said believers must be guided by the Bible itself, not some watered-down version.

In addition, religious history itself may seem an odd subject for the resolutely practical Idiot’s Guides, which started off a decade ago with computer software instruction titles and moved on to how-to’s about personal finance, home-buying and even “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Amazing Sex.”

But to Mr. Bell, who was raised in a family of conservative evangelical Anglicans, the books are a way to spread the word, both to the curious general reader and to believers who are a little rusty.

“It’s kind of like being an evangelist in a certain sense,” said Mr. Bell, who wrote the book with Tracy Macon Sumner. “We want you to understand it, but you can make your own decisions about where to go from here.”

Some readers may simply want to inform themselves about religion, but the books have also become popular with church and Bible study groups, said Renee Wilmeth, a senior acquisitions editor at Alpha Books, the publisher of the Complete Idiot’s Guides. Mr. Bell said he had been told of people who found or regained a Christian faith through the books.

Whatever their motives, readers have been responding in droves. Religion is the most popular category in the Idiot’s Guides, accounting for 4 of last year’s top 10 sellers among more than 450 titles, Ms. Wilmeth said.

The press is turning out more religion guides at a rapid rate, including “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism” and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Taoism,” both published this year. Other publishers are cashing in on the trend, too. “Religion for Dummies” is scheduled to come out later this year, along with “The Bible for Dummies” and “Buddhism for Dummies.”

To Mr. Bell, the primers’ popularity highlights a new generation’s effort to reconnect with frayed traditions.

“Knowledge of religious terms is way down,” he said. “A lot of people are familiar with some basic rituals, but they’ve lost touch with the terms, because the Bible is not read at home anymore.”

The Idiot’s Guides and other similar books help to fill that gap. “People feel like the Bible and religion in general are a code they can’t crack, and this helps them to approach it,” Mr. Bell said.

Writing such books can be a balancing act, requiring an author who can summarize a religion’s ideas without seeming to endorse them or denigrate them, Ms. Wilmeth said.

“You must be able to answer questions without alienating believers or the general reader,” she added.

Like many Idiot’s Guide authors, Mr. Bell does that in part by approaching his subject with a wide-eyed, exclamation-filled style, as if a child were walking through a museum and narrating what he saw.

“It’s a story that is exciting, inspirational, mysterious, and violent — and often to the extremes!” he writes in the introduction to the Reformation book.

Like other Idiot’s Guides, the book is full of visual aids, including frequent quotation boxes capped by a cartoon of a woman’s face and the words “Protestant Pearls.”

Tragic events are acknowledged, but often in a cheerful voice. About the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the authors conclude: “Talk about giving your all for what you believe in!”

When the book confronts Christianity‘s supernatural claims, the narrative sometimes becomes vague. Referring to the Resurrection of Jesus, the book says of his disciples: “They were devastated after his death, but three days later he made good on his promise.”

It is not exactly scholarly material, and it is not meant to be.

But it does have a certain historical pedigree. The goal of the series — making the Bible and its themes more accessible — echoes the central project of Protestant reformers like Luther, said Natalie Semon Davis, an emeritus professor of history at Princeton University and a noted scholar of the Reformation.

During the early years of the Reformation in Europe, Professor Davis said, “there were wonderful popular books with dialogue and pictures” about the Bible, intended to convey it to a wider audience.

Mr. Bell said that he had expected some believers or scholars to criticize his book as irreverent, but that none did to his knowledge, or at least not publicly.

“We certainly didn’t intend it as a substitute for the Bible,” he cautions.

But as someone who worked for a Christian press for many years, he said it was more challenging to write for a general audience.

“We’re just preaching to the converted” in Christian publishing, Mr. Bell added. “This is much more exciting.”

Yet he adds that part of what is fueling the growth of religious reference books is the convergence of the mainstream and Christian book markets, which were long separate.

Alpha Books, for instance, plans to start releasing “Christian Family Guides” to nonreligious topics, to be sold in Christian bookstores.

Religious publishers like the Moody Press are also producing books for a mainstream audience for the first time. That has energized the once-insular Christian book trade, while forcing it to adapt to a wider, and perhaps less knowledgeable, audience.

“We still tend to speak in what we call `Christianese,’ ” said William Thrasher, the associate publisher at Moody Press. “But it’s really ineffective to communicate that way with a broader audience.”

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