‘Dummies’ and ‘Idiot’s’ religion books prove smart bet for publishers

Intro to God

Why would publishers risk offending deeply pious or intellectually prickly Americans with book titles such as The Koran for Dummies and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jesus?

It’s the economy, stupid.

Religion books are big business, and time has shown there’s a market for mildly irreverent, user-friendly guides to the major faiths, sacred texts, crucial figures such as Jesus and the Buddha, and related topics such as fasting, prayer and meditation. Most readers don’t seem to mind that a Dummies book on a holy book comes in the same format as those for operating Windows XP, building a deck or improving one’s sexual technique.

John Trigilio hears about once a month from older Catholics upset that he and fellow priest Kenneth Brighenti wrote Catholicism for Dummies. Far more often, he hears back positively from readers in and outside the faith.

And there are a lot of them.

“Last word we got was that over 100,000 copies have been sold,” Father Trigilio said of the book, which has been out just two years.

Some religion titles don’t sell nearly as well, and there have been controversies, including one over the different perspectives offered by Catholicism for Dummies and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Catholicism. (More about that later.)

But representatives for Alpha, the division of Penguin Group that publishes the Idiot’s books, and Wiley Publishing, publisher of the Dummies series, say religion has become a mainstay of their product lines.

“It’s quite a successful category for us. I wouldn’t say it’s the most successful, but it’s right up there,” said Randy Ladenheim-Gil, senior acquisitions editor for the Idiot’s series.

Joyce Pepple, her counterpart over at Dummies, said it’s not surprising that religion titles do well.

“A lot of religion is complicated. There’s history and traditions that need to be explained. And we are very good at providing objective information.”

The first book in either series was DOS for Dummies, a computer guide published in 1991. Two years later, the Idiot’s series debuted, focused as well on de-mystifying computer use.

Both series branded themselves by their arresting names, cover designs and colors (Dummies, yellow and black; Idiot’s, orange and white). Both used humor in chapter titles and the text. Both also quickly expanded to a range of subjects, such as personal finance, cooking, home repair.

These days, the books are a worldwide sensation. More than 450 Idiot’s titles are in print, representing about 32 million copies. There are twice as many Dummies titles, with 150 million copies in English alone. Dummies books have been translated into 39 languages, including French – where they’re known as pour les nuls or “for the zeroes.”

The first religion title came in 1997 – The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the World Religions. The Idiot’s series has been more aggressive in this area, with 32 “religion and spirituality” titles currently offered.

The Dummies folks entered the arena with Religion for Dummies in 2002. They now have 15 religion and spirituality titles, including C.S. Lewis & Narnia for Dummies, timed to the Dec. 9 release of the Disney movie, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Who’s writing and reading all these books?

Often the authors are clergy. An interfaith team, Rabbi Marc Gellman of Melville, N.Y., and Monsignor Thomas Hartman of Long Island, N.Y., wrote Religion for Dummies.

Professors also have been enlisted. Jeffrey Geoghegan, who teaches biblical theology at Boston College, and Michael Homan, who teaches biblical studies at Xavier University of Louisiana, collaborated on The Bible for Dummies.

Sometimes, though, workaday professional writers get the call.

“I’m not a scholar or theologian. I didn’t even go to Bible college,” acknowledged Tracy Macon Sumner. But he said his research skills as a former newspaperman, and his long study of the Bible and church history as an evangelical Christian, qualified him to be co-writer of the Idiot’s books on Jesus and on the Reformation and Protestantism.

Manuscripts get an in-house “technical review” before publication, aimed at catching errors. But readers take on faith that the Dummies and Idiot’s books are grounded in good scholarship.

“They don’t want you to have footnotes, endnotes or citations. They don’t even want you to quote from other scholars,” said Jana Riess, co-author of Mormonism for Dummies.

Ms. Riess described her Dummies experience as satisfying, but not financially rewarding, given the hours she put in. Advance payments to authors tend to be modest. Of those authors willing to share specifics for this story, the range was from $8,000 to $25,000. The hope is for slow, steady royalty payments, since the books tend to stay in print.

As for readership, it tends to spike around major events, said Ms. Pepple of the Dummies series. For example, books on Islam sold briskly in the early phase of the Iraq War.

There are also plenty of readers like Bernie Chandler of Arlington, who has a wide-ranging curiosity and a general liking for the Dummies and Idiot’s guides.

“They’re well organized, and they give you a place to start,” he said.

He bought the books first for help with computers, then with such topics as carpentry, gardening and cat care. Though not a Hindu, he is interested in Hinduism, so he read the Idiot’s guide on that faith.

Linda Johnsen, author of that book, said her main audience consists of Hindus who feel a need to reconnect.

“Hindus in the U.S. are to some extent cut off from their teachers in India,” she said by e-mail. “Their children may know next to nothing about Hinduism or be misled by the dismissive attitude toward their tradition that they experience here.”

Of late, Dummies and Idiot’s books have tapped into the college market. At Anderson College, in Anderson, S.C., Professor Brett Patterson has religion students read Catholicism for Dummies and the Idiot’s guides to the Bible and the Reformation and Protestantism. He describes the books as clear, concise and cheaper (around $20) than most textbooks.

Laura E. Shulman teaches religion at Northern Virginia Community College, and lets students choose between a traditional textbook and Religion for Dummies.

“The Dummies text tends to win out by a landslide,” she said.

While formatted just like other books in the series, the Dummies and Idiot’s religion titles present certain challenges to the publishers and authors. For example, Ms. Riess found she had to drop the humor in describing persecution of Mormons.

“That’s just not very funny,” she said. “People were being tarred and feathered, and shot in front of their children.”

With religion, not everyone agrees on what the facts are or how they should be interpreted. William Grimbol, a Presbyterian pastor on Long Island, N.Y., said he understood that when he agreed to write The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Life of Christ.

Mr. Grimbol, who managed the coup of a foreword from his friend Bishop Desmond Tutu, took a mainline-to-liberal approach.

“My perspective on Christ is not as salvation-oriented as it is about building the kingdom of God on this earth,” he said. “I wanted to present the idea that Jesus has a great deal to say to people, no matter where their faith is. And what Christ has to say is social, it’s political, it’s economic, it’s spiritual.”

Mr. Grimbol also considered whether Jesus’ miracles should be taken as literal events or myths. His book sold fairly well – about 37,000 copies, he said – but drew criticism from readers and did not get a second edition.

Instead, Alpha editors hired two evangelical Christian writers, Mr. Sumner and James Stuart Bell, to write The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jesus. The book covers the same subject, but with an emphasis on biography, not theology. It raises no questions about the miracles.

Ms. Ladenheim-Gil, of Alpha, said Mr. Grimbol’s book wasn’t dropped because of complaints, though she said the company is eager to reach the evangelical readership.

“A change is often made because we perceive there’s an audience for something else,” she said. “That happens in every subject.”

The Dummies and Idiot’s books on Catholicism have provided perhaps the most public controversy for the two series.

The Idiot’s book was written by Bob O’Gorman, a professor of pastoral studies at Loyola University Chicago, and Mary Faulkner, a therapist and freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn. It came out in 2000 and has sold about 200,000 copies, making it one of the series’ best sellers.

Mr. O’Gorman said his and Ms. Faulkner’s book explains their faith’s fundamentals but also stresses the struggle many rank-and-file Catholics have with church positions on controversial issues, including abortion.

“Our big emphasis, emphasized at Vatican II, was that conscience has to be the Catholic’s guide,” he said.

But Father Trigilio said he and Father Brighenti wrote Catholicism for Dummies partly to counter the Idiot’s book.

“We were not happy with the slant that was given there,” Father Trigilio said. “We wanted ours to be conforming to the official teaching of the church.”

Mr. O’Gorman, in turn, describes Catholicism for Dummies as the “party line” book. Father Trigilio, of Marysville, Pa., has been a leader of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, a group pledging strict adherence to Vatican directives. He’s co-host of Web of Faith, a program on the Eternal Word Television Network, a Catholic venture.

Reaction to the dueling Dummies and Idiot’s volumes on Catholicism has played out big on Amazon.com, with Mr. O’Gorman posting a defense of his and Ms. Faulkner’s work. But though the controversy has caused him grief, Mr. O’Gorman is delighted to be an Idiot’s author.

“I never had this broad an audience,” he said.

Father Trigilio is just as pleased to be a Dummies author. He’s at work with two others on a Dummies book about Pope John Paul II, to be released near the first anniversary of his death, April 2, 2006.

For anyone who has lingering concerns about pairing “dummies” and “idiots” with sacred subjects, the priest says: Get over it. He notes that in First Corinthians, St. Paul favorably uses the term “fools for Christ.”

“The actual word in the Greek, if you translate it literally, means ‘morons,’ ” Father Trigilio said. “Nobody gets bent out of shape that St. Paul is calling them a moron.”


We asked a true religion expert, Frederick W. Schmidt of Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, to evaluate three popular religion guides: The Bible for Dummies by Jeffrey Geoghegan and Michael Homan; The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Bible by James Stuart Bell and Stan Campbell; and, for good measure, Don’t Know Much about the Bible by Kenneth C. Davis. Here is Dr. Schmidt’s report:

Older readers, for the most part, are loath to think of themselves as idiots or dummies.

So when the Dummies and Idiot’s guides first appeared, more often than not they sold to the under-30 set. These were readers who knew well the truth of the maxim, “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you, but what you don’t know that you don’t know that gets you.”

In fact, the books have rarely treated their readers like dummies. Still, these three deceptively simple introductory guides differ greatly from one another, owing no doubt in part to the complexity of Scripture itself.

The differences are evident in the credentials of their authors. The Bible for Dummies is by two biblical scholars from Catholic universities. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Bible is by what appear to be two evangelical Protestants, one the owner of a communications company, the other an accomplished author, neither, apparently, possessing academic credentials. The third book, Don’t Know Much about the Bible, is the work of an author who has written, among other things, a number of Don’t Know titles.

Of course, these differences do not speak immediately to the reliability of the information in the books, but it is worth noting, since many readers pick up a book hoping for guidance from “the experts.”

A second difference involves the degree to which explicitly religious goals shape the volumes. The Dummies and Don’t Know Much books try to avoid taking an overtly Christian approach. The former lists 10 holidays you can trace to the Bible, and most of the 10 are Jewish. The latter observes that Jews and Christians alike have been sustained by the faith in God that the Bible reflects. The Idiot’s guide is more explicitly pietistic, even evangelistic, assuring the reader that the study of Scripture will lead him or her into “the fullness of God’s grace and truth.”

All three books navigate the inevitable challenges any writer faces in trying to communicate complex material in an open and accessible fashion. Each in its own way takes a slightly flippant approach designed to engage and entertain. The Dummies and Idiots’ guides accomplish this by combining humorous titles with illustrations, maps, and bulleted material. Don’t Know Much is visually blander and relies instead on provocative chapter titles (“Two Creations … No Apple”) and wry observations.

For the most part, all three books succeed in engaging the reader while providing reasonably sound content. But don’t be an idiot or a dummy – the treatments are hardly neutral, and you can never fully communicate the truth about the Bible in such a simplified fashion.

Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse Publishing, $12.95) and What God Wants for Your Life (HarperSanFrancisco, $12.95). He is an associate professor of Christian spirituality at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology and an ordained Episcopal priest.

E-mail samhodges@dallasnews.com

About the guides

• First titles: 1993, guides to MS-DOS and personal computers

• Catalog: More than 450 titles, 32 million copies in print

• All-time best seller: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Learning Spanish (in three editions)

• Religion best seller: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Bible

• Features: Use of humor and margin icons; “Least You Need to Know” summations at end of chapters; resource guide, including useful Web sites, at back of book

• Typical cost: $18.95

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Dallas Morning News, USA
Nov. 25, 2005
Sam Hodges

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday November 29, 2005.
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