I have some good news and some sad news. First, the good news: Publishers Weekly announced that two Christian books were the top fiction and non-fiction books in the industry in 2001. It is the first time this has ever happened.
First, the good news: Publishers Weekly announced that two Christian books were the top fiction and non-fiction books in the industry in 2001. It is the first time this has ever happened.
Now, the sad news: These two books are Desecration and The Prayer of Jabez.
The former is volume nine in the wildly popular end-of-the-world series known by its first volume, Left Behind. The Jabez book uses a short, obscure prayer in the Hebrew Bible to encourage people to pray for what they want.
Not everybody is sad about the success of these two books.
Many people have found them helpful and inspirational. The Jabez book sold 9 million copies last year and has spawned spin-offs for target audiences, as well as a sequel, Secrets of the Vine.
What is not a secret is that three authors and two publishers have made lots of money. Tim LaHaye of the Left Behind collection just signed away international distribution rights for $34 million. He has also announced a completely new series of what the promoters call “biblical fiction.”
But these two best-selling books are to Christian publishing what Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were to Christian broadcasting.
They are slick, silly caricatures of the real thing. By “the real thing” I mean popular Christian writing that combines excellence in thought and style to create literature of substance and significance.
There is no shortage of the real thing. It is available from authors like Kathleen Norris, Thomas Merton, Wendell Berry, C.S. Lewis, Jan Karon, Jimmy Carter, Charles Colson, Philip Yancey, even John Updike, Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II.
These writers have staying power. Faithful, thoughtful Christians will read their books long after Jabez returns to the obscurity from which it mysteriously arose and Desecration is left behind in the wake of yet another fad in religious fiction.
The surprising success of these two books demonstrates that “Christian” stuff can be designed, packaged, advertised and sold on the mass market just like any other commodity.
In this regard, these millions and millions of books are like the billions and billions of burgers sold at fast-food outlets: lots of taste but little nutrition.
The National Institutes of Health assess the nutritional value of food; we do not have such organized expertise for things of the spirit.
ut if you want a frank appraisal of Jabez, I recommend a book by Gary Gilley. It is a powerful critique of last year’s best-seller, as well as a more accurate interpretation of the biblical prayer itself. Xulon Press publishes it with the sarcastic title, “I Just Wanted More Land”—Jabez.
When it comes to Left Behind, I can only report that the movie adaptation flopped immediately and badly. Even Christian people can distinguish between religious propaganda and popular art.
I am sure it is too much to ask that these fast-food books be banned. I fear they are being super-sized and, it seems, the people love it.
Perhaps I can use Jabez’ prayer and seek a blessing like the one the rabbi gave (in “Fiddler on the Roof”) when asked if there were a blessing for the tsar of Russia:
“May the Lord bless and keep the tsar [or in my case, the books] … far away from us.”