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BOOKS: THE ALMIGHTY TO THE RESCUE

6 minute read
Martha Duffy

Deliverance at last for pretty Ariana after her ordeal. Kidnapped from her classroom by violent outlaws. Imprisoned in the wild with only a slop pail. Forced to endure the pitch-black terrors of a deep cave. Safe at last in her aunt’s warm house, she gives thanks. “How wonderful,” she muses, “to know that God never lost control.”

No, never once. For this is the world of Christian fiction, where the Almighty works in less than mysterious ways: a savage avenger to the wicked, an infinitely thoughtful deity to those who worship him, a parent capable of providing every little thing, down to hot corn bread. Christian fiction has been around as long as people have wanted stories with no explicit sex (and almost none implicit), no bad words, virtually no violence–except, of course, when God is on the warpath. But in the ’90s, this tidy cottage industry has become big business dominated by evangelical Protestantism. God is firmly in control.

These are not literary novels, but for many readers they provide welcome relief from the increasingly violent state of popular culture. “There is a real urgency on the part of many Americans to find reading materials that don’t offer a moral conflict, that don’t engage in gratuitous violence, sex and questionable language,” says Phyllis Tickle, religion editor of Publishers Weekly. The tribulations of pretty Ariana, the chaste, Bible-memorizing heroine of Janette Oke’s A Gown of Spanish Lace (Bethany House; 251 pages; $14.99), have enticed 238,000 hardback-book buyers so far–more than the latest novels by Jackie Collins, John Irving or James Michener. Such outsize commercial success does not register on most newspapers’ best-seller lists because religious bookstores are not canvassed.

According to Bill Anderson, president of the Christian Booksellers Association, 90% of buyers are women, and the average age of readers is 42. In the past year, sales by the seven biggest publishers of the genre have surpassed $43 million. Perhaps the surest sign that the field is a rich one is the big names it is attracting: televangelist Pat Robertson and Watergate felon turned Evangelical Charles Colson have jumped in with first novels this fall. Robertson’s galvanizing The End of the Age (Word; 374 pages; $21.99) is about a meteor catastrophe worthy of the book of Revelation; Colson’s Gideon’s Torch (Word; 551 pages; $21.99) is a florid tirade against abortion.

Evangelical novels are brought out mostly by religious publishers located outside the publishing capital of New York City. The books typically cost less than popular secular fiction. Other differences are hard to miss. Sex is not allowed below the eyes. (Fraught gazes carry great weight here, not only conveying love and affection but also standing in for dialogue in dicey situations.) There are no curses or smut, of course, but also no plain-spoken nouns and verbs denoting body parts or functions. Above all, no humor. No jokes, no kidding, no double meanings, no quirks and certainly no irony.

There’s not much point in reading Evangelical fiction unless you are reasonably interested in the Bible. It is a leading character in every book: the simple Ariana endures her imprisonment by learning it; a sophisticated Senator has it always at hand (in Colson’s novel), as does a Lakers basketball star (in Robertson’s). A disproportionate number of good men happen to be carpenters. Prayer, usually printed in italics, abounds. Many narratives grind to a halt for thinly disguised Bible classes. Robertson pads his story this way. Phrases like “jump down to verses twelve and thirteen” thud into conversation.

Successful religious novels draw on the same thing that Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy thrive on: relentless plotting, no matter how far-fetched. The king of the genre is Frank Peretti, author of four best sellers. His latest, The Oath (Word; 550 pages; $23.99), which has sold 500,000 copies, is a backwoods potboiler that shoots off volleys of suspense. Dismembered bodies start turning up in a remote valley in the Pacific Northwest (the Northwest is a favorite Evangelical site). The local law blames the killings on a deranged bear, but that’s too easy. Better to look at the town’s depraved boss and such little clues as lizard saliva found on a body.

Yes, the killer is a devouring dragon, and that dragon is sin. The hero, a wildlife biologist named Steve Benson, has fallen into adultery with a slinky local deputy who seduces him with wine. No God-fearing person–indeed no survivor–drinks liquor in these novels; the temptress has no potion that can protect her when she meets the dragon. But powered by a last-minute conversion to Jesus, Benson wrestles the beast and eventually kills it.

Peretti, who has sold 6.4 million books, is a former bluegrass musician who lived in a trailer before moving to a log house near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Like most successful Christian novelists, he practices what he preaches as a devout Evangelical. “Part of being a Christian is that you share your faith,” he says. “My writing is message centered.” However, Peretti has brought his genre closer to mainstream pop fiction. For The Oath, Word, his new publisher, brought in “a New York editor,” and the effort shows in the density and pacing of the plot.

Robertson and Colson take cues from secular thrillers too. Robertson goes for cliffhanger chapter endings. Colson makes shrewd use of his White House past, providing insider details of presidential bedroom arrangements, the Attorney General’s suite and Secret Service maneuvers.

But much of Christian fiction’s bread and butter is spread by women. Janette Oke, often called the grandmother of the field, began writing her simple, God-fearing narratives–Ariana has many sisters–in 1979 and is still going strong (more than 13 million sales of 33 adult books).

Few Evangelical authors dramatize the force of the movement as well as Francine Rivers, who left behind a successful romance-novel career when she was born again in 1986. She owns the rights to her 10 bodice bursters (like A Rebel in His Arms) and won’t allow them to be printed again. Instead she writes religious historical romances, which enjoy steady sales of upwards of 80,000 copies. The latest is As Sure as the Dawn (Tyndale; 485 pages; $11.99), part of a series set in that reliable cauldron of vice, the Roman Empire. “Before, love stories were strictly between the man and the woman,” she says. “In an inspirational, it’s a triangle: the man and the woman and also their relationship with God.”

Because of their devoted audience, and the fact that religious novels have a longer shelf life than secular ones, publishers plan to expand and diversify. The next wave is likely to be adventures and spy thrillers aimed at a big untapped market: men. There is plenty of peril left in the Northwest to provide fodder for those adventure novels. But espionage depends on deception, double dealing and lying. It’s hard to see how God will work his way without ruining the plot.

–Reported by Andrea Sachs/New York

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