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CHAPTER AND VERSE.

Christian books have exploded onto national best-seller lists, thanks to an obscure hero named Jabez and a series of novels that describe the "end times" to enraptured readers.

At a Christian writers' conference in North Carolina last April, the host asked any prospective author who had received at least ten rejection letters from book publishers to please stand. The entire gathering rose.

"Twenty rejection letters?" prodded the emcee. Most persons remained standing.

"Thirty?" By slow elimination, the most-often-rejected writer revealed himself, a Florida resident who admitted that for nine years he had failed to attract a single buyer to his stash of unpublished novels. The audience cheered because the rejected writer was T. Davis Bunn, the conference's keynote speaker, now the author of 15 national bestsellers.

"We call him The Davis Bunn," joked conference director Yvonne Lehman, explaining the "T" in her hero's byline.

Bunn's success is indicative of the new popularity of Christian fiction and nonfiction books. Once omitted from best-seller lists, ignored by book critics, and relegated to remote shelves in secular bookstores, inspirational literature has come into its own. Suddenly, powerful publishing companies are competing with small religious houses for the talents of writers like Bunn, who can turn out mysteries, historical romances, thrillers, and self-help manuals with strong Christian messages.

"I think the sales of these books point out a general hunger for spiritual things and a curiosity about them," notes Brent Bill, director of the writing colloquium at Earlham School of Religion and a published author.

Credit for the growing acceptance of inspirational books goes in part to the writing duo of Dr. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Well known in Christian writing circles for their solo work, they burst onto the secular scene when they collaborated on Left Behind, a 468-page novel released in 1995 as the first in what promises to be a 12-book series. The ninth installment, called Desecration, hits the bookstores October 30 and is expected to debut as number one on most major bestseller lists.

Such a successful launch has become the lucrative habit of LaHaye, Jenkins and their novels. The Indwelling and The Mark, books seven and eight, reached one million in retail orders four months before publication. Even Left Behind, now six years old, consistently sells more than 100,000 copies each month as latecomers to the phenomenon opt to play catch-up by reading the books in order rather than jumping into the middle of the unfolding saga.

"Desecration will be the biggest book of the year in publishing," says Dan Balow, Tyndale House's director of business development for the series. "Reader enthusiasm for this next installment is overwhelming." To keep pace with the demand, Tyndale has printed a record-setting 2.8 million copies, which matches the first-printing of John Grisham's latest book, A Painted House. And to make sure the book doesn't go unnoticed, a generous budget of almost $5 million is earmarked for promotion. Desecration will be touted in advertisements in media as diverse as USA Today and "The Rush Limbaugh Show."

Even the authors can't account for the public's insatiable appetite for their thrillers. Jenkins suggests that a mix of factors is at play, and cites spiritual hunger as a major motivator.

"Religious books in general are selling very well," he says. "People are searching for truth, and that's what leads them to our novels. Another factor is that we've created a series of books about the greatest cosmic event that will happen in the history of the world. People are drawn to the storyline, and now they tell us they've fallen in love with the characters."

That storyline, outlined by LaHaye and written by Jenkins, takes off at a breathless pace and never slows down. Left Behind opens with a panicked flight attendant reacting to the disappearance of several passengers aboard a 747 jet bound for London. The missing persons have left behind nothing but their clothing, jewelry, hearing aids and, in some cases, their spouses. As the plot unfolds, readers learn that the absent passengers, all of them passionate Christian believers, have been whisked up to heaven during an event called the Rapture. And they're not alone. When the crew finally lands the plane, they discover that millions are missing around the world, including all children and even babies in the womb.

The rest of the book and its sequels--Tribulation Force, Nicolae, Soul Harvest, Apollyon, Assassins, The Indwelling and The Mark--track the activities of the sorry souls who have been left behind. The main character, pilot Rayford Steele, is among members of a small band of sinners-turned-believers who lead the charge against an evil force that threatens the world.

"I came up with the idea while sitting on an airplane," recalls LaHaye, a retired California-based minister who frequently writes and speaks about Bible prophecy. "I saw the pilot flirting with a flight attendant. He had on a wedding ring and she didn't. I thought, What if the Rapture were to occur now and the pilot was left behind but his wife wasn't? That was the first seed of my idea."

Because he doesn't consider himself a fiction writer, LaHaye went in search of a coauthor versatile enough to create a contemporary story based on the Bible's Book of Revelation. He settled on Jenkins, who has dozens of books to his credit, including biographies of sports heroes Orel Hershiser and Nolan Ryan.

"It was a perfect fit from the start," LaHaye said. Jenkins, a former resident of Chicago, took LaHaye's Biblical outline, located his characters in the familiar territory of O'Hare Airport and the Chicago suburbs, and turned them loose.

"We started out just writing one novel," says Jenkins. "But when I got halfway through and had only covered a few weeks of the seven-year tribulation, I knew we were going to have to expand. Fortunately, Tyndale House was happy to make it a trilogy, and it grew from there."

Jenkins originally thought that sales might approach 100,000; Tyndale House hoped for 500,000; but no one dreamed that the eight adult books would easily surpass the 28 million mark. Spin-off products also have done well. These include a series of kids' books, audiobooks, CDs and a video. An interactive Web site, www.leftbehind.com, available in various foreign languages, averages more than 60,000 hits a day and has developed into an online community of fans. First-time visitors to the Web site are invited to fill out a short questionnaire that will help Tyndale answer the questions raised by many observers of the phenomenon: Who is reading these books and why?

Other questions, not included in the survey for obvious reasons, are: How long can the phenomenon last? Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Although the authors plan to wrap up the series with book 12, rumors of a prequel have already surfaced.

Some readers, admitting that they are series dropouts, object to Jenkins' journalistic writing style, stereotypical characters, evangelical language, and several scenes they say are too violent. The most common complaint is that too many pages may have diluted the power of the plot's premise.

Whatever answers emerge, the entire Christian book-publishing industry is sharing in the success of the series. Commenting on the boom year that Christian retailers enjoyed in 2000, a spokesperson for the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) said, "Leading the way has been the phenomenal sales of the Left Behind series, giving a lift to the Christian fiction category as a whole and broadening its reader base. Over the past several years, Christian fiction has exploded in popularity, making it the top-selling book category in many Christian stores."

The surge in sales for both nonfiction titles and novels also has created a market for a thoughtful new book called How to Read a Christian Book by David McKenna, a former president of Asbury Theological Seminary. McKenna seems to take in stride the growing interest in inspirational books. After all, he notes, "a nonreading Christian is a contradiction in terms." He reminds believers who are enjoying the ever-widening assortment of available titles to continue to study the book he calls "our primary source." In the burst of acceptance of new Christian literature, he doesn't want the Bible left behind.

The Chronicles of Jabez

A tiny 93-page book has boosted an obscure Biblical character to fame, brought fortune to a small Christian publishing company in Sisters, Oregon, and has succeeded in moving Cheese from atop the country's best-seller lists. Like Who Moved My Cheese--the secular business book that dominated the New York Times nonfiction list for 56 weeks--the phenomenally popular Prayer of Jabez is a quick-read that hints at life-changing results for persons who follow its advice.

In its first year, Jabez has built a solid base of believers who delight in swapping stories about how the book has affected them. Currently, more than 4 million copies of the title are in print, making it the fastest-selling hardcover in the United States.

Multnomah Publishers introduced The Prayer of Jabez last year as part of its BreakThrough Series and claims that these are "little books" that motivate "big change." In the opening pages, author Bruce Wilkinson suggests that Jabez's prayer (found in I Chronicles 4:10) contains the key to a life blessed by God and is capable of producing miracles "on a regular basis." For the modest price of $9.99, what reader could resist the opportunity to learn more? At the very least, Wilkinson's tiny tome rescues Jabez from his previously overlooked twig on a family tree that meticulously traces one of the clans of Judah.

The book's success is well earned. Although skeptics might describe Jabez as "lite Christian," fans embrace it for its easy-to-grasp message that goes beyond a self-serving interpretation of "ask and you shall receive" theology. Praying for abundance isn't the same as creating a wish list of material toys. Instead, people who request more and greater blessings from God are asking God to work through them in more and greater ways. Wilkinson illustrates his points with anecdotes pulled from his experiences as a husband, father, seminary student, youth pastor, Bible teacher, speaker, and author. If his professional credentials earn him the respect of church leaders, his conversational writing style endears him to everyone else.

As popular as The Prayer of Jabez is, it may have powerful competition from another Christian book now making its way up the best-seller list. Wilkinson's second title in the BreakThrough Series, Secrets of the Vine, sold an impressive 730,000 copies within six weeks of its release.
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Title Annotation:Christian fiction on mainstream bestseller lists
Author:Miller, Holly
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Words:1765
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