Beliefwatch: Good Word

Jesus has always been able to move product, especially books. On average, every 1.6 seconds a new English-language Bible is purchased. Joel Osteen's "Good News" philosophy just earned him a multimillion-dollar book contract. And Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life" (message: serve Jesus) has sold almost six times as many books as "The South Beach Diet" (message: serve high-fiber foods).

What's curious is how many of the Jesus books reject or revise Bible teachings and pose radically different versions of Jesus' story. Books on the extended New York Times best-seller list posit that: Jesus survived his crucifixion ("The Jesus Papers"); Judas' betrayal was a collaboration with Jesus ("Gospel of Judas," "The Lost Gospel"); John the Baptist was a twin Messiah ("The Jesus Dynasty"), and Jesus' words have been grossly misinterpreted ("Misquoting Jesus"). This doesn't include the Holy Mother of all Jesus Revisionism books, "The Da Vinci Code," which (spoiler alert!) says Jesus married Mary Magdalene and sired a baby. Alternative visions of Jesus are not new. The earliest Christian movements were riven with competing understandings of what Jesus meant, and the generally accepted Gospel story has always contended with rival interpretations. In antiquity, the authors were burned as heretics; now they get hefty book deals. These books are rising with a general boom in religious-book sales. "The fallout from 9/11, the political power of the religious right, and broader retail availability of these books have combined to produce a 'perfect storm' for religion books," says Lynn Garrett, religion editor of Publishers Weekly. "That's especially true right now for books about Jesus, reflecting a continuing fascination with figuring out who he really was."

But a poll suggests another possible explanation for why readers are fascinated by alternative Christian histories: they suspect that Christianity as currently practiced is not exactly what Jesus intended. Asked whether Jesus would be happy with modern Christianity, only 15 percent in the Beliefnet poll said yes. Of course, respondents differed over why Jesus would be disappointed: 19 percent said he'd think the modern church too liberal; 24 percent said he'd think it too conservative. Seven percent said we're neglecting the poor; 11 percent that we're focused too much on worldly matters, and 23 percent that Jesus didn't intend to start a new religion at all. Either way, believers agree that something went awry—and that he wouldn't be happy about it.

Beliefwatch: Good Word | News