Platitudes Or Prophecy?

Sociologists tell us that the United States is experiencing a religious revival--a third "great awakening" echoing those of the 18th and 19th centuries. But if the best-seller lists are any guide, the revival looks more like a collective leaving of the senses. The hottest books among evangelical Christians, for example, is a religious sci-fi series, "Left Behind," in which fundamentalist evangelist Tim LaHaye and co-author Jerry Jenkins dramatize in pulpy prose what happens to the unconverted who fail to get "raptured" by Christ at the beginning of the endtimes. Then there is the Dalai Lama, whose serious books on Buddhist teachings failed to sell two decades ago. Today His Holiness has been repackaged as the new millennium's Norman Vincent Peale in a flood of popular commentaries--ghost-written--on how to achieve happiness and peace of mind. These market mainstays are now under challenge by a fresh crop of books that demonstrate how easily wispy spirituality passes these days as ancient wisdom--and how quickly their authors can become religious celebrities themselves. Some prime examples:

THE PRAYER OF JABEZ, by Bruce Wilkinson, has sold 5 million copies and sits oddly atop secular best-seller lists published by The New York Times and Publishers Weekly, along with a companion volume of Jabez "devotionals." The prayer is taken from the Biblical book 1 Chronicles, where it appears as a brief pause in a series of boring "begats": "Oh that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!" That's it, little more than an appeal for land, which--along with progeny--is what God promises the ancient Israelites. But Wilkinson, an Atlanta evangelist, has turned this prayer into a Christian mantra, claiming in his 94-page tract that if recited faithfully it will bring all sorts of blessings. "Territory," it turns out, can mean more than real estate. The prayer has found its way into Baptist church services, Bible study groups and House committee hearings on Capitol Hill. President George W. Bush, whose administration has designs on certain territories in Alaska for oil exploration, even invited Wilkinson to meet him on this year's National Day of Prayer.

A Better Choice: Any verse from the Book of Psalms, the prayers Jesus himself recited, which ask only for forgiveness and the grace to do God's will.

CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD, now a five-volume series, has kept author Neale Donald Walsch on one best-seller list or another since 1992. The series has sold 5 million copies, all in hardcover--not bad for a guy who claims that God talks to him like a buddy over breakfast. A former Roman Catholic married six times, Walsch has God's own word that there is no such thing as good and evil--it's all a matter of "group consciousness"--and so there is no hell. But there is a heaven, and even Adolf Hitler is among the blessed, God tells Walsch, because "Hitler didn't hurt anyone." This will come as news to Jews, but God insists that Hitler "didn't inflict suffering, he ended it," thereby ushering all his victims into heaven ahead of schedule. Like Wilkinson, Walsch maintains a Web site for readers eager for God's latest revelations and even offers spiritual retreats for those who want to learn how to schmooze with God themselves.

A Better Choice: "Reading the Gospels," by John S. Dunne, a Catholic theologian who really does understand what it means to listen and discern the voice of God.

BUDDHA, by Karen Armstrong, hit The New York Times best-seller list immediately on publication last April and remained on the Publishers Weekly list through July. As a volume in the often first-rate Penguin series of short biographies of original geniuses like St. Augustine, Armstrong's book is aimed at the serious general reader, and not the naive believers Wilkinson and Walsch have captured. A former nun who now calls herself a "freelance monotheist," Armstrong is known best for her "History of God" and other books that popularize the work of serious scholars. Her retelling of the Buddha's life and teachings proves that in religious books a "name" author can produce a serious-looking book even though she can't read the languages the Buddhist Scriptures are written in and hasn't mastered the latest scholarship.

Since the Buddha left no writings, all a biographer has to work with is legends of his life written five centuries after his death. Lacking a historical context in which to place her subject, Armstrong invents a misleading one. The Buddha, she argues, is a typical representative of a millennium-long "axial age" that also saw the rise of Confucius in China, Plato in Greece and the Hebrew prophets in Israel. Armstrong thereby confuses and conflates all these giant figures by treating them more or less the same. Her Buddha turns out to be a sensitive, caring if obsessive searcher for individual transcendence--rather like the Jesus and Muhammad who emerge from Armstrong's previous best sellers. In short, through Armstrong the axial age meets the New Age, where all religion is at bottom basically the same search for spiritual autonomy.

A Better Choice: "The Story of Buddhism," by Donald Lopez Jr., the best introduction to the Buddha for general readers, told with erudition and humor by a real scholar.

What makes these bad best sellers noteworthy is what they tell us about the spiritual marketplace. Millions of seekers are looking for religious nourishment, but they can't tell authentic loaves of bread from the congealed mush put out by self-serving hustlers. It's a seller's market.