The most popular novel of the past few years had nothing to do with violence or sex; it was a religious parable about a celibate bird. And the best-selling nonfiction book had nothing to do with he latest recipe or the newest diet; it was (and is) a recent version of the oldest book of all: the Bible. Jonathan Livingston Seagull and The Living Bible — someone said you could fly a kite to the moon with the miles of thread that bind together the pages of the 25 million copies of those books now in print.
At the same time, a major new study by Daniel Yankelovich shows that only 28 per cent of American college youth consider religion important, compared with 38 per cent in 1969; and that among working youth, the number considering religion an important value dropped from 64 to 42 per cent. Nor is it a secret that church attendance among all age groups has been dropping for a decade and that membership plummets each month. We could easily use these and other statistics to argue that religion is losing its impact on American society.
Meanwhile, 50,900 adults make the pilgrimage to Notre Dame for a Pentecostal rally, a teen-age guru turns on young people from coast to coast, and demand rises for books that run the gamut from thin prayer guides to thick encyclopedias of theology. Last year’s 12 campus best sellers included seven that treated religious themes, ranging from the inner journeys of Carlos Castaneda to the far-out fantasies of Erich von Däniken.
Hence the question: Are Americans really losing interest in religion, or are they looking for it in different ways? If there is truth to the saying “We are what we read,” a look at the numbers and kinds of religious books that Americans are reading may prove more revealing than a poll on church membership. The fact is: while church membership is dropping, the demand for books that appeal to religious needs is soaring.
“Religious interest is growing in this country,” affirms Word Books publisher Jarrell McCracken, “but probably away from the established church and denominations. We may find a smaller percentage of total commitment to church membership or identification, but a greater intensity of interest among those involved. If there is a trend, it is toward books which help people in the gut-level experiences of life, but which do have some content and help people feel they are growing.”
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