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Fast-paced Christian fiction rapidly gaining popularitycomment (0)

January 2, 2003

After breaking a world cave-diving record of 1,300 feet in dangerous waters, Mike Bryant starts up for fresh air.
When the tough-guy hero of “Yucatan Deep,” a new Christian suspense novel, reaches the 400-foot mark, he stops for a few minutes to decompress.
In secular thrillers, protagonists at this anti-climactic point might start daydreaming of cold beer and female embraces.

But in Tom Morrisey’s book — a good example of an increasingly popular brand of Bible-based fiction — the real conclusion is yet to come. Having just been miraculously spared from death in the murky depths below, the cave-diving agnostic has an important faith decision to make.
And that decision is in many ways what this emerging genre of fast-paced Christian fiction is all about.
“I’m trying to talk to people about the Christian experience in a way that is culturally understandable to them,” said Morrisey, 50, who lives south of Jackson, Mich., with his wife and daughter.
His next novel is set on the NASCAR circuit. “I’m hoping to reach people who like the outdoors and go-faster sports, who tend ... to be spiritual people, but are not Christian.”
Offering no-sex, cuss-free plots and a minimum of graphic violence, new Christian thrillers such as “Yucatan Deep” are starting to find a market among readers — men and women alike.
Filled with thrills and spills, exotic locales and characters who like pushing the limits, these books are packing the racks of Christian bookstores and in many cases driving up sales in spectacular ways.
They feature a variety of charaters, from Navy Seals, FBI counterterrorism experts, to ministers, doctors and, of course, cave divers. They use straight talk, intermingle it with romance and intrigue, and tie it together with a message of love that exceeds all reason.
“Christian fiction in the past was largely the fluffy, inspirational romance,” said Karen Van Valkenburg, publicist at Baker Books in Grand Rapids. “People have been starving for a little more action, but they want it without the gore and with a Christian message.”
Novels such as Baker’s “Riptide” by Lorena McCourtney and the new best-seller “Mission Compromised,” a military suspense novel written by Oliver North, the Marine officer who figured prominently in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. North’s book features a U.S. Marine whose job is to track down and kill terrorists in the Middle East.
The “Left Behind” series publishing phenomenon by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins has played a big role in fueling the growth in Christian suspense fiction.
With overall sales of more than 34 million copies, the series plays off people’s interest in and in some cases fear of the world coming to an end. Inspired by biblical visions of the end times, these novels have topped best-seller lists in both the Christian and secular markets.
Although pleased that the Christian suspense genre is growing, Jenkins says the quality of the work being published needs to be improved.
“Too many Christian publishing houses publish fiction because it’s fiction, and fiction is supposed to be hot now,” he said. “That can create a glut where the market is very wide but very shallow.”
While it is still mostly sold to a Christian audience, Christian suspense fiction is starting to carve out a successful niche.
“Christian suspense fiction is ... the fastest growing area of Christian fiction in the past year,” said Tim Way, senior buyer for Grand Rapids-based Family Christian Stores.
In only a few years, it has gone from a nonexistent form to one of the chain’s top-selling fiction-category products. Way said the reason for the growth is that “there are a number of new, outstanding authors that are writing in this area right now.”
One of the top sellers, he said, is Dee Henderson, who writes for Multnomah Publishers of Sisters, Ore. Henderson has four novels on the Christian Booksellers Association’s best-seller list.
“Christian suspense fiction is growing, because when you add characters that have a faith dimension to an otherwise mainstream suspense story, you get something extraordinary,”  Henderson said.
Many contemporary issues like abortion, cloning and the clash between Christianity and Islam, are being addressed by these books.
Although the majority of Christian fiction readers are women, Myers and others are increasingly presenting main characters who are rugged, tough-minded men of faith.
Reaching out to male readers is a focus at Tyndale House, which just came out with “Shaiton’s Fire,” a book by Jake Thoene about an FBI agent combating terrorism.
Dave Lambert, an editor at the Grand Rapids-based publisher Zondervan, says Christian thrillers uphold and affirm the Christian faith in writing  reminiscent of such powerhouse authors as John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler.
“We want a character’s faith to matter. We want it to be a factor in how they act and make decisions,” he said. (RNS)
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