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Popular `Dummies' guides provide religion basics



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Why would publishers risk offending deeply pious or intellectually prickly Americans with book titles such as "The Koran for Dummies" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jesus?"

It's the economy, stupid.

Religion books are big business, and time has shown there's a market for mildly irreverent, user-friendly guides to the major faiths, sacred texts, crucial figures such as Jesus and the Buddha, and related topics such as fasting, prayer and meditation.

Most readers don't seem to mind that a Dummies book on a holy book comes in the same format as those for operating Windows XP, building a deck or improving one's sexual technique.

John Trigilio hears about once a month from older Catholics upset that he and fellow priest Kenneth Brighenti wrote "Catholicism for Dummies." Far more often, he hears back positively from readers in and outside the faith.

And there are a lot of them.

"Last word we got was that over 100,000 copies have been sold," Father Trigilio said of the book, which has been out just two years.

Some religion titles don't sell nearly as well, and there have been controversies, including one over the different perspectives offered by "Catholicism for Dummies" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Catholicism." (More about that later.)

But representatives for Alpha, the division of Penguin Group that publishes the Idiot's books, and Wiley Publishing, publisher of the Dummies series, say religion has become a mainstay of their product lines.

"It's quite a successful category for us. I wouldn't say it's the most successful, but it's right up there," said Randy Ladenheim-Gil, senior acquisitions editor for the Idiot's series.

Joyce Pepple, her counterpart over at Dummies, said it's not surprising that religion titles do well.

"A lot of religion is complicated. There's history and traditions that need to be explained. And we are very good at providing objective information."

The first book in either series was "DOS for Dummies," a computer guide published in 1991. Two years later, the Idiot's series debuted, focused as well on de-mystifying computer use.

Both series branded themselves by their arresting names, cover designs and colors (Dummies, yellow and black; Idiot's, orange and white). Both used humor in chapter titles and the text. Both also quickly expanded to a range of subjects, such as personal finance, cooking, home repair.

These days, the books are a worldwide sensation. More than 450 Idiot's titles are in print, representing about 32 million copies. There are twice as many Dummies titles, with 150 million copies in English alone. Dummies books have been translated into 39 languages, including French - where they're known as pour les nulsor "for the zeroes."

The first religion title came in 1997 - "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the World Religions." The Idiot's series has been more aggressive in this area, with 32 "religion and spirituality" titles currently offered.

The Dummies folks entered the arena with "Religion for Dummies" in 2002. They now have 15 religion and spirituality titles, including "C.S. Lewis & Narnia for Dummies," timed to the Dec. 9 release of the Disney movie, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

Who's writing and reading all these books?

Often the authors are clergy. An interfaith team, Rabbi Marc Gellman of Melville, N.Y., and Monsignor Thomas Hartman of Long Island, N.Y., wrote "Religion for Dummies."

Professors also have been enlisted. Jeffrey Geoghegan, who teaches biblical theology at Boston College, and Michael Homan, who teaches biblical studies at Xavier University of Louisiana, collaborated on "The Bible for Dummies."

Sometimes, though, workaday professional writers get the call.

"I'm not a scholar or theologian. I didn't even go to Bible college," acknowledged Tracy Macon Sumner. But he said his research skills as a former newspaperman, and his long study of the Bible and church history as an evangelical Christian, qualified him to be co-writer of the Idiot's books on Jesus and on the Reformation and Protestantism.

Manuscripts get an in-house "technical review" before publication, aimed at catching errors. But readers take on faith that the Dummies and Idiot's books are grounded in good scholarship.

"They don't want you to have footnotes, endnotes or citations. They don't even want you to quote from other scholars," said Jana Riess, co-author of "Mormonism for Dummies."

Riess described her Dummies experience as satisfying, but not financially rewarding, given the hours she put in. Advance payments to authors tend to be modest. Of those authors willing to share specifics for this story, the range was from $8,000 to $25,000. The hope is for slow, steady royalty payments, since the books tend to stay in print.

As for readership, it tends to spike around major events, said Pepple of the Dummies series. For example, books on Islam sold briskly in the early phase of the Iraq War.

There are also plenty of readers like Bernie Chandler of Arlington, Texas, who has a wide-ranging curiosity and a general liking for the Dummies and Idiot's guides.

"They're well organized, and they give you a place to start," he said.

He bought the books first for help with computers, then with such topics as carpentry, gardening and cat care. Though not a Hindu, he is interested in Hinduism, so he read the Idiot's guide on that faith.

Linda Johnsen, author of that book, said her main audience consists of Hindus who feel a need to reconnect.

"Hindus in the U.S. are to some extent cut off from their teachers in India," she said by e-mail. "Their children may know next to nothing about Hinduism or be misled by the dismissive attitude toward their tradition that they experience here."

Of late, Dummies and Idiot's books have tapped into the college market. At Anderson College, in Anderson, S.C., Professor Brett Patterson has religion students read "Catholicism for Dummies" and the Idiot's guides to the Bible and the Reformation and Protestantism. He describes the books as clear, concise and cheaper (around $20) than most textbooks.

Laura E. Shulman teaches religion at Northern Virginia Community College, and lets students choose between a traditional textbook and "Religion for Dummies."

"The Dummies text tends to win out by a landslide," she said.

While formatted just like other books in the series, the Dummies and Idiot's religion titles present certain challenges to the publishers and authors. For example, Riess found she had to drop the humor in describing persecution of Mormons.

"That's just not very funny," she said. "People were being tarred and feathered, and shot in front of their children."

With religion, not everyone agrees on what the facts are or how they should be interpreted. William Grimbol, a Presbyterian pastor on Long Island, N.Y., said he understood that when he agreed to write "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Life of Christ."

Grimbol, who managed the coup of a foreword from his friend Bishop Desmond Tutu, took a mainline-to-liberal approach.

"My perspective on Christ is not as salvation-oriented as it is about building the kingdom of God on this earth," he said. "I wanted to present the idea that Jesus has a great deal to say to people, no matter where their faith is. And what Christ has to say is social, it's political, it's economic, it's spiritual."

Grimbol also considered whether Jesus' miracles should be taken as literal events or myths. His book sold fairly well - about 37,000 copies, he said - but drew criticism from readers and did not get a second edition.

Instead, Alpha editors hired two evangelical Christian writers, Sumner and James Stuart Bell, to write "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jesus." The book covers the same subject, but with an emphasis on biography, not theology. It raises no questions about the miracles.

Ladenheim-Gil, of Alpha, said Grimbol's book wasn't dropped because of complaints, though she said the company is eager to reach the evangelical readership.

"A change is often made because we perceive there's an audience for something else," she said. "That happens in every subject."

The Dummies and Idiot's books on Catholicism have provided perhaps the most public controversy for the two series.

The Idiot's book was written by Bob O'Gorman, a professor of pastoral studies at Loyola University Chicago, and Mary Faulkner, a therapist and freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn. It came out in 2000 and has sold about 200,000 copies, making it one of the series' best sellers.

O'Gorman said his and Faulkner's book explains their faith's fundamentals but also stresses the struggle many rank-and-file Catholics have with church positions on controversial issues, including abortion.

"Our big emphasis, emphasized at Vatican II, was that conscience has to be the Catholic's guide," he said.

But Trigilio said he and Brighenti wrote "Catholicism for Dummies" partly to counter the Idiot's book.

"We were not happy with the slant that was given there," Trigilio said. "We wanted ours to be conforming to the official teaching of the church."

O'Gorman, in turn, describes "Catholicism for Dummies" as the "party line" book. Father Trigilio, of Marysville, Pa., has been a leader of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, a group pledging strict adherence to Vatican directives. He's co-host of "Web of Faith," a program on the Eternal Word Television Network, a Catholic venture.

Reaction to the dueling Dummies and Idiot's volumes on Catholicism has played out big on Amazon.com, with O'Gorman posting a defense of his and Ms. Faulkner's work. But though the controversy has caused him grief, O'Gorman is delighted to be an Idiot's author.

"I never had this broad an audience," he said.

Trigilio is just as pleased to be a Dummies author. He's at work with two others on a Dummies book about Pope John Paul II, to be released near the first anniversary of his death, April 2, 2006.

For anyone who has lingering concerns about pairing "dummies" and "idiots" with sacred subjects, the priest says: Get over it. He notes that in First Corinthians, St. Paul favorably uses the term "fools for Christ."

"The actual word in the Greek, if you translate it literally, means `morons,'" Trigilio said. "Nobody gets bent out of shape that St. Paul is calling them a moron."

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(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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