Two from Galilee was Marjorie Holmes' first novel. In 1974, it was a best-selling novel, the one and only time Holmes had a novel on the best sellers list. Its genre of Christian fiction made it less popular than most best selling novels, but the presence of a Christian fiction novel on the best sellers list helped introduce the genre to the mass media. Holmes created a sequel to Two from Galilee called Three from Galilee and the novel also generated a musical performed at Baptist Theological Seminary.
Many factors contributed to the placement of Holmes' novel on the best sellers list. Religious writings were gaining more and more readers during the 1970's- the same year Holmes' novel was published. Many Christian authors and booksellers were using Christian literature at this time as a means for creating an evangelical subculture and for reaching out to the non-Christians or the "unsaved." Holmes' novel serves as a ministry tool because it appeals to Christians and non-Christians alike by describing the deity of God as someone who can meet all individuals' needs and desires.
During the decade of the 1970's, religious and inspirational writings rose in popularity. In 1973 Holmes' novel Two from Galilee numbered eighth on Publishers Weekly Best Seller list. For that same year, "The Living Bible" by Kenneth Taylor was the top-selling nonfiction book. This translation paraphrased the Bible in Modern English, making the Scriptures accessible to larger numbers. Second in nonfiction for 1972 was Thomas Harris' "how-to" book, "I'm O.K., You're O.K." According to Publishers Weekly, "Stores found response [to this book] from discussion groups and church group who had heard the author speak" ("Best Sellers: The Year of the Bird and the Bible", 42). It was also during this year that Bantam reported "excellent sales of small-caliber inspirational book" like Holmes' "I've Got to Talk to Somebody God" and Dale Evans Rogers' "The Woman at the Well" (42).
A rise in religious and inspirational readers is also evident through the increase of Christian booksellers during the 70's decade. In the beginning, Christian bookstores were small and family-operated, with a main mission of sharing the Gospel of Christ through literature rather than making a profit. During the 1970's however, Christian bookstores rose in numbers and "quickly became an integral part of the evangelical subculture" (Blodgett, 52). The Christian Booksellers Association (CBA), founded in 1949, saw an attendance of 2,000 booksellers to their annual conference in 1970, and then 5,000 booksellers in 1976. In 1981, 7,300 booksellers attended (52).
Whether individuals were entering the business to share the Gospel or make money is debatable. An earlier article in Publishers Weekly tells the story of a minister who decided to open a small Christian bookstore:
[The minister] told...of his small beginning in business, with $3000 worth of inventory two years ago, and of his turning it into sales of $47,000 the first year and $94,000 the second. His success eventually meant his moving his shop to larger quarters where he has 2200-sq. ft. of selling space and full basement with a conversation area. As many as 300-400 students from the nearby university have converged on his store at one time and purchased $435 in a single day ("Christian Booksellers Forge Ahead In Research and Sales", 44).
Religious novels reached a broad audience before Holmes' time (Blodgett, 55). James D. Hart, in his article "Platitudes of Piety: Religion on the Popular Modern Novel", indicates that religion brought respectability to novels during the late nineteenth century. As he writes, "Critics condemned fiction as untruthful and time-wasting, therefore immoral, until nineteenth-century authors began to fill their novels with piety and preachment" (Hart, 311). Not only was religion respectable, it was also popular, especially in the early 1900's. Alice Payne Hackett's study, 80 Years of Best Sellers, 1895-1975, lists over twenty-four religious novels that sold more than a half-million copies between 1895 and 1975 (Blodgett, 55). One such bestseller was The Man Nobody Knows by Bruce Barton. It topped the best-seller list in 1926. Its content argued the applicability of Jesus Christ's teachings in a modern world. As Hart describes:
Finally, Jesus gets the supreme accolade of a "Yes" in reply to Barton's questions: "And if he [Jesus Christ] were among us again, in our highly competitive world, would his business philosophy work?" The teachings of Christ would "work" because "He would be a national advertiser today, I am sure, as he was the greatest advertiser of his own day" (316).
The religious literature during the first half of the twentieth century stuck rigidly to high moral Christian standards. Blodgett describes the literature as "popular restatements of the life of Christ, revisions of Biblical episodes, or retellings of encounters with sin and tribulation...combined [with] muscular Christianity and social gospel impulses" (55).
During the late 1960's Marjorie Holmes, along with other authors such as Catherine Marshall (author of the inspirational true story Christy), expanded the religious novel to cover more "worldly", "simple" and "vague" issues (Blodgett, 56). This loosening of moral standards within Christian literature outraged some booksellers who were dedicated to maintaining pure, Scripture-based, edifying writings within their stores. One bookseller, after telling Fleming H. Revell Company that "You people will stoop to anything to stretch out what Christian publishing is all about", no longer carried Revell books (Blodgett, 52). Some of the evangelical leadership expressed concerns as well, that Christian values were being compromised. While stated in 1990, the following quotation represents opinions held by some in the early 1970's:
As it stands, the Christian literary establishment is oriented to a mass market. This popularizing tendency is part of its strength- rescuing theology from the elite domain of academic specialists and restoring it to laypeople has been a great service to the church. The hazard of appealing only to a mass popular audience is that the market place tends to be ruled by pleasure and self-gratification rather than truth and objective value. The mass market wishes only to be entertained, stimulated, and affirmed, values which can run counter to authentic Christianity (Blodgett, 69-70).
Holmes' Two from Galilee, and novels just like hers, received similar criticism. One of the first authors to write a novel based on a biblical narrative, (she chose the love relationship of Mary and Joseph up to the birth of Jesus), Holmes started a trend. Within a decade, narratives about the Biblical Joseph, Deborah, David, Ruth, Esther, Gomer and Hosea, Solomon and Sheba, and Mary and Martha existed. Author and critic, Harold Pickett, wrote, "A writer who is a conservative Protestant, an evangelical or fundamentalist, will probably understand that Scriptures as a record of God's interventions in the lives of historical figures, and that any deviation from, or highly speculative interpretation of the take constitutes blasphemy" (64). Pickett also criticized the jacket flap of Two from Galilee, which describes the book as "true to the Biblical account". He claimed that "for conservative Protestants [it] substitutes for an imprimatur" (64). Pickett did not condemn all Christian fiction. He applauds Par Lagerkvists' Barabbas by saying "we experience what it must be like to be a witness of Christ's life, to be in the position of a disciple who has to judge, without the help of theologians, how to answer Christ's questions: 'Who do you say I am?'" (66).
Both the criticisms, such as the one above, and the narratives themselves, depict a certain sub-culture present in American society during the 1970's and 1980's. As Jan Blodgett says:
In the case of evangelical fiction, it reflects particular concerns and expectations of a specific community operating within and yet separate from the broader...Fiction acts as an "instrument" of cultural self-definition", providing examples of appropriate behavior and identifying the cultural boundaries separating social groups (66).
Christian fiction served as the evangelical subculture's response to secular fiction. It created an alternative. In his article "What's Wrong with Reading Modern Literature", Dr. Deane Downey describes the thoughts of this particular subculture towards secular writings: "Whether one is a Christian parent, student, teacher, lay person, or pastor, the nagging suspicion remains that the reading of most modern literature violates Paul's command to the Philippians: 'If anything is excellent or praise-worthy- think about such things' (Phil. 4:8, NIV)" (Downey, 61) Christian fiction as a response to secular literature created a broader contrast between the evangelical subculture and the rest of American society. According to Blodgett:
Evangelical products serve as visible symbols of the separateness and social strength of the subculture. Fiction provides the community with a vision of the world as it should be- as they would have it be... it marks readers as a group apart. Reading evangelical fiction reinforces the sense of separateness and of specialness. This is a community speaking with its own voice against the values and standards of contemporary secular culture (57).
While Christian fiction does bolster the boundaries of the evangelical subculture, it also attempts to reach out to those outside of the subculture. At the 21st Annual Convention of the Christian Booksellers Association in 1970, one bookseller indicated that, "For the Christian bookseller to assume that his customers are not evangelical Christians now, but that they do like to read good books, it to use a positive approach to religious book-selling" ("Christian Booksellers Forge Ahead In Research and Sales", Publisher's Weekly, 43). Another Christian book seller commented at a different time, "First of all, what we do as Christian booksellers that transcends everything else in our work responsibilities is help make available hundreds of thousands of books that declare the value and experience of knowing Jesus Christ" (Blodgett, 52). Bookstore Journal contained an article in July 1984 titled "Happily Ever After: A Case for the Inspirational Romance Genre", which was written by a woman who became a Christian after she read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. The woman wrote, "Believe me, [Christian] fiction is worth reading. One life changed was enough to convince me." (Blodgett, 52-53).
In order to appeal to both Christians and non-Christians, Christian novels must speak to the basic needs and desires that all humans carry. Answers to life's questions and struggles are embellished in Christian fiction, which allows the literature to serve as a ministry tool. Hart writes:
[Religious novels carry] the lowest common denominator, a concern with the life of the spirit, which has as theme, the impact of God or divine revelation upon human character. These religious works appeal to the prevailing needs, desires, and interests that the widest reading public also holds during the non-reading hours...If faith attracts some of the readers, frustration and general world-weariness drive others to the book" (320-321).
In Two from Galilee, Marjorie Holmes appeals to the frustrated and weary through her depiction of a loving and compassionate God. Holmes' describes Mary's union with the Lord God: "The finger of God had touched her, the presence of God had consumed her and kindled life within her. As surely as if Joseph had taken her unto himself" (91). Holmes speaks to longing readers through her message that a relationship with God can meet their desire to be known.
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Downey, Dr. Dean. "What's Wrong with Reading Modern Literature?" Christianity
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Hein, Rolland N. "A Biblical View of the Novel." Christianity Today. 17 (5 January
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Holt, Patricia. "Substantive Books Get Center Stage at Well-Attended Annual Meeting."
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