Big-name evangelical leaders have joined the ranks of celebrity novelists, drawing both unprecedented sales and secular attention to a still-developing category of publishing known as "Christian fiction."

Recently released apocalyptic novels by Pat Robertson ("The End of the Age") and Tim LaHaye ("Left Behind"), and pro-life, first-time fiction by Charles Colson ("Gideon's Torch"), are selling well in Christian bookstores, publishers and retailers say. The books complement the excitement that already gripped the genre because of the September release of Frank Peretti's new novel, "The Oath."

"Christian fiction is where the excitement really is right now," says Phyllis Tickle of Publisher's Weekly.

According to NPD Group, sales of religious fiction books more than doubled between 1991 and 1994, to 22.4 million from 11 million. In the same span, religious fiction increased to 2.2 percent from 1.4 percent of all book sales.

The genre was largely carved out beginning a decade ago with tales of Western romance by such writers as Janette Oke.

Peretti created a diversification into Christian thrillers in the 1980s with "This Present Darkness" and its sequel, "Piercing the Darkness," about small-town skullduggery raging against the backdrop of spiritual warfare. Those two books and "The Oath" have sold a combined 6.4 million. Financial adviser Larry Burkett began the parade of end-times plots with 1991's "The Illuminati."

The appeal to believers is obvious: No sexual situations, but lots of romance; no four-letter words, but lots of references to scriptural truths; and the good guys nearly always triumph. ...

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