In Atlanta, Georgia, it is outselling Bridget Jones Diary:, but all over the USA the Prayer of Jabez, has been the publishing sensation of the year

In Atlanta, Georgia, it is outselling Bridget Jones Diary:, but all over the USA the Prayer of Jabez, has been the publishing sensation of the year. It has sold four million copies, which is unusual for a work of biblical exposition, especially one that deals with Chronicles a stretch of the Old Testament as arid and hard to cross as the Gobi Desert. Of course there is a gimmick: what Jabez prayed for was more cows, more sheep and more land; and by updating his prayer, modern Americans believe they will get more money.

Itís worked for the author, Bruce Wilkinson, an Atlanta evangelist whose organisation "Walk Thru the Bible" has grown steadily for the last thirty years: he claims it is now represented in forty countries. There are five full-time workers in England, with another 25 part-timers or volunteers, but the book has not sold outside the evangelical ghetto here. Even the American publishers only expected the book to sell 30 or 40,000 copies. Two things seem to have led to its startling success. The first is that the book is being sold, and bought, as if it were any other piece of merchandise. It costs only $10.00 and is extremely small. According to the New York Times, people are buying hundreds of copies at a time to give away. One woman bought 500 for her wedding guests.

That means that it has broken out of the core evangelical constituency, and into the general market for "spirituality", along with the Little Book of Calm, and similar things. These are not really designed for reading, any more than a coffee mug is ó and you can buy coffee mugs printed with the prayer as well. Instead, they are a kind of good luck charm, to be sold like any other form of merchandise. Religion in American has been bound up with merchandising for at least a hundred years, and probably more. It is not just coincidence that the Religious Right in America pioneered many of the techniques of modern politics, including the use of huge databases containing lists of sympathisers to whom personalised letters can be written in their millions by computers. If you analyse the economic base of American evangelical religion, it is based around merchandising at least as much as it relies on collection buckets.

By the early 1990s, the Christian bookshop market in the US was worth more than $3bn a year and it seems to be still growing. Churches in this sense are the original brands. They start at the point which would represent final success for the marketing strategies of companies like Nike or Coca Cola: when you buy church merchandise. You are making a statement about yourself, and your values. You hope to change your life. The quality is irrelevant, and so, very largely, is the price. Religious merchandising was there long before Star Wars and Pokemon. All it lacked was credibility. In this country, it will probably never get that: the niche has been filled successfully by football clubs, whose promises of happiness and success for their followers look even less credible to unbelievers.

The middle classes have always looked down on religious vulgarity. Their óour ó idea of acceptible religious art has been either Shaker furniture or something Italian and unique. This is true in the US as much as in the UK. It is easy to miss the point that most of what we shudderingly regard as "typically American religion" is in fact a strictly lower class phenomenon. Now that Christianity in the UK is an overwhelmingly middle class and suburban phenomenon, it is very hard for the British to understand the role of popular religion: even a large and thriving evangelical church in London like HTB, the bookshop sells hardly anything in bad taste. To find the market in lucky charms and magical bible verses, you must go to the Pentecostal meetings conducted by figures like Morris Cerrullo or Reinhard Bonnke, with their promise of a stream of miracles.

Now, to believe in a miracle is a form of gambling, and the Protestant churches have always been very ambivalent in their teachings about gambling. Some, like the Methodists, have shunned it utterly. That is one policy, which will, with luck, lift you out of poverty: Do not drink, do not bet, do no cheat, and work hard. But it doesnít always work, even in the long term; and it has been counterbalanced by a belief in sudden miracles, and this gets stronger the more that people need them. Any cancer sufferer will discover either in themselves, or in someone who knows them, a sudden fierce faith in miraculous healing. It is true that some people are too poor to gamble: they canít afford to lose. But others are too desperate not to gamble. They canít afford not to win. They form an eternal market for the miracle workers.

The success of The Prayer of Jabez comes at a moment when there are more Americans to whom the promises of miracle working religion sound real and important than there have been since the recession of the early Nineties. The key words here are "miracle", "life change" and "breakthrough". They have a specifically evangelical meaning: if you go to Dr Wilkinsonís web site, you are told to "get ready for a life change" (if you have the right technology; otherwise your life remains the same until you have downloaded the Flash plug-in). The story of evangelical religion is crucially bound up with life-changing moments, and conversions. These are people who believe they have been born again, and will be raised in the twinkling of an eye when they have died. But there is also a secular meaning, of regrettable precision. "Life change", "breakthough" and even "miracle" are all terms that abound in get rich quick schemes, and we can expect to hear more of them as the recession bites and more and more Americans get deeper into debt.

My American email account gets five or six spam messages every day which use the language of breakthrough and deliverance ó but they are all offering to lend me money to consolidate my credit card debts. The total of American credit card debt is now more than half a trillion dollars. $563bn of debt at dreadful interest rates adds up to an awful lot of families needing a miracle to rescue them. This anxiety is only growing as the ripples from the dotcom collapse work through the economy. One satisfied user of the Jabez prayer, a video producer, told the New York Times that he had resisted the prayer at first because it seemed to materialistic. But then he had realised that he wasnít really being selfish. When he prayed for a larger house, he was also praying unselfishly, for something that would make his wife happy too. So that was all right; and when four of his co-workers were laid off, but he got a raise, he realised that the prayer must really be working.

The Jabez prayer represents on one level the return of the "prosperity gospel", a doctrine which has enriched many Pentecostal evangelists since the 1950s. Basically the doctrine says that God wants his people to be rich; and so it is pleases him to be asked for money, and he will show his pleasure by rewarding the Godly. It has never been very popular in this country, though one offshoot did arrive from South Africa. I once saw at a Morris Cerrullo show a side stall advertising a scheme where God would multiply your investment a thousandfold, if you only handed it over for Godly purposes. It is easy to laugh or shudder at such obvious con tricks ó and there is never any shortage of established religious figures to point out that there is something blasphemous about treating God as a gigantic slot machine, with prayer as the handle you can jerk to make Him disgorge a huge pile of money. But the prayer does raise interesting questions. Scientifically educated, modern Christians tend to be unhappy with prayers that ask for favours. They donít see how God can work that way; and some, like the former Bishop of Durham, think it would be immoral of Him to do so. Why should he favour bishops and let children starve in Africa? But that is one reason why faith fades out among the educated. If God does not intervene to help his chosen followers, whatís the point of him?

Itís crude to say that American religion is all about money: religion that isnít about important things like money simply etiolates away. The Jabez prayer will spread through America for as long as people can still hope. In this country, it is not even offered for sale on the Wlka Thru the Bible web site. Perhaps thatís because were not as gullible or as desperate as the Americans, but I donít think that can be true: Whatever the chances of the Jabez prayer working, they must be higher than your chance of winning the national lottery and millios of people bet on that each week.

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