For everyone who has ever longed to hear the voice of God, the book market has a growing reply: you can. And you need not confine yourself to classical Scriptures either.
According to scholars and industry observers, the reading public has greater access than ever before to books claiming or seeming to be divine revelation, that is, God's own words.
Some in recent years have sparked sensations. "Conversations with God" by Neal Walsch (Putnam, 1999) and "The Celestine Prophecy" by James Redfield (Warner Books, 1997) reached the best-seller lists, begot sequels and spawned followings who saw the authors as prophets.
Others are less well known, such as "Salam: Divine Revelations from the Actual God" by Shyam D. Buxani (SAU Salam Foundation, 2003).
Despite small odds for success, growing opportunities for self-publishing have enabled the genre of new revelation to balloon with contenders to be the next big seller – or the text that births a new religion.
"Ongoing revelation is something that people have always claimed," said Rebecca Moore, associate professor of religion at San Diego State University and co-editor of Nova Religio, a journal of new religions. She notes, for instance, Anne Hutchinson whose claims to hear God's voice directly in her ear but not through Scripture led to her persecution in Puritan New England.
"Publication of the revelations," Moore said, "is what seems to be new." Publishers have traditionally brought a skeptical eye to manuscripts claiming to be divine revelation, according to Lynn Garrett, religion editor at Publisher's Weekly. That's because, she says, most are poorly written and have little new content of value to offer.
Nevertheless, the number of published authors who claim to be speaking for God continues to grow.
"I seem to get more self-published submissions than ever before," Garrett said. Though numbers in this "new revelation" genre are not officially tracked, she said, "there are always a few" that would fall into the category.
Authors of would-be scripture range in approach from new age to ultra-conservative, but they generally share at least one trait: thick skin. "Salam," for instance, required 20 years of work and more than $100,000 from the author's own pocket to become a published text. Mainstream and religious bookstores alike have in the end refused to put it on their shelves. One distributor, saying "Salam deserved a bit more comment" than a standard rejection letter, wrote Buxani: "This title is an exercise in old-time, hardshell, pig-ignorant, radical neo-Gnostic Dualism which I had thought the Consciousness of Humankind had moved 'way, 'way beyond."
Yet those who put what they say are God's words into print seem to feel a calling that keeps them focused on the message and gives them hope for a new faith to be built on their texts. Buxani aims to debunk the many religions that he says "worship the messenger" – from Jesus to Mohammed – and replace them with an Indian approach that echoes the Bengali Renaissance of the 19th century insofar as it promises a direct, logical link to the Creator.
"People are so conditioned, it may take a little time for them to accept the reality," Buxani said in a telephone interview with RNS. "I'm just presenting the truth and the reality to those who might be interested in it."
The spread of new revelations seems to know no borders. From Australia, for instance, an author known as "The Little Pebble" claims to provide direct messages from the Virgin Mary. Through his nine booklets, he has attracted enough followers in the Southern Hemisphere to inspire a five-year investigation and a bishop's mandate to disavow affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church.
America, however, is uniquely disposed at this point in time to welcome new revelations and possibly use them as foundational texts for successful new religions, according to religion scholars. One major reason: Americans no longer depend on established religious authorities for spiritual guidance.
"Religion has become deregulated," said John Berthrong, dean of the School of Theology at Boston University and author of "The Divine Deli: Religious Identity in the North American Cultural Mosaic" (Orbis, 2000). "That means many people who would have lurked in the shadows of the occult are now out in the open. There's just much more freedom to express yourself without fear."
Such free expression in Buxani's case came as a "breath of fresh air" to Kanhai Keswani, a 55-year-old exporter with homes in London and Bombay. The publication of "Salam" has further enforced his confidence the new religion will catch fire.
"It was clear to me on reading it that so much of what people are doing (religiously) around the world is superstition, mumbo jumbo," Keswani said via telephone from London. "With this (Salam), there is no restriction for me at all.... If you don't want to fast, you don't have to. But I look forward to my fasts twice a week. I feel lighter, less stressed, happier. That's what we're all looking for."
In this deregulated religious climate, readers have shown a fascination with ancient writings that might have become scripture had authorities not rejected them from a religious canon. The Gospel of Thomas, for instance, has remained in print for more than a decade, generating a spate of recent discussion and analysis, including Elaine Pagels' best seller, "Beyond Belief" (Random House).
To base a new religion on a newly written, sacred text is more the exception than the rule in the eye of history. The Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, for instance, gives accounts of religious experience that preceded the establishment of any sacred writings. Yet there are examples of prophets recording revelation first and then going on to found a great movement upon the text's code for life. Mohammed founded Islam in this manner in the 7th century. Joseph Smith began Mormonism by the same method in the 19th.
Scholars declined to speculate on which writings or types of writings could be candidates to give birth to a new religion with staying power. But they also declined to discount any contenders as hopeless.
"Some of them really do become large mass movements," Berthrong said. Especially if the future brings disaster or a great deal of uncertainty, he said, "I would not be at all surprised to see that."
© 2003 Religion News Service