Wildlife biologist Steve Benson is alone and unarmed on a moonlit mountainside. He is being hunted. A lizardlike beast the size of a whale lurks nearby. It eats people.
Something new from Michael Crichton?
Not quite. Here is what Dr. Benson does next: He prays. "Now, Lord, You've helped me so far," the frightened scientist begins.
The scene is from "The Oath," a novel by Frank E. Peretti, a former Pentecostal minister. It is part of a new, lucrative genre loosely called Christian thrillers, in which potboiling adventure blends with a distinctly conservative theology.
This literary trend is the latest example of the skill entrepreneurial believers have shown in taking secular ideas and giving them a spiritual twist for a religious marketplace. T-shirts with evangelical slogans, children's videos with cartoon Bible stories and many other products have found consumers who want their entertainment leavened with inspiration.
While the Christian thrillers may mention soul and spirit more often than, say, those by Dean Koontz, they tap deep into the current stream of American anxieties, telling stories of righteous individuals confronted by corrupt institutions like the government, the news media or law enforcement. Often, the books offer a conservative critique of abortion rights or Main Street clergy members who would shy away from denouncing personal sin; all feature major characters who publicly embrace a born-again faith in Jesus Christ.
Since August, two evangelical Protestant luminaries better known for their other works have published action novels: Charles Colson, the Watergate figure who now runs a prison ministry, and Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Mr. Colson's book, "Gideon's Torch," written with Ellen Vaughn, tells the story of a harsh federal crackdown on anti-abortion groups with a peaceful pastor caught up in the government's sweep and an attorney general having a crisis of faith.
Mr. Robertson, in "The End of the Age," writes of nothing less than events leading to the Second Coming of Christ. After a meteor strikes Los Angeles, a wealthy couple flees to the desert, joins a Bible study group and converts.
Mr. Colson's book has had a first printing of 175,000 copies and Mr. Robertson's 275,000 copies by Word Publishing, a subsidiary of Nashville-based Thomas Nelson Inc. But those numbers pale beside the 530,000 copies Word has printed since September of "The Oath."
"When you're writing Christian thrillers, you have to be very mindful of your readership," said Mr. Peretti, considered the dean of the genre. "I never put any swearing in my books."
Explicit sex is definitely out, too, and gory violence is kept to a minimum. But a character's spiritual transformation is essential. "Conversion is always in there," he said, "if only by implication."
"The Oath," in which a rational-thinking scientist is forced to do battle with sin in the form of a fire-breathing dragon, topped Publishers Weekly's best-seller list of religious books in September, ahead of Pope John Paul II's "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" (Knopf).
Neither the Christian Booksellers Association nor the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks the sales of religious fiction, let alone Christian thrillers. But the booksellers' group estimates annual sales of "Christian products," covering everything from books to choir robes, at $3 billion. Based on store surveys, the association estimates that books other than Bibles account for 28 percent of those sales.
Once the associate pastor of an Assemblies of God church in Vashon Island, Wash., Mr. Peretti gave birth to the genre with "This Present Darkness" (Crossway, 1986), still a big seller in religious bookstores. It tells the tale of a small-town newspaper editor, aided by a fundamentalist minister and an invisible troop of angels, who thwarts an occult conspiracy led by a female psychology professor and a legion of demons. The book's success "was a very significant turning point for Christian fiction," said Bill Anderson, president of the Christian Booksellers Association.
Until then, most fiction in religious bookstores tended toward frontier romances.