The gospel according to Grisham

Something mysterious happened in the wilds of Brazil when the morally bankrupt lawyer Nate O'Reilly finally found missionary Rachel Lane, the illegitimate heir of a one of America's richest men.

She didn't want $11 billion. Instead, she wanted him to repent, be healed of his alcoholism and claim an outrageous gift -- new life. The lawyer confessed his sins and then prayed his way through a case of jungle fever. But weeks later, he sat shaking in a pew, wracked by doubt. He wept and listed his many sins, one more time.

The story continues: "Nate closed his eyes ... and called God's name. God was waiting. ... In one glorious acknowledgment of failure, he laid himself bare before God. He held nothing back. He unloaded enough baggage to crush any three men. ... 'I'm sorry,' he whispered to God. 'Please help me.' As quickly as the fever had left his body, he felt the baggage leave his soul. With one gentle brush of the hand, his slate had been wiped clean."

For decades, Christian writers have called this kind of plot twist the "Billy Graham scene," referring to the moments in Graham's old movies where the music swells and the protagonist gets born again. One reason "Christian" fiction is supposed to be so bad -- and noncommercial -- is that the genre's unwritten rules require zap-the-sinners conversion scenes.

These folks need a new excuse. The scene described above is from "The Testament," the 10th bestseller by John Grisham, that Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher with all the super-sized sales statistics. His new legal thriller, "The Brethren," can be found anywhere on the planet -- except in "Christian bookstores."

So far, three of his 11 novels include conversions of this sort, said Grisham, during a recent "Art & Soul" conference at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. The novelist rarely speaks publicly -- his family lives quietly on farms near Charlottesville, Va., and Oxford, Miss. -- and he knew his appearance in such a high-profile Southern Baptist venue would take him into the tense turf between the Bible and the New York Times bestseller list.

"I am a Christian who writes novels. I'm not a Christian writer," he explained. "I'm not writing Christian literature. When I was a lawyer, I was a Christian who was a lawyer and tried to live my faith -- not just in my profession, but in every thing that I would do. I think God is involved in (my writing), as with all the other aspects of my life."

When asked the source of his writing skills, Grisham noted that he studied accounting in college -- drawing a roar of laughter. In law school, he emphasized tax law. He has never taken a creative writing course. But it was crucial, he said, that his mother "didn't believe in television." Instead, their family faithfully took three steps after each move -- joining a Southern Baptist church, getting new library cards and finding a little league baseball diamond. The books soaked in and so did the sermons.

Later, Grisham's courtroom experience inspired his first novel, "A Time To Kill," especially the soul-searing testimony of a young rape victim. Church mission trips to Brazil inspired "The Testament." Another church project led to "The Street Lawyer," which was written in a 51-day frenzy after a freezing night in a homeless shelter.

The key, said Grisham, is that people who want to write suspense novels have to master that craft, with all of its ironic details and elaborate plot devices. Writers either learn how to do that, or they don't. Once someone has mastered the craft, then he can try to weave in a deeper message. It rarely works the other way around.

"Sometimes when I finish a book, I know I've done the best I can do. I know the story works," he said. "I know that the people are real and their problems are real. When I finished 'The Testament,' I was very proud. I'll do more books like 'The Testament.' I go back to those themes. I can see a few coming down the road.

"But I can't do it every time out. I have to watch it, because I'm writing popular fiction and you can't preach too much."