"The Prayer of Jabez" takes root in a single Bible verse, 1 Chronicles 4:10. The text:
"And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, 'Oh, that you would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that your hand would be with me, and that you would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!' So God granted him what he requested."
Source: New King James Version
CUMMING, Ga. (AP) -- Bruce Wilkinson is sitting on the deck of his massive house an hour north of Atlanta, looking heavenward as a gee-whiz grin spreads across his face.
He has just heard the latest sales figures for "The Prayer of Jabez," his half-inch thick, index card-size book that has sold nearly 5 million copies and remains atop the best-seller lists.
"This book, the success, wasn't predicted -- or even imagined," he says. "This isn't really a Barnes & Noble-type book."
Yet he's not entirely surprised. The book, which likens prayer to a stockbroker's request for a huge portfolio, suggests God is just waiting to bestow "exponentially expanding blessings" to just about anyone willing to put in the request.
Wilkinson says the book's phenomenal success is a perfect example of his belief in action.
It is anchored atop major best-seller lists -- The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today -- whether it's classified as nonfiction or self-help. Its companion Web site bulges with gushing testimonials.
And, smack in the middle of the Mother's Day, Father's Day and graduation seasons, some people are buying dozens of copies as gifts.
"They are still going strong," reports Emmie Loften, manager of Cornerstone Christian Bookstore in the Atlanta suburb of Snellville. "It's not unusual for them to buy them in 20s and 25s, not unusual at all."
Not everyone is buying the idea.
One camp of conservative theologians believes "Jabez" is stunning in its selfishness, using verses buried in the Bible as a religious excuse for wanting lots of money and material goodies.
"American culture is very oriented toward paychecks and big houses," says the Rev. Daniel L. Gard, graduate school dean at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind, a Lutheran school. "This basically gives those same secular values a religious shellacking. So you can feel good as a religious person and at the same time go after all the stuff in the world."
Gard lumps the best seller with what he calls megachurch Christianity, the sort of money- and power-driven religion that came to be symbolized by the rise and fall of televangelists such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.
"It attempts to give a Christianizing to some of the worst characteristics of our culture," he says. "You throw in a little God talk, and now it becomes an immediately sellable thing."
But Wilkinson says he is not preaching materialism.
"One of the biggest misunderstandings of the book is that I'm teaching prosperity gospel. I don't believe that," he said.
The Jabez controversy centers on the book of 1 Chronicles, which lists descendants of early generations in a blizzard of names that stretches for pages on end.
One of those names is Jabez, a descendant of Judah who may have been a herdsman. He implores God: "Oh, that you would bless me indeed and enlarge my territory." The Bible says God grants the request.
The theory, according to Wilkinson's book, is that it's perfectly OK to ask God for tangible blessings, just use them well. If a poor family needs a car, they should ask. If Wall Street brokers can use a big portfolio to spread good in the world, they should ask.
"Why not make it a lifelong commitment to ask God every day to bless you," Wilkinson writes. "And while he's at it, bless you a lot."
Wilkinson, 53, holds a doctorate of divinity from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary and is the founder of an evangelical ministry called Walk Thru the Bible. He has written a handful of religious self-help books, none nearly as successful as "Jabez" has been since its publication in November.
He admits that asking God for things -- actual merchandise that you can touch, rather than abstract wishes for world peace -- feels awkward. People usually don't think of prayer the way 10-year-olds think of holiday wish lists.
"They're overwhelmed that God is good," he says. "People think God is kind of irritated, busy, off running the peace talks, and could care less whether or not you're having a bad day. He'll take care of you -- but you've got to ask him."
In testimonials on the Web site, Jabez believers say the 93-page book has saved marriages, careers and even lives, bringing about miraculous recoveries from illness.
In California, a pastor gave out 100 $100 bills to members of his congregation and told them to go out and use the money for good. Hundreds more people became involved, donating money to shelters and buying holiday gifts for kids.
The pastor's wife credits the Jabez lesson.
"We needed to think so big that it proved to us it had to be a God thing," Leesa Bellesi says. "We do not have because we do not ask. I am convinced it's all there for the asking."
At the suburban bookstore, where "Jabez" has been marked down to about $8 to attract graduation gift-buyers, Loften acknowledges the book can be used as an excuse for greed.
"I think many people don't know how to pray," she says. "Some people misuse it as a fetish. It's not magic or fetish. It can't be used that way."
Jabez franchising in the style of "Chicken Soup for the Soul" is not far off. Wilkinson's wife -- who stunned him by praying openly that the book would sell a million copies -- is working on "The Prayer of Jabez for Women."
A book aimed at young children and a companion video are in the works. And Wilkinson's latest book, "Secrets of the Vine," has crept up to No. 3 on the Times' list of best-selling advice books.
Not surprisingly, he credits the success to Jabez.
Wilkinson says he has prayed the Jabez verses each day for about 30 years, starting when he discovered them in seminary. And he says millions of people are discovering prayer the same way.
"What this is doing is, it's kind of jump-starting them," he says. "It's like pulling on your lawnmower. People are starting to believe in prayer again. I certainly do."
On the Net:
Prayer of Jabez site: http://www.prayerofjabez.com
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