What's the difference between "loch in kop" and "lokshen"? Where is Gilead, where the Bible promises there will be balm? And just who was Benjamin Elijah Mays, and why should anyone care?

For these and other answers, from the basic to the arcane, turn to the current crop of religion reference books. They range from comprehensive atlases of the ancient world to dictionaries of commonly used Hebrew and Yiddish words and encyclopedias of several individual branches of American Christianity. With such variety, the reference category—long a mainstay of religion publishing—shows no signs of diminishing in scope or power. But where these books were once the territory of the scholarly, publishers are focusing less on brainiacs and more on general readers in a continuing quest to make their reference books more accessible.

Keep it Simple

Said Dawn Werk, marketing manager of Alpha Books, publisher of the Complete Idiot's Guides, "What we've noticed is that people who are buying those books are saying, 'I want things that are more on my level, more mainstream.' So we are not making religion reference books just for scholars anymore."

(In case you are wondering, a "loch in kop" is Yiddish for a hole in the head, while "lokshen" is noodles. Gilead is the region east of the Jordan River and Mays was coauthor of The Negro's Church, the first comprehensive study of the black church, completed in the 1920s.)

Perhaps the greatest evidence of the trend toward publishing reference for the general reader is in the programs of Alpha Books and Wiley. Alpha, publisher of the Idiot's Guides, and Wiley, publisher of the Dummies line, have more than 60 religion titles between them. At Alpha, an imprint of Pearson Education, religion titles routinely make the company's own bestseller list—a remarkable feat given there are more than 450 titles in 27 different categories to compete with. In fact, religion was the line's strongest category last year and continues to hold the lead so far this year. Alpha has already added The Complete Idiot's Guide to Paganism by Carl McColman (Apr.), will add The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shamanism by Gini Graham Scott (July) and will publish a revised Complete Idiot's Guide to the Bible by Stan Campbell and Jim Bell in August (it was originally published in 1998). That title has routinely topped the bestseller list, vacating the post occasionally to make way for The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Catholicism by Bob O'Gorman and Mary Faulkner (2000).

At Wiley, Diane Steele, v-p and publisher of Consumer Dummies (yes, that is really her title), said the company's commitment to religion reference titles is high. "Given the world situation, people feel they are citizens of the world in ways they haven't before, and they feel they need to know about other religions," Steele said. "We are going to be doing something on every major religion of the world." So far, the books are doing "better than we expected," Steele added. New this year are Judaism for Dummies by Ted Falcon and David Batner (Apr.), Religion for Dummies by Thomas Hartman and Marc Gellman (Aug.), Buddhism for Dummies by Jonathan Landaw (Aug.) and The Bible for Dummies by Jeffrey Geoghegan and Michael Homan (Oct.). Other subjects in the works include Islam, the Hebrew language and Catholicism, all slated for February 2003.

Filling in the Gaps

Judson Press, publishing arm of the American Baptist Church, is aiming at everyone from students to scholars with An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage by Marvin A. McMickle (May). Linda Peavy, associate publisher and marketing director, says the need for African-American reference books is vast. "Oftentimes in schools you don't get the full picture" of African-American history, she says. For example, while many students learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they do not always learn about the religious background that drove him. "We wanted to produce a resource that would add to what is currently being taught," Peavy said. This is Judson's first comprehensive reference book, and the house plans to extend the title with a more scholarly version in the future.

Ricky King and Steve Bond knew what they wanted from a new line of Broadman & Holman reference books—something that was easy for the average reader to delve into and pull out bits of information as needed. For inspiration, King, the product development manager, and Bond, executive editor of the project, looked at a lot of popular travel guides. "They are tall, skinny, they have a lot of color and they are easy to navigate," noted King. "We thought, what if someone were to take that format and apply it to the Bible?" The result is The Holman Quicksource Guide to Understanding the Bible by Kendall H. Easley (Sept.). Bond said B&H has two tiers of reference books—the scholarly and the accessible, and this title falls into the latter category. "These books are selective in bringing to the consumer's eye quickly and relevantly information that helps them access the Bible," Bond says. Next in the series is The Holman Quicksource Atlas of Bible Lands, edited by Bond and King (March 2003); other volumes in the same series may include customs, a concordance and a dictionary of the Bible.

Indeed, Bible guides are favorites at many Christian publishing houses, and nowhere more so than at Regal Books, which is overseeing another edition of What the Bible Is All About by Henrietta C. Mears. Mears, who died in 1963, has remained continuously in print since she founded Gospel Light Publishing in the 1930s. In the same vein and already released this year, Augsburg Fortress Press has The Bible Guide by Andrew Knowles, a hardcover, comprehensive look at the good book, and Moody has the four-volume The Essential Bible Reference Library.

The Jewish segment of the market has its share of accessible titles, too. The Jewish Publication Society—well-known for its scholarly tomes—has taken a new turn toward general readers with The JPS Dictionary of Jewish Words by Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic (2001), now in its second printing. Helene Bludman, JPS marketing manager, said the book, the first in what will be a line of desk references, is intended for the Jewish and non-Jewish layperson. "I am Jewish, and I found words in this book that I didn't know," she said. "I really think it appeals across the board." Carol Hupping, JPS's publishing director, said the books are designed for "adult learners" within the wider Jewish community. Further titles will include The JPS Guide to Jewish Women in History by Emily Taitz, Sondra Henry and Cheryl Tallan (Feb. 2003) and The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions by Ron Eisenberg (fall 2003). Coming from Jewish Lights is The Rituals and Practices of Jewish Life, edited by Daniel Judson (June); Skylight Paths, a Jewish Lights imprint, has Spiritual Innovators: 75 Extraordinary People Who Changed the World in the Past Century, edited by Ira Rifkin (Apr.).

Catholic publishers are also shifting their attention to the lay reader. Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Dictionary, Revised by the Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas (Mar.), originally published in the 1990s, is finding a new audience among Catholic parishioners, said Jackie Lindsey, OSV's editorial development manager. "We felt there was a need for average Catholics to have this type of information in a format that is very convenient," she said. "There were lots of other materials around, but we didn't know of any that were really geared for the average Catholic, the person in the pew." OSV has noticed Catholics are especially hungry for reference books. "We have found it to be a category that is growing," she added. "Any titles we released have done very well and we have therefore been in the process of revising [backlist titles] because we know they will do well when they are released the second time."

Other Catholic reference books include Continuum's The Book of Saints, edited by Basil Watkins (Apr.), and, from St. Anthony Messenger Press, 100 Names of Mary by Anthony Chiffolo (Mar.). Orbis weighs in with The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia, edited by William Shannon, Christine Bochen and Patrick O'Connell (June). Orbis publisher Michael Leach said the book is geared toward "anyone who has ever read Merton, even only one of his books." Orbis will market the book to both the trade and academic markets. Doubleday also has a reference book for the general reader, The Faith: A History of Christianity by Brian Moynahan (Apr.).

For Scholars, Too

But the attention being paid to the general reader among religion reference publishers should not suggest that scholars are being left out. A number of houses continue strong publishing programs of academic reference books.

In April, the American Bible Society unveiled the Tübingen Bible Atlas, an atlas that was 30 years in the making by scholars and students at Germany's famed university in Tübingen. At $150, the book's primary customers are obviously serious scholars and reference libraries, but ABS reports interest from pastors and church librarians, too. "This gives a better picture than anything I know for marking out the human structures in the Jerusalem area" of the ancient world, said John Anderson, ABS's distributor specialist. "It is really helpful for serious Bible students."

Westminster John Knox Press continued its substantial academic religion reference line with Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism by Randall Balmer at the beginning of the year. Donald McKim, WJKP's academic and reference editor, said the time is ripe for a reference title about evangelicals, one of the fastest-growing religious movements in the world. The book is targeted for academics, but McKim says pastors and serious laypersons also will find it of interest. "These are the core market constituencies for reference books," McKim noted. Cambridge University Press also has a new title, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Religions, edited by John Bowker (Mar.). ABC-CLIO will publish The Encyclopedia of Religion and American Cultures by Luis Leon and Gary Laderman (Dec.). Also forthcoming from Oneworld is A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam by Gordon Newby (Aug.). And for those curious about who goes where on Sundays, there is Abingdon's Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches 2002, edited by Eileen Lindner (Feb.).

InterVarsity Press is continuing a line of scholarly dictionaries it inaugurated in 1990. Daniel Reid, senior editor of academic and reference books, said that in the past several decades there has been an explosion in the variety of reference books for academics. "Creativity is demonstrated in taking a new angle, investigating a patch of religious turf where no reference book has gone before, or going deeper into a specific aspect of a larger subject," he said. IVP offers the latter with two titles, The Dictionary of Contemporary Religion in the Western World, edited by Christopher Partridge and Douglas Groothuis (Mar.) and The Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, edited by T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Oct.). While the books are intended for the academic market, Reid thinks they have some appeal for more serious general readers because "there is a need for up-to-date reference books that are attractively priced" in most general interest bookstores' religion sections.

Holding Steady

What will the future bring for this core category? Most publishers agree that reference will always be a part of their program, with every season bringing a smattering of titles. And some say they see the category following in the footsteps of other religion categories such as Bibles and devotionals, accommodating itself to every niche imaginable. B&H's King noted that time is of the essence—people have so little of it to spare today. "I think people are looking for deeper meaning, but they have to consider their time constraints," he said. "You've really got to give them the main information they are looking for in a really quick, easy to understand format without dumbing it down." WJKP's McKim thinks publishers may soon find themselves catering more to students—especially seminary students—who want more book for their buck: "I would say that reference books that can be affordably priced for students will be most welcome." Still, many publishers think the category will neither grow nor shrink, but hold steady. "Reference books are harder to make," said Leach of Orbis, where only two out of 50 books a year are reference and there are no plans to increase that number. "You need really good people to do them, people who are masters of their subjects."