"Julie" is one of those books Group A will devour, and Group B wouldn't be caught dead with, or alive either. Group A includes all the fundamentalist and charismatic Christians who really don't need any more self-reinforcing religious tracts but should be checking out Voltaire or Tillich to broaden their horizons. And Group B is made up of all the sophisticated moderns who consider astrology, Western Zen or physical fitness the last word in mystical experience. "Julie" is at least one step beyond that mind set and, read tolerantly, might provide a touch of religious understanding often lacking in the sons and daughters of the late 20th century.

The best tack is to give "Julie" credit for what it is -- inspirational fiction written out of admirable, truly felt ideals -- and not hold against it what it isn't -- literature.

The late Catherine Marshall made no apologies. "The life of no human being has lasting significance apart from his relationship to God," she wrote in "To Live Again," and all her 19 books underline that theme. It had become an increasingly unfashionable one in the decades since she first started writing in 1949. The irony, now that religion is once again a matter of public interest, is that "Julie" is not a better book. The truths Marshall stood for are Christian and timeless, but this presentation of them is flawed and even a little disturbing.

Julie Wallace is a serious 18-year-old seeking truth in the Depression years of 1934-1935. Her father, Kenneth, has left an unhappy experience as a clergyman fighting for racial tolerance in Alabama to become a small-town editor in western Pennsylvania. (Marshall translates what theologians call "original sin" into a familiar experience: Julie's father felt "only a sudden and inexplicable hardness of heart in men whose basic nature was generous and loving.")

In Alderton, a steel town based on Johnstown, Julie puzzles over her father's gradual change from a nervous wreck into a resolute, resourceful crusader. The crises he faces are legion, including, besides racism and the Great Depression, labor-management relations, rich vs. poor, church factions and, coming on finally as deus-ex-aqua, an exciting, Johnstown-like flood.

Julie becomes an investigative reporter for the Alderton Sentinel, and her aggressive, youthful idealism contrasts with the editor's moderation as, with friends, they battle the all-powerful McKeever family, owners of Yoder Steel. Following the publication of an engineer's report revealing the dangerous condition of the McKeever-controlled dam above the city, the reformers' lives and property are attacked.

Meanwhile Julie is courted by three of the less persistent suitors in recent popular fiction, including one in the pay of the McKeevers. She also uncovers the reason for her father's new life, a secret, all-male organization called the Preparers, whose "good works done in secret somehow generated a certain extra power." Conceived as "an extension of many other little-known small groups of courageous, selfless working people down through the ages" with "a commitment to serving Christ," this group believes that "a man finds the essence of his spirituality by the physical work he does, without compensation, for others."

The Preparers trouble me. Irreproachable in intention, groups like this are all too vulnerable to delusions of grandeur. I recall the birth of the Ku Klux Klan as depicted in "The Clansman." It began, readers were told earnestly, as a secret agent of the forces for good in the service of mankind.

Marshall obviously put a lot of research into this book, and nobody would dispute the encomium at the end, presumably added by Leonard LeSourd, former Guideposts editor, about his late wife. There, as Julie, she is commended for having "used your special gifts as a writer to share your spiritual discoveries with millions of people."

But "Julie" oversimplifies the life of faith. And as a novel, it lacks the unity, the depth and the splendid heart of her other novel, "Christy." "Christy" was a spontaneous work of love and inspiration. "Julie" is simply a book calculated to produce love and inspiration.