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    Mapping the Evangelical Mind

    A review of Reading Evangelicals by Daniel Silliman

    By Abbie Storch

    October 19, 2021
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    In her 2016 book Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild recounts the five years she spent in the region of Lake Charles, Louisiana, living alongside residents of the area. Her objective: to construct as accurately as possible what she calls the “deep story” of the American Right, the narrative universe that Republican voters understand themselves to inhabit. “I realized there were two ways I could go about it,” she told Vox. “I could go in and say, ‘I’m going to find out more about the enemy. I’ll grab the facts and marshal my side.’ Or I could say, ‘You know what? … I’m going to have to open my heart to them. I’m going to have turn my alarm system off and actually listen. Listen with curiosity and interest.’”

    In Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith, Daniel Silliman looks at five bestselling novels to investigate the deep story of a more particular group – White American evangelicals. Silliman, an editor at Christianity Today, is less interested in defining White evangelicals in theological or political terms, and more interested in exploring the imaginative worlds they conjure. What are the major forces at work in these fictional worlds, and how do they operate? How is God manifest in these novels? For Silliman, the question of evangelical identity is complex, but a perusal of the most popular and influential fiction Christian publishing has produced can go a long way toward shaping the parameters of the conversation.

    As Silliman explains, until the turn of the twentieth century, Christian publishing was largely denominational, printing Sunday school curriculum, theological materials, and other church resources. It wasn’t until the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century that transdenominational religious material began to circulate widely. As Christians of various traditions found theological allies across denominational lines, new religious identities emerged. Christian publishers such as Wm. B. Eerdmans (founded in 1911 as a Dutch Reformed theological textbook company) soon discovered that transdenominational books far outsold Dutch Reformed textbooks, so they began printing materials that could be marketed to a broader swath of Christians. Fellow Dutch Reformed publisher Zondervan, founded in a Michigan farmhouse by two nephews of Eerdmans Sr., soon followed suit and published books that spoke broadly to everyday Christian living. By 1941, they had all but left their denominational identity behind, pledging to publish “only the soundest of fundamental, evangelical literature.”1 The evangelical publishing industry was born.

    The industry grew steadily, then exploded. By 1950, fifty evangelical publishers were vying for customers.2 The sixties and seventies saw the establishment of many of today’s recognizable names, most of which have been absorbed into larger publishing conglomerates: Tyndale House, Thomas Nelson, Multnomah Press, Bethany House, Crossway Books. Around the same time, evangelical Christian bookstores established themselves in the White suburbs as a distribution channel. Fifty years after Zondervan declared that it would publish the soundest evangelical literature, evangelical publishing was a 3 billion dollar business.3

    Each chapter of Reading Evangelicals examines a particular bestselling Christian novel, weaving the major themes of the novel and an analysis of political, social, and cultural movements within evangelicalism. For Silliman, Love Comes Softly, This Present Darkness, Left Behind, The Shunning, and The Shack each represent a sea change in the industry and in evangelical culture more broadly; the books both reflect and propagate shifting concerns. He explores how each author conceived the idea for the book, as well as how publishing houses recognized a market opportunity, developing and packaging the book to respond to the evolving zeitgeist.

    Granted, this story could be told in a number of ways; other bestsellers could have made the list but didn’t, and Silliman tells the story in a particular way by choosing these particular books. But for the most part, he succeeds in assessing each novel fairly without using it as evidence for a preconceived history he has in mind. (I read the novels in preparation for this review.) The narrative of an evolving White evangelical imagination seems to emerge organically and manages to avoid feeling contrived as Silliman moves between the imagined and the real.

    The first book, Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke, is set in the 1850s American West, on the frontier. The novel follows Marty, a young woman traveling with her husband. After his unexpected death, she meets Clark, a recently widowed frontiersman, and the two decide to marry as a matter of pure convenience: Marty will care for Clark’s young daughter, and Clark will provide a roof over Marty’s head for the long winter. The book chronicles their humble frontier life as they learn to grieve their losses. As they slowly fall in love, Marty becomes convinced that “Clark’s God” cares about her suffering and the mundane details of her life.

    The story is relatively innocuous – sweet, even. It takes its place in the parade of five bestsellers as a kind of prologue. Published in 1979 by Bethany House, it was arguably the first expressly evangelical novel to achieve major market success through sales at Christian bookstores, and it catalyzed a genre explosion. By the middle of the next decade, these bookstores were full of Christian fiction, including a huge number of Christian romance titles.

    Not all Christian fiction would be as uncontroversial. Fast forward to the late eighties and nineties. The culture wars were in full swing, and business at Christian bookstores had never been better. Publishers saw a promising opportunity: if an evangelical audience would throng to Christian romance, why not Christian thrillers? Enter This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti (Crossway Books, 1986) and the Left Behind franchise by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (Tyndale House, 1995–2007).

    Named by Christianity Today as one of the fifty books that most shaped American evangelicalism,4 This Present Darkness is the story of a group of believers (the “Remnant”) in the small Midwestern town of Ashton. Unbeknownst to them, their town is under attack by demons attempting to gain control over key individuals in political, educational, and religious institutions. It’s up to a pastor, the editor of the local newspaper, and his enterprising cub reporter to uncover the demons’ plot.

    It’s obvious that Crossway Books saw This Present Darkness as more than a marketable product. In the tenth-anniversary edition of the book, publisher Lane Dennis writes, “This Present Darkness has changed the world of Christian publishing and Christian fiction forever. But the most important story still goes well beyond this. It is the story of millions of lives who have been changed for all eternity. It is the story of people coming to Christ, of people learning to pray, of renewed hope, of marriages restored, of faith rekindled, of unborn babies alive today.”5

    The book barely masks its political agenda, Silliman notes. Members of the Remnant discuss their anxieties over new people moving to town, mentioning the fact that some speak only enough English to “ring up your groceries and take your money, and that’s about it.”6 On three different occasions, women falsely accuse men of sexual assault because they are controlled by demons. Again and again, the book suggests that at any point, your daughter, your husband, your friend could be turned against you by evil forces you cannot see – forces that will exercise institutional power to limit the practice of your faith.

    This same concern surfaces in the fourteen books of the Left Behind franchise, which imagine a post-Rapture world in which the Antichrist takes over the United Nations and seeks global nuclear disarmament, one world currency, and unquestioning allegiance. Like This Present Darkness, the book gradually unfolds a giant conspiracy that only Christians can recognize. Also like This Present Darkness, Left Behind was intended as an evangelistic tool from the outset. The authors believed that the scenario of the Rapture would force a personal reckoning: If Jesus returned today, would I be taken or would I be left? It also compelled political involvement; as Silliman notes, for LaHaye, “If time is short, the need to spread the gospel is urgent. And the liberty necessary to preach the gospel at home and abroad is a top priority.”7 By the time the first Left Behind book was published, This Present Darkness had sold 2.2 million copies,8 and it continues to sell steadily to this day. The Left Behind franchise, however, achieved success on a scale never seen before or since in the evangelical publishing world, with 60 million copies sold in its first nine years.

    Silliman points to a very different trend that appeared on the scene in Christian fiction concurrently with the publication of the fourteen Left Behind volumes: what evangelicals termed a “postmodern turn.” Beginning in the 1990s, a small but mighty group of evangelicals began to define themselves against the combative approach of This Present Darkness and Left Behind, embracing nuance, authenticity, and ambiguity. Beverly Lewis’ novel The Shunning (Bethany House, 1997) exemplifies these values, staging belief as a discovery of one’s authentic self. It begins with a young Amish woman, Katie Lapp, discovering a pink satin baby dress in the attic of her family farmhouse. On the back of the gown is an embroidered name: Katherine Mayfield. No Amish baby would ever wear such a gown, and it becomes clear that Katie was adopted into the Amish community as an infant. What follows is a crisis of identity that ultimately results in her shunning and escape from the community. The book is a startling indictment of institutional religion and a call to “authentic” faith.

    This trend, reflected in books such as Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller (Thomas Nelson, 2003), which sought true belief apart from the institutional church, reached a pinnacle with the unexpected success of William Paul Young’s The Shack (Windblown Media, 2008), which follows a middle-aged man, Mackenzie Allen Phillips, as he encounters a very unconventional God while wrestling with the problem of evil in the wake of his young daughter’s brutal murder. It flirts with universalism, portrays God the Father as a large Black woman called “Papa” who listens to Eurasian funk and blues, and isn’t afraid to ask why God is “so mean.” It tackles theodicy head-on. It speaks out against hierarchies and abuses of power.

    Given the book’s tendency to stray outside the bounds of evangelical orthodoxy, Christian publishers weren’t willing to risk acquiring the book and aligning their names with it. So Young self-published the book. It took off almost immediately and was a #1 New York Times bestseller for fifty weeks.9 Part of its appeal was undoubtedly the subversiveness that prevented its publication through traditional channels. It also marked a major shift in the industry. By achieving such massive success with a self-published book, Young had outmaneuvered the entire business, showing the world that the old channels were changing.

    Nearly as quickly as it had boomed, the evangelical bookstore industry suddenly contracted. After the 2008 financial crisis, sales dropped precipitously, and in the past fifteen years, these bookstores have all but disappeared. This is in large part due to the rise of Amazon and the availability of Christian bestsellers in Walmart and Barnes and Noble. Evangelical publishing is still strong, having established a solid presence in these channels. But the death of the evangelical bookstore is nonetheless the end of an era. More siloed online communities, many of them organized around online influencers, media stars, and political leaders, have taken the bookstores’ place as hubs of conversation and belonging – most notably, the communities that coalesced around support for Donald Trump.

    As Silliman notes, it’s hard to ignore the connections between the fictional worlds featured in Reading Evangelicals and the worldview of many Trump supporters:

    The books imagined conspiracies destroying small-town America, aided by deceptive neighbors and invisible, invading forces. Trump promised to Drain the Swamp, Lock Her Up, and Build the Wall. The books said authenticity was good and institutions bad, and Trump embodied both sentiments.

    The evangelical fiction mostly wasn’t political, but it prepared readers to imagine the world in certain ways and to embrace certain values. It prepared people to accept Trump as their political champion. Largely, they did.10

    Whether through their embrace of individualism or their diagnosis of pluralism as the death knell of Christianity, Silliman argues, these books shaped the imaginations of readers in such a way that Trump came riding on the scene a hero. As I read, I found myself wishing at times that Silliman had said more about the connection between each book and Trumpism, but by the end, I was grateful that he limited such discussion to the introduction and conclusion. This enabled him to guide his readers through these books as expressions of diversity and change over a forty-year timeline rather than as a constellation of data points converging on one political cause.

    White evangelical support for Trump notwithstanding, what emerges from Silliman’s reading of both the books and the industry is that the term “evangelical” contains multitudes, and that the movement’s values and priorities have always been in flux. The authors of the five bestsellers came from various Protestant traditions – Mennonite, Pentecostal, Baptist – and they brought their denominational concerns to their writing. What is more, evangelical bookstores were present almost exclusively in White suburbia, and there are a host of diverse identities and concerns of evangelicals of color that are outside the scope of the book, which the author acknowledges from the outset. While he sets out to “tell the story of evangelicalism at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first,”11 Silliman concludes that the movement is best understood “as an imagined community, a rolling conversation organized by real structures and institutions in the world that make that conversation possible.”12 A deep dive into the imagination of this particular community gives us all, from our various vantage points, the chance to try on the White evangelical worldview and see who these individuals have understood themselves to be at various points in time.

    Silliman finds these particular fictional worlds unsatisfactory, but for him, the act of imagining how the Christian story shapes our own is still a worthwhile and necessary endeavor. “Wherever the conversation that is evangelicalism has strayed, and whatever happens to the structure holding that conversation together, the question still grabs me: God became a human, died, and rose again, so what should you do with your random Tuesday?” he asks. “The question is compelling, even if the answers are not.”13 The same could be said of the question that drives this book: What is an evangelical? Reaching past political camps and theological battlefields, Reading Evangelicals is a profoundly helpful contribution to the discussion of evangelical identity, one that should interest anyone who wants to understand its past and its future. Commensurate with its subject, it offers not a neat answer, but a story: a documentary history of a season within a larger American religious movement and of the artists who molded it.

    Footnotes

    1. James E. Ruark, The House of Zondervan (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 43.
    2. Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz, His Time, His Way: The CBA Story; 1950–1999 (Colorado Springs: CBA, 1999), 31.
    3. Ruark, House of Zondervan, 142.
    4. The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals.” Christianity Today, October 6, 2006.
    5. Lane T. Dennis, “Tenth Anniversary Edition: The Story Behind the Story,” introductory note to Frank Peretti, This Present Darkness (Crossway Books: Wheaton, IL), 1996.
    6. Frank Peretti, This Present Darkness, 108.
    7. Daniel Silliman, Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021), 96.
    8. Dennis, “Tenth Anniversary Edition.”
    9. “Shack Author Signs for New Book with Hachette,” Publishers Weekly, August 22, 2011; Marcia Z. Nelson, “Howard Books Signs ‘Shack’ Author to New Deal,” Publishers Weekly, October 2, 2014.
    10. Silliman, Reading Evangelicals, 211.
    11. Reading Evangelicals, 12.
    12. Reading Evangelicals, 218.
    13. Reading Evangelicals, 220-21.
    Contributed By

    Abbie Storch is an editorial assistant at Yale University Press and a former Luci Shaw Fellow at Image.

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