• Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith

  • By: Daniel Silliman
  • Narrated by: Trevor Thompson
  • Length: 7 hrs and 45 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History, Americas
  • 5.0 out of 5 stars (4 ratings)
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Publisher's Summary

The story of five best-selling novels beloved by evangelicals, the book industry they built, and the collective imagination they shaped.

Who are evangelicals? And what is evangelicalism? Those attempting to answer these questions usually speak in terms of political and theological stances. But those stances emerge from an evangelical world with its own institutions - institutions that shape imagination as much as they shape ideology. In this unique exploration of evangelical subculture, Daniel Silliman shows listeners how Christian fiction, and the empire of Christian publishing and bookselling it helped build, is key to understanding the formation of evangelical identity. With a close look at five best-selling novels - Love Comes Softly, This Present Darkness, Left Behind, The Shunning, and The Shack - Silliman considers what it was in these books that held such appeal and what effect their widespread popularity had on the evangelical imagination. Reading Evangelicals ultimately makes the case that the worlds created in these novels reflected and shaped the world evangelicals saw themselves living in - one in which romantic love intertwines with divine love, humans play an active role in the cosmic contest between angels and demons, and the material world is infused with the literal workings of God and Satan. Silliman tells the story of how the Christian publishing industry marketed these ideas as much as they marketed books, and how, during the era of the Christian bookstore, this - every bit as much as politics or theology - became a locus of evangelical identity.

©2021 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (P)2021 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

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Exploration of Evangelical history through novels

I am a Christian fiction skeptic. It is not that I don’t think there are good Christian fiction novels, but experience suggests that those Christian novels that are good, are likely not being published, or not being published by Christian publishers. But I know I have a bias. When I first heard of the concept of Reading Evangelicals, I was hopeful for a guide that might help me be less cynical about an area of the Christian world that I had almost entirely stopped reading ten years or so ago.

Daniel Sillman is very ambitious with Reading Evangelicals. He uses these five books, Love Comes Softly, This Present Darkness, Left Behind, The Shunning, and The Shack, to provide not just an exploration of the novels but of Evangelicalism. The meaning of Evangelicalism is hotly debated. There have been dozens of books debating the meaning and value of the term over the past ten years. Broadly, there are three main ways that Evangelical is defined. One way is a theological definition like the National Association of Evangelicals version or Bebbington’s Quadrangle. The main objection to these is that this is not how many people use the term. The second way that Evangelical is used is as a political identity that roughly means conservative, White republican who cares about abortion, gay marriage, and who was likely to have voted for Trump twice. The objection to this usage is that there is a significant subgroup that does not fall into this category, either because roughly 1/3 of theological Evangelicals in the US are non-White, or that even those that are White, approximately 20-25% do not identify through political means or regularly vote democrat. In addition, this is a very US-centric definition, and many self-identified Evangelicals (using the political definition) rarely, if ever, attend church. The third primary definition of Evangelical is as a consumer definition. This is primarily the definition that Kristen Du Mez uses in Jesus and John Wayne. Even though it isn’t the primary definition here, a significant thread of Reading Evangelicals is about the rise and fall of the Christian books store and publishing industry, contributing to the consumeristic definition of Evangelical.

Love Comes Softly was the first novel that could be called a Christian Romance novel. It was published in 1979 at the start of the growth of local Christian books stores. It was one of the first novels written directly for an Evangelical audience and published by Evangelical presses. I read Love Comes Softly early. Probably as a pre-teen or early teen. As one of the quotes from the book said, I read it because my mom owned them all, and the church library stocked them. There were not a lot of Christian novels that I had access to in the mid-1980s. While Stillman does read the novels closely and discuss themes and the books themselves, the context is to the novels is what I find most helpful. Janet Oke was responding to a turn toward not just explicit sex but sexualized violence in the secular romance novel market in the late 1970s. A common trope at the time was that the protagonist would be kidnapped and/or raped, often more than once, and then she would eventually fall in love with her rapist. Before Love Comes Softly, Christian publishers almost entirely published non-fiction, often academic-leaning books targeted toward pastors and bibles. The rise of local Christian books stores needed products to sell, and novels filled a niche. In addition, the rise of the local Christian book store was necessarily ecumenical in orientation. Many Christian publishers were denominationally rooted, and they needed ways to sell outside of their narrow constituencies without alienating them. Love Comes Softly was a successful proof of concept that Christians would buy novels and that fiction could sell.

This Present Darkness is where politics and fear start to enter the picture. Frank Peretti started as an assistant pastor in an Assembly of God church that his father pastored, but by 1983 he quit the pastorate and started working at a factory. Peretti was influenced both by the storytelling of Stephen King and the cultural commentary and theology of Francis Schaeffer. Crossway Books was looking for a novel that would put into practice the theology of Francis Schaeffer, who Crossway had published. Two years after Shaeffer’s death, in 1986, Crossway published This Present Darkness. It hardly sold until Amy Grant was sent a copy, and she started talking about it in her concerts. After selling 4200 books the first year, it sold approximately 750,000 copies in the first two years after Amy Grant’s promotion. The sequel had 400,000 preorders in 1989. This Present Darkness was built on the early culture war ethos of the Moral Majority and the concerns about ritual child abuse, secular humanism, and the New Age that was throughout the culture at the time.

Part of the value of Reading Evangelicals is that Stillman is not interested in easy complaints about the quality or purpose of the books but interested in understanding the context, the deeper reasons that the books resonated, and the cultural shifts within evangelicalism that marked the rise and fall of the publishing industry. I remember reading This Present Darkness in the middle of high school and the increase in attention to spiritual warfare. Even in my conservative mainline Christian experience, I remember engagement after This Present Darkness with people concerned about attacks by demons and possession. It is easy to be cynical about the ways that white Evangelical culture was presented as under attack in books like This Present Darkness, or about the disbelief of sexual abuse or the casual racist references there, but this history is helpful in reading our recent history in books like Jesus and John Wayne or The Myth of Colorblind Christians.

I am not going to detail the discussion of the last three books in the same way, but each book played a role in the rise and then the downfall of Christian publishing and local Christian book stores. Each book has earned a place in helping to define what it means to be an Evangelical, both by contributing to the theological understanding of the term and by creating a culture that allowed for a communal experience of Christianity that many understand as Evangelical. Daniel Stillman is the news director at Christianity Today. He is intimately familiar with the culture and history, and reality of Evangelicalism. And Reading Evangelicals was both expertly written and deeply informative with a type of care that is difficult to do. I want to read or re-read all of these books again. But I also have a renewed sense of the nuance of the Evangelical story that, even though I experienced it, requires a guide to see into that experience well.

This is not a cheap book on kindle or hardcover. I listened to the audiobook, which for me as a member of Audible was the cheapest method. Trevor Thompson, who narrates many Christian books and who I often think of as Eugene Peterson, CS Lewis, Nicholas Wolterstorff, James KA Smith, Mark Noll, John Fea, and more, did a fine job. There were a couple of mispronounced words as is not uncommon, but the narration was well done.