How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith
- ISBN: 9780802879356
- Published By: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
- Published: October 2021
The term “evangelical” is highly debated among scholars. At stake are perennial questions in the study of this major American religious culture: who is an evangelical, and who isn’t? What motivates them as a group? What are we to make of their relationship to American culture?
These concerns are front and center in Daniel Silliman’s new book, Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith. By focusing on popular evangelical fiction, Silliman intervenes in the familiar lines of debate and argues that it is the evangelical imagination, rather than evangelical theological or political-cultural commitments, that are key to its definition and identity.
As Silliman recounts, the current lines of debate over the definition of evangelicalism divide into two camps. The spiritual-theological camp is represented by the “Bebbington Quadrilateral,” a definition of evangelicalism first offered by historian David Bebbington in the 1980s. Bebbington defined evangelicals as those Christians who takes the Bible seriously, emphasize the atoning work of Christ’s death and resurrection, seek salvation through conversion, and pursue evangelism and service. The definition is spiritual in the sense that it is rooted in theological commitments and is consistent no matter if you’re studying 17th century British evangelicals or 20th century American evangelicals. Later variations on the quadrilateral, including by Thomas Kidd and Bruce Hindmarsh, support the spiritual identity of evangelicalism.
The political-cultural definition, on the other hand, has no equivalent figure to Bebbington but has many recent entries. Works by Anthea Butler, Kristin Du Mez, Matthew Sutton, Timothy Gloege, and Daniel Vaca, to name just a few, center on defining evangelicals through their attitudes about race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism, and political ideology. For this definition, the qualifier “white” is important to evangelicalism: they’re talking about a demographic with boundaries, with insiders and outsiders that are determined through the exercise of power. There is no theology so sacred that it does not accommodate cultural and political interests, thus spiritual definitions are either historically contingent or self-serving.
Silliman, a historian himself, acknowledges that both camps have impressive academic firepower on their side. Yet he insists there is something lacking for both sides: both are “belief-based definitions” that fail to account for the breadth and depth of evangelical identity (6).
Both camps, Silliman argues, have missed the evangelical imagination, where propositions (related to theological doctrine or political arguments) hold less sway, and instead hopes, fears, and desires are given center stage. The evangelical imagination drives how evangelicals envision the good, where they put their individual and collective energies, and who they enter into community with (and see as “other.”).
For Silliman, the evangelical imagination is a vast space, but he focuses on five Christian novels that have sold at least a million copies since the 1970s: Janet Oke’s Love Comes Softly (1979), Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness (1986), Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind (1995), Beverly Lewis’s The Shunning (1997), and William Paul Young’s The Shack (2008). Silliman places the five books under scrutiny in vivid detail, offering not only close readings of the texts, but of the authors who wrote them, their religious and commercial contexts, and, through those stories, the larger religious, cultural, and commercial forces shaping evangelicalism since the 1970s.
In Silliman’s hands, the evangelical imagination opens up new fronts in the definitional conflict. For example, Silliman’s fourth chapter is on Lewis’s The Shunning (1997), an archetypical entry into the Amish fiction subgenre that sold a million copies in its first decade, spawned a film adaptation in 2011, and has accumulated over 26,000 Goodreads.com ratings (a source for reader comments that Silliman uses to great effect throughout Reading Evangelicals). The plot centers on a young Amish woman who slowly learns to assert her authentic self and find her true identity. The novel is not evidently evangelical in the senses that spiritual or political-cultural approaches would anticipate; the main character experiences no typical conversion, and the story does not tackle culture wars issues.
For Silliman, the novel’s evangelical appeal is the endorsement of authenticity, a concept, he notes, that is the theme of Disney movies as well as the underlying premise of postwar American consumerism. According to Silliman, authenticity undergirded the growth of evangelical megachurches in the 1970s, especially those like Willow Creek Church in the greater Chicago area that rejected church tradition and trappings, embraced contemporary music, and elevated a religious leadership style of emotional and relational connectivity. Ultimately, Silliman concludes, the evangelical imagination “wasn’t about packaged conformity but about discovering your true self, becoming that self, and satisfying your deepest, most personal desires” (154). Rarely was this definition of authenticity argued for in theological or political tracts. Rather, it was felt, assumed, and expressed through the medium of fiction.
Whatever definition we give evangelicalism, Silliman argues, it can’t simply reside in beliefs or attitudes. He begins and ends his book recounting his experiences in a Family Christian Bookstore, a popular chain in the early 2000s with hundreds of locations across the United States that, like Circuit City and Blockbuster, eventually collapsed (closing its last physical store in 2017, though it returned as an online retailer in 2019). During its heyday, the physical locations of such bookstores that supplied the evangelical imagination were key to the identity: “One definition of evangelical is people who shop at Christian bookstores,” Silliman contends (8).
In one sense, Silliman sides with the political-cultural camp by arguing that evangelicalism is integrally tied to consumerism. But for Silliman there is also a dimension beyond the market. The condition of evangelical existence as expressed in popular fiction—with a mix of spiritual, theological, psychological, political, ecclesiological, consumeristic, and individualistic commitments—pushes Silliman to contend that there is, indeed, something about evangelicalism rooted more deeply in a particular theological, spiritual, and metaphysical worldview.
Reading Evangelicals makes a compelling case that a diverse set of underutilized concepts must be called upon to define evangelicalism more accurately: ambiguity, belief, choice, certainty, conflict, doubt, flourishing, identity, pluralism, and suffering, to name a few. This reframing not only offers new ways to interpret the historical development of evangelicalism and tweak its definition, but also to explain the movement’s theological and political trajectories. In what is the signal achievement in the book, Silliman shows that the future of the definition of evangelicalism does not lay in one definition winning out, but in recognition that current attempts have missed something that is core to evangelical identity.
In the bookstore metaphor that encapsulates Silliman’s evangelicalism, the fiction section deserves its place of prominence alongside the shelves filled with theology and politics when we talk about evangelicalism.
Daniel G. Hummel is director for University Engagement at Upper House in Madison, Wisconsin.Daniel G. HummelDate Of Review:January 14, 2023