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 readers 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.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Defining Evangelicals in a Christian Bookstore 1. The Romance of Abundant Life: Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly 2. Spiritual Warfare in Everyday America: Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness 3. The Rapture Dilemma: Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind 4. Authenticity in Amish Bonnets: Beverly Lewis’s The Shunning 5. Amid Emerging Ambiguities: William Paul Young’s The Shack Conclusion: The Question That Remains
Daniel Silliman is the news editor for Christianity Today. He earned a doctorate in American studies from Heidelberg University in Germany and has taught US history and humanities at Heidelberg, Valparaiso University, and Milligan University.
“Beautifully crafted and deftly argued, Reading Evangelicals offers a deeply perceptive analysis of modern evangelicalism through the lens of popular Christian fiction. Carefully researched and laden with keen insights, the book will stand as an essential contribution to the study of American evangelicalism.” — Kristin Kobes Du Mez author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation
“Reading Evangelicals offers much more than just the stories of five best-selling books that became popular among evangelicals. It is a fascinating and insightful history of the cultures that created the reading audiences for these books and of the cultures these books helped to create. This is the story of modern American evangelicalism—and we need to read it.” — Karen Swallow Prior author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books
“Reading Evangelicals is a winsome, yet incisive study of evangelical culture and life through Christian best-selling fiction. It is a Pilgrim’s Progress for twentieth- and twenty-first-century evangelicals, decoding their fears, hopes, and dreams through Christian fiction. A worthy and essential read for anyone who wants an in-depth, compassionate look at the evangelical culture of reading.” — Anthea Butler author of White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America
“The clever double entendre of Daniel Silliman’s title is more than matched by the insights and sheer readability of the book itself. Its patient account of million-selling evangelical novels is full of unusual wisdom about the authors of these books, but also their publishers, the bookstores that sold them, and (not least) the multitudes who have read them. Silliman’s depiction of American evangelicalism as an ‘imagined community’ defined in large part by these best sellers is thought-provoking in the best way possible.” — Mark A. Noll author of A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada
“Though evangelicals have never produced a Graham Greene or a Flannery O’Connor, their fiction writers have sold millions of copies and influenced millions of readers. Silliman explores this sprawling yet curiously understudied subculture with a golden pen, genuine empathy, and keen insight. He not only carefully summarizes the narrative of a dozen or so key texts but also draws on social scientists such as Max Weber and Jürgen Habermas to show how they addressed the spiritual needs of their time. In Silliman’s hands the topic receives the sophisticated yet accessible treatment it richly deserves.” — Grant Wacker author of One Soul at a Time: The Story of Billy Graham
“In this splendid study of Christian pop culture, Daniel Silliman not only analyzes a body of literature that warrants scholarly attention on its own terms (can any other genre boast such a massive hold on such a massive readership in the late twentieth century?) but also uses the study of evangelical fiction to reassess the meaning of evangelicalism itself. Demonstrating a skill with the pen that rivals any first-rate fiction writer, he guides the reader through the most important books of a late-twentieth-century subculture that has typically been defined strictly in political or theological terms. With much-welcomed nuance and sense of the in-betweens, Silliman instead paints evangelicalism as a community primarily defined by its expansive (always evolving) tastes and sensibilities, consumer practices, imaginations of purpose and being, and discourses of belonging. This is an indispensable contribution to our study of a movement (indeed, a phenomenon) that has shaped our times.” — Darren Dochuk author of Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America
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