In his monumental study of romanticism, The Mirror and the Lamp, M.H. Abrams credits an English “Copernican revolution in epistemology”1—the notion that the mind plays an active role in shaping reality—not to “academic philosophy,” but instead to Wordsworth and Coleridge. He argues that a poetic vision, rather than a rigorous philosophical system, has inspired people to change the way they look at the world, to change the way they live. In a similar vein, Charles Taylor uses the decidedly cumbersome phrase “social imaginary” to capture the fact that, in the regular course of human affairs, the way we see ourselves and our relationship to others is largely “pre-theoretical” and that things like songs, stories, and poems are going to be much more helpful in making sense of our actions than ideas, concepts, and worldviews. If that’s true, we shouldn’t just be canvassing history books, academic journals, polling stations, and religious institutions to understand a particular movement. Instead, we need to broaden our horizons, expand our search to include sports arenas, movie theaters, or say, an Evangelical bookstore—that once-thriving place that’s now going the way of Mom-and-Pop video stores. Despite the growing recognition of the validity of this more holistic approach, in practice it continues to be dismissed.
Since the 2016 election, everyone wants to crack the code of evangelicals once again. By and large, the recent flood of publications on the topic concentrates almost exclusively on professed beliefs and politics. Taking a leaf from Abrams and Taylor, Daniel Silliman finds these approaches wanting. His new book Reading Evangelicals argues instead that “[e]vangelicalism is better conceived as an imagined community, a rolling conversation organized by real structures and institutions in the world that make that conversation possible. Like the evangelical book market and the Christian bookstores.” The book’s chapters thus explore evangelicalism through the fictional lenses of five of its biggest bestsellers: Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly, Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind, Beverly Lewis’s The Shunning, and William Paul Young’s The Shack. It’s a bold maneuver and, given the ideological bent of our age, one that’s liable to inspire its share of hand wringing and frustration. In the aftermath of Trump and the catastrophic moral failure being unveiled across our institutions, why on earth would we turn to the kitschy corridors of an evangelical bookstore? If we look away from the Precious Moments figurines and Thomas Kinkade-style paintings, what possible clues will we find lurking in the pages of a Christian romance novel? Isn’t this approach naive at best, downright evasive at worst?
To a significant degree, Reading Evangelicals tells the story of the evangelical book market, a titanic force that often receives scant attention in conversations about the movement. Nevertheless, to consider this largely untold story is to confront an industry that was able for a time to overcome significant denominational differences by catering to a largely white and middle class segment of the population that had settled in sleepy suburbs. In this space, a Southern Baptist mom of three might mingle with a Presbyterian minister’s wife and discuss the rustic appeal of a “simpler way of life” as they perused the latest arrivals in the “Amish Romance” section. Likewise, a Methodist parishioner and an intern from a “non-denominational” megachurch might both converge on the subject of spiritual warfare as they leafed through Peretti’s latest offering. At the very least, this was prime people-watching territory.
Not two readers are alike, of course, and Silliman is attentive to the complex interplay between authors and readers on display in each of these novels, guarding against the tendency to treat them like simple tracts or trivial diversions. Moreover, he also takes for granted that there’s never a uniform response from readers. Some folks adore The Shack. Others see it as thinly veiled heresy, while still others offer no more than a casual shrug in response to the book. In some cases, hatred of a book can play a major role in galvanizing an entire movement. Here, Silliman draws attention to the fact that the Left Behind series constitutes a kind of ignominious urtext for the Emerging Church Movement. Whatever it is we stand for, we know we’re against that!
Far from dismissive or reductive in his treatment, Silliman believes that each of these stories prefigures the current crisis within evangelicalism. For all their inherent tenderness and solicitude about the promise of Christ’s abundant life in our homes and families, he argues that books like Love Comes Softly, The Shunning, and The Shack offer a slender individualism that stops well short of imagining how that “abundance relate[s] to [our] neighbor’s needs, or how [our] fullness and flourishing [are] bound up with other people.” It’s a vision that caters to a narrow “politics of self-interest,” one that regards the common good with suspicion. This Present Darkness and Left Behind are more adversarial in their stance, portraying a world in which conflicting worldviews and ideas scream across the sky like demons and missiles, and where doubt, not fear, is the mind killer.
One of Silliman’s more sobering observations about Peretti’s novel in particular concerns a subplot where an accusation of sexual assault turns out to be little more than a demonic ploy orchestrated to tarnish a good man’s reputation. As Silliman points out, it’s a story that’s been put to heavy use in defending sexual predators. It’s also a story I encountered firsthand during my time as a speaker at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries when allegations of sexual misconduct were brought against Ravi. To my shame, I believed the demonic ploy story in 2017. After Silliman’s piece on Ravi in September of 2020, however, I no longer believed the man I thought I’d known. I resigned from RZIM and entered into an extended period of repentance and soul-searching, a necessary wilderness experience from which, truth be told, I haven’t yet fully emerged. Silliman’s book has helped me to recognize that part of my mistake in 2017 comes down to a failure of imagination.
Speaking of imaginative failure, if there’s one complaint I have about Reading Evangelicals, it’s the relative lack of any serious consideration of the aesthetic merits of these novels. Given Silliman’s refreshing emphasis on how art moves us into action, I would like to have seen a robust critique of the artistic defects behind the appalling habits that have been revealed in recent years. Stanley Hauerwas once quipped that the great enemy of the North American church was not secularism, but sentimentalism. To my mind, all five of these stories bear this thesis out. Sure, readers of these novels will encounter spousal abuse, ravenous demons hellbent on gobbling up our children, serial killers, and worldwide conspiracies spearheaded by no less a villain than the Antichrist himself! Top that, Stephen King!
And yet, for all of their troubling preoccupations, these novels are not nearly dark enough. Instead, they present sanitized visions of a fallen world that cater to the brittle sensibilities of their largely white and affluent audience. The stories may gesture at some of the darker aspects of human experience, but there’s a marked absence of all the content boogeymen of their evangelical audience—namely, obscene language, frank sexuality, and realistic violence.2 Unsurprisingly, these books feature a near-total absence of anything bearing on race, sexual identity, or recalcitrant unbelief. They may be bestsellers, but they’re also false consolations. And this constitutes one of their gravest artistic flaws. In a fallen world, we can’t afford to downplay the darkness of the human condition. To do so is to deny our own penchant for iniquity, a habit that’s underwritten some of our most heinous behavior.
Inevitably, interviewers want to know whether Silliman still considers himself an evangelical. His answer surprised me. Among his reasons for holding on to the label is the fact that he feels it would be disingenuous to distance himself from this community because to do so would be tantamount to denying his own place in the story, for better or for worse. I find myself in much the same position. As tempting as it is to simply tell folks that I reject the label, such an avowal would fail to take proper ownership. And so, like Silliman, I must continue to profess my membership, if only grudgingly.
It’s not all grudging, though. I still love the spirit of brash urgency and impetuousness that characterizes this unruly movement—the doltish immediacy of Christ’s story that inflames its whole vision of reality. I remember the faux lightning of strobe lights illuminating countless upraised hands in an auditorium somewhere in Germany as a worship band belted out,
Shine, Jesus, shine
Fill this land with the Father’s glory
Blaze, Spirit, blaze
Set our hearts on fire
Flow, river, flow
Flood the nations with grace and mercy
Send forth your word
Lord, and let there be light
It seemed a wonder to a little boy of five; it seems a wonder to me now. I cherish the fact that I still walk into grocery stores, post offices, and, yes, bookstores, and wonder, “How many of these people know Jesus? Should I tell them? After all, eternity hangs in the bounds!” Or, in Silliman’s words, “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?”
The question grabs me, too. In light of Christ’s resurrection, what are we doing with our random Tuesday? Why don’t we start by writing better stories?
1 Paging the lately misrepresented Immanuel Kant.
2 Broadly speaking, evangelicals often turn a blind eye to some pretty serious bloodshed, an inconsistency that’s closely allied to American myths of redemptive violence. Realistic portrayals, however, are often fiercely resisted. Thus a film like Braveheart plays well with evangelicals, while a decidedly more unnerving interrogation of the subject like David Cronnenberg’s History of Violence is ignored or condemned as “gratuitous.”