Historian and cultural commentator Daniel Silliman was in graduate school, looking at the history of evangelicalism and dissecting one of Christian fiction’s biggest selling works, the Left Behind series of end-times fiction by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye (Tyndale) when a question came to mind: How did such fiction change readers and their sense of what it meant to be evangelical? He was fascinated by the impact of novels found in millions of homes that had not been examined historically, he tells PW.
So Silliman, now news editor for Christianity Today, has tackled that question in his forthcoming book, Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith (Eerdmans, Oct. 5). It approaches evangelicalism as “a cultural movement” rather than by its theological roots, academic definitions and politics. The book focuses on five seminal works of fiction—based on their history, author, reviews, sales, influence—and explores the impact of Christian bookstores.
David Bratt, former Eerdmans’ executive editor, said Silliman didn’t want to “clobber evangelicals over the head, but instead to understand the evangelical imagination" and how they weave together what they read in fiction and what they believe about the Bible.
Reading Evangelicals begins with a look at Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke (Bethany House, 1979). Christian publishers weren’t doing many love stories at that time, according to Silliman, but editor Carol Johnson at Bethany House took a chance on Oke’s story of Marty Claridge, whose husband dies on the frontier, and Clark Davis, the man she marries out of convenience. The book became a hit for decades, selling 55,000 copies annually for 20 years, many from evangelical bookstores. Underlying the story was a message of faith that fit the retailers’ mission to serve believers. Silliman writes in Reading Evangelicals, “Oke asked [readers] to imagine what it was like to flourish in your everyday life, to trust God and know God’s love even when doing chores, even while struggling through real hardship.”
This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti (Crossway, 1986) is Silliman’s second case study. This tale of spiritual warfare set in small-town America was released as American Christians felt the influence of Christian philosopher and author Francis Schaeffer (How Should We Then Live?, A Christian Manifesto). According to Silliman, Schaeffer posited that Christians “had to see how their Christian belief called them into culture conflict.” This Present Darkness did just that. “White evangelicals embraced the novel’s articulation of an oppositional faith … and imagined themselves and evangelicals across the land being awakened to a war of antithetical worldviews,” Silliman wrote, noting that Peretti made “the connection between evangelical belief and political advocacy.” The book sold 500,000 copies in just three years, chiefly in evangelical bookstores, said Silliman.
Finding Words for Their Beliefs
The next influential title was Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (Tyndale, 1995). LaHaye, a Baptist pastor, wanted a novel that put biblical end-times prophecy into the mainstream, and Jenkins was the writer to do it. Left Behind starts with the Rapture, when many Christians believe God takes all the faithful to heaven and ushers in the 7-year Tribulation prophesied in the Bible. Airline pilot Rayford Steele almost immediately understands this when a third of his passengers disappear. Jenkins and LaHaye follow biblical prophecy through the dozen books in the series and an additional four prequels and a sequel. The series has sold more than 80 million copies in both evangelical and secular markets, according to Silliman. The series offered readers a way to name their religious identity in a cultural context, as well as helped them articulate what they believed, according to Silliman.
The Shunning by Beverly Lewis (Zondervan, 1997) was released during the heyday of Christian retailers when there were more than 4,000 evangelical bookstores in the U.S., grossing about $3 billion yearly, according to Reading Evangelicals. Bethany House’s Johnson, who also published Oke, saw the potential for Amish fiction — featuring a Christian community with a strong sense of belonging that appealed to evangelicals — and she was right: The Shunning sold 100,000 copies a year for a decade.
Lewis told PW The Shunning was loosely based on her grandmother’s experiences in leaving her Old Order Mennonite community to find a new belonging in evangelical faith and “touched a nerve in me, as well as in my readers.” The tale of Katie Lapp, who discovers she was adopted in infancy, renounces her Old Order Amish faith as she discovers her true identity and finds a personal relationship with Jesus. It was published at a moment in evangelical culture when mega-church pastors were preaching that believers’ personal spiritual experiences and expressions of faith were authentic and important, according to Silliman. “Lewis staged belief as a more individual kind of flourishing, more expressive, centering on the idea of an authentic imperative” in which, he wrote, “readers are invited to reflect on who they really are and connect that to their experience of belief.”
Blurring Identities and Fading Bookstores
The final novel is The Shack by William Paul Young (Windblown Media, 2007), in which a grieving father returns to the scene of his daughter’s death and meets the reimagined members of the Trinity. It began as Young’s attempt to understand the spiritual ambiguity in his own life and the ambiguity present in an evangelical culture in which some of the people who shopped at Christian bookstores “didn’t completely feel like they belonged there,” said Silliman in the book.
The Shack was slammed by theologians for messing with doctrine and its scant mention of the Bible, but readers were wild for it. Young didn’t believe it belonged in Christian bookstores and sold it via a small publisher’s website, then Amazon and general market stores until Christian retailers and secular stores caught on and it became a huge crossover hit. Sales have surpassed 10 million copies and it became clear “there wasn’t a single market anymore, to clearly mark the boundaries of ‘in here’ and ‘out there.’” Silliman adds, “The distinct identity of evangelical book buyers was becoming very blurry.”
Meanwhile, the Christian bookstore numbers had declined precipitously. According to Ted Terry, president of the Noble Group, which provides outside sales representation to vendors in Christian retail, there are now about 950 Christian retail bookstores, including Catholic and church bookshops nationwide.
Reading Evangelicals describes the Christian book market as part of the cultural glue that held evangelicalism together. “When (one of these titles) was the book du jour, maybe you didn’t like it, but you read it. The book brought you into a community to talk about it,” Silliman wrote. By the start of the 21st century, “The book market fragmented and fractured … and with it, evangelicalism,” said Silliman.
What’s holding evangelicals together now? Not a lot, Silliman told PW. He pointed to broad differences in evangelical beliefs, from the prosperity-gospel televangelist Paula White who did the invocation at President Donald Trump’s inauguration, to theologian and pastor Tim Keller, whose teachings eschew rules and regulations as a way to salvation and who speaks into issues related to justice and faith. “Those kinds of evangelicals don’t overlap. They might have overlapped if they were finding and reading their books in a Christian bookstore.”