October 21, 2021 Wayne Northey

Mapping the Evangelical Mind

A review of Reading Evangelicals by Daniel Silliman

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By Abbie Storch

October 20, 2021

WN: The review of Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith below offers fascinating insights. Most troubling is this observation:

Whether through their embrace of individualism or their diagnosis of pluralism as the death knell of Christianity, Silliman argues, these books shaped the imaginations of readers in such a way that Trump came riding on the scene a hero. (emphasis added)

excerpts:

In Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith, Daniel Silliman looks at five bestselling novels to investigate the deep story of a more particular group – White American evangelicals. Silliman, an editor at Christianity Today, is less interested in defining White evangelicals in theological or political terms, and more interested in exploring the imaginative worlds they conjure. What are the major forces at work in these fictional worlds, and how do they operate? How is God manifest in these novels? For Silliman, the question of evangelical identity is complex, but a perusal of the most popular and influential fiction Christian publishing has produced can go a long way toward shaping the parameters of the conversation.

Each chapter of Reading Evangelicals examines a particular bestselling Christian novel, weaving the major themes of the novel and an analysis of political, social, and cultural movements within evangelicalism. For Silliman, Love Comes Softly, This Present Darkness, Left Behind, The Shunning, and The Shack each represent a sea change in the industry and in evangelical culture more broadly; the books both reflect and propagate shifting concerns. He explores how each author conceived the idea for the book, as well as how publishing houses recognized a market opportunity, developing and packaging the book to respond to the evolving zeitgeist.

Granted, this story could be told in a number of ways; other bestsellers could have made the list but didn’t, and Silliman tells the story in a particular way by choosing these particular books. But for the most part, he succeeds in assessing each novel fairly without using it as evidence for a preconceived history he has in mind. (I read the novels in preparation for this review.) The narrative of an evolving White evangelical imagination seems to emerge organically and manages to avoid feeling contrived as Silliman moves between the imagined and the real.

Nearly as quickly as it had boomed, the evangelical bookstore industry suddenly contracted. After the 2008 financial crisis, sales dropped precipitously, and in the past fifteen years, these bookstores have all but disappeared. This is in large part due to the rise of Amazon and the availability of Christian bestsellers in Walmart and Barnes and Noble. Evangelical publishing is still strong, having established a solid presence in these channels. But the death of the evangelical bookstore is nonetheless the end of an era. More siloed online communities, many of them organized around online influencers, media stars, and political leaders, have taken the bookstores’ place as hubs of conversation and belonging – most notably, the communities that coalesced around support for Donald Trump.

As Silliman notes, it’s hard to ignore the connections between the fictional worlds featured in Reading Evangelicals and the worldview of many Trump supporters:

The books imagined conspiracies destroying small-town America, aided by deceptive neighbors and invisible, invading forces. Trump promised to Drain the Swamp, Lock Her Up, and Build the Wall. The books said authenticity was good and institutions bad, and Trump embodied both sentiments.

The evangelical fiction mostly wasn’t political, but it prepared readers to imagine the world in certain ways and to embrace certain values. It prepared people to accept Trump as their political champion. Largely, they did.1

Whether through their embrace of individualism or their diagnosis of pluralism as the death knell of Christianity, Silliman argues, these books shaped the imaginations of readers in such a way that Trump came riding on the scene a hero. As I read, I found myself wishing at times that Silliman had said more about the connection between each book and Trumpism, but by the end, I was grateful that he limited such discussion to the introduction and conclusion. This enabled him to guide his readers through these books as expressions of diversity and change over a forty-year timeline rather than as a constellation of data points converging on one political cause.

Reaching past political camps and theological battlefields, Reading Evangelicals is a profoundly helpful contribution to the discussion of evangelical identity, one that should interest anyone who wants to understand its past and its future.

Please click on: Mapping the Evangelical Mind

Footnotes
  1. Silliman, Reading Evangelicals, 211.[]

Wayne Northey

Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.

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