Reading Evangelicals – Daniel Silliman

Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith by Daniel Silliman
Published by Eerdmans on October 5, 2021
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life
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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 SoftlyThis Present DarknessLeft BehindThe 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.

I read a lot of Christian fiction, so when I heard about Daniel Silliman’s Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith, I was immediately intrigued. Silliman selects five books as cultural pivot points in evangelicalism, either as something that contributed to a change or as reflective of such change. It’s difficult to distill evangelicalism’s influence into five fictional books, but Silliman proves pretty successful. Before I read the book, I posted the cover on my social media accounts and asked friends to guess what the five books were. It took about 15 minutes and eight guesses before friends knocked out all of them. Consensus: these are well-known and (usually) well-regarding in the evangelical subculture.

Silliman writes as a historian, meaning that he’s more interested in the history of these novels, their route to publication, and the cultural milieu that allowed them to flourish rather than the theological underpinnings of the novels. That expertise shows because Silliman is at his finest when walking readers through the timeline of Christian publishing. It probably should be dry and boring read, but Silliman makes it come to life. Where the book struggles, however, is on the theological side. Silliman doesn’t do much in the way of critically reflecting on the book’s theology (with perhaps the exception of Love Comes Softly) and—in my opinion—misunderstands the theological background of some of the entries. More on that later.

The five books Silliman covers are:

  1. Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke
  2. This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti
  3. Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins
  4. The Shunning by Beverly Lewis
  5. The Shack by William Paul Young

If you know much about the evangelical subculture, you’re probably nodding your head, agreeing with every entry, and compiling a half-dozen other titles that would fit into this list. (Seriously, Silliman, not one mention of Redeeming Love?) Each entry is important both in terms of publishing and in terms of theological underpinnings. Love Comes Softly is considered to be one of the earliest “Christian fiction” novels, offering a Christian alternative to bawdy bodice-rippers. This Present Darkness expanded Christian fiction considerably, opening up the genres of horror, suspense, and the apocalyptic. Left Behind was one of the first Christian novels to crossover into the mainstream. The Shunning launched a million Amish-themed novels. And The Shack was a subversive allegory for the new millennium that worked outside traditional publishing houses.

With each entry, Silliman gives readers an introduction to the author and their background before and at the time of writing. For each author, this is their debut novel, so there’s a lot about how their writing—not just one of their books—changed the industry. Silliman then offers a reflective summary of the book, breaking out its plot, characterization, and major themes. If you’re already familiar with the book, it’s a rehash of a lot you already know, but if you’re not familiar with the book, this provides the foundation for the discussion that follows.

The meat of Reading Evangelicalism is that discussion. In the chapter on Love Comes Softly, Silliman notes how a major theme is God’s work amid suffering and his redemption of tough circumstances, how God uses bad things for his glory. What’s missing here, and perhaps it is because Silliman does not identify as a theologian, is a robust discussion of whether or not that belief is theologically grounded. Or perhaps Silliman is content to explore evangelicalism without commenting or criticizing it. Nonetheless, because Silliman doesn’t go as deep in exploring where these beliefs come from, he is limited on the depth to which he can discuss the thematic elements of the book.

In the Left Behind chapter, Silliman misses the role that 9/11 played in developing the book’s crossover appeal, as apocalyptic literature suddenly seemed much closer to non-fiction than fiction. He touches on the rapture, but focuses mainly on apologetics a la individuals like Norm Geisler and Josh McDowell, viewing Left Behind as apologetical more than eschatological. While that point has merit, it does seem to overshadow the larger End Times theme.

Similarly, Silliman’s discussion of The Shack spends more time talking about Mark Driscoll than the emergent church or the evangelical left that more accurately reflect the teachings of The Shack. Silliman is right, however, in exploring The Shack as a fracture point for American evangelicalism as it was the first Christian novel to really feel “emergent.” It would have more weight if there was any indication that other novels followed—making William Paul Young the first in a trend rather than an anomaly—but we’re not told of any. (Some of Ted Dekker’s later novels may fit this category.)

Overall, to the average layperson, Reading Evangelicals is probably going to be an influx of information that helps explain the history of the evangelical subculture through the lens of literature. To someone who has been looking through that lens a while, I was hoping for something a little more robust. Despite that, I can full acknowledge that Reading Evangelicals is a seminal contribution to the field of evangelical history. This broke the ground, now it’s time to dig deep and critically evaluate how Christian fiction has influenced and been influenced by the culture surrounding it.