Monthly Archives: March 2011

Readers and religious publishing

Following up somewhat tangentially on my last post: As I mentioned, I was initially drawn to Slacktivist because of the eminently satisfying chapter-by-chapter readings of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind novels. Fred does a brilliant job skewering the writing, plotting, and internal logic, as well as the political and religious ideology put forth in the novel. For anyone who’s read even part of one of the series, it can be great fun to read someone else throughly catalogue every frustrating element of the novels.

But the impetus for that sort of reading isn’t just that these are bad (poorly-written, inconsistent, politically suspect, etc.) novels—there’s no shortage of bad novels to make fun of. The implicit reason for undertaking a sustained criticism of the novels is that they are popular, alarmingly and maybe dangerously so. Fred’s latest post speculates about the ways Left Behind impacts readers political views and suggests some ways criticizing the novel’s internal consistency might weaken its persuasive power, a practical argument for those whose friends and family may be convinced by the novels’ ideologies.

While evangelicals and those who pay attention to the American evangelical movement may be well aware of Left Behind’s immense popularity, the academy, particularly literary scholars, hasn’t had much to say about the books. On one level this might seem reasonable, to the extent that we tend to associate literary study with canonical works that meet certain aesthetic criteria. But literary historians work with a wide variety of texts of all levels of literary and cultural value or status—one can write an entire book about nineteenth century advice manuals or children’s adventure novels. It’s been accepted that bad novels can be just as helpful, if not more so, in understanding cultural and historical forces at a given moment.

In “From Edwards to Baldwin: Heterodoxy, Discontinuity, and New Narratives of American Religious-Literary History” (American Literary History 22:2), Joanna Brooks challenges the dominant narrative of religion’s role in American literary history that traces Protestant ideology from the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards to its secularization in the philosophy of Emerson. This narrative, Brooks claims, gives the impression that religion’s influence on American literature ends with Emerson, with the occasional exception like Flannery O’Connor. Brooks calls for a re-engagement with religion and literature, and for scholars to trace other religious trajectories that tell different stories (Brooks models this by tracing a genealogy of religious thought from Edwards through a line of female preachers to James Baldwin).

Brooks’s point is well-taken, but, as Susan Griffin argues in “Threshing Floors: A Response to Joanna Brooks” (American Literary History 22:2), engaging with religion after Emerson means engaging with evangelical Protestantism and fundamental Christianity. Griffin looks to the work of Juanita Bynum, an evangelist who, Griffin argues, is in many ways an heir to Edwards, despite her questionable personal life and fund-raising practices. Griffin’s point seems to be, “Be careful what you wish for,” in this case because engaging with contemporary religion means dealing with Juanita Bynum and Joel Osteen. Griffin’s tone, which at times borders on snarky, implies that there may be reasons to leave Juanita Bynum well enough alone.

Which brings us back to Left Behind. Brooks’s argument about religion and American literary history provides a helpful, if imperfect, explanation for the academy’s blind spot when it comes to the hugely-popular franchise—Left Behind doesn’t fit the Edwards to Emerson’s narrative. Griffin’s response adds another explanation—to account for Left Behind, one has to read the books, which are admittedly pretty painful (and I happily read some pretty terrible nineteenth-century novels). Further, one also has to engage with the cultural and ideological forces that produced the Left Behind books. This, even more than reading them, can be painful. In addition, it requires a familiarity with American evangelicalism that many academics lack.

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Community, discourse, and digital space

This past week has seen an absolutely fascinating dust-up over at one of my favorite blogs. I’ve been reading Slacktivist, authored by journalist and liberal evangelical Fred Clark, off and on for seven or eight years now. Fred writes about religion, politics, and contemporary public discourse with considerable insight, but more importantly, with a degree of charity and graciousness that sometimes borders on mind-boggling. He also writes an immensely satisfying regular series of posts eviscerating Tim LeHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins Left Behind books chapter by chapter. Like many of his readers, I came for the Left Behind posts and stayed for the rest of the commentary. Many of those readers are also active participants in the comments section, which usually takes Fred’s posts as a springboard for a wide-ranging discussion among a number of thoughtful, well-read (and often highly educated) people of a number of religious and political stripes.

Last week, Fred announced that the blog would be moving from Typepad, a general blogging platform, to the website Patheos, a community of blogs and resources devoted to religious discussion. Fred described Patheos as a genuine, if imperfect attempt at pluralism, and explained that having his blog hosted through Patheos would give him both visibility and credibility (he would no longer be just some guy with a Typepad blog), while also allowing him to engage more directly with people with a wide variety of perspectives. He also explained in a later post that there were financial considerations—moving to Patheos would provide him with some income from his blogging (it’s hard to fault him for that one—every newspaper journalist in the country is probably looking for secondary sources of income right now). He promised that the content of the blog would remain unchanged, as would the community of commenters.

The commenters, though, were not so easily swayed. Many of them started looking around Patheos and found that, though the site purports to be widely inclusive, the portals devoted to Christianity seemed to be more recently updated than those devoted to Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. The library contained inaccurate or outdated information. The most prominent bloggers appeared to espouse many of the fundamentalist positions that Fred works to refute. They were concerned that their comments, pageviews, and clicks might support a community whose values they found problematic. They also worried that the Patheos community would be hostile towards the newly-arrived atheist and agnostic readers (Patheos’s atheist/humanist section appeared to be abandoned). Many commenters were also concerned that the discussion in the comments section would become more inflammatory as commenters found their way to Slacktivist from other Patheos sites. The Typepad comments community had been largely self-policing, and the commenters were concerned with their ability to continue to maintain a similar environment with the new larger and potentially less-invested audience. Many of the commenters expressed sadness at seeing the disappearance of a community they had considered a safe space. And finally, they were unhappy with the technical changes made to the site and the comments in general, particularly the introduction of threaded comments and the repositioning of the comments box from the space below the already-posted comments to the space above it.

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