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.

I don’t have any brilliant ideas to offer, other than to register my own agreement that ignoring the popularity and influence of evangelical publishing and Left Behind specifically runs the risk of impoverishing our understanding of contemporary American culture and reading practices. My own interest in the distribution and reception of novels makes Left Behind of particular interest. In this context, Paul Gutjahr’s article, “No Longer Left Behind:, Reader-Response, and the Changing Fortunes of the Christian Novel in America” (Book History Vol. 5) provides one model for considering the novels. Gutjahr acknowledges the difficulties for scholars of the series:

“While scholars of the Left Behind phenomenon often find it hard to get through the books in order to analyze them, the books themselves continue to sell in the millions. Any understanding of such popularity is usually left to the realm of conjecture and anecdotal evidence, but there does exist another source of information on what has moved readers—particularly Christian readers—to embrace these books.” (218)

That source is Amazon, and Gutjahr analyzes the seventeen hundred reviews of the novel that were available in 1999. Much of what Gutjahr describes confirms what one might intuitively assume about the novels’ readers: they tend to be Baptist and to believe in a premillennial dispensational theology; they appreciate that the novels are fast-paced and engaging; they see them as tools for evangelism and emphasize that they are more than just exciting novels. Gutjahr finds it surprising that many readers also identified as an important element of the novels that they aided them in their own study of scripture—this, too, seems fairly intuitive to me, but according to Gutjahr, pairing fiction with Biblical study has historically been absent from American religious reading practices. Gutjahr attempted to follow up with some of the books’ readers, and found that many of the respondents cited an increased understanding of the end-times and the Book of Revelation as one of the most significant elements of their reading experience. Gutjahr’s final conclusion is that the Left Behind books, and their Amazon reviews particularly, challenge our traditional understanding about what is and isn’t (or can and can’t be) a sacred text.

All of which, I think, speaks to the need to take books like the Left Behind seriously in our study of American culture, and especially in studies of reading, publishing, and book-buying.

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