A fun, insightful read for Christian bibliophiles

Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith
Daniel Silliman
Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Pages: 276

What is an evangelical? Looking to answer the question, author Daniel Silliman, a historian and one who grew up in a “peculiar” church and found faith as an adult, starts with a Christian bookstore. Though now a dying breed it was once a popular Christian focal point. I can personally attest to this. Becoming a Christian in August of 1976 I soon became a lifelong customer and eventually an employee of One Way Book Store in Eureka, CA. I was working there when sadly it went out of business after 30 years. So Silliman had me from the beginning in that Christian bookstore. If you are a Christian bibliophile this is not only an insightful analysis but a fun one.

Before I started I was a little apprehensive. Would I discover that I had run my course in vain? Would the author’s words be like a hammer or his thoughts cut like a knife? I didn’t want to see the environment that was formative for me lying in ruins. Although here the emphasis is on Christian fiction whereas I was more of a non-fiction reader. It was not until later that I saw the benefit of Christian novels. I’ll never forget the owner of the bookstore and editor of the George MacDonald series, Michael Phillips, giving me The Musician’s Quest. My eyes were opened. Later, I began to enjoy my mother’s collection of the House of Winslow series by Gilbert Morris.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached this book. To my relief I found Silliman to be fair and balanced; no bashing going on here. Even if he disagrees with views presented in the books under consideration, he doesn’t critique. I suppose it’s nearly impossible to be entirely neutral, but it’s only towards the conclusion that I saw a little more of his personal viewpoint as he mentions how some of the mindsets in the books paved the way for the acceptance and popularity of Donald Trump. But if you are a fan of the former president, there is no reason to be deterred since it’s not a book that is overtly critical of him. It’s a volume that I recommend to anyone who has an interest in Christian fiction and the bookstores and industry that gave rise to its popularity.

It’s greatest value may be in clearly articulating the background and worldview behind some of the most popular books in this category. It’s as if, like in the Wizard of Oz movie, Silliman is pulling back the curtain, not to reveal charlatans, but authors trying to convey what faith looks like in the world of their time. Having read one of these books when I was young in the faith and being aware of the others, through Silliman’s summaries I see the underlying messages in these novels. Perhaps they could be broadly summarized as a shift to more of a man-centered theology as opposed to being God-centered. To some extent they fall short of love being expressed through sacrifice, serving and suffering as encouraged in our own day by New Testament scholar N. T. Wright.

The novels reviewed in their order are:

Love Comes Softly
This Present Darkness
Left Behind
The Shunning
The Shack

The other day I attended a library sale that had a large selection of Christian fiction that had already been picked over from a previous sale. Aside from me there appeared to be little interest in these books, which consisted of the ones reviewed here or were similar in some way. They seemed destined to be thrown away or included in the next buck-a-bag sale. It saddens me that since they are no longer popular, they seem to be of little value to most people. Too much fiction today, Christian or not, is probably disposable. How I wish it were not the case.

Perhaps in considering Reading Evangelicals and books like Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, which I have not read but know enough about to see as a companion, we can have a more substantive engagement with popular culture.

It amazes me that what Silliman highlights defines evangelicals during the times the books were written. Each volume tells another part of the ongoing story, reflecting and influencing the movement. It’s a novel way of defining evangelicals but it succeeds in presenting a less than flattering picture. Evangelicals should welcome whatever is valid. It gives us the opportunity to change so that the rest of the stories we write having more lasting value.

The book itself is a beautiful green cloth with silver gilt edge on the spine. I also like the color scheme on the jacket.

Michael Dalton