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New Scholarship on Religion and Literature, 2000-2012 (November 2013): Religious Publishing in America

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein

Religious Publishing in America

Thanks to increasing interest in book history, popular culture, and reader reception, a number of recent books have turned to religious publishing as a significant market phenomenon.  By the end of the twentieth century, Christian fiction had emerged as a major market category, yet one frequently ignored by mainstream scholarship.  Anita Gandolfo’s Faith and Fiction: Christian Literature in America Today notes in particular how such novels embody current anxieties in the American religious sphere (fundamentalism, sexuality, political influence, civil religion, and so forth) and failures of communication between opposing theological and political viewpoints.  Gandolfo covers both novels that exploit religious tropes in the cause of best-seller status, as in the case of Dan Brown’s conspiracy thrillers about the Roman Catholic Church, and novels that address an explicitly evangelical Christian market, including the “Left Behind” series and Christian romance.

Indeed, the “Left Behind” phenomenon has proven fruitful for scholars interested in how evangelical culture appropriates and reworks popular culture for its own purposes.  The most historically wide-ranging study is Crawford Gribben’s Writing the Rapture: Prophecy Fiction in Evangelical America, which argues that “Left Behind” is only the most recent representative of a genre invented by evangelicals, the prophetic novel (or, in this case, “rapture fiction”).  Gribben (himself a former member of the Plymouth Brethren, whose founder, John Nelson Darby, popularized belief  in the “Rapture”) develops a genealogy of prophetic fictions and situates them in the context of the trials and tribulations of dispensationalist theology.  Two other studies, Glenn Shuck’s Marks of the Beast: The Left Behind Novels and the Struggle for Evangelical Identity and Amy Johnson Frykholm’s Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America, offer a more sociological and contemporary-oriented analysis.  Shuck reads the novels in terms of their conjunctions with various aspects of modernity problematic for evangelicals, emphasizing “network culture”—the new technologies, such as the Internet, that simultaneously threaten evangelical communities and enable new ways of conceptualizing them.  Frykholm, drawing on interviews as part of an empirical reader-response approach, analyzes how evangelical and fundamentalist readers mobilize the stories as part of their own attempts to come to grips with “mainstream” American culture.

The spiritual romance, meanwhile, is the subject of Lynn S. Neal’s Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction, which follows in the footsteps of Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984) by conducting interviews with a variety of self-identified evangelical romance readers.  Neal concludes that while these novels hardly qualify as “feminist,” they supply their readers with a woman-centered religious discourse that they may not have in their churches, and often supply genuine inspiration and emotional support (through both individual reading and reading communities).