TEACHING TRUTH WITH FICTION

Not for the first time, a conversation with Tommy Kidd has set me thinking.

Whenever I teach a course on virtually any topic, I use non-textbook materials including memoirs, autobiographies, and/or fiction as a basis for discussion. (See for instance a course I taught for many years at Penn State on Modern Christianity, with the accompanying discussion guides). Fiction is particularly valuable for these purposes, as entertaining material is more memorable than anything dry and academic, and it’s useful for students to have characters and events as a basis on which to support broader ideas. It also gets them into handling primary sources.

But here’s a thought. Imagine you wanted to teach a course on Evangelical Christianity, past or present, what novels or similar texts might you use? One problem of course is that for many years, evangelicals had real doubts about the whole world of novels, which they associated with frivolity and immorality, and that’s why there is no evangelical Jane Austen. On the other hand, Puritans like John Bunyan have a good claim to have invented the English novel as a genre  – Pilgrim’s Progress, or The Life and Death of Mr. Badman. They were after all fundamentally interested in exploring the inner landscapes of the mind and soul. But for later years, the pickings are scarcer. I love for instance to use Lewis’s Screwtape Letters as a teaching tool, but what else leaps to mind? I’m not necessarily referring to books that happen to be authored by evangelicals, unless they centrally address those distinctive religious themes.

In particular, what American books illustrate evangelical approaches or mindsets at first hand in a way that we can only draw out with difficulty from sober textbooks? Well, there’s Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps, but what else? And what is accessible to a modern readership?

In fairness, novels about evangelicals (or Puritans) abound, but commonly, they work from the assumption that evangelicalism is a problem to be solved, as the characters liberate themselves by moving forward into doubt, skepticism, or sexual liberation. That doesn’t mean that the books in question are useless for teaching about evangelicalism, but they have to be used carefully. To take an obvious example, Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry (1927) is a goldmine of social, cultural and religious history for the era of Aimee Semple McPherson and J. Frank Norris (Only a small proportion of this material found its way into the classic 1960 Burt Lancaster film). Having said that,  the book’s overall picture of the American religious scene is extremely hostile, much like Hawthorne’s earlier accounts of New England Puritanism.

In the modern period, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985) actually has some great material about growing up in a British Pentecostal family – from which a restless young lesbian must at all costs escape. I like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004) as a novel, but does it really reflect any kind of evangelical world plausibly, however many Calvin quotes get thrown in along the way?

And don’t get me started on the problem of finding novels for courses on new and rising churches in the Global South. (Ideas anyone?)

A final thought. I honestly wonder how many courses on Evangelical Christianity, or on Pentecostalism, are taught as free-standing units in secular universities?  It would be useful to collect sample syllabuses online as a guide to other people thinking of mounting similar ventures at their own institutions. I plead ignorance: has anyone done this?

  • Brian

    1. Leif Enger, “Peace Like a River” (2002)
    - This is not only a book by a Christian about evangelicals (I can’t figure out whether the author identifies himself as evangelical or not), but it also happens to be my favorite novel, period. Here are a couple good interviews of the author: http://www.wab.org/events/allofrochester/2004/interview.shtml AND http://www.whitworth.edu/Administration/InstitutionalAdvancement/UniversityCommunications/WhitworthToday/2004_Fall/EngerInterview.htm

    2. Stephen Lawhead is an evangelical who has written Arthurian fantasy, Robin-Hood tales, and medieval adventures. Maybe a good place to look?

    3. Although I have not read it, I have seen Francine Rivers’ “Redeeming Love” everywhere, for years. This book has definitely captured a huge slice of evangelicalism today, especially evangelical women.

    • Philip Jenkins

      I haven’t read “Peace Like a River”, but it sounds like a great choice.

  • Brian

    How could I forget – the “Left Behind” series. You can’t ask for much better if you’re looking for dispensational evangelicals clearly laying out their worldview for you in a novel.

    • Vic

      Only it’s such bad writing.

      • Philip Jenkins

        Boy, you had me excited there with a reference to an Elizabeth Bishop novel!

    • Philip Jenkins

      Yes, LEFT BEHIND is a natural choice in some ways, but it doesn’t lend itself to easy classroom use, as each individual volume is so LONG.

  • Vic

    No Graven Image by Elizabeth Bishop

    • Vic

      Did I say Bishop? I meant Elliot–Elizabeth Elliot.

  • Jonathan Den Hartog

    Since John Turner has blogged about developing an Evangelicalism course at George Washington, it might be interesting for the two of you to have an Anxious Bench exchange about the topic.

    As for novels, an older one is Shirley Nelson’s The Last Year of the War, which pictures WWII-era Moody Bible Institute. More recently, I thought Bill Svelmoe’s Spirits Eat Ripe Papaya covered well both the missionary impulse and the strengths and weaknesses of evangelical community

    • Philip Jenkins

      Excellent ideas – though Shirley Nelson’s The Last Year of the War appears to be out of print

    • John Haas

      Plus, Svelmoe’s book features the character of Joseph Haaf, really one of the most charming, fascinating and compelling characters ever devised by any writer of fiction in any century . . .

  • http://jacobsenwriting.com David

    “The Brothers K” by David James Duncan. Written by an outsider who knows the inside of the faith. A stunning novel.

    • Philip Jenkins

      Don’t know it but it’s now on my amazon wishlist.

  • Philip Jenkins

    I’m delighted to see these comments – exactly the kind of suggestions I was hoping for.

  • http://embraceparadox.tumblr.com Matt

    Would Lord of the Rings qualify since Tolkien writes with an implied Christian worldview (as opposed to the explicit and obvious worldview of Lewis)?

  • John Acker

    Ooh, this is my dissertation topic. Let me get back to the thread later, but one suggestion for now: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852).

  • http://www.deniseframeharlan.com Denise Frame Harlan

    I’ve had good success in the classroom with Wendell Berry’s Fidelity. It’s a collection of five short stories, and each one seems exquisite, shaped by the rich events that frame small town life, duty, responsibility, how belief shapes everyday life in a town where each person matters. I’m wracking my brain to remember specific questions about theology in the text– I’ll look at my notes.

  • John Haas

    Harold Frederic’s “The Damnation of Theron Ware” gives a nice view of 19th c. Methodism, and throws in Irish-American Catholicism as a bonus. It’s a little like that scene in Annie Hall where the screen is split to show and contrast Alvy’s and Annie’s respective families.

    • Philip Jenkins

      Watch my next posting on Monday for my take on THERON WARE!

    • Jonathan Den Hartog

      I’ll look forward to Prof. Jenkins’s discussion of Theron Ware. I think it illustrates well the dilemmas facing late 19th century evangelicals before the Fundamentalist Controversies.

  • Philip Jenkins

    I would draw a distinction here, in that it’s not too difficult to find novels on Catholicism, for instance – J F Powers is great, Farrell’s STUDS LONIGAN is wonderful, Walker Percy – and Anglican/Episcopal themes are also easy enough to find, but I was specifically struggling with the evangelical end of the spectrum. Hence Tolkien, for instance, is fine as a resource, but not for the evangelical wing.

  • Aaron Guest

    Haven’t read the book yet, but doesn’t David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King” feature an evangelical thread?

  • David

    I just finished “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. Not exactly evangelical-specific but addresses some of the broader issues of religion and society. Brilliant stuff.

  • David

    I’m also teaching a course this fall on Religion and Literature and am racking my brain trying to complete the database. Suggestions please!

  • Steve

    Could one construct a course on race, gender, and religion based on these novels?: http://www.amazon.com/MUST-Read-Christian-Novels-Part-1/lm/4D8FGCFSCVS1/ref=cm_lm_byauthor_title_full

  • http://jacksonianamerica.com Mark R. Cheathem

    In my course on conspiracy theories in American history, roughly a third of the novels I assigned to the 19 students dealt in some way with dispensational theology (the Rapture, the Antichrist, the Tribulation etc.).

  • Fred Clark

    Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe involves a fictional nondenominational sect with a good bit of late-20th-century evangelical feel to it. There’s a well-rendered Pentecostal character in Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs — just a subplot to the main channel of the novel, but it’s an affectionate characterization and includes a really moving scene in which we see his faith shaping his life.
    The greatest literary depiction of American evangelicalism, of course, is Ned Flanders of Springfield.

    • Philip Jenkins

      Ned Flandiddly-anders? Definitely.

  • Todd Brenneman

    For 19th-century evangelicalism I would suggest Elizabeth Stuart Phelp’s The Gates Ajar, which would get you to grief, sentimentality, the domestication of heaven and evangelicalism. For more contemporary evangelicalism (by evangelicalism) I think Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness would get at those evangelicals who focus on spiritual warfare as well as the general evangelical belief in the reality and activity of the supernatural in daily life. It would also introduce how evangelicals think about the culture wars as being evangelicals against demonic forces, etc. I think it would be a good pairing with Sheldon’s In His Steps because I think there would definitely be some parallels as well as thinking about the change (especially with Sheldon being more liberal in his evangelicalism and Peretti representing more conservative views). It might also be interesting to look at Lynn Neal’s recent work on evangelical women and romance novels. It is around 200 pages but would be very accessible to undergrads and might also provide you with some sources to draw from, like River’s Redeeming Love. Connected with focusing on women, there appears to be a great interest in the Amish in recent evangelical fiction. Beverly Lewis (not LaHaye) has written several Amish romance novels but there are others as well. Finally, the novels of Ted Dekker might be interesting as well. Dekker tries to meld evangelical themes with sci-fi, fantasy, action-adventure types of themes. His Circle books (named Black, Red, and White) would be interesting to explore because it represents evangelicals trying to meld their views on humanity, the gospel, etc. with modern, popular culture. The Circle books, for example, are compared to the Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and other fantasy novels. This could address the struggles evangelicals have in trying to determine how to fictionally be in the world but not of the world. I think this could really be an interesting course–whether done at a state school or even if an evangelical college took it on to consider how evangelicals have engaged popular culture but also in how they have variously depicted the message in the world around them.

    • Philip Jenkins

      Thanks for an erudite and helpful comment!

  • Philip Jenkins

    STOP PRESS: (I always wanted to write that). My posting on The Damnation of Theron Ware will be postponed till this coming Friday, as there is another more time-sensitive piece that I want to include tomorrow, Monday 9th.

  • http://www.newberry.org/out-of-many Chris Cantwell (@cdc29)

    I really like teaching with Herbery Asbury’s fictionalized memoir _Up From Methodism_. It’s an absolute screed against evangelical prohibitions on amusement at the turn of the twentieth century. The book falls within the “religion is backward camp,” but Asbury is so consistent and clear that the text is great for getting students to think about argument, audience, and perspective. (Yes rural Methodists prohibited baseball on Sunday. But what sources other than the backwardness that Asbury cites could motivate this?)

    I also think it’s worth including in this mix the plethora of evangelicalistic tracts. With their tidy narratives of redemption, these definitely are a kind of fiction.

    Great Post. Thanks.

  • http://literarypentecostal.blogspot.ca/ Andrew Connolly

    I am currently working on an English PhD at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. My dissertation is on Pentecostal deconversion narratives in both fiction and memoir. As part of my research, I am compiling a list of fictional portrayals of Pentecostals in fiction. I just posted a list on my blog. (http://literarypentecostal.blogspot.ca/2012/07/pentecostalism-in-fiction-list.html). I strongly recommend the James Bladwin.

    Not included on the list are Flannery O’Connor’s novels, though I have read one critic who suggests the characters are, indeed Pentecostal. I am skeptical, but I will have to read them again to verify. I left them off the list until I can do that.

    • Philip Jenkins

      Yes, I think it would be pushing it to claim any such label for O’Connor’s characters. BTW, my Baylor colleague Ralph Wood did a just superb 2004 book on “Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. “

    • Philip Jenkins

      And the list is really good – lots of stuff I don’t know.

  • Paul Matzko

    A new book that’s getting a good deal of play in the Reformed evangelical blogosphere is “Evangellyfish” by Douglas Wilson. There is much about Wilson that I detest, but the reviews of the novel are quite bullish. It’s a critique of doctrinally-thin, seeker sensitive, mainstream evangelical megachurch culture. http://www.amazon.com/Evangellyfish-Douglas-Wilson/dp/1591280982

  • http://alszambrano.wordpress.com Amanda Z

    What about A Tale of Two Cities? The whole point of the novel is sacrificial love, and a fallen, sinful man who finds redemption through love and sacrifice. Near the end of the novel he continually reminds himself of scripture, and of Christ. I’m not familiar with Dickens’ religious leanings, and he certainly didn’t write the book to be “evangelical” – but Sydney Carton becomes a Christ image at the end of the novel. If you want to teach about Christianity being put into practice, self-sacrifice of the magnitude found in A Tale of Two Cities doesn’t come much closer.

    Other potentials: Lewis’ “The Pilgrim’s Regress.” “The Singer Trilogy” by Calvin Miller. “Barabbas” by Par Lagerkvist. Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible” explores some thoughts surrounding early and mid- 20th-century thoughts on missions. I agree that Peretti and Dekker have something to offer. “The Painted Veil” (Maugham) also offers some commentary on early 20th century missions. Maybe “Blood of Heaven’ or “Eli” by Bill Myers would give some good insight as well.

  • http://jackheller.wordpress.com Jack Heller

    I have to recommend Ernest Gaines. From best to flawed-but-worth-reading: A Lesson Before Dying (truly a masterpiece), A Gathering of Old Men (never met anyone who read and didn’t like this), and In My Father’s House.
    For theological novels, how about some Graham Greene? The Power and the Glory?

  • http://jackheller.wordpress.com Jack Heller

    Okay, I’ve looked back over this list, and . . . um, it’s white. So,
    James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain
    Baldwin, The Amen Corner
    Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography (don’t remember the complete title)
    William and Ellen Craft, Running 1000 Miles for Freedom
    Charles Johnson, Dreamer
    Seems like something from Toni Morrison would fit.

    • Philip Jenkins

      Your comment about the whiteness is very well taken.
      Great list of suggestions.

  • http://jackheller.wordpress.com Jack Heller

    Non-Western, or trans-national:
    Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Thing Around Your Neck
    a problematic suggestion, but Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton
    Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies

    • Philip Jenkins

      THINGS FALL APART is a natural.
      I like THE THING AROUND YOUR NECK immensely, but I have never thought of it as particularly informative on religious themes – am I missing a lot here?
      On African-American issues, GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN is also excellent.

      • http://jackheller.wordpress.com Jack Heller

        The Adichie collection might be an outlier for this question, suggested in part on my recall of conversations and Adichie’s presentation at this year’s Festival of Faith and Writing. I’ll have to review it myself. That said, the rest abide for me. Perhaps an extra plug for Lahiri.

        I would like to add writers from the Native American and Latin American/Caribbean traditions, but I am drawing blanks at the moment.

        • Philip Jenkins

          Plugging good and under-appreciated authors is always a noble cause!


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