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?