One of American Evangelicalism’s Biggest Failures: Lack of Literary Fiction about Itself
When I write a blog post I have to assume readers know something about “where I’m coming from.” I can’t stop and spent hundreds of words explaining my background, my mental, spiritual and emotional context. On the other hand I am excruciatingly aware that not knowing that (which is often the case with newcomers to my blog) sets up a likelihood of misunderstanding. So, for those who don’t already know, I am a Christian theologian with a “lover’s quarrel” with my own tradition—American evangelical Christianity. And “my American evangelical Christianity” is not the one depicted by the mass media as the Republican Party at prayer. I have stated how I understand “American evangelical Christianity” here so many times that I will not go over that again. However, I would ask those who don’t know it to look up and read a few of my blog posts about the subject here before jumping to any conclusions.
I read a lot of fiction—probably about twenty-five to fifty novels per year. (I listen to many of them on my ipod and read others either in solid book form or in electronic form on my ipad using the Kindle application.) One thing I have noticed is that most novels written in the latter half of the 20th century or so far in the 21st century that touch on religion tend to be biased toward atheism or Judaism (or Jewish ethnicity) or Catholicism. By that I mean the main characters’ religious and/or worldview beliefs and experiences, if any, are rooted in those traditions. If evangelical Protestant Christianity comes up at all it is usually treated from an outsider’s perspective and one heavily biased against it.
I just finished listening to a novel I greatly enjoyed—Indignation by Phillip Roth, a great American novelist. As with most of his main characters the one featured in the novel (which is the basis of a movie soon to be released under the novel’s title) is Jewish by ethnicity and culture and religious upbringing but has a lover’s quarrel with both (i.e., his Jewish heritage). A significant part of the plot involves the main character’s attendance at a conservative Christian college. The setting is 1950s Ohio. At the center of the novel is the main character’s conflicts with his father, an orthodox Jewish butcher in New Jersey, and the dean of the college, who is portrayed as a kind of religious fascist.
Sidebar: *The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Why I enjoyed the book is difficult to explain except that it is extremely well written; it is a great character study and—to me—gripping story that involves two of my favorite subjects: religion and psychology and especially how they are related to each other. However, in introspective mode, I suspect that I enjoyed the novel partly because of the main character’s courageous response to the college dean’s extremely intrusive interrogations and attempts to control him. I could identify with him in that he obeyed the college’s rules to a fault while objecting to some of them and reserving the right to have his own inner life not controlled by the college’s leaders. He “talked back” to the dean in a way few students could or would and that I wish I had (knowing I would have been expelled for it which is why I didn’t).
However, having said all that about Indignation, I must also say that it portrays American evangelical Christianity very negatively—as a kind of not very subtle religious fascism. I admit there is that side of it; there is that tendency within it. Evangelical leaders of institutions and organizations can be extremely heavy-handed toward even respectful dissent expressed as honest questions.
So what do I wish more novels did? I wish that occasionally, at least, the positive sides of evangelical Christianity would be at least acknowledged in literary fiction. But I realize that can probably only be done effectively by someone with an insider’s experience of and appreciation for that tradition.
Don’t get me wrong! I am not interested—for myself, anyway—in fiction genres such as the extremely popular “Amish romance” novels that crowd the shelves of conservative Christian bookstores. While I have nothing specifically against those novels, I do not consider them literary fiction. Nor is being Amish quite the same as being American evangelical. (Although I have nothing against being Amish.)
So, occasionally over the years I have asked myself—and heard and read other evangelical lovers of literary fiction asking—where are such novels as I seek? If they existed I would not limit myself to reading them. Not at all. However, at least occasionally, I would like to have the experience of reading a literary novel that is written from within the American evangelical tradition even if it is somewhat critical of aspects of that (my) tradition. But I do not want it to be “nice;” I want it to be realistic.
For whatever reasons, so it seems to me, American evangelical Christianity has largely failed to produce from within itself such realistic, literary fiction about itself. And by “about itself” I mean simply where at least some of the main characters are authentically portrayed as having that as their culture and spiritual tradition and where it is treated at least somewhat sympathetically (e.g., not as snake handlers or blatant hypocrites, or only judgmental of everyone, etc.). I do not want the “dark sides” of American evangelical Christianity ignored; what I want is for them to be incorporated into fiction written from within the evangelical subculture.
Recently I stumbled across a relatively new novel by an author I heard about many years ago. She and her husband have co-authored a novel I am enjoying immensely that seems to fit the kind of evangelically-based, realistic, literary fiction I seek. Her name is Shirley Nelson and her husband and co-author (for this book) is Rudy Nelson. The book is The Risk of Returning. It is currently published by Wipf & Stock (second edition, 2014). You can purchase it on Amazon for Kindle. If I’m not mistaken it was originally published by Troy Book Makers—a publisher I’m not familiar with.
Now I realize I am no expert on literature, but I think I can tell the difference between realistic literary fiction and just story-telling. In my opinion, for what’s it’s worth, The Risk of Returning is realistic literary fiction and treats evangelical Christianity with some respect. I know it is the authors’ own religious heritage. Both in this novel and in Shirley Nelson’s better known, earlier novel The Last Year of the War (originally published in 1978 by Harper & Row and now published by Wipf & Stock) American evangelical Christianity is written about from the perspective of a lover’s quarrel.
The Risk of Returning is, in my judgment, a gripping story about an American adult male (another thing I like about the book) who grew up as an “MK” (evangelical lingo for “missionary kid”) in Guatemala. There’s a mystery at the heart of the book—what happened to his father in that country. As an adult, having largely abandoned his evangelical Christianity, he returns to Central America to find his father’s grave and to discover, if possible, what happened to him there after he, the central character, “Ted,” was sent to a boarding school for MKs in the United States. His mother returned, but his father never did. His mother would not tell him what happened to his father. The book is about his journey back to Guatemala to uncover the secret that has haunted him his whole life. I won’t give anymore of the plot away; I’ll just say it’s a gripping story that involves mystery, Central American politics, liberation theology, and indigenous Central American Protestantism.
This novel deserves much greater attention than it is getting! If you, like me, would like to read a gripping character study surrounding a mystery of a missing parent realistically written from within a broadly evangelical worldview sympathetically treated that is also literary, this may be the book for you. It is for me. Every day I can’t wait until evening to return to the book. I think I will be sad when it’s over. I have already fallen in love with Ted—the main character. I literally cried when I read the rather lengthy section where he finally returns to the Mayan village where he and his parents lived and is drawn back, however reluctantly, into their indigenous evangelical Christianity including singing “How Great Thou Art” in their language.
I wish there were more novels like this. I’m sure many of my readers will have suggestions, but please (!) remember my description of what I seek: literary fiction that authentically and at least somewhat sympathetically treats evangelical Christianity as so many novels do Judaism (or at least Jewish tradition and heritage) and Roman Catholicism and occasionally “mainline” Protestantism (e.g., Gilead).
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