Book History 5 (2002) 209-236
[Access article in PDF]
No Longer Left Behind:
Amazon.com, Reader-Response, and the Changing Fortunes of the Christian Novel in America
Paul C. Gutjahr
Much ink has been spilled on the topic of the uneasy relationship between American Christians and the novel. The vast majority of this scholarship has centered on American Protestantism's antagonism toward the novel in the early nineteenth century. With few exceptions, the dominant narrative of this relationship goes something like this: American Protestants viewed fiction writing in general, and the novel in particular, as a serious threat to the virtue and well-being of every American up until the 1850s, when their opposition began to gradually erode until it was washed away completely by the astounding popularity of Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, first published in 1880. 1
As with so many grand narratives, this one is flawed. American Protestantism has never been a monolithic entity. It has varied according to regionalism, denominationalism, and its connections to other American cultural practices such as science, education, and politics. Perhaps the most important, and most ignored, part of this accepted narrative centers on how [End Page 209] influential conservative elements within American Protestantism continued to show a distrust toward the novel through much of the twentieth century. This distrust manifested itself most clearly in a vibrant opposition to novels with overtly Christian content, echoing long-standing arguments declaring that fact and fiction cannot be profitably commingled. As late as 1993, one irate Protestant author captured the longevity of Protestantism's aversion to the novel when she titled a pleading article that appeared in the major Protestant periodical Christianity Today "Stop Rejecting Fiction!" 2
The intention in this essay is to correct the long-held view that Protestant opposition to the novel all but ended in the late nineteenth century. Instead, as the title lists of the most important Christian publishing firms show, a pronounced opposition by various segments of Christian Protestantism to certain forms of fiction lasted well into the 1980s. American Christians may have begun to read more and more novels as the nineteenth century progressed, but even at the close of the twentieth century there existed severe doubts about the propriety and efficacy of Christian novels—novels explicitly populated with Christian characters who partake in edifying narratives bent on espousing orthodox Christian doctrine and encouraging a Christ-like ethic of behavior.
The corrective this essay offers is all the more important because of the size and vibrancy of twentieth-century American Protestant publishing. With a growth rate at times nearly twice that of the twentieth-century American publishing industry in general, Christian book sales in 1996 reached three billion dollars, a 14 percent share of the country's publishing industry. 3 Yet this segment of American publishing is so noticeably understudied that the religious historian Martin Marty has rightly named it "largely an invisible phenomenon." 4
Only in the last two decades have American Evangelicals—an umbrella category for certain more conservative American Protestants and 38 percent of the United States' general population in 1990—begun to warm to the presence of Christian novels. 5 Although this fact is striking in itself, it is made all the more intriguing by the reasons that lie behind this acceptance. By examining the history of twentieth-century Protestant book publishing in the United States in general, and the reasons behind the astounding success of the Left Behind novel series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins in particular, I will argue in this essay that the last significant vestiges of opposition to the Christian novel receded from American Protestantism because the fictional form of the novel became an important, and largely untapped, resource for explicating the nonfictional content of the Bible. Further, the ability of fiction to explain scripture has not only helped pave the way for American Evangelicals more readily embracing the Christian novel, but has also led to blurring the line between the categories of...