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  • What Would Jesus Read? Popular Religious Books and Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century America. by Erin A. Smith
  • Barbara Ryan
Erin A. Smith. What Would Jesus Read? Popular Religious Books and Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 424pages. $39.95 (cloth).

For years now, Janice Radway has urged researchers to realize how much islost when we “saturate” receptors with one facet of their complex identities. In What Would Jesus Read? Erin A. Smith supplies effective support. Historians of print will appreciate how her book delivers what it “attempts[:] to describe a poorly charted world of popular religious reading” (5) that led to developments such as marketing that “made it ‘easy,’” as a source of 1974 put it, “to ‘pick up religion with your groceries’” (207). Vital to Smith’s ability to de-saturate receptors is her commitment to meshing studies of “lived religion” that stress practice, not doctrine, with histories of consumer culture such as Roland Marchand’s Advertising the American Dream (1985). Her lucid findings focus on White U.S. Protestants but do not stop there, making some room, too, for transnational inquiry. As a result, the books she prioritizes meant so much, to so many, between the 1890s and our day that subjects of her research must have overlapped with the story-lovers whose engagements inform much of what scholars know about U.S. reading over those generations.

A laudable result is how difficult it should be, from this point on, for all who study U.S. reception of newspapers, novels, film, television, video games, and more to ignore the odds that many of the citizens they study were engaging simultaneously, or choosing to bypass, best sellers as varied as Charles M. Sheldon’s In His Steps (1896), Harold Bell Wright’s The Shepherd of the Hills (1907), Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows (1925), Joshua Loth Liebman’s Peace of Mind (1946), Billy Graham’s Peace with God (1953), Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), Karen Armstrong’s A History of God (1993), and Elaine Pagels’s Beyond Belief (2003). Beyond these “star” books, moreover, dozens more sold less well yet briskly enough to be folded into scholarship that attends to milieux. In this regard, What Would Jesus Read? backs up Smith’s reminder that long after best seller lists began to be compiled in the 1890s, these records “were not accurate reflections of the world of books and reading” (218).

In pursuit of more accurate reflection, Smith starts with novels that preached the Social Gospel. You may have read everything on In His Steps, but even if you have, you can learn from Smith’s analysis of Sheldon’s depiction of reading, [End Page 120] writing, and libraries. You can learn, too, from her comparison of similar depictions in a U.K. novel with a huge U.S. following: Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s Robert Elsmere (1888). Smith’s tone grows sarcastic in the next chapter, which interrogates Harold Bell Wright’s sermonic best-sellers. This shift prefaces a claim that comes close to serving as the premise of her book as a whole: “Apart from dismissing ordinary readers as unintelligent and aesthetically challenged (as many of Wright’s critics did), we have no way of explaining why so many Americans read such bad books with so much intensity and passion” (72). The push-and-pull of this claim is reiterated in the sentence that follows: “American literary history ought to include all kinds of readers and writers.” The inference that Smith wants to challenge analysts who think this claim incoherent--owing to what they think “literary” means--gains strength from a later chapter’s discussion of her reading group’s way of engaging Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003). That discussion begins with a reference to Smith’s Ph.D. in literature but plateaus with this punchline: “I was quite sure . . . [but] I was wrong” (293).

Smith’s interest in a “mass-marketable faith” (81) devoid of creed or doctrine recalls Paul Gutjahr’s discussion of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1880) in An American Bible (1999). She sounds like...


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