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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

March 5, 2013: Popular Fiction: Christian Novels

[In this week’s series, I’ll be considering some authors, texts, and contexts related to a much-maligned (in certain circles at least) but vital part of American literature: popular fiction. Your responses, favorites, critiques, and other takes will be welcome for what’s sure to be a popular crowd-sourced weekend post.]
On one of the most consistent, yet often overlooked, categories of best-selling American fiction.
I’d be willing to bet that a fair number of my fellow AmericanStudiers haven’t heard of one of the couple best-selling American novels of the 19th century: Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? (1897), which has sold some 30 million copies and counting. Moreover, while I’m sure that many more folks have heard of one of its chief competitors for the century’s sales crown, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), I would likewise wager that the Charlton Heston film is far more well-known than Wallace’s hugely popular novel (which from the time of its publication on outsold Uncle Tom’s Cabin, perhaps the only 19th century novel to do so). The two novels are distinct in many ways, including time period (Sheldon’s is set in the present, Wallace’s a historical novel), but of course share one central similarity, as their overt subtitles indicate.
In yesterday’s post, I argued that it would be difficult to AmericanStudy our contemporary society without an awareness of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. I’d stick to that position, but would be hard-pressed to argue that Meyer’s books, or any other recent publications, have been more popular than Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind novels. The 16 Left Behind books have sold upwards of 100 million copies, which at a time of proliferating entertainment options (nobody in Sheldon and Wallace’s day could choose CDs, DVDs, or cable TV over reading a novel) is a truly striking number. This series represents a cultural force that cannot be dismissed or ignored—except for the fact that, it seems to me, many of us AmericanStudiers do tend to ignore it. And I’m including myself in the mix very fully, as I know far more about Twilight (without having read a word), or even about Fifty Shades of Grey, than I do about LaHaye and Jenkins’ series.
Is that ignorance, and the parallel lack of awareness about Sheldon and Wallace’s earlier novels (which, in the interests of full disclosure, I know about mostly because my Dad once taught a class on best-selling novels and talked about them with me), a result of the gap between the relatively non-religious academic community and the still largely religious (if evolving) broader American one? I’m sure that’s part of it. But I think it also relates to another complex aspect of popular fiction, as it relates to scholarly work. These are, quite simply, not conventionally, and certainly not academically, good novels—they’re not well-written, they’re not nuanced, they don’t reward further study and analysis. But they’re unquestionably appealing, offer their audiences experiences and satisfactions that have endured across the centuries and made all of them among our best-selling literary works. Whatever our hesitations—and again, I’m speaking for myself first and foremost here—it’s time to get over them and get into this significant American genre.
Next popular fiction post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on these texts and themes? Suggestions, favorites, or other responses?


  1. Awesome series, Ben. What about modern Christian fiction? Or Christian-themed, like Dan Brown?

  2. Thanks, Heidi! Brown is particularly interesting in comparison to Left Behind (which is a contemporary series that I mentioned here)--the heretic vs. the orthodox, I suppose.

  3. I'm sincerely glad you mentioned the Left Behind series! I haven't read them personally but I did know a lot of born-again Christians in my area who have. They were big fans and it's very important to acknowledge the popularity of those books, even if they were not as "mainstream" (how is 100 million copies sold not mainstream?) as Twilight.