Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith

Reviewed by:

Connor Salter, Professional Writing alumnus from Taylor University, Upland, IN.


Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith


Daniel Silliman





Publication Date:

October 5, 2021


286 pages


What does “evangelical” mean? For Daniel Silliman, the answer is bound up in a particularly evangelical product: Christian fiction novels. They become a fixture in Christian bookstores in the 1970s, and now include mainstays like Amish romance and supernatural thrillers. While these books may not get mentioned in religious surveys, Silliman argues they have become part and parcel of evangelicals discussing who they are, what they believe, and where they are going next. He builds his case by looking at five seminal Christian fiction novels that captured in microcosm what was going on in evangelicalism:

  • Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke: the first Christian romance novel, released when Christian bookstores were a new phenomenon
  • This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti: Christian Fiction’s first supernatural thriller, intensely connected to the 1980s Christian Right culture wars
  • Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins: a thriller that connected to late 1990s eschatology trends and Christian Right concerns
  • The Shunning by Beverly Lewis: the first Amish romance novel, exploring ideas about tradition versus expression
  • The Shack by William Paul Young: a different kind of supernatural story that followed postmodern Christianity’s interest in faith being ambiguous

In his chapter on each book, Silliman not only considers how each book captures the topical concerns of the time, but also the authors’ lives connect to those concerns. Along the way, he considers how these books affected evangelicalism’s evolving identity, including recent political concerns.

Silliman writes in a very accessible way even covering lots of history—one of his chapters covers how Christian publishing evolved from the late 1800s to the present, thanks to Eerdmans, Zondervan, and Baker being founded in the 1930s and then Christian bookstores appearing in the 1970s. Silliman also places the authors in historical context—Peretti’s interest in Francis Schaeffer, LaHaye’s campaigning for Barry Goldwater. Occasionally his sources may not be the best (such as harsh quotes from an unauthorized Schaeffer biographer that seem unfounded). However, overall Silliman does a great job of giving a balanced take on the authors and their influences.

Silliman’s key takeaways are clever, even when he has to skim over paradoxes. He makes a great argument that these Christian fiction novels are worth studying because they give a snapshot of evangelical culture at the time—in fact, this argument has been used for other kinds of commercial fiction. At least two scholars of pulp fiction (Edgar Rice Burroughs biographer John Taliaferro, Dennis Wheatley biographer Phil Baker) have argued their subjects’ books give important snapshots of their cultures. Silliman also shows how in cases like Left Behind, readers used the books to dialogue about their beliefs, not just buying into the authors’ clear agenda. This raises a paradox: unlike commercial fiction, Christian fiction has often been touted as a safe space for evangelicals concerned about liberal messaging—the Christian parent’s ammunition against “everything out there.” Ergo, if Christian fiction has become a space for readers to dialogue with an author’s ideas, it’s happened by accident. Silliman doesn’t go too much into this paradox, possibly due to space constraints. Perhaps later scholars will use his impetus to write a full book on that paradox.

Silliman’s key takeaway about Christian fiction and politics is equally interesting. He argues that if we want to understand why many evangelicals accepted Donald Trump as a presidential candidate, we need to consider what values these five books propagated. Regardless of which way these authors voted, “it was not hard to see that their fiction encouraged a particular kind of politics.” Silliman shows how these books’ themes (individualism over institutions/general welfare, life as a spiritual battle against pluralism, fear of outsiders) fit Trump’s message, one of many factors that led evangelicals to resonate with him. Silliman’s point is especially interesting if one reads This Present Darkness and Left Behind as political thrillers—stories in the vein of Wheatley’s thrillers, where rightwing heroes fight Satanists hiding behind every bush.

In the end, Silliman argues the problem with Christian fiction has been that “the imagination was too small,” but he looks forward to seeing how evangelicals continue using the genre to dialogue about their beliefs. His sense of optimism is interesting, since Silliman admits he’s never had a clear childhood connection to evangelicalism. He describes his eclectic religious upbringing, followed by getting his master’s and doctorate degrees in Germany. In that respect, Silliman fits into the tradition of cross-cultural travelers writing great insights on American evangelicals—writers like Francis Schaeffer who left America to live elsewhere, or Makoto Fujimura whose multicultural heritages make them “border-stalkers.” Perhaps the proof that Silliman’s hopes are fulfilled will be the day when a “normal evangelical” writes a book of this caliber. Until then, Silliman gives readers plenty to think about, advancing the “evangelicalism and culture” conversation in crucial ways.


Rating (1 to 5 stars):

5 stars

Suggested Audience:

Readers interested in classic Christian fiction books, and the interesting way those books intersect with America’s religious history.

Christian Impact:

Silliman carefully considers what each of these books says about redemption, justice, and human flourishing, and how those ideas fit with broad Christian teachings on those subjects. He also considers some of the limits of the books’ ideas, how a book can fit Christian ideas but get stuck in inconsistencies.

Note: ECLA readers who enjoy this book may also enjoy the following:

Art and the Bible

Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity

Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts

Songs from the Silent Passage



Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith


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