Last year, JHU Press was honored to acquire the journal Christianity & Literature. Christianity & Literature, published since 1950, is a scholarly journal devoted to the exploration of how literature engages Christian thought, experience, and practice. The first issue published by JHUP is Volume 69, Issue 1 (March 2020), a special issue titled Literature of / about the Christian Right. The journal’s editor, Mark Eaton of Azusa Pacific University, and the special issue’s guest editor, Christopher Douglas of the University of Victoria, took some time to discuss how the topic for the special issue came about, how the issue tackles the theme, and what’s in store for this journal ahead.
How was the topic of "Literature of / about the Christian Right" and Christopher Douglas chosen as guest editor for this special issue?
ME: Since becoming editor of Christianity & Literature in 2015, I along with Associate Editors Matt Smith and Caleb Spencer, have organized two special issues each year, or two out of four issues in each volume. Special issue topics have ranged widely, including The Environmental Imagination, Poetics/Praxis, The Sacramental Text Reconsidered, and Sincerity. We have asked a number of well-known scholars to be guest editors of the special issues, which often include solicited articles as well as articles submitted in response to a call for papers. Colin Jager (Rutgers University) edited a special issue on The Secular and the Literary. We approached one of the contributors to that issue, Christopher Douglas (University of Victoria), about doing a special issue on Literature of/about the Christian Right. I have admired Chris's work for a while now. I read his first book on multiculturalism, and I reviewed his most recent book in Modern Fiction Studies. The topic is fresh and certainly timely given the current election year cycle. This issue gives us an opportunity to address a topic that the journal has not previously considered, indeed, a topic that literary critics have ignored for the most part, even critics who do scholarly work on religion and literature.
CD: I had recently written a book on a closely related topic: If God Meant to Interfere: American Literature and the Rise of the Christian Right (Cornell Universirt Press, 2016). As the title implies, I was trying to think about how US writers reacted to the startling political emergence of white evangelical Christians since the 1970s or so. Because of the widespread notion that religious faith declines in modern societies, that resurgence of conservative belief was unexpected, and sometimes difficult for outsiders to understand.
This special issue is on a similar topic. The “of / about” in the title means that we wanted to look at literature about the Christian Right by authors outside of it – which is what my book had done – but also look at literature by conservative evangelical Christians, which my book hadn’t done. The editors happened to have a book review of my book in the pipelines, as it were, and they decided to include it in this issue.
What challenges did you face putting this issue together?
ME: The biggest challenge in putting this special issue together was the fact that the journal was itself in the midst of a major transition. After being published by SAGE for the past 5 years, we negotiated a new contract with Johns Hopkins University Press. We are excited to be part of the prestigious journals list at JHUP. But this meant we had to make changes to our online peer review system and workflow chart. As guest editor, Chris might have a different answer to this question.
CD: One challenge is that there is not a large number of literary critics doing research on Christian Right fiction. Literary Studies as a discipline has been increasingly open to popular genres such as detective/crime fiction, mysteries, science/speculative fiction, young adult fiction, romance, fantasy, and graphic novels. Meanwhile, colleagues in other periods regularly incorporate popular religious tales to fill out our picture of lived religion, for the purpose of both teaching and research. But for a complex set of reasons, our discipline has been resistant to paying attention to evangelical fiction.
You note in your introduction, "Christian Right literature is more studied by social scientists and historians than it is by literary critics." Why do you think that has been so?
CD: One reason is that, most of the time, fiction by fundamentalist Christians is not artistically sophisticated or aesthetically interesting. Religious Studies scholar Glenn Shuck characterized the famous Left Behind series as using “solid, workmanlike prose,” which is probably fairly typical of fundamentalist fiction. One reason for this is that fundamentalist fiction often utilizes a narrative mode that does away with the kinds of ambiguities and language play that readers of serious literature cherish. As Hal Bush’s article in this issue suggests, fundamentalist fiction like Left Behind or Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness are committed to “epistemological certainty” – unlike, he shows, literary fiction such as Mariette in Ecstasy and Peace Like a River. Other religious experiences – like mystery, wonder, ambiguity, and doubt – are purposefully excluded from fundamentalist fiction. The literary mode of important sections of the Bible – mystery, ambiguity, elliptical silence – is precisely the mode that fundamentalist writers avoid in their bid for mastery and control over its meaning. It is re-enchantment by force rather than seduction.
Another reason is closely related to it, I believe. Scholars in contemporary religion and literature are not infrequently people of faith themselves. Such scholars tend to be thoughtful Christians, and their religious beliefs and practices are not characterized by fundamentalism. These scholars, I think, find the theology and politics embedded in Christian Right literature embarrassing. I argue in my introduction that one reason literature and religion studies has been slow to include Christian Right literature is that such scholars have tried to cultivate the study of more thoughtful Christian literature – such as the work of Marilynne Robinson, for instance – as well as a “postsecular” mode of literary criticism that is more open to religious belief and assumptions. Both of these things are good and proper, but a side effect has been the somewhat studious aversion to paying attention to the politics and literature of the Christian Right.
What makes a piece of writing of the "Christian Right" rather than just "Christian"?
CD: There are many different Christian traditions, with different theologies, church practices, political commitments, and practical ethics. As I outline in the Introduction to the issue, 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, and they remain his core base of support. In terms of church tradition and theological genealogy, their politics can be traced back to pro-Segregation Christianity, and pro-Slavery Christianity before that.
And of course, there are other Christian traditions with different beliefs and politics – alternate traditions that might trace their history back to Christian abolitionism or the Civil Rights leadership of African American Christians like Martin Luther King, Jr. This is why it is worth distinguishing not just among different Christian groups, but also among differences within evangelicalism itself.
You quote Frank Schaeffer in your introduction noting that the New York Times does not factor in sales from religious bookstores for its best seller list. Is this still true?
CD: I don’t think so. But the secularizing assumptions of professional journalism has made it struggle to grasp the nature of politically muscular evangelical Christianity. The critique of hypocrisy has run out of steam, as I have argued elsewhere, but journalism has struggled to confront the difficult reality of the asymmetrical radicalization of America’s two-party system. Books like It’s Even Worse than It Looks by Norman Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann and How Democracies Die by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky begin to tell this story. The Christian Right has much to do with that.
Many people might be surprised by the number of sub-genres there are in Evangelical Christian literature. Articles in this issue cover evangelical women's romance, evangelical spiritual thriller, and "gospel thrillers". What other genres of evangelical Christian literature exist that aren't covered by the papers in this issue?
CD: Perhaps the best known is the apocalyptic End Times literature made famous by the Left Behind series; it also spun off a book series directed at children, as well as films and video games. There’s lots of historical romance, romances set in Biblical settings, the antebellum South, the wild west, contemporary teens. Maggi Kamitsuka’s essay illuminates Francine Rivers’ prolife Christian Romance novel in which a Christian woman struggles with the difficult decision of whether to terminate her pregnancy. There is devotional, theology-heavy fiction, the best known of which is probably William Paul Young’s The Shack. Andrew Jacobs’s article treats one of the strangest genres – the ‘gospel thriller,’ the first of which featured a purported lost gospel that turns out to be a nefarious forgery intended to subvert Christianity.
Perhaps most frightening is evangelical survivalist fiction, in which different apocalyptic scenarios – pandemics, terrorism, fiscal crisis, neutron bombs, electro-magnetic pulses, etc. – result in the breakdown of the US government, and civilization itself. The white Christian heroes – “preppers” – retreat to their stockpiled bunkers in rural areas while cities descend into chaos and violence. As some of these books say, “it’s in the Bible.”
What might someone who considers themselves a "none", or not practicing any particular faith tradition, gain from exploring Christian fiction?
CD: Evangelical scholar Mark Noll has criticized the lack of “serious intellectual life” within his American evangelical tradition, calling it “the scandal of the evangelical mind.” Exploring Christian Right literature is a way into the evangelical mind, giving us access to the inner life and experiences of evangelical Christians. This Christian Right literature is often simultaneously an example of the scandal of the evangelical mind, illustrating its frequently simplistic and reactionary epistemology, ethics, and politics. The fiction helps us understand the worldview of one of the most politically powerful demographics in the United States – and how it has helped bring the country to its current twinned epistemological and constitutional crises. We should read This Present Darkness and the Left Behind series to gain an understanding of evangelicals’ sense of embattlement, of being a besieged minority in a hostile secular state.
For instance, the fiction reveals an idea that will be incredible to the “nones”: that sometimes some evangelicals literally demonize their political opponents – as in, believe that actual demons are manipulating liberal, secular, and progressive Americans. As one can see in this video, President Trump’s spiritual adviser Paula White recently strode the grounds of the White House exorcising demonic networks laid to trap the president – which is similar to This Present Darkness, where the preacher protagonist walks through the town, engaging in “spiritual warfare” with the demons he senses:
Televangelist Paula White, a key spiritual adviser to President Trump, brags of using her access to the White House to declare it "holy ground" that is sanctified by "the superior blood of Jesus." https://t.co/dwBFs2MCe8 pic.twitter.com/zz804kbY09— Right Wing Watch (@RightWingWatch) September 11, 2019
Do you hope this issue will serve to inspire further study of this area of literature from literary scholars?
ME: I certainly hope this issue inspires further work on Christian right discourses and texts from literature scholars. There is a lot more material worth considering. And this sort of inquiry can surely shed some light on how we arrived at the quite polarized political climate we see today, with populism on both the left and the right wreaking havoc on the two major political parties.
CD: Yes. In other periods, literary scholars routinely place ‘high’ literature beside popular literature in order to develop a more complete picture of the religious landscape. Just the other day my medievalist colleague was preparing to teach the medieval legend The King of Tars and Marian miracle tale “How a Jew Threw His Son into a Fiery Oven Because He Had Taken Communion with Other Christian Children on Easter” to his graduate class, beside the more literary John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer. I hope literary scholars of the present will take a cue from literary scholars of other periods – as well as social scientists and historians who study Christian Right fiction as a way of comprehending the religious present – to continue to produce a more complete map of religiously-interested literature of the contemporary period.
What can we look forward to in upcoming issues of Christianity & Literature?
ME: Currently we are working on a special issue about U.S. ethnic and minority literatures. We have not done a single author special issue in a while, since we organized a very successful special issue on George Herbert, so it's possible we will do something along those lines. Meanwhile, we continue to get excellent submissions to Christianity & Literature for our general issues. Just this week, I got two articles back from external peer reviewers, and notably all four reviewers agreed on these articles: Accept. As editor, I'm really excited about our new relationship with JHU Press and Project MUSE. I believe we have an opportunity to bring new readers to the journal. This special issue seems like a great way to launch Christianity & Literature with JHU Press.
Dr. Douglas, what is next for you? Are you working on another book?
CD: My current research is on the religiously-interested fiction that is concerned about theodicy – that is, God’s continuing goodness, power, and agency. I’m trying to pursue the goal this special issue is advancing: to ‘de-silo’ literary studies by examining conservative evangelical fiction alongside serious ‘literary’ fiction. My method is akin to Wai-Chee Dimock’s “deep time” approach to literature. I want to read contemporary fiction about theodicy in terms of the many historical layers of the Bible and in a kind of dialogue with the Ancient Near East cultures, particularly Jewish ones, that first generated many of the concerns of today’s evangelical Christians (e.g., the sovereignty of the single God, apocalyptic End Times, the invention of the literary character Satan, angels and demons, heaven and hell). The first piece of this new research is just now coming out in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion; my article is called “This Is The Shack That Job Built: Theodicy and Polytheism in William Paul Young’s Evangelical Bestseller.”