Take A Little Read With Jesus: The Proliferation of Evangelical Fiction

One of the consequences of seeking out free ebooks to entertain myself has been exposure to a lot of things I would not have otherwise read. Some of these things were very bad and I put them down after about 30 seconds, others were less bad, and some are just…interesting. Evangelical fiction falls into that category, and I appear to be developing a kind of morbid fascination with it.

Evangelical fiction, for those not in the know, is on the rise in the United States in a big way. As we move politically to the right, there’s been an explosion of expressions of evangelism in fiction, and not just the Left Behind series. There are scores of Christian authors explicitly identifying as such and positioning their work to appeal to other Christians (and, in some cases, to reach out and bring the word to non-Christians). There are entire evangelical publishing houses, and authors who have built up quite a reputation as ‘inspirational Christian authors.’

For some of these authors, it feels to me like their books are trying to meet a niche. They have trouble with secular fiction and a lot of the content therein, and they want to have more books to read, so they figure they’d better write some. This is reflected in the language on the jackets, where the publisher talks about how books are suitable for Christian readers. I see a lot of ‘gentle love stories,’ by which the jacket copy means that the characters will hug now and then and perhaps kiss, and they will get married, and everything else after that is up to the imagination of the reader. They want, in other words, to write books that people like them will feel comfortable reading.

There’s often an element in these books of saving someone who is not Christian; the story may not revolve around it, but it’s an underlying thread, that the end goal is bringing someone to church, or getting that character to read the Bible, or just to talk about Jesus. Notably, many of these stories seem to involve lapsed Christians, and the work of the Christian character seems like a blueprint, for me, of how to bring a wayward sheep back to the fold. You get these long, drawnout scenes with serious conversations where very clearly the author wants to model how to do this for the benefit of readers.

Some books are not overtly Christian. I can’t really handle the ones that go all Jesus from page one, but sometimes I get suckered in. I read along for 100 pages and then ‘heeere’s JESUS!’ And at that point I am invested enough in the story that I am willing to sit through the conversion scene or the lecture about going to church or whatever and to get on with the story. These authors, I suspect, are the ones who are using their fiction as a form of evangelism, in the hopes that people like me will read enough books like this to be brought to the light and suddenly start going to church. (So far I have not experienced an itch, but I’ll let you know if that changes.)

It’s also notable that the bulk of evangelical fiction is very, very white. Very rarely do I see people of colour or nonwhite people in these books, and if they are present, they are usually there in the form of an object lesson. The character needs to help a poor child of colour, say, or there’s the obligatory Black thief brought to God. Likewise, of course, these books are strongly heterosexual in nature. The authors appear to be careful about avoiding homophobic language and framing, but their books reinforce the idea that heterosexuality is the way and the light, and you’d better stick with the program.

Of course, people with disabilities in evangelical fiction are only there as inspirations and tools. Either someone is angry about being disabled and needs to get down with God to understand why it all happened and become a better person, or someone is disabled and devoutly Christian and wants to go around talking about how terrific God is and how getting closer to God brings about reconciliation with disability. These syrupy framings of disability are oh so very gagworthy, but I can’t blame evangelical authors because secular authors use disability in pretty much exactly the same way, even if it’s not God-specific.

It’s astounding to see how much evangelical fiction is available for free. At any given time, the bulk of free ebook listings on sites like Amazon is usually comprised of evangelical fiction, and it tends to sell extremely well. People like free things; I don’t think that scores of Christians are frontloading the statistics here. I think there are a lot of people like me who are willing to give a variety of things a shot so long as they are free, and the evangelical market has really tapped into this. Their model as publishers is not just about making a profit, but also about making some conversations, and they’ve found an ideal way to do it. People who wouldn’t pick up a pamphlet to save their lives are willing to read a book, especially when the cover and description are vague enough that they don’t realise what they are getting into.

It’s a big market, and people are adeptly exploiting it. Say what you will about Christianity, it is very organized, especially in the case of evangelical Christians. They appear to be particularly adroit when it comes to adjusting tone and message to suit the audience, taking advantage of new methods of communication, and finding a way to connect with people. I find many evangelical folks lovely and charming to talk to and it’s in part because they channel their firm desire to bring me to God through a filter, because they want to find the right wavelength to reach me on. So far it hasn’t worked, but I find the study of evangelical tactics and communication methods fascinating nonetheless.