Lewis and Tolkien among American Evangelicals: Guest Post by G. Connor Salter (Lewis Scholarship Series)

This guest blog by G. Connor Salter is a response to a series of pieces called “Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship?” (see parts 1, 2, and 3). There are some deep conversations within the comments section of the articles, but I also set the digital soap box out for others, and this is one of the responses. Connor holds a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University, and works as a journalist in Colorado. As a freelance writer, he has published over 300 book reviews, primarily for The Evangelical Church Library Association. He presented an essay on C.S. Lewis and Terence Fisher at Taylor University’s 2018 Making Literature Conference, and released his first audio short story series, Tapes from the Crawlspace, in 2020.

As Brenton Dickieson noted recently on this blog, “Lewis is a deceptively accessible writer.” This means that not only do many people benefit from his work, but it’s easy to approach him at a simple level and not realize you’re dealing with a deeply intelligent scholar.

Speaking as an American who finished my undergrad at a small private evangelical college and now works in Christian publishing, I’ve found this creates interesting problems. On the one hand, I have friends and associates in the academy writing excellent things about Lewis and Tolkien. On the other hand, as a book reviewer, I’ve been alternatively amused and annoyed at how often Lewis gets cited (sometimes correctly, sometimes not) in popular Christian books.

In writing about why Tolkien scholarship is often stronger than Lewis scholarship, Brenton argues that “it was America that seized upon Lewis as a literary light, especially in education and the Christian community… As a result, many of the 25+ posthumously published Lewis volumes and the many reprints are popular and accessible books, largely pitched to Christian readers.”

This captures an important point: Lewis is often seen in American (particularly evangelical) circles as a great Christian thinker first and foremost. Evangelicals working in the academic sphere appreciate his scholarship, but this plays a small part in his American reputation. Lewis obviously matters a lot to American evangelicals, sometimes even being described as an “evangelical rock star”  or the closest thing evangelicals have to a saint. Many times though, Lewis has been used more like a mascot.

The problem with mascots is their reputation fluctuates with whatever they’re attached to. The popular idea of “who a writer is” can impact what direction research takes, because popular culture and the academy feed off each other. For example, Inklings scholar Sørina Higgins observed in 2018 that the Lord of the Rings and the Narnia movies have indirectly resurged scholarly interest in fellow Inkling Charles Williams.

People can also make writers into mascots when it doesn’t make sense on paper. Much has been said about how in the 1960s every anti-Vietnam protestor, Green Peace recruit or environmentalist seemed to either be reading Lord of the Rings or Frank Herbert’s Dune. A variety of scholars, both ones who interviewed Lord of the Rings fans in the 1960s and ones summing up the period later, have argued the student counterculture movement saw the hobbits as the ultimate nature-loving hippies. Obviously, there’s something odd about anti-war students choosing an epic fantasy with many pro-chivalry themes as their manifesto. The student counter-culture movement picked a side of Tolkien’s work that resonated with them and ran with it. In a similar way, American evangelicals have often resonated with certain sides of Lewis (his apologetics, his overtly religious fairy tales) and run with that interpretation. The evangelical Christian education movement has particularly embraced this side of Lewis, sometimes naming schools after things from Narnia (see Cair Paravel Latin School).

Therefore, we need to consider how American evangelical culture may have influenced Lewis research. Here are two broad movements that have arguably influenced evangelical views on Lewis, but which haven’t impacted Tolkien research.

  1. Evangelicals and the academy

Since at least the 1960s, evangelicals have become known for undervaluing scholarly research. A variety of reasons have been given for this trend – logical positivism downplaying Christian philosophy, anti-intellectualism from theological conservatives – but ultimately the trend led to Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in 1995. Noll, perhaps referencing a line by Lewis’ student Harry Blamires, summed the problem as “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Christian Smith showed how poor thinking could create problems with his 2007 essay, “Evangelicals Behaving Badly with Statistics,” where he cited evangelical leaders misunderstanding statistics to make drastic claims. Rick Richardson memorably used Smith’s point in his book You Found Me to argue the number of non-religious people in America is not as bad as many make it out to be.

Whether the scandal continues is hard to say. Noll and others returned to the subject with The State of the Evangelical Mind, where the introduction noted that Books & Culture proudly proclaimed in 2015 that the scandal was gone… but a year later Books & Culture folded. On a more optimistic note, Craig L. Blomberg and Darlene M. Seal say in their article for the 2019 book Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History that currently evangelicals are deeply involved “almost everywhere” in historical research on Jesus.

Regardless, the point remains that American evangelicals have struggled to consistently produce deep thinkers. This has affected many disciplines, from seminary education to basic Biblical education. One particular consequence is that the evangelical publishing market has seen many more popular treatments of subjects than academic treatments (even granting that academic treatments are inherently niche). Thus, emphasis on Lewis as a lay apologist, a sort of proto-Lee Strobel or Josh McDowell, has been especially common. Emphasis on his scholarship has been rarer.

Granted, some of this is relatively new. Brenton observes how Disney’s Narnia films created “the Lewis industry,” a glut of popular Lewis literature. However, publishers like Bethany House and Barbour had been releasing generic Lewis biographies for years before that. Lewis’ status as an apologist, his deceptive accessibility, and an under-emphasis on really probing his work, have made him an easy choice for “Great Christian Thinkers in 30 Minutes” kind of books. Tolkien, as a Roman Catholic who didn’t write apologetics or lay theology, is much harder to fit into that kind of book.

  1. Evangelicals and fantasy

The American Christian Fiction market (which is primarily marketed to evangelicals) has traditionally consisted of the Amish Fiction/historical romance mainstays with a new interest in thrillers that started with Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness in 1986. Peretti’s didactic use of spiritual material more or less set the tone for what qualified as “Christian content.”  There had to be a high emphasis on “realistic spiritual conversations,” lots of mini-sermons, and an appropriately tidy conclusion. Since literalism was so important, fantasy and anything involved magic was avoided.

When my freelancing career started in 2015, I got to interview Steve Laube, literary agent and owner of Enclave Publishing. Enclave had started in 2007 as Marcher Lord Press and was one of the early Christian publishers to specialize in speculative fiction. Laube made it clear that for a long time trying to sell speculative fiction to Christian publishers had been difficult. At one point he said “decades ago, fantasy equaled magic in many eyes. Narnia and Middle Earth were non grata because they had spells and witches in them.”

I later found an interview on Laube’s website where he described working as an acquisitions editor for Bethany House Publishers. He said the hardest book he ever had to convince the company to take was Arena by Karen Hancock (published in 2001). As Laube put it, “Fantasy was a no-no in the Christian market (and it still struggles to find a foothold). I decided to call it science fiction allegory and tried not use the “F” word…. fantasy.”

Since my undergrad was in publishing, I met many established Christian authors over the next few years. Most of what I heard proved Laube correct. There was an established base of writers working in fantasy and sci-fi, but most had made their careers in the last decade or so. Enclave wasn’t the only Christian publisher specializing in speculative fiction anymore (Rabbit Room followed in 2008, and the 2010s had seen new publishers like Mountain Brook Ink and Monster Ivy Publishing). However, the “Christian Spec Fic Market” was clearly still a small pool. Realm Makers, a writers’ conference focusing on Christian speculative fiction, started just two years before I entered my undergrad and describes itself as “the only writing conference for authors of faith who specialize in science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative genres.” Fantasy and science fiction had only recently gotten the seal of approval. Narnia may not have been non grata for everyone (as noted earlier, the Christian education crowd seem to have embraced it for some time), but for many American evangelicals it had been the safe fantasy series.

Even though things had changed and Tolkien was now acceptable, I noticed the Christian authors I met always seemed to mention him second. After college, it occurred to me that I’d found some great pre-2000s academic books on Tolkien as a Christian fantasist (Christian Mythmmakers by Rolland Hein, Colin Manlove’s work, etc.). However, the best popular books I could find (such as Devin Brown’s Christian World of the Hobbit) didn’t seem to have arrived until the early- to mid-2000s. This was not only the period right after Peter Jackson’s movies; it was also the period when the indie Christian Spec Fic market started.

In short, until the last 15 years or so, Lewis has been the designated fantasy author that many American evangelicals felt comfortable with. As things loosened up, Tolkien became “the other good/safe Christian fantasy author,” but still less known. This meant that while Americans had been writing popular Christian books on Lewis for decades, Tolkien didn’t get that treatment until later.

  1. Concluding Thoughts

It’s hard to say whether American evangelicals’ embrace of Lewis has ultimately been good or bad. We can reasonably say one negative effect is it’s been easy for evangelicals to co-opt Lewis without considering the full range of his work. Since Tolkien didn’t fit the American evangelical mold of a “good Christian writer,” it took longer for him to receive the same treatment. What Robert MacSwain calls “Jacksploitation” was around on some level even before Disney’s Narnia films. What we might call “JohnRonaldsploitation” is a newer phenomenon.

While this has shielded Tolkien scholarship in some helpful ways, popular interest has changed the game and will likely keep doing so. With a recent Tolkien biopic out and Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings TV show coming, popular interest in Tolkien may surpass the surge created by Peter Jackson’s films. Even if the Lord of the Rings TV show fails, other Inklings are becoming popular again – and in Charles Williams’ case, public domain, which opens the door wide for adaptations. Scholarship, entertainment and outright kitsch will exist alongside and feed off each other for the foreseeable future.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
This entry was posted in Reflections and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to Lewis and Tolkien among American Evangelicals: Guest Post by G. Connor Salter (Lewis Scholarship Series)

  1. Pingback: Lewis and Tolkien among American Evangelicals: Guest Post by G. Connor Salter (Lewis Scholarship Series) – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  2. danaames says:

    Very well expressed and easy to follow, Connor. I agree with you, esp on the point of Evangelicals not being interested in scholarly work on Lewis, only in how he bolsters the logical aspects of faith and furthers the possibility of evangelization Of course, there are some Evangelicals who do catch the depth of what Lewis is trying to say, even if they may not recognize the depth of the theology behind it. I was so sad to hear that B&C folded; it was about the last refuge for thinking Evangelicals not part of the academy.

    There are Christians out there who are interested in fantasy, fairy tale and speculative fiction, both writing and promoting the same; I’m aware of several Orthodox writers, and there has even been a gathering in pre-COVID days of such folk. One notable fellow you might have heard of is Nicholas Kotar (https://nicholaskotar.com), but there are others. Jonathan Pageau, Canadian icon carver, has also done a lot of analytical work on symbol in stories, including fairy tales; he has a YouTube site full of interesting stuff.

    Thanks for the good work, Connor.
    Dana Ames

    Liked by 3 people

    • I also feel sad about the loss of Books & Culture. I hadn’t quite thought of what you said, Dana: a bridge between the academy and thoughtful culture outside those walls.
      I would love to learn more about other views of fantasy and now follow Kotar. I’d love to know more from indigenous North Americans.

      Liked by 1 person

      • On the subject of Indigenous speculative fiction: I recommend Cherie Dimaline. I have recently read two of her books (“The Marrow Thieves” and “Empire of Wild”) and found them excellent and gripping. I also like Drew Hayden Taylor. Also Google for Indigenous Futurisms and check out Chelsea Vowel’s podcast on Indigenous SF.

        Like

    • Interesting that you mention the Orthodox. According to some Orthodox Christians I met and discussed this with, Lewis’s views were much closer to Orthodox Christianity than to evangelical Christianity. Both “The Great Divorce” and “The Last Battle” have Orthodox themes in them.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Many thanks for this, largely new to me!

    I wonder if – and if so, how – we can chart who in the US read what when, say, since the end of World War II? What was published – and what imported? Who was, variously, ‘open’, ‘wary’, ‘chary’, and ‘ hostile’, ‘Denominationally’, and personally? And what of the oldest two of the Wheaton ‘Seven’, George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton – even pre-WWII? I think how ignorant I am of the details of Clyde Kilby’s interest – and success – in attended to the ‘ Seven’, and doing so at Wheaton. How about Madeleine L’Engle? What of Christian (verse) drama – including the variously Inklings-related Sayers, Eliot, and Fry? Where does Eerdmans enter the picture? When were the very readable and Christian Tolkien essays, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” and “On Fairy-stores” read, and widely available?

    How delightful that there has been a self-described “Latin School” referencing Dorothy L. Sayers and naming itself after Cair Paravel for over 40 years!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds like a big spreadsheet David!
      Does anyone read Christian verse drama, except a few who tumble there through poetry or the Inklings or Arthuriana or something?
      Intriguing query. I do think that Wheaton has done some good things for Christian literary traditions in the US. Beyond the SEVEN they have other archives–connected to the Inklings, and folks like Frederick Buechner.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        It is – but I suspect it ought to be bigger still, if I knew enough to ask about details.

        I’m sure people do, though how many, where, I’m not sure – and I suspect a lot of it may be T.S. Eliot, and a lot of that via encountering him through school or university courses, though again, who reads him, where, at present, I cannot say. But a quick check on YouTube, for instance, finds not only discussions of Murder in the Cathedral on the channels ‘Learning Literature with Purba’, ‘Mission Crack Exam Mithilesh Kumar Pathak’, and, at ‘Study Lovers’ (with 1.37 million subscribers), the video ‘Murder in Cathedral: Play by T. S. Eliot in Hindi summary Explanation and full analysis’ with over 120,000 views, but also a Canadian college student production uploaded exactly one month ago.

        And, while this paragraph from the late Rex Walford’s 2011 Cambridge University obituary may speak to something exceptional in many ways, I don’t think it is so exception with respect to amateur productions of 20th-c. Christian drama:

        Alongside his academic career, Rex had a great love of the theatre, and was very actively involved, along with his wife Wendy, in amateur drama groups, largely as a writer, producer and musical director, producing performances of a high standard. A Dorothy L. Sayer fan, Rex wrote a ‘one women’ play about her life which he took to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1985 with the Head of Department’s secretary, Miriam Rundle, as Dorothy. He also produced a theatre performance of her radio play ‘The Man Born to be King’ as well as a dramatisation of ‘Murder must Advertise’. Since retirement, Rex expanded his life-time interest in theatre as a co-founder of Cameo Theatre Company, and at his death was a Council member of the Guild of Drama Adjudicators and Chair of the Cambridge Drama Festival. He regularly worked with soprano Gabrielle Bell in presenting programmes and workshops about musical theatre, and frequently led courses for the University Institute of Continuing Education on music, theatre and film. In all of these activities, and in his steadfast Christian faith, Wendy stood beside him and with him, encouraging, supporting, challenging, in a wonderfully reciprocal relationship.

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Just encountered a Dutch translation of Christopher Fry’s Thor with Angels published in 1960, with a blurb noting it had been performed by students of the Free University, Amsterdam, in that year. (I should probably have a quick Wikipedia browse in different languages, to start with, to see if I can get a sense of how common translation and performance of Christian (verse) drama is/has been in various languages…)

          Liked by 1 person

        • Cool conversation, David. Your sense of how beauty and truth are encountered in a stage setting and your broad reading really does make for comments I could not anticipate or imagine or reproduce!
          On this front, I think Sayers is on the rise and Eliot is pretty strong still. WH Auden is still circulating, but I don’t recall verse drama from him.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. robstroud says:

    I enjoyed this guest contribution to the current discussion. I agree with Salter’s analysis.

    I must confess, though, some regret in sensing (I could be wrong, of course) a slightly apologetic tone in terms of American and/or evangelical shallowness. I recognize this wasn’t Salter’s intention, but it seeps through in several places… the presumption that evangelicals are not quite mentally or academically qualified to sit at the “big doctor’s” table. Thus their superficial focus on Lewis’ work, and the corresponding lack of study related to Tolkien.

    Just one example to illustrate what I often hear–and sometimes personally feel: “Regardless, the point remains that American evangelicals have struggled to consistently produce deep thinkers.”

    While it’s most certainly not the author’s point that evangelicals are dull-witted, the use of the adjective “deep” in this case is unfortunate. I have know uneducated followers of Jesus whose depth of thinking… whose prayerful meditations on matters of eternal consequence, reached depths of profundity that some world renowned scholars have never attained.

    With that off my chest, I commend Salter’s contribution to the conversation, as well as his role as a Christian voice crying in the wilderness of contemporary American journalism. Thank you, Brenton, for hosting this fascinating discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this subtle poising of a question, Rob. For me, I feel apologetic in some ways for evangelical culture–though I’m not American. I will let Connor speak for himself, but if 1/4 of Americans are active evangelicals, it isn’t clear that they represent 1/4 of the leading physicists, medical researchers, poets, storytellers, playwrights, inventors, or leaders in their academic fields–though I admit I have no statistics, and it would not surprise me that there is great evangelical strength among things like award-winning doctors, nonprofit leadership, business, self-help books, and international development agencies. Maybe athletes too, and though I’m not sure about the leading innovators in music and songwriting, I’m sure Christian music sales are strong.
      For me, as an academic, a writer, a theologian, a tinker in ideas… evangelical culture has both stirred in me great things but left me sensing a great lack of “depth”–to use Connor’s word. Frankly, I think that this lack of depth flows through our church and is part of the reason for the current response to a culture war and political culture–or to the anti-Christian ideas that you can win a culture war if you fight it and a political lust for power. I think good but not great literature and arts as well as great but not world-leading scholarship is what it is because the foundation is not strong enough to support anything else.
      Perhaps.

      Liked by 2 people

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        To raise the terminological question, again – what-all is, and who-all are, meant by “Evangelical(s)” in U.S. terms? E.g., when I was at Oxford, ‘Evangelicals’ usually meant certain members of the Church of England, distinguished by two distinct ‘church cultures’, with local addresses: St. Ebbe’s and St. Aldate’s. (I don’t know if that was the case in the Days of the Inklings.)

        The only church I’ve ever been a member of was a (local) Presbyterian Church in the U.S., in part founded by a great-grandfather who had grown up Episcopalian and, among other things, taught at a local (‘Roman’) Catholic university – until it was closed down as unsustainable a couple years ago, it was ‘part of’ a ‘national’ Church, some of whose members in recent decades came to describe themselves as ‘Evangelical’, which somehow somewhat surprised me.

        And I have certainly encountered (‘Eastern’) Orthodox and (‘Roman’) Catholics who insist they are – whether in a given instance, large, or small, ‘E’, I don’t know – ‘Evangelical’, variously, par excellence or uniquely.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Cecilia Zeichner says:

          Re: Presbyterians calling themselves evangelical, I highly recommend this article (and the accompanying podcast) from Five Thirty Eight: https://fivethirtyeight.com/videos/nonreligious-americans-are-a-growing-political-force/?cid=rrfeaturedvideo

          It seems that Christians who also identify as conservative or Republican refer to themselves as “evangelical,” even if they rarely attend church. There has also apparently been an explosion of non-denominational churches among Evangelicals in America and these churches do not have member rolls, which make them a popular choice among younger people since this practice allows them to sort of “shop around” for churches that best suit their needs. Another interesting finding is that people are choosing their houses of worship based on their politics, not the other way around as used to be the case. I am not sure if this bodes well for the future of faith-based organizations but it is a fascinating reflection of how politically polarized American culture has become.

          Liked by 2 people

          • I read that article, Cecilia. Barna has also suggested that in 2016 rust belt states, they had the largest turnout of post-religious white evangelicals they’d seen–a phrase I find quite strange.
            It seems that in the US, American Evangelical churches have created a kind of phenomenon like mainline churches, where God can have “grandchildren”–if I can be crass.
            Leaving religious duty, worship, ethics, and community but keep a major strand of that religion’s local presence always scares me. In the US among white evangelicals, that is conservativism, but in Europe it was a colonial spirit, Matthew Arnold’s educational and poetic salvationism in England, and so on.

            Like

          • Good analysis, Cecilia

            Like

        • In my book, an evangelical is one who believes in personal salvation (“asking Jesus to be your saviour”) and usually vicarious atonement. They also tend to subscribe to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura but I doubt they would use the Latin phrase.

          Recently there has arisen a movement of liberal evangelicals (in the UK at least) who are less likely to be biblical literalists and less likely to be rude to people of other faiths or to LGBT+ people.

          By contrast there are still many evangelicals who are also fundamentalists (fundagelicals for short).

          There are evangelicals in the C of E but evangelicalism is mostly associated with small independent happy-clappy, er, charismatic churches.

          Like

          • I think it is important to separate fundamentalists from evangelicals. The latter believe in atonement, but need not make central the idea of a penal substitutionary atonement. Evangelical theologians would largely say “yes” to the Sola statements of the Reformation–including the intentional contradictions there. An evangelical might say scripture is “infallible” rather than “inerrant,” but “literalism” isn’t the watchword of evangelicalism (though it is of fundamentalist. And so on and on.
            The political emphasis in the US concerns me–to take a religion (evangelicals are a big chunk), then to pull out the Asian, LatinX, and Black populations, and then make that remaining group representative is deeply disturbing. It is the immigrant community, the Black and minority communities, regional variety, the challenge of generations and social movements, the global connection that has provided ongoing good tensions in American Christianity of various stripes.
            Sorry, preaching here!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Preach it! Yes I agree, there are definitely two separate movements.

              “The Spiritual Revolution” by Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead does a good job of analyzing the Christian denominations and trends in the UK but there have been some important developments since it was written, I think. Steve Chalke hadn’t yet decided in favour of same sex marriage back then, for example, which seemed like a watershed moment.

              Liked by 1 person

      • I also think that it’s very difficult to profess *any* religion in a university setting, due to the prevailing rationalist, secularist mindset. I know Pagan academics who have been looked askance at by their colleagues and had to retreat somewhat into the broom closet (Pagan term for not being “out” as a Pagan).

        Liked by 1 person

        • For me, it has gotten more difficult. During the postmodern heyday, I could tell my story, share my perspective, use characters from the lectern to challenge and shape ideas. Now I don’t feel I any longer have academic freedom, frankly.
          I am pretty open among faculty, though. I suspect it was my evangelical Christian commitment that led to an invitation to be on safe bathroom committee (for transgender folks, but beyond that too). I doubt that would happen in the US.

          Liked by 1 person

          • There’s a disdain in the academy of people believing in stuff. Often, they don’t really think you believe in what you profess; and if they do think you believe in it (especially if it’s “weird”), they probably look down their noses at you.

            Like

  5. Cecilia Zeichner says:

    Thank you, Connor, for this perspective. As a complete stranger to Evangelical culture I found this essay really fascinating. It reminds me a little of a discussion my husband and I had after listening to an episode of a podcast called Oh No Ross and Carrie where they reviewed a Christian movie called Mystery of the Kingdom of God. Both of the hosts grew up Evangelical–one even majored in Bible Studies–but now describe themselves as agnostic. Usually the podcast investigates pseudoscience claims (like the Winhoff method, if you’ve heard of that nonsense) and alternative religions that can be most kindly described as benign cults. Here’s the episode where they review Mystery of the Kingdom of God: https://ohnopodcast.com/investigations/2021/4/11/ross-and-carrie-go-to-the-drive-in-mystery-of-the-kingdom-of-god-edition

    The film had absolutely no narrative structure and even if the plot were coherent it wouldn’t have been especially interesting. The hosts began to discuss why there just wasn’t that much “good” Christian media, and my husband and I had the same conversation after the episode. One of the hosts, Ross, thinks that it’s because these sorts of movies and books are more focused on being didactic than entertaining and end up preaching to the choir. The fact that many Evangelicals had no access to fantasy–except for Narnia and LOTR, if they were lucky–makes me wonder if these aspiring artists just have no sense of how to tell a good story without beating people over the head with their message because they were very limited in what they could read and watch. The reason why Narnia, LOTR, and other works of fiction by the Inklings are successful and have actual literary merit is because Tolkien and Lewis were first and foremost interested in storytelling and mythmaking. As with the medieval and early modern texts they studied, Christianity permeated the pages of these books because the authors were fundamentally Christian and had a Christian outlook. A lot of the Christian media Ross and Carrie review speak to a lot of anxiety that the writers/filmmakers/artists have about maintaining their faith in the face of popular culture but what makes “good” art, perhaps, is a security and joy in one’s worldview.

    Apologies if this is a tangent, just something I’ve been thinking about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Possibly pursuing a tangent further, I wonder how (so to say) ‘apocalyptic’ fiction fits into this picture? For instance, I have (but have not yet read) a reprint of Sydney Watson’s In the Twinkling of an Eye (1910) and see that its 1911 sequel, The Mark of the Beast, is scanned in the Internet Archive and has a preface in part discussing ” the fictional form” – and including a reference to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s He’s Coming To-morrow (which her Wikipedia article suggests was published between 1889–93). I see elsewhere there is reference to Watson’s Scarlet and Purple as the third volume of this trilogy. Between Stowe and Watson we have at least the first of R.H. Benson’s pair of alternate futures, Lord of the World (1907), with the second, The Dawn of All, appearing in 1911. (We know Lewis knew the latter, and that Charles Williams knew another of Benson’s novels, The Necromancers (1909) – and there is a lively discussion of what more they are likely to have know of his fiction.) Benson and Watson seem to have been much-reprinted down the decades. What-all there is between these and the Left Behind “series of 16 bestselling religious novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins” (to quote its Wikipedia article), I do not know. But success – and so, access – in terms of sales and reprints, there has been, across an ecclesially/theologically-varied readership.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Reading this post, I am quietly reassured by how alien the evangelical world view now seems to me. Fascinating article though!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Steve Hayes says:

    While I don’t want to identify with the American secular media view that “Evangelical” is little more than a political lobby group, I think this article perhaps downplays the political aspect of this too much. There has definitely been an attempt by the American “religious right” to coopt C.S. Lewis to its cause — see here, for example Mere Ideology: The politicisation of C.S. Lewis | Notes from underground.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Steve, I’ll read that piece

      Like

    • Hi Steve, I read your article. I don’t know how broad the trend you talk about is–the American conservative appropriation of C.S. Lewis, which is dangerously selective. It certainly is there.

      In the nature of life synchronicities, I was thinking about this last week about this very issue. I’m reviewing a book I like that is an American conservative approach to things–which is fine. Most of the Lewis books I read are by American conservatives. But its publication firm also writes articles that support one side of the political conversation in the US (the conservative one), and my review got into that question. The book is published by an American think tank that calls itself non-partisan. It put me in mind David Theroux (whom you quote), who wrote to me some time ago to publicize something they were doing. I like some of what they do, but I couldn’t actively support an institute that had taken such a particular political side (conservative in this case) in the US context. Intriguingly, he kept insisting that they were non-partisan–as if party was the issue. I didn’t know about the “statism” piece you linked. In the email thread I was overly brief and imprecise and did not communicate well, unfortunately, being in a time of great weariness.

      So I remain torn. I don’t know how prevalent this selective appropriate of Lewis is. I presume it happens in pulpits a lot. I have found Reformed conservative evangelicals, for example, generally careful when writing theological pieces to note disagreements–but, of course, there will be some selectivity when dealing with an author, especially one as a dynamic as Lewis.

      Here’s what I have written for my next piece:
      If you look up the background of the think tank that published the book, most will recognize it as deeply conservative and very pro-American. It is a constitutional conservativism rather than the kind of conversation the current US Republican party is most interested in. Not being in that context but believing the US to be one of the greatest political experiments in history with a great propensity for creating a space for human flourishing, I wish the think tank could see “liberty” in a broader way. I have never understood why liberty-loving Americans of conservative leanings don’t have a love of liberty for those who want to be free to live morally different lives (like LGBTQ+ folk). I don’t understand why liberty-loving Americans who find government systems so distasteful and abusive of freedom–and I largely agree–can’t see how those systems can select out certain kinds of people on the margins for greater abuse than others. The Hebrew prophets saw it. And why do American conservatives in conversation with C.S. Lewis avoid Lewis’ argument that anti-environmental policy restricts the freedom (without consent) of future generations? Or that the state must intervene to ensure people are treated equally? C.S. Lewis’ liberty-loving thread in his work will always be subversive and cuts both ways against anti- and pro-state action–as we see in a humorous form at the close of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

      “And they made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being unnecessarily cut down, and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school, and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live.”

      While my reading of this book picked up the American context and a faith journey of a conservative Christian, I did not sense a kind of backdoor political recovery movement. What I think the author does is to take two Christian thinkers that he admires, read them well, and then draw them into his own context in meaningful ways. This is where these thinkers can shine for theological conversation, popular philosophical debate, ethical exploration, spiritual development, and for the pursuit of social justice in all kinds of contexts.

      Sometimes people roll their eyes, for here is another conservative or another American taking these figures up to challenge, reshape, and communicate their conservative, American perspectives. But frankly, they’re just better at doing it! When read well, neither of these thinkers would make an American conservative–and, particularly, an American Evangelical as in the case of many other projects–very comfortable for very long. They are too subversive, ironical, inversive, counter-cultural, and rooted in a worldview and place much different than the context in which they are being read. If we take it seriously, their thought will challenge our own.

      And is that not the journey we share as Christians–not a commitment as a nation, time, ideology, or political movement, but a commitment to the discovery of truth, the doing of goodness, and the sharing of beauty? Thus, I am not afraid of honest disagreement–though I will always resist appropriations that are essentially rebranding attempts for ideological purposes.

      So I would encourage you to read and enjoy ….

      And:
      The link to the David Theroux piece is now dead, renewed here: https://www.independent.org/publications/article.asp?id=2846. And the “hat tip” one too.

      Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Have you read Ayn Rand’s wild and imperceptive marginalia on The Abolition of Man? If not, see Arend Smilde’s Lewisiana blog…

      But I am not surprised that eight years under the Bolsheviks would make her intelligently critical of pretensions of ‘the State’ in many ways.

      The good old 1919 Volume XI Part I of the New English Dictionary (later, the Oxford English Dictionary) has an intriguing entry for ‘statism’ (p. 864, col.1) which calls it “rare” and has as its only non-“obsolete” sense “Government of a country by the state, as opposed to anarchy” with a citation from January 1880: “The Nihilists do not believe in Communism, which is as bad as Statism, and equally deserving of suppression.” Sadly, I do not have access to later additions at present. I have tended to assume that it was a translation of the French ‘étatisme’ – which Wiktionary glosses (among other things) “state socialism, government control” with a link to a French source indicating a date of 1890 in relation to Etymology and History, while Wiktionary glosses the English version ‘etatism’ as “total control of the state over individual citizens”, with Czech, German, Russian, and Swedish translations.

      Like

      • I have seen those Ayn Rand comments, but didn’t study them. She was a dynamic thinker. I didn’t mind the super long and boring Atlas Shrugged. It wasn’t the most offensive ideological novel I’ve ever read, though close.

        Like

  8. Joseph M Ricke says:

    One issue you might not have enough historical background on Connor, is the fact that many (most?) evangelical colleges/universities ran courses on something like “The Oxford Christian Writers” or “The Inklings” or “The Lewis Circle” or whatever as far back as the 70s and certainly by the 80s. I know because I a.) took them and b.) taught them. They just about always included Tolkien, whose work was mined for its Christian influences, images, etc. And many of us, as evangelical students and later scholars (and at least some of us, damned good ones, thank you very much Mark Noll) were coming to terms with Tolkien’s love of pagan (Northern) myth and Lewis’s love of pagan (classical) myth in their broad-minded medievalist vision (there’s a myth-buster for you, broad-minded medievalism). We routinely repeated to ourselves and whoever would listen (as students and later scholars) Lewis and Tolkien and Williams and Sayers and MacDonald and Chesterton (etc.) are not, were not, evangelicals, but neither were Luther or Augustine or Bonhoeffer or O’Conner or Pascal or Thomas A’Kempis or Tolstoy or Merton or Dostoevsky or . . . . any number of other authors/artists/thinkers were integrating into our understanding of God, the world, and human culture. In fact this was one of the defining marks of an “evangelical” approach to education, culture, scholarship and a “fundamentalist” approach. Of course, that distinction seems to have been lost in recent years as more and more fundamentalists starting calling themselves evangelicals and evangelicals gave up the fight. I will say that “evangelical publishing” which was almost completely (almost I say) separated from the evangelical academy was driven, for profit obviously, to fill the market with easy-peasy like “How to Understand The Abolition of Man” (just joking Michael), but slim (in thought if not word) restatements of what good fellows Lewis and Tolkien were. Little attention were paid to Mrs. Moore or spanking issues (oops!). So . . . if I had to look somewhere, I would focus more on evangelical popular culture, especially the publishing side of things. By the 70s, contra Noll, evangelical schools were responding rather robustly, although perhaps in a way that some in the academy think wasn’t robust enough, to larger issues of culture and art and history. John Stott’s slim volume, Your Mind Matters, was required reading as a freshman (whether students heeded the argument or not). If I remember right, one of Noll and Marsden’s major arguments, was that we weren’t doing enough graduate education and weren’t putting enough $ into scholarship. I always agreed with point #2, but a lot of us thought that really our graduates should go on to Virginia or Columbia or Michigan State if we had prepared them properly. Anyway, it’s a great discussion. I don’t think anyone has established yet that Tolkien scholarship is better than Lewis scholarship, by the way. But I’m just responding to your overview of evangelical culture acceptance of Lewis by saying evangelical colleges and universities were certainly featuring Tolkien and others as well (ask Crystal Downing, ask Charles Huttar), and evangelica “kids” were gobbling up Tolkien long before Peter Jackson reared his ugly head.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for bringing this up, Joe. It’s encouraging to know that the evangelical academy was ahead of evangelical publishing in this regard. I knew I was speaking particularly from a publishing perspective and wondered while I was writing this how academics would approach it differently.

      Like

      • Thanks Connor and Joe. I’d note a bit of agreement with what Joe said. I’ve been involved in evangelical colleges, universities, and seminaries for much of the last 25 years and they have always been very open to this kind of conversation. I do think the LOTR films in the early 2000s gave a boost to Tolkien in the public imagination, which finds its way out in many sermons and lectures and syllabi.

        Like

  9. Joseph M Ricke says:

    Sorry. I meant to say

    Like

  10. Joseph Ricke says:

    This is maddening. It keeps cutting words out of my sentences. I meant to say — //the defining marks of an “evangelical” approach to education . . . as opposed to a “fundamentalist” approach.//

    Like

    • I still distinguish fundamentalist and evangelical, recognizing a spectrum and overlapping goals and beliefs.

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Various of Ron Dart’s longer and shorter talks (on his own and other YouTube channels) might be interesting to bring in, here – e.g., his ‘Post WWII Theology’ series on Brad Jersak’s channel.

        Like

  11. Pingback: Why Do High Churches Get All the Good Artists? (Pt 1) – G. Connor Salter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.