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. David Day argues in Tolkien’s Ring this attraction was because the student counterculture movement saw Frodo as the ultimate peace-loving hippie. 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.
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11 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 1 person

    • 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.

      Like

  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!

    Like

    • 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.

      Like

      • 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.

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  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.

    Like

    • 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.

      Like

      • 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.

        Like

        • 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.

          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.

    Like

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