What Would Jesus Read?

Today's post comes from Kyle Williams, a PhD student at Rutgers University studying American cultural and intellectual history. This is Kyle's first post at the blog, so please give him a warm welcome! 

Kyle Williams

Hal Lindsey’s editor at Zondervan initially told him to keep his expectations for sales low. Another Bible prophecy book probably was not going to be that remarkable. The market, he said, was already flooded with them. His readers would be curious evangelicals, Dispensationalist ministers and laypeople, and whoever else might find themselves at a Christian bookstore. The future of Lindsey’s book looked decent, maybe, but predictable. The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), of course, actually turned out to be anything but typical. Instead of going out of print, it was the bestselling book of the decade, with ten million copies in circulation by 1980. Instead of being a book for Christian readers alone, it enjoyed enormous crossover appeal. And its success was immediate—Zondervan did eight printings in less than six months and had over 130,000 copies in print within a year—and long-lasting—tens of millions of copies sold over subsequent decades.

What, exactly, was so appealing about The Late Great Planet Earth? Many critics and theologians considered it a dumbed-down version of a dubious eschatology. They tended to think of its readers as little more than “cultural dopes,” to use Stuart Hall’s term, willing to believe incredible interpretations of Biblical prophecy. Martin Marty, for example, from his perch at Christian Century wrote sarcastically that in place of his elementary school atlas, “which had taught me love of the earth,” he could substitute Lindsey’s book because it “teaches that because Jesus is coming soon, I should hate the earth and love not the things of the world.”

It is easy to look back on The Late Great Planet Earth and find many things to criticize or poke fun at, not the least of which was its evidently mistaken eschatological timetable. Hal Lindsey’s crude interpretation of the prophecies of Revelation, Daniel, and Ezekiel apparently did not come to pass in the 1980s. But as Erin A. Smith, an associate professor of American studies and literature at the University of Texas at Dallas, argues, to focus solely on the theological arguments or the politics of the book is to miss out on a big part of what makes it important. What we should pay attention to is the work that the book did. It engaged those who were interested in contemporary international affairs and gave them an interpretative lens by which to make sense of themselves and their world. “The book did good work,” she writes, “brought them closer to God, and helped them to convert their friends. Its theological incorrectness was easily overlooked.”

In her wide-ranging and productive new book, What Would Jesus Read?: Popular Religious Books and Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press), Smith argues that historians should give more attention to the experiences of readers and the ways in which religious books were useful to them and engaged their “daily lives in immediate, material ways.” Smith works at the intersection of several fields, including the history of the book and consumer culture, but she takes her inspiration for this impressively comprehensive book from scholars of lived religion, such as David Hall, who have studied religious print culture in the colonial and antebellum periods. What Would Jesus Read? spans the twentieth century, considering in their turn social gospel novels, consumeristic religious books of the 1920s, mid-century religious self-help books, the evangelical “culture of letters” in the 1970s-80s, and finally new gnostic texts and books for spiritual seekers in the 1990s and 2000s.

From The Late Great Planet Earth and Left Behind (1995-2007) to The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) and That Printer of Udell’s (1903), Smith explores books that are wide-ranging in chronology and genre. One thing that most of her books have in common, however, is that they are generally not very good ones. Smith includes in each chapter the voices of contemporary critics—often theologians or intellectuals—who complained that these popular religious books were artistically mediocre at best, that they were not theologically or historically rigorous, that they indulged in consumeristic complacency, and that they served up religious platitudes. She does not argue against these critics that, for example, The Da Vinci Code is actually a literary masterpiece. These concerns about literary quality are beside the point: “Books that were bad by literary standards were not necessarily bad by religious ones.” The point of these books for her is what readers thought about them and how they made use of them to manage their fears and anxieties, and how books helped them to “feel as if their lives mattered in the larger scheme of things.”

Like those contemporary critics, historians have tended to miss important parts of the story of these religious books, she argues. Consider one recognizable example. Bruce Barton, the advertising executive and public relations pioneer, whose 1925 bestselling book, The Man Nobody Knows, recast Jesus of Nazareth as a masculine businessman whose corporate organization and effective advertising techniques were the foundation of a muscular Christianity. Cultural historians like Warren Susman and Jackson Lears have interpreted Barton as a transitional figure. He bridged the gap, Susman classically argued, between the Calvinistic producerist ethic that emphasized self-denial and hard work and the emerging consumer culture that emphasized self-expression and satisfaction. So, too, Lears argued that Barton “retailored Protestant Christianity to fit the sleek new corporate system. Rejecting the ‘weightlessness’ of liberal Protestant sentimentality,” he produced a “creed even more vacuous than its predecessor.” Salvation was supplanted by self-realization.

Smith quickly brushes off these critical historical assessments of Barton. She is less interested in arguing about how Barton’s Christianity was watered down or in showing how it supported the new consumer capitalist system. She has other questions: “How and why did so many readers appropriate Barton’s books as ‘equipment for living?’ What did these texts provide that made it possible for many people to live less anxiously and experience the modern, rationalized world as less alienating and less unknowably complex?”

Barton’s readers found themselves in a world that required new ways of being religious. He sought to “convince people that the man/God at the center of their religion—Jesus—was not, in fact, long-suffering, meek, and lowly, but a charming, muscular man’s man who liked a good drink and the company of ruffians.” The “logic of consumer capitalism structures all of Barton’s books,” yes, but they were “useful for people who felt they needed a faith to live by and could not find one that worked in a modern, industrial age.” Smith shows that through his books and also through his extensive correspondence with readers, Barton was a “long-distance therapist” who provided practical guidance for those who needed it.

He produced what Smith calls a “middlebrow religion” that fused the sacred and profane, culture and commerce, and offered a “resolutely practical ethos that insisted texts be useful in readers’ everyday lives.” Instead of coming down on one side of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, for example, Bruce Barton made religious controversies seem “really quite meaningless” by framing theological positions as “matters of consumer choice or personal taste,” thus minimizing their consequences for everyday life.

Another book that Smith examines is Peace of Soul (1949) by Fulton Sheen. A very different sort of man than Barton, Sheen was an intellectual, a successful preacher and a prolific author, and an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of New York in the 1950s and 1960s. A different sort of book, too, Peace of Soul was not a refashioning of Christianity, but a justification for the Roman Catholic faith. He sought to repel both Freudianism and Marxism, arguing that the faith of the church was the only way for the modern soul to find peace.

As Smith shows, however, Sheen was very much a part of his moment. He shared many of the same concerns of fellow mid-century religious authors like Harry Emerson Fosdick, Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, and Billy Graham. All four wrote immensely popular self-help books in the 1940s and 1950s about how religious faith can provide modern believers with peace of mind amidst the turmoil of life. Graham and Sheen may have been able to have mutual respect for one another as conservatives despite their theological differences, but Sheen was sure that liberals like Fosdick and Liebman offered bad advice. They claimed that orthodox religion’s focus on sin left people with “guilt complexes” and made them more anxious. Sheen, however, argued that guilt was the appropriate response to a realistic accounting of sin. “People felt guilty because they had done bad things,” Smith summarizes.

In Peace of Soul, readers encountered the argument that the only way to find peace was not through psychoanalysis or leftist politics but through conversion. “The senses are subjected to the reason, the reason to faith, and the whole personality to the Will of God,” Sheen explained. Accepting a “service of Divine Sonship” and being “released to serve a single purpose” in conversion did a “better job at equipping people for modern life than psychoanalysis ever could,” as Smith writes. Sheen argued in detail about how believers’ experience in the world could be more fulfilling and more at peace and that believers contributed to the building of a better world.

Sheen then, as Smith argues, despite his ardent Roman Catholicism, belonged to a mid-century “cult of reassurance” that included Liebman, Fosdick, Graham, and even Norman Vincent Peale precisely because he argued for the practical effectiveness of religious belief. He showed how faith could be therapeutic. He embraced a “middlebrow way of being in the world” that focused on what “religion was good for.” This ecumenical tendency in religious reading has been examined most notably in recent years by Matthew Hedstrom, who argues that in the 1940s, middle-class Americans turned to “other faith traditions for inspiration, wisdom, solace, and insight.”

Smith sometimes has a less-than-critical tendency to lapse into the same language as her authors, as when she writes that Barton’s 1928 book What Can a Man Believe? was written as a substitute for the “useless theorizing of ministers and theologians.” Sometimes also she may accept too straightforwardly someone like Barton’s own promotional material that cast both liberal and conservative ministers as inattentive to the everyday needs of laypeople. I wanted to know more about the reading material denominational leaders at the time were producing and how it failed to meet the needs of people in a “modern, industrial age.” The dichotomy, too, between practical religious texts and “impractical” ones should be scrutinized more carefully. How was this dichotomy constructed? Or how was the reading experience of impractical books different? This, however, is a slight quibble. Smith makes no pretension that What Would Jesus Read? constitutes a complete survey of twentieth-century religious print culture.

In many ways, Smith argues persuasively that there is much work to be done in scholarship on twentieth-century American religious print culture. And she makes several important theoretical contributions that are helpful for thinking about the history of religious reading. The foremost among these is the contention that the intellectual and literary quality of these religious books has been beside the point for many readers. “Much of America enthusiastically read (and continues to read) books that are intellectually suspect and theologically incorrect,” she writes, “because these books provide solutions to the historically specific economic, social, and psychological circumstances in which they find themselves.” Or as she puts it elsewhere: “Intellectuals worry over what these texts say, but ordinary readers focus—quite pragmatically—on what they do.”

This religious reading of texts approaches the written word with the pragmatic question, “What does this say to me about my world and my station in life?” Following Amy Johnson Frykholm, Erin A. Smith calls this the “life-application method,” which has roots in a pietistic Calvinist approach to the scriptures that aimed not to grasp the historical context of Biblical passages or disinterestedly explore different meanings of the text, but to approach it with personal concerns. When taken in this sense, the “life-application method” could describe an approach to even secular texts like the “Great Books,” which were valued in terms of their usefulness and endurance over time.

She also shows how the buying and reading of religious books allows readers to join a kind of imagined community. Many readers of The Late Great Planet Earth, for example, thought of themselves as being a part of a transdenominational Christian community that “defined itself against a hostile or dismissive secular mainstream.” So, too, readers of the Left Behind books could imagine themselves as members of a “Tribulation Force,” who are in the know about Biblical prophecy and who make their faithful way through a hostile world. And on another political valence, similar things could be said about the work The Da Vinci Code does for religious liberals, who read about how orthodoxy is shaped carefully by powerful, conservative institutions.

Finally, she provocatively argues that a middlebrow “way of being in the world religiously” focused on religious means primarily for therapeutic ends. This pragmatic approach to religious reading was not an exclusively a liberal Protestant approach, nor an evangelical, Roman Catholic, or Jewish approach. Rather, these books constituted a “personal appeal to individual believers, bypassing theology and institutional issues.” This therapeutic way of religious reading constitutes a consistent feature of lived religion in the twentieth century. “Theological differences aside,” she writes, “popular religious books from whatever faith tradition shared a common set of assumptions about the place of reading and religion in modern life.”


Elesha said…
Welcome, Kyle, and thanks for this helpful review! Could you put Smith's book in dialogue with Matt Hedstrom's Rise of Liberal Religion? Smith looks at a wider range of books but perhaps comes to similar conclusions about the therapeutic and pragmatic uses of religious books.
Paul Putz said…
Elesha, I know your question was for Kyle but I thought I'd jump in since I've had a chance to read the book as well. I think your description has it about right: both Smith and Hedstrom are usuing similar concepts, particularly the notion of middlebrow religious reading. But Hedstrom connects those notions to liberal Protestantism and institutions like the Religious Book Club, aiming to trace change over time within the frame of liberal Protestantism and its relationship with American culture. Smith, on the other hand, suggests that the middlebrow reading habits (pragmatic, therapeutic, etc) transcended liberal Protestantism and in fact can be found among nearly all religious traditions and theological persusasions. And, rather than the change-over-time angle, Smith structures her book as a series of case studies (stretching from the social gospel novels in the late-nineteenth-century, to more recent fare like Da Vinci Code and Left Behind), showing how in disparate historical moments and communities, middlebrow religious reading habits were used. In terms of content overlap, it is heaviest in their treatment of the 1920s. Both Smith and Hedstrom cover Bruce Barton, the Religious Books Club, etc. Smith also copiously cites Hedstrom in that section. But other than the 1920s overlap, and a bit of post-WWII overlap (both bring Fosdick and Leibman in for ananlysis), they are working with different material. Smith, for example, skips over the 1930s and WWII, both of which are major areas of analysis for Hedstrom.

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