How Novels Have Marked American Religious History

More often than not, it’s easier and more enjoyable to read fiction than theology. Little wonder, then, that for the last 150 years Americans have been writing religious novels, sometimes as a way of discussing difficult theological questions and sometimes just as a way of raising the moral tone of adventure tales. Some of these are still worth reading today; others have sunk into well-deserved obscurity. 

Here’s a short guide to some of America’s most illuminating novels—periodic windows into our religious history.

When Fiction Met Faith

Lew Wallace was a Union Army general and Civil War hero. A chance encounter with Robert Ingersoll, his generation’s most famous agnostic, made Wallace realize how little he knew about Christianity, and prompted him to research and write about it. You’ve perhaps seen the movie based on the book he wrote, but you probably haven’t read the book itself: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880). It’s the story of a rich Jew, Judah Ben-Hur, wrongly accused of attempting to assassinate a Roman official and condemned to life as a galley slave. As he trudges toward the coast in a chain gang, a strange and marvelous man meets Ben-Hur beside a well, gives him water to drink, and imbues a sense that life isn’t hopeless after all. 

After some wild adventures, including a great sea battle, a dramatic pardon, a rich and colorful life in Rome, a chariot race, and dalliances with beautiful women, Ben-Hur decides to return to Palestine and lead his people to freedom. On arrival, however, he discovers his mother and sister have been healed of leprosy by Jesus, the man he’d met by the well. Ben-Hur resolves that, instead of leading a military uprising, he’ll adopt this wonderful teacher’s message of peace, reconciliation, and love. Wallace, who loved the worldly adventure stories of Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, gives us several hundred pages of swashbuckling adventure in their style and yet, unlike them, ends on a note of pure Christian redemption. 

Wallace himself said that his research and writing led him to convert to Christianity. It was still common in the 1870s and 1880s for American Protestants to frown on fiction as a waste of time and temptation to evil. But this wildly popular book, and the dozens of imitators that followed it over the next few decades, reconciled all but the most prudish Americans to the idea of linking faith to fiction.

WWJD and the Social Gospel

Fifteen years later Charles Sheldon, a Congregationalist minister in Topeka, Kansas, strengthened the link with In His Steps (1896). Sheldon believed Jesus, the working carpenter of Nazareth, had been a primitive socialist. The minister supported the social gospel, a turn-of-the-century movement that emphasized practical work in the world, placing charity and social reform above theology and doctrine. To Sheldon we owe the well-known phrase “What would Jesus do?”

In His Steps begins with busy minister Henry Maxwell discovering a homeless man at the church door begging for food and seeking work (the 1890s was a time of economic depression and widespread unemployment). Maxwell shoos him away but is horrified to discover a few days later that the man has died from starvation. What would Jesus have done in this situation? he asks himself. Surely he never would have denied charity to a supplicant. From then on Maxwell resolves, whenever he faces a moral dilemma, to ask “What would Jesus do?” and then act accordingly. He tells his congregation about this decision and they join him in the “WWJD?” pledge.

The rest of the sermons, preached by Sheldon and then published in book form, were a series of examples about common decency and practical Christian behavior. When one of the town’s businessmen admits he’s been cheating customers by selling adulterated food, he asks himself: If Jesus were a grocer, would he sell contaminated flour and meat? Surely not, so I’ll stop doing it too. A journalist asks himself: If Jesus were a newspaperman, would he write lurid accounts of bare-knuckle prizefights? No! Bit by bit the town develops a reputation for honesty, decency, sobriety, and upright behavior—and thrives as never before. The message is clear: honesty is the best policy, along with charity, generosity, good government, and fair dealing. 

The social gospel was always controversial, and rightly so, but In His Steps portrayed its arguments in an attractive and sympathetic light.

Rise of Fundamentalism 

The perennial challenge of writing religious fiction is to make goodness seem interesting. On the whole, we have a perverse desire for stories about wickedness since they’re more exciting. Harold Frederic’s novel The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896) offers plenty of both. In part it’s a story about America in an era of mass immigration, coming of age as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation. A simple Methodist minister, Theron Ware tries to come to terms with the fact that he’s now living among Roman Catholics, agnostics, and downright atheists, and that he has much to learn from them. He’s also forced to recognize his education has been hopelessly inadequate and that he knows almost nothing about the sophisticated theological and historical research happening in the nation’s new universities. Ware proves comically inept when trying to write a book about Abraham based on nothing more than his familiarity with the stories in Genesis. He almost ruins himself chasing after a fascinating young woman, but he’s saved by two down-to-earth Methodist fundraisers who set his feet on the narrow path once more. Frederic, the author, was a religious skeptic and scornful of evangelicalism, which he saw as intellectually weak and overly emotional.

Fundamentalism as we know it took shape in the early 20th-century around a series of pamphlets on basic doctrines titled The Fundamentals. The movement never lacked for critics. Probably the most famous literary attack on fundamentalism is Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry (1927). Elmer, the central character, is exactly the kind minister who, through the centuries, has brought shame to the profession: he’s ambitious, avaricious, a drunkard, and a womanizer. Above all, he’s a hypocrite who preaches in favor of theological fundamentals and of stern moral self-control—all the while living a life of self-indulgence and vice. Lewis wove into the novel a thinly fictionalized account of Aimee Semple McPherson, whom he calls “Sharon Falconer.” McPherson herself was a charismatic Pentecostal preacher in Hollywood and pioneering radio evangelist, whose reputation was damaged by a sex scandal while Lewis was researching and writing the book.

Despite being 1927’s bestselling novel, Elmer Gantry was controversial from the start, denounced and even banned in some cities. Billy Sunday, the era’s most famous traveling evangelist, demanded Lewis be thrown in jail. Just three years later, Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature. 

Christians should read Elmer Gantry rather than shy away from it. After all, every generation since has unfortunately witnessed ministerial scandals of the kind Lewis described so vividly.

Catholic and Jewish Contributions 

The mid-20th century witnessed many superb religious novels by Roman Catholics and Jews to complement the Protestant books I have highlighted. These were the decades in which it ceased being acceptable to express anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish prejudice, a process helped by news of the Holocaust, the election of a Roman Catholic president (John F. Kennedy in 1960), and by the Second Vatican Council (1962–65).

The fiction of Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow explores the social and emotional life of American Jews as they assimilated into themainstream of American life. But my favorite religious American Jewish novel, Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev (1972), is set in the ultra-Orthodox separatist subculture of Hasidic New York. Asher, the principal character, is a brilliant young artist, but his religious community has no artistic traditions and regards his gift as a mere curiosity. Nevertheless, he feels an overwhelming desire to make art his life’s work and denies it would compromise his faith. The drama arises when Asher is forced to decide whether he’ll remain within a closed community that will stifle his gifts, or move into the wider world and lose his home. The choice is made all the more painful when his teacher tells him that to be a successful artist in the Western tradition he must master two genres: the nude and the crucifixion. When he explains this point, his Orthodox parents and friends recoil in horror. Read the book to find out what happens next! 

This theme of staying inside or breaking out of a closed world is a common theme in Roman Catholic fiction from this era. The Second Vatican Council encouraged Catholics to be more open to other religious currents in the world, not standoffish, and to view Protestants no longer as heretics but as “separated brethren.” Mary Gordon’s The Company of Women (1981) portrays the suffocating embrace of the “Catholic ghetto” and the young woman Felicitas’s attempt to leave it for the wider world. She’s been raised by her mother and four other Catholic women, all of whom are subservient to an austere, celibate, and ultra-conservative priest. Felicitas knows there’s a richer life outside this narrow circle but is so inexperienced that she makes a succession of catastrophic choices about whom to trust and emulate. You would need a heart of stone not to be moved by its exploration of her religious and emotional turmoil.

Modern Developments 

The later 20th century continued to produce fascinating religious fiction, often linked to new developments in society. John Updike’s Roger’s Version (1987) is a case in point. This entertaining novel, written when Americans were just discovering personal computers (I acquired my first, a “Mac 512 K,” that year), features an evangelical graduate student named Dale who’s convinced his computer can prove God’s existence. The other main character, Roger Lambert, is a much-older divinity school professor who doubts it can be done, observing that if God’s existence were proved, it would no longer be possible to know him through faith. Faith, in other words, is the counterpart of doubt, and they need each other. A prolific novelist and superb religious essayist, Updike had a lifelong interest in theology and wrote about new theological developments in a way that brought them to life, free of academic jargon and hairsplitting.

Yet Updike’s popularity probably won’t rival that of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, whose Left Behind series caused a sensation among Christian readers in the 1990s and early 2000s. LaHaye was one of the founders of the Moral Majority, the evangelical action group that helped Ronald Reagan win the presidency in 1980. He and Jenkins were utterly sincere, but really they were just carrying on in the tradition of Lew Wallace and Ben-Hur: writing adventure stories with a strong Christian undercurrent and giving the reader plenty of thrills, fights, and chases along the way. The good guys aren’t entirely good, at least not to begin with, or they would have been raptured to heaven at the start rather than being left on earth to battle the forces of evil.

Take Up and Read 

As this quick tour suggests, there’s no shortage of fine American fiction on religious themes. Even the books that can’t really be described as literature make you think about what it meant to live a Christian life in other times and places. The meaning has often changed, and the good Christian of 1890 would look different from the good Christian of today. To be serious about your faith is to think about it, read about it, and learn more about its history all the time. 

At its best, religious fiction helps you do that—even when it’s more distressing and challenging than consoling.