What do Mothers Read? (Sidetrails Pt 2)

In the last few blog posts of my series on how evangelicals differ from high church Christians on entertainment, I’ve discussed several trends. I’ve talked about how suburban values inform evangelical institutions, how high church liturgy encourages a recognition of sin that evangelicals often miss, and other related ideas. Many of these ideas have been explored with more depth by writers like Makoto Fujimura and Steve Turner.

One particular trend that I alluded to in several posts is how for many evangelicals, “Christian entertainment” boils down to models set forth in inspirational Christian romance novels. Daniel Silliman highlights this genre’s importance to the evangelical movement in Reading Evangelicals, how Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly created Christian Romance and birthed a new kind of religious fiction, one that sold well across America’s denominational lines. Beverly Lewis’s The Shunning generated the genre’s next innovation (Amish Romance), which continues to be prominent today. While later books like Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness made other genres acceptable in Christian Fiction, the market’s bread and butter has always been romance novels. More specifically, Christian Romance novels – whether you’re reading family melodramas like Debby Mayne’s Fit to be Tied or WWI adventures like Sarah Sundin’s When Twilight Breaks – tend to be directed at Christian mothers/grandmothers. This market has also influenced later forms of Christian entertainment: the current spat of faith-based films owes its popularity to the market created by The Passion of the Christ, but its narrative formula owes much to Oke and Lewis. Thus, whether Silliman was right when he suggested the answer to “what is evangelicalism?” may be in the Christian bookstore, the answer to “what is evangelical entertainment?” is rooted in what Christian mothers read. 

Christian mothers have also been deeply important to evangelical culture, because they tend to set the trends. Women aren’t allowed to preach in many denominations, but in most evangelical churches they do everything else from organizing guest speakers to teaching Sunday School. In education, mothers have been the backbone of the Christian homeschool movement and the Christian private school movement. In politics, what Tobias Cremer calls “suburban mothers who organize themselves in church halls” has been a defining feature of grassroots Christian conservativism (an element that Cremer believes is being lost).

The fact that Christian mothers tend to set the trends in many evangelical institutions presents an interesting cycle. Evangelicalism is a system with institutions that influence each other. What Christian conservatives think is “good entertainment for our kids” impacts what Christian buyers want to see in their faith-based movies, Christian Fiction novels, and so forth. What Christian parents think their kids should be allowed to see in private Christian schools impacts the market in similar ways. Thus, Christian politics, education and churches (all areas where Christian mothers impact the conversation in powerful ways) both create and feed on ideas about what “proper Christian entertainment” is.

This means that while there are many aspects to evangelical culture’s view of entertainment, any conversation on the subject must recognize two ideas up front:

  • What Christian mothers want molds and defines conversations about Christian entertainment.
  • What Christian mothers want molds and defines other evangelical institutions (Christian conservative politics, Christian schools), which inform what “proper Christian entertainment” is.

Therefore, if evangelical want to talk about what makes “Christian entertainment,” at some point they need to talk about mothers. They need to not just talk about whether Francis Schaeffer was right when he said that “art needs no justification,” what is “sacred art” versus “secular art,” and other ideas discussed so well in recent decades. Evangelicals need to do what every good philosophical discussion does: go back to first principles, define terms and consider what follows from those principles. Given how Christian mothers mold and inform evangelical culture, going back to first principles means asking these kinds of questions: 

  • It’s often been said that Christian Romance novels are inherently lightweight, Hallmark fare with more Bible verses inserted. Is this an accurate picture of the genre? If so, what strengths and limits does this genre have?
  • J.R.R. Tolkien and others have talked about unhealthy escapism versus a wholesome kind of escapism that leaves you better prepared for life. Does Christian Romance provide this kind of escape?
  • Christian Romance has an usual influence over evangelical entertainment. However, is that all that Christian entertainment needs to be?
  • Christian conservatives into apologetics like to talk about how all entertainment has a worldview, one that Christians should consider to see where it leads and whether it fits with the Gospel. If we took the same tools and applied them to Christian Romance novels, what worldview would we get? Does that worldview generate problems that we need to rectify?

I’m not suggesting that I have answers to all these questions. As a man, I’m aware that many of them are questions that I can’t answer. Others (such as the role of mothers and fathers in education) are questions that require a community of men and women to discuss. Whichever way that we go about it, there are all questions that must be asked if we want to talk about evangelicalism and entertainment. 

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