Frontier romance, spiritual thriller and end-times horror

The 5 series that shaped a generation of Christians.

Over the last several years, many people have questioned the definition of “evangelical.” The term has many meanings. It’s caused heated conversations. It’s a highly controversial yet pertinent topic. And because it has to do with identity, it’s a question worth discussing.

In the middle of these conversations comes Daniel Silliman’s Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith. Silliman, an evangelical journalist and historian, explores evangelicalism through the lens of fiction. “The story of Jesus,” he writes, “is at the heart of the Christian imagination. It’s an amazing story: of powerful forces at work, of life-changing love, of a coming kingdom unlike any other, and of subverted expectations about God. Evangelicals are right to believe that if that story is true, it changes every other story we tell about ourselves around the world.”

Reading Evangelicals asks, “’What stories then have shaped the evangelical Christian imagination?’ and ‘How have evangelicals interpreted the gospel narrative that is an invitation to imagine that everything is different, everything is being transformed, everything is made right and made new?’” It is this gospel focus that makes Silliman’s work relevant for Christian readers.

Silliman is unsatisfied with the restricted nature of most definitions for “evangelical.”

“I’m in the minority,” he says, “among evangelical historians in that I don’t think these kinds of belief-based definitions work. For one thing, they don’t help you identify who is and who is not evangelical, unless you already kind of know. The political definition never grapples with evangelicals who are politically progressive, for example. Or the man who won’t vote. Or the fact that politics actually doesn’t take up all the space in the lives and the homes and the conversations of regular evangelicals.” He recognizes the cultural temptation to box evangelicalism into what is often a political definition, which is narrow-minded and insensitive to the high degree of diversity existing within evangelical expression.


What makes Silliman’s narrative-centric approach relevant? “I want to tell the story of American evangelicalism,” he says, through the fiction they read. He’s trying to explain how “that captures the freedom of the individual readers, their imagination, and how they’re also part of this larger community, which is real and imagined, and how that ongoing conversation is shaped and given structure by institutions and networks […] I want to tell the story of how all that works together to produce this religious identity, evangelical.”

Silliman uses five best-selling, internationally known books written over five decades by Christian authors who have contributed immensely to the evangelical mindset to make his point. These books are all first in a series: Love Comes Softly (1979), This Present Darkness (1986), Left Behind (1995), The Shunning (1998), and The Shack (2008). What I found particularly fascinating is Silliman’s ability to work through each fictional piece and bring to the forefront pertinent evangelical themes with rich historical clarity. He shows how these authors have contributed to evangelical themes and by extension to the larger evangelical platform. (If you haven’t read these novels, that doesn’t limit your understanding of Silliman’s analysis).


Silliman spends a chapter on each book. The first chapter looks at Canadian author Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly, a frontier romance. It outlines a theme of suffering in the life of its main character and relates that to an evangelical theology of suffering. Here Silliman is careful not to put every evangelical in the same camp, which I appreciated. In the second chapter, Silliman takes readers through Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness. This novel vividly depicts the invisible but powerful demons and angels that surround its characters. As a younger millennial growing up in Hong Kong, this book had a huge impact in my evangelical circles, from teenagers to adults. Silliman’s reflections can be meaningful for those outside of the North American context, too. Peretti’s emphasis on spiritual warfare and prayer is deeply connected to the relationship between faith and politics within evangelicalism. Without delving too much into divisive American politics, Silliman identifies how evangelicals have been encouraged to view their participation in those politics. He articulates why many evangelicals are so expressive and passionate about their political bent, arguing that depth of evangelical faith has been equated with strong political expression.

Overall, Silliman’s exploration of one evangelical subculture – its fiction – is commendable. The book is winsome and bound to stimulate conversation. For the focused reflections and history alone, it’s definitely worth a read. Do pick it up!


  • Sharon Dhavale

    Sharon has just started a new role as the campus chaplain at the University of Northern British Columbia in July 2020.

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