Evangelical media & the doctrinal politics of Christian book promotion

Rod Dreher, the author of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, is puzzled by the lack of interest in the Evangelical protestant media and traditional Evangelical outlets in his book.  For those of you who haven’t heard about it, it’s both a autobiography as well as a biography of his sister, who died recently of cancer, and it reflects on his decision to leave behind small-town Louisiana for the big city, and his sister’s equally passionate embrace of small-town living and community-building.  Dreher, a former Catholic and current Orthodox church member, asks if his book is too “theologically incorrect” for Evangelicals to embrace (bolded parts emphasized by me):

Despite great reviews and an intensely positive reception from readers, The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming has not been widely covered in the mainstream media — with, of course, some notable exceptions, e.g., reviews in USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, and a beautiful feature on NPR’s Morning Edition (if you haven’t heard it, wow, what are you waiting for?). The book has had no interest from television in the story, which is kind of mystifying, at least to me, given the nature of the story and its accessibility to a mainstream audience. But who knows how these things work? Wal-mart declined to stock Little Way, saying it wasn’t geared to their customers. Which is just bizarre to me, given that this is a book about finding true and lasting values in home and community, especially small-town community. But again, who knows how these things work?

I’ve been puzzled too by why Christian media hasn’t picked up on the book. True, Little Way got a rave endorsement from Evangelical superstar Eric Metaxas, and from the hugely popular Evangelical writer Ann Voskamp. Some Evangelicals objected to Wm. Paul Young’s The Shack, but it was a massive hit, and Young endorsed Little Way too. Additionally, Jake Meador gave it a great review in Christianity Todayin it, Jake made a case for why his fellow Evangelicals “need” to read this book – and Russell Moore, the top Southern Baptist leader, has recommended the book. That said, this deeply Christian book about faith, suffering, and redemption, hasn’t generally been taken up by Christian media. I’ve wondered why.

Dreher continues, wondering if the book’s Catholic content and discussion of his Orthodox faith (it is, after all, about a small town in Louisiana) puts off Evangelical readers:

Though my sister wasn’t Catholic, I was for a long time, and therefore there’s a significant amount of Catholic content in the book, including favorable parts about the Blessed Virgin Mary and a possible-saint, the Blessed Francis X. Seelos. Perhaps EWTN and other Catholic media aren’t interested in the book because I am an ex-Catholic, I dunno. It has been suggested to me by several current or former Evangelicals that the Mary and the saints stuff is why Little Way will never be embraced by the Evangelical media. Never having been Evangelical, I asked my friends why this should matter, given that the heroine of the book, Ruthie Leming, was a Methodist who went to her death holding firm to her plain Protestant faith in the salvation given to her by Jesus Christ. Anyway, one former Evangelical friend said that individual Evangelicals (Metaxas, Moore, et alia) might love the book, but that it would have a tough sell within the broader Evangelical media, because its author talks about finding Jesus Christ through Roman Catholicism, and later in Orthodoxy. That, and the fact that there’s a scene in which Ruthie and her best friend dance on the bar at a Cajun roadhouse (the place has a Sunday afternoon Cajun dance, which always ends with a ritual of people dancing on the bar for the last song of the night). That’s part of life in south Louisiana, and few people would think that to go Cajun-dancing is incompatible with the Christian life (though getting drunk would be, but that’s not what we’re talking about).

So he asks his readers:  what’s going on?  Why don’t Evangelical readers dig his book, when it’s a valentine to community, family, and faith that concludes with Dreher uprooting his life as an urban sophisticate to return to his home town because of his sister’s beautiful example?  Whatever your personal beliefs, you have to admit that he’s put his money where his mouth is.

I would have probably answered his question by proposing that mainstream Evangelicals appear in my experience to have a very limited imagination about the lives of others–not just about their spiritual or inner lives, but about the many different ways of living in the world, and especially about the different challenges people face, which I think makes them appear very rigid, self-involved, and un-compassionate towards those who do not share their faith.  (I will add that not a few secular academics can be described this way, too–that is, unimaginative and uncompassionate regarding others who are not like them.)  But I thought that commenter Thomas Andrews came up with a much better answer.  He says that it all boils down to the three Ps of Evangelicalism:  pietism, populism, and purity.  He explains:

This leads to several difficulties [with the Evangelical reaction to Dreher’s book]. First, it’s primarily a pietistic movement with little in the way of intellectual basis. Thus, for the most part, if something violates the culture, people get upset. Perhaps mention of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, etc. causes an uncomfortable feel — ‘we don’t like it,’ but there will be little thought beyond the emotive. Second, it’s a populist movement for good and bad. I remember many times listening to Christian radio and hearing people with few credentials say things like “we need to censor CS Lewis and not let our kids read him because he was influenced and contaminated by Norse mythology and writes about witches…” Coupled with populism and pietism is the desire for purity which the radio example spells out. . . . . I think if you walk into many Christian bookstores, you will see that there is quite a love for the superficial and feel-good. . . . [In] such a broad movement united by a hazy pietism, . . . few deep things can be said without offending many.

The whole comment thread is worth reading (except for a threadjack about whether Mary is worthy of veneration and whether or not a Divine Incarnation could have been born from an ordinary woman, or if Jesus could only have been born to an extraordinary woman, but I suppose this is a common hazard when one is initiating a serious ecumenical conversation about the difficulties of ecumenicalism.) It’s a serious yet also good-humored conversation across confessional lines.

There was another answer to Dreher’s question I thought pretty good, although it is a bit prankish, by Charlieford:  “My suspicion for any lack of attention it’s getting from certain circles would land on the word ‘Little’ in the title.  Evangelicals are very American, and they like things BIG. ‘Little’ sounds to their ears like a synonym for ‘insignificant.’  I suspect that’s why Wal-Mart wouldn’t want it–it runs exactly counter to their entire business plan.”

I sure hope Charlieford is wrong about Wal-Mart’s aversion to the word “little.”  If he’s right after all, there’s no hope in getting my books stocked there, either!

10 thoughts on “Evangelical media & the doctrinal politics of Christian book promotion

  1. Pingback: Evangelical media & the doctrinal politics of Christian book promotion | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. Totally stumped on this one, except to note the seeming general beleaguerment of books in the culture at large. Some statistics suggest that Americans are reading more and more–counting especailly e-books, kindlography, etc., but the realities seem to be contradictory. And some of their keepers seem to become among the damnifiers of books. As in “this library is not simply a warehouse of books!!!” There’s also a certain general anti-intellectualism in the culture as to the idea of “the book.” (As opposed to, say, The Book).

    Classes over; every last thing is out of my head. Now for the road!


  3. Am I the only one reading this thinking that every academic on the planet would sympathise. You spend years writing a fabulous book, and the 4 journals, top ones in your field even, that gave it a review said it was amazing; it may even have won a prize or two, and yet in practice, its actually been read by half a dozen people including the book reviewers.

    Perhaps this is just a product of the size of the current book market, and that THOUSANDS of great books – and I bet even hundreds of great books for evangelical audiences – go unread. Why this author thought he was going to be special is perhaps just as interesting a question as why certain books manage to capture the public imagination.


  4. The only thing these ignorant self-aggrandizing fuckes want to read about is how awesome they are and how terrible everyone else is. Books that fail to flog that point are worthless to them.


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  7. I wonder if there’s a bit of a perception that the book is talking down to the people whose values he says it supports. The reviews I’ve read have presented it as a narrative of “At first I couldn’t understand THOSE people [read: contented, religious people oriented more around home communities than travel and careers], but then when I paid attention to my sister’s life, I realized that THEY understand some things better than people like ME [read: ambitious, urban, intellectual types], so I think WE should be more like THEM.”

    I agree with Charlieford on the title as well, but not because it’s too different from Wal-mart. I think “the little way” is a lovely idea to Catholics and people familiar with Catholicism and saints, but it sounds at best odd and at worst pejorative if you’re not. Which might stop someone from picking up a book that otherwise validates their life choices.

    If those are the marketing strategies, no wonder it isn’t reaching THOSE (self-defined? stereotyped?) audiences quite as well. Evangelicals have a huge publishing market of their own, anyway, and it might be less of an issue of outright rejection than simple lack of interest.


  8. Was it published by an evangelical publisher?

    If not, it’s not a Christian book.

    Religious publishing is BIG business and his LITTLE book took the wrong tactic if he wanted to be in the media/distribution stream.

    Yes, there are exceptions. They’re exceptional.


  9. He mentions Ann Voskamp as an example of a very popular author who loved his book. Fine – but look at who published her #1 NYT bestseller: Zondervan.

    The thing about evangelicalism is, it exists. It’s an actual, real, insular culture with its own rules and conventions…including insiders and outsiders and rigid business networks and media/literature conventions.

    I personally find it all fairly nauseating, but also find it annoying some guy who thinks he should’ve gotten more attention for his book thinks all he has to do to make money off the Christian Rube Industry is talk about some faith experiences, when he admittedly doesn’t even understand why/how his language and imagery don’t resonate.


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