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 Today — in 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!