Nov 19, 2011

Who reads Christian fiction?

Almost every time a cultural critic or an academic refers to readers of Christian fiction, the word "reader" could be replaced with the more pejorative phrase, "those people."

I sometimes have the urge, maybe a little facetiously, to ask, "didn't you read it too?"

Their interpretations, though, don't involve the self-reflexivity required to include their own readings in their theorizing about what happens when people read Christian fiction. Reading seems like it's conceived of as something only other people do.

Other people who are crazy, stupid and scary.

Bill Moyers, for example, in the March 24, 2005 New York Review of Books, talks about the success of Left Behind, and then moves straight into an account of the "true believers." Apparently noting no difference or possible difference between readers of these novels and said "true believers," Moyers says "On my weekly broadcast for PBS, we reported on these true believers .... They are sincere, serious, and polite as they tell you they feel called to help bring the Rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy."

For Moyers, readers equal "true believers," "people in the grip of such fantasies." No one's reading Left Behind for entertainment, in his schema. No one reads and maybe is frustrated by what they read.

He's not particularly good at distinctions, though. There's a good sized paragraph, early on, where Moyers gives plot summary, and it's totally unclear what plot it is he thinks he's summarizing. It kind of sounds like he thinks he's summarizing Left Behind. But he doesn't say that. He calls it "the plot of the Rapture." Maybe he thinks they're the same? Any possible distinctions between the theology of some Americans and the fiction are elided.

For Moyers, it's all a wave of the hand and "those people."

Joan Didion, two years earlier in the same publication, does essentially the same thing. Didion's certainly a subtler thinker, and can be a superb writer, but her article, "Mr. Bush & the Divine," shows no evidence of either of those things.

She spends the whole first third of her article summarizing the series of books. Rather woodenly, actually. And in boring detail ("In fact the Antichrist has already appeared, in the person of a previously obscure Romanian named Nicolae Carpathia, an advocate of global disarmament who has mysteriously emerged under the shadowy guidance of a cartel of 'international money men,' to unanimous acclaim. Cameron 'Buck' Williams has already interviewed him").

This belaboring turns out to have a point, though, as she takes the series as a primer on evangelicals.

All of them.

The novels equal evangelicals, for Didion, and evangelicals equal fundamentalists (no distinctions necessary), all of who are taken to be eschatologically orientated, with this particular eschatology. They -- the homogenous "they" who are novels=evangelicals=fundamentalists=pre-tribulation dispensational premillenialists (of a particular sort) -- also equal a political constituency, which, in Didion's article, goes by the name "Christian conservatives."

Taking even one of these identities as simply singular is problematic. Conflating two of these as somehow synonymous is sloppy. Sloppy at best.

Even Amy Frykholm, whose book Rapture Culture is really excellent, and is the best thing I've read on contemporary Christian fiction, deserving of serious attention, sometimes slips into this.

She writes, for example, "Readers of Left Behind constantly question their own salvation and that of loved ones." And, "Readers of Left Behind feel tied together by common beliefs." She slips into this use of "readers" that makes it seem like all of them are one way, read the same way, are the same.

It really is a slip, in Frykolm's case. A relaxing of her language. The book is a sociological study of readers of the LaHaye-Jenkins series, and she explores how really various the actual readings of the novels are. Her goal, with the book, was to "disrupt the totalization of Left Behind's audience, and she does that so well that the times where her language implies a singular readership (a hegemony, in cultural-studies speak), are these glaring moments. It seems like an accident, where she does the thing she's critiquing.

Most of the time, Frykolm is careful to note kinds and sorts of readers, doing what I wish all critics of Christian fiction would do.

Being more careful, she writes, "Readers of Left Behind who use their reading as a form of witnessing," making that very specific distinction. Or, she writes, "Many readers express a fundamental anxiety about their own salvation," which is still broad, but doesn't make all readers and every reading the same.

Frykolm -- unique among the critics of Christian fiction I've read -- even notes that some of the readers don't identify with the series at all. There are readers who don't adopt the ideas wholesale, and readers who even find the fiction aggravating (but who are readers nonetheless). These books have, after all, attracted critical attention precisely because they have overflowed the banks of their Christian market. Frykolm writes,
"Readers outside the books' immediate religious context, particularly those with another strong religious identity, however, often find the text difficult to interpret, sometimes confusing, and sometimes infuriating. Nonevangelical readers do not read the series with an enthusiasm that matches that of their evangelical counterparts. They often find themselves annoyed, bored, angry or alienated."
I've found this to be true, as I've casually talked to people who've read the books, and, more, I think it's important to say. There's a fundamental misreading of these books and misunderstanding of what fiction is, and misconstrual of these books' place in American culture and of the American cultural landscape, in the assumption that "readers" are all the same.

It should be obvious that there's this other type of reading. The critics, after all, read it this exactly way (Frykolm, by her own account, among them). This doesn't seem to me to be the kind of mistake one would make with, say, criticism of Dan Brown's novels of Michael Connelly's or James Patterson's. It does happen with fiction designated as "women's," though, and maybe with other genres where the readership is conceived of as being of a marked case.

There's a simple way to avoid this problem. When analyzing the text through the frame of readers' response, what I try to do is use Stuart Hall's model of three types of decoding: dominant, negotiated, and oppositional.

For the most part, when "readers" are taken as a great homogenous group, what's actually being spoken of is what Hall would call the "dominant" reading. This is straight adoption. This is reading where the reader has accepted the ideology of the text. Where, for example, the reader holds the plot of "the Rapture" and the plot of the fictional Left Behind to be interchangeable.

My sense is that most readers read in Hall's second manner, doing "negotiated" readings. That is, they accept some parts of the ideology of the text. Maybe they accept the broadest claims, such as "God is ultimately in control of history," or certain assumptions that bolster such claims, e.g., the naturalness of a 3rd person narrator and of a narrative where everything is meaningful and relates to the conclusion. At the same time, however, readers who read this way are not completely adopting or unreservedly adopting the whole view of the text. The very fact it's being taken as fiction guarantees this, I think.

Frykholm's book is really fascinating precisely because it looks at the way negotiated readings can work as a kind of lever or wedge, where readers use their readings to create more space to think about something, to take a different position where previously only one position had been possible. She tells how, e.g., one woman used the books to question her pastor and church's position that salvation is limited, and will no longer be possible after the rapture. While she couldn't have, by herself, just disagreed with this, she was able to use the books to open up another possible interpretation of the Bible verses on the subject. She was able to use her pastor to criticize the books, the books to criticize her pastor, so reading (this kind of reading) opened a critical space for thinking, which hadn't been possible before.

"Oppositional" reading, Hall's third category, is exactly what critics do when they write about what Left Behind is "really" about. They "detotalise in the preferred code," Hall writes, "in order to retotalise the message within some alternative framework of reference." The clearest examples of this are the ham-fisted ones, but sophisticated interpretive work, it seems to me, could also be categorized as oppositional readings, in that their most basic move is to de-naturalize the text, and make the transparent apparent.

At very least, when we say "reader," we can note that structurally there can be these three theoretical types of reading, three different sorts of responses and interpretations of the text. It's worth asking, first, "who is the reader?" "who reads Christian fiction?", making that overt and making it a question, rather than an assumption. The answer then, further, needs to not be simply singular.

It's more complicated than just "those people."