Erin A. Smith: Popular Religious Reading, Cultural Identities, and Religious Communities

smith_what_PBWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Erin A. Smith, author of What Would Jesus Read? Popular Religious Books and Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century America. Since the late nineteenth century, religiously themed books in America have been commercially popular yet scorned by critics. Working at the intersection of literary history, lived religion, and consumer culture, Smith considers the largely unexplored world of popular religious books, examining the apparent tension between economic and religious imperatives for authors, publishers, and readers. Smith argues that this literature served as a form of extra-ecclesiastical ministry and credits the popularity and longevity of religious books to their day-to-day usefulness rather than their theological correctness or aesthetic quality.

In a previous post, Smith explores the past and present day implications of the slogan, What Would Jesus Do? In today’s post, Smith investigates the motivations behind the divided and polarized “religious right” and “spiritual left” of American readership. What do these groups have in common?


In 2006, the Baylor Religion Survey included questions about religious reading for the first time. The 1700 American adults surveyed fell into two main “camps of readers” of popular books that followed religious affiliations—evangelical and New Age. Evangelical Christians reported reading Left Behind and The Purpose-Driven Life. New Age readers reported reading books like The Celestine Prophecy and Dianetics.[1] At first glance, this appears to fit a familiar (and depressing) rubric—red America and blue America, the religious right and “the spiritual left.” Moreover, the people in each group read only books targeting readers like them, written by writers like them. Nobody read outside their comfort zone or in order to encounter ideas that might differ from those they already held.

This was a sociological survey, designed to offer a statistical overview of religious reading in America (19% of the sample had read any Left Behind books or The Purpose-Driven Life; 28.5% had read The Da Vinci Code). Although illuminating and true, the statistical survey is incomplete. Perhaps a closer look at how and why people read religious books would offer a more nuanced picture. Although liberals and conservatives were largely reading different books, they might be reading them for similar reasons and in similar ways.

For example, I conducted ethnographic research in the early 2000s with a Unitarian-Universalist (UU) reading group. As in the Baylor study, these UUs were enthusiastically reading and discussing “heretical” books like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003). They made immediate, personal connections between their own position as embattled religious liberals in the Bible Belt and Brown’s heroic characters, fearlessly challenging religious orthodoxy by pursuing the “truth” that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife and his most beloved disciple. Texts like The Da Vinci Code provided readers with a usable past—connection to an alternative (heretical) Christian tradition, access to a suppressed history of women as spiritual agents, and a roadmap for seeking enlightenment through spiritual practice rather than right belief.

Similarly, Amy Johnson Frykholm has argued in Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (2004) that evangelical Christian readers of Left Behind novels make immediate, personal connections between their own position as embattled Christians fighting an increasingly secular, sinful culture and the fictional “Tribulation Force” of newly converted Christians in Left Behind who do valiant battle against the Antichrist. In each case—Left Behind and The Da Vinci Code—readers have their religious beliefs confirmed and their religious identities affirmed. In each case, people like them—true believers in Christ or heretical free thinkers, respectively—emerge victorious. The band of Christians battling the Antichrist in Left Behind are the sole possessors of the Truth, given discernment and power by God to ultimately triumph over their enemies (who long ago claimed the secular world for their own). Similarly, The Da Vinci Code offers a world in which heretics hold the intellectual and moral high ground. Langdon and Sophie—the spiritual seekers in the novel—possess both secret knowledge about codes and symbols that allows them to unravel the Truth behind the conspiracy of silence about Jesus’ marriage and the capacity of mystics to experience the transcendent power of the sacred feminine. In The Da Vinci Code, the highest calling is to be both a free thinker and a believer—i.e., a religious liberal.

Although cast as opponents in cultural debates, religious liberals and evangelicals appear to read (different) books for similar reasons—to (re)create their religious identities, to restore people like them to the center of religious life, and to place themselves in history as important religious actors. These books remind readers of their beliefs and values and help them (re)construct their faith in the face of daily challenges and disappointments.

What is most striking is that actors believed to be at opposite ends of the religious and political spectrum—conservatives vs. progressives, literal readers vs. metaphoric readers, believers in the Truth vs. believers in many truths—nonetheless share a culture of religious reading. Whatever our religious beliefs, we inhabit the same world shaped in often competing ways by (patriarchal) Judeo-Christian religious traditions, therapeutic culture, consumerism, and the ideology of literacy—that is, the belief that reading offers economic, spiritual, and social uplift.

Erin A. Smith is associate professor of American studies and literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her book, What Would Jesus Read? Popular Religious Books and Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century America, is now available.