Literary critics tend to think in terms of texts and the intensive critical analysis thereof, despite interventions such as Franco Moretti's "distant reading." As I've argued here and in Book Two, though, many of the standard tools in our theoretical kit falter when faced with obviously religious works: it's one thing to analyze, say, George Eliot's constructions of modern Jewish identity in Daniel Deronda, and another to read Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's evangelical philosemitic novel Judah's Lion, a novel in which it's considered rather charming for a child to address the Jewish protagonist as "Mr. Jew." Erin Smith's What Would Jesus Read? Popular Religious Books and Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century America tackles this problem head-on by examining how readers used a range of religious texts, from Charles Sheldon's In His Steps to Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels. As her subtitle suggests, the book is not primarily interested in professional "close, attentive 'readings' of these texts" (loc. 5125), but instead in the range of ways in which American readers--more specifically, "white Protestants" (loc. 201)--mobilized these texts as religious practice. It thus joins such recent works as Lynn Neal's Romancing God (2006), Crawford Gribben's Writing the Rapture (2009), Yoel Finkelman's Strictly Kosher Reading (2011), and Valerie Weaver-Zercher's The Thrill of the Chaste (2013), among others, as an attempt to understand the multiplicity of ways in which texts written for popular audiences attempted to construct their readers and were appropriated in turn (sometimes wandering far off the paths the authors intended). At the same time, the texts themselves are not the study's primary focus; the reading strategies are.
Unlike most work on popular religious texts, WWJR? emphasizes nonfiction, although some novels put in an appearance; nevertheless, one of the book's primary takeaways is that popular reading practices tended to collapse the fiction/nonfiction distinction. Thus, readers of Sheldon's In His Steps were, ideally, inspired to concrete action in much the same way as later readers of Bruce Barton's The Man Nobody Knows found "immediate relevance" (loc. 2220) for their own lives in Barton's interpretation of Christ's nature. In other words, Smith demonstrates over and over that readers wanted to--in the terminology that sends English professors everywhere up the wall--relate. Following Amy Johnson Frykholm, Smith describes this as the "life-application method," which involves "seeking a 'take-home lesson' for everyday life rather than placing passages of scripture in their historical context or examining competing interpretations" (loc. 316). Smith identifies this reading strategy as part of these texts' frequent claim to "middlebrow" status, along with their methods of distribution (book clubs, for example), overt and sometimes innovative commercialism, and address to the audience. For this reason, Smith rarely offers close readings of texts, although she certainly lays out their central arguments; she is on most familiar ground from a literary-critical POV in the later chapters, in which she analyzes how authors like Thomas Moore and Karen Armstrong participate in the kind of postmodern capitalist project they claim to critique. Mostly, though, she focuses on various forms of critical reception (poor Martin Marty, a representative elite reader, has a hard time of it). As Smith explains in regards to one popular religious novel, "[t]he truth/fiction distinction was simply not useful when one's purpose for reading was a deep, emotional identification rather than a scholarly, contemplative distance"; moreover, the rhetoric of these texts makes us "feel as though we have made contact with a single, distinctive mind" (locs. 2045-81). This is not to say that "truth" has no purchase, as Smith's description of participating in a UU discussion group about The Da Vinci Code demonstrates; rather, this mode of reading appropriates texts without respect to genre.
To step back a moment, one of the core points of Smith's project is, as she argues more than once, that analyzing the text is insufficient to garner its political import. In keeping with her emphasis on "lived religion"--that is, the study of "what people do rather than what they are urged to think by religious leaders" (loc. 159)--Smith locates a text's politics in its multiple appropriations by readers, not in the text itself. This is not to say that the text is irrelevant, as many of the books under discussion were, as Smith says of In His Steps, characterized by "theological emptiness" (loc. 930). Such "emptiness," in which denominational shibboleths were minimized and Biblicism was maximized, was both a sales technique (one doesn't have to worry about the Baptists and Primitive Methodists battling it out) and, we could add, a means of imagining a unified Protestant community into being. (Nineteenth-century Protestant fiction, for example, tends to do something very similar--RTS publications, for example, are meant to appeal to a wide range of Protestant readers, not just Anglicans or what-have-you.) Emptiness, however, can be filled, and thus enables the widest range of interpretations.
For a Victorianist, though, it can be harder to identify a useful range of reader responses to popular religious texts. Smith draws on correspondence, reviews (professional and Amazon), and, at the end, her own interviews. Moreover, it's also the case that she's working with big bestsellers that left considerable paper trails in the form of publisher's archives, trade advertisements and negotiations, newspaper reports, and so forth. We, alas, don't have Amazon. More seriously, we often don't have correspondence. Many authors wrote anonymously and/or left no records; moreover, as I have mentioned here before, most of the major religious publishers have themselves left no archival traces (whether because they were dispersed, sold, lost, or, like a number of texts themselves, bombed out during the Blitz). Readers for whom we do have readily-available correspondence and diaries--Gladstone, say--are not necessarily what you would call representative. (A lot of the systematically-garnered information we have, such as that discussed in Jonathan Rose's important The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, actually dates from late in the century.) There is the Reading Experience Database. What else? It's possible to trace "use" via the correspondence columns of religious periodicals--for example, there are references to Historical Tales for Young Protestants and Father Clement being distributed as proselytizing tools. Newspaper correspondence, similarly. Novelists themselves sometimes puffed each other: evangelical girls might be told to read Grace Aguilar in order to learn about Jews, for example, and some writers drew up mini reading lists of likeminded texts. At the very least, Smith reminds us that relying on the equivalent of "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" gives us only a very partial picture of audience reception.
The question of the "representative" comes up in another way, however. Smith is quite open about the racial and religious boundaries of her project--white Protestants, often middle-class, frequently male. But given how dominant women are in popular religious authorship--Smith reports that in the 1970s, "[o]f hardcover bestsellers, 90 percent were authored by women" (4618-42)--one would have liked to see more of them than in their cameo appearance at the end (Pagels, Armstrong, Norris). Similarly, I was interested in a) to what extent minority readers (race, gender, religion, etc.) responded to any of the texts under discussion and b) how the religious publishing industry dealt with texts by authors who weren't white/male/Protestant&c. Scholarship on romance reading, for example (e.g., Susan Ostrov Weisser), has noted that African-American women are an important market; what about for religious texts like these? One of the scholarly difficulties with studying a majority is that you inadvertently replicate its intellectual contours and dead-ends in your own work, so that we unintentionally write histories of anti-Catholicism with no Catholics, or of anti-Semitism (or philosemitism, for that matter) with no Jews.