Between the Bible and novels there is a gulph fixed which few readers are willing to pass,” Calvinist theologian and Yale president Timothy Dwight wrote in 1796. “The consciousness of virtue, the dignified pleasure of having performed our duty, the serene remembrance of a useful life, the hope of an interest in the Redeemer, and the promise of a glorious inheritance in the favour of God, are never found in novels.”

Dwight was especially concerned by women reading novels, worried that contemporary fiction was too rosy and devoid of “the curse pronounced upon mankind.” A woman prone to reading novels is to be pitied: “Her taste for living has become too refined, too dainty, to relish any thing found in real life.”

As the oversimplified story goes, American Protestant antagonism continued but with decreasing force over the next century until Lew Wallace wrote Ben-Hur in 1880. (The story is about as true as the one about evangelical Protestants avoiding films until The Passion of the Christ. Which is to say: not terribly so.)

When CT launched in the 1950s, its editors were eager to promote Christian fiction. In theory. While a handful of positive novel reviews emerged, they were inevitably couched with laments about the “dreadful dearth … of real literary worth” in other efforts. No complaints about Christian novels making readers “too refined” here. CT’s 1961 list of 100 titles every church library should carry only contained two works of fiction: Wallace’s Ben-Hur and Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis.

By contrast, church libraries these days (especially those relying heavily on donations) seem overwhelmed by Christian novels. At one church ...

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