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-by Virginia Stem Owens
True Reformed Grit
I Read It in the Wordless Book
By Betty Smartt Carter
Baker Book House
398pp.; $13.99, paper
I once heard a speaker at a seminary conference in Texas ask, "If we don't tell the story of Southern Baptists, who will?" Despite the fact that he had quite a different story in mind than I did, the question has haunted me ever since. Churchgoing Protestants in general remain one of the most underrepresented segments of American society in our national fiction today. New York publishers, hungry for spirituality themes, nevertheless consider even fictional evangelicals toxic. And despite the boom in formula fiction produced for the Christian Booksellers market, few religious publishers are willing to take a chance on novels attempting to depict with any degree of realism what life as a Southern Baptist might look like.
Ever since the midnineteenth century, when Hawthorne pilloried his ancestors as exemplars of pietistic hypocrisy, few novelists have taken a serious look at the lives of devout dissenters in this country. Early in this century, Sinclair Lewis set the trend by satirizing the Protestant subculture with his straw preacher, Elmer Gantry, just as he exposed businessmen in Babbitt and doctors in Arrowsmith. But while business and medicine have both survived as acceptable subjects for novels, Protestant piety seems stuck in Lewis's satiric mold. One can, of course, find realistic treatments of other religious traditions. Chaim Potok has given us a fascinating series of novels set within Orthodox Jewish communities in this country. And more recently Jon Hassler has explored the lives of Catholic priests serving all-too-realistic congregations in small Minnesota towns. But Protestants have been depicted either as bizarre backwoods loners, as in Flannery O'Connor's self-proclaimed expressionism, or as John Updike's lapsed suburbanites, who lack even the exoticism of Graham Greene's whisky priest.
No one, it appears, wants to take on the formidable task of depicting a Protestant ...