The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis – Karen Swallow Prior

The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis by Karen Swallow Prior
Also by this author: Jane Eyre: A Guide to Reading and Reflecting, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books, The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis
Published by Brazos Press on August 8, 2023
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction, Christian Life, Theology

Contemporary American evangelicalism is suffering from an identity crisis--and a lot of bad press.

In this book, acclaimed author Karen Swallow Prior examines evangelical history, both good and bad. By analyzing the literature, art, and popular culture that has surrounded evangelicalism, she unpacks some of the movement's most deeply held concepts, ideas, values, and practices to consider what is Christian rather than merely cultural. The result is a clearer path forward for evangelicals amid their current identity crisis--and insight for others who want a deeper understanding of what the term "evangelical" means today.

Brought to life with color illustrations, images, and paintings, this book explores ideas including conversion, domesticity, empire, sentimentality, and more. In the end, it goes beyond evangelicalism to show us how we might be influenced by images, stories, and metaphors in ways we cannot always see.

In this unique approach to a complex topic, Karen Swallow Prior delves into the ways that the evangelical “social imaginary” leads many Christians to confidently believe that certain ideas and practices are biblical when they are really based in cultural trends from past generations. Prior explores how different cultural beliefs have corrupted evangelicalism, showing how issues like sentimentalism, an overemphasis on dramatic conversion stories, and materialism flow from past events that we can analyze to better understand our own times. Each chapter covers a different topic, and Prior explores how historic events, cultural shifts, and their resulting art and literature created recognizable trends and familiar problems.

The beginning of the book is very academic and dense, but once Prior lays out her rationale for understanding the role of the imagination and metaphor in ideology and culture-making, the book reads at the popular level. The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis will appeal to both academic and general Christian audiences, and Prior’s treatment of historical events is nuanced and insightful. I was already familiar with much of the history that she covered, but she made a number of connections that were new to me, and this will be very eye-opening for people who don’t know much about the early days of evangelicalism, especially if they are unaware of how the Victorian era and the industrial revolution influenced people’s assumptions, life structures, and rituals.

Prior shares a very balanced perspective, and she acknowledges how many negative trends were true of society at large, not just the church. She also celebrates the good and beautiful things that early evangelicals accomplished in their context, such as recovering key biblical truths about salvation, sharing their faith with people of all social classes, and ending the slave trade. Although Prior makes pointed critiques, she also reflects on ways that evangelicals made the world a better place. Overall, I found her critiques very balanced and thoughtful, but there are a few exceptions to this.

For example, during an aside in the chapter about awakening, Prior writes about the history of the word ‘woke,’ and she says that people who don’t like this term are asleep to systemic racism and falsely accuse people of virtue-signaling. That is oversimplified and unfair. Of course, there are people who use the word ‘woke’ as a pejorative or even racially tinged term, but there are also people who dislike the word because of the highly politicized and frequently off-putting ways that other people use it. The word also refers to far more than just racism now, and is associated with an incredibly wide range of beliefs and social causes.

I felt that Prior oversimplified this issue in an unfair way, and it disappointed me that she dismissed the idea of virtue-signaling as an empty critique instead of assessing the ways that people have damaged the word ‘woke’ through their self-congratulatory uses of the term. Part of why this word has fallen on hard times is because of ways that white liberals have appropriated this Black slang, and it disappointed me that Prior gave such a one-sided look at the issue, making it sound like anyone who dislikes the word ‘woke’ doesn’t care about racial justice. Even though this is a very minor part of the book, I felt that Prior undermined her credibility.

I also thought that this book didn’t live up to its subtitle. Although Prior explains the impact of stories, images, and metaphors on evangelical history, she doesn’t always clearly relate these historic themes to current events. I would often expect her to build an argument and drive a point home, but then she would move onto something else, leaving it to the reader to connect the dots to our current moment. For example, Prior makes a few comments about how historic realities portended current issues in the evangelical publishing industry, but she never unpacks this for the reader. She just assumes that they know. I am familiar with the topic, but I would have still liked to see her drive the point home, and the lack of direct argumentation and application about current events will make it harder for less-informed readers to follow along.

The Evangelical Imagination shares insightful takes on a variety of different themes affecting evangelical beliefs and the evangelical subculture in America. Prior shares helpful insights into a variety of different cultural trends, and this book can help readers think through ways that shared ideas and symbols within the evangelical movement have influenced them for better or for worse. I really enjoyed Prior’s nuanced exploration of historical cultural trends and their impact, and even though I already knew a lot of the history that she covered, it was very helpful to see it all converge here with this thematic focus. However, because this book doesn’t always clearly connect these historic events to contemporary issues, I would mainly recommend this to people who are already very familiar with current discourse about problems with evangelical culture.