The Evangelical Imagination – 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
Published by Brazos Press on August 8, 2023
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction
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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.

There’s a classic book by Mark Noll called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind that beings with “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” When it comes to The Evangelical Imagination, the opposite might be true. Karen Swallow Prior, one of the foremost Christian literary critics, examines how evangelical stories, images, and metaphors helped create the current crisis in evangelical culture.

Prior offers a deeply reflective and insightful critique of evangelical culture, particularly its historical and cultural underpinnings. She begins by writing that there several virtually unexamined assumptions in evangelical culture that have their foundation in Victorian culture. Recently, evangelicalism has been going through an apocalypse—an unveiling—and what was previously unexamined has now been tried and found wanting. So what are we to do? Prior helps readers dig deeper and discover the foundation of the stories that have oriented evangelicalism, because the first step to repairing the evangelical imagination is to have clear understanding of what has been forming it.

The Evangelical Imagination is not a condemnation of the evangelical worldview. Prior is an evangelical and remains an evangelical despite the deep flaws she sees in the system. Rather, The Evangelical Imagination is a pointed and poignant critique from someone within the building, who has invested in the building, who played a part in bringing others into the building, and now see the building is not stable. As such, the goal of the book is not demolition or even necessarily deconstruction, but a necessary reconstruction. Prior’s tone is passionate but irenic, it’s academic but accessible. The book doesn’t hate evangelicalism and that’s why it offers the critique that it does; it’s a love letter to evangelicalism to be thing that it could be.

Prior’s analysis spans several centuries, examining influences ranging from Thomas Kinkade’s art to misconceptions about empire in contemporary media. This comprehensive examination provides readers with a clearer understanding of how the evangelical imagination has evolved over time​. She then relates that to the current crises in evangelicalism, which she characterizes as a loss of its biblical moorings. She almost laments the Amerocentrism of evangelicalism, writing that while historically rooted in American religion, evangelicalism must grow and expand into a global context.

A quibble I have with this is that it already has. When Prior writes about Christianity, she means evangelicalism. When she writes about evangelicalism, she means white American conservative evangelicalism. Other evangelicalisms exist. Other faith traditions exist. It would have been difficult to include conversation about these faith strains, but it would have gone a long way in helping contextualize why White American Conservative Evangelicals morphed into what they are while other evangelicals or other Christians did not.

Overall, though, The Evangelical Imagination offers an incisive critique of American evangelicalism that is compelling and thought-provoking. Prior challenges readers to discern between cultural trends and biblical truths, urging a return to the roots of the evangelical movement while adapting to a more global and diverse context. Other books have detailed the history of evangelicalism. Other books have lamented its current cultural positions. Other books have critiqued its theological and sociological positions. The Evangelical Imagination stands out because it does so through a literary and artistic lens, reminding readers about how formative literature and art are, even if we don’t always recognize it.