Book Review: The Evangelical Imagination by Karen Swallow Prior

Recently, I was asked a profound question that made me pause and contemplate my identity as a Christian in a world that is becoming increasingly post-Christian. The question posed to me was, “Why do you continue to believe and identify as a Christian, especially when it seems like you’re out of step with the majority of evangelicals in the United States?” I found myself lacking a satisfactory answer—at least one that satisfied me. In the current cultural climate of deconstruction, or perhaps more accurately, reconstruction of a Christian faith, it’s unclear if any of us swept along in this zeitgeist have a definitive response.

These questions, along with others, frequently occupy my thoughts. I’ve previously explored the “why” of my life and existence, as I believe most people do when they take moments for reflection. Exploring questions about origin, destiny, morality, and meaning has been a longstanding pursuit of philosophers throughout human history.

As I contemplate my answers to these existential questions, I’ve found Karen Swallow Prior’s (KSP) writings to be helpful in gaining wisdom about those who have grappled with similar questions before me. Her latest work, “The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis, ” skillfully explores influential books, ideas, and images shaping evangelicals over the past three centuries. Prior draws on concepts from thinkers like David Bebbington and Charles Taylor, aiming to “tease out the elements of the evangelical social imaginary in such a way that those elements that are truly Christian can be better distinguished from those that are merely cultural.”

Reading KSP’s book reinforced my belief that we are primarily shaped by stories that resonate with our experiences, whether found in sacred texts, tradition, or popular culture. These stories, conveying myths and metaphors, contain wisdom to assist us in making sense of our lives. KSP emphasizes, “The stories, metaphors, and images I identify in these pages as influential within evangelical social imaginaries…are simply part of the larger culture that has made evangelical culture – and that evangelicalism has made – for good and ill.”

As I delved into familiar and unfamiliar stories recounted by KSP, along with detailed descriptions of the times and motivations of the writers, I realized once again that we all belong to a much larger story, one that is still unfolding. KSP also reflects on evangelical iconography and iconoclasts that shape our perceptions of Jesus, the Bible, and other representations of faith. She challenges sentimental frameworks in Christian art, urging us to understand the full complexity of the world and humans, denying neither the beauty nor the grotesque, writing, “Sentimentality…focuses on the self and one’s own emotional response, sentimentality does away with the most important thing needed for benevolence: the forgetfulness of the self. Thus, the rise of sentimentality has been linked to the decline of the Christian faith.”

“The Evangelical Imagination” fueled my hope for a transformation in American evangelical thought and practice, embracing the words and principles of Jesus as contained within the stories we have received. I pray that anything “that traffics in familiar tropes and stock characters,” “reinforces rather than refines beliefs,” “softens edges rather than clarifies,” and “serves to comfort rather than correct” (as KSP writes about sentimentality) will give way to the glories of an exalted Christ.

Now more than ever, I am convinced that aspects of American Christianity like dogmatic assertions of literalism and inerrancy, often informed by well-meaning apologetics set us up for failure in sharing our faith. Our best arguments can be debunked by any number of determined scholars, but sharing the transformative story of Jesus in our lives remains undeniable.

Karen Swallow Prior concludes with an analysis of contemporary cultural artifacts and the apocalyptic rapture scenarios dominating the minds of present-day evangelicals. She challenges the social imaginaries that fuel the political mindset of many evangelicals, advocating instead to “be caught up in Christ.” She cites Johnny Cash, (a particularly enjoyable acknowledgement for me as a fellow Northeast Arkansas native) and calls us “to love the kingdom of God more than the kingdoms of this world…to count all human empires as dirt, all our petty platforms and performances as dung.”

I highly recommend “The Evangelical Imagination” to anyone seeking a better understanding of how we arrived at the current state of Christian social imaginaries. For those, like me, who want to reconstruct it, reading and rereading Karen Swallow Prior’s work is essential.

And then, as the story has been passed down in myriad forms throughout the centuries—through metaphor, myth, and imagination—go ahead and share Jesus with a friend.

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