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

The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis cover imageSummary: An exploration of how images and metaphors influence Evangelical thought (or don’t.)

The Evangelical Imagination is the fourth of Karen Swallow Prior’s books I have read over the past 11 years, the sixth if you include the two classics in which she wrote the introduction. I have been in a private Facebook group and “friends” on social media for most of that time. I looked back, and basically, this is what I said to introduce the last books of hers that I read.

Part of what I appreciate about Karen’s writing is that her writing is personal. She is not just writing abstract “Christian Living” books, theology, or literary criticism; she is a character in the story she shares as she is writing theology, literary criticism, and moral formation. In large part, her work explores virtue, and she uses her work as a literature professor to give tools to that exploration.

I could write a thousand words discussing Prior’s past decade and the struggles she has been through, from very personal harassment by leaders within her denomination to leaving two jobs as a professor to literally being hit by a bus. (I understand everyone must include that line in a review of her work or an introduction to her in an interview.) I hope she will write a memoir sometime in the next 10 to 15 years, but I want people to read about The Evangelical Imagination, not my outsider’s perspective of her life so I won’t get into the personal stuff.

Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind will be 30 years old next year, and that is the book I think many will bring up as they discuss the Evangelical Imagination. Noll raised the question about whether there really was an Evangelical Mind and speculated about what it would take for proper attention to be paid to the life of the mind for the Evangelical. It was a book that almost everyone that wants to grapple with evangelicalism needs to have read. It is an important book, but James KA Smith’s work has indirectly questioned Noll’s thesis. It is not so much that Smith disagrees with Noll’s assessment but that Smith is raising questions about what we should do because we are not simply “brains on a stick” but individuals with a more complicated relationship to our minds.

Prior is extending Smith’s work and using Charles Taylor’s idea of the Social Imaginary to explore how a stunted imagination impacts our ability to address what it means to think and see the world around us. We all know Abraham Maslow’s quote, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” This rough idea of the Christian Imagination was explored more than 20 years ago in Emerson and Smith’s Divided by Faith. Emerson and Smith suggested that the reason Evangelicals cannot move past racial division is that their “toolkit” did not allow them to see the problem clearly but only through the lens of 1) freewill individualism, 2) relationalism, and 3) anti-structuralism. Smith and Emerson attempted to point out that the social imaginary of White Evangelicals impacted their ability to deal with race. Karen Swallow Prior is pointing out the social imaginary of Evangelicals more broadly and directly drawing parallels (for good and bad) to the Victorian age, where so much of the social imaginary of Evangelicals was developed. Most modern Evangelical do not know about those parallels and need someone to point them out.

As I was reading The Christian Imagination, I also listened to the audiobook of Mark Noll’s recent history of the public use of the Bible, America’s Book. In America’s Book, Noll describes well how our imagination limits how we see the world with the example of slavery and the Bible.

In a word, what the Tappans, Grimké Weld, Cheever, Pennington, Douglass, and many others took from the Scriptures should have made proslavery advocates pause, since it came from the same divine authority they revered and interpreted with the same hermeneutical conventions they followed.

Proslavery, however, depicted all Bible-based antislavery as either dangerously liberal or outright heretical. Abolitionists like Albert Barnes and Daniel Goodwin insisted that they too honored the Scriptures. But when they drew on intuited truths from the moral sense to shape biblical interpretation, they seemed to their opponents to be doing self-consciously only what all abolitionists did unwittingly-that is, abandoning the secure Word of God for heretical flights of egotistical presumption. (p 428, italics mine)

I highlight that quote because while pro-slavery Christians said they were honoring their understanding of the Bible, their social imaginary required that they see abolitionists’ biblical arguments as either heresy or egotistical presumption. Noll goes on in the next chapter to explore why pro-slavery arguments were considered more biblical than abolition arguments in the United States but rarely in other places at the same time. Traditionally this has been presented as predominately about American plain-sense biblicism. But Noll disagrees with the characterization. Instead, he points to social conditions which made the listeners of that era primed to ignore the biblical case for abolition even when it was more biblically robust and more diversely rooted throughout the Bible than the case for slavery. Noll never uses the term social imaginary, but reading these two books together allowed me to see Prior’s point about modern Evangelicals in Noll’s history of American Christians.

Karen Swallow Prior opens the Evangelical Imagination by exploring the concept of the social imaginary and how we understand imagination more broadly. The metaphor, a type of imaginative reasoning, allows us to place abstract ideas in concrete examples. Literature, especially poetry and novels, is full of metaphors exploring how the world works. But if we do not understand the metaphor or our social imaginary primes us to misunderstand the metaphor, then that will impact how we see the world around us.

Using Emerson and Smith’s work as an example, they suggest that most White Evangelicals tend to think in anti-structural terms and therefore have a hard time “seeing” the structural reasons for racial disparity as part of the valid reality of the world. In other words, when there is a racial incident, White Evangelicals tend to be primed to see that as an individual event, however tragic or regrettable, but not part of a broader pattern of events because the social imaginary of White Evangelicals is anti-structuralist.

After the introduction, Prior names the social imaginary of Evangelicals and explores the roots (often back to the Victorian age, her literary specialty, and the point when the novel was being established as a literary concept.) Some of these concepts that are named are the importance of conversation, sentimentality, the value of domesticity, and the priority of improvement (both self and society). Prior explores these concepts’ positive and negative uses to our current faith.

Prior sees more value in the historical connection to Evangelicalism than I do. She has a chapter in Still Evangelical where she argues that the history of Evangelical justice work in the Victorian age is part of why we should work to maintain the connection to the term Evangelical. I tend to think that the Neo-Evangelical movement that is most commonly associated with Billy Graham has a historical connection to the Evangelicals of the 17th to 19th centuries, but that it really is a different movement that uses those connections to the earlier movement for credibility but does not share as much theological and cultural connections as is commonly believed.

In some ways, the argument of Evangelical Imagination makes my point moot. It doesn’t matter much if the connection is overblown if many Evangelicals are just unaware of the ways that they are and are not influenced by that history. My disagreement is secondary to the importance of naming the social imaginary of current Evangelicals exists. So many evangelicals assume that their view of the world is what Christians have always understood throughout history. The final chapter on the rapture most clearly points this out. Many Evangelicals assume that the dispensational-influenced pre-millennialism is the dominant historical understanding of Christianity instead of a relatively recent innovation. (Darwinian Evolution is older than what we commonly understand as rapture theology.)

I commend The Evangelical Imagination compared to her previous books. Prior is a specialist in early British novels, and because she often references those in her previous books, I think she has over-relied on white commenters to those novels. The breadth of citations is much wider here than in her previous books, which helps more fully explore the concepts. Part of what she advocates in The Evangelical Imagination is to use other streams of Christianity to inform our understanding of both Evangelicalism, our current moment, and Christianity more broadly. And she illustrates her point by doing what she advocates. She cites Henri Nouwen’s discussion of the two methods of seeking transcendence, the search for mystical experience and social revolution, which brings about radical change that will make you part of a transcendent movement. Nouwen is familiar to many Evangelicals, but his Catholic background gives him additional tools to self-evaluate the social imaginary of Evangelicalism. Similarly, Willie James Jennings’ book The Christian Imagination influences the book through a conversation with the Black church.

One of Prior’s strengths is self-critique, not just of herself as an individual, although that is true, but also of the movement she so closely identifies with, Evangelicalism. Prior also is a beautiful writer. The form she uses here is a common literary form, but the commonness of the forms works well with her writing quality in a way that only sometimes works with less skillful writers.

I am more progressive and less attached to the term Evangelical than Karen Swallow Prior is. But I will keep reading her because she brings quality and intellectual heft to the table that many Christian authors do not bring. I will continue to push back against some of her thinking because she has a bias to appreciate the good of Evangelical history more than the harm. (But she does not minimize the harm, and part of this book and her recent history is grappling even more with the harm publicly.) I continue to be amused at her dislike of fantasy (which she discusses in her rapture chapters). I am constantly reminded when she talks about her dislike of fantasy about how our particular tastes and intellectual orientation matter to how we perceive the world around us.

I also referenced The Evangelical Imagination in this post at Current.

Addendum: I realized after I posted this that one of the reasons I think that discussion of the social imaginary is important to discuss in light of Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is that in the years after the Scandal impacted thinking about Evangelical intellectual work, many graduate students started in Evangelical colleges and then went to high-quality schools for Ph.D. work inspired to reverse the critique that the Scandal raised. Some of those scholars returned back to the evangelical schools they had left with great fanfare. And then either quietly left or were loudly drummed out. Individual students obtained PhDs and then returned but had a new social imaginary different from the institution’s social imaginary. People like Pete Enns have written about the problem of sending off students but being unwilling to receive them back if they have done the work and changed intellectually in the ways they had been asked to do.

Prior’s work here is still focused on the individual’s approach to understanding their own social imaginary. But there is potential for this work to seep into the evangelical imagination and do what Willie James Jenning’s book on theological Education After Whiteness is calling for. An Evangelical world that wants a particular prestige that comes from intellectual rigor but is unwilling to expand the social imaginary of the type of questions and answers that that rigor produces will only create additional frustration. The current deconstruction movement is partly grappling with the disconnect between the training many young people received and the result when they attempted to implement what they had been taught.

I was provided a PDF advance copy of the Evangelical Imagination for review, but I finished up the last two chapters on the copy I preordered months ago.

The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis by Karen Swallow Prior Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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