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‘The Evangelical Imagination’ by Karen Swallow Prior

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was birthed in Victorian England. That culture was filled with theological works, novels, plays, and poetry that all reflected an evangelical understanding of the world.

Victorian culture was influenced by evangelicalism to the extent that Dickens, whose relationship with evangelicalism is contested, wrote one of the most iconic conversion narratives in English literature. Scrooge’s transformation from rude miser to softened philanthropist is an archetype for many evangelical Christians. It remains a staple Christmas sermon illustration because it both reflects and shapes the way evangelical Christians view the world. Salvation of the nastiest people is possible, and Scrooge’s conversion is what it looks like.

Some of the images and metaphors embedded in our collective cultural memory are helpful, subtly encouraging Christian virtues. Others are so familiar they go unnoticed, even as they point people away from biblical truths. As an experienced writer who has taught in evangelical seminaries and universities, Karen Swallow Prior seeks to uncover some of the distorting cultural influences on the evangelical imagination. She combines the professional specialization of a literary scholar with the personal testimony of one who longs for a more holistically biblical evangelicalism as she sets out on an insider critique.

According to Prior in The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis, many assumptions from the Victorian age continue to exist “as unexamined assumptions swirling within the evangelical imagination” (3). Because these assumptions are presumed to be true and accurate representations of the world, they’re seldom examined by faithful Christians. The result is that amid many sound ideas, some rotten elements remain hidden and unreformed.

The Evangelical Imagination offers a critique in an effort to point evangelicals toward an imagination better shaped by biblical truths.

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

Karen Swallow Prior

Brazos. 304 pp.

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.

Brazos. 304 pp.

Evangelical Social Imaginary

Prior calls attention to a unifying imaginative heritage of evangelicalism. She reminds us that the stories we hear, the art we see, the songs we sing, and the metaphors we employ combine in a way that “shapes us and our world more than any other human power or ability” (7).

Human imagination is a distinctive of our species because we’re made in God’s image. But our imaginations are formed by our cultural contexts. Through a survey of several Western understandings of the world, Prior touches on myth, metaphor, and other helpful frameworks on which she builds her analysis of the evangelical imagination.

A “social imaginary” is the shared set of stories, myths, ideas, and images that inform a common understanding of the world. Evangelicalism has its own social imaginary, which has been shaped over the past three centuries. Prior traces its development as she highlights trivia about forgotten influences and identifies causes of dysfunction. She considers the influence of Thomas Kinkade, whose paintings focused on light but whose life told a different story. Prior explores the way ideas about empires in movies and literature may enable a presumption of the inevitability of growth and expansion.

She offers inspiring reminders about the power of the Christian intellectual tradition, which is part of the evangelical heritage. The book offers page-turning epiphanies, demonstrating connections between ideas, themes, and schools of thought that can help readers understand how the evangelical imagination has been formed.

At the center of Prior’s argument is her belief that many of the problems that have plagued evangelical Christians in the U.S. in recent decades can be directly traced to a failure of the evangelical imagination.

Imaginative Crisis

According to Prior, the evangelical imagination is in crisis. We’re living in a time of incredible change and cultural upheaval—on the cusp of a new age yet to be fully understood. Whereas evangelicalism was once rooted in a highly compact cultural context, it now functions in a context constantly redefined by a cacophony of social media, geopolitical upheaval, and post-Western demographics.

We’re living in a time of incredible change and cultural upheaval—on the cusp of a new age yet to be fully understood.

The historic unity of imagination Prior surveys has lost its centrality. In her telling, it has also lost its biblical moorings. According to Prior, therefore, evangelicalism must become more conscientiously global to reclaim its biblical foundations. Evangelicals must reexamine the metaphors and images that shape their imaginations. Are the narratives we presume merely artifacts of an earlier culture or tropes that illuminate the gospel?

But the crisis of imagination is a human crisis, not an exclusively evangelical one. She argues the current crisis is the same one the Victorians faced: How do we seamlessly combine orthodoxy and orthopraxy? It’s the same one faced by Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. And it’s the same crisis I face in my own life: How do I love God as he loves me and love others out of that overflow (1 John 4:19)?

There’s a global need for the revitalization of imagination. The perpetual need of humanity is to have a social imaginary that shapes us toward the gospel, fresh imaginative reminders of our need for repentance and the possibility of God’s forgiveness.

Western Focus

Though Prior hints at it, the global element is perhaps the biggest missed opportunity of the book.

Prior’s “crisis” references the current state of evangelicalism, which is a movement too often fixated by headlines and infighting, at least in the world of the internet and social media. Many of these problems are the result of faulty imaginations, but they also perpetuate malformed imaginations.

“Failure porn,” as it’s sometimes called, is everywhere in the digital lives of our culture, with sexual abuse, political turmoil, financial improprieties, and moral peccadilloes all larding our digital pantries. We’re culturally bound together more by the experience of shared breath-holding that too often accompanies our log-ins on social media than by a positive, gospel-centric evangelical imagination.

But this experience isn’t universal among evangelicals across the globe.

As Prior notes, “Evangelicalism is a movement that is nearly three hundred years old with a global presence that dwarfs that in America” (23). She points out, “It is hardly possible . . . to talk about evangelicalism rather than evangelicalisms. This now-global movement is not contained by the qualities and characteristics of a George Whitefield, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, or any of its other founders and leaders” (30).

The perpetual need of humanity is to have social imaginary that shapes them toward the gospel.

Yet Prior’s critique focuses on an evangelicalism caught up in American politics and the structures of Western liberalism. This argument may have substantially less resonance for evangelicals who aren’t online much, whose social experiences have been largely outside the U.S., or who have grown up in different sections of the macadamized internet world. These individuals may be unaware of the constant turmoil of many online (and often incredibly petty) controversies.

Furthermore, by focusing on negative examples that are tripping up American evangelicals, readers may be left wondering how other evangelicalisms (even Western ones) seem to have avoided similar troubles.

Imaginative Future

We’ve left the central social imaginary that formed evangelicalism in the digital dust. But more significantly, the movement has leaped beyond its roots into a global context that no longer shares its original formative forces. Of necessity, what comes next must be more intentionally biblical because the movement is no longer rooted in a homogeneous, historical culture.

Prior reminds us of the value and the risks of the older, more homogeneous world as we enter a more heterogeneous era. The challenge of what comes next is to generate a better alternative for forming the evangelical imagination.

How do we communicate the Word made flesh in a world where metaphors—the root of all human language—no longer have coherence? How do we champion a global culture that can counter the hyperindividualism of the algorithms that relentlessly magnify social media’s angry, agenda-laden, or egotistical voices to match (or exceed) those of more reasoned interrogators?

It’s bedlam meets Babel, where words have lost their common, overlapping definitions, slipping into the realm of subjective interpretations that are disconnected from a larger controlling social imaginary.

Prior calls us to rediscover the rich history we have, to remind ourselves the power of our movement is in its source in God, and to embrace the imaginative expressions that can affect our world, no matter where on the globe we are.

This book offers a convicting admonishment to avoid confusing cultural trends for biblical truth. It’s a breathtaking reminder of just how powerful the evangelical imagination has been and how much is lost when we forfeit it.

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