Who are evangelicalism’s architects? Bunyan, Dickens, Moody and more
The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis by Karen Swallow Prior. Brazos Press, 2023. 304 pp., $26.99
“SATAN has easy Access to the Imagination: All horrible or pleasing visionary Representations that are form’d there, are from him only.”
So declared one seventeenth-century Puritan—sadly, all too typically. People who distrust the imagination are usually the last to learn that someone else’s imagination (and decidedly not Satan’s) has conditioned everything they are able to see. Contemporary evangelicals fall easily into this trap, and Karen Swallow Prior wants to free us from it. Her book illustrates why the need to expose and challenge the metaphors we live by—and imagine new ones—has never been more urgent.
Prior grounds her approach in Charles Taylor’s concept of social imaginaries. Taylor illustrates how every culture and subculture is formed and maintained through a shared collection of images, stories, and metaphors so ubiquitous they disappear from our view. And yet, what we can’t see has immense power to form us, for good or for ill. It is that power as it operates within the evangelical imagination that Prior’s book winsomely and efficiently reveals.
Winsome because Prior knows her audience, having once been among them. She’s writing to those so deeply entrenched in evangelical subculture that they can’t see what they can’t see. She frequently admits her own prior (excuse the pun) ignorance to great effect. I resonated with these moments often; I also didn’t know until I was an adult that “In God We Trust” became the United States’ official motto only during the Eisenhower administration. While Prior is not a historian, she has done extensive homework, drawing on the work of many other scholars to illustrate how the evangelical imagination narrowed itself politically, particularly during those key years between World War II and the 1980s. At no point does the argument descend into unjust polemics.
Prior wisely begins before the twentieth century, first surveying the less destructive evangelical social imaginaries. From the beginning evangelicals have productively emphasized that we are all sleepers who need awakening; God wants a personal relationship with each one of us; and powerful conversion stories (testimonies) fuel evangelism. Prior understands that most of us would not be Christians today had our own imaginations not been captured and re-formed by these ideas and the stories through which we encountered them. An accomplished literary scholar, she expertly traces key story plots back to their cultural and literary origins: Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Richardson’s Pamela, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, just to name a few.
Unsurprisingly, her treatment of the less healthy consequences of these texts is extensive and persuasive. For example, it is difficult to over emphasize how much cultural work Pilgrim’s Progress has done to help many generations imagine the life of faith as a successful journey through worldly obstacles. But because Bunyan condenses his own, much more protracted faith journey into a straightforward allegory, the book also defined conversion “as it would be imagined for the next several centuries: in Christ alone and in an instant.” Recognizing that the way we imagine conversion has been shaped more by Pilgrim’s Progress than the Bible is even more important than recognizing that our Satan is Milton’s, that heaven does not involve playing harps on clouds, and that Jesus did not have blue eyes and blond hair.
Because Prior identifies the big and beautiful baby here (God loves me! Virtue matters!), we are more inclined to see and throw out the dirty bathwater. “Evangelicalism’s long emphasis on conversion—its stadium-filled services, its emotional altar calls, its formulaic prayers of salvation—leaves too little emphasis on formation, on sanctification,” she writes. “Personal salvation alone will not solve all problems, personal and social.” Prior’s expertise in Victorian literature gives her a keen eye for what remains from the Victorians’ imagination of the life of faith, especially its degradation into the merely sentimental. The baby here is the recovery of the importance of the emotions—sensibility—to moral growth; the bathwater is cheap, kitschy, and unearned sentiment. “What sentimentality gives, sentimentality can take away,” she writes, by replacing hard-won empathy for others with the warm comfort of feeling good about yourself and your beliefs. I wish every evangelical could read her analysis of the genesis and ongoing impact of Warner Sallman’s famous Head of Christ painting, and of how thoroughly Thomas Kincaid wedded evangelical sentimentality with consumer culture. And on it goes.
These careful exposures allow Prior to move on to the much more politically explosive work of exposing the most harmful way that evangelicalism has imagined the life of faith and the church: as empire. Most evangelicals have no idea how much D. L. Moody changed the church by “marrying business models to Christian ministry.” Moody Bible Institute, founded in Chicago in 1886, was organized and run according to techniques learned from the Quaker Oats company, including marketing strategies, trademarking, and packaging. The resulting transformation of Christians into consumers made possible Jerry Falwell’s multi-million-dollar empire, with all its excesses.
Wedding the idea of empire with the kingdom of heaven has wreaked a very large path of destruction that goes well beyond filthy lucre. It changed pastors from shepherds into “visionary leaders,” and evangelicalism from gospel mission into political ideology. The “God and country” social imaginary is now so deeply embedded that most evangelicals cannot see how impoverished it is. Understanding Prior’s argument means understanding that evangelical support for Trump was, in some ways, inevitable. It also means understanding that the only way forward is through re-imagining how we should live and what the Church should be. That’s why the book’s most powerful moment is when Prior leads us to listen to Johnny Cash’s 2002 cover of “Hurt,” a song originally recorded by the rock band Nine Inch Nails. She asks her readers to stop and watch it on YouTube before moving on with her book—which I did. So I’m asking the same of you right now. With Cash’s haunting rendition stuck in my head, the truth of Prior’s words hit me hard. “All empires of man are empires of dirt in the end. That includes whatever it is of evangelicalism that is of man, not of God. The kingdom of heaven is not an empire.”
Will this book get into the hands of those who need it the most? I certainly hope so. I will do what I can to share it with believers I know who seem to be trapped in a vision of the Church so impoverished that it fails to recognize itself as derivative and simulated—the product of someone else’s imagination. Because the good news is, of course, that if our lives in Christ have been imagined to be something toxic and stale, they can be re-imagined to be something life-giving and fresh. A needy world, with its equally impoverished imagination, stands waiting for this light.
Christina Bieber Lake is Professor of English at Wheaton College, and the author of Beyond the Story: American Literary Fiction and the Limits of Materialism. She is a Contributing Editor for Current.