Book Review, The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis

Robert WoodsMember Publications: Other, News: Other, Research: Featured Book Reviews (peer reviewed) Leave a Comment

Book Reviewed: Swallow Prior, Karen. The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 2023).

Reviewed By: Elaine Schnabel

Journal of Christian Teaching Practice, Volume 10 (January-December 2023)

Reviewer Affiliation: Weber State University

Total Pages: 304

ISBN-13: 978-1-5874-3575-1


In The Evangelical Imagination, Karen Swallow Prior shows how communication and language shape American Evangelicals’ vision of the world and their place within it. Her overarching project is bold: to articulate the myths, metaphors, and stories that American Evangelicals find compelling and show how these (non-Biblical) preferred narratives influence the ways in which Evangelicals interpret the Bible and their everyday lives. Because Karen Swallow Prior writes fully from within an Evangelical perspective to make this argument, The Evangelical Imagination is a highly beneficial text for Christian educators seeking to help their students grapple with some of the most polarizing topics in American Christianity today.

In each chapter, Swallow Prior draws connections among disparate texts to explore a religious theme with significance to both British Victorian culture and modern-day American Evangelicals: testimony, conversion, domesticity, sentimentality, improvement, and so on. Each chapter focuses more on describing texts than analyzing them, presenting rich description of stories many readers are already familiar with before carefully referencing current events. While this fosters identification with evangelicals, it can also create a gap or barrier for readers not familiar with current evangelical tropes and trends. Similarly, the author’s reliance on the reader to make connections leaves her argument unclear at times.

For example, chapter four focuses on testimony, and the two primary texts she explores are John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. While learning a lot about these two stories and how they utilize conversion narratives, the reader will have a hard time finding her argument about how these stories have shaped the Evangelical imagination. In the same chapter, Swallow Prior also discusses the use of testimonies in LGBTQ conversion therapy and the bankrupt testimonies of white slaveholders about how enslavement enabled African Americans to convert to Christianity. While she sees these testimonies as linked, it is difficult to tell what she thinks the nature of that link is and how exactly it connects to her broader point about Evangelical culture being “in crisis.” The same thing is true in the fifth chapter, focused on the values of improvement, progress, and work ethic, which Swallow Prior describes as “secular notions” with which Evangelicalism was infatuated, even while showing that Evangelical texts encouraged people to value progress and improvement in the first place (p. 123).

Throughout the book, Swallow Prior draws on literary theorists and cultural theorists such as Charles Taylor, Lauren Berlant (chapter six), and Edward Said (chapter nine). Her writing is clear and concise, explaining complex theoretical constructs like postcolonialism and affect in simplified terms. But the bulk of each chapter explores how a series of texts are linked to her chosen theme. In chapter six, for example, she argues that sentimentality has become a form of authority in Evangelicalism, as Evangelicals’ attempt to address “impersonal, ritualized religion” (p. 147) has overcorrected toward subjective, emotionalism. Her close reading both of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Head of Christ adds nuance to Brenneman’s (2014) work, Homespun Gospel, which has a similar thesis

Swallow Prior’s primary goal is offering insight to Evangelical readers about their own culture, nudging them to accept the fact that their own language shapes their theological and political beliefs. But occasionally she undermines this purpose by offering her Evangelical readers contextual reasons for why things are the way they are. For example, the seventh chapter purports to explore the material culture of evangelicalism “to learn more about the movement and its people” (p. 153); however, most of the chapter actually addresses the sociotechnical factors that gave rise to mass production, thus explaining the vast Evangelical market for t-shirts, coffee mugs, and so on. Other times she offers a close reading of the Biblical text to explain her assertions rather than a cultural analysis. In these moments of the book, Swallow Prior fails to offer the critical insight she promises to her Evangelical readers, instead simply reproducing common interpretations of scripture and culture she might have critiqued.

The exception to this trend is chapter 9, the strongest, clearest, and most invigorating of all eleven chapters in the book. The chapter’s argument about the role of empire in Evangelicalism is built on Edward Said’s work on postcolonialism and a close reading of Robinson Crusoe and Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden.” Noticeably less cluttered than others, this chapter opens by describing the close relationship between the evils of British Imperialism and Evangelical Christianity, openly stating that Christian conversion was used as a justification for the violent seizure of lands from native people groups. Swallow Prior then links this history with modern day entrepreneurial Evangelicalism as championed by D.L. Moody and Jerry Falwell, as well as conservative Evangelicals’ political opportunism. She is able to do so in part because of the clarity with which she has uncovered the inherent racism in the Robinson Crusoe narrative, reminding the reader that Crusoe is a slave trader, a sin of which the character never repents. She argues that this same evangelical entrepreneurial spirit that ignores its own sins lives on in the form of Evangelical support for Donald Trump’s presidency.

This kind of incisive analysis appears in other chapters, but the ninth is perhaps the only chapter in which Swallow Prior does not bury her main point deep in the heart of her textual analysis. One of the main points of the entire book, for example, is hiding on page 185 in the middle of the chapter about domesticity. She writes, “what evangelicals uncritically assume is ‘biblical’ turns out to be simply Victorian.” Similarly, her attempts to call for some kind of change or reformation at the end of each chapter tend to be small and intangible. Chapter ten, on reformation, contains Swallow Prior’s most explicit call for change, but it offers no particular pathway forward. Instead, she reminds her reader that “change is hard. But change…is also inevitable” and good (p. 235). What kind of change she hopes to see goes unstated.

Perhaps Swallow Prior’s writing style demonstrates the kind of change she hopes for. Even while discussing the evils of Christian empire, her tone is gentle toward her primary audience of Evangelical Christians. Chapter eleven, about the rapture, is an impressive showcase of careful, nonpolemic writing that is rarely seen even in academic circles today. For example, she argues that rapture fiction is about helping readers “think imaginatively about things they already believe—or that their authors want them to believe” (p. 244-45). She deftly bypasses judgment on this practice to offer careful description instead. At times this gentleness muddies her argument, but writing in this fashion allows the author to ask provocative questions without provoking, to raise incredibly important issues without triggering defensiveness.

Another weakness of the book is that she offers little justification for which texts and cultural references she has selected for each topic. These span centuries and continents within a given chapter and feel almost thrown together. The second chapter, for instance, is titled “Awakening: Mumford, MLK, Huston, Hughes, and Other Poets.” The headings within that chapter are similarly spiked with disparate references, such as “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream” and “Nothing but a Dreamer: Before There Was Supertramp, There was John Bunyan.” As the astute reader might guess from just these headings, Swallow Prior discusses a dizzying array of texts, artifacts, and writers in this chapter, including Mumford & Sons’ music, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Plato, Shakespeare, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Pilgrim’s Progress, Augustine, Samuel Torrey’s 1674 An Exhortation unto Reformation, a George Whitefield sermon, an 1853 painting called The Awakening Conscience, Dante Stewart’s 2021 book Shoutin’ in the Fire, C.S. Lewis, Langston Hughes, and Martin Luther King Jr. As the inclusion of Neal Hurston, Stewart, Hughes, and MLK might indicate, Swallow Prior attempts to link the white Evangelical canon of preferred authors (Augustine, C.S. Lewis, John Bunyan) to modern Black authors that have called White Christians to account. It is a complicated task that pulls her writing in many disparate directions throughout each chapter.

This book would likely be useful for any Christian undergraduate seminar in communication, sociology, or English. Swallow Prior writes fully within an Evangelical frame, so it might be difficult for those without personal familiarity to follow her many references. Even Christians who are not Evangelical or well-versed in the Evangelical imagination she outlines will struggle to follow the argument because Swallow Prior herself clearly draws on this imagination to offer criticism, insight, and storytelling. For example, to support her assertions about story and metaphor in modern-day Evangelicalism, she quotes I Corinthians 15:20 and Romans 13:11 without explicating either text or its context. This uniquely Evangelical approach to decontextualizing singular Bible verses and putting them in the service of a broader argument might be alienating to those Christians who take a more holistic, traditional, and contextual approach to holy scripture.

In sum, The Evangelical Imagination is a gentle, accommodating primer on how American Evangelicals’ interpretations of scripture are culturally influenced by White supremacy, patriarchalism, and politics. Karen Swallow Prior’s ability to write within an Evangelical perspective allows her to introduce such provocative themes to those who feel threatened by phrases like “critical race theory” or “feminism.” It is a commendable effort, and one that might very well help Swallow Prior achieve her goal of nudging the Evangelical tradition toward a new reformation.

Leave a Reply