Serena Sigillito: I just read your wonderful new book, The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis. For readers who haven’t read it yet, can you give a short description?
Karen Swallow Prior: The Evangelical Imagination is about the evangelical social imaginary: our collective pool of images, concepts, ideas, myths, and stories, which go back all the way to evangelicalism’s beginnings about three hundred years ago. How we got where we are now in American evangelicalism didn’t start in the twentieth century, much less in 2016. It started long ago, the good and the bad. Examining our underlying assumptions can help us to understand who we are and who, perhaps, we should be.
SS: What inspired you to take on this project?
KSP: There were really two things. One is that I had just spent a number of years teaching lots of Victorian literature to evangelical students. These students would often see things about Victorianism that were very familiar to them from their own evangelical upbringing. As we would examine some of these things—like purity culture, separate spheres for men and women, duty, and family values—we would try to figure out, “Where are these things actually biblical, and where are they simply Victorian?”
Then, with the 2016 election and the word “evangelical” being thrown about so much—people misusing it, misunderstanding it, rejecting it, vilifying it, and so forth—I got a little protective, because my area of research during my doctoral dissertation was this period of history, beginning in the eighteenth century. Evangelicalism has a long and rich history that a lot of today’s evangelicals aren’t even aware of, and so I wanted to bring that to light as well.
SS: I really liked how you applied a literary and artistic sensibility to theological and political questions. I was particularly struck by your description of evangelicalism as a religion of the word. Obviously, in a certain sense, that’s true of all of Christianity, because Jesus is the Logos. But, as you emphasize, evangelicalism has a particular historical link to the rise of the printing press, which allowed ordinary believers to go straight to the Bible.
That idea of attention to word and symbol and metaphor as being so integral to the history of evangelicalism was, in some ways, surprising to me. I’m Catholic, and I must admit that I do have an impression of contemporary evangelicalism as being somewhat anti-intellectual.
KSP: I don’t blame you.
SS: So how did we get to a place where that’s not an unfounded thing for me to say?
KSP: The best source for an answer to that question is Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. If you’ve never read that, you really should. It answers that question very, very well. But, just to trace out the bare bones: obviously, the Protestant Reformation was about the written text of the Bible and getting it in the hands of the people, which was made possible by the printing press. And that was well before evangelicalism.
What evangelicalism represents is the popularization of that Reformation impulse. The Reformers were church fathers who were educated, and well-schooled, and knew multiple languages, and so forth. A couple hundred years later, after the printing press had been around for a while, and books were being published, and people were learning to read, then we get evangelicalism, which was, in many ways, the popular version of the Protestant Reformation.
I’ve never thought about it this way before, but I think the anti-intellectualism comes because, by necessity, anything “of the people,” “of the masses,” is going to be consciously not elite. At the same time, evangelicalism arose well enough into the Enlightenment that there was some backlash against rationalism and reason and a turn toward the things of the faith. The Enlightenment had rejected faith and tried to replace it with reason. Evangelicals were reacting against that.
SS: I also found your discussion of the eighteenth-century “cult of sensibility” really fascinating. That also seems like a reaction against hyper-rationalism, right? The exaltation of the place of the emotions and of sensory experience sounds very similar to the Romantic idea of encountering “The Sublime.”
Could you explain for readers what the cult of sensibility was, and how it connects to evangelicalism? In your previous book, On Reading Well, you write about the right way to encounter art, how exposure to beauty can communicate truth, and how that also forms you as a person, shaping your reactions and emotional responses in lasting ways. How is that proper idea of encountering beauty and letting yourself be formed and transformed by it different from the cult of sensibility?
KSP: That’s such a good question. I will refer to my basic argument in On Reading Well and to all of virtue ethics to answer this!
So many of these movements in history, whether large or small, are simply thesis followed by antithesis, and the correct answer often is the moderation between the two. Throughout the modern period, we see competing impulses toward rationalism versus aestheticism, to use these terms broadly. The Romantics, obviously, are aligned with some form of aestheticism and were reacting against the more Enlightenment-based mindset of the Neoclassical period that preceded them.
The cult of sensibility was one early stream of aesthetics within the Neoclassical period; it emphasized emotional and bodily response, to the exclusion of reason and the mind. In its extreme form, it would posit that if you were sensitive enough to cry at a moving scene on the stage, then you were a refined and ethical person, regardless of how you actually treated people. It didn’t matter how you treated the servants standing outside holding your carriage in the rain, which is one story that gets circulated about this movement. The cult of sensibility took the importance of aesthetic response, or sensibility, too far, at the expense of other elements of our humanity. In fact, this is the very sort of sensibility that Jane Austen satirizes in Sense and Sensibility.
SS: How does that compare to contemporary sentimentality in bad Christian art? Is that a similar problem, or is it a little different?
KSP: I think that there’s a sturdy road from the cult of sensibility to the cheap sentimental Christian art that is so popular today. I think of TikTok videos, too. TikTok videos are often so visceral and extreme and cause a strong emotional response. And they’re hugely effective. Think of the ones with people crying over some personal or larger injustice. This is a newer example, along with the Christian art of the ’80s and so forth, of that stream of the cult of sensibility running throughout evangelical culture.
SS: TikTok is interesting, too, because there’s so much stuff that’s coming out now about its effects on users’ mental health. For example, Tourette’s syndrome ballooned during the pandemic, growing exponentially among teenage girls, who don’t fit the normal patient profile. There seems to be a growing consensus that it’s become socially contagious and is being spread by TikTok videos. Thankfully, these girls respond very well to being cut off from social media. I mean, they hate it, but their symptoms resolve.
This is more physical and less technological, but I also wanted to ask you about the communal aspects of material culture. You talk, for example, about narrative painting, and then the incredibly popular “Head of Christ” painting, which you connect to the emergence of therapeutic religion.
You also write about how different types of architecture, both in sacred spaces and in the home, shape communities. In particular, you talk about how visual culture habituates us to certain ways of seeing. Could you explain that concept a little bit, in relation to the history of evangelicalism?
KSP: In writing the book, the chapter on sentimentality was easy for me, because I spend a lot of time criticizing bad Christian art and sentimentality. And yet, as I was writing and researching, I was also realizing, we are material creatures, right? I don’t want to just say that these things are not important or that they don’t matter. They do matter. Often, we don’t see the value and the goodness that even a cheesy T-shirt or a bad print on the wall can bring us. Again, I’m trying to be balanced.
So when I think about material culture—even the cheesy expressions of our faith that fill the Christian stores (they call them “bookstores,” but they’re mainly “stores that sell anything other than books”)—that reflect the fact that we are material creatures, and that we take comfort and express our humanity through our clothing, and our bracelets, and our trinkets, and so forth.
On a larger scale, to apply that to architecture, especially church architecture: having grown up very Baptist and at times even more fundamentalist, it’s been easy for me to long for the beauty of the ancient cathedrals—because they really are beautiful and worshipful—and overlook the beauty that comes from the simplicity of a country church building. Even that simple word-centered architecture of a Protestant church is using the space to say something meaningful and downright theological.
That’s the kind of thing that I really want out of this whole project: for us to see that it’s all saying something, whether it’s a cheesy T-shirt, or a simple country church building, or a medieval cathedral. I want us to really pay attention and ask, “What is it saying? What is true and good and beautiful in what it’s saying, and what is not?”
There’s a lot of room for a lot of different ways of expressing truth, goodness, and beauty, but there are also a lot of ways for error and for untruth to creep in. I want us to all be more mindful of those things. Again, the key is to interrogate those unexamined assumptions.
SS: I’m curious: are there specific aspects or implicit assumptions in evangelical culture that you’re hoping readers will reject? As people are sifting through and uncovering where their own intuitions come from, they may have the same experience you describe, of realizing there’s more good to some things than they initially thought. But there also may be more bad there, too.
Before reading your book, I don’t think I had ever read all of “The White Man’s Burden” before. I was just like, “Whoa.”
KSP: It’s a shocker.
SS: Yeah, so that’s maybe an obvious one—the lingering racist and imperialist elements. But I wonder if there are certain less obvious parts of the evangelical imagination whose roots are more problematic than we realize, things we need to reject or distance ourselves from?
KSP: I think that’s the very question that evangelicals are asking right now—or, at least, that they should be asking. It’s the question I’m asking.
Even in writing this book, I don’t know that I came up with an answer. It’s really just me asking the question. But that’s why I suggest in the chapter on Reformation that we may be in a five-hundred-year moment. Every culture, every time, every society has its moral blind spots, and we are no different. It’s easy for me to point out the moral blind spots that we see in Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale or in “The Angel in the House” in the Victorian Age. But the real point is that we continue to have moral blind spots, and some of the more recent ones are being exposed. It is an apocalypse—an unveiling.
I think that is the task that is before us now: to ask and answer, “What do we need to reject?”
SS: You mention the Angel in the House. There’s been a lot of interesting scholarship and commentary lately tracing how the modern gendered division of labor and the division of public versus private came out of the Industrial Revolution and then how feminism was a reaction against that.
But I had never thought about the evangelical side of all of that. You talk about how, in England and America, because of the evangelical influence, domesticity took a new place in the social imaginary, rooted in the conception of the home as a source of virtues and emotions, which were nowhere else to be found, least of all in business and society. Here, again, we have certain values being reinforced in the architecture of the home, which promoted privacy and gendered uses of rooms within homes. That is just really fascinating to me.
Could you tell readers a little bit about how evangelicalism played into the emergence both of companionate marriage and this conception of “true womanhood”?
KSP: Because evangelicalism is not defined by a particular doctrine or denomination, it is much more susceptible to being influenced by the culture. We obviously see that today, but it was true back then as well.
It was the evangelicals who, in the middle to late eighteenth century, extolled the idea of the companionate marriage, which I think is a biblical idea. Basically, evangelicals said that the purpose of marriage, besides having children, was for a husband and wife to equip and support one another in ministering as Christians to the church and the world. And that’s what good, suitable companions and spouses would help one another to do.
That’s a biblical idea, but it was in stark contrast to the prevailing idea of marrying for political allegiance, or gaining wealth, or joining properties, which was largely the basis of marriage for those of any means before evangelicals recovered a more biblical purpose. However, this biblical vision of marriage was then used by economic and social and political forces of the age to deepen and make more rigid the roles of men and women both in the home and in society. That served the Industrial Revolution well, but it also ended up being confused and conflated with what a biblical Christian marriage should look like.
We could take so many examples of the interplay between evangelicals and the larger culture and see the same thing.
SS: It was so interesting for me to read this book as a Catholic. I kept being struck by how many of the things you pointed out as important strands in evangelicalism have been taken up by the contemporary Catholic Church. I would argue that they were already implicit in sacred scripture and tradition, but that the Church was perhaps not doing a good job of articulating them or popularizing them. Especially since Vatican II, there’s been a lot more explanation of the role of the laity, for example, and an articulation of the theology of the body, a sacramental vision of reality, and how those things play into both marriage and the relationship between the sexes, more broadly.
I guess maybe this is more of a comment than a question, but your book left me with a much greater appreciation of the interplay between Protestant and Catholic culture and theology. It seems like evangelicals, by pointing out things that the Catholic Church was not doing well or teaching clearly, may have prompted the Church to delve more deeply into what scripture and tradition really did say on these topics and then to promote that teaching more broadly.
KSP: Wow, that’s cool! I guess that’s how culture works, right? It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Different communities and traditions influence one another, for good or bad. These things become part of the air that we breathe.
SS: Is there a particular audience that you especially hope will read your book?
KSP: My main audience is obviously evangelicals, whether they still call themselves that or not, in particular, evangelicals who are feeling this crisis and have questions and want to know how we got here: that’s my main audience.
I also hope the book will interest people outside of evangelicalism and maybe even outside of Christianity. Evangelicals are getting a lot of press, so a lot of people are curious. I do want people to understand our longer history. I hope that readers outside of this tradition will have a better understanding of who we are.
But ultimately, I really want evangelicals to understand who we are, how we got here, and what we need to fix in order to be better evangelicals