American evangelicals have long been proficient at introspective assessments of our own movement. Since the mid-1980s, sociologists like James Davison Hunter have diagnosed evangelicalism’s contemporary virtues and pathologies, while thinkers like Mark Noll and David Bebbington have sought to interpret the movement through a historical lens.
Such diagnoses have often taken on an urgent tone that, rather than undermining the movement, has been one of the keys to its endurance and vitality. In 1967, Carl Henry wrote Evangelicals at the Brink of Crisis, warning that evangelicals were in danger of being culturally marginalized. In 1976, he penned a similarly anxious missive, Evangelicals in Search of an Identity. If evangelicalism is anything at all, it is probably a movement preoccupied with such a search and with the social alienation that demands it.
Not much has changed since then: Russell Moore, who is Carl Henry’s closest heir at Christianity Today, has recently penned an “Altar Call for Evangelical America,” while historian Thomas Kidd in 2019 gave us Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis.
Into this anxious milieu comes Karen Swallow Prior’s The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images & Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis—a book that is, if nothing else, refreshingly unique in its approach to evangelicalism. Prior attempts to get beneath the doctrinal or sociological definitions of evangelicalism that pervade the academic literature and understand the movement through the “evangelical social imaginaries.” That means the “collective pool of ideas, images, and values that have filled our books, our thoughts, our sermons, our songs, our blog posts, and our imaginations and have thereby created an evangelical culture.”
In one respect, Prior’s effort is to repristinate evangelicalism by disentangling the elements of the evangelical social imaginary “that are truly Christian” so they “can be better distinguished from those that are merely cultural.” Such an effort requires momentarily escaping the blindfold of the metaphors, stories, and images that mold our pre-cognitive intuitions and dispositions in order to see what is real.
Hazards abound here, not least of which is the temptation to luxuriate in a “prophetic” mode of writing that quickly grows tedious. Prior mostly avoids doing so, but her method of critically interacting predominantly with evangelicalism’s cultural artifacts leaves a gaping question about the grounds on which she distinguishes the “merely cultural” from the “Christian.” I fear we are primarily expected to take Prior’s word for it. The problem is especially acute given Prior’s focus on Victorian literature. She worries that much of what evangelicals “uncritically assume is ‘biblical’ turns out to be simply Victorian,” which simply moves the important question up one level. What if it turns out the Victorians read and understood the Bible on many matters better than we do?
A focus on the evangelical imagination and the stories, images, and even architecture that shape it captures evangelicalism’s ethos in ways that historians and sociologists sometimes fail to. Her discussion of the conversionism that has long been noted as central to evangelicalism goes beyond such standard treatments by looking at the way conversions were valorized and critiqued in Victorian literature. As Thomas Hardy understood, superficial conversions into evangelicalism could quickly lead to cynical departures from it—a lesson that is, perhaps, pertinent not only to evangelicalism but also to other traditions. Prior’s attention to the material culture within evangelicalism prompts a generous and sympathetic reading of the plain, unadorned architecture of our churches, which is not a “rejection of beauty” per se but reinforces the priority of the Word and the recipients of it.
While Prior’s analysis of the Victorian roots of evangelicalism’s ethos is both provocative and instructive, her assessment of the flowering of those roots in contemporary evangelicalism is often unconvincing. Consider Prior’s treatment of the “awakening” trope within Victorian evangelicalism and her defense of being “woke” in light of it. In Prior’s telling, in the middle of the nineteenth century, evangelicals seized the metaphor of awakening as a way of describing the renewal of the conscience. Her central piece here is William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, which depicts a mistress rising and leaving a man who has (presumably) bought her. As Prior rightly notes, the painting displays a tendency to “fetishize the conviction of other people’s consciences.” It displays the moral awakening not of the people who would view the work, but “of someone from another class of people,” and so pandered to the choir: “exhibitions were attended by members of the upper and middle classes, not by kept women . . .”
When Prior turns to the contemporary invocation of being “woke,” she suggests that “being woke is simply another expression of the universal symbol of awakening that appears across time and cultures, and it is one of the originating metaphors that gave rise to the evangelical movement.” Fair enough. But her lament that “woke” has been weaponized by those who are “asleep to systemic racism” misses one inference we might draw from the history she tells: our advocacy of the value of wakened consciences often fails to reach the people whom the “awakened” are concerned about. If Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience is Victorian virtue-signaling for middle- and upper-class evangelicals, then should we not be primarily concerned that today’s moral preening is in danger of the same tendency?
Such dubious inferences pervade Prior’s treatment of evangelicalism, aided as they are by a vagueness that relies on the prior agreement of her readers about the nature of the “crisis” at work in evangelicalism. At their worst, they descend into the kind of potshots disaffected evangelicals often make. Prior laments that evangelicals have so emphasized being “born again” that the life of sanctification has often been neglected, before wondering as an aside whether it is “just coincidence that pro-life evangelicals are sometimes accused in the abortion debate of being pro-birth more than pro-life?” Thankfully, she notes that the “charge is not entirely just.” If I may, in fact, promote my own argument for this puzzle, Prior is right that it is not “just coincidence” that evangelicals have such a focus—but the reasons have absolutely nothing to do with a concern for the conversion of the soul. (It is not only pro-life evangelicals, after all, who have been so accused: our pro-life Catholic and Jewish friends have long heard the same complaint.) Such impressionistic observations are inescapable in any book of this kind, but Prior’s, at points, strain credulity.
At bottom, The Evangelical Imagination is an attempt to identify the diseased sources of the “reckoning” that evangelicalism has undergone in the past decade, which is a crisis of credibility rather than authority. The aim of restoring the integrity of evangelical churches is not only laudable, but necessary: as 1 Peter 2:12 says, Christians are to keep their “conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” All the more need for precision, then, in naming the wrongs within evangelicalism and in specifying the path forward. Prior is alive to the dangers of narratives of progress, as in her excellent chapter on the way social and self-improvement became embedded in evangelicalism’s culture. But her book sometimes gives way to such temptations: her complaint with religious sentimentalism is that it “inches toward change; it does not revolutionize,” and she (unfortunately) reduces the Protestant slogan semper reformanda to the trite claim, “Change is good.”
These have long been the pieties of people who were once enmeshed in evangelicalism’s central institutions and eventually became alienated from them. And, to that extent, they continue to perpetuate both evangelicalism’s strengths and weaknesses, namely, its enthusiasm and energy for transformation and the vagueness about the moral and social life we are seeking to live together. We need to momentarily escape the assumptions embedded in the evangelical imagination in order to learn to see rightly. Whether The Evangelical Imagination manages to do that, however, is an open question.