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Karen Swallow Prior – The Evangelical Imagination [Feature Review]

The Evangelical ImaginationThe House We Built

A Feature Review of

The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis
Karen Swallow Prior

Hardcover: Brazos Press, 2023
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Reviewed by Erin Feldman

“Unless the LORD builds the house, / those who build it labor in vain,” says Solomon (Psalm 127:1, ESV).

Centuries later, Jesus expands upon the idea:
Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. (Luke 6:47–48, ESV).

Dr. Karen Swallow Prior’s book The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis illustrates both the teaching found in Psalms and the one found in the Gospels. As a concept, it works. The reader readily grasps it, even if they have never owned a house. They understand the importance of a solid foundation. And as a reader living in today’s cultural context, they likely comprehend how vital the Lord’s presence and power are. Without them, the house cannot welcome the weary or bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted. It cannot withstand the waves. It will fall, and its ruin will be great.

Prior applies the illustration of a house to a specific branch of Christianity: the evangelical one. It is a sensible application. She comes from the evangelical tradition, as do many of her peers and college students. She is not content with the state of the evangelical house; rather, she insists, the house is in need of inspection and repair because:

“If evangelicalism is a house, then these unexamined assumptions [the political and social values “swirling within the evangelical imagination” (2–3)] are its floor joists, wall studs, beams, and rafters—holding everything together but unseen, covered over by tile, paint, paper, and ceilings. What we don’t see, we don’t think about. Until something goes wrong…” (3).

Watch or listen to enough news, and clearly, something has gone awry within the evangelical house. Dr. Prior lists several examples of “gone wrong,” ranging from increased division and decreased church attendance to revelations about abuse and reckonings with racism. These instances, she says, are evidence of a culture in crisis, and they are the product of a diseased evangelical imagination. She says, quoting author Willie James Jennings, ““Christianity in the Western world lives and moves within a diseased social imagination.” … [and] wherever our evangelical imaginations are informed and formed by modernity, Romanticism, Victorianism, or any -ism other than the tenets of our faith, the disease will fester” (30).

When we return to the house we have built, our imaginations have mistaken the assumptions for the realities, the tiles and wallpaper for the beams, joists, and foundation. So then how are we to uncover “unexamined assumptions,” the deep-seated beliefs and principles that shape and are shaped by human beings? Being that there is no one evangelical imagination– evangelicalism is complex and multi-layered– Prior’s approach is to begin from her own experience, examining the images, metaphors, and stories that have shaped her (5).

But before she proceeds with her own examples, in model professorial form, Dr. Prior defines her terms. Here, however, the book proves somewhat addling. “Evangelical” is defined clearly. By the term Dr. Prior means the academic sense of the word, not the understanding acquired through reporters’ soundbites or memes on social media. To be an evangelical is to believe in the holy Scriptures as authoritative, to believe in the reconciling work of Jesus on the cross, and to be transformed by the Holy Spirit as one seeks to know God, serve God and others, and share the gospel with all people (24–25).

“Imagination,” however, receives different handling, perhaps since the word is often associated with a phenomenon that happens primarily in children’s minds. Maybe it surfaces as a burst of creative energy, but it simultaneously is something greater than that. Dr. Prior argues that the imagination is “central to the way we think, the way we go through our days, and even the way we believe and enact those beliefs” (22).

As evidence of the imagination’s prominent role in people’s lives, Prior proffers a historical treatment of the term, starting with Aristotle and Plato. The treatment is interesting, but it never locks onto a particular definition or suggests any kind of hierarchy. Is the imagination a light? A lamp? Or is it a faculty by which we navigate and make sense of the world? (13)

Perhaps more importantly, the impetus for defining the imagination is to consider the shared imagination, the “social imaginary” to use a philosophical term. The imagination is not only individual but also collective, “The work of imagination contributes to the making of a culture, a culture in turn provides individuals with a precognitive framework… that directs, shapes, and forms our thoughts and desires and imaginations in ways we don’t necessarily recognize” (15–16), which is an important consideration that can be easy to lose sight of.

Prior devotes some space to the nature of language as well, which makes sense, considering that this is a large part of her teaching career and interests, and because language is so closely related to the imagination. But the shift to language, and especially the language of metaphors and myth, happens so quickly and briefly that the reader—this reader, anyway—feels a little deluged. How should I make sense of the ideas and concepts presented? In what ways should I understand language’s relationship to the imagination?  The clearest answer to those questions occurs in the second-to-last chapter,

“Human beings have individual imaginations and shared social imaginaries. Both are filled with the words, images, sayings, stories, narratives, and concepts that surround us. We can’t possibly be aware of them all or the way they shape our thinking and motivate our actions from beneath the surface of our conscious thinking. But what we can do—with awareness and intention—is immerse ourselves more deeply in the stories, images, and words that reflect what is good, true, and beautiful: yes, Scripture, but also the human applications of Scripture that express the fullness of its teaching (234).

Even though Prior states at the outset that her book is more of a testimony and invitation to contemplation rather than a media study or proposed solution, her subtitle– How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis–  suggests some kind of formal study. Prior’s exploration of the influence of Pamela and The Pilgrim’s Progress on the cultural and evangelical imagination and her robust endnotes both showcase some of her intense study and scrutiny. Even still, an in-depth examination of literature was not necessarily the book’s aim. Rather, it is to trace contours of thought by way of the images, ideas, and stories that have been passed down through the centuries. It is a laudable goal. But accomplishing it? That would demand a much lengthier book than the one in hand.

Said another way: the chapters on evangelicalism’s words, concepts, and images move quickly, beginning with awakening and ending with rapture. That quick-footed movement can be disorienting; at times, the chapters read as a kaleidoscope of shifting images, stories, events, and historical and present-day figures. That may be the point: the fractal nature shows how an image has changed and subsequently reshaped the world throughout the years.

For me, the chapters that work best dwell on a specific image and its effects upon people’s imaginations, words, and actions. The chapters on sentimentality and materiality, for example, hold together. The line of thought is easy to follow, and the repercussions are easy to see. These chapters, however, are also some of the more biting ones. That bite may be warranted, but it raises an unsettling question, one I never answered satisfactorily. Who, exactly, is this book for? Is it for readers like me, someone who needs no convincing of the merits of Prior’s argument and who winces alongside her at the commercialization of Christianity? If so, many of us are already having the necessary conversations for which she advocates. Or is the book for people trying to understand what has happened and is happening in the evangelical house? Would these people pick up a book like this? If they did, would they continue investigating the “house” after reading chapters that decry Thomas Kinkade and particular craft stores? I can’t say for sure. I am not that reader.

I am, however, a reader who recognizes how this book can serve as a conversation starter. It gives evangelical Christians who long for restoration a path to walk on. It also affords evangelical Christians the opportunity to build a bridge with the disillusioned and deconstructing. The evangelical house we built may not be according to the schematics found in Scripture, but the schematics remain. The house can be rebuilt. As Prior notes, restoration and reformation are not once-and-done affairs (235). They are built and rebuilt upon the powerful presence and words of Jesus. When that occurs, the Lord will be building the house, and the laborers will not be laboring in vain. They will labor, and they will rest, not eating the bread of anxiety, but enjoying the sleep of the Lord’s beloved.

Erin Feldman

Erin Feldman is a content writer for The Austin Stone Institute, at The Austin Stone Community Church. Her recent projects include liturgies in Words for Spring and Foundations of Faith: Cultivating the Christian Life Through Study and Practice. Find her online at: www.writerightwords.com

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"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior


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