Karen Swallow Prior – The Evangelical Imagination [Interview]

We recently had the opportunity to talk to Karen Swallow Prior about her new book:

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

Hardcover: Brazos, 2023
Buy Now: [ BookShop ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Interview by Justin Cober-Lake

“We’re not aware of what we’re not aware of,” said author Karen Swallow Prior. “My whole project with this book is to help us say, ‘What are the things that I’m not aware of so I can at least ask about it?’”

The book in question – The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis –  looks at some of the cultural and artistic influences that have shaped evangelicalism over the last few hundred years. Prior asks us to consider various elements of the movement’s ideas and practices, always with an interest in better understanding both Christian faith and the moment that we find ourselves in these days.

“I do think something is happening,” she explained. “I do think we’re in either a 300-year or a 500-year moment. Maybe a 1000-year moment…. I think we’re in a moment where there are things that are essential to Christianity that have gotten lost, yes, in contemporary evangelicalism, but in America specifically.” The crises of the American evangelical church makes the book feel particularly timely, even though that approach was part of Prior’s initial plan.

“The book was in my mind for a few years,” she said, guided by her teaching literature and watching students make connections between their lives and Victorian culture. Around 2018 or 2019, she considered writing on these connections, but it took her while to get everything together.

“By the time I had the contract and was working on the book, the sense of crisis that many of us are feeling within the church was actually increasing,” Prior said. “The core idea– which was just to make connections between American evangelical culture and Victorian culture– didn’t have a very big ‘So what?’ but by the time I got done, it felt like the crisis was mounting and it was even more important. It wasn’t just an academic exercise or a point of cultural criticism, but to [help] people see how important the role of the social imaginary is in what we think and what we do.”

She draws on the work of Charles Taylor in a novel way (pun only sort of intended), by utilizing literature in a focused way to consider the effects of modernity, the rise of the self, Victorian culture, and more on modern evangelicalism. “There are many ways to think about and analyze social imaginaries,” she said. “When Taylor talks about legends, myths, and stories, literature is a big way” to look at those concepts.

With that background, Prior (herself a “Bebbington evangelical”) considers where evangelicalism is now as a culture, in a crisis that encompasses many areas but can seen, broadly, as a loss of orthorpraxy, “There’s so much of an emphasis on orthodoxy, which I’m in favor of,” Prior said, “but so much of American evangelicalism is about right belief but [is] not translating that to right action, words rather than deeds.”

Over the past few years, the challenges of the movement stem both from something that has happened and something that’s been revealed, “For some of us who had a nice evangelical ride – and that’s not true for everyone – what other people saw all along is being revealed.” Prior explained that she grew up “being formed by the Religious Right and the Culture Wars.” “I believed everything that I was told about the encroaching liberalism and progressivism, which it is, but I also believed that the Religious Right was motivated by orthodox – by their understanding of the faith, and I don’t really believe that so much anymore.”

To be in a culture (which is neither good nor bad) means that we can have trouble seeing the underlying assumptions of our own worldview. Prior recognizes the deep value of trying to become aware of these roots that might easily remain out of sight. For example, as we’ve moved toward more individualized readings and practices of faith, what has become of interpretive communities?

“I would say–and this is what I’m saying about everything in this book–” she answered, “it’s not that I’m saying that we should return to interpretive communities. What I want to say is we are in interpretive communities without realizing it. Even just thinking that we are doing this on our own is an idea that comes to us through our interpretive communities. But we don’t know that. Just using a certain study Bible that has certain notes in it… What we think about covid. ‘Do your own research’ – that individualistic anti-covid phrase, well, that came out of whole internet communities.”

If our religious customs derive, at least in part, from social imaginaries, we should find ways to investigate them, and for Prior, literature offers one of the strongest avenues of exploration, “Because the social imaginary is precognitive, I think narrative just articulates the cognition in ways that we might not always do,” she explained.

She points to Jane Austen’s writing as the sort that “puts the underlying, unexamined assumptions on the surface to laugh at them or question them.” She also loves George Saunders, and finds him to be the contemporary author best at bringing our underlying ideas to light. “That’s what he does,” she said, her enthusiasm visible. “He uses voice in his stories, but he uses voice so well because he is getting into the perspective and mindset of the different narrators, and it’s just astonishing.”

This literary approach “just unlocks so many assumptions. This is part of why going back just 300 years to talk about why going forward and raising your hand [in a religious service]…Paul didn’t do that. I don’t think Luther did either. So we just have to look at the practices that we use. They’re not necessarily bad, but we have to not assume that they’re the best way or the only way or the biblical way. And I’m talking about practices.”

Another way to explore the hidden ideas that have shaped evangelical culture “is to get to know or talk to Christians who live in different kinds of communities or cultures, who hold the same central beliefs that we hold but have different practices. That can open our eyes.”

To do the hard work of exploring these social imaginaries requires intentionality. “We have to try– which sounds like not a very ingenious solution–” Prior said, “to be aware that there are those things we don’t know about. This is almost instinctive because I’ve spent my life immersed in literature, which is presenting different perspectives and ideas. Even though my area of specialty is dead white men-ish, which is pretty narrow, it still inherently enlarges my perspective and makes me realize that whatever that story is, it either has the same underlying assumptions or different underlying assumptions and you don’t have to go very far to see different underlying assumptions.” 

The process doesn’t require rejection, but examination, an openness to uncovering different ways of thinking. We can discern what is tradition, what is essential, what is misguided, what is biblical, and so on. Prior explained, “Culture isn’t bad. This is always going to be the challenge for Christians when you have to distinguish between culture and faith. For 20th century American Evangelicals, that challenge is particularly hard because we have been for a while the majority in charge, with all of the privileges thereunto. It’s harder when you’re in charge, when you’re the majority or the ones in power to see things. That’s what’s unique about being a 20th Century white American evangelical. It’s harder to question because all the systems and structures are the ones we put in place.” Like the metaphorical goldfish wondering what water is, we can’t always see the culture we move in, so we might need help understanding ourselves. How do we learn what it is that we don’t know we don’t know?

“Listening to voices that are not part of those institutions and being intentional about [this kind of thinking]. It can be a literal institution, like an organization or denomination, but American evangelicalism is also kind of an institution. We have to be aware. We have to want to ask those questions. If one doesn’t want to, I don’t know how to make that desire happen.”

While the process can uncover some of the struggles of contemporary evangelicalism, it doesn’t leave us without hope. “I do think that when we look back at the corruption of the pre-Reformation church institution – it was those corruptions that brought about the Reformation,” Prior said. “Well…we have a lot of corruption now in the evangelical institutions. That’s hard and that’s not fun, but the foundations are cracking. The church is not going to be destroyed, but the institutions do seem to be crumbling and that will let the scattered remnant more easily find themselves, I guess.”

Digging even deeper may lead us to wonder outside of our official religious settings. Prior said, “We have been so formed by the Enlightenment and by modernity and the scientific worldview that we are hungry for enchantment and we kind of look for literal enchantment, whether that’s in fantasy or myth. That’s fun, but if we go a little further and understand that the scientific worldview has malformed us so that we can actually see the enchantment of God even in the physical, natural world and in regular people in a better way, then we can better see the enchantment that’s already there.”

Literature can again prove to be an aid, and Prior brings up Gerard Manley Hopkins’s famous line: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” “Hopkins gets it,” Prior said. “It’s not just in his poetry. He spent hours every day walking in nature and writing journals about what he saw. He was just looking at the world around him and seeing the enchantment in it. He didn’t have to make things up. He just marveled in that kind of enchantment.”

Exploring the natural world, Prior points out, can make for a kind of synthesis of the modern scientific influence and the postmodern return to pre-modern sensibilities. It uses our uncovering of our underlying assumptions not to demystify tradition, but to open us to awe. “There’s a synthesis that can happen when we see the enchantment that is in the natural world and ordinary people and ordinary things so that we don’t have to have enchantments written so large,” Prior said. “I can’t even believe that God created dogs. They’re so amazing. They’re not us, but they’re so much like us. That’s just magical.”

Somehow a deep plunge into the effects of modernity leads us not to a material dead end, but to boundless awe. In trying to find what we aren’t aware of, we might just, like Hopkins, become aware of  the Holy Ghost’s “bright wings” all around us.

Justin Cober-Lake

Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.

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Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"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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