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

As of late, popular Christian culture has been saturated with books critical of evangelicalism—for supporting President Trump and Republicans as a voting bloc, for causing political divisiveness in the church, for being largely white, and for just generally supporting things that the current cultural consensus does not approve of. Most of these books are built on the weak foundation of the author’s personal opinion and are heavily influenced by an exceedingly postmodern worldview. Karen Swallow Prior’s book, The Evangelical Imagination, joins the ranks of these books critiquing the evangelical movement, but it does so by looking at it through a more accurate lens. Prior presents a selection of ideas that have been heavily formative to evangelical identity today—like the Puritan work ethic, Victorian sentimentalism, and revivalism. She explains “how stories, images, and metaphors created a culture in crisis” by tracing the history of evangelicalism in America, as well as certain words and motifs that are part of evangelical “social imaginaries” (a term she uses to describe the collective consciousness of the evangelical world) throughout the ages. In a nutshell, this book is thought-provoking, but Prior’s critique misses a positive vision for evangelical culture and is ultimately too vague to be useful.

Prior grounds her argument on the fact that we all view the world through a lens that has been shaped by our upbringing and culture She says that evangelicals are often incapable of recognizing this fact, and do not know that their values and everyday actions are informed by invisible “social imaginaries” (17–18). I would question whether Christians living in the twenty-first century, an age actively hostile to Christians in many ways, are passive participants unwittingly promoting certain values without understanding why they are living the way they do. Neither am I sure that evangelicals throughout history have been ignorant of their own excesses—a certain YouTube series I have listened to on the history of the American Revolution details plenty of inter-faith critique made by proto-evangelicals at the time of the Great Awakening.1 This series, a deep dive into how Presbyterianism is closely tied to our nation’s birth, details many instances of conflict between Christian sects in early America (Old-Siders vs. New-Siders, criticism of the theatrics of revival preaching, conflicts on the abolition of slavery, etc.).2 History reveals a richer picture of early American evangelical thinking than this book does. I understand that Prior is analyzing the part of Christianity that has run away with things (which any historically minded person can appreciate), but this book would have been better titled “Evangelical Excesses.”

One of Prior’s dead-on accurate points was her criticism of conversion, testimonials, and “self help” strategies in chapters 4 and 5 as being very materialistic and spiritually shallow. She discusses the Puritan work ethic (a novel spin on the term “Protestant work ethic,” from Max Weber’s writing3) and how it has been twisted into a chronic quest for self-betterment.

Evangelicals and ex-vangelicals alike seem unable to resist the lure of selling Substack subscriptions, online courses, and personal coaching opportunities as a way to improve by being more (or less) evangelical, more (or less) Christian, and less (or more) something else. In such a culture, even in the church, it can be difficult to distinguish conversion from self-help, spiritual growth from worldly success, sanctification from self-improvement. (124)

She points out evangelical tendencies to be driven by emotional sensation to the point where reason is lost in a sea of good feelings (something she attributes to their pietist ancestors). “Some evangelicals,” Prior says, “began to stress the role of emotion within individual faith experience. . . . Eventually, evangelicals came to see the ‘repetitive engagement of emotions’ as a means of forming habits that would develop virtuous character” (130). She is spot on with this critique—there are a myriad of examples she provides in evangelical culture where “beauty, apart from truth or goodness, is mere sentimentality” (145). She goes on: “Evangelicalism tends to think it eschews the ritual liturgy, and ‘vain repetitions’ (Matt 6:7; KJV) of earlier practices, but it has its own habits or repetitions . . . too often performed with little or no awareness or reflection. When these repetitions aim solely to replicate certain emotional experiences, they fall squarely within the realm of the sentimental” (131). Avoiding ritualism even when it is not obvious is an important principle, and even reminds me of an article I wrote on oft-hidden ritualism.4

The most striking example of sentimentalism here is the cover art of the book itself. Square in the middle of a simple geometric design is a painting of Christ (Bernhard Plockhorst’s Good Shepherd), portrayed as a fair-skinned, haloed shepherd with a lamb in his arms. Prior employs this image ironically, going on to detail in the chapter that images of Christ are the product of whatever cultural values are popular at the time, and reflect the morals of the audience, “serving as a kind of Protestant version of Christ’s real presence” (141). The idolatry and iconography she criticizes Protestant evangelicals for has been present throughout all of Christian history and in many branches of the church (i.e., the Catholic approach to images of Christ, Eastern Orthodox iconography). Broadly speaking, however, she makes an excellent point.

Prior could have said that the permissibility of images of Jesus at all is something evangelical culture at large is much more comfortable with than Reformed Christianity. In my opinion, Prior does not go far enough in her critique, perhaps because she does not share my convictions on the second commandment. She does mention that the only record in the Bible of Christ’s appearance is found in Isaiah 53:2 (he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him). The argument she makes that images of Christ end up being sentimental conduits for idolatry would have been the perfect segway into discussing a better doctrine on images of Christ.

This same sentimentalism continues today in media like “The Chosen,” and the “He Gets Us” advertisements. In both instances, Christ is portrayed as a moral figure whose love and kindness transcends political divides, often a subtle critique of evangelicals’ conservative politics (i.e., border policy, views on marriage, etc.). This Christ who criticizes the “hateful” attitudes of white evangelicals is a product of a culture disdainful of white evangelicals—this Christ is nothing more than a sentimental reflection of the attitudes of the day. Better teaching would tell you that any portrayal of Christ beyond what is revealed in his Word cannot possibly comprehend his whole character, and that there is a true way to comprehend him—in his Word and through his sacraments. Prior does not offer this as a good alternative to the kitsch and sentimentalism found in evangelical culture.

In chapter 8, Prior gives a brief history of the concept of “domesticity” and how it evolved from Puritan era teachings on the biblical home into Victorian era “home worship.” “Through the elevation of the ‘acquisition and display of domestic goods,’ what started as adornment of the home to reflect religious beliefs eventually reversed, making the home the ‘storehouse of moral and spiritual values.’ . . . Consumerism gained the status of religious practice, and many of these consumable goods were meant to be put on display.” She shows real excesses Victorian era evangelicals made of the principles of home and family life—including the idolatry of the physical home and the theologically questionable principles of seeing the members of the family as direct reflections of the persons of the Trinity (182).

Based on Prior’s evaluation, it would be easy to import the concept of Victorian idolatry into practically every situation where Christians prize things like gender roles, domestic duties, and family worship. In reality, plenty of Christians are simply seeking to follow principles laid out in Scripture about the home and the family, and it seems that mainstream evangelicals are now spurning the antiquated practices of keeping a household well in order. Some Christians do view these things ritualistically and elevate them to an unhealthy extent—but it is worth noting that these excesses began with legitimate biblical principles. It is easy to confuse Prior’s critique of domesticity with the lifestyle and doctrine of normal Christians who are trying to live biblically—perhaps she would argue they are blind to subtle Victorian influences in their lives.

One objection a Reformed reader might have to this book is that it assigns too much blame to the Reformation and Puritans for evangelical excesses and problems, without acknowledging that their doctrines in many ways contradict these very problems! The Puritan ideals—of the household, family, and godliness that comes through hard work—can certainly become idols; but again, it is easy to discard all Puritan ideas as being laden with baggage. “So much of what evangelicals uncritically assume is ‘biblical’ turns out to be simply Victorian” (185), Prior says; but she offers the reader no way to distinguish between the two.

In closing, Prior says the evangelical church needs to be reformed, not theologically in the way you and I would understand, but simply that it should be less grounded in cultural Christianity. Though she does not realize it, there are, well, Reformed doctrines that have kept many American churches from the pitfalls of the evangelical imagination. As I read through examples of the typical evangelical upbringing, even of Prior’s own early childhood years (151), I could not help but think, I’m glad to be Presbyterian. Our tradition is hardly perfect, but I am thankful to have been raised by evangelical Christians (Presbyterians) who taught me to look to Christ anew instead of being mercilessly blown about by the winds of culture.

The overt political themes, bias, and alarmism I have seen in many recent titles in this same genre (i.e., Jesus and John Wayne, The Exvangelicals: Loving, Living, and Leaving the White Church, The Immoral Majority, Defending Democracy from its Christian Enemies) are mostly absent from this book, to Prior’s credit. Some areas do reveal biases. For instance, in chapter 9, “Empire,” she tells us that evangelical culture is practically inseparable from the evils of the colonial period.

The spread of the gospel during the missionary age is so intertwined with the West’s expansion through imperialism that it is almost impossible to imagine an evangelical movement that is not an empire-building enterprise, not a movement rooted in political and cultural domination, and not propagated by the power of money, business, and capitalism rather than the power of the Holy Spirit.” (200)

Her criticism of the product-oriented lifestyle is valid, but there also seem to be benefits of the widespread availability and distribution of resources that strengthen Christians in their faith. R. C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries burst onto the scene in 1971, contemporary to D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell—men whose ministries Prior criticizes as the continuation of that “imperialistic spirit.” Ligonier has likely been as widely successful as a Reformed ministry has ever been to the general public. Maybe that is due to consumerism, but I protest the idea that all successful Christian business ventures are “rooted in political and cultural domination” (200).

Prior’s subtitle says, “how stories, images, & metaphors created a culture in crisis.” Many of the criticisms are well made, but I do not think the whole of her points is anything more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps she is not trying to prove that all social ills are the fault of evangelicals with deep Victorian roots. But she does lay the blame for many things at their feet. Even in the chapter on “improvement” (which was excellent), she seems to critique all evangelical literature containing the themes of diligence and hard work—something one could argue has been beneficial for society, at least to some degree. Though her goal is to draw out those objectionable parts of evangelical culture, she hardly acknowledges any positive contributions it has made to society. In reading this book, one wonders if there is anything commendable in the evangelical imagination.

My main criticism of this book is that it lacks consistency in its critiques and does not present us with a specific enough vision for something better. Prior critiques both the collectivist, imperial spirit in evangelicalism (chapter 9), but also individualism and personal improvement trends (chapters 2, 3, and 4). While she is trying to draw out ways in which collectivism and individualism both fail (which I would agree with), her criticisms of both are so broad that they leave readers to question whether a proper alternative might actually exist. On the subject of an alternative vision for evangelicals, Prior frequently appeals to the true “way of Jesus,” the way which is free from the cultural idolatry of evangelical history. It is good that Prior wants to point the reader towards the model of Christ, but I fear this exhortation is too vague to be useful—one wonders if she is pointing you towards the kind of neoliberal conception of Jesus we would see in popular Christian culture today (such as is found in “The Chosen” or “He Gets Us”), or the true Christ—the King in power, glory and majesty, by whom and through whom and for whom all things were made, with a sovereign claim on our hearts and in our lives. Many of the evangelicals Prior criticizes simply do a poor job at living in submission to Christ because they have no true knowledge of who Christ is.

R. C. Sproul, in his famous response to the question “What is the number one problem among Christians today?” said “They don’t know who God is.”5 Sproul, who often criticized broader evangelicalism for the same problems of idolatry and ignorance Prior notices, actually offered a positive vision for how to improve the weaknesses in their thinking. Sproul devoted his life and ministry to equipping Christians with greater knowledge of God so that they could live lives more holy and in better submission to Christ and his commandments. Prior, however, does not offer much help to the evangelical beyond the idea that the way of Christ is completely different from what evangelical history demonstrates—seeming to imply you must divorce all your preconceived notions of the Christian life in order to truly follow the way of Jesus.

A quote describing this book in a nutshell is this one from the end of her chapter on Reformation:

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. We must work to reform our imaginations by filling them with stories, images, and metaphors that are true, lest we be counted among those proud ones scattered by deformed imaginations, as Mary declared in the Magnificat. As Jesus said of many who were exposed to his parables, “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand” (Matt 13:13). We must ask Jesus to open our eyes and ears, to renew our imaginations. Indeed, Paul implores the Lord in Ephesians 1:18 to open the eyes of our hearts so that our hearts will be flooded with the light of his truth.

Prior’s positive vision for the future of evangelicalism depends heavily on individual interpretation. Anyone would agree that Christians should focus on what is “true, good, and beautiful” and reject what is not; but she provides no definition for what this means beyond a vague idea that the things she criticizes in this book are absent of truth, goodness, and beauty. Like her criticism of popular images of Jesus, Prior correctly critiques evangelical culture for its shallowness and subjectivity but is unable to point the reader to the fact that there is, objectively, a right way in which we truly can look upon Christ. Though she appeals to the truth of God, she does not realize that evangelicals throughout history have been trying to reflect that truth in their lives. What she criticizes is simply a poor attempt at doing so, but it is an attempt nonetheless.

Ultimately, Prior has highlighted real problems with a Christianity that focuses more on sensational experiences, materialism, and emotions than on Christ himself. She makes excellent points about the state of the mainstream evangelical church and its excesses, past and present. I would not say this book is quite as brilliant as the endorsements on the back do, but Prior’s expertise in literature makes her criticism of evangelicals more historically accurate than most other criticisms you might hear of “evangelicals” today. Many of these criticisms rely on the idea that the world is changing, and that great upheavals of industry, technology, and progress fundamentally change the nature of human sin. I find peace and comfort, however, in the fact that “what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9). Sinful humanity will always twist God’s common graces of ingenuity and industry in his creation and abuse the good gifts God has given. I simply am not very surprised that there have been excesses and serious problems within Christian culture. The Lord uses even the most broken vessels to accomplish good works for his glory. Necessarily, that means that some of the things Christians in history will do are sinful and idolatrous—but let our doctrines give us confidence in the fact that God, who “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11), will let himself be glorified in our weakness.

Notes

  1. Bruce Gore, Presbyterians and the American Revolution (lecture, January 23 2022).
  2. Gore, “A New Aristocracy,” Presbyterians and the American Revolution (lecture, January 23 2022).
  3. Max Weber, Anthony Giddens, and Talcott Parsons, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London: Routledge, 1992).
  4. Zoe Miller, “Presbyterians And Prayer Book Spirituality: From What Book Do We Pray?,” Heidelblog, February 13, 2024.
  5. John MacArthur, “Q&A with R.C. Sproul,” April 26, 2016, (remark at 6:13).

©Zoe Miller. All Rights Reserved.

Karen Swallow Prior, The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis (Ada, MI: Baker Books, 2023).


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  • Zoe Miller
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    Zoe is a missionary kid, pastor’s wife, and enthusiastically Presbyterian lady. Zoe and her husband Seth live in Couer d’Alene, ID, where he is the planting pastor at Immanuel Presbyterian Church (PCA). A freelance journalist and writer, Zoe occasionally appears in World Magazine, Presbyterian Polity, and other publications. In her spare time, she enjoys cohosting the Presbygirls podcast with her friend Sarah Morris, enjoying beautiful Northern Idaho outdoors, and haranguing her friends on the website formerly known as Twitter.

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2 comments

  1. Often, really good, well-thought out pieces like this review leave little justification for further comment. And for that, let me add, this was an excellent, thorough, and theologically/spiritually sound review/further commentary on Prior’s “Culture in Crisis.” Amen!

  2. Zoe, this is an excellent review. I finished the audio version of this book a few weeks ago. I came away with a few critiques, but overall I enjoyed it. Perhaps in comparison to something like Jesus and John Wayne it seemed more fair, and I thought Prior was kind in her assessment. Reading your review helped me wrap my mind around some things that were lacking in the book and I appreciate that.
    I’m new to Presbyterianism, but I also came away wishing there was a reformed perspective on her findings and her wrap up. I’m also thankful for the many things in the Presbyterian world that protect us from these excesses. The creeds, confessions, and various church orders.
    Thanks for writing this!

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