The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis [a review]
It's frankly difficult these days to exist within church spaces for longer than five minutes without hearing the name "Charles Taylor" or the term "social imaginary." If neither of those things mean anything to you, I'd probably just stop reading this review right now!
I've heard many sermons and lectures referencing Taylor and his writings about the "social imaginary," which is sort of the mental furniture (values, beliefs, practices, patterns, etc.) that makes sense of our shared life in a society. For example, at one point she pictures the stereotype of a sparsely decorated Evangelical sanctuary composed of straight pews all facing toward a pulpit, and how that literal furniture reinforces the Evangelical insistence upon a life oriented around the Bible and its proclamation without much ornamentation. I'm embarrassed to admit, though, that until I read Karen Swallow Prior's new book, The Evangelical Imagination, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of social imaginaries, but I had never really bothered to ask myself the question, "What is that social imaginary for Evangelicals? What is the content of that social imaginary? What is that mental furniture?"
Prior names ten things that she believes to be integral to the Evangelical social imaginary:
For each, she explains what she means by the term, why she thinks it's a necessary component to understanding the Evangelical movement, and where that component came from. She readily acknowledges that none of these are necessarily unique to Evangelicalism, and she takes time to examine how these things take up a life of their own in the broader society surrounding Evangelicalism.
Some of these chapters are pretty much exactly what you might expect (guess what the "Rapture" chapter is about!) while others struck me with unexpectedly insightful connections. Probably my favorite chapter in the whole book was about sentimentality. Prior argues that sentimentalism could be defined as "emotion for the sake of emotion itself," a sort of emotion that is "self-aware and self-satisfied." She's not so much deriding emotion (or even sentimentality altogether!) as much as trying to understand why it finds such purchase in Evangelical culture. Why is it that the paintings of Thomas Kinkade mean so much to so many Evangelicals? Why is it that Evangelicals can "feel so close to God" when a favored song is played on Sunday, regardless of whether that song even says anything meaningful about or to God?
Prior also drew out insights about sentimentalism and Evangelicalism that I had never considered before such as this analysis of Evangelicals' fixation upon manhood and womanhood:
Some aspects of both masculinity and femininity are connected to biological sex, of course, while other aspects are rooted in historical and cultural context. (When one advocates for masculinity, is it the masculinity of King James I in his velvet cloak and crinkled ruff, or is it that of Chad, the cartoon figure of the alpha male popular in manosphere memes? Does the hardy peasant woman sowing the fields to help feed her large family in nineteenth-century Russia meet the criteria of femininity set by today’s evangelical social media influencers?) It’s helpful to consider how some aspects of cultural expectations around masculinity and femininity originate in feelings that have grown up around our contextually based perceptions of what constitutes “masculinity” and “femininity.” Often, exaggerated expressions of masculinity and femininity (like those found in cosplaying militia groups or plastic-surgery-enhanced housewives of certain counties) are at base just a form of sentimentalism: indulgence in the feelings aroused by our own personal and cultural associations more than reality. (emphasis mine)
I don't think I would have ever drawn a connection between the obsessiveness of the Biblical Manhood crowd and sentimentalism, but I must admit that it makes a certain kind of sense to me.
Prior also reflected on other aspects of Evangelicalism that have perplexed me, such as why there tends to be such a revulsion and rejection from Evangelicals toward the idea that evils could be embedded into society in systemic ways, or why it seems like it's harder for younger Evangelicals to hold to the faith than for Gen Xers and older. To be clear, I don't think that Prior's list of 10 components of the Evangelical social imaginary is any way exhaustive or definitive, but I found her analysis to be both profound and refreshingly grounded both in history and in the literature that has shaped the movement.
Much of her book is what I would describe as "interesting, intriguing, and intellectually stimulating," but there was one snippet that cut past all of that and has lived rent-free in my head since I read it:
The question in the current evangelical social imaginary isn’t so much about whether Jesus is real as it is about whether the person telling the story is real. It’s not a bad question. I don’t know about you, but I have no doubts about how real Jesus is. Yet, I have increasing questions about the stories of some of those who claim to follow him.
That's basically exactly how I have felt for a long time, and I suspect that many feel likewise. What is it about Evangelicalism that produces a petri dish where abuse, conspiracy theories, groupthink, anti-intellectualism, and celebrity worship thrive? It does my soul good to read someone like Prior who is earnest, sincere, thoughtful, and compassionate. If you've lived long within Evangelicalism, I'd recommend you read this book.
DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.