The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis
By Karen Swallow Prior.
Brazos Press, 2023.
Hardcover, 304 pages, $26.99.

Reviewed by James E. Hartley.

“All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendancy over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.” Russell Kirk wrote that in 1955. Seven decades later, Karen Swallow Prior shows how prophetic Kirk was in her book, The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis

Evangelicalism was born in the early eighteenth century, but as Prior argues, it came of age in the Victorian Era. By the twentieth century, evangelical culture was so intertwined with Victorian culture that it became hard to tell the difference. The result is that the Evangelical Imagination, the set of metaphors and images which define the movement, was solidified in ways that would look very familiar to someone living in late nineteenth century England. 

Prior’s argument centers on Victorian era sentimentalism. This is “an emotional response in excess of what the situation demands; it’s an indulgence in emotion for its own sake. It is emotion that is unearned.” If you want an example of this phenomenon, all you have to do is think about Dickens. A Christmas Carol with its tear-jerking story of conversion, every single death scene in any of his novels, a poor orphan plaintively asking if he can have some more—it does not matter where you turn in Dickens, sentimentalism is on every page. 

Sentimentality is not central to Christianity (one need only read any page of Aquinas to prove this), but it is an essential part of modern evangelicalism. Conversion narratives are centered on the emotional crisis of hitting rock bottom before light bursts into the darkness. Appeals to support missionary or benevolent work are invariably couched in descriptions of misery which can be alleviated with just a few more dollars. Christian art is by design as sappy as possible; it is no accident that Thomas Kinkade and Walter Sallman (creator of the omnipresent Head of Christ) are the most popular artists in evangelical culture. (As Prior, in one of her more acerbic moments, asks, “What is it about so much contemporary ‘Christian’ art that makes it so bad so often? Even the complaints have become cliché.”)

The result of a Christian subculture so deeply infused with Victorian era sentimentalism is that evangelicalism became less an intellectual theological system and more “a religion of the heart.” To sustain the sentimental high of evangelicalism requires constant reinforcement. In what can be seen as the central thesis of this book, Prior explains: 

Repetition familiarizes and, in the case of sentimentality, overfamiliarizes. This is why sentimental art (and sentimental thinking of any kind) traffics in familiar tropes and stock characters. Sentimentality reinforces rather than refines beliefs. It softens edges rather than clarifies. It serves to comfort rather than correct. There is, of course, a time and a place for reinforcement, softness, and comfort. But these must be balanced by challenges—including emotional and aesthetic challenges—that strengthen rather than pacify, that enlarge perception rather than narrow it.”

This explains why evangelicalism downplays the theological history of the church or thinking too much about the thorny passages in the Bible. The message is deliberately made simple, couched in emotional appeals (the altar call and one more refrain of “Just as I Am”), and stripped of anything that might cause one to wonder if there is any part of what one does in one’s church that could possibly be done any other way and still be faithful to God. 

The centrality of Victorian sentimentality explains another highly visible trait of the evangelical imagination. When it comes to reading the Bible, there is a loud insistence on the importance of reading it literally. As Prior showed in her previous book, On Reading Well, a “literal” reading is often very poor reading. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the evangelical fixation on a “literal” reading of the book of Revelation and the wildly popular fan fiction based on that book. This fascination with apocalyptic porn, the sad stories of those left behind and the terrifying rise of the Antichrist, fits in perfectly with an evangelical culture that prefers emotionally wrought stories to scholarly explorations of metaphorical language.

What happens when someone steeped in evangelical culture steps back and starts noticing how the evangelical imagination has become the sentimental Victorian imagination on steroids? The result is Karen Swallow Prior’s book. As Russell Kirk argued, once the power of the great system over the mind is lost, the edifice comes crumbling down. Everywhere you look in evangelical culture, you notice the way that late nineteenth-century secular culture still unconsciously haunts evangelical churches.

Prior’s book is full of examples. Victorian culture was suffused with celebrations of the nuclear home, living in its domestic castle, headed by a father providing for the family while the mother domesticated the home with beauty and grace. As Prior notes, “Rigid ideas about masculinity and femininity were never limited to evangelicals—they were in the air. Evangelicals simply breathed the same air that everyone else did. We still do. So much so that what evangelicals uncritically assume is ‘biblical’ turns out to be simply Victorian.”

Once Prior starts noticing how much of evangelical culture is Victorian, she starts noticing the influences of other cultural trends. As nations grew wealthier and people had more disposable income, the Christian marketplace expanded dramatically. Where once there was a market for icons and relics, now we have “Christian bookstores that carry all the Jesus junk…the knickknacks, the kitsch, the plaques, the WWJD bracelets…” In a form of conspicuous consumption, the depth of one’s faith is now measured by the amount of Christian bling. Where once there were priests and monks leading lives quite different from those of their flocks, now we have church “leaders” steeped in the latest entrepreneurial methods. Chapter by chapter, as Prior shows yet one more way the evangelical imagination is shaped more by secular culture than by the Bible, the cracks in the Evangelical-Industrial complex get larger and larger.

This book is thus a cri de couer. In the last few years, the label “evangelical” has become hotly contested. Prior, who still considers herself an evangelical, has written a plea to rescue the term from the way it has increasingly become used in the popular press. She is trying to rescue evangelical churches from the sclerotic and highly political institutions which so many of them have become. 

The Evangelical Imagination is an important book. It is capturing the crisis of imagination of many evangelicals who have become disillusioned with the state of contemporary evangelicalism. Prior is pleading with people to notice that rejecting evangelicalism does not mean rejecting Christianity, that it is acceptable to question much of the cultural apparatus that has become intertwined with the gospel message in evangelical churches. If you are in evangelical circles and you are not happy with what you are witnessing but you don’t quite understand why things are the way they are, Prior has written this book for you. She is pointing to a new set of principles by which you can be guided.

There is a much larger audience for this book, though, than people wondering what is going on in their own churches. With the importance of evangelicalism in the larger culture, there is an obvious need for those outside of evangelicalism to understand the movement. With its winsome and occasionally biting tone, The Evangelical Imagination is one of the best non-technical explanations of what it is like to be a part of an evangelical church. It shows the cracks in the movement, and the way people are fighting to reclaim the theological parts of evangelicalism while discarding the increasingly toxic cultural aspects of the movement. To put it bluntly: if you think evangelicalism is defined by its support of the Trump phenomenon, you really need to read this book.

James E. Hartley is Professor of Economics at Mount Holyoke College. You can follow him at

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