The Evangelical Imagination

How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis

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Christianity Today 2024 Book Award Finalist (Culture and the Arts)

"Provides plenty of fodder for those wishing to explore what evangelicalism is and reimagine what it might become. It's an eye-opener."--
Publishers Weekly

"Akin to enjoying a lively conversation over a cheering yet bracing cup of tea."--Christianity Today (5-star review)

"A breathtaking reminder of just how powerful the evangelical imagination has been and how much is lost when we forfeit it."--The Gospel Coalition

Contemporary American evangelicalism is suffering from an identity crisis--and a lot of bad press.

In this book, acclaimed author Karen Swallow Prior examines evangelical history, both good and bad. By analyzing the literature, art, and popular culture that has surrounded evangelicalism, she unpacks some of the movement's most deeply held concepts, ideas, values, and practices to consider what is Christian rather than merely cultural. The result is a clearer path forward for evangelicals amid their current identity crisis--and insight for others who want a deeper understanding of what the term "evangelical" means today.

Brought to life with color illustrations, images, and paintings, this book explores ideas including conversion, domesticity, empire, sentimentality, and more. In the end, it goes beyond evangelicalism to show us how we might be influenced by images, stories, and metaphors in ways we cannot always see.

Introduction: Victorians, Evangelicals, and the Invitation
1. Made in His Image
Imagination, Imaginaries, and Evangelicalisms
2. Awakening
Mumford, MLK, Hurston, Hughes, and Other Poets
3. Conversion
Language, Dr. Pepper, and Ebenezer Scrooge
4. Testimony
Grace Abounding and "Evangelically Speaking"
5. Improvement
The Puritan Work Ethic, Paradise Lost, and the Price of Progress
6. Sentimentality
Sweet Jesus, Uncle Tom, and Public Urination
7. Materiality
Jesus in the Window, the Virgin Mary on Grilled Cheese, Gingerbread Houses, and the Sacramentality of Church Space
8. Domesticity
Angels and Castles and Prostitutes, Oh My!
9. Empire
"The White Man's Burden," His Man Friday, the Jesus Nobody Knows, and What Johnny Cash Really Knew
10. Reformation
Pardon Me, Reckoning or Rip Van Winkle?
11. Rapture
Or How a Thief Came in the Night but Left My Chick Tracts Behind


"Karen Swallow Prior is among the most helpful Christian literary critics writing today. In The Evangelical Imagination, she introduces us to the creative works and metaphors that have formed the priorities of American evangelicalism and the ways that these have malformed the movement. Her call for the reformation of evangelicalism is a call to repent, to allow new metaphors and analogies to drive us to more faithfully read and put into practice the Scriptures. Prior offers an insightful work of love that aids a holy transformation of our imaginations."

Tish Harrison Warren, Anglican priest and author of Liturgy of the Ordinary and Prayer in the Night

"The Evangelical Imagination is a marvelous book--thoughtful, elegantly written, literate, and timely. Karen Swallow Prior understands the essential role of the imagination in the search for truth. An evangelical herself, Prior has done a masterful job of identifying the unstated assumptions that have shaped evangelical Christianity. In doing so, she is performing a profoundly important service: separating Christ from Christian culture, including some of the most deforming aspects of Christian culture. American evangelicalism is in crisis; The Evangelical Imagination helps us to understand why and what needs to be done to make it an instrument of grace in a world that desperately needs it."

Peter Wehner, contributing writer, the New York Times and The Atlantic

"As an artist and follower of Jesus often falling into the gaps and fractures of the church and the world, I found this book to be a refreshing and eye-opening guide to navigating beyond the borderlands. Sanctified imagination is critical in developing as the body of Christ, in being the harbingers of hope and creators of beauty, and Karen Swallow Prior is one of the most trusted voices to help us find our thriving."

Makoto Fujimura, artist and author of Art and Faith: A Theology of Making

"Karen Swallow Prior wants evangelicals to think carefully about how they think, particularly to understand how much we as evangelicals take for granted in the metaphors we use, the assumptions we make, and the conventions we follow. The book brings together the history of evangelicalism, Prior's expertise in Victorian literature, and sensitive analysis of the present moment into an indictment of the 'evangelical imagination,' but an indictment with hope because of evangelical engagement with the gospel."

Mark Noll, author of A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada

"Christians know that we should love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. But what about loving him with all our imagination? In this important new book Karen Swallow Prior argues that the imagination is a vital and neglected area of discipleship for today's church. She attacks the cultural cholesterol of ideas like improvement and sentimentality that sclerotize the evangelical imagination, and she invites us to enjoy a more healthy and biblical imaginative life. This is a crucial book for anyone who wants to bring every faculty--including the imagination--under the lordship of Christ."

Christopher Watkin, associate professor of European languages, Monash University; author of Biblical Critical Theory

"Prior unmasks the often overlooked power of imagination. This important book identifies and assesses the evangelical subconscious that unknowingly fuels real-world action (or inaction). Readers are challenged to ask important questions to grasp the forces that shape us without our knowing."

Walter R. Strickland II, assistant professor of systematic and contextual theology, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

"If you think you've read everything on evangelical culture, think twice: The Evangelical Imagination will blow your mind! As well as encourage your heart to desire what is beautiful again. Prior's writing is sharp, substantive, and engaging. You will be quoting her to friends and sharing her insights with your family as you struggle to remember the false paradigms you used to live under. With her deep knowledge of the past three hundred years of history, literature, and philosophy, Prior unmasks our assumptions about evangelical culture and shows us both the good and the bad of our inherited social imaginary. You need this book to remind you why you love the evangelical church and to inspire you to be an active culture maker for the kingdom."

Jessica Hooten Wilson, author of The Scandal of Holiness and Reading for the Love of God

"If 'examination is an act of love,' as Karen Swallow Prior rightly asserts, then this important book is a loving examination of many of the received ideas, metaphors, and stories that evangelicals have inherited and that inform their worldview. Prior's examination of this history, this underlying imagination, in light of Scripture and the deepest truths of faith, offers contemporary Christians a chance for self-awareness, renewal, and hope. The insights offered in this book are not always comfortable, but they are just that kind of truth which the gospel promises 'will make us free,' free to move through culture to Christ, rather than letting our culture obscure or diminish him."

Malcolm Guite, author of Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God

"This eye-opening book calls on evangelicals to examine their fundamental assumptions and to shed their faith of unwanted elements more cultural and political than religious. It will also assist non-Christians, like me, whose image of the evangelical faith has been clouded by those same unexamined assumptions and unwelcome elements."

Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history, California State University, East Bay; author, Understanding Academic Freedom; former vice president, American Association of University Professors

The Author

  1. Karen Swallow Prior
    Joanna Sue Photography

    Karen Swallow Prior

    Karen Swallow Prior (PhD, SUNY Buffalo) is the award-winning author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books. She is a frequent speaker, a monthly columnist at Religion News Service, and has written for Christianity Today,...

    Continue reading about Karen Swallow Prior


Christianity Today 2024 Book Award Finalist (Culture and the Arts)

"[A] revealing study. . . . Weaving together perceptive, fine-grained analysis of literature, art, and popular culture--from apocalypse novels to the once ubiquitous WWJD? bracelets--Swallow [Prior] provides plenty of fodder for those wishing to explore what evangelicalism is and reimagine what it might become. It's an eye-opener."

Publishers Weekly

"Prior warmly welcomes readers into this book as she would students into her classroom. She owns a long and distinguished career as a popular professor of literature and as a prolific writer on the intersection of faith, reading, and culture. . . . Over the course of her survey, Prior appeals to literature, visual art, philosophy, psychology, and even pop culture. Her illustrations, taken from both the Victorian age and more recent periods, are remarkably wide ranging. . . . [She] challenges us to see things anew: to look with reopened eyes upon metaphors that are richly laden yet buried beneath the rubble of familiarity. . . . Reading The Evangelical Imagination is akin to enjoying a lively conversation over a cheering yet bracing cup of tea."

Carolyn Weber,

Christianity Today (5-star review)

"This is a literary and artistic exploration of the social imaginaries that underlie evangelical Christian culture in the United States. Leading evangelical writer and commentator Prior (On Reading Well) uses her skills in English literature to trace some of the major themes that the Victorian era bequeathed to today's evangelicalism. . . . While the text takes Victorian literature as its starting point, it is a book addressed to contemporary evangelicals, consistently moving toward commentary on culture wars, mission, aesthetics, gender roles, and politics. The chapters build slowly from oblique critiques of 'antiwokeness' toward more direct disapproval of Trump, conspiracy theories, and the commodification of religion. However, nudges and jabs between commentary on Dickens and Kipling are often surprisingly gentle, especially when compared to the rhetoric supporting and shaping the other side of this subject."

Zachariah Motts,

Library Journal

"[Prior] combines the professional specialization of a literary scholar with the personal testimony of one who longs for a more holistically biblical evangelicalism as she sets out on an insider critique. . . . This book offers a convicting admonishment to avoid confusing cultural trends for biblical truth. It's a breathtaking reminder of just how powerful the evangelical imagination has been and how much is lost when we forfeit it."

Gene C. Fant Jr.,

The Gospel Coalition

"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."

Erin Feldman,

Englewood Review of Books

"Always a sharp analyst with a winsome way of relating her conclusions, Swallow Prior organizes the book around ten themes, a decathlon of powerful ideas stubbornly entangled in our current day. . . . This book was filled with many aha! moments as I took a closer, clearer look at some of the underlying assumptions of the evangelical culture that formed me. Swallow Prior offers a keen critique of the ideas that have shaped my faith background, but she also imagines a new path going forward, a path paved by Scripture and faith, not cultural influences."

Lorilee Craker,

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