Online Conversation | The Shaping of the Evangelical Imagination with Karen Swallow Prior

From high art to pop culture, we are surrounded by images, stories, and metaphors from our earliest days. How do such symbols and metaphors shape our thinking, imagination, and assumptions — both as a person and as a people? Amidst the confusion and contradictions of current times, can we disentangle what in our thinking is truly Christian from what is merely cultural?

Karen Swallow Prior, Trinity Forum Senior Fellow and award-winning author of the new book, The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images & Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis, joined us on Friday, August 11 to help us consider how our imaginations have been shaped by the culture we inhabit. By reflecting on influences ranging from Charles Dickens to Johnny Cash, she helped us think about how the way we see the world has been subtly influenced by the stories we inhabit, and about paths forward from where we are now.

Thank you to our sponsors, Brazos Press and Eileen and Dennis Bakke, for their support of this event.

Online Conversation | Karen Swallow Prior | August 11, 2023

Cherie Harder: Good afternoon and welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with special guest Karen Swallow Prior on “The Shaping of the Evangelical Imagination.” I’d like to thank our sponsors, our friends at Brazos Press and Eileen and Dennis Bakke for their generous partnership in sponsoring today’s event. We so appreciate your generosity and making this program possible.


And we’re also delighted that so many of you—I think there’s over 1,700 who have registered for today’s program—and just really appreciate the honor of your time and attention. Would also like to give a special shout-out to those of you who are joining us for the very first time—I think we had over 180 first-time registrants as well as our international viewers. We have nearly 200 of you who have registered from at least 39 different countries that we know of, ranging from Fiji and Finland to Singapore and South Africa. So if you haven’t already done so, drop us a note in the chat feature. Let us know where you’re viewing from. It’s always fun for us to see just the diversity of people all over the globe.


And if you are one of those first-time attendees or otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space for leaders to grapple with the big questions of life in the context of faith and offer opportunities like this one to do so, and to not only grapple with those big questions but to come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope today’s conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.


One of our aims at the Trinity Forum is to invite examination of and conversation on the formative practices, images, stories, and ideas which shape our thinking and our imagination and in turn ultimately form our character and our life. All of us are deeply shaped by the metaphors and stories we use to understand and make sense of the world and our experience in it. So often these stories and metaphors are so pervasive as to be invisible to us. We simply think of them as givens, much like a fish that doesn’t know that it’s wet. But our guest today invites us to reflect on and in some cases reconsider some of the stories and ideas that have permeated the waters in which we swim and form the currents of our thought, particularly in matters of faith. In her most recent book, The Evangelical Imagination, she analyzes the art, history, and stories that have shaped modern evangelicalism, both for good and for ill, in hopes of untangling that which is essentially Christian and timeless from the cultural assumptions of our times.


It’s a worthy and indeed timely challenge, and there are few who can make it with the literary insight, astuteness, or clarity as our guest today, Dr. Karen Swallow Prior. Karen is a scholar, writer, professor of literature, and I am very proud to say, a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum. As a writer, she has written frequently on literature, culture, ethics, and ideas for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, First Things, Vox, Christianity Today, and many other outlets; serves as a monthly columnist for Religion News Service; a contributing editor for Comment magazine; and the podcast host for Jane and Jesus, which examines the Christian themes in Jane Austen’s writings. She’s also the author of several book-length works, including Booked: Literature In the Soul of Me, Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More, her wonderful book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books, which we invited her here for a previous Online Conversation, as well as her newly released work, The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis, which we’ve invited her here today to discuss.


Karen, welcome.


Karen Swallow Prior: Thank you so much for having me, Cherie.


Cherie Harder: You bet. It’s great to have you. And I love the wallpaper behind you, too. That’s fantastic. So as we start out, I want to ask you just about the title itself and what is an “evangelical imagination”? I’m assuming this is a lot more than just hobbits and Narnia. What are you meaning when you talk about the evangelical imagination?


Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah, that’s a great question and I certainly am talking about much more than what we think of when we think of the imaginative artists that evangelicals tend to like. So, I do talk a lot in the beginning about just what I mean by “evangelical,” and I draw on the historical definitions. I know that’s a contested term and something we could spend a lot of time talking about. But what I’m talking about in terms of the imagination is not just our individual imaginations—which I do address, and I do remind the reader that simply being human and having an imaginative capacity is a reflection of our being made in God’s image. So that’s an important part of what it means to be human, a wonderful part of what it means to be human. But more than just our own individual image-making capacities or our own individual imaginations, we actually have what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “social imaginaries.” So an imaginary, as he defines it, is just like a pool of collective, inherited, traditional ideas, concepts, metaphors, stories, myths, and legends that are handed down to us and are part of the way that we think and think about life. But they aren’t necessarily conscious. He calls them precognitive, so they’re sort of lurking under the surface and yet they’re still informing and driving our expectations, our hopes, our desires, and our visions for the good life. And all communities have them. And there isn’t just one. And evangelicals, who have existed as a movement across the world for 300 years, have inherited their own set of these metaphors and images.


Cherie Harder: Yeah. Now you’re, of course, writing this as a literature professor, someone who’s written a lot about reading and writing and also someone who’s written about one of the great evangelical reformers, Hannah More, who presumably played a role in helping to develop that evangelical imagination. But the subtitle of your book is also “How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis.” So I’d love to hear from you, what led you to write this book? What’s the crisis that we are in and how do you see it being related to the evangelical imagination?


Karen Swallow Prior: Oh, you pose this question so well because it hits on everything that went into making this book. Because I began, as I was completing my PhD work, with a deep study of Hannah More, a friend of William Wilberforce, a prominent evangelical in the late-18th and 19th century in England, a strong voice for abolition and social reform. And so when I studied evangelicalism in that period in its first century or so, I discovered my own heritage, my own tradition, who I was as an evangelical and found such positive, wonderful examples of evangelicals in history like Wilberforce and More.


And yet as an evangelical living in the 21st century, like many other people, it just seems like evangelicalism today is understood and defined differently than it has been over those 300 years. And the term “evangelical” has been in headlines and in surveys and polls and in the news and very contested and controversial. And so for me, it has been almost kind of a personal crisis to go from studying this rich, wonderful history of the evangelical movement—not perfect, not without its flaws—but seeing what it’s become today. And, you know, I still am an evangelical. And so, like I said, for me, this was a personal crisis. But there are so many books that are being written on the things that have happened in the past decade, the past half-century, the past century. Most of them are sociological or historical or even theological or cultural or political.


But as you said, my background is literature and art and culture, and that’s how I’ve studied evangelicalism through all of these years. And I kind of wanted to just say, well, how does our imagination, our individual imaginations and our collective imaginations, how do those things affect how we see ourselves as evangelicals, how we’re acting now, how we’ve acted in the past? What are the good ideas and concepts and metaphors from the past that started out as positive developments but have perhaps been distorted or become negative? And that’s really what the book does, is it just unpacks several of the key images, metaphors, and ideas that I find central to evangelicalism over its past 300 years and looks at what’s good about them, why they arose, and how they’ve perhaps gone bad and created this crisis. It’s an identity crisis. It’s a political crisis. It’s a personal crisis. It’s a church crisis. But I think it’s a moment, it’s an opportunity, for us to to renew this movement and renew our imaginations.


Cherie Harder: You know, I think for probably most of the non–literature majors who are watching, the power of story is fairly intuitive. Even the power of image being extremely intuitive. Metaphor, perhaps a little bit less. That seems a little bit more abstract and the like. And you mentioned a fairly powerful allusion, I thought, to George Orwell’s 1984, where, you know, it was one of the first steps that were taken to basically reduce someone’s propensity to freedom is to take away the ability to create or appreciate metaphors. So I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about why metaphor is so important and powerful, both for our individual imaginations, but also for a social imaginary.


Karen Swallow Prior: Oh, that’s a great question. And the premise that I sort of start with and explain a little bit in the book is that all language is metaphorical. So if we sit with that for a second—because we tend to think of, like, “Oh, this expression is metaphorical and this one is literal” or “this word is literal, this one is metaphorical”—but if we understand that all language is metaphorical in the sense that a word is a sign that points to something that we mean. And we have different languages, so we have different words for different things. So at that very basic level, we can understand that all words are metaphorical. They are not the thing. And so if we start there and realize that when we start talking about metaphor and symbols and all of the other parts of speech we learned in freshman comp or freshman literature, those are just adding layers of meaning onto the words that we might say are literal but are still metaphorical.


And so I do give some examples and draw on some scholars in the book to show just how laden our language is with metaphor, to the point that we actually even forget it. So I always will say, “I’m going to run to the store.” And my husband will say, “Well, why don’t you drive?” You know, he’s not even a dad, but he’s got the dad jokes down. So if you just stop and think about how many of our everyday common words that we use are actually metaphors, but we’ve forgotten that they’re metaphors, then we can start thinking about the ones that we recognize as metaphors. So one that I start with in the book is “awakening,” which, you know, if we think of a literal meaning of awakening, it means when we rise from our sleep. Yet the Bible talks about awakening as being like a spiritual awakening or a pricking of the conscience. And in America, the evangelical revival was called the Great Awakening. There were several Great Awakenings. So just this word that is so central to evangelical experience is laden with meaning, meanings that are in the dictionary, but meanings in the way that we use them and apply them in our faith experience and our literature. Literature is filled with different references to awakening and dreaming and sleeping. And those meanings are all connected to the Great Awakening that gave rise to the evangelical movement in America.


Cherie Harder: In just a moment, I want to ask you about some of those metaphors and stories and images that have shaped our social imaginary for either good or ill. But before that, one of the things that you had mentioned in your book and somewhat alluded to just in terms of the dangers and downsides of not paying attention to the social imaginary and its origins, its roots, its sort of feeders, is at one point you wrote in your book—I’m going to quote you—that “to be a product of a subculture”—that is to inherit unthinkingly, uncritically, and assume all of its images, metaphors, and stories—”is to plagiarize a faith.” That struck me as really an arresting sort of thing to say. And I would love to hear more of what you mean. How is a lack of thoughtfulness or even interrogation of the imaginary that we have absorbed equivalent to plagiarizing our faith?


Karen Swallow Prior: Well, of course, as an English professor, I think about plagiarism a lot. So that was a metaphor that came naturally to me. And in dealing with students who plagiarize over the years, one of the things I’ve seen is how many different levels of intention there can be in any kind of plagiarism. I mean, there can be the kind of plagiarism that’s straight-out cheating. The student knows. He’s trying to pull the wool over my eyes. But oftentimes students are plagiarizing because they actually just don’t really know how to handle carefully the work and words of others and incorporate it into their own and develop as thinkers, or how to document or cite, or just be clear about what idea comes from what source and what idea comes from them.


And it just struck me that this is how our faith experience can often be. We can just absorb and inherit ideas and assume that they belong to everyone, they belong to us, without really thinking them through, without really owning them in that sense. And if we don’t interrogate, if we don’t examine unexamined assumptions, then in a way we’re just taking something that belonged to someone else. There’s a great— one of my favorite works to teach, to study, to read—I highly recommend—is the 1644 pamphlet by John Milton called “Areopagitica,” in which he lays out a foundation that we later used in America for free speech. And in this tract, the very Puritan and—I’m sorry to any of my Catholic friends on the call—but very anti-Catholic—this was the English civil wars—he is opposing censorship by the government, and he’s actually saying that we should read heretical works so that we can reason and discover truth. And he says if you adopt a belief—I’m paraphrasing—if you adopt a belief simply because your pastor tells you it is so, that is your heresy. And so even Milton, the Puritan, was encouraging Christians to examine beliefs, examine opposing ideas. He says, if we don’t, it’s heresy; I’m saying if we don’t, it’s plagiarism.


Cherie Harder: Interesting. And how does one go about doing that? So if someone is listening and is, like, exactly how do I interrogate what seems to be an idea? Or even perhaps more intimidatingly, what does it mean to interrogate an aspect of one’s faith?


Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah, I mean, that’s a word, “interrogate” is a word that has some negative connotations, but there are a lot of other words we could use. We could just use, you know, we could talk about being curious and asking. And I recognize—I mean, this is my own problem; this is a human problem—that often we don’t even know what we don’t know. So we don’t even know what questions to ask. And one example of that I give in the book is how, you know, I was a well grown adult in a PhD program before I learned from a Presbyterian friend of mine that not everyone interprets the Rapture in the Bible the same way. That there are different— and just my mind was blown. I was like, “Oh, I didn’t know that there were different interpretations!” I thought the one I had been taught was what everyone believed and was the only way to read the Bible. And so that was an accidental sort of discovery.


And that can happen to us oftentimes, but we can also be intentional about it. And I’m not suggesting everyone has to be a formally trained theologian or a scholar, but just simply listening to other believers reading other books and not just other believers, you know, in our own churches, but in different denominations or in different places across the globe. We have so much to teach one another. And just recognizing that the fact that so much of what we think is true or fact is an assumption, just even recognizing that can help us to begin to look for, okay, so what really is eternal, transcendent, universal truth, and what is an assumption or preference or tradition? That’s what the whole book is about. And that’s really a way of living our life and growing our faith, I think.


Cherie Harder: Yeah, that totally makes sense. So one of the things I wanted to ask you about were some of the stories, images, metaphors that you mentioned in your book—you devote different chapters to different metaphors or approaches—and ask you a little bit about why you chose them and what you kind of see as the downstream effects of them. And one that I was actually surprised to see was about sentimentality. I say surprised—I mean, I hadn’t thought about this as being so immersed in Victorianism and was interested by essentially the tie that you drew between what you called a “cult of sensibility” and Thomas Kincaid. Tell us how you got there.


Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah. Okay. So, of course, I’m coming at this book from my area of expertise, which is 18th- and 19th-century British literature, then art and culture. And so there was a literal movement in the late-18th century called “the cult of sensibility,” which was kind of a reaction against the rationalism that defined the Enlightenment. I mean, we tend to go to one extreme to another as human beings. So rationalism was one extreme. The cult of sensibility was a movement within art and literature that emphasized the idea that if we respond emotionally to an artistic work, to a movie or a play or a poem, with emotion, that’s a sign of our own virtue.


If anyone is any fan of Jane Austen out there, you know Sense and Sensibility. This is what she was talking about. Austen was sort of making gentle fun of anyone who would extremely emphasize sense or reason or sensibility and emotion. So we have Elinor and Marianne. And so in the Victorian age, if you know anything about Victorian art or Victorian literature—and most people are at least passingly familiar with Charles Dickens, for example, great Victorian novelist. I love his works, but they definitely tend toward the sort of sentimental side. That’s actually how his work became so popular and affected so much change, because he affected people’s emotions about orphans and widows and the poor. Which was good. But he did that through affecting our emotions.


But Victorian art that was popular, it was not high art. It trafficked in kind of the emotions. And I think most people who’ve seen any contemporary evangelical art would realize it does the same. It tends to be very emotional. Emphasize the emotions. You know, it’s so common to criticize bad Christian art today that it’s a cliché, I say in the book—and that criticism is well deserved. But what I’m pointing out in the book is there’s a long history of this. It didn’t emerge in a vacuum. And I do use as sort of the central example the paintings of Thomas Kincaid, who, you know, his painting, his art, is very sentimental and soft and glowing and makes us feel warm and comfortable. But it’s not only the pictures themselves, but it’s actually the way they were produced. They’re mass produced in a factory. They’re owned by, you know, in millions and millions of different venues and places. And so it’s not just a matter of developing a taste that might skew toward the sentimental and be distorted, but also just the commercialization of art and the result on him as a person in that process, someone who started out as a very talented and skilled artist and just kind of sold out to what could make a lot of money. And his life ended, you know, in a very dark way with arrests and accusations of sexual assault.


And my point that I’m trying to make, not to make him more of a bad example than he needs to be, but just to say, if we do not have a holistic understanding of our ourselves as human beings and our faith and we emphasize emotion or reason or anything at the expense of the other, we are not going to be healthy ourselves, and we’re not going to put forward a healthy, holistic, true version of our faith.


Cherie Harder: Yeah. Another one of the metaphors or images, ideas, that you talked about was that of empire. And of course, you know, colonialism. The British Empire certainly peaked during the Victorian era, which was obviously the time that evangelicalism really kind of grew as well, as it kind of tracked so much of the Victorian movement, as you’ve talked about. But while it’s very easy to see in the past how colonialism, empire, and evangelicalism could kind of become entangled—in that there were explicit justifications for colonialism in terms of bringing missions to new places—at this point, many empires have fallen, even if empire-building has not. And if anything, evangelicalism is growing the most in the global South, which has historically been more likely to be colonized rather than the colonizer. So I would be interested in how you think this part—empire building—still colors our evangelical imagination.


Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah, that is really the path that I trace in the book. It’s not a coincidence that the Victorian Age—which was so influenced by the evangelical movement—was the age of the British Empire. The empire about which it was said the sun would never set, but it did, right? So the British Empire has fallen. And America has taken its place as a world power. And America is largely defined by evangelicals. And so evangelicals don’t go out and colonize lands anymore. But we do still have that way of thinking, that social imaginary, that is about empire building. My friend Skye Jethani, he’s the one who developed the term “evangelical industrial complex” to describe just sort of the huge— the publishing industry, the megachurch industry, the way that celebrity pastors are turned into best-selling authors. And it’s all tied into capitalism and to moneymaking machines. And it’s all entangled together in ways that are very similar to the way in which, as you mentioned earlier, that the good work of missions in the 19th century didn’t happen apart from the kind of commercial and trade endeavors undertaken by the British Empire. It was all tangled up together.


And so we do, we are— part of the crisis that I mentioned in the subtitle of this book is the crisis of certain empires falling within the Church, within evangelicalism. And we do see evangelicalism growing much more in other areas of the globe. America is no longer really leading evangelicalism. A lot of people have to wake up to that fact. And so I think our brothers and sisters around the world who were traditionally the colonized can maybe take a lesson from us and see, you know, so much empire building is inevitably doomed to fail in the same way that building the Tower of Babel was destined to fail in the Old Testament.


It’s all very complicated. And this is the whole point is that we do so much good together as institutions and even as empires, but we can also do so much evil by using that same power and those same resources for the wrong ends or in the wrong way.


Cherie Harder: You know, there are several other metaphors and stories that I would love to discuss. We’re probably not going to have the time—whether it’s the angel in the house or self-improvement or what have you. But one of the things I wanted to ask you about is evangelicalism itself was a reform movement. It was one that really stressed true conversion over just sort of an inherited faith, discipleship over nominalism and the like. And now we’re at a point where, as you put in your subtitle, there is a crisis. I would be interested in your thoughts on what new stories and metaphors and images are needed for our current crisis.


Karen Swallow Prior: That is such a good question. And some people are even saying that the word evangelical, which, again, is a word we might say is literal, but also is metaphorical, there are many people who are rejecting that label because they think we need a new one. And that may be true. And I think historians will someday write about this moment in history, and they may assign a label or a term or a metaphor for what’s happening at this moment. I do in the book rely on reformation. I’m not original or creative or imaginative enough to think of a new one, but I do call for like a new reformation and talk about that in the book. And again, maybe there is a better term. A couple of ideas that come to mind—again, they’re not new ones—but I think of, you know, using the word “community” or “family” to describe the church and to describe our relationship to one another as opposed to “denomination” or as opposed to “tribe,” which is also a metaphor that is misused and has been appropriated in wrong ways.


I’m actually writing a piece right now—not to give much away—but I’m thinking of a couple of metaphors for this essay that I’m working on that sort of describe the 2000-year history of the church. And the first one—this is not new, this is so basic but I can’t stop thinking about it—is just the cross. And I don’t mean, you know— there was a physical, literal cross upon which Christ was crucified and died. But that literal cross is the metaphorical shape of our faith. The cruciformity is the way we are supposed to live. And I think we don’t think about that image enough or we haven’t in this moment enough. Because we have, in the modern age—which evangelicalism is directly a product of modernity—we tend to be more shaped by the metaphor of the machine, the machine that brought us the printing press, which is wonderful because the printing press brought us the Bible that could be mass produced and brought us literacy. And yet we’ve taken that literal machine, used it for good ends, but also used it as a way to think about how we do church, how we count the numbers, how we increase and multiply the money, and increase the number of viewers and those things. And so that’s a metaphor, the machine metaphor, that has defined modernity and needs to be replaced with something that I think is more open and more reflective of the gospel.


And the one that I’m thinking of is cloud. I’m thinking of the great cloud of witnesses throughout the church age. I’m thinking about the cloud in the Old Testament that guided the people. Clouds are nebulous and they’re a little mystical and mysterious and they aren’t very tangible and easy to grasp hold of. But I think that’s the kind of metaphor we need in this moment where we have dark clouds over us, and yet we can remember that God has used the cloud throughout his history with his people to guide us, to comfort us, to show us the way, and so we can follow his cloud and the great cloud of witnesses, rather than feel the weight of the dark cloud in the moment of this crisis that we have.


So I’m just like thinking out loud about different images and metaphors that might guide us forward.


Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. In just a moment, we’re going to take questions from our viewers. But before that, one of the things that sort of struck me as you were talking is, you know, there’s the metaphors, the images, what we pay attention to. But then there’s also the act of attention itself in that, you know, our imagination is filled and shaped by what we perceive and what we perceive is generally what we pay attention to. And a lot of the spiritual disciplines are about how we knowingly direct our attention and thus form our loves and our orientation, our imagination. So one thing I wanted to ask in addition to just what new metaphors do we need?: What are we paying either undue or insufficient attention to? And what liturgies, in a sense, do you see as beneficial in reviving or reforming our own imaginations as well as our social imaginary?


Karen Swallow Prior: Well, even just asking that question, I think, is at least half of the solution, right? Because we live in an attention economy. And it’s so interesting that, you know, the ancient and medieval Christians understood the necessity of these disciplines that you talked about, that we have to train ourselves and cultivate habits for being attentive to the right things, the good things. And, you know, the social media people who create these sources and these algorithms, they all know that. They all know that exercise and habit, and they’re developing ways to draw our attention in endlessly down the rabbit hole to keep our attention. And so they’re doing the same thing, for different reasons, that the ancients understood that we needed to train and focus and habituate our attentions.


So I think we have to just stop and recognize that, that our attention is being drawn and distracted in many ways, and it will either be put toward the things that we choose to put it toward or it will just be drawn mindlessly to the things that other people want to pull it toward. And so we have to be intentional. And for some of us, that means maybe being intentional about taking more time to read, read God’s word, read good books of any kind, hold it in our hands and look at it for more than ten minutes and engage with the text. It might mean spending more time outside in nature, enjoying creation. It might mean writing reflections on these things. But just sustaining our attention on what is good, true, and beautiful in intentional ways.


Some of us do this habitually. I do that habitually because I’ve lived my life around that. But even I spend too much time on social media paying attention to the wrong things. So even I have to be intentional, more intentional, about paying more attention to the good, true, and beautiful. And there are so many ways to do it. I’ve just given a few examples, but the point is that it goes against our human nature and it goes against all societal pressures. So we have to make an effort.


Cherie Harder: Well, I see lots of questions lined up. So we’ll turn to some questions from our viewers. Our first question comes from Carlene Byron, who asks, “Can you expand further on how you’ve observed global Christianity helping Western Christianity develop an expanded imagination or ways it could if we were more open to it?”


Karen Swallow Prior: That’s such a great question. I think, for example, of the Lausanne movement that has a conference coming up next year, that has invited Christian leaders from across the globe to write papers, to convene, to share perspectives. I was actually part of that, of writing a short paper with believers from different places across the globe. So that’s a formal movement.


I think this is one of the gifts of social media, actually, is that social media allows us very easily to hear the perspectives and the words of believers from other places around the world. We don’t even have to go to the library and get out a book. We can just pay attention to a Twitter thread by someone from halfway around the world. And I know my own— again, my expertise is very Anglo-centric, and then America is second. So I have a very narrow focus. But even in my book, I talk about just befriending a friend of mine that I met on social media who shared his perspective as someone of Indian descent, whose people were colonized and whom European Christians say they had the gospel delivered to, when in fact his people were Christians from some of the very first centuries. And so they already had the faith. And it wasn’t Europeans who brought it to them. And just hearing things like that, it enlarges our understanding because we are given just part of the story. And that’s not a conspiracy. That’s just being human. When we tell a story, we’re just telling it from our perspective. And the way we get a fuller, completer story is to listen to more stories.


Cherie Harder: So interesting question from an anonymous attendee who asked, “Do you have concerns about the possible impact of AI on the evangelical imagination?”


Karen Swallow Prior: I have so many concerns that I don’t even want to think about. I just— that’s a huge concern. I mean, from everything that I understand about AI, which is very little, I think that AI is going to represent a moment in human history that is perhaps— I mean, it will be no less than the development of the printing press, which I mentioned before and the impact that it had. It probably will be 10 or 100 times that. If we think in terms of human history in the big chunks, we talk about pre-modern, modern, and maybe postmodern. And whatever AI is, is going to bring about transhumanism and blur all the distinctions between what is real and what is artificial. It will certainly change human society. And evangelicals—and this is kind of part of what I’m trying to show in this book—is that evangelicals are, like all humans, creatures of culture. And so Christians and evangelicals will be affected by it. So this book is not just about examining the unexamined assumptions of evangelicals. I’m kind of trying to model how we as human beings have to also examine the water that we’re swimming in that we don’t even realize. I mean, it’s just part of being human to be creatures of culture. And this will be our task no matter who we are or where we live. And, you know, the future that AI brings will, I’m sure, be very unrecognizable to those of us who are alive in this time and moment.


Cherie Harder: Yeah. So a question from Cherie Bellamy who asks, “How does the need for certainty challenge our ability to engage biblical metaphors and the diverse ways they can be read and interpreted? Does this need inhibit the imagination?”


Karen Swallow Prior: I think it absolutely does. I mean, it is human to desire certainty. Some of us are wired to be more comfortable with less certainty. But also we exist in communities that teach us how much certainty is required or needed. And so part of— I mean, that’s part of a social imaginary is that we must be certain about this or we must be certain about that. I think the Bible does give us some things that we can be very certain about. And the Church fathers, you know, wrote creeds that are ones that Christians across time and history and geography also embrace. And then I think we’re just enculturated by our communities about which things we can have a certain degree of certainty about and which ones we don’t need to. And that’s when we can start listening to other communities and believers to decide— I mean sometimes we just have to make a decision, too, about which things we can be certain about and which things we aren’t. And the more we are immersed in communities that require certainty, about extra things, I think it does inhibit the work of the imagination.


Cherie Harder: So Ted Hedley asked, “In painting, evangelicals have little tradition to draw on, pun intended. Could you comment on the pros and cons of revitalizing art forms from Christian history that originated outside one’s own theological understanding?”


Karen Swallow Prior: Hmm. That’s a great question, and actually, I do this myself with literature. And I teach, with any art, we want to look not just for the content, but look at the form. And so because I believe with Augustine that we should embrace truth wherever it is found, that we can read the works of great literature that might be written by unbelievers but still contain great truths about the human condition and reality as God made it. And so the same would be true of art. If I’m getting my car fixed, I want it to be fixed by someone who’s developed skills in that area, regardless of Christian belief. Now, Christian belief might affect his ethical business practices, so it’s not that that’s unimportant, but certainly anyone who is trying to develop skills, including artists, should draw on the best that is out there. And there’s that pun again. So, absolutely. Yes.


Cherie Harder: So a question from Jim Meyer, who asked, “What are your concerns about Christian nationalism and the Christian imagination?”


Karen Swallow Prior: Christian nationalism is actually a great example of something that is developed from an imaginary. I mean, I think Christian nationalism has developed from some unexamined assumptions that maybe are now— I mean, some people are examining them and explicitly embracing them. But other people, you know, I’ve found myself in this whole conversation sort of asking, okay, so why do I reject this almost I think instinctively? What parts of my imaginary are there that make me understand, “No, I don’t think that we should be a Christian nation as they say it and understand it because I believe in soul autonomy and liberty and those things”? And so I think that issue, along with many others, is a great example of how powerful an imaginary is, because something like that that’s namable and meme-able and is going viral emerges out of an imaginary that holds certain myths and ideas and concepts already that makes that sort of prime or fertile ground for an idea like Christian nationalism to take hold. So a different social imaginary or an expanded social imaginary will help counter the fruit of that kind of thinking.


Cherie Harder: So a question from an anonymous attendee who asked, “‘Deconstruction’ has been discussed in evangelical circles a lot in the past few years. Is an interrogation of the social imaginary similar to the process of deconstruction?”


Karen Swallow Prior: That is a great question. So I will look at the word “deconstruction” in sort of a literal way, in the way that we see it being used by Christians or ex-Christians or whatever. They are taking something that has been built or constructed and taking it apart. And in that sense, I think the word can be neutral. I think we have negative associations with it because many who do the work of deconstruction are not reconstructing their faith, right? They’re leaving it. So it’s just deconstruction. But I actually believe that if—and I use this metaphor in the opening of the book, which was inspired by the deconstruction movement out there—I say that evangelicalism is a house, as a metaphor, and like any house it has floor beams, it has rafters, it has wall studs, whatever. My husband knows building, so I asked him when I was writing it what the right words to use were. [Laughs.] And they’re all there under the surface. And then we cover them up with paper and paint and tile and ceilings and moldings. And we don’t think about the structure unless we want to change the decor, which, you know, that can be okay. But sometimes we want to change the decor just for the reasons that I write about in the chapter on improvement. It’s not necessary. It’s just part of keeping up with the Joneses. But sometimes we have to look underneath because something’s wrong, and we don’t know what is wrong. So we do have to take off those layers. And if there are parts underneath that need repair, they need to be repaired. If there are parts that are rotten, we need to get rid of them and replace them.


And for those who are deconstructing— Again, because I have taught evangelical students for 25 years, I have seen and this is really where this book came from, is from teaching these students. I have seen these students believe that they were taught— Now, again, maybe they misunderstood or maybe it wasn’t clear, but things were taught to them that were cultural that they were told were Christian. And when they realize that these cultural things— Now, I joke about learning that my interpretation of the Rapture wasn’t the one everyone had. I think that’s funny. Some respond, “That’s not funny. That’s like a betrayal. And if that’s not true, then none of it’s true.” And they abandon the faith. And, you know, we’re all different. Not everyone’s going to do that, but many are.


And that is why it is so necessary to disentangle or separate or interrogate and distinguish between the cultural and the Christian. And this is not to say that the cultural is bad. I love culture. There can be something— you know, so a dress code. A school might have a dress code that is business. And that’s fine. That’s not wrong. But it is wrong to say that that business dress code is Christian. And that’s a very small example. But you can see the confusion that sets in when someone discovers, “Oh, wait a minute, Christians around the globe don’t wear ties, so it must not be Christian.” And there’s so much of that, so much of that subculture, that the deconstructers are throwing out the baby with the bathwater because they can’t see the baby, the bathwater is so dirty. And so this is what I want to do in this book and for all of us, is to save the baby but get rid of the bathwater.


Cherie Harder: So a question from Dave Moore, who asked, “Developing one’s imagination is an attractive proposition. Yet with all growth comes an inherent threat: the need to change. How much are our shrunken imaginations a result of simply not wanting to change?”


Karen Swallow Prior: Well, assuming that’s not a rhetorical question—which it very well could be, because I think there’s an answer in the question—I think that probably is true that we are resistant to change. And I want to say that that is— we live in a culture and a world that is changing so rapidly that I actually don’t blame people for being resistant to change. And so that’s why perhaps the change that we can imagine together doesn’t— You know, we do need some dramatic change. But there are ways that we can change where we’re not even aware of it. I mean, if we’re watching a beautiful film or reading a good book or attending a beautiful concert, it’s not like we’re sitting there saying, “Oh, I’m being changed.” But it does change us if just for that moment. And then we do it again. We go to another concert, we see another play, we take another walk. When we build those practices and habits and take our eyes away from the destructive and the negative and the vile, it does change us. And we can encourage others to participate in that just because those things are good in and of themselves. Any change they bring about is a byproduct. And what we want to pursue is the good for its own sake and then the change will come.


Cherie Harder: And a question from C. Ben Mitchell, who asked, “In as much as the imagination is shaped through practices and cultural embeddedness, what should conscientious evangelicals do and where should they do it if they want to reform their own imagination?”


Karen Swallow Prior: Well, you know, you can do it by reading good books. I will always give that answer. But we can also do those sorts of things in community. One of the things— well, what we’re doing right here is a prime example. These Online Conversations started out of the necessity brought about by Covid. You know, people were home and we weren’t able to do things. And I remember when Cherie reached out about beginning this and we’re continuing these conversations. Again, it requires intentionality, but I do think doing these things in community. I mean, even reading a book is being in community because books don’t emerge out of a vacuum. And I do think our appetites for digital media collectively are becoming sort of saturated. We’re being overloaded. And so I do see a hunger that is developing for real community, for good art, good literature. And so that’s good news for the church because we can provide, we can aim to provide it, we can at least try. And I think people would be receptive, as this Online Conversation shows, to any efforts to create opportunities and spaces for these things to happen. So it’s a really great opportunity for us as individuals and as a church to tap into a hunger that many know they have, but a lot don’t even know. They don’t even know that hunger is there.


Cherie Harder: That’s great. And a final question from an anonymous attendee who asked, “Do you think the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Scripture reading, etc, work to ground our imagination and protect us almost prophylactically from the dangers you’ve discussed?”


Karen Swallow Prior: I do think so, but I still think that that’s not enough because we are, you know— So channeling Richard Baxter, the 17th-century Puritan who said, “Read Scripture. Then with the time you have left, read books about Scripture. And then if you have any time after that, you can read for fun.” And he actually meant you won’t have any time after that. As I said before, we live in culture and so we are going to be surrounded by cultural artifacts. So we still have to choose and be intentional about the cultural artifacts that we surround ourselves with or immerse ourselves in after we read Scripture and pray and have devotions. And so there’s always going to be time that we’re not doing that. And so if we are more careful and more intentional about the human culture that we take in, then that will produce better fruit on that ground made fertile through Scripture, prayer, and devotion.


Cherie Harder: Karen, thanks so much. This has been a lot of fun. And in just a moment, I’m going to give you the last word. But before that, a few things just to share with all of you who are watching. First, immediately after we finish here, we’ll be sending around an online feedback form. We’d love for you to fill it out. I say this every time, but we read every one. We try to take your ideas and your comments to heart to make these programs ever more valuable. And as a small token of our appreciation for taking the time to do that—and it’s only like five questions, it won’t take long—we’d love to send you a code for a free Trinity Forum Reading download of your choice. There are several that we would recommend that actually pertain very much to this conversation, including a few of our readings that Karen Swallow Prior has written the introduction to, including selections from Pride and Prejudice or Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. We’d also like to recommend “Spirit and Imagination,” which is on the topic of imagination and features the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge with an introduction by Malcolm Guite, as well as “Bright Evening Star” [by Madeleine L’Engle] with an introduction by Lucy Shaw and Andrew Peterson. So would welcome your comments and encourage you to fill out that form.


In addition, tomorrow we’ll be sending around an email which includes a link to the video of today’s Online Conversation. So just want to alert you to that. That email will be coming. We’ll also have a bunch of different readings, recommended resources, if you want to go further into this topic. So be on the lookout and please share this video with others. Start a conversation. Explore your own social imaginaries that have comprised some of your perhaps unexamined assumptions and do so in community as Karen was talking about.


Cherie Harder: In addition, we would love for all of you watching to join the community of people that help advance the mission of the Trinity Forum to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought. And you can do that by becoming part of the Trinity Forum Society. Members of the Trinity Forum Society, in addition to being part of that community, there’s also several benefits which include a subscription to our quarterly Readings, a subscription to our “What We’re Reading” daily list of curated reading recommendations, and as a special incentive for those of you who are watching today with your new membership or gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Karen’s new book, The Evangelical Imagination. So encourage you to avail yourself of that opportunity and join our small community.


Coming up later this month, we’ll be hosting both in-person and online events. We’ll be hosting an online reading group around Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation” on Tuesday, August 29th at 12:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. There should be a link in the chat feature if that’s something of interest to you to sign up for. And if you happen to be in the DC area, we will be hosting an in-person reading group on Wednesday, August 30th. Also, stay tuned for more information about new Online Conversations coming up this fall featuring New York Times columnist David Brooks, psychologist and psychiatrist Curt Thompson, and others.


And if you would like to sponsor an Online Conversation, please let us know. There’ll be a question in the online feedback form. We would love to talk with you.


And finally, as promised, Karen, the last word is yours.


Karen Swallow Prior: Thank you so much, Cherie. This has been so great. So my last word is just this. We all know that seeing is believing. So we must pay attention to what we’re seeing, who we’re seeing, what we’re not seeing, who we’re not seeing. And try to see more so that our beliefs, so that what we believe is fuller, truer, more good, better, and more beautiful.


Cherie Harder: Karen, thanks so much. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.