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The Evangelical Imagination Crisis

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How is it that evangelicals, who have long extolled the virtues of the First and Second Great Awakenings, now think being “awakened” or “woke” is a bad thing? And how did we evolve from valuing sanctification—to reducing faith into a self-help project?

In this podcast, author and longtime professor Karen Swallow Prior joins Julie to discuss the current crisis in the church, which isn’t just about Trump or celebrity pastor scandals. As Karen explains, evangelicalism suffers from a crisis of imagination. 

Somehow, over the past few decades, the pool of images, stories, and metaphors that form our imagination has become distorted and diseased. And the result has been catastrophic. We no longer think or imagine in biblical ways.

For example, instead of thinking of the kingdom of heaven as something that advances as we love, serve, and sacrifice for our fellow man, we’ve adopted an empire mentality. In this system, one wins by dominating his fellow man and putting the right people in office. It’s a far cry from the words of Jesus: The last will be first.

To get out of this crisis, we need to reform our imagination—radically. But to do that, we first need to understand how we got here, Karen explains. And only then, can we chart a way forward.

evangelical imagination

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Guests
Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior (PhD, SUNY Buffalo) is a reader, writer, and longtime professor. She is the author of several best-selling books including On Reading Well, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. Prior has written for Christianity Today, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, First Things, Vox, and Religion News Service.
Show Transcript

SPEAKERS
KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR, JULIE ROYS

JULIE ROYS  00:04
How is it that evangelicals who have long extolled the virtues of the first and second great awakenings now think being awakened or woke is a bad thing? And why have testimonies degenerated into a contest over who has the most dramatic story? And how do we evolve from valuing sanctification to reducing faith into a self-help project? Welcome to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys, and today I’m going to be talking about the evangelical imagination with Karen Swallow Prior.

 

Karen has just written a book by that name. And as she explains in her book, our current crisis isn’t just about Trump or celebrity pastor scandals. Evangelicalism is suffering from a crisis of the imagination. Somehow over the past few decades, the pool of images, stories and metaphors, the form our imagination has become distorted and diseased. And the result has been catastrophic. We no longer think or imagine in biblical ways. For example, instead of thinking about the kingdom of heaven as something that advances as we love and serve and sacrifice for our fellow man, we’ve adopted an empire mentality where we win by dominating our fellow man, by putting the right people in office, by winning an actual culture war, by being first not last. And so, if we want to navigate out of this crisis, we need to reform our imagination. But to do that, we need to understand our history and how we got here. And Karen has done a masterful job of researching and explaining that development. So, I’m very much looking forward to our discussion today.

 

But before we dive in, I’d like to thank the sponsors of this podcast, Judson University, and Marquardt of Barrington. If you’re looking for a top ranked Christian University, providing a caring community and an excellent college experience, Judson University is for you. Judson is located on 90 acres just 40 miles west of Chicago in Elgin, Illinois. The school offers more than 60 majors, great leadership opportunities, and strong financial aid. Plus, you can take classes online as well as in person. Judson University is shaping lives that shaped the world. For more information, just go to JUDSONU.EDU.

 

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Well, joining me now is Karen Swallow Prior, a former longtime English professor at Liberty University, and until quite recently, she was a research professor of English Christianity and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Now she’s a full-time writer and the author of several fantastic books including her latest, The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis. Karen also writes a monthly column for Religion News Service, is a contributing editor for Comment, a founding member of the Pelican Project and a senior fellow at the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. And last but not least, she and her husband Roy live on a 100-year-old homestead in central Virginia, with two dogs, Eva the Diva, and Ruby. If you follow her , and I’m just thrilled to have you.

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  03:45

And so great to be talking with you, Julie, thank you.

 

JULIE ROYS  03:48

I am going to start this podcast with a little bit of a confession. Normally just because of my schedule, when I come to do a podcast and I come to read the book, it’s often the day or two before the actual podcast and I’m rushing through this book to get through it. And true to form, I did that with your book. Now that I’ve read it, I am really dying to go back and to read it again. And to sit down I’m even thinking, I got some friends like we should do a book club and do this book because every chapter is so so rich. And so, I’m just thanking you for writing this book and for the richness in it. And you bring so much of yourself into it. It’s just quintessential Karen Swallow Prior because of all of the literary illusions that you have and just fantastically done. So, thank you.

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  04:42

Thank you. I have had a few interviewers either confess or read schedule. I think a lot of Christian books are fast reads. And so, I think a lot of people picked it up and just thought they could breeze through it, and I don’t maybe if I were a better writer, I would write in a breezier style,, but you’re not the only one to say it’s you know, it’s rich and taken time and a lot of thought.

 

JULIE ROYS  05:05

absolutely true. And with most books, when I go through them in two or three hours, I feel like I’m done. Your book I didn’t get through in two or three hours, it took me much more than that. But at the same time, I was just like, Man, this is important stuff that we need to really meditate on. And we really need to think about. And this idea of writing about the imagination. I love that because I think the imagination is something that so often, especially in evangelicalism, right, because we’re so reason focus, we think of the imagination as something that’s fiction, something that’s not real. And we don’t realize the extent to which the imagination and the stories, this pool of ideas and thought, how that really impacts the way we act, the way that we think, the way we perceive the future, all of that. And you so beautifully wove that into this book. I remember from when I was homeschooling my kids, we used to talk about the imagination as a garden, and how the weeds can take over. And I think in essence, that’s a lot of what you’re saying in this book, there’s a lot of weeds that have gotten into our imagination, and yet, we’re not even cognizant of them. So first, let me just ask you, why did you decide to write this book at this time?

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  06:26

For me, it takes a long time to write a book. And maybe that’s why it takes so long to read. So, I started imagining this book, probably 2018 or 2019. But it really arose or teaching Victorian literature, and my college students are primarily evangelical, grew up in evangelical subculture, and a lot of what we would  read in the Victorian age. Now, the Victorian age is the century after the rise of evangelicalism, but it sort of embodies the great influence of evangelicalism. And so, we would read this literature that talked about purity culture, and the sexual double standard that you know, the one standard for women, and another one much lower for men, family values, the separate spheres for men and women, all of those things in this wonderful literature that I love. And my students would often say, wait a minute, this sounds like the idea I was raised with, or this sounds like what I was taught, you know, in the 20th century. So, we would have these discussions, these conversations. Well, what is a truly biblical view of purity of family of men and women, and what’s really just Victorian? We started separating those two threads in the classroom with my students who had largely been brought up in evangelical subculture was the beginning of the book. And, you know, so it’s been a few years where I’ve been able to think about this, find other examples. And of course, a lot has been going on in the culture outside the classroom that helped me to see this as not just an intellectual exercise in the classroom, but really part of the crisis that our movement is facing right now.

 

JULIE ROYS  08:05

Isn’t that interesting that the Victorian era would be like our current era? I don’t think most people would even fathom that, that’s true. And even so many of the hip and, you know, cutting edge ministries we have today, would not recognize how their roots are actually in some of these centuries, way before them, and we’re going to delve into that. But before we do, since we’re talking about the evangelical imagination, let’s start with a definition of evangelicalism because this is something that has morphed with time and means different things to different people.

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  08:43

Absolutely. And of course, even the term has many different meanings and understandings, as it might have had over the years, it’s really been kind of hijacked and catapulted into headlines and political polls and surveys. And so, it’s just become even more confused and contested. And so, I realized that I am evangelical, so I know this, the problem surrounding the term and in many people’s desire to reject it or replace it or denounce it. So I drew on a number of definitions that are given by scholars and the primary one that I think everyone either agrees with or differs with a little bit is that of the church historian David Bebbington as the Bebbington quadrilateral, and Bebbington basically looks at the evangelical movement from the 18th century on and says that, regardless of the denomination or the country, or the century, evangelicals are defined by their emphasis on the conversion experience, the centrality of the Bible or their lives as God’s authoritative word, the centrality of Christ’s crucifixion, and His sacrifice for our sins. And also, a lot of people don’t maybe realize this but an activist spirit like evangelicals have always been activists of some kind; missions in the 19th century, social justice in the 21st, you know. I mean, across the board left or right evangelicals are defined by all four of these things, but including they all come together, activists spirit.

 

JULIE ROYS  10:16

And that activism has its outworking very different in each age, which you highlight in a number of your chapters. But each one of your chapters sort of focuses on a word or a concept that captures an aspect of the evangelical imagination. And then you talk about this development of the concept about what’s good and true about the concept within evangelicalism, but also what may be a perversion and that’s what I think is so eye opening. Let’s start with just this concept of awakening, your second chapter, because your first chapter sort of outlines what the imagination is, which I think was awesome. But explain how awakening and this idea of being awakened, is central to evangelicalism throughout the history and development of the movement.

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  11:10

My expertise is in British Literature, the 18th and 19th century. So, I’ll say that’s the beginning, but most people are more familiar with American history and religious history, even if we’re not experts. And we all know about the Great Awakenings, right? I mean, the Evangelical revival in America in the 18th century, it was called the Great Awakening, and then there are ones after that. So right away, we know that this whole idea of awakening is central to the evangelical movement. It also happens to be a very powerful and prevalent symbol in literature, throughout all time, but also during this period. So that is an area where I was able to make a connection, like why awakening and how many ways is that concept, that idea that symbols show up, and we have the Great Awakening in America. But the other thing that really defines America is the American Dream, which of course, you know, sleeping, dreaming, waking, these are all connected. And so that’s one of the points that I make in this chapter and a couple places in the book is how the American Dream, which was so much part of America’s founding has been part not just of American history, but also of evangelical history, just because of the way our nation was founded. And so, people talk about whether or not you know, there’s Christian nation and what that means or doesn’t mean. Even the whole concept of the American dream, and that sort of consumerist materialists prosperity idea is interwoven not only with American history, but evangelical history.

 

JULIE ROYS  12:49

And of course, the American Dream is in the New Testament. Not. Not close.

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  12:57

But Make America Great is there.

 

JULIE ROYS  12:59

Oh, yeah, exactly. And this is the issue that you’re getting at this sort of sifting between, you know, what is real and true to Christianity. Obviously, the idea of being awakened spiritually, I mean, evangelicalism grew out of what had become a very dry and dead and wrote Christian church culture, and yet people awakening some of them pastors awakening, which is beautiful, to the truth of a relationship with Jesus who is the truth. Ironically, I thought that the word woke, right. Something that’s based on being awakened, has now become within a lot of evangelical circles, a pejorative term, and yet, again, it’s our roots.

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  13:47

It’s our it’s our roots. Right? And, and it is, you know, I talked about this in the book, and there’s so many more things I could have said, but I wanted to trace that history. That’s, you know, the way that the African American community use the word woke early in the 20th century, is really similar to the way that we were using it back in the 18th century. Now woke is centered in Yes, social justice and being awakened to oppression. But that’s what the Great Awakening is too, is being awakened to the spiritual oppression that we undergo when we do not have that relationship in Jesus Christ, or we are denying the work of the Holy Spirit. And so, there’s a direct connection there. And, again, going back to what I said about how evangelicalism has always been defined by an activist spirit. So this whole idea of being woke and having your conscience gripped by things that are wrong in our culture, whether systemically or individually, or there is sin matters or social matters. Like that is part of our heritage and to use that variation of the word woke as an insult or a pejorative or just an outright dismissal for everything that you disagree with, does violence not only to the language but does violence to our heritage as evangelicals and just violence to the people who are using that term to express this urgent and important felt need.

 

JULIE ROYS  15:12

So, to the person who’s trying to keep what is good, throw out what is bad when it comes to this most central concept of being awakened spiritually, what would you say?

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  15:23

I would say that, you know, this is one reason why I’m still an evangelical is because evangelicalism arose in the modern age. And an important feature of the modern age is the individual [ ] the individual soul that need for individual salvation and conversion. And it’s all centered on the conscience. Now, I also happen to be not just evangelical Baptist. And for us, soul autonomy is really important, like the idea that we are each responsible and accountable as individuals, our own individual souls before God. And so that idea of the individual conscience is central to the evangelical movement. And so being awakened, not only spiritually, but also awakened just to our relationship in this world with one another and how we treat one another. It’s just to me, it’s central to what it means to be an evangelical.

 

JULIE ROYS  16:26

So, A related term, which you already mentioned, is conversion. I think if you’ve grown up in evangelicalism, you’ve heard of this idea of easy believe ism. I remember that my mother moved from the north to the south, and she did go to a Baptist church in the south. They had a horrible tragedy where a teenage boy shot his family, killed all of them. And then he turned the gun on himself. And I remember my mother was so shocked that the pastor got up and said, Well, we know that the shooter was a Christian, because he came forward and gave his life to Christ. You know, when he was I forget what age and she was just appalled by this, that that was given as something to sooth the community, supposedly. I mean, she felt like how can we know this man that just went on a murderous rampage? Of course, we don’t know, if he had mental illness, whatever, but  that kind of statement, which, again, it takes that conversion experience into almost 100% iron clad, you’re going to heaven, I think there’s been some perversion of what a conversion really means. And you talk about the history and development of this term, if you would, give us a little bit of the background and how this has evolved over time.

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  17:45

You know, the Evangelical revival in England arose at a time when, you know, a couple of centuries after the Reformation took place, and there was an established church in England, a state church, a government Church, which meant that if you were born as a citizen in England, that meant that you were a Christian, officially. So, it just bred of nominal Christianity, but this is what the Evangelical revival is like the Wesley’s when they were young men, John and Charles Wesley who helped begin this who were Anglicans, studying for the ministry. They felt something was lacking, and then had that famous warming of the heart experience, and which we would call it being born again, or individual conversion. And so, this revival in England and this awakening in America centered on this idea that you’re not a Christian just because you are born into a Christian family or confirmed or baptized as an infant in a Christian church, but you must be born again, you must have an individual salvation experience. And, again, I’m evangelical, I believe that. But as you pointed out, just because someone goes forward, or just because someone fills out a card or raises their hand, that in itself does not mean that they were converted. And that is why the Bible does say, not all who say Lord, Lord will be saved. And that is also why the Bible gives us evidence, such as fruit of the Spirit, to show that someone that exhibits godliness and Christ likeness and doesn’t mean that the converted don’t sin. Would that it were so but it’s not. But again, this good, important biblical idea becomes distorted when all of the emphasis is on going forward, getting the hands raised, filling out the cards, counting the number of people who’ve made decisions for Christ, and then letting them off and go without any follow up or discipleship, or kinds of things that can’t be measured as easily, which are actually so much more important.

 

JULIE ROYS  19:47

But it sure makes a good newsletter.

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  19:49

Exactly. Exactly. Yeah, it does. And that’s the sad part about it. It often becomes a fundraising gimmick. How many people have come forward or whatever. And sometimes with good intentions, but I think it has been perverted. You talk about an 18th century novel in this chapter, which I had never heard about called Pamela. Talk about that book and how it sort of typifies the issue. Yeah. Non one ever reads or talks about Pamela unless they take an odd course, from me or some other 18th century novel professor. It’s considered widely is like the first English novel. It’s so rooted in all of evangelical history during this time, because it’s a story of, you know, a young servant girl whose harasser is attempting to seduce her and harass her and she’s holding on to her virtue. He actually tries to sexually assault her twice. If anyone wants to read it, spoiler alert. And the novel shows that through her good behavior, she tames him and he’s inverted. You know, that’s obviously not a good idea to follow that model. And she marries him. Yes, I think we still have those dynamics. But the reason I include that novel is because the story doesn’t end when they get married. The story ends much later, when this horrible husband, this former Reagan player has had some kind of conversion experience and grows and matures. But the novel was widely criticized and mocked and satirize, because it was showing this like cheap grace kind of dynamic that we just talked about, and that this guy can just be converted, and everything  is instantly better. And so, it’s an interesting novel from a literary perspective. But it’s also interesting because it parallels a lot of what evangelicals were thinking and teaching and modeling, but it shows it in such an access that we should stop and question and say many this is not how to evangelize and convert people.

 

JULIE ROYS  21:53

A related concept is the idea of testimony and giving your testimony. And again, I’m thinking about my childhood. So, I’m one of those that went forward when I was six years old, at a camp meeting. don’t really remember what was preached. But I remember like when he said, Do you want to come forward and accept Jesus? I was like, Oh, I’ve heard about Jesus my whole life. Of course, I do. You know. And so, I did go forward. I actually remember it very vividly. Because for the next two weeks, everybody I met, my parents would be like, oh tell them your testimony. But it was good for me because it solidified in me that experience and the importance of it. A lot of people don’t have necessarily that one time testimony. I know my sister, one of the most beautiful Christians I know on the planet, she can’t point to a time, and I think in your book you talk about you can kind of point to a time period, right? But not really a time. So, this can be a good thing, the testimony. You talked about testimony envy, which I thought was a great phrase. How can this be twisted, and how has it been twisted within evangelicalism?

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  23:03

So, testimony and story  are just a central aspect of what it means to be human and also to what it means to be a Christian. We are to be prepared to give a defense to give our testimonies to tell our story. And yet, we also have to examine sort of the flip side, and as you said,  if we don’t remember that particular time and place and we can’t tell that story because we, like in my case, and probably your sisters, were so young. But even John Bunyan, as I show in the book, has a really long Spiritual Autobiography. And you keep wondering, okay is this the moment is this the moment he keeps having these spiritual epiphanies or awakenings. And Jonathan Edwards himself says, sometimes people don’t know and that’s okay. I’m paraphrasing him, obviously. So, it’s wonderful to have a testimony. But that testimony envy that I talked about, and you mentioned, can lead people to feeling as though if they don’t have a testimony, something is wrong. Or we’d come to learn that someone who shared a testimony, embellished it. And so again, as I show throughout this whole book with all of these beautiful, wonderful concepts and ideas that are rooted in the Bible, but also become part of our imagination, our social imaginary, if they get distorted or twisted, then we take something that is good and true, and turn it into something that is not that; our salvation testimony is the most important one, but also our sanctification, our growth, the way God works, and as well as all of those are testimonies.

 

JULIE ROYS  24:36

I couldn’t help but think of Michael Warnke when I was reading that chapter. If you remember, he was in the 80s had this very dramatic testimony of being converted from being a Satanist to Christ, and he would tell the stories became an evangelist. Well, it turned out it was all bunk. He had concocted the whole thing; he had made it up. And the horrible thing is It just takes one fraud, for about 100 real testimonies and the truth for a lot of people, the Christian life is day by day living in the ordinary. And these days, I’m much more impressed by the person who’s not so on fire outwardly, but just is living that quiet life of obedience to Christ, not bringing attention to himself or herself, and just following the Lord. And I think we forget how ordinary even Jesus was right? You know, some of them have dramatics; Saul has a dramatic testimony. But a lot of them it was just, follow me., and they did. The evangelical, or the Protestant work ethic, which is another concept that you talked about. And that’s something that was drilled into me, in fact, there wouldn’t be a Roy Report if I didn’t have a Protestant work ethic. Yep. Before reading your book, I don’t think I’d ever really thought about how this work ethic developed out of sort of an age of improvement, and how it even might be contributing to our self-help movement today. Would you explain how these things are related?

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  26:09

Yeah, that was a fun chapter, because I too, am a product of the Protestant work ethic, and it’s made me who I am today. And so that is good. But there’s this sort of, off branch of that work ethic, which is improvement, even the idea of a self-improvement or an improvement to your life was something that people for thousands of years, didn’t imagine. Because for thousands of years, people’s lives, generation after generation after generation, looks the same. You were trying to survive trying to herd your sheep and raise your children, and nothing much changed. So, improvement itself is a very modern idea. I’m for improvement too, but it goes too far when we improve just for improvement sake, or when it breeds lack of contentment, or we often don’t look at what we lose or sacrifice by trying to make an improvement. If we go to the supermarket, we see these packages of food and products that say new and improved. And when you read the fine print, it’s really just the labels changed or something. It’s not even necessarily anything substantial that is improved. But we love improvements so much that the marketing and the research that goes into it shows us that it works to have that little label on it, even if we don’t know what the improvement was. And of course, that carries over into modern evangelicalism when we are formed and shaped and motivated by self-improvement and influencers. And these aren’t all bad. But we’re the Christian, we are supposed to undergo growth and sanctification, which is really not quite the same thing as improvement.

 

JULIE ROYS  27:50

The focus of it is so different. I mean, it almost becomes like a Babel thing, like I’ve built this, I’ve done this, instead of, you know, sanctification, the point of it is to become like Christ. Why? So that we can glorify Him. Because the chief end of man is to glorify God, and we miss that. We think the chief end of man, actually, we think the chief end of religion is to make our life better, so we can live our best life now. I mean, we’ve just so fundamentally perverted it. And this is why I think, when I hear so many people deconstructing, and I think we all should, I don’t know if I like that word. You want to call it sifting, whatever. But we should be looking at what is it that we have imbibed? And what is it that we’re really rejecting? I’m very grateful that for me, the stories, and the ideas that I feel like inform me, a lot of them are centuries old, because they’ve grown up in our family and in our church. But if you came to the Lord in this generation, and this is all you know, is this iteration of evangelicalism, I can see why people hate it. I hate a lot of it too, because it has nothing to do with the gospel, just nothing.

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  29:01

There are so many layers that need to be peeled back. And so many things that need to be examined under the surface, but we have to look at them, so we know what to throw out and what to keep. And that’s what I’m trying to demonstrate with this book.

 

JULIE ROYS  29:15

So, you devote an entire chapter to sentimentalism which I think highlight a major, major tension in evangelicalism. I mean, on one hand, we are products of the Enlightenment, and I think you really explain that in a really good way. We love reason. I think when you look at the Sunday service in most churches, you can see that –  what’s the highlight? It’s the sermon, right? It’s the word. That can be a good thing. I will say it’s one of the things I liked about the years that we spent at an  Anglican Church is that the highlight was actually the table. It was the Eucharist which is a much more experiential though not experiential in the sense of rooted in your subjective experience, but in coming to the table that Christ has called us to do every week. And so, I love that, but again, you’ve got this reason on one hand, and yet on the other hand, as you describe, we’ve been influenced by something called the cult of sensibility, which emphasizes more feeling and emotion. And you use the book Sense and Sensibility, which doesn’t necessarily mean what we would think it means today so that that has changed over time. But this is kind of a new idea to me. And then how this sensibility has sort of morphed into the sentimentalism that we find so commonly in churches today.

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  30:30

Yeah, so Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is a good touchstone for thinking about this idea, because most people are at least familiar with the title, if not the book. And if you’re at all familiar with the book, or even the movie, you know, that like sense represents Eleanor and her rational, reasonable, non-emotional approach to life and Mary Anne represents sensibility, which is that romantic emotional approach. And Austen was actually satirizing just before Austin’s lifetime was called the cult of sensibility, which tried to show that moral virtue is demonstrated by how sensitive you are to art and literature and opera and theatre, and not necessarily the real people suffering around you, perhaps, but at least you may respond emotionally with your heart to something that you see. And that is the mark of virtue. And Austin was making fun of them. But there was a short-lived movement. But it did slowly morph into sentimentalism, which is basically emphasizing emotion for the sake of emotion. As you said, we’re both Protestants; we’ve made that clear. We’re both maybe privilege word and reason and rationality a little bit more. So, it’s not to say that we should ignore or downplay the emotional aspect of our humanity. It’s not to say that empathy is a sin or anything like that. Because we are both emotional and rational creatures, and that those things should be in balance. But what sentimentalism does is it just emphasizes the emotional, and more specifically, when I talk about like Christian and evangelical art, it’s emphasizing the sort of cheap, easy emotion like the easy way of feeling sad or happy, if you watch like a, you know, Hallmark or Lifetime movie. It just plays on our emotions, or a Budweiser beer commercial with puppies and horses, plays on our emotions, right? Those are cheap, easy ways to draw out our emotions that ignore sort of the hard realities or the sacrifice that good art, or spiritual redemption requires. So we live in a culture that has emphasized sort of the cheap and easy emotional shortcut. Real truth and sacrifice and redemption as well as good art requires sacrifice, and bringing into balance, truth, goodness, and beauty, which is just not the same thing as sentimentality.

 

JULIE ROYS  32:59

I kept thinking of the verses where the Lord says, These people worship Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. I see it in the church today. I mean, people that I report on, and I know so much about the sin that they’re involved in, and yet I’ll see them in their services, you know, projected on YouTube, acting so spiritual and crying and during the worship, and it’s repulsive, I think it has become manipulative, it has become where we leave no room for the moving of the Holy Spirit in our highly programmed services. And where it’s excesses of emotion that’s in the church. And again, over the centuries, the church has been very concerned about this, and has thought deeply about the place of worship and emotion. And sometimes airing way too far to cutting off emotion side, but at the same time, wanting it to be real.

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  33:59

Yeah, I mean, emotions are an essential part of what it means to be human. But if we confuse emotion with worship, I mean, we can worship God, and we want to feel what we are saying and expressing with our worship. But some of us are just more rational, some are more emotional. And the goal as individuals, and as a church is to have them in balance, not go from one extreme to the other.

 

JULIE ROYS  34:21

For time sake, we’re gonna have to skip over several chapters of your book, although I will just say, I would really encourage people to get the book. And by the way, if you get the book right now, it’s something that we’re offering as a premium to all the donors to The Roys Report. So you can get Karen’s book, which thanks to some intervention that you did on your part, because this is a hardcover book. It’s an expensive book, but you helped us get it at a really reasonable price, so we can offer it to anybody who gives a donation to The Roys Report in this month, we will send you a copy of Karen’s book, which again, fantastic book. You just go to JULIEROYS.COM/DONATE.

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  35:03

And if I can just throw in one word. It’s not only a hardcover book, but this is also something I’m so proud of, because I negotiated it. It includes a number of beautiful color plates of paintings and artwork that I either talk about in the book or that illustrate the things I’m talking about. And so, I think books should be beautiful. And I think this one is.

 

JULIE ROYS  35:24

Oh, it’s gorgeous. So, thank you for helping us get that cheaper than we deserve.

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  35:31

I’m so glad I was able to do that.

 

JULIE ROYS  35:33

So, the last three chapters, which I think are absolutely crucial, chapter nine, you explore the concept of empire, and how evangelicalism, maybe without meaning to but it is just integral to this idea of British imperialism, which again, the sun never set on the British Empire, right? I mean, talk about the pride involved in that. But would you describe how evangelicalism, even the modern mission movement has become so married to Empire and how we can extricate ourselves from that.

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  36:08

If anyone knows anything about me and my work, you know that I love cultural engagement, right? I love to engage all of the culture, art,  literature, think about it as a Christian, applied biblical worldview. And the fact is, even with the negative things that I have to say, especially in this chapter, this is sort of the darkest, heaviest chapter. I think. My whole point is that we are creatures of culture, no matter what Christians we’re talking about the ones that the first century, the ones of the 30th century should the Lord tarry.

 

All Christians will be in a culture, they will be influenced by their culture, hopefully they will influence their culture. So, what I’m talking about in this book of, you know, a 300-year slice of very like Western British American evangelicalism and the problems that we have to face, all Christians are going to have to face that entanglement with culture. So that’s just how it is. And so, I’m not saying anything in particular, that is different. Where us as modern evangelicals as for Christians than any other place. But Empire happens to be an area in which it is the time and the place and the context in which evangelicalism was great before. The evangelical movement arose as the British Empire was arising. Evangelical influence and power reached its peak when the British Empire was peaking. So, the great work the evangelicals wanted to do as missionaries was inextricably tied to the work that British Empire wanted to do in colonizing and conquering around the globe. And so even if it’s just barely coincidence, which it’s more than that, there was effort and human intention and agency and mixed motives and all that involved, but even just the mere coincidence of the movement, and the Empire, arising at the same time means that evangelicalism was born by notions of Empire.

 

And so, we might not go out as evangelicals and take lands and oppress people. We might we might not, but we don’t have to do that to see the influence of empire in our evangelical culture today whether it’s what our friend, Skye Jehani, has coined the evangelical industrial complex, or mega churches or big conferences, or coalition. All those things that I’m part of, too. So, I’m not standing at the outside and pointing. What I’m asking and examining saying, has this imperialist mindset affected us? Well, it has, it’s in our DNA. And so that empire exists when we try to dominate our neighbors rather than loving them.

 

JULIE ROYS  38:52

I will say, just to balance a little bit with that there was an article in Christianity Today several years ago that talked about colonialism and the missionaries and found that a lot of missionaries, actually the majority of them, were much more on the side of the Indigenous people and fighting for their rights than they were the colonial powers. So, I think there is some balance to that. But when I read this, the thing that I thought of so much, and this is where I’ve probably experienced so much change myself, is just the triumphalism within evangelicalism, and sometimes it’s just really trite that we just always have the Cinderella story. It’s in our brain and in essence, Christianity is a Cinderella story. I mean, Jesus did rise from the dead, we are eventually going to see heaven, but the in between, we forget the cross and the suffering and all of that, and that’s a part of what it means to be Christian. And now I think, too, I’ve become much more aware of how I’m a part of the white dominant culture. And it’s just like we’re talking about the imagination that the soup that you swim, and you don’t even realize it.

 

But now that I’m beginning to realize it, I can see it more and more and more and in the ways that Christianity around the globe, I mean, quite frankly, Western Christianity is shrinking. The global south is growing and growing by leaps and bounds, and we’re going to be, we are learning from them. And we need to learn much more and stop thinking that we have the corner on the way to do things when we need to admit that they do. This is not a white man’s religion. This is, you know, something that was started by a Jewish dark-skinned man. And so, we need to be aware of that.  Then your next chapter on reformation reminded me of the motto of The Roys Report, which is reporting the truth, restoring the church. It’s central to our again imagination as evangelicals to reform to be restored. I mean, that’s huge. And yet we have seen so much perversion of the real. And I know there’s people listening right now who are so disillusioned because of what they’ve seen in the church. How do we reform something that has been so fundamentally distorted?

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  41:21

That’s a big question. But I think some of the answer is, it’s so simple, it’s listening to one another, as you said, like listening to the people outside of our circles, who have different stories, different experiences. It’s not turning away, You  model that. It’s not turning away from the sin that’s in front of us, or the sin that’s beneath the surface that we sort of sense we would rather not know about. It’s paying attention to the red flags, it’s being open, honest, supporting those who are courageous enough to come forward, and just opening our eyes. And I feel like for me, that’s where I am in my life. And so, this book, in some ways, is sort of my confession, because it’s just me demonstrating what I’m going through, because I had a very good for the most part experience within the evangelical world, most of my life, but others . . . .

 

And so, I don’t feel like I’m saying anything in here that is new. It’s new to me, perhaps, but I can hear other people saying, Yeah, well, I told you so a long time ago, or we’ve been saying this a long time. And so, I humbly respect that and admit that, and yet, we had this Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, which we’ve already identified with. And yet part of what that movement said is like, always reform is not just one reformation. And the way that I frame it in the book is that maybe that first big reformation was over doctrine and cleaning up the doctrine and clarifying that in the church, and maybe in the next 500 years is about practice.

 

JULIE ROYS  43:01

For too long, we have focused almost exclusively on orthodoxy, you know, right belief. And there’s been so little emphasis on orthopraxy, which is right behavior. And we have people who are preaching on huge platforms with the most pristine doctrine you can imagine and, you know, passing judgment on those who don’t have as good a doctrine, and yet their lives. And I’m so glad you said fruit of the Spirit when you were talking about fruit because that’s what reflects whether we’re filled by the Holy Spirit, not by how many people are listening to our sermons or our podcasts or sitting in the pews. It is about Christ likeness. Well, lastly, let’s talk about the Rapture. This has been the topic of so many evangelical books and movies from the Late Great Planet Earth to the Left Behind series. And the rapture, again, is something that’s just seared into the evangelical imagination, and yet a literal rapture, which, at least in the tradition I grew up in, was very much assumed. Now, a lot of evangelicals are saying, well, maybe it’s not exactly how we had envisioned it.

 

Regardless, our obsession with the rapture, I think sometimes we miss the point. And you talk about that. What do you think about the Rapture now, as you reflect on it? What’s it about, and what is God really asking us to think about His Second Coming?

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  44:33

Yeah, I mean, for me, I have some lighthearted fun with this, because what’s not fun talking about the Rapture and chick tracks and left behind and although you know, the trauma of that. This topic does illustrate what I’m trying to do throughout the whole book, because I grew up thinking that this interpretation of a physical literal rapture. I didn’t know that was an interpretation, right? And I also didn’t know it was an interpretation that arose in the 19th century. I just thought it was what all Christians believed. And so, it was a shocking revelation when I learned that not all Christians have this interpretation. And so that’s not the only thing that we could say about having interpretations. And so, we need to examine not only our assumption, but examine our interpretive communities, because we interpret in community.

 

And so, we are shaped by the way that our communities read Scripture emphasize scripture, which parts they tend to quote in the sermons and which ones never get preached about. And so, rapture is just, you know, one sort of dramatic example of that. And I say in the book, I haven’t studied this on my own, I’m not a theologian in this area, I don’t even really care what it means because I was just so tired of it. But I do know that whether the rapture is physical and literal or not, what the word means refers to us being caught up in Christ, right. And so all of the interpretations of that phrase are important, especially the one in which we are caught up with him now. Because we see him and are so filled with the spirit that we reflect Him and nothing else is as important. As Paul said, all this world is dung. We only want Christ. And that’s what it means to be caught up in him. And so that’s the most important interpretation. And that’s kind of the note that I closed the book on is just to say, let’s just imagine that.

 

JULIE ROYS  46:32

Let me read that because I think you put it so well, and it really moved me. So, I just want to read this part of your book. The rapture is assuredly this. We who are in Christ will be caught up with him, caught up in him. To be caught up with Christ in Christ is to be filled with a love not only powerful enough to move the sun and the stars, but powerful enough to love that person we would otherwise despise. It is to love the kingdom of God more than the kingdoms of this world. It is to count all human empires as dirt, all our petty platforms and performances, as dung. To be caught up in Christ is to be enraptured by him, to be beholden to him, to be taken by him to be, as 17th century poet John Donne puts it, ravished by him. Not just in the sky, and on some future day, but here, and now. Just imagine it. I love that.

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  47:29

Thank you. I worked hard on that ending.

 

JULIE ROYS  47:32

I’m sure you did. And if that captured our imagination, as Christians as evangelicals, if we were more caught up in Jesus, and in this picture of oneness with him, instead of in the political empires that we think we have to gain or in the huge mega churches we think we have to build. If it really was about Jesus, again, what a huge difference that would make. And if anything, I hope people take away from your book, it is that; that this needs to be about Jesus and not about us and our imaginations need to be filled with what’s good and true and beautiful. And that will change the world. So, thank you.

 

KAREN SWALLOW PRIOR  48:17

Thanks, Julie.

 

JULIE ROYS  48:19

Well, again, thanks so much for listening to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to recording the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And as I mentioned earlier, if you’d like a copy of Karen’s book, The Evangelical Imagination, we’re giving them as a thank you to anyone who gives a gift of $30 or more to The Roys Report this month. So, if you appreciate these podcasts, would you please consider giving to support our work? As I’ve said before, we don’t have any big donors or advertising, we simply have you, the people who care about the integrity of the church and the protection of the most vulnerable. To donate and get a copy of The Evangelical Imagination, just go to JULIEROYS.COM/DONATED. Also, just a quick reminder to subscribe to The Roys Report on Apple podcast, Google podcasts or Spotify. That way you’ll never miss an episode. And while you’re at it, I’d really appreciate it if you’d help us spread the word about the podcast by leaving a review. And then please share the podcast on social media so more people can hear about this great content. Again, thanks so much for joining me today. Hope you were blessed and encouraged.

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5 Responses

  1. Excellent podcast. Always appreciate historical context that helps me isolate true faith in Christ from American evangelical subculture. Would love to hear more from KSP.

    1. I appreciate the focus on imagination. There are many words to describe the past few years in evangelicalism. One of them, in my view, is stagnation. The opposite of imagination. Thanks for a good podcast.

  2. That was very interesting. I wish there had been time to talk more about Ms. Prior’s book. I have requested it from the library.

  3. So grateful for KSP and her work unpacking the underlying and often hidden cultural ideas behind the Evangelical identity crisis we are faced with today.

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