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American Evangelicalism: an apocalypse mapped

09 February 2024

Karen Swallow Prior has turned to literature from Britain to illuminate what is being seen as a crisis in Evangelicalism in the US. She talks to Madeleine Davies

Dr Karen Swallow Prior

Dr Karen Swallow Prior

AMERICAN Evangelicalism is, Dr Karen Swallow Prior says, undergoing an apocalypse — in the biblical meaning of “revelation”. It is held together, she contends, by “unexamined assumptions”: its inhabitants unconsciously elide a host of ideologies and identities with their Christian faith.

“To be a product of a subculture — to inherit unthinkingly, uncritically, and assumingly all its images, metaphors, and stories — is to plagiarise a faith,” she warns. If Evangelicalism is a house, then some of its foundations are “rotten. . . Some can be salvaged. Some ought not to be saved.”

Until last year a professor of English at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and a specialist in British writers, she has become used to speaking out about the present, besides mining the past for answers and direction.

In recent years, Evangelicals have turned out in large numbers for Donald Trump (described by Dr Prior as a “serial sexual abuser”). Denominations are grappling with racism and sexism, both historic and current. Churches have been roiled by sex-abuse scandals. Dr Prior has watched her students begin the “hard, terrible work of extricating Christian culture from Christ”.

Her latest book, The Evangelical Imagination (Brazos, 2023), offers an assured exploration of the great literary minds that have shaped her tradition over the centuries. John Bunyan is here, as are Samuel Richardson, and C. S. Lewis. Johnny Cash, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Thomas Kinkade also feature, in a study of “the origins and continuing power of some of the primary images, metaphors, and stories of the Evangelical movement that began around three hundred years ago”.

Readers of earlier works, including her memoir Booked, may be less familiar with the diagnosis that accompanies these reflections (although those who have followed her career in recent years may be less surprised). The book’s subtitle is How stories, images, and metaphors created a culture in crisis.

For more than two decades, she taught English literature at Liberty University, the Liberal Arts Christian college founded in the 1970s by Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist televangelist pivotal in establishing the religious Right as a force in American politics, who “dreamed of a university filled with men and women who would change the world for Christ”.

It was conversations with students, she tells me, that served as a catalyst for this latest book: “So many of my students were brought up in this 1990s, 2000s Evangelical subculture, which is very predominant in America. I was brought up as a Christian, but . . . older than that particular subculture where everything was just so extreme: purity culture, and so forth.

“Teaching those students Victorian literature, so often, they would say, ‘Wait, this sounds like how I was brought up. . . This sounds like an idea that I was told.’ And so we would just stop and say, ‘Well, OK; so this idea that we’re talking about, this teaching, is it really biblical? Or is it just Victorian?”

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles gave rise to conversations about the “sexual double standard” for women in its illustration of a world in which “a woman who falls or is sexually impure, even if it’s not her own fault, is ruined . . . but a man is not. Many of my students lived that message. They internalised it, and it’s devastating.”

She observes: “There should be, biblically, no double standard. . . And we also know that our sexual purity — while it is important, and sexual morality is something God cares about — no one is ruined by any sin.”

 

DR PRIOR left Liberty early in 2020, before Jerry Falwell, Jr, resigned as its president in the wake of a highly publicised sex scandal. Later that year, she spoke to CNN about experiencing “arrogance and authoritarian leadership”.

In 2021, 12 women — all identifying as “Jane Doe” — brought a lawsuit against the university, claiming that it had “intentionally created a campus environment” that made sexual assaults and rapes more likely to occur. Dr Prior was among the speakers who addressed a rally calling for “Justice for Janes”.

It was not the first time that she had taken a stand concerning allegations of abuse. In 2018, she was prominent among a group of Southern Baptist women calling for the removal of Paige Patterson as president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Fort Worth, Texas, referring to his “unbiblical view of authority, womanhood, and sexuality”. Patterson was removed in 2018 after accusations that he had mishandled reports of rape, with Dr Prior describing “the culmination of a culture in which women have, for far too long, lacked adequate representation”.

In the same summer, she was hit and almost killed by a bus. ”I cannot but understand it in a spiritual, metaphorical, Ezekiel kind of way; a sort of sign for not only what was happening but, in some sense, what would happen a few years later, when I feel like I got thrown under the bus by my denomination,” she told the Off the Pulpit podcast recently.

After her short period teaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (she left last year, explaining online that she was “simply not well-suited to the politics of institutional life in the SBC [Southern Baptist Church]”), Dr Prior is now focusing on writing, unattached to any institution.

“I thought for a long time I could help the Church (or at least my slice of it) change,” she wrote in a recent Religion News Service column. “I could take a community and denomination rife with racism, cronyism, misogyny and abuse and change it. How foolish I was.”

 

WHILE still a force — in 2021, Pew reported that 24 per cent of US adults described themselves as born-again or Evangelical Protestants — Evangelicalism is losing position, privilege, influence, and power, Dr Prior writes. In the wake of white Evangelical support for Mr Trump, a great deal of public soul-searching took place among many of the movement’s leaders. Dr Prior was one of the contributors to an InterVarsity Press publication, Still Evangelical?

What is needed, she suggests, is nothing less than another Reformation. If the first concerned the truth revealed in scripture, this one must confront “the way and the life revealed in Jesus — and how the Church has failed to follow and embody it”.

When I ask where such a Reformation might come from, she suggests that the sexual-abuse crisis is likely to prove critical, and younger people will lead the way.

AlamyGeorge Whitefield, who went to America and preached the Great Awakening, in an engraving of Eyre Crowe painting, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, Whitefield Preaching in Moorfields, A. D. 1742

“In the medieval Church, abuses were primarily over doctrine, and teaching, and salvation, and manipulating those things,” she explains “The divide that we are experiencing now is what we are doing over sexual abuse. And so, of course, it is many of the younger voices and the digital media that’s available, who are bringing that to light and forcing all of us to decide what we’re going to do about that, as a Church.

“Obviously, it’s a human issue. But it also is very much a gospel issue. Because these things get at the core of who we are, and at the core of what we believe, as a Church.”

She speaks of a “sifting” or “sorting” that is under way. While medieval pardoners may no longer be operating, she writes, “we still have grifters. Their wares (and even their tweets) are just fake magical sheep bones. . . We must work to reform our imaginations by filling them with stories, images, and metaphors that are true.”

 

SEVERAL of the writers, stories, and ideas explored in The Evangelical Imagination are British in origin. In the course of our conversation, she recalls being in an open, rolling field in England, overwhelmed by the thought that “This is what Jane Austen looked at every day!”

One chapter that explores the concept of awakening draws on the rock band Mumford & Sons and the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood by way of Holman Hunt’s painting The Awakening Conscience, to ask questions about the importance of dreams in the Evangelical imagination, and the stuff that fills them.

A chapter on conversion explores the centrality of an individual “authentic” experience, and the attendant risks, including a lack of attention paid to formation and sanctification. Others explore Evangelicalism’s “infatuation with secular notions of progress and self-improvement”, the roots of the sentimentalism that has produced “bad Christian art”, and empire-building from imperialism through to rallies, crusades, and megachurches.

For British readers, it is American Evangelicalism, including its current iteration, that is likely to require some familiarisation. There is simply no equivalent of the religious Right this side of the Atlantic. While an Evangelical subculture undoubtedly exists, its inhabitants are, by American standards, small in number.

“Our national identity is tied up in our founding, in religious freedom, whether that’s true or a myth, or somewhere in between,” Dr Prior says. “From the beginning, from the Great Awakenings, America has been tied to our religious faithfulness or purity, and politics has been tied with that.” She mentions both the Cold War, and the pushback against the sexual revolution. “Evangelicalism and the concept of America and the American Dream are so intertwined, that I think it’s difficult for many Evangelicals in America today to disentangle them.”

It is, she argues, “very difficult for American Evangelicals to talk about any kind of economic approach or structure beyond capitalism. Capitalism is so intertwined into American history and Evangelicalism that anyone who talks about other approaches can be accused of not even being a Christian. . .

“Evangelicals can kind of adopt this idea of the American dream and material success, and not realise that it’s American, not Christian, and that Jesus had a lot of, you know, upside-down things to say about wealth and power.”

WHILE, for decades, Dr Prior was primarily a teacher, and wrote books about the transformative potential of fiction, she has a track record of taking stands that have drawn public attention. Her public wrestling with Evangelicalism in the wake of the 2016 election (she voted for a third-party candidate) featured in profiles in The New York Times (“The dissenters trying to save Evangelicalism from itself”), and The New Yorker (“Conservative Evangelicals attempt to disentangle their faith from Trumpism”).

In 2022, she was profiled in The Washington Post in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. She has described the pro-life cause as one she has given her life to — one that has meant that she has been arrested five times. In 1992, she organised “Operation Rescue”, anti-abortion protests in Buffalo, which led to a legal case, and an eventual ruling by the Supreme Court that protesters had the right to approach patients and staff members on the street or sidewalk — while staying at least 15 feet from clinics in a “floating buffer zone”.

She had not imagined that the Supreme Court would occur in her lifetime. When it did, she wrote for The New York Times: “We can do better than asking women (and men) to choose between their children and themselves. I see the overturning of Roe as the first step in getting there. Then, to make abortion unthinkable, we must make it unwanted.”

But she has also been challenged online about whether the end of Roe v. Wade justified a vote for Mr Trump. “I’m not good enough at math to calculate the long-term consequence of sex abuse, misogyny, Epstein, and insurrection against these things,” she replied. “It’s a moral calculus I can’t do. Multiple wrongs don’t make one right. So many, many wrongs; how do we love thee?”

Her comments provoked a storm of criticism — not the first that she has endured. In 2019, Cultural Engagement: A crash course in contemporary issues (Zondervan) was published: a book that she co-wrote with Joshua D. Chatraw and that brought together more than 40 contributors’ views on issues that included abortion, gun control, and sexuality.

The inclusion of a chapter by Matthew Vines on the acceptance of same-sex relationships was enough to draw criticism, as was her attendance the previous year at a conference organised by Revoice, committed to “supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other gender and sexual minority Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality”.

Dr Prior has consistently articulated a conservative position on marriage and same-sex relationships, but there were calls for her to be removed as a research fellow from the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Convention.

It is an illustration of the awkward spaces that she has inhabited: a staunchly pro-life advocate who opposed Mr Trump; a signatory of the Nashville statement (News, 8 September 2017); and also the teacher to whom LGBT students at Liberty came out (in 2013, one wrote an article for The Atlantic in which he described her response: “I love you”). She remains a complementarian, but is increasingly critical of the male leadership of the Church, and believes that women have lacked “legitimate authority being conferred upon them within the Church” to the detriment of their discipleship and learning. She has stood up for refugees and the Black Lives Matter movement.

She had expected criticism from liberals (“people who don’t adhere to what I consider to be a biblical system of ethics and morality”), she tells me. But it was “very devastating — in many ways that I’m still processing — to be criticised by fellow believers. And not debated and argued with, and in good faith, but to be accused of being a witch, of being a heretic, of being a wolf. . . I paid a real cost for that. But, from the beginning, all I really wanted is to just try to understand and represent Christ and the Christian faith as well as I can. And I guess I never expected to fit into any particular tribe. And now it’s just even worse.”

While she is increasingly critical of Evangelical institutions, she also acknowledges in her latest book that, for many years, she was a “satisfied customer”.

“When the conservative resurgence took place, which was led by Paige Patterson, and others, in the late 20th century, it purported to be about biblical authority,” she recalls. “And many of us, myself included, really believed that that was what was at stake. I believe in biblical authority; I hold to, you know, a conservative hermeneutics. . .

“And, as the years have gone by, and the layers have peeled away, it does more and more look to be that it really was not about biblical authority, but it was about oppressing women, and people of colour, and the people who were not in power, for the sake of those who were in power. Many of the people who were part of the conservative resurgence are actually, you know, complicit in sexual abuse or cover up sexual abuse. . . I could not really be a satisfied customer any more.”

It is a journey that has proved costly. “Maybe the real tragedy was the friends we lost along the way,” she wrote online recently.

 

IN A recent column for the Religion News Service in which Dr Prior cast doubt on the possibility of changing institutions, she concluded with reference to St Matthew’s Gospel: “Ultimately, our responsibility is to know when it’s time to shake the dust off our feet — and then do it — in order that we might find the people and places we can embrace as they are.”

When I ask her whether she felt nervous about receiving unfavourable responses to the book — with its warnings of rot, apocalypse, and grifters — she emphasises that, while there have been many recent books critical of Evangelicalism, she wrote this one “more from a place of love”.

While she worries that those who might gain most from the book will not be the ones who pick it up, she has been gratified by feedback so far. Readers have described spotting their own examples of the phenomenon explored, and “learning that process of disentangling”.

“Look for the images, metaphors, and stories that fill your own imagination,” she writes. “Weigh them against the the eternal Word of God. Weigh them against the truth, justice, and mercy to which he calls all his people.”

Perhaps the “reformation of the imagination” that she seeks is already under way.


The Evangelical Imagination: How stories, images and metaphors created a culture in crisis by Karen Swallow Prior is published by Brazos at £22.99 (Church Times Bookshop £20.69); 978-1-58743-575-1.

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