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As the daughter of a Christian bookstore owner, I sometimes joke that I grew up in an “Evangelical Ziploc bag,” listening to Amy Grant, reading novels with pioneer wagons on the covers, and–for a brief time as a preteen–collecting Precious Moments figurines. 

In her potent new book, former English professor and conservative thinker and writer Karen Swallow Prior helps readers like me and others dump the Ziploc bags inside our souls and examine the contents with new eyes. Always a sharp analyst with a winsome way of relating her conclusions, Swallow Prior organizes the book around ten themes, a decathlon of powerful ideas stubbornly entangled in our current day. She explores the concepts of awakening, conversion, testimony, improvement, sentimentality, materiality, domesticity, empire, reformation, and rapture, the emphasis of which all date back to the beginnings of evangelicalism and still grip us now. It’s a big problem, she says, that like fish swimming in water, most of the time we have no idea how influenced we are and how that influence shows itself.

“If evangelicalism is a house,” she writes, “then these unexamined assumptions are its floor joists, wall studs, beams, and rafters, holding everything together but unseen, covered over by tile, paint, paper and ceilings. What we don’t see, we don’t think about. Until something goes wrong and something needs replacement. Or restoration.”

Take “awakening,” which, the author points out, is portrayed “achingly” in one of my favorite novels: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I was struck by Swallow Prior’s point that John Newton, writer of “Amazing Grace,” experienced a spiritual awakening when a storm at sea threatened his life, and a moral awakening when he who was “once blind” could finally see the depravity of the slave trade. He was, in a sense, “woke,” a word the author says is “weaponized” these days.

The chapter about the idea of “conversion” fascinated me, as someone who practically knows the barometric pressure of the day on which I became a Christian. Conversion is actually a new emphasis, if not a new concept. While in Jane Austen’s day clergy were portrayed at times as being nominal in their beliefs–looking at you, Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice!–the evangelical movement would belabor conversion to the point where people sometimes did not know what exactly they were converting to. Key figures in the Second Great Awakening, such as Charles Grandison Finney, even pressured his listeners to convert to the faith, something that happens today. (Who hasn’t heard the words “with every head bowed and every eye closed” before an intense evangelistic pitch?)

Conversion is intertwined with “testimony:” “It is nearly impossible to separate the importance of the conversion narrative itself within evangelicalism from the importance of telling the story of it.” Even today there can be not only pressure to convert but also to tell a humdinger of a testimony to prove just how well the conversion “took.” 

“Improvement” follows, and Swallow Prior draws a clear line between “Heaven helps those who help themselves,” a snippet in the 1859 book called Self Help by Samuel Smiles, to modern evangelicalism’s obsession with, well, self help. 

“Sentimentalism,” as seen in paintings such as Thomas Kinkade’s glowing cottages or the limpid eyes of Precious Moments figurines, is much more damaging than one might think. 

Repeated exposure to sentimental, bad art is like having “candy for dinner every night,” she writes. It distorts truth and leads to a diseased imagination. Kinkade’s panoply of products as well as the Precious Moments craze all fed into the evangelical habit of consuming material products or images that bolstered the culture, if not the faith.  

In every motif she explores, Swallow Prior leads the reader to question if a practice or habit is Christian or just cultural (in this aspect, the book reminded me of Kristin Kobes Dumez’s Jesus and John Wayne). One strong example is domesticity, in which the family, home and hearth are exalted as examples of godliness, yet it was Queen Victoria, not Queen Esther, whose cozy home life with Prince Albert and their nine children dramatically influenced what domestic bliss should look like. 

All of this is engrossing material, but the book really hit me between the eyes in its exploration of “empire.” “Empires expand by dominating, rather than loving, their neighbors,” she writes. “The idea of empire is so embedded in the modern Western imagination that it has shaped our understanding of nearly every facet of life.” 

It’s disturbing to think about how novels written by Christians such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe upheld devastating notions of justifying slavery because some enslaved people were converted. Colonialism is one sinful result of Christians buying into the concept of empire, but there were other outcomes too. 

Who knew, for example, that it was D.L. Moody whose influence led to pastors wearing business suits instead of clerical robes? As an alumni of Moody Bible Institute, I was oblivious to the fact that Crowell Hall, the auditorium I sat in nearly every day, was named after the founder of Quaker Oats, who brought his ideas about branding and consuming religion to the running of the school for forty years. 

Overall, this book was filled with many aha! moments as I took a closer, clearer look at some of the underlying assumptions of the evangelical culture that formed me. Swallow Prior offers a keen critique of the ideas that have shaped my faith background, but she also imagines a new path going forward, a path paved by Scripture and faith, not cultural influences. My Ziploc bag is a lot lighter now, less heavy and unwieldy, and that is a very good thing. (Brazos Press)

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