An Interview with Karen Swallow Prior: Imagination Makes the World Go ’Round
I (Joel J Miller) first met Karen Swallow Prior a decade ago while working at Thomas Nelson as vice president of editorial and acquisitions. I signed her book Fierce Convictions—a biography of British social reformer, educator, and abolitionist Hannah More—back in 2013. I’ve followed and benefitted from Prior’s work ever since.
She’s written and edited several other books, including (most recently) The Evangelical Imagination, On Reading Well, and Booked. Her guide to the classics series for B&H Publishing features such titles as Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Sense and Sensibility, Frankenstein, and The Scarlet Letter.
Beyond her books, Prior’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, New York Times, Christianity Today, First Things, Vox, and several other publications. She also pens a monthly column for Religion News Service and has recently started her own newsletter here on Substack, The Priory.
In this conversation, Prior and I talk about the role of imagination in shaping our experience of the world—whether we realize it or not.
Karen Swallow Prior. Photo © Ashlee Glen
Joel Miller: As I read your new book, The Evangelical Imagination, I reflected on the role imagination plays in our daily experience. We know the world through both external sensation and internal imagination, but even the external is filtered through our imagination because it’s how we make meaning of what we sense. Our entire experience is one of the imagination.
Karen Swallow Prior: Exactly. Imagination is so much more than just the obvious, creative activity we tend to think of when we think about “using” our imagination. All of our thinking, dreaming, and processing relies on the imagination. As you said, our entire experience!
JM: In the 1990s, it was popular in some circles to talk about worldview. Since Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age in 2007, it seems more popular to speak in terms of social imaginary, a term you put to good use. What do these concepts share and how do they differ?
KSP: This is such an important question. The two concepts are related but refer to very different elements of thinking. Worldview is the conscious, rational application of beliefs or principles to some specific, concrete question or issue. It is a very cognitive and intentional activity.
Social imaginaries, as Charles Taylor describes them, are precognitive, communal pools of inherited or traditional visions, assumptions, myths, metaphors, and so on. These lurk beneath the surface, often driving or directing our sense of how things should go, whether we realize it or not.
Obviously, there are thoughts that can fit into either category. But a social imaginary contains elements that we often don’t know are there until something causes us to realize such an assumption exists. That something might be an experience in a different culture where expectations differ, or a conversation or book (ahem!) that brings to the surface something assumed that is not a conscious, chosen belief or understanding.
For example, a Christian might apply a biblical worldview in deciding how to vote. But the sense that it is a duty of a responsible citizen to vote might originate from within a particular social imaginary.
KSP: Books, of course, are not the only way to shape our imaginations. As we noted above, humans use the imagination all the time. But books—stories in particular—expand our imaginations with materials, images, characters, events, outcomes, possibilities, people, problems, solutions, disasters, delights, and so much more than we’d ever “see” in our minds without them.
We could say the same of any works of the imagination—film, music, and so on. But I do think there is something inherently more rigorous to the mind (and therefore the imagination) about worlds created by words. Words must be translated into images, feelings, sensations, and experiences. Words are more mediated, requiring more from us, and therefore yielding more for us.
JM: Are there ways of being more intentional about that shaping?
KSP: Absolutely. And it’s not an all-or-nothing deal. Whatever our entertainment/leisure time diet is, we can always be more intentional about taking in more of the good, true, and beautiful and less of the easy, comforting, and familiar. If it takes a year to read one great classical work, you’ll have read that work when the year is over. It will stay with you forever no matter how long it takes.
You can also be intentional about shutting out more of the noise (no easy feat these days). That’s something I’m working on myself because, in my case, my life centers on the good stuff—but I have also been drawn in too often and too easily to the bad stuff (the latest Twitter dustup or church scandal or whatever).
It’s not that we ought to ignore or escape from the real world. But it’s about being more intentional with what we do in our discretionary time to form our minds, tastes, and imaginations toward a desire for the good.
Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books
JM: One of the points you make in The Evangelical Imagination is that a massive overlap exists between Victorian and evangelical sensibilities since they were concurrent social movements. That seems true today as well with American Christianity. How do we tease out what’s Christian from what’s merely American?
KSP: Well, this is really what I’m trying to model in The Evangelical Imagination. The fact is that the Victorian Age, taking place during the reign of the British Empire, affected all of the world, especially America. So what we see in contemporary American evangelicalism was shaped significantly by Victorian culture.
But what I’m trying to show in the book is that it doesn’t matter what culture a Christian society is or was part of or developed alongside. The task will always be the same: to distinguish between what is cultural and what is eternal. We will always be products of our culture to some degree. And that isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just a matter of discerning the difference.
I was explaining to a friend recently, for example, it’s not wrong to have an altar call or ask people to raise their hands to make a decision for Christ (something I discuss in the book). But it is wrong to assume that this method is universal and necessary for all church gatherings across time and place and that those who don’t practice it are wrong. Yet those who have grown up without knowing anything else can find themselves assuming that churches that don’t use this modern practice are somehow less Christian. That’s another example of an assumption that is part of the social imaginary.
JM: Americans tend to be highly individualistic and therefore prone to biases and blindspots when it comes to larger social constructs. What impact do you think that has on seeing the role of institutions and shaping our imaginations?
KSP: This is an important point. As I said above, the duty of distinguishing between what is cultural and what is eternal in our faith applies to all Christians in all times and places. Yet I do think this task of distinguishing is a bit harder for contemporary Americans because of the way we have been formed—as you say, more individualistic, more autonomous, and so forth. Our less communal culture puts up particular obstacles to seeing the way a social imaginary works.
JM: Since we presuppose most of the stories and metaphors that shape our imaginations, we’re mostly unaware of them and how they function in our lives. What can we do to become more aware of these formative stories and metaphors?
I think the first step is to recognize that language itself is metaphorical. This understanding comes more easily for those who study other languages. (Think of the difference, for example, between what we say in English about the weather—it is cold—as opposed to the same idea in French—it makes the cold. It’s a subtle difference but shows how the same experience can be expressed in terms of existence or createdness.)
Once you become aware of how language itself is metaphorical, it is easier to see the patterns and archetypes in a culture for expressing those ideas, even the Christian ones. Conversion, for example (to which I devote a chapter in the book) is both a key Christian concept and one central to human experience. We see conversion stories everywhere!
JM: Final question: You can invite any three authors for a lengthy meal. Language is not an obstacle. Who do you pick, why, and how does the conversation go?
KSP: I am inviting Jonathan Swift (eighteenth-century British satirist and Anglican priest), Flannery O’Connor (twentieth-century American Catholic writer), and Gustave Flaubert (nineteenth-century French novelist). O’Connor brings her mother, Flaubert brings the wine, but Swift is not allowed to contribute the main dish.
Regina (O’Connor’s mother) dozes off, but the rest of us stay up until 1 a.m. discussing Romanticism-versus-Realism, satire, empathy, and consubstantiation-versus-transubstantiation-versus-“doing this in remembrance of Me.” No one changes their mind about the Lord’s Supper, but O’Connor leaves with a new short story idea.
[This conversation was first published at MillersBookReview.com, where Joel J. Miller publishes essays, reviews, and other bookish diversions.]