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Karen Swallow Prior’s very interesting forthcoming book The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, & Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis has set me thinking about a question that’s not at all limited to “evangelicals” (whoever those strange and incessantly talked-about creatures really are). Here’s the scenario: You read a book or an article or a bunch of articles or watch a movie or a documentary or whatever about a subject you know firsthand—a region, perhaps, such as the Midwest, or a particular religious tradition, or a political tendency. And you recognize elements that are very familiar to you, but the “big picture” that’s presented doesn’t accord with your own experience (and the dissonance is often pronounced).

Now of course we might conclude that you simply are unwilling to recognize the truth. Or we could say, well, of course, this is a Big Picture, there will be exceptions, but overall this is an accurate report. And so on. Yes, in some cases one of these explanations for a sharp sense of dissonance might be legitimate. But sometimes the widely touted accounts (which get recycled endlessly, with small variations) are seriously misleading, even though they do contain accurate observations along with others that are unreliable.

One example that has often struck me over the decades, which I’ve sometimes had occasion to criticize, is the depiction of Christian missionaries in fiction (see, for instance, The Poisonwood Bible) and movies, but also in a good deal of academic writing and journalism. I grew up with missionaries—both active and retired—as frequent guests. My maternal grandparents were missionaries to China, and my mother lived in Shanghai until she was eleven years old. A steady stream of visiting missionaries spoke at the Baptist churches we attended when I was growing up, and I’ve read a ton of books by and about missionaries (starting when I was a kid). Moreover, Wendy and I have been in touch with far-flung missionaries during the 50+ years we’ve been married. So I have good reason to wonder why so much twaddle about missions and missionaries gets recycled over and over, even as I give thanks for insightful accounts, of which there are many (including those that are highly critical: criticism is sometimes very much warranted).

I glanced at a recent memoir by a disenchanted former American evangelical that has received a good deal of attention, and I was struck by the wild disparity between his experience and my own. Of course he is much younger than I am. And simply because my own experience of evangelicalism vis-à-vis the larger American culture was wildly different from his (I was much less siloed, to put it mildly) doesn’t mean that his account is inaccurate. The trouble is, his version has been taken as an adequate picture of “American evangelicals” tout court, presumably because it fits nicely with other endlessly recycled misconceptions.

These misconceptions can be found in different forms at different locations. So for example (and alas), it is not unusual for me to come across Catholic writers I greatly respect trading on received notions of “evangelicals,” the like of which they would never countenance in their own house. Reality is much messier and more interesting than these drive-by assessments suggest.

Wendy and I see very little of current movies and TV, “streaming” and such. But I have idly speculated about how delicious it would be to see a superbly crafted series (not a documentary) focusing on evangelicals, some of whom would of course be fervent Trumpists, others quite different and quite variously so. Just thinking about the possibilities gets my mind racing, and I sometimes laugh out loud at the sheer effrontery of such a project. Missionaries, of course, would figure in the plot, both the younger, new style and some retired oldsters. And there would have to be a subplot involving Korean missionaries to America. (The producers would want to sign up Philip Jenkins as a consultant.) There would also be ample opportunities to explore both common ground and conflict between evangelicals and Christians of other varieties. Please someone, make this happen! 

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.

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Image by RODNAE Productions licensed via Creative Commons. Images combined and cropped.

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