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Karen Swallow Prior Critiques Evangelicalism in Southern Adventist University Scholar Talk

Karen Swallow Prior - The Evangelical Imagination

On Wednesday, April 3, Southern Adventist University’s honors program hosted a top scholar of evangelicalism for the second annual Benjamin McArthur Endowed Lecture Series. Richard Moody, a former student and mentee of McArthur, welcomed the attendees, fondly remembering McArthur’s words seasoned with humor and kindness. An influential Adventist historian, McArthur had a deep respect for critical thinking and spiritual commitment. Those traits were embodied in the featured speaker, Karen Swallow Prior. Prior is renowned as a writer, professor and speaker, holding a PhD in English. She is also a columnist for Religion News Service and her work is featured in many prominent publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, Christianity Today, Vox and The Washington Post. For the Southern Scholars program her lecture was titled, Conversion: What Can the Evangelical Movement Teach Us about Religious Transformation?

Evangelicalism is not a monolithic entity but a diverse movement originating in 18th-century England. The revival arose in a time where the vast majority of Western countries claimed to be Christian. Prior recognized that before the revival, much like Christianity today, belief was a cultural assumption. Seventh-day Adventists would compare this nominalism to Laodicean indifference. Evangelicalism began as a necessary call to replace nominal Christianity with a genuine and personal experience. The evangelical solution is outlined in four pillars known as the Bebbington Quadrilateral: emphasizing Jesus’s crucifixion, the Bible, activism, and conversion.

Three centuries later, significant elements of American evangelicalism have transformed from the margins into a mainstream cultural force. As the movement grew, so did its ability to turn the personal into the political. Many scholars point to a shift in the late 1970s as popular Christian leaders parted ways with evangelical President Jimmy Carter and shifted attention to issues like segregation in schools and abortion. By 2016, evangelicals gained unshakable connections to conservative politics with 80% described as supporters of Donald Trump. The movement was intended to spread the good news; however, Prior criticized contemporary evangelicals as selling the gospel, not sharing it. Marketing, like politics, distorted the initial intentions of the religious revival. Although repetitive praise music, purity rings, and cross-covered T-shirts are not inherently bad, it is easy for Christians to get distracted by the performative nature of such products. In this reality, the brand of Christianity is the subject and Christ is the object. These materialistic connotations are an outgrowth of enlightenment individualism that prospers in America. Prior warned that we as a society have drifted from intense spiritual conversions to easier, shallow ones driven by political and consumerist tendencies. 

According to Prior, the true conversion found in the Bible changes everything. 2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (NKJV). This promise is more than a cute bumper sticker. To claim our conversion, Prior encourages us to get past trite phrases and clichés that cycle in and out of vernacular and re-examine our assumptions. Let us ask ourselves: what is true, what is partially true, and what is completely false? Recognize, only God can be entirely perfect. Truth matters because it improves our relationship with God, not because it is God. Truth is the object; Christ is the subject.

Prior reminded us that human language can become a revealer or obstacle of truth. It can easily distort the way we perceive ideas and religious movements. We know that evangelicalism is stained with Western politics, problems, and people. It is seeded with notions of hegemony, beginning with the rise of the British Empire and spreading with colonization. Even so, the term evangelical remains valuable in conveying the movement’s essence and global implications. As William Shakespeare famously said, “A rose by any other name is still a rose.” Thus, the problem is not in the word itself, but in the culture that speaks it. Prior valuably pointed out that late consumer capitalism defines everything in America, not just evangelicals. For non-Western Christians, the term evangelical is free from right-wing socio-political connotations. Millions worldwide resonate with this reviving word. 

The biggest threats to the genuine Christian faith are the same temptations that threatened many in the past: empires, politics, materialism, and even mistaken ideas around truth, have fought to separate us from the divine example of Jesus. Toward the end of her lecture, Prior mentioned the Apostle Paul. On the road to Damascus, Paul underwent a literal and allegorical conversion as the scales fell off his eyes. His perception completely changed and he finally saw Jesus for who He was. Paul saw the true meaning of Judaism, not as a local or ethnic privilege, but as good news to be shared with the world that encompassed the promise of the Messiah. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NKJV). This was, and continues to be, radical. 

Evangelicals love the term personal—personal salvation, personal relationship with Jesus, personal testimony. Yet, Paul showed us that this good news is for all sinners. An intimate salvation was publicly offered to each and every one of us when Jesus died on the cross. A personal relationship with God is still the foundation of the gospel, but the importance of tradition and community cannot be excluded. Prior showed that Adventism shares key evangelical beliefs surrounding Jesus’s crucifixion, biblically-rooted truth, practicing activism, and personal conversion. Yet her message called the audience to see and reclaim a larger Christian vision.

Richard Moody eloquently closed Prior’s lecture by sharing a final email from Benjamin McArthur to his students. McArthur’s last lesson was to nurture your relationship with God. This can be done in multiple ways, but it should be intentional. Prior emphasized an intentional, critically engaging conversion that is open to the whole world. I believe that she reverently honored Dr. McArthur by bringing the important discussion of religious transformation to Southern Adventist University. Following Prior’s lecture, professor of history Lisa Clark Diller moderated a question-and-answer session about themes like individualism’s role in America and evangelicalism, the cultural context of alter calls, the challenging consequences of purity culture, and even Prior’s favorite novel: Jane Eyre (1847). She claimed that it is “A modern allegory of the Christian soul,” where Jane Eyre pursues true faith in the face of her worst temptations, wanting nothing more than to be loved. The themes of truth and transformation discussed in Prior’s lecture resonate with the journey of Jane Eyre as she critically engages with her beliefs. Both narratives emphasize the importance of authenticity, faith, and unity in an individualistic and indifferent world. 

About the author

Ella Quijada grew up in Southern California attending the Fallbrook Adventist Church and is a first-year pre-medical student at Southern Adventist University with a psychology major and double Spanish and chemistry minor. More from Ella Quijada.
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