When I was fourteen years old, I dreamed of dinosaurs. Not museum fossils or Jurassic Park puppets— real, living dinosaurs, hidden in the secret places of Papua New Guinea or Borneo.
My favorite creation science textbook combined intelligent design theory, action-packed urban legends, speculative biblical history, and vivid illustrations into something unforgettable. On one page, several velociraptors squabble over Abel’s bones while Cain weeps for his brother. On another page, God’s famous rebuke in Job 41 (“Can you draw Leviathan with a fishhook? Or tie down his nose with a rope?”) accompanies a picture of kronosaurus rising from the deep, his gaping jaws tearing the fishing nets of two stylized Old Testament fishermen. Another page depicts an early twentieth-century missionary in a pith hat following two Guinean tribesmen to a secret oasis where a brontosaur’s arching neck peeked above the foliage.
I was mesmerized. I spent hours memorizing the long Latinate names of dinosaurs, downloading paleoart from Yahoo! Kids, and perusing online cryptozoology boards. Yes, of course, the other forum members were looking for ridiculous things like aliens or Mothman or Bigfoot. But as a Christian, I knew there was an element of God’s historical truth under all myths, no matter how silly. My missionary anthropology books, worldview textbooks, and Heroes of the Faith biographies reinforced this belief. Yes, every culture was different—but there were key similarities! Stories of a worldwide flood, for example. As Christians, we were panning for gold, sifting through mere cultural interpretations to reach actual reality. Ignoring the blindness of false, secular worldviews and Darwinism, daring to venture outside the safe, civilized spaces of first-world countries and Western philosophy, we were on a mission for the truth.
As my faith and worldview evolved significantly over the years, the underlying structure of these beliefs endured through change. Today, I work as a scholar of religious literature. My field devotes great attention to imaginaries: what Giles Gunn calls “symbolic formations composed of metaphors, images, narratives, legends, and other discursive and figurative material that constitution the notional and affective schemata by which people define their . . . lifeworld.” Briefly put, humans’ worldviews are shaped by the stories they read and tell, the way they imagine their past, their identity, their group, their calling. These stories shape more than conscious beliefs. They script emotional responses, repeating common tropes or story beats so the audience knows when to lean forward in suspense, when to expect the reveal for later, which characters to suspect of hidden motive, and which ones to trust. By repeating common themes and story patterns, humans teach themselves and others how to feel, think, and act when they encounter something new.
Evangelical missionary culture provided me with a rich, vivid imaginary. I still look back with gratitude when I think about the imaginative habits it cultivated. From that strange, not-quite-factual, not-quite-fiction world, I learned to insist on a truth worth finding. I built an ethos of joyful discovery and celebration of new knowledge, an enduring delight in seeking the truth. Because God created all that is and infused it with his love, I sang to myself as I pursued the truth through the iron mazes of seventeenth-century theological writings, of scientific jargon in densely-crowded texts, of complicated interfolding political puzzles, of social struggles and poverty and frequent moves across countries. I wasn’t just looking for impersonal information. Every fight for new truth was worth it. Every step closer to truth brought me closer to my lovely Christ.
I still retain that joy and celebration of knowledge-seeking. It’s what drew me to higher education. On days of doubt, insecurity, and imposter syndrome, I focus on that passionate curiosity, that delight in the hunt.
This became especially important during graduate school. Reflecting on higher education and its imaginaries, Rita Felski points out that academic culture sometimes enables a poisonous pleasure of “critique.” For many new, insecure grad students still finding their sea legs, the pleasure of critique—being smarter than the text, calling it out, justifiably condemning it—is a seductive call. I thank evangelical culture for teaching me to look for more than the too-simple surface and allow myself to be enchanted and affected.
I start with gratitude for what the evangelical imaginaries gave me because white, US evangelicalism is currently undergoing a long-overdue spiritual reckoning—and it’s easy to overlook the good aspects while confronting the shameful and harmful elements. For example, my fantasies of traveling to some wild, uncivilized place and bringing back living proof of Christianity directly echo the grand narrative of colonization: braving the dangers of darkest Africa, bringing light to the natives, and returning to the empire with treasure or knowledge that reinforced what we already knew about ourselves. In my fantasy, I wouldn’t really be changed by anyone I encountered. I never thought “the secular West” or “the unconverted” had anything to teach me; I’d learn by studying them, not asking them questions. Skeptical atheists and unreached people groups alike were props, not people.
Additionally, the evangelical imaginary’s double move of looking beyond surfaces and taking in new knowledge left us vulnerable to conspiracies. The year so far has proven this publicly, loudly. QAnon, the anti-vaccination movement, birtherism, and a host of other fantasies and conspiracy theories hit many familiar story beats from the evangelical imaginary: persecution, martyrdom, heroic resistance, skepticism about official accounts, seeking the truth. Even when these stories emphasized resentment instead of joy, they resonated with evangelicals.
Debunking conspiracies in 2020 felt near impossible, partly because the evangelical imaginary teaches us to receive all criticism as personal attacks on our identity. For example, as a teenager I lost an apologetic argument and got lightly mocked online. The literary froth of missionary biographies, Christian adventure fiction, non-fiction testimonies of spiritual warfare, Reformed apologetics, and worldview studies gave me a way to lick my wounds. I imagined myself like a persecuted Christian in communist eastern Europe. Yes, I had learned to dream of joyful discovery, but I had also been taught sinful patterns that protected wrong conclusions as though I were protecting my identity as a Christian. I wasn’t wrong; they were.
Like Mark Noll, I write this as a “letter from a wounded lover.” The evangelical imaginary forms the evangelical imagination. And while there’s much to praise, there’s also much to lament and change. It must change. We must change.
I did, by the way. I did change.
My high-school ambition of finding a living dinosaur, and thereby “proving the Christian worldview,” proved immensely successful, but not the way I imagined. On my quest for truth, I found rather more reality than I expected, and it . . . surprised me. That’s the trouble with truth-hunting. You think you know exactly what kind of prehistoric beast you’re tracking. You have pictures of bony-backed reptiles, all claws and knuckles and taut scaly skin. Then you actually catch up to one, and it’s not what you expected at all. It’s softly founded, dimpled flesh with feathers of many colors, and it looks nothing like its skeleton: bigger and worse and more than you ever imagined. What even is it? These beautiful beasts of truth, these children of strange reality, handmade facets of God’s creation. They look back at me, they look through me. In their large and liquid eyes, I see myself reflected as the object of their thought and a character in their stories. What a marvelous discovery, what a joyful change! Every encounter with truth asks me to move beyond my little self, to experience world-knowledge, other-knowledge, and God-knowledge.
If the evangelical imaginary can be reconstructed or redeemed, it needs to tell stories in a new and better way. Our imaginaries shouldn’t esteem structural patterns of colonialism, white supremacy, and sinful ethnocentrism. The worldview of God’s people shouldn’t laud a self-protective reaction against criticism or new information. We should tell stories that train us to see the tracks and traces of great truths to be pursued and narratives that make the God of truth the hero.
Cover image by Ellicia.