Sensational Devotion

Evangelical Performance in Twenty-First-Century America
Jill Stevenson

How evangelical theme parks, museums, and other performance sites both reflect and create religious belief


The various media genres involving evangelical performance may seem tangential but are in fact significant and influential cultural products employing sophisticated tactics to reach large audiences of firm believers, extreme skeptics, and those in between. Sensational Devotion examines contemporary Passion plays, biblical theme parks, Holy Land recreations, creationist museums, and megachurches in order to understand how they serve their evangelical believer-users while also shaping larger cultural and national dialogues. The book examines how performative media support specific theologies and core beliefs by creating sensual, live experiences for those who use them. Because they often appear in accessible, familiar forms (such as theme parks) and employ pop culture motifs, a wide range of people—including those hostile toward Christianity or religion generally—are often willing to “try out” these genres, even if only for curiosity’s sake. This familiarity not only helps these genres achieve their goals, but it also enables them to contribute to public dialogue about the role of religious faith in America. The book demonstrates the unique ways in which these genres, which certainly reflect religious belief, also simultaneously make religious belief.

Jill Stevenson explores evangelical performance across a range of media and sites, including film, television, theater, tourist attractions, museums, and places of worship. Using historical research coupled with firsthand experiences at the evangelical venues, Stevenson not only critically examines these spaces and events within their specific religious, cultural, and national contexts, but also places them within a longer devotional tradition in order to suggest how they cultivate religious belief by generating vivid, sensual, affectively oriented, and individualized experiences.

Stevenson shows how the genres analyzed function through a distinctive dramaturgy that assumes certain interpretations of representation, realism, enactment, spectatorship, and presence, in order to achieve particular aesthetic, ideological, and experiential effects. The performances don’t simply represent theological concepts and depict biblical stories, but confront users with vivid, sensual, and rhythmic experiences designed to foster embodied beliefs that will respond to specific devotional needs and desires. Employing cognitive theory and theories of affect, the author demonstrates how these performative forms effectively foster the personal and experiential aspects of American evangelicalism, thereby reinforcing core theological tenets by means of the believer-user’s body.

Sensational Devotion contributes to existing scholarship on American evangelicalism and evangelical Christian media, especially work that examines performance. The analysis builds upon existing work on performance and cognition, as well as theories of affect. The author also draws connections between contemporary Protestant forms and medieval affective culture, thereby contributing to scholarship on medieval culture and medievalism. Finally, this book responds to the growing public interest in evangelical Christianity and evangelical media generally.

"An engrossing and richly detailed study of the way evangelicalism performs itself—and its adherents—into being by intimately recoding participants’ bodies, feelings, and yearnings. The book deserves a wide and appreciative readership in religious studies, theatre and performance studies, affect studies, and media studies as well.”
—Ann Pellegrini, New York University

Photo: Christ of the Ozarks, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, stands 250 feet tall atop Magnetic Mountain.  Photo (c) inkit/

Jill Stevenson is Associate Professor of Theatre Arts at Marymount Manhattan College.  

Praise / Awards

  • "Jill Stevenson’s compelling analysis, Sensational Devotion, argues convincingly that evangelical performance is instead a complex articulation of belief that is shaping a larger conversation about the role of religious faith in America. ... This is a lively and engaging work of scholarship that is a pleasure to read."
    Theatre Journal
  • "[Stevenson] offeres a fascinating, challenging, and necessary survey of how evangelical Christianity performs itself and its theologies in a variety of locales and formats. ... The volume is eminently readable, and Stevenson's style is accessible but still scholarly. This book will be valuable in a variety of disciplines."
  • "Stevenson’s timely and thorough contribution to scholarly discourse about evangelical dramaturgy has earned her an especially important and immediate place on the bookshelves of those who teach theatre in Christian higher education. Perhaps her book can begin an important conversation between theatre professors and administrators about the value of promoting evangelical dramaturgy both within Christendom and beyond it."
    -- Christian Scholar's Review
  • "Instead of focusing on commonplace critiques around the “quality” of [religious] performances, Stevenson emphasizes the impressive influence they have upon their intended community, opening up new considerations around successful performance and performative impact."
    --Peter Civetta, The Drama Review

  • "With her thorough and precise analysis, Stevenson has offered us an insight into the affective workings of an important mode of performance that we ought to know more about than we do."
    --Joshua Edelman, Contemporary Theatre Review

Look Inside

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 328pp.
  • 18 B&W illustrations.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2013
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11873-1

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  • $74.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-03651-6

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  • $33.95 U.S.

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  • Evangelicalism, Christianity, Performance, Affect, Cognitive Theory, Medieval Studies, Religious Studies, Popular Culture, Theatre, Media Studies