Karen Swallow Prior: The Truth and The Cross—Part 1

The apostle Paul wrote, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). In Paul’s Greek, the word that is commonly translated as “mind” is nous, which typically refers to our rational, thinking faculties. But it also can be used to convey composure, a […]

The apostle Paul wrote, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). In Paul’s Greek, the word that is commonly translated as “mind” is nous, which typically refers to our rational, thinking faculties. But it also can be used to convey composure, a sense of the security that comes with thorough comprehension. The word illustrates how intellectual pursuits for the Christian can become vibrant acts of service to others and of resistance to a world intent on conforming us to its system of behavior.

Karen Swallow Prior is a leading advocate for this deep and rational composure. She also is an influential voice on the intersection of Christian faith and cultural issues. Prior is a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum, a senior fellow at Liberty University’s Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.

Currently in vocational transition, she recently left her 21-year role as professor of English at Liberty University to become research professor of English and Christianity & Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Besides her teaching, she is a speaker and an author of multiple books, including On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books (Brazos).

Outreach magazine met with Prior to discuss what church leaders can learn from the familiar oddities of this time in our culture, how we can cultivate a better way in a culture of extremes, and why we should pursue the deep renewing of our mind in the way of Jesus and for the good of our neighbors.

Great literature is a vital part of your life and work, so let’s start with something fun. What’s the first book you fell in love with?

I think it was The Black Stallion by Walter Farley. I loved horses and horse books as a child—but that book in particular was special. Somehow it seemed both very real and very magical at the same time. It was compellingly written and stayed in my spirit and my mind for a long time as a little girl. I’m sure it helped define for me the power that great writing can have on our soul.

Tell me a little bit more about your story.

I was born and raised in Maine. I grew up loving books and horses and animals. And, at intermittent points, Jesus.

Intermittent?

Yes—at least that’s how it felt. I was raised in the church. I was made to go to Sunday school and worship service every week (and usually Wednesday night service if we went to a church that had those). We lived in a rural area and had a very tiny church.

I was the only person in my friend group who went to church. After all, it was the secular, independent-minded climate of the Northeast. So my love for God and my salvation in Christ were very real to me, but faith was an isolating experience, too. As you can imagine, my feelings toward Christianity were, well, intermittent.

How did that experience of isolation shape you?

I think that never fitting in has been my identity for most of my life. That makes me feel pretty comfortable most of the time. I’m OK not fitting into whatever the current categories or cultural alliances happen to be at the given moment.

Sketch your vocational story for us. Where did books, teaching and faith all intersect for you?

I grew up loving to read. I did well in my English classes, but it never clicked that it was a discipline that one could study seriously and rigorously. It was just something fun I enjoyed.

In college, I started out as a social work major because I thought I would make a good social worker. I cared about people, and I wanted to help them. But I quickly realized that working with the government was not something that I would be happy doing. At the same time, I took my first college-level English classes and encountered great words and ideas in a context where they were taken seriously. So I switched my studies to English.

At that point, I had essentially compartmentalized anything to do with faith from the rest of my life. I went through college with that mindset—that my faith sat separate from my work or study. Eventually, I decided to pursue a doctorate in English because I didn’t know what else to do with an English degree. I had known for a while that there were two things that I did not want to do with my life, though: I did not want to be a nurse, and I did not want to be a teacher. [Laughs]

Why?

Well, it wasn’t conscious. I’m old enough to have grown up when wider career options were just opening for women. There were a lot of different things I wanted to be, and I think I resisted those two stereotypical ones (nurse and teacher). I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I wanted to be a veterinarian. There were a lot of things that I wanted to do—like most of us at that age—but I ruled those out, perhaps because they wouldn’t push the envelope enough.

Because we went to such a tiny country church when I was growing up, I had to teach Sunday school to the little children, starting when I was 12 or 13. It wasn’t something I felt called to do; it was just something I had to do because I was a girl and old enough. With that as my initial exposure, I think I resisted what felt like similar roles that women were supposed to do, and I just didn’t want to play that game.

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At any rate, I entered a doctoral program with no intention to teach. In hindsight, that’s actually how I discovered what I was created to do—which is to teach. But it wasn’t when I started. I had a graduate assistantship for a short time, which developed into an adjunct job teaching at a couple of different colleges near my university. That’s how I slowly fell into it.

But I still hadn’t figured how to integrate my faith into the rest of my life, not really. I had gotten married, and my husband and I went to a good church. We were being discipled by a good pastor. But again, much like my youth, it was a small, independent Bible church where all the women sort of had their lane. They did not have careers or higher degrees. In terms of vocation, there were no women like me in the church.

And I needed that larger sense of how my faith connected to my work. I still hadn’t figured how to be a Christian academic.

How did that shift happen?

Almost at the end of my doctoral program, I took a class just for fun. I didn’t even need it. The course was on writing reviews. So we were engaging with popular film and books and (unsurprisingly) writing reviews. By this time, in spite of my attempts at compartmentalization, my classmates and professor knew I was the only Christian in our program.

This mattered, because as we were trying to critically evaluate creative work and write reviews of it, we quickly ran into the problem of objectivity. My classmates were asking, “Well, how can I even say something is good or bad? By what standard can we measure a book or film or piece of art?” And I was the most obvious person around who claimed, in some way, to believe there was this kind of objectivity at work around us.

That was the moment I realized I had to develop an answer for that question. I knew Christianity had an answer. The Bible had an answer. It had to, right? But I didn’t know what it was. I had to find out.

I had a journey to go on. But it was that class and that intellectual question that began to pull everything together for me. I knew that there was such a thing as objective truth. I knew it must apply to art as well as morality. I had to figure that out; I knew that much. And that changed everything.

Where did that question take you, then?

Well, there was one other important piece of the puzzle. Leading up to this time, I had picked up a copy of World magazine in a church foyer. That was the first time I had ever heard the phrase “Christian worldview.” I began to understand how a Christian worldview applies to everything. The magazine’s focus was mainly news, politics, current events and things like that, but they had a culture writer named Gene Edward Veith Jr. who wrote columns about art and literature.

When the question of objectivity was raised in my class and I didn’t know how to answer it, I realized I needed a little help. This was before I was really even on email, so I called the offices of World magazine and simply said, “Hi, I need to talk to Gene Edward Veith, please.”

I needed his help. And as it turned out, he gave it. Generously. We began to correspond. He was the only Christian I had ever read who grappled—or ever even heard of—the deeper philosophical questions we were running up against. I communicated what my class was asking and my dilemma in not knowing how to answer them, and he helped me. It was such a gift. The experience showed me for the first time the necessity of integrating my Christianity and my academics not only for my own sake, but for others, too.

Obviously, you’re still living at many of these cultural intersections between Christianity and deep thought. As well, you’re still not quite fitting in—you don’t necessarily plot easily on many of the conservative/progressive polarities of the Christian subculture today. How do you see your role and work right now?

My sense of call has clarified over the years. Back in graduate school, I became very caught up in the “culture war” approach to the culture/Christianity relationship. Like I said, I went to an independent Bible church—which had some wonderful qualities. But there were also some complexities to how I expressed my views. For example, it was through a quite public role as a pro-life protester that I became known as a Christian in my department. That was not viewed in very complimentary ways, as you might imagine.

During those years I had a mindset that’s still common among Christians. Simply, I thought that the church was battling the culture. It was a war. From it would emerge a winner and a loser. Whether the presenting skirmish was abortion or the arts or whatever other issue was in play, cultural engagement was a fight. As you might guess, holding that position didn’t work for me long term.

But that’s getting ahead of myself. When I finished my doctoral program, I got a teaching job at Liberty University. That was 21 years ago. I never could have dreamed that things would shift to the point where most of the battling that is going on is within the church, not the church against the wider culture.

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Tell me more about that. How does the current state of Christianity and culture differ from your expectations two decades ago?

This is a lot harder. A lot. I just never saw where we are today coming. The call is to a different fight than the one I had expected. Not to win, but to be faithful, to pursue truth above politics and partisanship. Real victory doesn’t look like cultural dominance. It looks like having grace toward one another when we disagree on not just the means to an end, but when we disagree on the end itself.

Your academic focus was 18th century British literature. How has that informed your perspective on where church and culture sit today?

It’s fascinating. We’re living out many of the themes today that played out during that unique period of history. Perhaps unfortunately, everything I learned in studying the period of the 18th century feels relevant. It was an extremely polarized time both for the church and the broader culture.

I mean, in the big picture, the 18th century church in England had literally emerged out of civil war between Puritans and Roman Catholics. The Church of England considered itself to be the middle way, the via media. And everyone from that time—all the great thinkers and poets and novelists and philosophers of the age—existed in profound cultural and religious tension. The best saw the danger of moving toward either extreme. They saw the excesses on either side and resisted being pulled to one or the other.

Where we are today is what future historians might call “21st century American evangelicalism.” And we’re in a similar place. The middle way is hard to hold. Most of our culture, including the church, is gravitating toward the extremes.

Why is that, do you think?

Because they are so much easier to take shelter in when we feel afraid or threatened. But we have to see beyond that. It’s just not as simple as a win/lose culture/church war. The truth always resides in the crux—the cross. The truth is often forced to hold opposing things in tension. That’s hard.

I love that image—truth residing in the cross, the holy place where two directions meet. What are you learning personally about navigating those tensions? What does it take to be the kind of person who is not just able to survive in this tense system, but live out a Christlike “middle way”?

The capacity to hold that kind of tension is something toward which I gravitate. I’m learning that we must be able to empathize with those unlike us, to see from the perspectives of various sides, including those people we don’t necessarily agree with. That’s something I’ve always been able to do readily—and sometimes it’s even gotten me into trouble. I can think of one dear friendship that was basically destroyed because, in a moment of conflict, I understood my friend’s critics’ point. Did I agree? No. But it was perceived that I didn’t defend my friend readily enough. So it can be costly to be able to see everyone’s point of view. (Again, understanding and empathizing does not mean agreeing with a position.)

I have sometimes been criticized for being too moderate or mushy. That is just bizarre to me. I have never seen myself as a moderate person. Being able to understand others’ perspectives even when you don’t agree with them? That’s just the skill of a good thinker. Being able to empathize? That seems like just being a good Christian.

The importance of that capacity for tension would be the first thing I’m learning. We must resist the natural temptation to take the comfortable place, which is to join the party or the faction sitting on one side or the other. True, it is easier to go to those extremes. Black and white is easy. Navigating shades of gray is much harder. The problem is that we live in a world that has an awful lot of gray. But we exchange the truth for comfort—choosing to simply see black and white, everywhere, all the time.

To grow in truly engaging our culture means to cultivate our willingness to be misunderstood. It means cultivating our tolerance to being accused of being or believing things we aren’t or don’t. When people can’t see beyond black and white, then if you’re in a gray area, both sides are going to accuse you of what, in their mind, is the worst crime imaginable—not being black or not being white.

To handle that—and grow toward Jesus in it—takes patience. We must know that our character, motivations and beliefs will come out in the end. And isn’t that our best defense? Your life is your defense, not necessarily your words in defense of yourself.

In Part 2 of the interview, Karen Swallow Prior discusses why reading literary fiction helps expand our empathy, how she learned to merge the life of the mind with the life of the church, and the need to “properly order our loves.”