Karen Swallow Prior: Engaging Culture With Truth and Love—Part 2

We need to redeem the ways we interact with each other.

Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Karen Swallow Prior how her love of literature helped deepen her faith, how she finds the middle way in a culture of extremes, and what it means for truth to reside in the cross.

This is a vision of renewal. And I think it’s what we’re all craving right now, but we’re disagreeing about what that looks like, how to achieve it and what the goal of it is. With that in mind, how do you recommend church leaders move toward a renewal of their mind? What practices or postures must we embrace to move forward?

If I’m able to navigate this tension, I give most of the credit to my habit of reading good literary fiction.

Expand?

Well, reading literary fiction is an exercise in the expansion of our perceptions. It increases our ability to enter the worlds of other people, to see reality through their eyes, even when we don’t agree with them.

Reading good literature is literal practice in doing this kind of thing. There have been studies that show that our brain doesn’t completely register the difference between a fictional character we are reading about and someone we are engaging with on Twitter with whom we disagree. It’s the same intellectual exercise to try to imagine that person’s perspective. It actually impacts us as a real experience. It shapes us.

But what also gives me my cultural composure—besides obviously the Word of God and the Holy Spirit—is a sense of history. Sure, things are bad now. But I have studied in depth the lives and writings of people who lived when Christians were killing one another over doctrinal issues—or when the state was killing Christians.

World history is terrible. It’s painful and horrific. In comparison, 21st century American evangelicals live in pretty luxurious and peaceful times. That doesn’t mean the Lord doesn’t have refinement for us to go through and hard work for us to do. What it means is that it’s helpful to put it all in perspective.

Considering this larger perspective also makes it easier to engage with people with whom I disagree. There’s a lot of history that stands behind how people arrive at their positions. That doesn’t mean they’re right, but can we at least appreciate how they got there? Can we seek to understand what they want to do with it? If we do, we usually run into the fact that we have a lot more common ground than first seemed evident.

That’s an expansive vision of the Christian worldview. So, where is this taking you in your work?

Liberty University is where I came of age as an academic, a professor and a “public” Christian. Liberty invested in me. There were some years where the administration gave me release time from teaching so that I could speak and write. In many ways, I feel like Liberty made me who I am today.

But things change. Administrations come and go. Priorities shift. A couple of years ago, the current administration cut my release time. I love Liberty and I love teaching, but I knew with a heavy teaching load I wouldn’t be able to fulfill other aspects of my calling. At that point, I went before the Lord like I’ve only done a few times in my life before, saying, Whatever your will is, Lord.

My platform has been increasing. Doors have been opening. I have not sought any of it. But I have people telling me that the church needs my voice now. So I just went to the Lord and said, If the church needs my voice now, you’re going to have to make the way because I can’t do everything. If you want something else from me besides teaching, you’re going to have to make a way.

A year later, almost to the day, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary approached me and basically made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. The position is as a research professor, which comes with a reduced teaching load. I am the first research professor in the undergrad college at Southeastern, and the first female research professor at any Southern Baptist seminary. I’ll be able to write and speak more than I am now. It’s also a much smaller school with a more traditional curriculum on a traditional campus. That all appeals to me.

When I first decided to become an English professor, my dream was to teach at a tiny liberal arts college, and that’s what the college at Southeastern is. It’s really kind of going back to the beginning. The Lord presented me with an opportunity to make my original dream come true—and of course my new assignment is really committed to training the next generation of church leaders and pastors. It has a narrower mission than Liberty, and I’m excited to be part of it.

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What will it look like—for you in your role, for all of us in our spheres of influence—to help foster the balanced, integrated Christian worldview that’s needed in the next generation of church leaders?

Let me answer it by way of my story. When I was growing up and still compartmentalizing my Christian faith and the rest of my life, a big part of that compartmentalization was that while I loved reading and the life of the mind, I did not see that welcomed in my church environment. I felt like I had to live a somewhat double life. There was this little inner voice that said that anything darker (or better) than Pollyanna wasn’t very Christian. It certainly wasn’t very churchy. So it was something I had to do on my own. It’s rather shocking when I say it I actually felt like I had to choose between the life of the mind and the life of the church, which of course is not true.

I tell a lot of this story in my first book, Booked. But I felt like if I had to choose between God and books, well, I would choose books. But through many gracious experiences, God has taught me that my love for words is rooted in my faith. It comes from the author of all words, and that has been wonderful.

Now, it is a tremendous blessing to be able to write about literature from a Christian perspective and encourage people to read good literature. That’s been a blessing, and a way that I can serve the church.

I believe my next step is to help future pastors and church leaders create the kind of places where their congregation will be taught what I was not. We desperately need leaders and pastors who are already teaching their people how to love God with their minds as well as their hearts and their souls. They can skip the stuff I had to go through where I felt like deep faith and big ideas didn’t mesh. They can skip the compartmentalization, which is the root of so many of our cultural problems, and begin to cultivate a rich and faithful Christianity.

Let’s talk about the larger vision here. What is the opportunity we have today? What is your big dream for our little slice of Christian history?

I think that the moment we’re in right now, whether we want it or not, offers us the gift of choosing—really—whom we will serve.

For a long time I thought that voting a certain way, or fighting for certain legislation or political appointments was serving the Lord. We can serve the Lord in those things, but we often have our priorities wrong. We reverse the order of things. So this moment is an opportunity for each of us to (in an Augustinian sense) “order our loves” properly. There’s a lot that we should love, but we need to love in proper order, and I think that’s where we have been failing. If any lesser love trumps our love for Jesus Christ and his gospel, what else can it be but an idol?

We need to work to order our own loves, certainly, but our opportunity is also to help others (in truth and love) do the same thing—and allow them to help us. And we cannot do that in truth and love through further polarization.

I’ve had to learn this. For example, in the last two years I’ve dramatically changed the way I engage—whether on social media or other avenues. For context, my strongest spiritual gift is prophecy. Speaking truth. So all this talk about gray areas, while there is a side of me that naturally sees multiple perspectives, is the opposite of most of my personality. In fact, I often see things in black and white. I need to be refined myself and resist giving in to my natural tendencies.

I can be a very political animal. In the past, it often looked like being very politically outspoken. I mean, I want to proclaim the truth. That’s why I’m a teacher—that’s what teachers do. We stand in the classroom and proclaim truth and correct everyone who is wrong. That’s my job: to correct people who are wrong, all day long. [Laughs] There’s nothing more natural to me. And yet I’ve realized that I can actually do more harm than good. I can cause more wrong by correcting wrong in the way that I want to do it. That’s true for all of us. We all have the opportunity to consider not just what we say, but how we say it.

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Flannery O’Connor wrote on this in Mystery and Manners. She explained her use of violent and grotesque characters in her short stories by saying, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and to the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Now, I love O’Connor. And I love that idea in literature—O’Connor and I would have been great friends. I love to read about large and startling figures. But in our dialogue, in our engagement, maybe what we need now is a little different. Maybe it’s not that we’re blind or hard of hearing. Maybe now there’s too much noise, too much assaulting our eyes. So now—what if in order for people to see and hear the truth, they have to listen for the whispers? What if they have to pause to see slowly?

It’s all about our audience, right? We must know who our audience is, what they need. And if we’re perhaps in an opposite place from where O’Connor was, we might need more whispering and nudging because otherwise people aren’t going to hear or see. There are just too many large and startling figures already.

Can you connect that with the life of the church? If I’m a leader reading this, do you have any further wisdom for what the church can be—as a community—if we caught that kind of vision?

People always need truth. That never changes. The only thing that changes is our ability to hear or receive the truth.

The church needs to disciple its members about how to engage the world with the truth in love. There are many ways that this must get specific, but just to choose one—that call includes social media.

I’m someone who uses it a lot, so of course that’s something I think about. The connected online world is like a mission field—and the church is sending people into it without any training. We might as well send people to a foreign country without teaching them the language. We’re not giving them the skills to think critically and speak relationally. We’re not doing anything to help them navigate this pervasive system that is influencing the way the entire globe thinks and votes and engages. We must grow to equip people in how to practically engage with truth and love.

It sounds like the renewing of our minds is more than an intellectual exercise or rationalization—although that may be present. It’s the formation of a healthy mind, in service of truth and love.

Exactly. We are so trained to think about the content of literature or any cultural artifact, and not the form. We think about the message, but not the medium—how the message is told, how it’s communicated.

As Christians, we often have emphasized the message, the truth, the content, but we’ve neglected the form, including our own formation into love. But we must begin to understand that is not working.

That’s deeply helpful. What else can we do to begin to turn the tide of polarization and disconnection that seems to be the new normal?

Well, we pay attention. We go the other way. We emphasize a slower, more reflective approach in everything that we do as a church, whether it’s singing, reading God’s Word, studying Scripture, finding a place for thinkers and artists—we consciously slow down everything that in the world has become so fast-paced, catering to ever-shortening attention spans.

To counter that—to form us in opposite ways—is vital. We do this when we do anything as a church to help correct the deforming of humanity that’s taking place in these extreme versions of ourselves. We do this when we emphasize the slow, the complex and the meditative over the fast, the loud and the quick.

There are so many applications of that principle—to go slowly in the opposite direction of a harried and polarizing culture. I think that life lies in that direction, and I hope that we can find it together.