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In this episode of the Saturdays at Seven Podcast, Todd Ream interviews Karen Swallow Prior, noted author, compelling teacher, and public intellectual. Todd and Karen first discuss evangelicals’ role in the Victorian age and its literature, as well as, Karen’s vocational journey as an English professor and public intellectual. Karen also talks about her social media, specifically Twitter and Substack, where she’s been able to share her thoughts and research on the intersection of Christianity and culture. Lastly, they discuss Karen’s newest book: The Evangelical Imagination.
Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.
Our guest is Karen Swallow Prior, noted author, compelling teacher, and public intellectual. Thank you for joining us today.
Karen Swallow Prior: Thank you for having me.
Todd Ream: So let’s get right to the heart of the matter here. Why Victorian literature? And I have to admit, maybe this question comes with a little bit of flashback from hauling around my Norton Anthology in my younger years, which I’m probably old enough now, couldn’t do so anymore without seeing my orthopedic. But why Victorian literature? What is it that’s compelling about it for you?
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, my area of interest and research from my doctoral dissertation days was the English novel so that covers the 18th and 19th century. And in my research for writing my dissertation, which I planned to be on an earlier 18th century novel, I stumbled upon a woman named Hannah Moore, who wrote a lot of things, but she also wrote one novel, which ended up being the topic of my dissertation.
But she was not only a writer and a novelist, but she was also an evangelical. So it was in that research that I really discovered my own evangelical roots, the connection of evangelicalism to the development of the novel, and then the rise of the novel in the Victorian age. And in some ways, it was sort of the conservative, evangelical stamp of approval or acceptance of this radical new literary form called the novel that helped develop the novel into what it became, possibly, arguably its peak in the Victorian age.
Todd Ream: In what ways do you find the lessons from the Victorian era to be informative for how we lead our lives to this day?
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, the Victorian novel in particular is very much about the rise of the individual, which is a very modern idea, a very evangelical idea. And so these novels often focus on a common, ordinary person, an orphan, a servant girl, and show how this person develops agency and consciousness and a sense of self, in order to achieve not necessarily what they were first looking for, but what they actually really needed. So all the Victorian novels sort of tell this story over and over again.
And the surrounding literature sort of adds to this because all of it occurs during the rise of the middle class during the Industrial Age. And even though it feels like we’re very far away from the Victorian Age, we are very much made by this age. So we have a lot to learn from the literature of the time.
Todd Ream: You earned an undergraduate degree at Daemen College and then did your graduate work at SUNY Buffalo. At what point then did you decide your calling was to be a scholar, and in particular, a Christian scholar?
Karen Swallow Prior: It was very serendipitous. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I went to college thinking I would be a social worker. That was my original major. Learned that that was not for me. And also learned during my first year of college that people took reading seriously. Something that I had always loved. I did not even know. I did not come from an academic family so I didn’t know that you could actually study reading and study literature seriously. It was just for me, it was just something I enjoyed.
So I switched my major to being an English major. I knew that I didn’t want to teach, ironically, and so I didn’t know what else to do other than to just continue studying English. So I went into a PhD program and still didn’t know that I wanted to teach, but in that program, began to teach and just sort of stumbled across the idea of being a professor and a scholar. I was a Christian at the time but did not have any intentions of teaching in a Christian institution. I was a product entirely of secular education and just thought that I would follow that trajectory and be sort of the only or the sole or the token Christian wherever I went but things turned out differently.
Todd Ream: Thank you. Any particular teachers or perhaps individuals that you read that left a greater imprint or influence on you?
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, during my my PhD program, I did not know that I wanted to pursue the study of, of the novel and 18th and 19th century literature, but I had a professor, he was actually Jewish, and he taught my first 18th century English literature course and then later a novels course, and he was just kind and virtuous and had integrity and cared about me and took interest in me.
And I didn’t realize it at the time, but I am sure now that that is why I pursued the genre and the period that I did, is simply because I had a professor that I admired and respected and cared about me during that time.
Todd Ream: That’s wonderful. Something we hope we do for all students. Your bio reads that you and your husband live on a 100 year old homestead in Central Virginia. And in particular, you note with dogs, chickens and lots of books. How would you describe then the paces of your days in such a place?
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, you know, the pace has changed a lot, especially since I’ve left a full-time academic appointment. But at the same time, it was sort of an easy transition because we lived through the pandemic and so I had kind of gradually been spending less time in the actual classroom teaching intensives and so forth.
And now I spend a lot of time on Zoom meetings and podcasts, which is kind of draining in its own way, but the rest of the time I’m, you know, when I’m not traveling, I’m home writing and I really just love the Blue Ridge Mountains that surround me, the nature that surrounds me, my dogs. It’s a very peaceful, peaceful life. And I spend as much time as I can reading, which is not as much time as I would like, and a lot of time writing and preparing to speak.
Todd Ream: Along those lines then, where do you turn for inspiration? Or how do you turn for, you know, make that make that turn?
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, I mean, I live, I think that I am live in an inspired place. I live in the country. I live surrounded by historical sites in this area. I am surrounded by nature and for me that just the peace and the quiet and the books and the dogs are very inspiring.
Todd Ream: And the chickens.
Karen Swallow Prior: And the chickens, yeah, they’re fun. They are very fun.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Oh, thank you. Now, you taught at Liberty University and then Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In what ways did your experiences at those institutions shape your understanding of what it means to be a Christian scholar?
Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah, that I would have to say it shaped my understanding in some largely negative ways in the sense that as I mentioned before, I’m a product of entirely secular education, despite being raised as a Christian and being a committed Christian from early on.
And so I went immediately from my PhD program to Liberty, which is primarily an undergraduate institution. It’s added a lot of programs, but I went as an undergraduate professor and someone who is very, you know, even though I discovered it late, I know I’m called to teach and I just love teaching undergraduate students, especially I learned Christian students and Christian English majors who are always asking questions and always skeptical and often you know, they are pessimistic or or, you know, not necessarily the cookie cutter Christians that the rest of their peers are, and I love discipling and teaching such students.
There wasn’t a lot of room or support for scholarship in a university that’s primarily devoted to teaching, which was fine for me because I love teaching, but I also do love writing and scholarship, so I had to be very intentional about making room and space for that in my life, and after, you know, a number of years at Liberty, I was granted some very rare release time to continue doing that, but it was a struggle, and I find that a lot of my colleagues in such an environment find it to be a struggle.
When I went to the seminary, I found a much more academic environment, much more support for research. But at the same time, a lot of that scholarship and a lot of that research is designed, you know, by intention for each other. So it’s, you know, in house for the choir and so in both contexts, I think I did not find enough of what really motivates and drives me and that is, you know, having interaction and engagement as a Christian and as a scholar with the larger outside world and with of, you know, just the ordinary world, but also the larger academic world.
Todd Ream: How then do you define the Christian academic vocation?
Karen Swallow Prior: I think it’s diverse, actually. I think that again, just as in all of academia, there are places and spaces where the emphasis is teaching. There are places and spaces where the emphasis is research and there are few places and spaces where the emphasis is on integrating those. So I think that’s true of the larger academy and it’s also even perhaps more true of the Christian academy.
And so I think as Christian scholars that already seems like a very narrow calling, but I think we have to narrow it even more to understand whether or not we are called primarily to teaching or to research and if that research is devoted to again, preaching to the choir or directed to the outside world. And I’m not sure that the Christian academy has necessarily sort of juggled all those balls in proper time and proportion. And it’s a big question. And it’s one that we all need to ask ourselves more and the institutions need to ask themselves.
Todd Ream: What then might you say in terms of how our institutions should address those weaknesses? If you were provost for the day, per se, or president for the day. Although I’m sure I have some president and provost friends that say a day isn’t going to be enough, or I don’t have that kind of power, but yeah, yeah. What would you do?
Karen Swallow Prior: If I were president or provost for a day, I would make sure that professors had the right number of students in their classes, neither too big nor too small, the right amount of the teaching load so that they could teach well and thoroughly and also grade thoroughly because grading is a form of teaching and when there isn’t enough time to really give detailed assessment to student work then they’re actually learning wrong lessons.
I do like the model that makes sort of tracks for some professors to teach more and research less, and others to research more and teach less. But everyone needs to be doing both of those things, so I would want to make sure that professors were doing both of those things, but also equipped and empowered to do them well.
And I would also, again if this, we’re talking about being a president or provost at a Christian institution, I would go out of my way to make it possible for professors to become completely involved with their academic disciplines outside the church choir to be involved in secular organizations and secular conferences along with Christian ones, because again, we need both. But I would want to make sure that they were, you know, setting the bar in their disciplines, not just within the Christian conferences and publications.
Todd Ream: Thank you. When you look back at the arc of your career and how it’s evolved to date, how would you describe it?
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, it went in some very unexpected ways. I, you know, thought as I was finishing my my PhD work, that, as I said before, that I would end up going to some secular or state university and being a token Christian in some liberal English department somewhere and ended up going immediately to a Christian school, the world’s largest evangelical university, as it calls itself and really benefited a lot from being there and, and ended up being called to a very different ministry than I thought in the sense that I was teaching and discipling young Christian students, which I love which is different from being a Christian, you know, among secular peers at some other kind of university.
And I still thought that I would end up publishing a lot more in academic journals in my discipline. I started out that way, trying to do that, but somehow suddenly fell in because of a convergence of the internet and the rise of evangelical publications and the blogosphere and a lot of things and my natural passion for cultural engagement and hot button contemporary issues. Ended up entering sort of the public space as a public Christian writing about contemporary cultural issues. And so that was something that I did not plan. It just happened serendipitously. And I guess it just is an area of strength that I didn’t know I had. And so I fell into that.
Todd Ream: Your new book, The Evangelical Imagination, which I would commend to all of our listeners and all of our readers. Where does it fit into that arc then, and how your understanding of yourself as a scholar and as a public intellectual has evolved over time?
Karen Swallow Prior: No, that’s really a good question. And I think it reflects my trajectory in a number of ways. First of all, the publisher itself, Brazos, I love the team at Brazos. You know, this is a Christian publisher. It’s not an academic part of the publishing house, but it is a line of books that is for thoughtful, curious, educated Christians. So I’m writing for that particular audience.
The subject of the book draws on literature, art, culture, issues that matter to evangelicals. And it also returns in some ways to my original work as a PhD student studying the history of evangelicalism from the early 18th century in England and America and beyond. And just kind of answers the question: how did we get here?
And of course here has changed in just a few years because I don’t think I would have seen ourselves as being in a crisis just a few short years ago as evangelicals, but that is part of the subtitle is that we are kind of in a crisis in this moment politically, theologically, ecclesiastically, I think personally, and so I do feel like this book is kind of a culmination of everything I’ve done thus far so.
Todd Ream: And the Victorians are not for simply reading in anthologies such as the Norton Anthology, too. They have something to say to this to this day.
Karen Swallow Prior: They absolutely have something to say to it. My sort of thesis in the book is that because the Victorian age was so greatly influenced by the evangelicals who were developing and rising a century before, and the Victorian age brought us, you know, the British empire that has formed and shaped the rest of the world, including Americans to this moment, that that Victorian age and its literature and art and culture are what we’ve directly inherited as evangelicals today. And to understand who we are today, even as evangelicals, we need to understand this period of history, in which evangelicals played such a great part.
Todd Ream: Now, without giving too much away, then, in terms of what you’re working on, but where does this book then point you to in terms of what’s next?
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, that’s a fair question. My editor is waiting for this proposal. And again, without giving too much away, it’s not an original ending, but I do end The Evangelical Imagination by pointing toward Jesus. because I think, you know, I, again, it’s the Sunday school answer, but it’s the only right answer. And so I end the book just talking about following Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
And so I think my next book is just going to dig more deeply into that, into really understanding who Jesus is. And again, I always like to draw, integrate my love of literature into that. So I think I’ll be talking, digging more deeply into following Jesus and doing that through, as readers and as creatures made in God’s image who have imaginations. So more of this to come.
Todd Ream: Thank you. As we were just talking about just a few minutes ago, you’ve gained a reputation as a compelling teacher and a prolific writer, but you’re also a trusted commentator on the intersection of Christianity and culture. For Christian scholars called to serve as public intellectuals, in what practices would you advise them to invest?
Karen Swallow Prior: Hmm. Whoo, if I only knew what I knew now- if I only knew then what I know now in terms of this beast we call social media, again, this is not even something that I planned: to become a public intellectual, to use social media so widely to do that, but it’s just how my life played out in, in God’s providence.
And, I, you know, I think there are just so many tensions that we have to balance. I would say that I definitely feel called to the public square, including social media. and so I do think it needs to be a calling. I’ve, you know, I’ve had to make choices as we all do with my time and my emphasis and my resources and where to put that. And so, and I’ve also received tremendous affirmation from readers, young people, followers who are being encouraged by what I put out there and by my example. And so I know that it’s, you know, that it’s, it’s almost, it, it is like a ministry.
So I think everyone has to have, as much as they can, sort of a sense of their calling. Not everyone is called to be in the public square. Not everyone is called to engage on social media the way that I do. And for me, it really is, it all comes together because the way that I teach and the way that I write is very dialogical. Like I’m listening to others. I’m responding to their questions. I’m putting things out there. And so everything that I do on social media, everything that I publish in The Atlantic or The New York Times and the responses that I get to that, all of that I bring with me into the classroom because I’m able to anticipate-
I’m really just getting to know my audience and know their questions and know what’s being asked out there, what’s being argued, what’s being contested, what people are thinking about these crazy Christians out there, and so for me, it’s all part of one practice. I write, I teach, I post based on the conversations that I’m part of, you know, in the classroom, in my community, and out there in social media. That’s my calling and for many people those things don’t necessarily go together and we have to choose what our emphasis is and try not to get distracted.
Todd Ream: I saw a documentary one time on David McCullough. And how he sort of organized his day and where he spent his time. And he basically had an, what I would call an elaborate shed, but nonetheless, a shed out back behind their house that he referred to tongue in cheek his world headquarters for his work. And I have this vision of this sort of tremendous outpouring informative outpouring coming from a house, a farmstead, a homestead there in central Virginia with chickens and dogs and, and lots of books too. And yeah, love that sort of image in my mind there.
In terms of this kind of engagement then and advice for younger scholars, what virtues would you advise them to cultivate?
Karen Swallow Prior: That’s a great question. You know, young scholars are growing up in the world of social media. They are digital natives. And that atmosphere is doing a great deal to us. It’s making us more divided, more polarized. And so I think what we need in this moment is the opposite of that. I think a lot of virtue is about correcting errors in whatever direction they’re going in.
And so if, you know, in my younger years, I was living in a climate where I, where it just seemed like the Church was fighting against the culture and not fighting with each other as much as we are now. And things have shifted. And so I see my calling as being because, because this is what the moment needs more, more conciliatory, more exemplary, just more modeling what’s missing from our culture, which is the fruit of the Spirit. And so we might, our culture needs different things at different times and virtue is always contextual in that way to kind of correct whatever errors of excess are being made.
I look back at, you know, my favorite period, the 18th century and the writers like Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope who were satirists and writing these great works, the great error of their time that they were trying to correct was pride because this was like, yeah, the enlightenment and, and human beings thought that they could just accomplish so many things and, and to the point of hubris.
And so the great writers and prophets of that age were correcting that impulse toward pride. And I would say that the great vice of our age is probably sloth. And I don’t mean just like physical sloth, but also intellectual sloth and spiritual sloth. And so I think young scholars, young Christians today, to sort of correct that vice, need to resist that vice, but also model carefulness, attentiveness, the work of the intellect, the work, you know, disciplining the spirit, spiritual life, disciplining our personal lives and doing all that we can to fight that prevailing vice of the age, which is I would say is sloth.
Todd Ream: Thank you. You mentioned, you know, writing for The New York Times and in addition to writing, you know, books and articles in sort of more standard academic venues, but you write for Christianity Today, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Vox, The Gospel Coalition. your platform though, and let’s talk about that beast for a minute, social media, your platform, you know, is in some ways defined by how you’ve leveraged that. In your estimation, what do you think is a wise investment of time and energy in social media? So how do you know when it’s being used well?
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, the problem with answering that question is that social media keeps changing quickly and I’m actually slow, I’m slow at change. So I started out on Facebook and used Facebook as really an extension of my classroom. Because I got on when it was only for college students or people who had the dot edu address. And I was a professor and I thought, well, what are my students doing here? And so I started using it as a way to extend the discussions I was having in the classroom by posting articles and discussion questions. And it was a beautiful forum to have engaged dialogue from people from different points of view.
Now, we know that none of the social media platforms are really good for that anymore, because they do keep changing. And so, again, I think we have to understand the platform and how it’s being used. I became very successful at Twitter, but Twitter has changed so much. And so I’m having to change the way that I use Twitter. I used to also use that as a place to have dialogue and conversation, but now with so many trolls and bots who take things out of context, it’s not good for that either.
So form does determine content. That’s something I learned from literature, right? So we have to pay attention to the form and then let the content follow. And so I guess my advice is to pay attention to that and not be as slow to adjust as I usually am. And I mean, there’s, it’s, to me, this moment that we’re in of digital media is parallel to the moment we were in 500 years ago, when the printing press was invented. It unleashed great knowledge and power and opportunity upon the world, but also it was very chaotic and confusing at first.
And I think we’re in that moment of chaos and confusion and also great power and illumination and knowledge at our fingertips, but we have to steward and harness that well. And the most important thing is to be intentional about that and to pay attention to how the form affects the content and how it shapes us.
Todd Ream: In terms of, say, individual contributions that one may make to social media, so at a moment to moment, day to day, how, especially before one posts, can scholars know whether it’s a wise use of social media or a foolish use of social media? I fear I’ve seen both and perhaps I’ve seen more foolish on certain days than I’ve seen wise usages of it so what advice would you offer?
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, again, I think everything boils down to telos or purpose. You have to ask yourself what your purpose is for even being on the site and let alone posting. I’ve seen a lot of young academics having conversations on Twitter about how older academics and administrators don’t like what the younger academics are doing on Twitter because they’re getting their voices out there, and there’s a lot of tension there. And so you have to pay attention to your own context and your own purpose.
And, you know, and ask yourself if it’s, if the, if the message is contributing something to what you are building. If it’s just polarizing or shocking, then I don’t think that’s contributing for any academic. I used to post provocative pieces because those things interest me and now I see it so destructive that I rarely do that anymore just because the nature of the site has changed.
And again, I would just say, see how it all works together toward your calling. When I post for what, this is not my intention or purpose, but I’m, I’ve become a lightning rod and controversial and all of these other things without even trying to, I’m, I just am who I am. And so I’ve, you know, I’ve had to make a decision, you know, do I want to go in a different direction or is this really who I am in terms of, you know, being on social media and I’ve said and I again I’ve received so much affirmation that it is a calling that I’ve, I’ve made that choice to, to remain on there, but I’ve still tried to change what I post.
And I’m doing more and more on Substack as many are because that’s becoming a place that’s more amenable to reasoned conversations and deeper thoughts and longer form writing. Again, it’s a world that’s quickly changing and we just have to adapt quickly and it’s better I’ve learned the hard way to not post than to post and regret it. and so that’s like my biggest tip, I guess.
Todd Ream: Thank you. In what conversational spaces, if I may refer to them as such, if any, do you believe the service being offered by Christian scholars who are public intellectuals is currently adequate?
Karen Swallow Prior: I would again point, it’s relatively new, but Substack is a place where people can write more. It doesn’t have as quick or as frequent engagement I’m finding. But I’m also seeing Twitter, there are features on Twitter where there are lists and communities, where, and I don’t know how it works. I’m not very technological, but I’m part of a theology list, where every post in that group gets, you know, gets highlighted in your feed. So I think that there are ways we can be intentional about using this great resource that we have, you know, of global access to people and ideas that we otherwise wouldn’t have. And we can, I’m still of the mind that perhaps we can use the power of the medium for good if we get enough people willing to do that.
Todd Ream: Great. I want to return now, if I may, to your most recent book, The Evangelical Imagination. How do you define in that work, for our listeners, The Evangelical Imagination?
Karen Swallow Prior: So of course, I spend some time defining evangelical because we all know that’s a term that’s contested and controversial these days, but I do draw most heavily from David Bebbington and the Bebbington quadrilateral, which I think really is the best definition that we have of evangelicalism for its 300 year history. And I do spend some time talking about the imagination and what it means to be, for Christians to understand that we are made in the image of God, we’re the product of his imagination, and we have imaginations.
But what I’m really talking about in the book is not so much the imagination, but this, our social imaginaries, even as evangelicals. You know, we’re part of a community that has a social imaginary, and so I draw on Charles Taylor and his definition of, of social imaginaries, as kind of a precognitive pool of myths, stories, legends, ideas, visions of the good life that we receive and inherit, and we don’t always think about them.
So for evangelicals, we’re receiving and inheriting ideas and concepts and metaphors and stories and visions for the good life that have been around for 300 years. And we often just, they’ve become unexamined assumptions that we don’t even know are assumptions. And so I identify about 10 of those and unpack them in the book and, and talk about, you know, where they came from, why they’re good and important, but also how they can go astray.
Todd Ream: In what ways do you think then that that sense of imagination is important or critical even to the life of the Church?
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, the imagination is critical and important to being human, and I think we’ve, we’ve used the word imagination today in ways that kind of compartmentalize it, like we think about people who are extra creative or have, you know, big imaginations. When in fact, we are all people who have imaginations and we use our imaginations every day.
I mean, if we just are thinking about a conversation that we might have the next day, or we’re thinking about something that happened the day before, we’re using our imaginations. So that is the imagination. It’s just anytime we are forming images in our minds whether it’s a reflection of reality or a distortion of reality or a wish or a desire or a hope or a fear, that’s all the work of the imagination.
And yet, because we’ve kind of compartmentalized it and, and think of it as just something that artists do when they’re painting a picture, as opposed to something we’re doing all the time, that I think we’ve left it sort of unexercised and untrained in our own individual lives, but also in our communal life.
So if we, if we’re facing a problem or a crisis in the Church or in our society, as I, you know, I think we are right now, we really need to work our imaginations in order to envision how to get through this, how to do this faithfully, and what might lie ahead, and that’s the kind of thing that can keep us going, or it’s the kind of thing that can give us despair if we’re thinking in a different direction.
Our imagination is what every day gives us hope or gives us fear or gives us anxiety. And, and we just don’t always realize that it’s our imagination that’s doing that.
Todd Ream: No, that’s very well stated. Thank you. In your estimation then, what can Christian scholars do to restore an understanding and exercise the Christian imagination, especially do so in service to the Church?
Karen Swallow Prior: I think we can be more explicit about what and how the imagination works. Like it, for anyone who knows me a little bit, you, you know, that I’m not a huge fan of the tremendous love affair that evangelicals have with like J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Okay. And it’s not because I think any, don’t think well of those writers.
I think the problem is that so many Christians have come to think that that’s what imaginative literature is when all literature is imaginative. And so, but we just don’t explicitly understand that even, you know, realism or modernism or, you know, T. S. Eliot is very, very imaginative and that even Bible studies and devotionals and sermons are imaginative, because we’re not calling it that. We have this very narrow category of, of, of imagination.
So I think by maybe being a little bit more intentional, a little bit more explicit in talking about how most of the work that we do, well, really all, but, but there are ways I think we can connect the work that we’re doing as scholars, as teachers, as human beings, we can connect that to the work of the imagination and help people see that we’re using our imaginations all the time.
Todd Ream: At what level, if any, do you believe that the current crisis in evangelicalism is the result of what some have argued is the widening gap between the Church and the Christian university?
Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah, that’s a, that’s a big question. So I, I think, I mean, I think that many of the gaps that we are experiencing, not just that one, but even, even the gap between, let’s just say, what most Christians believe in value and say that the current political candidates for office, right? We might have a gap where we say, there are no candidates that fit the bill for us.
And yet we lack the imagination or we’re not developing our imagination enough to see how we can overcome that gap in a way that is faithful and does advance our Christian beliefs and values. We just settle for what is right in front of us rather than using our imaginations to think beyond it.
In terms of the gap between the Church and the Christian and Christian scholarship, I think part of it goes back to we’re all just, we live in such a divided, polarized culture that we just keep talking to each other. We keep talking to our, preaching to our own choirs out of you know, out of fear, out of, out of, you know, I don’t know what out of I don’t know why we keep doing it, but that’s what I see defining every tribe, every community, every institution more and more is circling the wagons and talking to each other. And that’s just making us more insular, more fractured, and more divided.
We need more people to have the imagination that it takes to bridge the divide and to make the connections between peoples that seem irreparably divided when they really aren’t, because we do have much more in common than we tend to imagine.
Todd Ream: In terms of that gap, at what level, if any, do you think Christian scholars are to blame, again, for the gap between the university and the Church? And what can we do to perhaps reduce it, in your opinion?
Karen Swallow Prior: I think Christian scholars have tended to, you know, I think it’s easy to fall into the two camps we can we can try to be we can emphasize our scholarship and therefore try to you know put all of our energies and times into being respected and received in the secular world of scholarship or we can emphasize just being a Christian and just emphasize- you know, just pursue a path that, that makes a way for us within the Christian communities and tribes and so forth, when really, we need to be bridging that gap as well.
But the paradigms that exist for us seem to be either or, rather than both and. And so I think we just need to be intentional about using our scholarship. Our expertise to bring something to the world and also to be willing to take from the world something that we can bring back to our Christian communities that can be helpful and, and help us to fulfill our purpose.
Todd Ream: Thank you. Okay, one last question then for our conversation. When exercising your evangelical imagination what would you note as the qualities of a properly ordered relationship between the Church and the Christian university? What would it look like if we were to exercise, in your estimation, exercise our imaginations well to that end?
Karen Swallow Prior: Again, I think I go back to learning from one another and having conversations. I think it’s easy for Christian academics to and maybe I’m just projecting here, confessing here, to be impatient or feel less fulfilled with the local church because it’s filled with people who don’t love what we love and don’t read what we read and so forth.
And I think it’s a practice in humility to be together every week with people who don’t share the same interest as us, who, you know, don’t read as much as we do or read what we do. And so we need to learn how to receive from those people just as we hope to perhaps give our gifts to them. And so we need the virtue of humility. We need the virtue of curiosity about other people.
And again, you know, a proper order means putting first things first and first things are, you know, first thing is, is Jesus Christ and, and the Gospel. And the second thing is, is the Body working together as a Body? And, and knowing that we are a Body means that we don’t all have the same function or serve, you know, fulfill the same role.
And it’s just so easy to think that our particular role as readers, writers, teachers, and professors is the most important one. and it is important, but it isn’t the only one and it isn’t the most important one. And so I think we have many opportunities to not only give to the Church but to receive too, and I think, I think scholars are not as practiced in receiving because we think we have all the answers to give. And so maybe just being better at receiving would help.
Todd Ream: You know, I think it’s for this very reason some of the best theological questions I get over the course of the week come on Sunday mornings and during Sunday school. And it’s not adult Sunday school. It’s three and four year-olds. These are young people who are bringing the best questions they’ve been asked, taught to, you know, ask in preschool now, because they’ve crossed that threshold for the most part. And they don’t they don’t pull any punches. They don’t phrase it in any particular veiled ways. They just ask these questions directly and…
Karen Swallow Prior: And we can learn so much from that.
Todd Ream: Absolutely. Absolutely. So our guest has been Karen Swallow Prior. Thank you for taking time to share your insights and your wisdom with us today.
Karen Swallow Prior: Thanks for having me.
Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.