By Micah McIntyre
Although the weather has been much colder in Wheaton this week than at her home in rural Virginia, Karen Swallow Prior braved the elements to deliver this year’s Staley Series in chapel. Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and is an established author and respected evangelical scholar. Her books include “Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me” and “On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Literature.” Prior’s essays have been featured in Christianity Today, the Atlantic and the Washington Post. Next fall, Prior will join the faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina. The Record sat down with Prior to discuss her work in the classroom, on stage and in every medium in between.
You’ve traveled all over the country and spoken at many different colleges. How do you stay motivated to keep going?
The funny thing is, I don’t really consider myself to be a speaker and I don’t enjoy speaking all that much, but it is growing on me. I enjoy meeting people and sharing my ideas, but mainly I like to put those ideas on paper. What they don’t tell you when you become a writer is that after you write something, you’re going to have to talk about it. I meet great people and there really isn’t a substitute for the in-person, embodied conversations you have when you visit with actual people. There’s a reason for the incarnation and there’s a reason we like to meet people in person.
You’re now an established speaker, author and scholar and have been teaching for many years, but what would you call yourself first?
I identify most as a teacher. Teaching is what I feel I was created to do. Obviously I love reading, but in terms of my work, I’m still a teacher at heart. I never wanted to leave school. When I’m teaching I’m also learning, and the two go together very well. Teaching would be the hardest thing for me to ever give up.
Speaking of teaching, it’s been 22 years since you started as a professor at Liberty. What prompted you to leave for Southeastern?
I never wanted to leave Liberty and I never thought that I would, but I also never anticipated that I would become a writer and speaker and have to juggle all of these things at the same time. Southeastern approached me at the beginning of the summer and offered me a position they had basically created for me. They wanted me to be a research professor and teach, but still allow me to write and speak at the same time by giving me a lighter teaching load. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I’m excited about the partnership even though it was completely unexpected and I’m still processing the change.
As a scholar and professor, writing and literature is very important to you. Why should Christians continue to care about literature and writing in the digital age?
Christianity is a religion of the word. It’s the spoken word and the written word, but there are lots of indications in the Bible and the history of our faith that the written word plays a central role. The whole impetus for the printing press, which brought about widespread literacy, was about getting the Bible into the hands of the people. I think Christianity is inextricably tied to the written word, to literacy and the logical, linear kind of thought that follows.
We’ve had a good 500- year run in print culture and the digital age has many gifts, but Christians need to cultivate and preserve literacy and the written word, not because of the words or the paper itself, but because of the kind of sustained linear thought that’s capable of sophisticated abstraction. We need to preserve that kind of thinking.
Cognitive science is showing that being surrounded by digital media, images and fragments of thought is actually altering our brains and our ability to think. We need to preserve words and the ability to sustain complicated thoughts if we want to preserve civilization.
Was this part of the motivation for your latest book, “On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books”?
Like most books, the idea evolved as it went along. Originally I just wanted to write a book about the works of literature that I loved, but my editors suggested the idea of attaching virtues to the books and I kind of ran away with it. After studying the virtues, I started pulling in the research I was finding about attention span and the different parts of the brain we use when reading.
What’s the most difficult part of the writing process for you?
The easy part for me is the research. I love researching and I love taking notes. The most fun part is the editing at the end — refining and changing paragraphs and words. But the worst part is everything in the middle. Taking big lumps of clay I’ve collected through my research and trying to put it into some kind of shape and make connections between ideas is really hard for me. Writing is hard for me.
You also have a very strong presence on social media. Why have you chosen to stay online and engage on that platform?
I actually got on Facebook the first year it came out. I was a professor at the time and my students were getting on it as well and I was curious about it. So I joined and immediately started to treat it as an extension of my classroom. It was a place where I could easily post articles or pose questions that came up in class so we could continue the discussion. Later on, people kept telling me to get on Twitter, saying that I would be really good at it. I eventually joined, but when I first got on, I hated it and couldn’t understand it. Now I really do love Twitter and I think that’s partly because it’s a medium for short, pithy writing and that’s my favorite kind of writing. Obviously the platform is abused in a lot of terrible ways, but I think it has great potential as a form of dialogue and communication.
This is now your third time speaking here on campus. What stands out about Wheaton?
What stands out about Wheaton is the chance to meet in person all of these evangelical rockstars you have here whose work and presence I’ve mostly known from afar. That’s what I’ve been doing at lunch and free moments here is meeting a couple people who I’ve known from a distance. In many ways, Wheaton is all that it says of itself to be. It is truly an evangelical and academic institution and it’s been a pleasure to meet all of the people here on campus.