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Thoughts from a Non-Conformist

An interview with Karen Swallow Prior

Published on:
March 10, 2020
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8 min.
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Karen Swallow Prior is not a stranger to the Christian thought community, as she has written three books, served as an English professor at Liberty University, and is now preparing to transition into an exciting new role at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. KSP is a powerful voice in Christianity on matters such as abortion, conservatives discontent with Trumpian politics, and the pursuit of literary aptitude in the twenty-first century. 

With all the wonderful things that can be said about Prior’s contributions to the church and literary community as a whole, there have been some grumblings amongst some members of the faith community who are not so enthusiastic about her appointment at SEBTS. One such individual—Tom Ascol of Founders Ministry—decided to take it upon himself to write a scathing piece surrounding his grievances regarding Prior’s appointment at the seminary. In his article titled “There Is No Peace,” Ascol leaves no question as to his fears of Prior’s potential devilish influence on the Southern Baptist community. 

After this article was published, a piece published on Church Leaders was written clarifying Prior’s views. Megan Briggs’ article titled “Not Everyone Is Thrilled by Karen Swallow Prior’s SEBTS Appointment” was a powerful defense and clarification of the accusations against Karen by Ascol’s earlier warnings. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if there’s even more to learn from speaking with Karen directly, one-on-one.

With that said, Andrew Voigt—a contributing writer—discussed these matters in closer detail with KSP. 

Andrew Voigt: Karen, you’re a profound influence on Christian thought, which has definitely drawn its fair share of scrutiny recently with your appointment at SEBTS. Before we dive into the “issues,” I do have to ask, what is it about literature, English, and the written word that captivates you so much?

Karen Swallow Prior: I fell in love with books as a young child. While that love has matured, ultimately, I don’t think it has changed. With books we can imagine experiences we could never have ourselves, learn from characters and their situations, and challenge our ways of thinking. But it’s not just stories themselves, but the power of the written word itself that intrigues me. A well-turned phrase or an artfully chosen word has the power to makes us look at something differently. Finding the right words to describe or identify a thing, an action, or an idea expresses the very image of God in us and continues the work God gave Adam in the garden, even before the fall, when he told Adam to name the animals. It’s a tremendous responsibility, really, as well as gift.

Finding the right words to describe or identify a thing, an action, or an idea expresses the very image of God in us and continues the work God gave Adam in the garden, even before the fall, when he told Adam to name the animals. It’s a tremendous responsibility, really, as well as gift.
Karen Swallow Prior

AV: Your most recent book titled On Reading Well has such an interesting subtitle: “Finding The Good Life Through Great Books.” What do you hope to spark within the minds of the readers?

KSP: My purpose in this book is twofold: first, to entice readers and would-be readers to read more and do so more fruitfully and, second, to reclaim the lost heritage of virtue ethics, which is missing from so much of our modern culture in big ways and small. The book combines two great loves of mine into one: the power books have to form us.

AV: Recently, you were appointed a new post at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. With such a post comes much scrutiny, especially within Evangelical complementarian circles. As a person who dislikes labels, I completely understand your frustration between the two camps of Egalitarian and complementarian. Yet, we live in a culture that loves to put everyone into boxes. As a voice in Christian thought, what have you learned about the underworld of Christian “influencers”? 

KSP: As my public profile has grown, I’ve learned that there are many pressures to bend to the arc of group identity. There is great risk in coloring a bit outside the lines. I have a bit of an advantage, I guess, because I’ve never really fit in anywhere or with any group. Growing up, I was the only Christian among my friends. Later I was the conservative, pro-life Christian in my graduate program at a state university where there was tremendous hostility toward all of these things. 

Eventually when I moved to the Bible belt with, my northern accent, style, and sensibilities I found I didn’t quite fit in among fellow Christians either. However, I’ve never been able to be anyone but myself (even in those early years of my life when I tried to fit in). So I’ve just learned to be true to my convictions (which are extremely strong), one of which is to strive for the kind of consistency that’s hard to find within any one group or identity (apart from that of Christ).

AV: Recently, a fella named Tom Ascol of Founders Ministry had a few thoughts about your recent appointment at SEBTS and was a bit . . . critical. Do you have any idea why he might feel the need to single you out?

KSP: I can’t really speak to motivation. I do understand (as my answer to the question above shows) that people often don’t know how to take me because I don’t always fit into the current categories. I understand that these are complicated and risky times. The culture is changing, and Christians often feel like we are losing, and that the results of that will be devastating for others, not just us.  But there is no excuse for people not to seek understanding first, and to express disagreements honestly and charitably. And one thing I learned from studying the British abolitionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is that combatting great evil takes a multi-pronged approach. We need each of the diverse roles of each part of the body.

AV: In his critique, Ascol makes the assertion that you are an advocate of the LGBTQ movement within the church called “Revoice”. You have stated before that you do not completely endorse the movement, stating that you have some theological and ethical differences of opinion. Yet, Ascol seems to imply otherwise. Can you clarify where you stand on the Revoice movement?

As a teacher, it’s my job to meet those who are learning where they are—and to lead them in the way they should go. That’s what we all need to be doing for one another in Christ.
Karen Swallow Prior

KSP: I endorsed the conference in the lead up to the event because I believe Christians who are attracted to those of the same sex can and should live in obedience to scriptural teaching. I cannot think of a harder or more important mission in today’s cultural climate than supporting fellow believers to uphold and live according to a biblical sexual ethic. Some of the Revoice speakers have departed from sound biblical teaching. I was sorry to see that, but understand that a fledgling organization that is trying to correct some of the errors in the church in the other direction will fail in some areas. 

Some therefore demand nothing short of complete renunciation and denouncement. I’d rather be a constructive critic and friend to those who are striving for sexual fidelity within the traditional ethic. As a teacher, it’s my job to meet those who are learning where they are—and to lead them in the way they should go. That’s what we all need to be doing for one another in Christ.

AV: Do you believe someone can identify as a “gay Christian” or the like, yet also remain committed to a traditional view of the Christian sexual ethic while remaining celibate?

KSP: Many folks mean different things when we talk about “identity.” Most of us today understand “identity” in a modern way that is not universal. With that said, I don’t think the term “gay Christian” is helpful or biblical. I think if someone uses that term, we need to seek understanding of what is meant. Some use it as shorthand to express that they are a believer who struggles with a lifelong same sex attraction despite not wanting to give in to it. This is not “identity.” 

Others, of course, might really be taking on an unbiblical identity and practice. Key for all of us is to understand what someone means. Language is fluid, people don’t always say what they mean, and we don’t all use words the same way. This is an extremely important conversation to have, and we can’t have it if we aren’t willing to seek understanding first.

AV: What is your position on abortion? You were arrested for protesting at an abortion clinic, if I’m not mistaken. Is that correct? Has your view on abortion changed?

KSP: I believe human life begins in the womb and that justice demands protection of that life through law. This has been my view consistently since I became prolife decades ago and began volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center. Later, I protested at abortion clinics and also offered help to those going in. As a result of those activities, I ended up being arrested five times, and had to spend several days in jail for one of those arrests. 

I ran for Lieutenant Governor or New York on the Right-to-Life Party ticket in 1998. Because my pro-life view began in and was nurtured in a context of caring for women as well as their unborn babies, I’ve always had compassion for women in these situations. Little has changed about my views although I express my opposition to abortion now mainly through writing rather than direct activism.

AV: With the conversation surrounding Beth Moore and women teaching in the church, this has brought much concern of your new role at SEBTS from complementarians who believe a woman should not teach men within the church. What are your thoughts?

KSP: Simply, I believe men are to be pastors and elders. I believe women can speak in church under the pastor’s authority. I believe women can and should teach men in classes within other Christian institutions (as I do).

AV: As a conservative, you have been quite vocal in your distaste for President Donald Trump and his support by Evangelicals in America. Early this year in the New Yorker, Eliza Griswold wrote a piece titled “Conservative Evangelicals Attempt To Disentangle Their Faith From Trumpism.” This was my first time hearing about your opposition of Trump as a conservative and it resonated with me, especially as a graduate of Liberty University. Do you think your opposition to the presidency of Donald Trump has caused a bit of a sour taste in the mouths of many within Reformed and Evangelical circles in the church?

KSP: I have been pretty vocal about my opposition to the Democratic Party and my affinity for third party candidates, so I think most people who are intellectually honest do understand why some conservatives can’t get behind Trump—just as I understand why some felt a vote for him was the lesser of two evils. I’ve never demonized Trump supporters—I know and love many of them—and I think most people have seen and respected that distinction. 

AV: As you end one chapter of life at Liberty and begin a new chapter at SEBTS, what do you hope to accomplish stepping into this role?

KSP: I’m excited about many things in stepping into this role! The main thing is the idea of being able to serve an institution and a student body that is more uniformly focused on serving the church and the kingdom. I’m also thrilled about teaching in a small college environment that is more traditional in its curriculum and methods. I’m excited about helping to build the English curriculum a bit since it is expanding by adding another faculty member. It’s an honor to be part of building something that already has a great foundation.

AV: Have you thought about writing a book regarding the matters we’ve talked about today? Has it crossed your mind in the least?

KSP: The next book project that I’m thinking about (which I won’t say much about) will address many of these things at least indirectly by examining some of the differences between cultural Christianity and biblical Christianity.

AV: You’re an inspiration to so many people in the church, especially to young writers who want a seat at the table. It’s been an honor and privilege to get to know you!

KSP: Most people would be surprised to know that I can be a private person who enjoys being alone. But what I love about being more public is that it allows me to meet so many wonderful brothers and sisters in the Lord. So thank you!

Andrew Voigt
Andrew Voigt is a writer currently living in Charlotte with his wife Beth and their orange cat Pumpkin. After spending two years in Los Angeles pursuing a career as an actor, he returned with unmet expectations and broken dreams. Prompted by a close friend, he began writing about his journey—one that is filled with dreams, anxiety, depression, faith, doubt, hope, and the constant struggle with grace.

Cover image by Topich.

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