Southeastern Perspectives: Dr. Karen Swallow Prior
Dr. Karen Swallow Prior | January 11, 2021
For as long as I can remember, my life has been shaped by my love of Jesus and my love of books.
But it took an unbelieving graduate school professor to help me bring those two loves together.
I grew up in a Christian home and became a Christian at a young age. I attended church, Sunday School and youth group regularly. I was catechized by Flannelgraphs, Bible drills and popsicle stick crafts. I loved the stories told in the Bible.
Indeed, I loved all good stories. I loved words, imagination and seeing the world through the eyes of others in the pages of countless books. Truth be told, the people, places and problems I read about in other books seemed more real and more relevant to my world than those I read in the Bible. I loved to analyze, think, create and daydream. But little I learned in church seemed compatible with those endeavors. While no one said so exactly, I came to think that I had to choose between the love of God and love of the mind. Certainly, no one told me otherwise. I chose the life of the mind.
Until that unbelieving professor came along.
One day, during a graduate seminar, this professor made an offhand, insulting comment about Christians. As far as I knew, I was the only Christian in the program at the public university where I was a Ph.D. student, and I knew I must not remain silent. I quickly chided the professor for his lack of “tolerance,” and the discussion, mercifully, moved on. After class, when all the other students had left, the professor asked me to stay. He apologized to me, genuinely and humbly. After that, he took extra time during classes and afterward to make connections between the literature we were studying and its context in literary, Christian and church history. He pointed me to other great works in the literary canon that were rooted in and advanced Christian belief. He showed me and encouraged me to lay claim to the intellectual tradition of my faith, one I never knew existed. And finally, I began to see: The God who is the Word is the one who gave us the gift of all words, all stories and all imaginative ideas. This connection was a turning point in my life—as a Christian, as a scholar and as a teacher.
When I finished my Ph.D. and took a position teaching English at a Christian university, I entered that vocation with a zeal for teaching not only my discipline, but also the meaning that discipline holds within a Christian understanding of the world, as well as the meaning it can hold in the life the individual believer. I teach my students that to study or create literary works is a way of understanding and knowing God and his creation, of manifesting his image in us and of taking dominion of his wonderful gift of language. To take delight in works of truth, goodness and beauty is to imitate God himself.
For years, I’ve told the students I teach that I’m a little jealous of the education they receive in a Christian university. They are years ahead of where I was at their stage of studying literature as a Christian. When a discipline is taught from a Christian worldview, students learn not only all the content, concepts and contexts that their counterparts at secular schools learn, but they also learn the significance and application of these things within a holistic understanding of all of life.
A puzzle offers a helpful analogy. Examining the interesting and colorful pieces of a puzzle is like studying the components of a discipline. Putting all the puzzle pieces together is similar to understanding a discipline according to a Christian worldview. But assembling the puzzle properly isn’t the last step. A puzzle also needs to be placed right-side-up. This proper ordering of the puzzle can be likened to the way a robust Christian education disciples students not only in what and how to think, but, more importantly, in how to live.
A few years after I completed my Ph.D., I reconnected with that professor. I then learned that he had become a Christian. In some way, perhaps what that professor taught me about literature taught him something about God.
I have loved literature all my life. But when I saw how that love could and should be integrated into my love of God and his Word, I came to love it even more. And nothing delights me more than to lead my students into their own greater love of literature and God.
Dr. Karen Swallow Prior serves as Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern.
This article originally appeared in the fall issue of Southeastern Magazine. To read more stories like this, visit sebts.edu/magazine.