You Should Be Reading Karen Swallow Prior
Jen Pollock Michel, in a recent article, has drawn attention to the fact that Christian men in large part do not read female authors, whereas women are quite willing to read male authors. She cites my friend Al Hsu, a senior editor at IVP, who states that “women read relatively equally between male and female authors (54%/46%), while men, on the other hand, are much more likely to read male authors than female authors (90%/10%).” My wife, Mother Tish, has been in several parallel conversations on this issue, and she and Jen presented on a panel at the Festival of Faith and Writing on the topic. As she and I were talking about it, I began to name the female authors I have read on various subjects that have been helpful in my ministry. I thought it might be helpful for my brothers and sisters in the church for me to draw attention to these women in a series of posts and to articulate what insights have been most helpful to me.
Karen Swallow Prior
The first author I want to highlight in this series is Karen Swallow Prior. Over the past couple of years, she and my wife Tish (whose writing I will recommend at some point in these posts) have become fast friends, in part because they occupy the same square inch of moderate evangelical Christian space on social media, but also because their theological outlook, literary temper, and reading habits quite happily coincide. Karen was recently in a terrible accident – she was hit by a bus while attending a conference in Nashville. Please be in prayer for her recovery as you read this post.
Karen is a Professor of English Literature at Liberty University in Virginia and is also a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She’s a Baptist, but my strong suspicion is that if she had to do it all over again, she, like Billy Graham, “would be an evangelical Anglican.” Certainly like Graham, she finds “spiritual beauty in Anglican order” (Wacker 2014, 184), as her second book Fierce Convictions is a biography of the poet, playwright, educator, reformer, and member of the Anglican Clapham Sect, Hannah More.
That book is fascinating study of how More discovered her calling as a reformer, devoting her prodigious energies to the abolition of the slave trade and the establishment of Sunday schools for the education of the working class. She was an elite with great literary abilities, rubbing shoulders with London’s upper crust, but she grew increasingly tired of and disenchanted with London (which, as Samuel Johnson once said, meant she was tired of life) and began pursuing more demanding responsibilities.
Her growing activism for education and emancipation was driven by her evangelical Anglican devotion: to educate the poor because they had to be able to read in order to study the Scriptures, and the overthrow the slave trade because modern slavery was crueler and more degrading than any of the systems permitted in Scripture. And in both instances she faced virulent opposition.
Rich landowners didn’t want educated workers because they thought, quite rightly, that it would destabilize the social order and create demands for improved working conditions. The Church of England suspected her of Methodism and enthusiasm, the kiss of death for one looking for financial and moral support from the Church. And as is well known, in her efforts to abolish slavery, she faced the uphill battle of trying to persuade the nation’s elites to go against their own pecuniary interests in the service of righteousness.
She never shed her privilege or her elitist outlook but rather worked to bring about reform using the contacts and connections that her privilege has given her. Karen writes that the ‘Claphamites’ campaign to reform the upper class was often described as one to ‘make goodness fashionable’. While their efforts at reform were aimed at every level of society, they saw the greatest need for change among the ‘fashionable’. Their reformation would, in turn, affect reform of the lower orders by both example and influence’ (Prior 2014: 174).
Reading Karen’s account of More, it was clear we are reading about someone gradually discovering her vocation, of someone who is gradually discovering what God has put her on the earth to do and then pursuing that calling with terrier-like fervor. Karen’s biography reminded me of the powerful essay by Gilbert Meilaender, “On Bringing One’s Life to a Point” (Meilaender 1994). Meilaender argues there that one who is discovering one’s vocation is also learning to how die, and therefore also how to stand alone for an unpopular truth to which one is bound.
Karen has also solo-authored two other books: Booked and On Reading Well (which comes out this fall). In all of her books, in different ways – through autobiography in Booked, through biography in Fierce Convictions, and through spiritual formation, let us call it, in On Reading Well, Karen highlights the power of ‘promiscuous’ reading’, a phrase from John Milton’s Areopagitica in which she positively exults.
On the basis of her faith, Karen understands the truth dialectically and discursively. It is not at all self-evident, but rather results from a process of refinement and comparison of ideas. Premature closure through doctrinaire and ideological approaches to truth, or through fearful censure of certain ideas, are more likely to produce damaging and destructive falsehoods than commitment to the truth. This is as true for would-be secular inquisitors as it is for religious ones.
Karen believes in the spiritually and morally formative power of copious reading. Truth is gradually and in the longue dureé more powerful than falsity, and falsehood succeeds in the short term only through the suppression of the truth. Wherever falsehood is being purveyed, one can be assured that censoriousness will accompany it. ‘It seems to me to be an entirely negative, not to mention ineffective, strategy to shield children from reality rather than actively expose them to the sort of truth that emerges organically from the give-and-take of weighing and reckoning competing ideas against one another,’ Karen writes, ‘Discovering truth is a process that occurs over time, more fully with each idea or book that gets added to the equation’ (Prior 2012, 14). One is reminded by Karen’s commitment to prodigious reading of John Donne’s poem ‘Satire III’:
On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so (Donne).
Although all of Karen’s works have been more meaningful to me than I can express, it is her newest that has far and away been the most impacting to me. It is, in my judgment, a seminal work of spiritual formation, which should be read by all. In this newest work, rather than allowing the idea of promiscuous reading to illuminate her own biography, she uses the principle to illustrate, to instruct, and to form the virtues in her readers. Her prose has also reached a point of maturation, and she writes limpidly, her literary criticism weaving seamlessly and effortlessly together with theological and cultural observation.
Looking at the cardinal, the theological, and the heavenly virtues, she chooses one literary work to illustrate the virtue after exploring its meaning and significance through reckoning with the most significant voices of the Christian tradition. Each chapter is illustrated with a woodcut created by a friend of hers inspired by and illuminating the work of literature she is exploring in the chapter. By a wide margin, my favorite of her explorations was on the virtue of hope, which she illustrates using Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Perhaps this is because hope is a virtue that is in short supply in our day. Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, argues that the capital vice of acedia flourishes in hopeless contexts. In monastic explorations of this vice, acedia is said to have four ‘daughters’: ‘apathy (torpor) with regard to everything man needs for salvation, faintheartedness (pusillanimitas); nursing grudges (rancor); and spitefulness (malitia)’. Anyone who spends time on social media can see all of these evil offspring of acedia on proud and hypertrophied display, especially rancor, which Benedict says ‘is today included by many as a component of the modern catalogue of virtue’ (Ratzinger 1991: 70-1, 74).
That this vice of acedia is so closely associated with despair indicates that we should see hopelessness, a lack of vision, and a lack of willingness to believe ‘in the greatness of the human vocation’, as Benedict puts it, as the besetting evil of our time. And this chapter, filled as it is with great illumination of hope, its relation to perseverance, and the ways in which it flowers it then flowers into joy, is deeply inspirational and hauntingly beautiful. Her analysis echoes that of Servais Pinckaers, O.P., who argues that
Pleasure is an agreeable sensation, a passion caused by contact with some exterior good. Joy, however, is something interior, like the act that causes it. Joy is the direct effect of an excellent action, like the savor of a long task finally accomplished. It is also the effect in us of truth understood and goodness loved. Thus, we associate joy with virtue, regarding it as a sign of virtue’s authenticity. Pleasure is opposed to pain as its contrary. The two are essentially incompatible. Joy, on the other hand, is born of trials, of pains endured, of sufferings accepted with courage and with love. Pleasure is brief, variable and superficial, like the contact that causes it. Joy is lasting, like the excellence, the virtues, that engender it. Sense pleasure is individual, like sensation itself. It decreases when the good that causes it is divided up and shared more widely; it ceases altogether when this good is absent. Joy is communicable; it grows by being shared and repays sacrifices freely embraced. Joy belongs to the purity and generosity of love. (Pinckaers 2001: 78)
Despite the unrelenting dreariness and the low-level, atmospheric anxiety of The Road, with its mysterious post-apocalyptic setting, the hope of the man, misplaced though it is in the natural good of his son’s wellbeing, drives the action of the book. The hopeless setting of the bleak and dangerous landscape inhabited by the nomadic man and his son form an artful and striking contrast to the hope through which they ‘carry the fire’, a line which both father and son repeat over the course of the book. There is a moral beauty in the father that enkindles hope in the reader and elicits joy at his excellent action: only because of his hope which implicitly recognizes a transcendent ordering of reality has he preserved himself from the cannibalism to which others have succumbed, and only through this hope has he persevered through sickness and temptation to despair in caring for his son.
His reassurances to the boy that they will never become like the cannibals they must hide from shows the man’s recognition of goodness and transcendence, even in such a horrific world, for he would rather they die (not flourish) than become that evil. And if we accept the central metaphor of the story – carrying the fire – then we see that, after the man’s death (but even before), the boy does carry it forward and, in so doing, extends in some way the man’s natural life. The boy’s sensitivity toward the transcendent is even stronger than the man’s. It is the boy who, in his innocence, seeks to help others that the man, in his greater experience, rejects out of fear. It is the boy who, when they stumble upon a great store of food in a safe bunker underground, insists upon giving thanks – somehow, to someone – before they eat. Later, when they have reached their destination of the sea and they find a flare gun and the man explains its purpose to the boy – to show others where you are – the boy wonders if somebody ‘like God’ might see it. ‘Yeah’, his father answers. ‘Maybe somebody like that’. Somebody like that does see the boy. After the father’s death, a family who has been watching them comes to the boy’s aid. They are a father, a mother, and two children. When the boy asks if they are ‘the good guys’, they assure him they are. And they are. They take him in. And sometimes the woman – the mother – talks to the boy about God. (Prior 2018: 137).
I hope you will discover Karen Swallow Prior’s writing. Her writing shows the power of story and narrative to form, making the case that ‘we must imagine what virtue looks like in order to act virtuously’ (Prior 2018: 26). Although I am not naturally inclined toward literature, I have found inspiration to take on some of the great literary classics. On the basis of Booked, I even started reading Charlotte’s Web with my seven-year-old! I hope you’ll enjoy her work as much as I have.
Donne, John. “Satire III.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44125/satire-iii
Meilaender, Gilbert. “On Bringing One’s Life to a Point.” First Things, February 1994. https://www.firstthings.com/article/1994/11/on-bringing-ones-life-to-a-point.
Michel, Jen Pollock. “Why Aren’t Men Reading Women Writers?” Jen Pollock Michel (Blog), February 15, 2018. http://jenpollockmichel.com/2018/02/15/why-arent-men-reading-women-writers/.
Pinckaers, Servais. Morality: The Catholic View. New York: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001.
Prior, Karen Swallow. Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. Ossining: T.S. Poetry Press, 2012.
Prior, Karen Swallow. Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014.
Prior, Karen Swallow. On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Good Books. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2018.
Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. To Look on Christ: Exercises in Faith, Hope, and Love. New York: Crossroad, 1991.
Wacker, Grant. America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2014.
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