The Seamless Calling of Karen Swallow Prior
Karen Swallow Prior and I are running on a dirt road behind her 100-year-old farmhouse in Amherst, Virginia, and I’m having a hard time keeping up with the dips and inclines of the road, not to mention the conversation. “Don’t worry, I’m such a slow runner,” Prior assured me as we stepped off her wraparound porch, where two elderly German Shorthaired Pointers followed close behind. But colleagues and friends of Prior — who has taught 18th- and 19-century literature at Liberty University for 15 years — know that in her work and vocation, she typically runs far ahead of everyone else.
I’m staying with Karen and her husband, Roy, for a few short days in between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Karen, whom I know mainly as a writer for Christianity Today magazine, graciously invited me to use their cozy in-law apartment to dig into a writing project. Until now, our friendship has been mostly virtual. As contributors to CT women’s site, Her.meneutics, we have emailed marked-up documents back and forth, shared each other’s articles on social media, and commiserated over vitriolic blog comments. Now, I’m getting to see Karen — who is spending this break finishing a biography of social reformer and abolitionist Hannah More — in her daily rhythms. And during writing breaks and walks to the barn and evening conversations, I’m starting to see the threads that tie Karen’s life into a seamless whole, and why she has become one of the most sought-after professors at the Baptist college founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971.
Photo: Joel Coleman, Liberty University.
Teaching was something that Prior, who grew up on a farm in Maine, says she fell into “by accident” as a graduate student at State University of New York at Buffalo. “Teaching was actually one of two things I said I didn’t want to do,” Prior tells me. (Nursing was the other, and “that hasn’t changed!”) As other graduate students were trying their hand at teaching, she followed suit. “Little did I know that it was, in fact, what I was created to do.” Her niche interest in 18th-century British literature — whose luminaries include Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, and Alexander Pope — developed for both “cerebral” and “incarnational” reasons. In the first semester of her PhD program, she took a course in the literary period with a “warm, kind Jewish man” who defied the stereotype of the cool, distant graduate professor. He was both an excellent teacher and an early investor in Prior’s career, inviting her to lunch in the faculty lunchroom to discuss her aspirations and eventually chairing her dissertation committee. “God used him greatly in my academic life,” says Prior.
As a professor in Liberty’s English and modern languages department, which she chaired for four-and-a-half years, Prior has served students in similar ways. One such student, Christy Chichester, calls Prior “a great example of the balance between mercy and justice,” and an exemplar of a strong yet godly female. Chichester’s first course with Prior was “The English Novel” during her junior year. She went on to take many more upper-level courses with her, and Prior served as her faculty adviser for her honors thesis. Now, as a graduate student assistant, Chichester says, Karen’s influence shows up “literally every day as I am in front of the classroom.” Chichester says she hopes to impact her students as much as Karen has impacted her.
photo: Susan McClaren Photography
Prior says her goal in every class is the same: “I want my students to love life, literature, and God more after they complete the class than they did when they began.” She describes her approach as “evangelistic,” hoping to stir in students the love of language and literature that inspired Booked, her 2012 “literary memoir,” devoted to the classics that have most profoundly marked her life. Prior does this through traditional methods, such as lectures that connect the text at hand to “the real world and the faith journey.” Computers are allowed, but Prior says a classroom visitor will usually find “students with books open, taking notes with pen and paper.” Classroom discussions are as beneficial to Karen as to her students, as many of them inform her articles and conference papers: “I can’t imagine writing without teaching,” she says.
Prior admits to a dark sense of humor and an intimidating presence among some students. But, “I try to balance that with occasional softness,” though “tough love, not warm hugs” is more her disposition. That approach may benefit students in the long haul. Sabrina Hardy, another graduate student assistant at Liberty, describes Prior as “bluntly honest.” “She cares about her students individually, but she has no qualms about remonstrating people when they’re doing something out of line,” says Hardy, who thinks a no-nonsense approach is useful as a woman in academia. “Students have disrespected me because of the fact that I’m female. . . . Dr. Prior has shown me what it means to be a professional in a traditionally male-dominated job while still proudly maintaining feminine identity.” Hardy says Prior has shattered her earlier image of academics as “dusty old men.”
To be sure, dusty old men are alive and well on many college campuses. While the faculty gender gap is shrinking at many Christian colleges (at Liberty, it’s 58 percent male, 42 percent female), some researchers have found that “benevolent sexism” persists at evangelical institutions. In 2012, in the journal Religion and Education, Biola University professors Brad Christerson, M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, and Shelly Cunningham reported a continued gender disparity on Christian campuses regarding promotion to full professor, housing allowances, sabbaticals, funding, and course release for research. Evangelicals’ concern for sexual purity sometimes means female faculty are excluded from supportive collegial groups.
But it’s clear that gender has not barred Prior from leadership positions or professional respect on a campus where its conservative founder’s legacy looms large. (Literally: On a tour of Liberty’s campus, she and I pass a painted portrait of the late Falwell that towers at least 9 feet high.) Matthew Towles, current chair of the English department, says that Prior has moved the department to deeply integrate their discipline with a “biblical worldview,” a buzzword on Liberty’s campus. “When she was chair, she came to one of my classes and challenged me on my review, to integrate a more explicitly biblical worldview,” says Towles. “What that means is that it moves beyond a cheap, shallow Sunday school thing, to incorporate a professional approach to how you live out your faith. . . . She is one who pursues truth, and it’s a rarity.” Towles notes that Prior also helped start the campus-wide Alumni Lecture Series, which draws Christian and secular speakers alike to address topics of concern for culture-engaging Christians. Karen’s awards over the years have included the President’s Award for Teaching Excellence (2001), Teacher of the Year (2006), the Multicultural Enrichment Center’s Faculty of the Year (2010), and the Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence (second place for graduate faculty, 2013). And she models a winsome Christianity far beyond campus, writing articles for The Atlantic, Cardus, and Christianity Today on everything from her pro-life activism in Buffalo to animal welfare/creation care to the debated Common Core Literacy Standards. “I believe the gospel of Christ is universal and holistic, a seamless garment, so to speak,” says Prior, who also serves on the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. “All of the causes I have been involved in . . . are various means of good stewardship of God’s creation.”
Prior’s stewardship is more than a signature on a policy statement, though. Her nine-acre plot of land, and the animals that live there, are as central to her life’s work as the hundreds of books that line her home library and office. As we return from our three-mile run, we visit the barn, where her horse, a Paso Fino named Desperado, is trying to navigate a treacherously muddy path out to the yard. Four chickens poke their heads out of their coop and strut before us, their feathers ruffled that we’ve arrived without a snack. Her dogs, Greta and Lucy, freely roam the property, chewing, burying, and digging up deer bones. But they are most often found snoozing on a Victorian settee (or the master bed) inside the farmhouse. And the expansive plot allows Karen and Roy to extend hospitality to friends and family alike. (In 2011, Karen’s aging parents moved into a modest ranch built by Roy on the back of the lot.)
Photo: John Carl
Prior believes that whatever context Christians find themselves in, they will be required to respond to the crying needs of their time and culture. She refers to these as “Macedonian calls,” akin to the one Paul received to “come over and help” (Acts 16:6–10). “I have never sought out the issues I have worked on,” Prior tells me. “I have been asked to help. If the call fits with the talents and passions God has given me, I try the best I can to answer the call.” Anyone who knows Karen Swallow Prior knows that her talents and passions abound, as do the particular calls that have come her way. Shaped by the seamless-garment gospel, Karen leads a seamless-garment life. It’s one wide enough to embrace everything from books to writing to unborn babies to farm animals to obscure female abolitionists to students who need a listening ear and a word of wisdom. When I drive away from Karen’s farmhouse on the last day of 2013, I sense her seamless life has rubbed off on mine, and that I am the better for it.