Friday Five: Karen Swallow Prior
Our calling as Word-centered people.

For today's entry in the Friday Five interview series, we catch up with Karen Swallow Prior.

Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. She is the author ofBooked: Literature in the Soul of Meand a contributing writer for Christianity Today.

Today we chat with Karen Swallow Prior about classic literature, literacy, and the discipline of reading.

What fostered your love and lifelong passion for classic literature?

Nature and nurture: I grew up with a mother who read prodigiously to my two brothers and me when we were young (and into our not-so-young years, too). Yet, I was the one who turned out with the great love of books, so there must be some God-given nature at work as well. My parents also provided me with a great deal of classic works of literature, so I learned to love them from an early age. By the time I met Mrs. Lovejoy in seventh grade, I was hungry for the classic works she taught as my English teacher for the next two years.

You teach at the largest Christian university in the United States. Are you finding that incoming students are more or less literate when it comes to the classics?

I taught at secular institutions before coming to Liberty University. I would say, on one hand, we are probably like most other colleges and universities in having students who represent a wide spread on the spectrum of academic preparedness and cultural literacy. But I would say, on the other hand, we probably get more students than most secular schools who do have a background in quality reading because we have more students who come from Christian, classical, and home schools where such works tend to have greater emphasis. Regardless of their condition when they arrive, our students are required by the General Education curriculum to take more classes in classical literature than I have seen at most secular institutions. I think this is one of the fairly uniform strengths of Christian education across the board. We are a "people of the Word" and that identity manifests itself in greater appreciation for literary texts than might be found in the surrounding culture.

Why is it important for followers of Christ to read deeply and read well?

Christianity is a Word-centered faith. That term—"Word"—takes on layers of significance, all of which are meaningful and relevant to our faith. Because Christ is the Word and the Bible is God's revealed Word, it is clear that Christians have a special calling to the understanding of words—and therefore the Word. Neil Postman famously points out in his classic treatise, Amusing Ourselves to Death, that the prohibition of graven images in the Ten Commandments suggests that the Judeo-Christian God is one who is to be known through rational, abstract language rather than the immediate, sensory experience of images as seen in the idol worship of the surrounding pagan cultures. If we know God through reading the Word, then the practice of reading—deeply, faithfully, and well—helps us to do that. Furthermore, reading demanding works of literature that require our time and attention can foster the very spiritual disciplines that enable us to slow down, attend, and heed the Word of God. As our society reverts increasingly to an image-based culture, our calling as a Word-centered people becomes even more compelling and resonant.

None
September 27, 2013

Displaying 1–8 of 8 comments

sheerahkahn

October 03, 2013  9:47pm

"I recall reading Os Guiness in No God But God, say that idols are when we substitute in what we want instead of what God wants. What has LU substituted in that contradicts Gods word? Be specific in your charge." Very well...I point to the LU's graduate list. Jerry Falwell purposely positioned LU to be a conduit of activist conservative christians who would occupy both positions of industry and politics, along with social programs to influence American culture through political, social, and financial mediums, and bend said subject to his world vision. LU was set up to be an arm of the Moral Majority that would produce, and I do not use this word lightly, DRONES who would carry water for the conservative right-wing political and financial power of the Moral Majority's raison d'etre: Pro-America, Pro-Life, Pro-Defense, Pro-Israel. Mr. Falwell was an unabashed "Christian Zionist" who placed worldly solutions and concerns ahead of G-d. His view, his angst, his whole being was to spread the word of his morality, his conservatism, and his view of the new world order by legislative fiat or by financial exclusion. LU is an extension of that vision of his. Mr. Falwell was a Dominionist first and foremost who ascribed to the Dominionist worldview of Rushdoony, and other Religious Right Wing Conservatives who ignorantly bought into that very worldly philosophy of turning the world to Christ through any and all means available so that they could usher in the return of Christ. So, to lay it out bare...LU teaches from the philosophical viewpoint of Dominionism/Reconstructionism/Kingdom Now...so, I consider anything from LU to be tainted with that philosophy and will continue to do so till I see different. So, to refer to your quote above... "I recall reading Os Guiness in No God But God, say that idols are when we substitute in what we want instead of what God wants." Yeah, I think that fits the bill.

Report Abuse

Karen

October 02, 2013  2:20pm

Oh dear! I see both versions of my response have been posted (I thought the first was lost). My apologies for the double post (and long-windedness), and thanks to the moderators for your indulgence (blush!).

Report Abuse

Jim McCune

October 01, 2013  6:17pm

Very interesting and useful comment on graven images, I hadn't thought of it in those terms (that is, don't imagine God so much that you fail to understand Him by not understanding His words!). Thanks for the lesson.

Report Abuse

Tim

September 30, 2013  4:32pm

Sheer "that the Judeo-Christian God is one who is to be known through rational, abstract language rather than the immediate, sensory experience of images..." I don't think this is an accurate evaluation of God nor why he prohibits graven images. God made the whole universe in its expanse and in its intricacy for us to see and experience his glory, power and attributes. It is all equal revelation of himself as the Bible. Gen 20:3,4 does not forbid making statues or images of earthly things but worshipping them. How do you know that LU worships their version of "political, social, and financial" worldview? I recall reading Os Guiness in No God But God, say that idols are when we substitute in what we want instead of what God wants. What has LU substituted in that contradicts Gods word? Be specific in your charge.

Report Abuse

pastor v

September 30, 2013  11:49am

"the prohibition of graven images in the Ten Commandments suggests that the Judeo-Christian God is one who is to be known through rational, abstract language rather than the immediate, sensory experience of images as seen in the idol worship of the surrounding pagan cultures." That argument does not take into consideration the system of sacrifices and festivals that were centered around the tabernacle (and eventually the First and Second Temples). Despite the prohibition of graven images, the worship of Israel, and eventually of Christianity, incorporated the immediate, sensory, and concrete just as much as the rational and abstract. I agree with her concerning the importance of words, language, etc. We must be careful, however, not to elevate the abstract at the expense of the concrete. Doing so puts one at risk of falling into Gnosticsm, elevating "special knowledge" (rational, abstract language) and devaluing the physical. Ironically, the abstract can be "idolized" just as easily as the concrete.

Report Abuse

Tim

September 29, 2013  6:13pm

Sheer "that the Judeo-Christian God is one who is to be known through rational, abstract language rather than the immediate, sensory experience of images..." I don't think this is an accurate evaluation of God nor why he prohibits graven images. God made the whole universe in its expanse and in its intricacy for us to see and experience his glory, power and attributes. It is all equal revelation of himself as the Bible. Gen 20:3,4 does not forbid making statues or images of earthly things but worshipping them. How do you know that LU worships their version of "political, social, and financial" worldview? I recall reading Os Guiness in No God But God, say that idols are when we substitute in what we want instead of what God wants. What has LU substituted in that contradicts Gods word? Be specific in your idol charge.

Report Abuse

Karen

September 29, 2013  1:07am

"Neil Postman famously points out in his classic treatise, Amusing Ourselves to Death, that the prohibition of graven images in the Ten Commandments suggests that the Judeo-Christian God is one who is to be known through rational, abstract language . . . " Yes, "the Judeo-Christian God is to be known through rational abstract languages," except that, "He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the children of Israel," (Psalm 103:7, my emphasis), and then He become Incarnate as a Human Being who could be seen, heard, smelled and touched and who could by gift of the Holy Spirit given to His Church actually reside in a living manner within His people, His corporate Body in perpetuity, such that they could become a "living letter", witnesses to a whole way of life in Christ passed on from generation to generation, from person to person, spiritual fathers and mothers to spiritual sons and daughters, and so and so on until the present day (and even "do greater things" than He did while He walked within history on earth). God apparently wasn't content merely to leave us an inspired text, He left us His Body and His Spirit (without either of which we wouldn't have a clue what the fullness of the Message of that inspired text really is). " . . .rather than the immediate, sensory experience of images as seen in the idol worship of the surrounding pagan cultures." Does Postman mean like the immediate, sensory experience of the images of cherubim commanded by God to Moses to be woven into the tapestries of the Jewish Tabernacle (and later Temple) and cast in graven image over the Ark of the Covenant (itself containing not just words about God, but symbols and reminders of their actual encounters with Him and the events, provisions and judgments that resulted from that), the colorful and bejeweled highly symbolic vestments of the Jewish priests who were types of our High Priest Christ Himself, not to mention the smell of the incense used in Jewish Temple worship (prophesied in to be offered in "every place" in worship of the Messianic Age in Malachi 1:11), the sound of the chanting and singing of Psalms, the feel of the anointing oil, and the smells and tastes of the offerings used in Jewish sacrificial worship? The fact that images and symbolic actions have the capacity to bypass our analytical faculties and touch and transform us on a deeper level is, indeed, a perfect reason to throw away our TVs, and avoid all movies, video games, and other forms of visual art, and sensual and material luxuries, etc., that do not have themes or meanings compatible with Christian faith and glorifying to Jesus Christ or that seduce us away from Him. It seems to me this is also a perfect reason for Christians to develop visual art for use within the worship of the Church that communicates its grammar of faith in visual terms, so that the beauty of formal Christian worship really reflects the Truth of Christ and of His Self-revelation within the communion of saints that is the Church, Christ's Body, and might have every opportunity to reach, touch and transform all parts of our being. Oh, wait! That has already been done (and retained in the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition in the form of its Iconography and the rich symbolism of its Liturgy). "Icons (sacred Christian images) do with colors what the Scripture does with words." This was the conclusion about the nature of Christian images (the "holy icons") made by the Second Council of Nicea in AD 787. More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Council_of_Nicaea The Protestant Fundamentalist teaching articulated by Neil Postman in this quote is bad biblical exegesis, bad theology and abominable anthropology that wants us to spiritually lobotomize and decapitate ourselves in semi-Gnostic fashion. It arises from a mythological Church "history" and an uncritical acceptance certain beliefs of the Enlightenment philosophy of rationalistic humanism that is (albeit mostly i

Report Abuse

Karen

September 28, 2013  2:55pm

Hey, as a lifetime avid reader, I'm all for reading really fabulous classic literature and, by no means, would want to undervalue such an enterprise. We do indeed have a marvelous resource in our inspired, written Scriptures and being in this able in this age of literacy to read them and understand more than ever before much about their historic context, etc., and we should take every advantage of that. That said, I have to take issue with this (for a slightly different reason–though I believe not altogether unrelated to Sheer's)-: Neil Postman famously points out in his classic treatise, Amusing Ourselves to Death, that the prohibition of graven images in the Ten Commandments suggests that the Judeo-Christian God is one who is to be known through rational, abstract language rather than the immediate, sensory experience of images as seen in the idol worship of the surrounding pagan cultures. If we know God through reading the Word, then the practice of reading—deeply, faithfully, and well—helps us to do that. Well, charitably, I would have to say Mr. Postman is wrong, dreadfully wrong, but I now have a better understanding of where a lot of Protestant (and especially Fundamentalist) reductionism of the "Word" of God to the letter of the law of the inspired Scriptures is coming from. Classically, Christians have understood the "revealed Word of God" to be the meaning and intention of the message of the entire Scriptures taken together in full context only as they are fulfilled in Christ. "As they are fulfilled in Christ" has not been understood just mean as those OT prophecies came true in the linear historic events surrounding the life, death and resurrection, etc., of the Messiah Jesus, but also as that Message is revealed in the very Being and Reality of Christ's Whole Person. This living Person, the gloriously risen Jesus Christ, is living and active by the Holy Spirit to the present day in the Church and with and in Whom we "live, move and have our being" in Whom we participate, share, and commune through our faithful (not just nominal or formal) participation in that Church. This Church, says the NT, is the "pillar and ground of the truth." It is this Spirit-indwelt Church, this living Body, in which the Nicene Creed calls us to place our trust as an article of faith (along with Father, Son and Holy Spirit), not in the letter (the mere words) of an inspired text! This "Word" is understood in Scripture to be communicable in the "poured forth speech" of the creation itself and also in the pregnant silence or unspoken depths of the groanings of the Holy Spirit within the heart. In fact, it is understood that only here, where the Word so transcends our limited humanity it is encountered as ineffable have we begun to truly find its depths. We are told by social scientists (and this also seems intuitively obvious) that even communication between human beings is 90 percent (or so) body language and 10 percent verbal and that only in accurately decoding the body language do we really understand the verbal. How much more so the living Personal God Himself, who by no means is limited to such a finite and feeble vehicle as human verbal language to communicate with us. He came to us in a Body and left us His Body and it is impossible to genuinely know God or understand His verbal utterances apart from that whole Body and everything it did/does. This whole segment reveals a profoundly misguided, reductionist and impoverished Christian theology of how God may be encountered and experientially known within His Church and His entire creation. There is a reason that God created our brains with two sides and our heads with bodies attached. Scripture calls us to glorify God in our whole bodies, not just in the capacity of our left brain (and I would never suggest we cease to use that also). Please, let's stop the spiritual lobotomies and decapitations!

Report Abuse