Former Liberty University professor Karen Swallow Prior, a popular evangelical commentator, hopes the scandal surrounding former President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s departure will free Liberty to excel as one of the world’s largest Christian schools. She’s long expressed alarm about personality-based evangelical ministries that often lack accountability.
Now teaching English, Christianity and culture at Southeastern Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Prior is also hopeful that American Evangelicalism can adhere to its traditional theology and ethics while offering a compelling spiritual and intellectual message to America.
As Prior was much in demand immediately after Falwell’s resignation, I was very glad to have this enjoyable conversation with her. You will enjoy it too.
TOOLEY: Hello, this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, with the pleasure today of talking to Dr. Karen Swallow Prior, who is a popular commentator on American evangelicalism, now a professor of English, Christianity, and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, one of America’s largest seminaries, prior to which she taught English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, which of course is very much in the news of late because of the resignation of its president, Jerry Falwell Jr. So Karen, thank you so much for joining in this conversation.
PRIOR: Well thanks for having me, a lot has happened since we scheduled this interview, hasn’t it?
TOOLEY: It’s been a very eventful last few days for anyone involved with Liberty University. So you just relocated from there as recently as last year, if I recall correctly?
PRIOR: Actually just starting this fall, I’m starting my new job, yeah. So I finished out the school year at Liberty.
TOOLEY: So what are your thoughts for this moment in time for Liberty University and what it means for evangelicalism at large?
PRIOR: Well you know, even before the events of these past few days, I’ve often said that Liberty University is kind of a microcosm of American evangelicalism in its strengths, and its weaknesses, and its diversity, its breadth, its depth, its constituents. And I think even what has happened over the past couple of days with our president resigning in the midst of a sex scandal that follows some other controversial actions over the past few months is also a microcosm of American evangelicalism. We are kind of assorted people who struggle mightily. We don’t have a pope, and we are all sort of authorities unto ourselves, even when we do gather together in our churches or our denominations. And that’s a strength and a weakness. I’m a Protestant for a reason, so I take that kind of soul competency seriously, but it also leaves us vulnerable to being conned, I guess, in a sense, and being taken in by those in power and the search for power, and also by old-fashioned, unoriginal sins like sex scandals. And so, as we watch Liberty struggle through this very heartbreaking chapter, I think it just offers us an opportunity to kind of look at what’s happening in American evangelicalism at large. We have a president who is mired in sex scandals, and how we choose to deal with that, and accept that, or not accept that, it has implications for how we deal with it when it gets closer to home as well.
TOOLEY: And what are your colleagues and friends at Liberty saying at this point? Are they hopeful about the future, or are they just in a state of perplexity right now?
PRIOR: Yeah. I think right now there’s—well for most of my colleagues, I think there’s great shock. A lot of people are still recovering from—they’ve just been working hard and faithfully at the school that they love and have—if you’re not on Twitter very much, then you often don’t know the kinds of things that are being said and the reports that are out there. Also many people in the conservative community have a bias against the so-called mainstream media, so they don’t read it, and if they do, they don’t believe it. But sadly, the journalists are the watchdogs of our culture, and most of them are very careful and do work hard to portray the truth. So many of my colleagues are in shock. But my closer colleagues who’ve been following these stories closely are relieved right now. There’s a great sense of relief, but it’s not just enough for the president to be removed. There are many under him who have been complicit in this sort of authoritarian style of leadership which sees itself as unaccountable to anyone but him, and so I think we’re at a turning point, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to make sure that the institution is healthy and that the faculty and students can flourish once it’s restored back to its original mission of training champions for Christ.
TOOLEY: I suppose this issue is somewhat unique to American evangelicalism, this—I’ll call it a cult of personality for lack of a better term—but because evangelicalism is so entrepreneurial and does depend often on large personalities to found and guide its institutions, evangelicals are very much caught up in this sense that we depend on the big man for better or for worse. So, can Liberty move beyond that and establish an independent identity based on just being a great university?
PRIOR: That’s been a really great insight. And I would even expand it and say it’s not just American evangelicalism, but it’s kind of America too, right? I mean, our consumerist capitalist country which—I love capitalism—but it has its strengths and weaknesses. So much of that is based on this entrepreneurial spirit and these large personalities, from Henry Ford to Steve Jobs. So much of what shapes our culture is shaped by these personalities that we believe are successful businessmen, including our own president. So it’s going to be a test, its a turning point. Can Liberty University become a more traditional kind of school within higher education and within Christianity by being just a school that is led by its principles and its legacy rather than its personality? I think it can be. I think everything is there to allow it to, but there are still choices ahead to be made about whether that happens or not.
TOOLEY: And for watchers and listeners who aren’t very familiar with Liberty, it is, in terms of its total student outreach, the second largest school in America—is that correct?
PRIOR: Yeah, I think there’s quibbling over whether it’s largest or not. There are 15,000 residential undergraduate students on campus and then something like one hundred thousand total when you count the online reach, which of course is global. So, it’s very large, and I think the largest Christian university in the world, possibly. And we’re entering its fiftieth year, which isn’t—I guess that would be like its teenager-hood compared to other older institutions, and so yeah, if we can pull through and pull it through into adulthood and maturity, I think it has a good chance of being a healthy, functioning adult.
TOOLEY: And the average student at Liberty, I assume, is not there because of or despite Jerry Falwell Jr. or Sr., but simply because they’re from an evangelical home and want to go to a Christian university, and they have a lot of choices at Liberty because of its size and its accessibility.
PRIOR: Right. There are many programs; it has a huge sports program; it’s located in central Virginia, which is God’s country; it’s a beautiful place. And a lot of people—I’ve heard of students who, in the midst of these recent controversies, say that when they came to Liberty, they didn’t even know who Jerry Falwell Jr. was, that they were reached through other means, the way a student normally would be. Most students who are looking for a college don’t really pay attention to who the president is, and so this will be a good thing, I think, when we can hopefully—I keep saying we as though I’m still there, but I—in some ways my heart is because I’ve put so much of my life there—but I hope that Liberty can establish a governing board, and a president, and chancellor who are interested in this mission of Christian higher education.
TOOLEY: And tell us a little bit about your professional background, and where you were prior to Liberty, and how you came to teach there.
PRIOR: Well, my background is simply being a lover of books and literature. I read my whole life; I was an English major in college; I had no intention of teaching—that was the last thing that I wanted to do—and since I didn’t know what I was going to do with my English degree, I entered a PhD program at the State University of New York at Buffalo. I was a Christian, but I had never figured out how to integrate the life of the mind with the life of the Spirit, and I kind of treated those as separate things, and it wasn’t really until I was in graduate school and studying literature more deeply, and studying criticism more deeply, when I began to realize that, if I’m someone who believes in moral absolutes, that I need to believe in aesthetic absolutes as well—that we can actually make judgments about the good, the true, and the beautiful in all areas of life. And so, I started reading and searching, and one of my professors learned I was a Christian—he was not a Christian—and he exposed me to the Christian tradition in literature—great minds and thinkers who were Christians who were writing about Christian belief and engaging the intellect. And so once I put those things together and I began teaching as a graduate student, I knew that I wanted to teach literature from a Christian worldview. And so, when I was finishing my PhD, I went on the job market, and Liberty was advertising. I applied and got the job, and there I was for twenty-one years.
TOOLEY: And you of course are a Southern Baptist?
PRIOR: Yes, I grew up more Independent Baptist, Bible Baptist, a little bit more fundamentalist. But in moving to the South, at that point the Southern Baptists had gone through what is called the Conservative Resurgence, and so I knew at that point that a Southern Baptist church would align with my doctrinal beliefs, and so my husband and I just immediately began attending a Southern Baptist church when we moved to Virginia, and that’s how we became Southern Baptists, and we have been ever since.
TOOLEY: And Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina is the second or third largest Southern Baptist seminary, if I understand correctly, and so tell us a little bit about your new employer.
PRIOR: Yeah, well Southeastern is in Wake Forest, North Carolina, actually it has the original Wake Forest University campus and the buildings. It’s also in a beautiful part of this country. And they are—I think they’re distinctive; they are Southern Baptists like the other seminaries, and their distinctive is very much oriented toward the Great Commission and missions. Of course, they train pastors, but they really emphasize going out and making disciples. And there is a college there. So a lot of people don’t know that the seminaries have undergraduate colleges as well, originally open because they often would get students who wanted to be pastors and go to seminary, but they needed their undergraduate degree. So that’s kind of the history of those of those colleges. But now it’s a traditional college, twenty-five years old, with an English major, and so I’ll be teaching English classes there to students who may intend to go on to seminary, and some who are just there to get their four-year degree. And I’ll also be teaching some graduates, some PhD and Master’s level courses on Christianity and culture, because as you mentioned at the beginning, cultural engagement and commentary is another area that I’ve come to develop in my teaching, and writing, and so forth.
TOOLEY: Now there is a stereotype, perhaps based in part on reality and based part on simply bias and lack of information, that Southern evangelicals are not interested in literature, and culture, and the arts. They just read the Bible, and go to car races, or whatever, and enjoy owning their guns. So, to what extent is this caricature accurate, and how do you address it?
PRIOR: Boy that’s a loaded question. I would say, growing up in the Northeast as I did, there was not much of an interest in arts and culture in my conservative church environment, even there. I would say within evangelicalism, we know, especially from the great work of Mark Noll, in The Scandal of The Evangelical Mind, that evangelicalism actually has a long history of anti-intellectualism that goes all the way back to the eighteenth century. So, that legacy is real. It isn’t limited just to the Southern evangelicals. But something that I have seen over the past few years, having written about literature from a Christian worldview for a decade now, is—and I think it’s really spurred in great part by social media, digital media—there’s kind of a backlash now. Christians are—we’re tired of the hot takes, and the short tweets, and the threads, and there seems to be a hunger for more reading—not just theology and philosophy, which are also good—but I think—at least I’m seeing, and I hope I’m contributing and helping to cultivate a taste for—literature and art and culture. I see a real maturity there. I’m old enough to have seen when evangelicalism was kind of infatuated in pop culture, and movies, and music, just sort of imitating what the world has to offer. And now I think I’m seeing, as Andy Crouch writes about in Culture Making, an understanding that Christians are not just to consume and critique culture, but to create culture, to be culture makers. And I think I’m kind of entering the church, and entering public life, at a time when that that hunger is there. And I’m hoping that my work whets the appetite, and satisfies it somewhat, with the things that I write, and of course what I’m doing in the classroom. It’s really—it’s a great time to be alive, I think in that respect. I just never imagined, when I was a little girl growing up, loving books and not seeing in the church that same love, seeing God use my particular passions and gifts to serve his church. I never would have dreamed that the church would want me to bring literature to it. And I’m just amazed and so happy about it.
TOOLEY: If you had to generalize about the young people whom you teach, young men and women in their late teens, early twenties, who I guess are now called Generation Z, where are they theologically, spiritually, politically? Are they just up for grabs? Are they deeply rooted in their faith? Or can you even make a sweeping generalization, compared to young people of say, ten years ago?
PRIOR: I think they’re really up for grabs. And I think what I’ve been seeing, not just now, but even, I would say, beginning ten or fifteen years ago, is that even those students who would come, and who would think they were deeply rooted, it turns out really are not. They’ve often been given the answers and spoon fed the way to think and what to think without actually being taught why we believe what we believe. And so, I’ve seen a lot of—unfortunately I’ve seen a lot of young people fall away. And oftentimes, the more conservative they are when they come, the harder they fall. And so we really need to go about the task of discipleship and education in a way that is open to their questions, and open to our own questions, and open to examining even the range of views that fall among Christians. We’re seeing more and more Christians adopt what I think are, and you would think probably are, unbiblical views, and yet, rather than facing them head on and looking at them, we pretend those questions don’t exist or those positions don’t exist. So then the young people go out and they read these views on the internet or they follow these people on Twitter, and we aren’t bringing those things together for them. They’re seeing us offer one thing and the world offer the other. And again, just like when I was growing up, I didn’t know how to integrate literature and my faith, well these young people are not even knowing how to integrate a Biblical understanding of the human body with the doctrines of the faith, and that’s much more serious and much more consequential.
TOOLEY: And are you confident that especially there are young women emerging from the evangelical world who can follow your path in terms of being a commentator on public affairs, public events in the public square, speaking from a Christian perspective?
PRIOR: Well, I’m very proud to see some of my students following in my footsteps, whether it’s going to seminary and writing books, or even taking a leading part in calling Liberty University to account. As one of my former students said at some point in all of this, “What if all along Liberty University really were training champions for Christ, and it’s these champions for Christ who are actually calling their elders to account, because we have fallen short and we have failed them?” But somewhere along the way, I think that they did gain an understanding of Biblical Christianity, and they’re just asking us to adhere to it.
TOOLEY: And finally, I know that you’ve been speaking to a number of media outlets about the situation at Liberty—you’re a rare former professor who’s available and able to speak at this point. Is there anything that needs to be asked or noted that you haven’t already commented on to others about this latest controversy involving its now departed president?
PRIOR: Well, a couple of things. A lot of people have expressed disappointment that, in a whole string of abusive, racist, misogynist kinds of behaviors from the president, that it was this sex scandal that brought him down and not the other things. And I would just say, well there was a clear violation of a written moral code. Other things can be explained away or rationalized away—not to my satisfaction, but in some ways—and then there’s accumulation as well. And so I think that the same is true of those who are frustrated with the church and frustrated with Christianity, that it’s not just one thing that causes them to fall away or to be frustrated, it’s a lot of things. And that’s kind of a lesson we need to take from this. We have to maintain our witness in every area, and in every way. And the other thing is, I know that young people, and not so young people, get discouraged and disillusioned when they see this kind of hypocrisy, and so one thing that I want to say is that you can only be accused of being a hypocrite if you actually have standards that you can violate. If you have no code, if anything goes, then you’ll never be accused of hypocrisy, because you’ll never have violated your own professed standard. And so if we who hold to high moral standards—and there are more than just sexual ones—I think that’s part of the problem, we just get fixated on that—but when we hold to high moral and ethical standards, we will always fall short, and so we can only avoid the charge of hypocrisy when we are open, and honest, and transparent, and quick to repair, and to reconcile, and to make up for those errors. And we’re all going to fall short, and seeing people fall short is just a reminder that we are to put our faith in God, not in men.
TOOLEY: On that note, Dr. Karen Swallow Prior, professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, thank you so much for an enjoyable conversation.
PRIOR: Thank you so much for having me.