Liberty University Professor and #ChurchToo Supporter Karen Swallow Prior Builds Bridges Between the Extremes

Karen Swallow Prior is an evangelical English professor in rural Virginia who can claim something most others who fit that description can’t: more than 25,000 Twitter followers.

A native of Maine, she is a vocal presence in the Southern Baptist Convention. And while she is known for building common ground with those who disagree with her, Prior made national news this spring for questioning the leadership of one of her denomination’s most powerful men, helping to bring the #MeToo culture into a male-dominated hierarchy.

What might seem like contradictions, Prior might call balance. “I’m passionate about holism and balance,” she said in a recent interview with Religion News Service, citing Aristotle’s definition of virtue as the balance between extremes. “To me, that’s the virtuous life, to balance all of those things.”

“On Reading Well” by Karen Swallow Prior.
Image courtesy Brazos Press

That principle has led to a career as a professor at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and a writer of books — her latest is “On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books” — and articles in publications like The Atlantic and the liberal website Vox.com. Prior, 53, said her primary goal is to help all creatures great and small — she’s an animal welfare activist too — improve their lives.

A lifelong Baptist, Prior grew up in Maine and earned her Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo, where being “Southern Baptist wasn’t a big thing.” While in graduate school she worked as the principal of an inner-city private school that was both interracial and interdenominational.

Now, Prior is affiliated with two hallmark evangelical institutions: Liberty, led by one of founder Jerry Falwell Sr.’s sons, and Thomas Road Baptist Church, pastored by the other.

But since the spring, Prior has become known for her outspokenness about allegations of abuse in the SBC, especially the scandal that broke in April around one of its biggest names: Paige Patterson, then the revered president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

After an audio file started circulating of Patterson saying that divorce is wrong even when a husband is abusive, and another clip that followed caught Patterson calling a 16-year-old “built,” Prior and other Southern Baptist women wrote to Southwestern Baptist’s trustees. When they did not hear back for several days, Prior helped draft a letter saying that “a leader with an unbiblical view of authority, womanhood, and sexuality” should not be allowed to remain in his position.

“That letter was 3,000 women saying the emperor has no clothes,” Prior said. “And I think it just simply sent notice that the gig was up.”

On May 23, the day that Patterson was gently ushered out and given the title of president emeritus, Prior was hit by a bus in Nashville, Tenn., fracturing her pelvis, shoulder and several ribs and vertebrae. A week later, as she left the hospital, Patterson was removed entirely. “This is serious spiritual warfare,” she tweeted that day.

Karen Swallow Prior speaks about her book “Fierce Convictions,” about British abolitionist Hannah More, at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., on July 22, 2018. Prior spoke from a wheelchair because she was struck by a bus two months before. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Prior later acknowledged that the police report says she stepped in front of the bus. Though she thanks God for the “miracle” of preserving her life, she believes disparate powers are at play in her denomination and beyond it.

“I believe that this whole issue about women in the church and the treatment of women and the treatment of minorities, that that is an evil in the church and that those who are speaking out against it are vulnerable to the works of the enemy,” she said.

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Source: Religion News Service