September 27, 2013
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 of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and 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.
How can pastors and church leaders foster this sense of appreciation for literature?
If pastors and church leaders are reading good literary works themselves, they will be unable to stop themselves from sharing with the church their own delight and instruction from these works. So not only will they be setting the example, but they will also be infecting the congregation with their love of literature. In addition, I can think of no better place than in church or Sunday school to hold a book club, one that is inviting to outsiders and that encourages members to develop their abilities to think biblically about the questions and texts that have shaped our world. Good literature is not limited to the ancient classics: good works are still being written today and are influencing the culture. Christians need to be leading the way in those conversations.
For someone who wants to get started reading this way, is there a book you'd encourage them to begin with?
For someone who is not accustomed to reading the kind of demanding texts that require deep deliberation, I would recommend a good annotated edition of any great work—say, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, or even a modern prose translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. These should be read with the understanding that the footnotes will need to be consulted to increase understanding and appreciation and, therefore, that reading will take a great deal of time. Such an exercise will stand in stark contrast to the hurried tasks that fill most of our days. For someone wanting something a little easier and more up-to-date, I would recommend Orwell’s 1984, or (for something a little lighter) anything by Jane Austen. The key is to remember that payoff comes with patience and perseverance. But choose something that will interest you, lest you give up.
Bonus Question: Is there a favorite list of classics you'd recommend parents read to their kids?
Oh, there are so many! I will just toss off a few of my favorites:
Anything by Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry, Aesop’s Fables, Pippi Longstocking, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Black Beauty, Little Women, The Phantom Tollbooth, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland.