Friends, I have such a treat for you today! About a year and a half ago, I visited my friend Karen Swallow Prior at her farm. As we sat in her kitchen and chatted about life, I realized I needed to have her on my blog. There was something very specific I wanted to ask her about–and share with you.
If you are not familiar with Karen, she is an English professor at Liberty University and a beautiful writer. She is a regular contributor to Her.meneutics, and she has published two books titled Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More. Karen is also a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and serve on the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.
Karen is pretty much the woman, but beyond her many accomplishments, there is one thing that has always impressed me about her. Karen has the rare ability to communicate herself, her beliefs, and the love of God to people who strongly disagree with her. She receives criticism, even attacks, with a marvelous amount of patience and grace.
For years I have watched Karen speak truth in love, and in a way that almost no one does well. I have long wanted to talk with her about it and learn from her. In a culture and political climate like ours, I can think of no better time to hear her thoughts. So without further ado, my interview with Karen.
SHM: When someone disagrees with me–especially when it’s something I feel strongly about–my response is to feel threatened. You, on the other hand, don’t respond that way. I am wondering how you avoid responding defensively. How do you short circuit those feelings of being attacked?
KSP: My academic background has given me excellent training in this regard. In academia (where, as the saying goes, “It’s academic!”), the underlying assumption is that the discussion of ideas is part of the larger pursuit of truth.
Disagreement is not intended to be personal, but to be part of a shared, transcendent objective. How much more is this so in the church. My desire is for Truth, and while I hold many deep convictions and even more opinions, my commitment to the Truth of God is stronger than these.
For those of us outside the academic context, how does your broader Christian faith help you respond to feeling attacked?
I have a strong conviction that the ministry I am doing is the calling of God. I am confident that I am fulfilling this ministry as faithfully as I can, so I take attacks on the work I believe God has called me to as attacks that are not of God.
If there is anything God has for me in any criticism, anything to learn or grow from or be refined by, I seek to receive it and learn from it. The rest I must reject in order to be faithful to God’s call.
You mentioned not taking things personally, but faith is very personal. How do you sort that out?
I am keenly aware of God’s sovereignty in my life—from my saving faith, to my marriage, to the direction my life and work have taken—and it is just an honor to be used by him. So I see it as me keeping myself out of the way to let God work. That perspective makes it a lot less personal. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt to be criticized or rejected or misunderstood and misrepresented. But that kind of hurt is what makes it easier to be humble and keep my eyes on God instead of man.
In watching you over the years, you seem to be interested in the long game. Even when people mistreat you, you seem more focused on winning them through patient, even long-suffering, charity. I’m wondering if you have any boundaries for this. Are there some people you filter out?
This long game approach is also connected to my academic background. What is teaching but a long term game plan? The most effective teaching is a form of winning people: I try every day to win my students over to the texts we study, to the discipline required to engage with those texts, to the investment of work that will bring a payoff of knowledge and understanding and perhaps wisdom.
I do tend to treat the internet as merely an extension of my classroom, so I have not filtered people out as quickly and as often as is probably wisest for my own wellbeing. I filter out only the most abusive and evil-minded folks, generally. It’s very important to me to not live in an echo chamber, not only as a matter of character but also for my own intellectual rigor. So I err on the side of forbearance.
Based on your experience of not filtering out some people as quickly as you should have, do you have any practical advice on when to back off, versus when to take a risk on someone?
I have a high tolerance for narrow perspectives, liberal and conservative biases, naiveté, and ignorance. But dishonesty (intellectual or otherwise) lying, and pure hate, are off limits. These can’t always be detected quickly, but usually they can. If I feel like I am going to be harmed by an interaction—or others watching will be—that is not a risk worth taking.
I also have to consider being a good steward of my time, energy, and psyche. No one can do everything. To think or act otherwise is to fail to be a good steward.
You are a woman of very strong convictions, but you have the respect of people on wildly opposing sides of the spiritual and political spectrum. I am wondering if there are any lessons you have gleaned along the way that help you to achieve this.
It’s all about speaking the truth in love. It’s easy for us to err on one side or the other—the side of truth or the side of love. But the power of the Gospel is bringing those two tensions into glorious balance. That’s what Christ did on the cross. So even if it’s hard, to me, this is the exact challenge of our faith, and what makes the Christian life so exciting for all times and all ages.
The Bible says that the world will know we are Christians by our love for one another—meaning fellow believers. Those are serious words to me: if the world doesn’t see our love for one another, then they are not seeing Christ in us. What could be more motivating for the believer than that?