Karen Swallow Prior’s love for literature is “an evangelistic love,” she told the Biblical Recorder in a video interview Nov. 1. It is a passion that aligns with Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s (SEBTS) Great Commission emphasis – one she will be a part of next fall, when she joins the faculty as a research professor of English and Christianity & Culture.
Prior will be the first research professor at the College at Southeastern, and one of the few female faculty members.
She not only wants to “win everyone over to a love of literature” but believes “God has given us these gifts on this earth of fields of study … as a way to know Him and love Him and win others to Him.
“For me, the love of … the good things God has created is part of the Great Commission, is part of pointing people to the source of those good things on earth.”
Her devotion to literature began when she was a social work major at Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y.
“[Reading] had just always been something enjoyable and fun for me, but when I began taking college English classes and had professors who took it seriously and showed me how it could be more than just a hobby, it ignited something in me that I didn’t know,” she said. “So I switched my major to English as an undergraduate.”
Now after more than two decades in her profession, Prior, too, has earned the respect of students and colleagues. The seminary’s Oct. 24 announcement about her hiring immediately garnered celebratory responses, particularly from women.
Brittany Salmon, a writer and doctoral student, tweeted, “You see all the women cheering loudly? Especially those of us with seminary degrees? It’s because representation matters … We’ve been praying and advocating and are beyond thrilled to see a woman model what we hope to be.”
Bekah Stoneking, a LifeWay editor and SEBTS student, replied to Salmon’s post, “10 years and almost 2 degrees later and my story is the same. I’m grateful for this incredible addition to our small but mighty female faculty…”
“I’m just very honored and excited to be able to be someone that students will find is a representative for them,” Prior told the Recorder. “I’ve lived most of my life – my academic and personal life – in spaces that were very empowering to me, and over the past number of years, as my awareness has grown of how women and minorities have not always had that experience, it has become more of a passion of mine to help meet a need that I think many of us are growing more aware of.
“It’s exciting to be able to fill a need that is so obvious now, particularly within my denomination of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). I just can’t say what an honor it is to be there for this time.”
Prior has also advocated on behalf of sex abuse survivors in the SBC and called on leaders to implement stronger tools to protect the vulnerable within Southern Baptist churches. When asked whether the SBC has done enough in beginning to address its abuse crisis, she said it has “made great strides” toward addressing “a problem that is deep and wide and will not be solved overnight.”
“There is much more work to be done, obviously … I think that there are some within the convention who are allowing other issues to detract from this one, which is so overwhelmingly important, I think. So I would just encourage the convention to stay on the course … but I’m very encouraged.”
The announcement of Prior’s move to SEBTS drew criticism as well, particularly for her past involvement with the Revoice Conference, an event focused on same-sex attracted people trying to live out traditional Christian notions of marriage and sexuality.
Prior said she supported the conference because of what she understood its goal to be.
“I have seen a lot of damage done over the years within the lives of those who have felt that they had to hide that struggle or deny that struggle or just not share that burden with others,” she said. “I certainly did not agree with everyone who presented there or everyone who is affiliated with it, but I still believe the church needs to support those of our brothers and sisters who want to live faithfully according to the biblical sexual ethic.”
Prior said she understood reservations about Revoice but believed “some of the disagreements come down to semantics and the use of language, and we will always disagree on those things, but I would encourage critics to simply look at the actual statement that I offered in support, and I don’t believe that many would disagree with my statement.”
Prior will miss her students and colleagues at Liberty, her “home” for 21 years, but said she looks forward to “working within a student body that probably shares a more common vision and values.”
“I know a good number of the faculty and administration at Southeastern … they aren’t strangers to me, and I look forward to working with people that I’ve known and respected for a long time from afar,” she said.