Show Notes:31. Karen Swallow Prior — Promiscuous and Virtuous Reading
On Reading Well is one of the best books I’ve read this summer. It’s so much more than a book about reading.
Karen argues for a kind of reading she calls virtuous, not only because it teaches us about the historical virtuous, but because the act of reading itself is a virtue.
Karen and I talk about her book, her own passion for reading, advice for struggling readers, and how On Reading Well was written. If you have ever wanted to read more but struggled to find your way in, our conversation will be encouraging and inspiring to try again.
The following is an automated transcription. It is recorded exactly as it was spoken.
Chase Replogle: 00:00 You’re listening to the pastor writer podcast, episode 31. I’m joined on the podcast today by Dr Karen swallow prior. She’s the author of a recently released book on reading well, finding the good life through great books. If you haven’t already signed up. I’m currently promoting a Christian writers book giveaway. There’s 12 books in the set, plus a $50 Amazon gift card in one of the books that I’ve included is Karen’s on reading well. It’s a great conversation today about the importance of reading and how it shapes you as a person and I know it’s one that you’ll get a lot out of. As always, thanks for listening.
Chase Replogle: 00:35 Joining me today on the podcast is Dr Karen swallow prior. She’s award winning professor of English at Liberty University and the author of several books including books, literature in the soul of me, fierce convictions, the extraordinary life of Hanna. More in the book we’re going to be spending time talking about today, just recently released on reading well, finding the good life through great books. Karen has also written for publications such as Christianity today, the Atlantic, The Washington Post for things Fox. Think Christian and the Gospel Coalition, she’s a research fellow with the ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a senior fellow at the Liberty University Center for apologetics and cultural engagement and a senior fellow with the Trinity Forum. Karen, thanks for joining me on the podcast today.
Karen Prior: 01:18 Well, thank you for having me.
Chase Replogle: 01:20 I have to say one of the goals of the podcast, and one of the things I take seriously, is I try to make sure anybody who I have on as a guest, I’ve read at least one of their books sometimes more and so I got a copy of on reading weld several days ago and I’ve been working through it and I have to say it has been one of the best books I’ve read will say this summer, but in a long time I really just cannot recommend it highly enough and one of the things I think that’s probably a testament to how much I enjoyed it as. As soon as you sort of close the book, I realized I had this long list of other readings that I needed to now go pick back up. So a classic books and short stories and it really is just a deep dive in so much literature just to gift. Thanks so much for the book.
Karen Prior: 02:01 Oh, thank you for those encouraging words. I’m very glad to hear that, that’s success. If you enjoy the book and it inspires you to read more. That’s my my goal.
Chase Replogle: 02:13 Yeah, it definitely does. In fact, my wife and I were. We were traveling yesterday in the car and my wife’s a big Jane Austin Fan and so we were talking about the book and your book and she got telling me a story about. She remembers the moment that she sort of first fell in love with reading Jane austen and it’s kind of a funny story. She ended up in. She was in high school and ended up in the library for a, a not really a suspension, but she was in trouble. So they sent her there to spend time reading and she said she picked up this Jane austen book and started reading through it and she said she had. She had tried to read books like that before, but for whatever reason she thinks because she sort of had this fixed time in the library, uh, she said it just became alive to her and she just got sort of absorbed in this story and since then has read so many more.
Chase Replogle: 02:54 Jane austen’s works and I sort of have my own experience with that. I remember being on a tour bus in college, Reading Dietrich bonhoeffer is the cost of discipleship and sort of all of a sudden this thing just becoming so much deeper than I’ve ever experienced and as interact with a lot of people on the podcast. I find one of the common questions is I want to do more reading. I want to take reading more seriously, but sometimes I find reading challenging or I just don’t get into it. I’m curious if you have an example like that from your past where reading became something really deeply personal and meaningful to you. Maybe it was a moment, maybe it was a particular author today you’re an English professor, so at some point this became a real passion. I wonder if there was a moment you remember where that became true?
Karen Prior: 03:36 Well actually talk about this in my first book, which you mentioned. I’m booked literature and the soul of me, which is a literary and spiritual memoir. My earliest memories are about books. So I, you know, my mother read to all of us as kids as you know, as many mothers do, but for some reason with me it just, it stuck. And so I just always as the expression goes, had my nose in a book. So I mean I remember a magical moment when I was reading Dr Seuss on my own out loud using my finger to point at the words and that I remember getting lost in, you know, in, in, in, in chapter books about horses. I read a lot of books about horses and just get. I just would get lost for hours in the world of books and I’m. So my whole life has revolved around books.
Karen Prior: 04:30 And one reason why I wrote this one is because, because I think it’s getting harder and harder to do that in the world today, including for myself. I mean, it’s become my profession, so that makes it a little bit different. Um, but also just this digital world and social media driven world that we live in. I’m finding my own attention span loss and my distraction level increased. And so I feel like it’s something that I’m losing and that I recognize I’m more and more people never had to begin with. And so I just want us to, um, you know, as people, but especially the church to continue to treasure and nurture this gift of reading.
Chase Replogle: 05:12 What are the things that the book does well too is it is a book about reading, but the reading that you recommend is, is formed around these 12 virtues that you set out in the book and you take each of the virtues and delve into to literature and reading. But you also suggested at the beginning of the book a particular kind of reading. You give the kind of reading you’re describing certain attributes. And if I could maybe read a quote from you and then we’ll get into the kind of reading that you describe in the book, but you write this at one point, you say reading well is in itself an act of virtue. And it is also a habit that cultivates more virtue in return. The attentiveness necessary for deep reading requires patience. The skill of interpretation requires prudence. And the decision to set aside time to read in a world rife with so many other choices for our attention requires a kind of temperance. Um, what do you mean in the book? This idea of reading virtuously are virtuous reading.
Karen Prior: 06:06 Well, there are really two layers of meaning to that, to that phrase. Um, I mean it developed because as I also talk about in the introduction for four years, I’ve been an advocate of reading widely reading, lots of things, reading things that challenge us, reading things. We don’t agree with reading things, you know, especially if for Christians reading things that are by non Christians and people hostile to Christianity. I’m reading great literature which may not be by grade by Christian authors, but if it’s great, then it’s going to contain universal truth in it. That’s what makes it great. Um, but, um, as I was saying before, we’re finding it more and more difficult to read attentively and read longer work and sustain that attention. So, um, and even as I think we are reading widely, I mean if you’re on the Internet, we’re reading all kinds of news sources and stories and clickbait and things we don’t agree with it get us mad that we give our own hot take on.
Karen Prior: 07:05 So we really need to read well, not just read widely but read well. And so that’s one meaning of the phrase reading virtuously reading well and uh, and applying those virtues and others to the act of reading. But the other element is to, I’m not just read well in terms of our attention and our reading comprehension, but also reading well to live well reading well to allow literature in particular. I mean nonfiction can do this but in a different way, but literary art fiction novels, Short Stories, poetry, they, it. If we read it well, it will form and shape us. Um, and so we will develop virtues by reading virtuously.
Chase Replogle: 07:54 Will you also talk about reading widely, which I think the phrase you use for it in the book and other one that I love is promiscuous reading. Maybe you could sort of take us into that word a little bit. What do you mean by it? Obviously it’s a, it’s a, it’s a bit of a statement, but I think with good reason behind it.
Karen Prior: 08:08 Um, well that phrase actually comes from the 17th century Puritan and poet John Milton. He’s famous mostly for writing that great epic poem, Paradise Lost, but he was also very political and I’m very active within the peers and movement in 17th century England and parish and rule and uh, his own, his own side. The puritans were about to enact, um, one more licensing act that would require anything printed to be licensed by parliament before it was allowed to be printed. And so he wrote this great pamphlet called aerial politico named after the area in acts 17 where he makes a very Christian and Very Protestants argument, um, for reading a widely, or he, as he says, he makes an argument for books promiscuously read, um, and of course the word promiscuous actually just means in ordinary mixing, um, and which is where we get our more common usage of it in a different context today.
Karen Prior: 09:19 But he, he makes this argument that the Christians in particular have a Christian obligation to be exposed to even heretical ideas because as he argues in that, he says that if he, of course, there’s a lot of implicit and explicit anti Catholic imagery. And in his, in his, uh, this, this pamphlet, um, he says that if, if we even even a man who holds to doctrinal truth, but only because his pastor has told them that’s true and does not understand and believe it really for himself, that that actually becomes his heresy. Um, and so he makes a really compelling one of the, actually one of the first modern arguments for a free speech which would later become a cornerstone of, of the American experiment. And so I borrowed that phrase because that’s where I really learned, ironically, as a Christian, I learned, um, you know, for this, this idea of freedom of speech and reading widely from a 17th century puritan rather than my own 20th century evangelical culture.
Chase Replogle: 10:30 Well, I have to admit, as a pastor, my background was through seminary and Biblical study. And uh, one of the things that really hit me hard in the book is early on, you quote from Cs Lewis and you’re talking about this idea of reading as an act of sort of virtuous living or acquiring virtu and reading with this kind of promiscuity. There’s mixing of things together which the book demonstrates so well and it’s chapters, but you quote Lewis at one point with a sort of warning to readers that sort of alternative way of reading. And Louis says that one of these dangers of reading is that we would read for nothing but a desire for self improvement. Um, and it really sort of caught me because as you look at so much of what you might call Christian publication or Christian writing Christian books, um, as you think about as a Christian, many of the books you pick up so often the motive for our reading, especially I think as a church leader or a pastor can be, how do I read pragmatically to improve myself to do something better, to get something out of it.
Chase Replogle: 11:23 I don’t think you’re saying that necessarily that’s wrong, but there can be a danger in reading, taking only this sort of self improvement approach. Maybe you could delve in to why that’s a danger and particularly for pastors are Christians.
Karen Prior: 11:37 Yeah, that’s an excellent question. And of course I’m dancing a somewhat a delicate, um, movement here in, in making, you know, laying out a case for reading in order to become more virtuous. You might say, well, how is that different from self improvement? Well, um, you know, it’s, they’re similar. I mean, I think the, Aristotle’s whole argument was that the good life or happiness comes from good character and so developing good character I think is, um, you know, one could see that as self improvement, but I think it’s more than that. Um, but I think that the real difference is that when we do, we do things that are, are good for us. Um, you know, if you think of our, of our health, we can do, we do them because they’re good for us. Not hopefully to check off a list like, um, like, like Ben Franklin did, I mentioned that and, and Gatsby did and the great gatsby.
Karen Prior: 12:39 Um, it’s really about our, our whole lives and um, and being holistic. And so when Christians in particular emphasize self improvement books or even reading literature for self improvement, then we’re really mixing up the ends and the means. I mean, uh, for one thing, there are so many books that are in the Christian publishing industry that are explicitly self improvement. That’s, that’s what they’re there for. And there are some of the best sellers. I mean, there’s one now written by a famous, I guess I had never heard of her, but a very well known woman blogger right now on the New York Times bestseller list that’s about having you know, about, about making yourself the hero of your own story and improving your life. Um, and, uh, Christians really do seem to be. I’m spitting, smitten with these books and we, we should be the last ones to need to read so many of those kinds of books. We should be developing our, our, our spiritual and intellectual and emotional lives holistically. Um, obviously through reading the Bible and through reading good theology and good literature. And of course there’s a place for entertainment and just and light reading. But through doing that, all of that we do become better people and Better Christians. Um, I mean it’s, I’m trying to think of an analogy from exercise or food or something like that.
Chase Replogle: 14:09 I think that was going to say, I think the analogy with exercise is such a striking one because I think we all say that we’re doing it for health. But I know plenty of guys around me and friends who really, they’re just after a certain physique or a certain image or a certain appearance and really it is this sort of one dimensional self improvement versus thinking about those acts. Maybe sometimes the same acts, you know, I’m going to go lift, I’m going to jog. But the motive beneath it is really health wholeness. And I think that’s what you’re arguing is beneath reading, even if it is at time, some self improvement reading the real motive should be a kind of wholeness. Not a kind of pragmatic. Let me pull the principal out and do the thing or get the thing I’m after.
Karen Prior: 14:46 No, no, that’s exactly it. And I mean, if we’re, if to push the, the exercise example a little bit more, if we’re really exercising for good health, then we don’t need to take like the steroids and the water ever just to, you know, to have a certain physique because that’s not healthy. Um, and so, uh, that, that tells the truth right there. That is, that it’s not about health. It’s about some certain look or a certain thing that, that spells self improvement. So yeah, I think that’s a great example.
Chase Replogle: 15:18 One of the things I was interested in too is how, so you’re an English professor, um, you have your roots, your teaching in this classics of Literature, but you also do quite a bit of work engaging the church. So whether it’s to the southern Baptist Convention or even more broadly through publications, Christianity today. Um, I’m curious how your experience handling literature has informed the way that you read the Bible and maybe to set that up further. I sort of, um, there’s two books over the summer that I’ve thought if I was teaching a course on Hermeneutics, two seminary students like I once was, to have the books I think I would require them to read would be your book. This one here as well as um, I just finished reading. I think it’s Peter Roy Clark’s book x Ray Reading A, which says something a little similar, not from a faith perspective, but how to improve your writing through sort of paying attention to classic literature. Both broke strike me as tools to learn how to read a story well without using it. This sort of theme that we’re saying, and I think that’s a big part of what a pastor does when he approaches the Bible, the biblical texts. How do you read this text? Well, so I’m curious how literature in your study of it has informed the way that you maybe personally or even in the way you use it in your writing pickup the scriptures and how you handle them as literature.
Karen Prior: 16:29 I think, I think each has informed the other. Um, and it’s hard to tell where one begins, one ends. But basically, I mean, I, and I, I talk about this with my students that, you know, reading literature well requires the same skills and approach that reading the Bible well requires. And that one helps the other. Um, and you know, in literary criticism, there are lots of, of theories, especially in the 20th century theory came to, um, to become more important than the text itself. And we had all these schools of criticism that we’re like feminism, Marxism, queer theory, deconstruction, all of these different approaches that we’re really using the text in order to advance some sort of sociological agenda. Um, and I think we see in the church today, we see people approaching the Bible the same way instead of, and again, this is, I’m not, I’m not naive.
Karen Prior: 17:26 We do, we interpret any tax including the Bible from within certain traditions that we were not never completely neutral or naive, um, interpreters of, of attacks, but there are ways of approaching attack so that really attempt and strive to take the tact on its own terms to understand it within context, who let tax interpret text, which how we should read the Bible. Um, I mean, some of the things that I see Christians doing through the Bible would be a today would be akin to taking, you know, taking hawks. And we actually do see this happened. Taking something that is set in Huckleberry Finn that’s racist and a pro slavery and saying, Oh, this book is racist or pro slavery. Mark Twain was racist and profile a very when actually that’s, you know, when you interpret those parts of the narrative within the whole, you understand. No, that’s exactly what twain was, was that he was demonstrating the opposite. Um, and we see people doing the same thing in the Bible, taking some verse and saying, Oh, the Bible promote to this. Um, instead of taking it within the whole narrative, the whole arc of scripture. Um, so reading the Bible, well, it requires very similar skills to reading literature. Well, and um, I’ve, I’ve found in the past that some of my best English students are also biblical studies majors. Um, and I encourage people studying students studying the Bible to take as many English classes as they can for that reason,
Chase Replogle: 18:58 I think it’s great advice because I know in my own city I’ve just found there’s parts of the Bible, I mean don’t think about the books of first and second Samuel that are just really incredible when it comes to the literary detailed, the sort of the ways that the story is told and sort of manipulated through. I mean that in a positive way, crafted as the story advancing and I think for many pastors, this can be sort of a hole in our study. You know, you talk about criticisms, I learned, you know, the source Chris Criticism theories for the Bible and the sort of the historical contextual criticism theories of backgrounds and, but learning how to read well, learning how to handle a story well, and then being able to do that with the Bible as literature is for so many people, um, uh, pastors, church leaders in particular, I think a real hole in sort of our educational experience.
Karen Prior: 19:45 Well, I think again, another area we can borrow from literature is genre and voice and tone and the Bible contains so many different modes of literary writing. So many voices and tones from, you know, from a lament to sarcasm and satire and we really can’t understand what is happening in the tax unless we have those basic literary tools to help us interpret how the things are being said as well as what’s being said.
Chase Replogle: 20:14 Hold the book itself, Your Book on reading. Well, I noticed one of the things that sort of struck me was the decision to, to sort of have this conversation about reading around virtues. The book maybe you could have at one point maybe who knows? I don’t know for sure where it started, but you could have just said, I’m going to write a book on reading and we’re just going to talk about different thoughts I have about reading, but you choose to structure it and sort of build that case for reading around digging into these 12 virtues. At what point did that become sort of the idea behind the book and the 12 virtues sort of solidify as the theme?
Karen Prior: 20:47 Well, since you do have a large part of your audience is interested in writing, then I think this answer may be interesting because it was very much a result of the writing process. When I first proposed this book, it was exactly what you just said. I was going to write another book, a book about books and I didn’t really have. I had a very loose kind of arc were or theme tying them together. It was very loose and we’re going to be much shorter chapters and about twice as many chapters, just really writing about all my favorite works. Um, and I actually have that proposal accepted by my publisher, um, and was tweaking it and my editor just made one comment to me. Actually. I think it was when the proposal was getting the final approval, he asked me to put in something about, um, about virtues and practicing virtues and he was, um, yeah, this, this has been, you know, this has been kind of a hot pocket of, of publishing for a little while with Jamie Smith liturgical anthropology series and so forth.
Karen Prior: 21:51 And so it was just a sentence that I added about practicing virtues. Um, and that was, I just put it in there. And then when I sat down to begin writing the book some months later, actually I just started looking into the virtues of which, you know, I think we’ve all heard of them, but I had never studied them. I didn’t know what they were. And as soon as I started doing the research and looking at what they were and how many there were, I just said I’m going to structure the whole book around this. And I remember I’m dashing off an email to my editor saying, this whole book has changed completely. I hope that’s okay. Um, and it just took off that way.
Chase Replogle: 22:29 Why do you think it is that this topic of virtue or these virtues you as you described them and really sort of use, I think the platonic idea at the beginning of virtues is sort of this wholeness or the good life, which is where the book gets some of its subtitle from. We’re, why is that such a rare thing for us to stumble across? Or why is it sort of having a remote, a reemergence, you could say this idea of virtue and taking seriously virtues in our life?
Karen Prior: 22:53 Well, I think I can name a few reasons why I think this is, we are thinking about this now and why I’m thinking about it now and others to, um, number one, I think within evangelicalism, uh, in particular there’s been an emphasis over the past several decades on biblical worldview. I mean that I’ve been big on Biblical worldview and thinking and the end just, if you think it correctly, you will do it correctly. And that that’s actually how I operate. And I have always, you know, now that I’ve been teaching at Liberty University, this is my 20th year. I’ve seen lots of students come in and out and I always emphasize biblical Worldview, but I could never understand why I would see them kind of go off into the world and, and many of them just seem to lose some faithfulness or, or practice things that, uh, are incompatible with biblical worldview.
Karen Prior: 23:48 And that’s when I, you know, when I started reading Jamie Smith and his, um, liturgical anthropology series, that is, it’s not, you know, as he says, you know, we are, we are loving creatures before we’re thinking creatures and habits, which are what virtues derive from our development. They do develop our desires and our love. So I do think that the Evangelical Community of over the past several decades has kind of forgotten the importance of habits and practices and shaping our desires and loves. We have kind of operated on the level of, well, if we just teach the right content, teach, teach the right ideas, the actions will follow. Um, and I think for some of us that’s, that may be true, those of us who love languages is thinking as it is for me, but it doesn’t work for others who, who loves our first and foremost elsewhere. We need to develop loves.
Karen Prior: 24:49 And we, we’ve not, we’ve lost that or we never even had it perhaps within evangelicalism. The Catholic Church has had it for a long time. Um, and then I think another big area is just w we, we see so much virtue lacking around us. I mean just basic human courtesy of being kind and being attentive and assuming the best of people and not being rude to people, strangers on the Internet. Um, we, we are lacking so much in some of the basic abilities of human conduct and discourse. I think it’s, I think it’s time for the virtues to. I’m recovered and I’m renewed.
Chase Replogle: 25:33 Peter Kreeft spoke back to virtue is another sort of one of those milestones and sort of making that case as well. And maybe it is, you know, we’ve sort of been describing through analogy, physical fitness, but then more on topic, the ways in which we sort of read for self improvement. We tend to have virtues. It seems like right now in our culture that are about speed to market and the sort of fast paced growth and image sort of pr brand. Um, and I think that, to get back to the quote, I think that’s why this book in and of itself, while talking about individual virtues is also about why reading can be used as a virtue in and of itself to learn these virtues is really important because again, to do the kind of reading that you’re describing, it does require us to read slowly.
Chase Replogle: 26:18 Uh, it requires us to sort of be careful about what we choose to read and why we’re reading it, to think deeply about how it’s shaping and forming us. Um, some of the reading that you encourage us to read doesn’t sort of unfold quickly and easily. Some of it takes time. Uh, at one point in the book you say that reading should be done with a pencil in your hand and don’t be afraid to write in your book. In fact, I noticed the illustrator on the cover of the book was thoughtful enough to work in a pencil in the hand of the reader, in their chair seem intentional. What is it that we should be doing? That kind of reading, reading that takes the time to write, to stop, to sort of think about the virtues that they are forming in us.
Karen Prior: 26:55 Well, because when we read well, we really are engaging in a conversation. Um, again, if we compare the kind of reading and there’s a lot of research that talks about the different parts of the brain that are used and the eye movements that can be trackable or reading something on the Internet on our phones, our eyes are going faster, we’re skimming. Um, we’re really just trying to get information and I do that increasingly so I’m guilty, but when we, that’s not really a conversation that’s says like, okay, I need to know this. I’ll think about it later or not think about it later. But when we read, well, when we read virtuously, um, we read to form our character, um, we should be reading slowly. We should be absorbing. We should be stopping to pause and reflect, maybe go back and reread a particularly well crafted sentence market, make notes in it.
Karen Prior: 27:47 Um, that’s our way of having a conversation with the writer who is also having a conversation with those who went before him. Uh, and um, it also just helps us to remember, um, when I, you know, I think of some of the books, the paperback, the cheap paperbacks I have that I’ve had the longest, like my, my battered old copy of great expectations that I first read, um, in high school, um, and I have the notes that I made in my really girlish round hand writing, which is nothing like that now because of so much scribbling on student papers. And I can, I can just kind of have a conversation with my former self as I reread that I’m yellowed paper back and see what I marked when I was a teenager. And then what I would mark. Now I’m, they’re just so many formative reasons why marketing and a book and really intentionally engaging in the reading as in a conversation forms us as people.
Chase Replogle: 28:48 Well, what would, what would be nice is if we had the time, we could sort of discuss each of these virtues in the authors you have behind them because there’s so many. I would love to be able to delve into just to go over them, so maybe people who haven’t picked up the book. I can get a taste for it. The virtues you cover, our prudence, temperance, which you use the great gatsby for. Justice Charles Dickens, courage, huckleberry Finn. Then the sort of theological virtues, faith, hope and love. Tolstoy’s, the death of Ivan Illich had love to be able to talk through and then the heavenly virtues, chastity diligence, patience, kindness and humility. I thought if we could just because one of the things I love about the podcast is I get to be a little bit shellfish and just interview people that I’m curious to talk to and ask questions. I’m curious in, but flannery O’connor is the last chapter on humility and Flannery O’connor has been an important author for me. One that I love and one that I think for people who are trying to work their way into some of the classics can be, can be a good step because she writes primarily short stories or is most well known for her short stories. I’m curious, what role flannery O’connor as an author, as a writer has played in your life?
Karen Prior: 29:59 That’s a good question. I actually did not. I don’t think I ever encountered flannery O’connor until I started teaching freshmen literature classes and she’s often included in, in secular anthologies of, of, um, of freshmen level literature because she is such a great short story writer. And so I think the role that she played for me actually was as a teacher teaching Christian students who really don’t know what to do with a work of literature that is profoundly and truly Christian. They know what to do with works of literature perhaps that are not really a Christian and they know what to do with Christian movies are Christian, you know, what we call Christian fiction, popular fiction, but someone is devastating. And as incarnational sacramental is flannery o’connor, um, students just don’t know what to do with her. Um, and a lot of a lot of readers that, you know, people that I know on social media, you know, people either love her or they don’t get her. Um, and so I hope that my chapter will help readers who are interested in reading, being introduced to O’connor or reading more of her. We’ll see that this she is, she is doing some serious theological work in these short stories. Um, and they are extremely disorienting. But isn’t that what the Gospel is, requires of us, is to be disoriented utterly before we can receive it.
Chase Replogle: 31:34 Yeah. Part of what I find so interesting about o’connor is you would not read one of her short stories and instantly say, Oh yes, this is Christian right here. Here’s the gospel. And so one of the things I want to be careful with is I think people who have not gotten or who are wanting to get deeper into reading can sometimes think that someone like you as an English professor sort of pickup one of these classics. You know, you, you spend the evening with diggins or you pick up a short story by Flannery O’connor and as soon as you read through her her short story, you say, Oh yes, here’s this virtue humility and here’s how it works. So maybe you could express a little bit of what, what reading looks like for you just for people who are trying, who may be struggling with a short story by Flannery O’connor. What does that process look like for you as you sit down with maybe one of her, her stories?
Karen Prior: 32:14 Oh, that, that is a great question. Um, because I actually do not consider myself to be a highly skilled, natural literary critic. Um, I think it’s been hard for me most of my life and I think that’s probably why I think I’m good at teaching it because I read approach a work of literature that’s, that’s new and strange and different with lot of questions. And that’s really what we have to do is we need to be. I’m okay with the challenge and okay with questions. Um, and okay, it’s something in a flannery o’connor stories are always odd and bizarre and so we were left on subtle that we feel like some information is left out or something hasn’t resolved then that we need to ask, okay, so what is it? That’s why would that be left out? Why would that be left unresolved? That the story must be pointing me to something else.
Karen Prior: 33:09 If it’s a question that I would have had or the resolution I would have arrived at isn’t what happened then why is it this way? And so we have reading, and this goes back to one of your earlier questions of why this kind of reading is so important for our civil discourse and the end for Christians today because it helps us to ask better questions. It gives us a better sensitivity to language. We have to understand that. I mean, when we go to a museum and we look at paintings that are of, you know, women’s sewing or a bowl of fruit or a little girl with a watering can, we don’t go there to see what a bowl of fruit looks like or what a woman girl with a watering can looks like because we already know what they look like. We go to soak in the art to see how someone can do that, can recreate this little slice of, of life.
Karen Prior: 34:04 And when we read literature, we also need to be paying attention to how the story is told, how the language works, what effect does it achieved that the story unfolds this way instead of that way? Why is it told out of chronological order rather than in chronological order? Why is this detail included but not that one. We have to really attend to all of those questions, um, and, and just ask them and that we don’t know the answer in the same way that I, I’m not, you know, I’m not an art historian or an artist by any means. I can go to a museum and observe a work of art. It helps maybe have a guide or a little background information. That’s great, but I can even if I don’t have that, I can just still go and marvel at the, um, the texture and the paint brushes, having no clue how they were done. And so when we read a work of literature, we can just marvel at the image that the words convey the sense or the mood that it imparts to us. And, but I think it’s harder to do that today for so many people because we’re so accustomed to reading something just to get the answer just to get information. And that is not why we read literature.
Chase Replogle: 35:15 You associate with Flannery O’connor, the virtue of humility and you specifically referenced her short stories, revelation and everything that rises must converge. But I think you would probably agree that humility is that virtue is really predominant in all of Flannery O’connor’s stories and who she is as a writer. What is it about Flannery O’connor that you, a virtue of humility from?
Karen Prior: 35:40 Well, O’connor was, you know, she was a Catholic writer writing in the, in the Middle Twentieth Century, south the Bible belt, and so she was for that reason and because of her physical health and because she was a, an intelligent girl who wasn’t just, didn’t settle down and get married, she just didn’t, she was an oddity and did not fit in for many reasons. So she was humbled in many ways in her life circumstances. But she could look around because of that humble position. She could look around and see people who, um, were at humbled who thought that they had all the answers or thought they had Christianity. Right? Or we’re, you know, we’re good people. You’ll see that phrase in various forms throughout her works. Um, yeah, they were the right kind of people with the right connections and so forth. Um, and so pride is, is the demon that she’s fighting and all of these short stories.
Karen Prior: 36:36 And so of course the opposite of pride is his humility. And I think that’s, um, you know, I, I think, I think the O’connor has always been a worthy person to read. But I, I think Christianity, especially evangelicalism in the 21st century, I think a lot of us are suffering from some pride in the sense that we’ve got it right. We’re on the right side of this issue or that issue. Um, and o’connor just comes and destroys all those idols and says, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s not about you being a good person or being on the right side of any issue. Um, it’s about receiving grace
Chase Replogle: 37:17 when she uses this phrase, Christ haunted culture, uh, that the world around her is this place haunted by Christ. Which, uh, again, this is to this idea of being careful how you read it first you might think is sort of an anti Christian thing. But what is she trying to do and how important is this context in which she’s writing in?
Karen Prior: 37:33 Well, again, one of the reasons I can relate so well to her stories is because I was born and raised in the northeast and then move to the Bible belt myself. And um, it’s still to me, I see. See, you know, half a century later I see it. It is a Christ haunted culture, and what she meant by that is that, that there’s a surface level of Christianity that almost serves as an inoculation against real Christianity because if you’re born in the church and you’re always going to church and saying the right things and thinking the right things without actually believing them, just going back to Milton just out of conformity rather than authentic belief and understanding, um, then then it’s not really Christ. It is Christ haunted in the sense that he’s, he’s his, his echoes of him are everywhere, but he’s not really here or there unless, um, unless we truly know and have ever received him, we can conform and we can do all the right things and we can go to church every Sunday. Um, and, and in doing those things, it’s actually can be harder to, um, to really receive the grace of Christ.
Chase Replogle: 38:50 Yeah. I think of Flannery O’connor in really deeply pastoral terms because I think what she’s done for me as well, the examples you give in the book of revelation takes place in a waiting room, a doctor’s waiting room. And then on a pig farm, and then the second one, it’s on a city bus. And then on the street outside, um, I’ve been reading, I’m actually writing about a flannery O’connor short story right now called the Turkey, one of the early ones she wrote. And it’s literally about a boy chasing and injured Turkey through the woods. Um, these are not massively plotted stories. They’re not sort of, you know, grand myths. They’re not sort of set in fairytale worlds. She sets all of these short stories and really everyday contexts, but she uses them and really everyday characters. She uses them in these deep, deep observations about pride and humility, about grace, about faith, about truly following Christ. And I think fundamentally it is the pastoral work to take sort of these everyday people and places around you and begin to find in them deep evidence of how God is doing things. Not always clean, not always miraculous, not always in big strokes, but in these fine details that she’s all always telling her stories in. I’m curious what, what do you think a pastor, a church leader might gain, or the benefits they might find? I’ve sort of given mine. They’re already a in reading. Flannery o’connor.
Karen Prior: 40:09 Well, yeah, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s in the everyday. It’s an. I mean, she, she, her workup nonfiction has a couple of workup, nonfiction, but the one where she actually explains what she’s thinking and the method behind her stories is a collection of essays and lecture is called mystery and manners. And the title comes from the fact that she believes that we find the mystery in the manner. So in other words, the spiritual truths and realities are in the concrete every day world they are in what we can taste, touch, hear, smell, um, because. Well, that’s what an incarnational theology tells us is, is that the word became flesh. And so we look to those concrete specifics in order to find out, um, in order to see the spiritual reality.
Chase Replogle: 41:03 Yeah. Basically, this has been my big plug for why you should read Flannery O’connor as well. Uh, I’ll use a quote from her to transition that, uh, that you do in the book as well too, because I want to talk as we sort of wrap up about your own writing and how writing developed for you. Flannery O’connor, you quote her in the book, she says this at one point, she says a basically a prayer that she recorded in her own journal. She prayed this, but dear God, please give me some place, no matter how small, but let me know it and keep it.
Karen Prior: 41:33 If I
Chase Replogle: 41:33 am the one to wash the second step everyday, let me know it and let me wash it and let my heart overflow with love washing it. Um, I think it’s a great sentiment for somebody who’s trying to develop as a writer. Let me love and know that I’m doing exactly what you’ve called me to do. You’ve been teaching about writing, teaching about books for a long time. At what point did you begin to recognize, because I think your writing is so strong, it has such a clear voice. It’s so precise winded writing become an important part of your calling or how you think about what God is asking of you.
Karen Prior: 42:04 Well, thank you for those kind words about my writing. Um, it also was a struggle for me. It doesn’t come easily. I have to work very hard at it. So I appreciate that. Um, you know, I did some writing in the literary journal in College, um, and, uh, but I, I wasn’t, you know, it wasn’t, I really was always a reader first before I was a writer. Um, and so it really wasn’t until, um, until I started teaching. Um, I mean, I really thought I was going to end up. I wanted to be a scholar. I want you to be a Christian writing and academic journals and have a presence there. And that was the track I started on when I first started teaching at liberty is getting a scholarly article, published a book based on my dissertation published. And that’s where I thought I would, would be, but, um, you know, just through various circumstances I ended up starting to write for a, for cultural criticism, um, which is something I always loved to, um, and I had started out writing letters to the editor, which are another form of cultural criticism.
Karen Prior: 43:13 And, and I mean, honestly, God just kept opening the doors for me. Um, I would, I just got contacted by editors that I didn’t know saying, Hey, I read this, would you consider writing for us? And then an editor at the Atlantic, Hey, I’ve been reading what you write for us. And so I’ve just really tried to be faithful with every, um, with every opportunity. It wasn’t, this was not something that I charted out, like I said, I, I thought I would be going in a different direction. And, um, and as God just keeps opening the doors, I’m just trying to be faithful and going through them. Um, but my first calling really is as a teacher, as a professor and all of my writing comes out of that. And, and sometimes there’s a tension because there’s not enough time in the world, but I think it is really helpful, um, to understand what comes first, what our first calling is, because even my writing is kind of teacherly writing. Um, I freely admit it, um, because I am a teacher, I want, I want to tell people, you know, how to think and what to think. Um, and um, and so I think understanding that my writing flows out of these other things is, has been crucial to me. Keeping things in balance and, um, and uh, understanding and were writing fits into the other parts of my life.
Chase Replogle: 44:31 When you read the book on Reading, well, one of the things to just strikes you from page one all the way through is just the familiarity you have with so much writing you quote so freely from just a really remarkably wide range of writing. It’s doesn’t seem to be just focusing on the English literature, but all the way back from biblical resources and Christian authors to sort of the classics onto sort of just across the spectrum of history and authors, some modern, some, some ancient, some sort of 18th century. Um, how do you keep track of that much reading, number one to make it into the book. I’m curious about just what that process looked like and then how long did you work on this book? Because there’s so much that’s gone into it. You can tell this was not something you cranked out in a couple months. There’s been deep thought behind it. So the amount of time into the writing and how you sort of tracked all of this material to pull it together.
Karen Prior: 45:22 Well, you know, I’m sure they have apps and things that are, would do it a lot better than I do it. I, I, I even tried. There’s something called scrivener or something. I bought it and I never, I couldn’t even get through the Youtube Youtube tutorials. So I’m very bad with technology and so I’m all. I do. I mean, I take a lot of notes or I still have shelves full of marble composition notes that I have had over the years. Um, when I was hand writing notes now and I’m doing a book, I do write most of my notes on, you know, on a laptop in word. Um, and so I, you know, I started out doing a lot of research and taking notes and having pages and pages of notes and it’s a very ugly, ugly process. Um, I actually, I’m researching and taking notes as easy I can do that.
Karen Prior: 46:13 I can copy things out and footnote it. Um, and then I have all these pages and pages of notes and then when I start putting it together, um, I mean, I, I hate 90 percent of the writing process. I mean, I really, really do. It’s very painful for me to take these all these notes, start to assemble them into an idea. Um, and this book took me about two years to write. And as I said before I, I really didn’t know the virtues that well. I knew who to go to, um, to get to find out. And what to read. And so, um, I had to get all, compile all that research and then put it all together. And the part that I really love is the part you only have a little time to do. And that’s, that’s the editing and tweaking and changing the sentences in the words.
Karen Prior: 46:56 I love that part. That’s the fun part for me. Um, the rest of it, it’s pretty painful to me. I think of it as like, um, if you compare it to sculpting, um, a lot of it is, is, um, is the work that takes place over years and years of, of making the granite hard and putting it this big, making this big block of granite and uh, and then shipping and shipping and shipping and chipping away at it. And then, um, and then removing all the, you know, removing 95 percent of what you’ve accumulated in order to, to carve out this little thing and then Polish it. And I only like the polishing
Chase Replogle: 47:40 the years of reading that shaped your eye. And are there, are there certain authors or certain books on writing or just books in general that have really formed you as a writer particularly?
Karen Prior: 47:54 Um, I mean there’s some books that I, that I really liked. Most of it’s, I wouldn’t say that things that have helped me, most of the writer is being well edited. So editing is this with the books. The books don’t get edited as much as I would have thought or like, um, but, um, I guess I presented a pretty close to finished product, but, uh, in writing short form articles, blog posts and do it. I’ve done that for years now for a while. I was doing them twice a month. I’m writing is a skill in that sense that, you know, just like exercise, the more you do it, the better you get at it. And when you get feedback from editors and readers, you get better at it. So even doing those sort of short bursts of articles and blogging can really help. Um, the books that I like on writing, probably my favorite is Anne Lamott’s, bird by bird. Um, I think that’s a really helpful book. And then I read books on style and atomology because I just, I just love words. I, um, and uh, a great little fun, Fun Book that I’ve used in classes. It was the best of sentences that was the worst of sentences. Um, is a good book. Um, and Williams insert. He’s written a number of books, but his classic on writing well, which is my title, echoes. He’s probably, um, probably the most formative for me.
Chase Replogle: 49:18 Yeah, I thought that might’ve been a reference to it as well. The great books. So animal monster, great one as well. So, well, maybe we can wrap up this way. Most of the people listening today are, as we’ve talked about, um, sort of thinking about writing from a faith perspective. Many of them, pastors, church leaders, as you have sort of worked before in classrooms as you’ve seen the light bulb go on and people sort of fall in love with reading or have that experience we described at the beginning. Um, if you could give a recommendation or if you do give recommendations, church leaders, pastors on maybe something that you would say, pick this up next and give it a shot. Is there a book or a writer that you would say, here’s a good place to start?
Karen Prior: 49:53 Oh, you mean like one, one particular worker?
Chase Replogle: 49:55 Yeah, a great honor that you love. No, the answer’s no to that right here. Here’s, here’s all of them I teach. So
Karen Prior: 50:03 I really, I get a lot of people ask me these questions and I, I, there’s so much good literature to read. I always like to know a little bit more about that might my tastes tend toward very dark. And so the things that I like are not necessarily what others would like, but I do, I do think, especially for pastor writers, um, I guess, I guess I would say you, if you, if you’re reading attentively, you’re understanding that it’s satire. Um, I think you might not be able to do better than Jane Austin. Um, her writing is so well crafted, so exquisite. Her social comment, I’m interior social observation and commentary on it is so sharp and so clear, um, and her insights into human nature, um, I think are excellent and, and it’s not, you know, these, these, her novels are not love stories even though they contain them. They are, they are, they are about the modern self. They are about understanding one’s identity both in the modern world and in community. And um, as allister American dinner talks about, she’s actually one of the last writers to um, to, to ascribe to the classical notions of virtue. So I think she’s not as girly as a lot of people would think. She’s a sharp satirist and a keen observer of human nature.
Chase Replogle: 51:28 Well, maybe another place to get introduced as you have a chapter on Jane Austin and one of the virtues in the book. So, uh, if, if they’re not ready to pick up Jane, Austin, at least go and pick up on reading. Well, Karen, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast. A great conversation. Hopefully it’s an encouragement to people, inspires them to read your book as well as to take the reading more seriously.
Karen Prior: 51:47 Thanks so much for having me. What a great conversation.
Speaker 3: 51:50 Yeah.
Chase Replogle: 51:53 As always, you can find the show notes for today’s episode by going to pastor [inaudible] dot com slash 31 there. You’ll find a link to Karen’s book as well as other ways that you can follow along with her work. If you haven’t already at also appreciate you subscribing to the podcast. It’s a simple step, but the subscription helps new people find it as well. As you get notifications of new episodes, you can do it in Itunes, stitcher, wherever you listen to the podcasts, so simply click subscribe and you’ll receive the latest episodes as they come out each week. As always, thanks for listening. Until next time.