It can be hard to love someone with whom you disagree, especially when those disagreements involve faith convictions and ideas central to identity. We don’t want to abandon truth in our aims to love, but we can also miss the mark by failing to love while holding fast to the truth. Dr. Karen Swallow Prior joins Tim and Rick to discuss issues surrounding love and willingness with disagreement, and she unpacks the idea of “hospitable orthodoxy” as a manner of communicating with others in a distinctly biblical way. This is part 1 of a 3-part conversation with Dr. Karen Swallow Prior.
Karen Swallow Prior: If it's not done in a way that the love is evident to other people, not just we say in our heart, oh, I'm doing this out of love. But if that love is not evident to other people as the scripture says it will be, then we aren't doing it right.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction podcast, I'm Tim Muehlhoff, a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California, and the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project, a project seeking to reintroduce civility, compassion, listening in today's crazy communication climate. And I don't do this alone, I do it with my co-host and co-director Dr. Rick Langer.
Rick Langer: Thanks Tim. As Tim mentioned, I work with him in The Winsome Conviction Project, and I'm also professor of biblical studies and theology here at Biola School of Theology and the director of the office of faith and learning here. One of our privileges is meeting and talking with some wonderful guests who come through here at Biola University. And one of those is Dr. Karen Swallow Prior. And she is a research professor of English and Christianity and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. And she's written several books. A couple of ones that are particularly relevant for us are, there's one entitled Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More, discussion of a poet, reformer, abolitionist from, what, the early 1800s, something in that ballpark.
Karen Swallow Prior: 18th, 19th century.
Rick Langer: Yeah. And she's also done a lot of writing really as a Christian public intellectual in Christianity Today, The Atlantic, Washington Post, First Things, Vox, Relevant, magazines of that nature. And one of the things that caught our attention was a piece that she wrote early on called loving your ideological enemy that came out, what, four or five years ago I suppose. And we're intrigued by that. So welcome Dr. Prior, it's great to have you here with us.
Karen Swallow Prior.: It's great to be with you.
Tim Muehlhoff: We are using, Dr. Prior, and we've agreed to call each other by first names for the podcast, but we are certainly using you at Biola University. We've got her running around doing some great events. And so we're so pleased that you would take some time and just come and talk about this piece. We're always searching for like-minded people and for pieces that we learned from and just really encourage us. So before we jump into details, why not just tell us a little bit about why you felt compelled to even write this article in the first place?
Karen Swallow Prior: I was reviewing this for this podcast and the talk I'll be giving later today, and I realized that this article was written in 2017. And I remember at that time things seemed so divided and polarized. And yet here we are-
Tim Muehlhoff: [inaudible] got past that.
Rick Langer: You had no idea.
Karen Swallow Prior: I had no idea, it's just incredible to think about. So yes, we need all of us, even more instruction on how to love our ideological enemy. At this time in writing this article, I think there were just beginning to be some divides among people who call themselves evangelical Christians. And there were those who were going more to a progressive side, those who were going to a more conservative side or remaining in those fears. But there was just a lot of division at that time. And like I said, I had no idea just how much worse it would get, so I'm so thankful to hear about your project. You have your work cut out for you.
Tim Muehlhoff: And we like to say business is good.
Rick Langer: We have often thought that it would be nice if business weren't so good, but it has become very, very difficult. And I appreciate some things you recommend. Tim, you were going to ask about some of the things you mentioned in in the article.
Tim Muehlhoff: I love how you not only identify the problem but you give us, in my estimation, a kind of surprising way to think about it that I thought was very interesting, and I thought really applicable to our listeners that we're not talking about starting a grand movement, we're not talking about petitions or protests. We're talking about using your home as a place of hospitality. You call it hospitable orthodoxy, and I wonder if you could just explain that, unpack that for us?
Karen Swallow Prior: Sure. Well, I talk about the home as a place for hospitality in a literal sense but even more so in a metaphorical sense. I'm a word person, I teach English and I love words. Hospitality or host is such an interesting word because the word means both guest and stranger. The root word from which we get the word hospital, which is an interesting way to think about it. So it just means that whether you are someone who is the guest or the host, you are strangers to one another. And so to really be hospitable in your home is to open up your home to someone. And you have to have something to offer them if you're going to be hospitable. You are someone who has something, you have some walls and you have a roof. And you also have doors and you have hopefully a comfortable chair and maybe a fireplace and some food.
And so to be hospitable is to have something that's important and strong and safe. But it's also yours, and you're not going to just open it up and let pillagers come in and destroy it. And so when we're talking about our Christian faith, we who consider ourselves to be orthodox, small O orthodox, or conservative. There are lots of labels. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't. If we're the ones who really have a high view of scripture and are committed to God's word and his law and his teachings, we have a very strong place and we can welcome people in. We are the last ones who need to be defensive, we're fearful about our beliefs. And yet we live in this time where everyone is just fearful and defensive and polarizing even more.
Rick Langer: Yeah. It seems like we should be the people who are, in effect, founded on the rock of ages, but we often talk like we're the people who are tending the last sandcastle on the beach as the tide is coming in. And the anxiety that comes with that, I almost feel like the anxiety leads and then the anger follows, so to speak. Because we're not confident, we become anxious and then we begin to convey in ways that really are marked much more by anger, wrath, things like that than what the New Testament would ask us to do in the context of our communication.
Karen Swallow Prior: It sounds like you've spent a few minutes on Twitter.
Rick Langer: It seems like we've created structures to amplify that sort of ill form tendency in our hearts, which is really kind of tragic.
Karen Swallow Prior: I love that you used that word amplify because that actually was part of my purpose in writing this article a few years ago. It was at a time when I was helping to found an organization for Christian women called The Pelican Project, which exists now and is thriving and doing well. And it was really designed to amplify what we're talking about here, women who are small O orthodox, who are convicted but compassionate and winsome and strong and engage with the public but also do all of that in the context of whatever their church affiliation is, their church home. Because we do actually believe that the church is the place where we are strong and confident, a church that is built on God's word.
And so we wanted to amplify this posture of Christianity because a lot of our debates and divisions are over what we believe ostensibly. But I would go so far as to say I can take a group of believers and we all adhere to the same teaching, the same doctrine, the same teaching on the same issues. And I would say that we can be like night and day. Not because of what we believe, but because of how we communicate that or how we hold to it. And that's what's dividing us is our posture not our position.
Tim Muehlhoff: And Deborah Tannen, Georgetown linguist who wrote The Argument Culture says that we're in a communication crisis. Karen, I think she's saying it's on the relational level. That contempt has entered these conversations and we're not communicating in distinctly biblical ways anymore with these profound disagreements that we have. So I love that you say that. One quick comment, and then kind of a weird question. One quick comment is I think a lot of Christian homes, and I don't want to be overly judgemental have the opposite attitude. Hey, the home is where I keep everything out, this is my safe haven where I'm safe, my family's safe. And I'm not inviting those forces into my home, they get enough of that. I want this to be a protection of outside influences. I love that you're kind of turning that on its head a little bit.
One thing I do in addition to the Winsome Conviction Project is I work with Biola Center for Marriage and Relationships. I noted that you and your husband both do this, and I wonder what impact that's had on your relationship to adopt this kind of ... When we speak at marriage conferences, we spoke in our own hometown, which was kind of a mistake because now everybody knows you're the Christian marriage experts. And that kind of made us feel like, oh, that was weird. So doing it together, what impact has it had on your relationship?
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, of course this article was written pre COVID. Where we live has been a very, very high risk area, so we have not been able to be as hospitable as we had in times past. We've just really enjoyed being a place that people will come and visit. We come from the cold blustery north, and so a lot of our friends and family enjoy coming someplace warmer. Eventually we ended up building a home for my elderly parents who live with us. And so that's been really a blessing to kind of share our home, our homestead with them. And we've housed students in the past, whether my students, I teach college, my husband teaches high school. We've had relationships with graduates of his school, younger people.
Again, it's not just a literal thing, it's also just metaphorical. Even though I teach at a Christian institution, my husband teaches in a public school. We live in a community that is culturally Christian, but that's not necessarily the same thing as a repentant converted saved person. And so we just live and move and have our being among a lot of people that don't think like we do. But we want to be neighbors, we want to be part of the community. And so we have just developed those kinds of relationships. And of course, then there's also online. That is a whole other global community, and there's no reason. This is actually another article that I wrote a few years ago about, I think it was, they called it how to make social media more Christian or something like that. But my abiding principle is that we should not act any differently online than we would in person. If I wouldn't walk up to a stranger in the street and say something insulting to them for points, then I'm not going to do that on Twitter either, or at least I try not to.
Rick Langer: And it is interesting that Twitter only gives you 160 characters or whatever. And when you think of confrontations or having difficult conversations, you think, well, that'd be the last place you could possibly do it. Yet as it turns out, it seems like that's the first place we often go with our conflicts. It seems to just set it up for being a bad discussion. It's kind of like shouting headlines at each other without ever getting any of the story.
Karen Swallow Prior: That's exactly what the form invites and encourages. And it really takes a lot of intentionality and discipline and virtue to work against the design of the medium.
Rick Langer: So I called you in the introduction a Christian public intellectual. I'm just intrigued, how did you get going in that vein? At age 40, did you wake up and say, "Hey, I want to talk about these key issues"? Was there an event that happened? How did this come about for you?
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, they sent out this application. The really did that.
Tim Muehlhoff: Where's that application?
Karen Swallow Prior: No, that is an interesting question. One of the very first things that I ever had published as a young adult, I think it was, was a letter to the editor in the local newspaper. And it was voicing a very strong opinion. So I think that I've just always wanted to use the written word, and now I guess the spoken word as well not just to share my opinions. My strongest spiritual gift is prophecy, so I have a pretty passionate sense of what's right and what's wrong and what the consequences of a course of action will lead to. And so for me, the discipleship and the maturation all along has been kind of learning to reign it in and be more patient.I had this in my personality and my calling I think writing a letter to the editor, being a columnist for the student newspaper and then writing opinion pieces about cultural artifacts.
And that was all before digital media came along, before Facebook and Twitter were invented. I got on Facebook the first year it came out as a professor. My students were on it, I was curious about it and I wanted to use the platform as a place to share ideas. That's all that it was for me. If we had a discussion in class that was interesting, I would pull something from that discussion, put it out there in Facebook and say, "Well, in class today, we talked about this, this, and this." And I wanted to continue the classroom discussions on the medium. Even though Facebook has changed and Twitter is out there and they do a lot of different things, for me, that was always what I wanted to use the medium for is like a classroom for discussion and dialogue. Because that's how I am in the classroom, and that's how I try to be out there. But of course, not everyone has that same goal, so it gets a little tricky.
Tim Muehlhoff: But I love how you started. It made me think of a Dallas Willard quote, people have a vision for their life, they just don't want to go through the middle. And I love what you just described is you didn't start by writing for The Atlantic. And I love that because we all can start where you started, it's hard to get to The Atlantic. But everybody can take a risk and think very deeply about how they want to communicate but do it at a local level. And if God wants to morph that and take it ... Can you repeat something you said that I thought was so brilliant, I thought we could just end the podcast right there. You said about online communication, you gave a principle, and the principle was you wouldn't change how you communicate. Can you repeat that real quick?
Karen Swallow Prior: Sure. I said I think a principle is to not act in any way online that you wouldn't in person.
Tim Muehlhoff: That is so good, that is just so good.
Karen Swallow Prior: It's so basic, but I think it's so easy to not do that. If you picture in your mind, again, you're walking down the street and you see someone standing on a soap box and they're saying something that you think is crazy and you disagree with and you think it's wrong. Most of us aren't going to stop and berate that person. We might stop and engage, we might stop and be polite. So why don't we do that on Twitter when we come across someone saying something that we think is completely crazy or wrong? Stop and engage and ask and maybe point out, but we don't start yelling at them unless we're the crazy person.
Rick Langer: And so just to savor that thought for a minute and just sincerely ask, why do we do that? And I'm suspicious that the platform rewards it and we want to be rewarded. And we have perhaps kind of ... I think Rebecca DeYoung would talk about that as the vice of vein glory that we want in effect a glory that isn't ours properly. So this is a way we can get likes, we can have X many K Twitter followers or whatever. And it feeds something in our soul, so we go with it. But perhaps the call of discipleship would tell us that isn't a thing we should really be aspiring to.
Karen Swallow Prior: Right. The form itself taps into the worst part of ourselves. Those parts are already there, and they're a struggle for most people. But it encourages those worst parts, and that's why we have to be so intentional about not allowing the form to do that to us. We are being malformed by this form.
Tim Muehlhoff: And it works. I love what you're saying. In my class, I teach you this communication class, we watch this great TED Talk where it's, I want to make sure I get her name, Megan Phelps-Roper who left Westboro Baptist Church. I mean, she grew up in the church holding signs she couldn't read. And she kept on this [inaudible]. But when Twitter came along, the Westboro Church wanted to use Twitter. Well, people engaged her in exactly ... Some people, I mean, some were, You can imagine. But some did exactly what you're saying. And eventually, it really softened her perspective and got her thinking about things. And eventually she would leave with one of her sisters. What you're saying is not just idealistic, it actually can work.
Karen Swallow Prior: It. It's how we should be behaving with one another all the time. And maybe most of the time it doesn't work. As this example shows, and I've seen others and I've seen it on a smaller scale in my own life where people disagree with me at one point and then later come to an agreement. It's not agreement that matters but just if someone is acting in a wrong way or behaving badly not just their position. To me, again, that's becoming a more important distinction, not just what positions we hold, but how we hold them.
Tim Muehlhoff: I love that.
Rick Langer: In the introductory part of your article, you told a couple of stories about some women that you knew who were having kind of a hard time speaking up, not so much because they didn't know what to say, but they were anxious about the response, and so they were trying to navigate those waters. But then you have this interesting comment here, let me just read it. As I survey the lines demarcating Christian belief, I wonder if some of those who have drifted away from two heterodoxy, in other words left orthodoxy, both men and women might have stayed if the contemporary church were better at a particularly powerful form of discipleship, namely hospitable orthodoxy.
And we've been talking a little bit about this with a metaphor of hospitality. But I'd love to have you just unpack a little bit of your own experience. Tim and I have talked about this before, had some others on the podcast about this where it seems like the way we talk has not simply become unattractive evangelistically but actually has driven members of the body of Christ out because they're going, if this is what the church and Christian looks like, I guess I'm out.
Karen Swallow Prior: Well, this is just basic Bible 101. Scripture commands us to speak the truth in love. Jesus says that the world will know us by our love one for another. And so any position that we hold or that we're communicating or we're trying to defend, if it's not done in a way that the love is evident to other people, not just we say in our heart, oh, I'm doing this out of love. But if that love is not evident to other people as the scripture says it will be, then we aren't doing it right, we are disobeying scripture. And yet over and over, we are seeing people who hold to supposedly correct doctrine. Now, I would say if you're holding to correct doctrine and the love isn't evident, then your doctrine isn't right because you really can't separate form from content. We are seeing people ... Should be no surprise that this is driving people away because it's unscriptural.
Tim Muehlhoff: Where do we get these radical guests? What you're saying is so tragically simple that we're not called to tolerate our neighbors, we're called to love our neighbors. And yet to hear you say it, I look at my own life and think how many times I just don't do that. But the church is not known for what you just said. I mean, sadly, that is not a reputation is these people just love us too intensely. That's not how a lot of people feel inside and outside the church.
Rick Langer: I recently was having a conversation or actually presenting something but we're having a conversation afterwards. And I had made a comment kind of similar to what you'd said about, love at some point has to be the kind of love that the other person can actually perceive it as such. And I got some pretty flaming pushback on that point that was the essence of which was, look, it's not my responsibility how people respond to the truth. I had my own thoughts about that but I'll spare everybody. But I wonder if you could speak a little bit to that because I have heard that more than once and more recently than I would ... Yeah, very recently.
Karen Swallow Prior: Oh, I have thoughts on this. So I actually have a chapter in my book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books. Each chapter talks about a different classical virtue or biblical virtue through the lens of literature. And I have a chapter on love, by which I mean agape love because we have one word in English to do the work of all the different kinds of love that is talked about in the Bible. We use that word in so many ways, we say, oh, I love mint chip ice cream, which I do. I love my grandmother, I love my husband. I love warm weather, but I don't love 95 degrees. All of those uses of love means something different. And when it comes to the love that we have for one another, even that we might not know what that means.
Now, of course the Bible gives us a great definition of love in First Corinthians 13. So we have a definition, we don't like to follow it. But the other thing that I want to say is it is so easy for us to have a distorted sense of love. And the example that I give on Reading Well is, I'll never forget ... I've worked for a long time in animal welfare advocacy, so I follow some of these issues. But when Michael Vick, the former NFL player who was arrested on drug charges and dog fighting, he was running a huge dog fighting operation, he was interviewed and he said, "I love my dogs."
And I believe he meant that, I believe he does not know what love is. And that's why he could say something like that because for him love is possession and power over and a desire to have, none of the things that the Bible tells us constitutes love. That's an extreme example, but how easily we can apply that to any situation where an abusive manipulative man says he does this out of love for his wife or a leader manipulates those that he serves and calls it love for them or the institution. But the Bible gives us a definition of what love is.
Tim Muehlhoff: So when I was in grad school, we watched this, it was a feminist class, we watched this documentary around pornography. And what really struck me was the name of the documentary, and it was called Not a Love Story. And to see that growing up in the pornification of America, for them to just name it correctly, this is not love. Whatever you're seeing right now, let's not call this a love story in any way. I love that that people are getting their definitions from culture, from family backgrounds, which can be good or bad. But then we can come along and embody the Christian perspective of love. And what I also want to just add to what you're saying is Paul then says, take this and give it to your enemies. Don't just do it to people that you connect with or like or your political party. I mean, we need to specifically go out in such a way and embody it with the very people that would look at us and say that you're the enemy of my community, I think that's really powerful.
Well, gosh. So we haven't even gotten to Karen's amazing observations of people who practice this type of hospitality. Karen, this has been great taken in different directions like this. So what we're going to do is I think we're going to take a break, but we're going to come back because you have about like six or seven observations about people who actually do this. And I have to admit, they are really challenging your observations. So we're going to take a quick break and we're going to come back. Would you join us for another segment?
Karen Swallow Prior: Oh, I suppose. You're hospitable enough.
Rick Langer: We'll extend you hospitable Orthodoxy.
Tim Muehlhoff: We might round up some mint chocolate chip, I'm just saying, I don't know.
Rick Langer: Well, we'd like to thank you all for joining us for this episode. The Winsome Conviction podcast is available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify or wherever it is you like to get your podcast. And it's part of the Winsome Conviction Project. And you can check out a lot more of the things that we do at thewinsomeconviction.com website. And thanks so much for joining us.