Winsome Conviction Project logo


Tim and Rick have been discussing the practice of hospitable orthodoxy with Dr. Karen Swallow Prior. In this episode, Dr. Prior shares how reading the Great Books have helped her to cultivate a posture of hospitable orthodoxy to those with whom she disagrees. They also dig into the connection between empathy and reading broadly and how reading helps us with the virtues. This is part 3 of a 3-part conversation with Dr. Karen Swallow Prior.


Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome once again to the Winsome Conviction podcast. My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm a professor of communication here at Biola University, just having celebrated my 17th year. Dr. Rick Langer at Biola University, I'm waiting for my gift. It hasn't quite come yet, but one of my gifts is I get to do this podcast with a good friend, Dr. Rick Langer. We're both co-directors of the Winsome Conviction Project. You can check us out at winsome One of the fun things we get to do is we get to bring on people that we admire from afar, and then every once in a while you actually get to meet them. And we've been having a great conversation with our guest. Rick, I'll let you reintroduce her, and in our third episode, we want to tackle how she's been influenced by her reading.

Rick Langer: Well, thanks, Tim. And yes, Dr. Karen Swallow Prior is here with us from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and she has been an author of several books, articles. We've talked a little bit about her writing and her role as a public intellectual, but one of the books that she wrote particularly intrigued me, not just on its own terms, but also in particular related to the qualities it builds regarding our ability to discourse and engage with other people. And that book is called On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books. I was just thrilled when I read that title, and I haven't read the book. I will be the first to confess it, but since you're here, we'd love to have you talk a little bit both about why that issue, why the reading the great books is a thing that you associate with cultivating good life, and also how it might play out in the way we talk and engage with other people.

Karen Swallow Prior: The two earlier conversations we had were about hospitable orthodoxy and being confident and open in dialoguing with others, especially when they disagree with us, and we have strong convictions and yet don't feel like we need to be defensive over them. So, really, these might seem like two completely separate topics, kind of being a Christian out in the public square where everyone's arguing and debating, and then like reading good books. But for me, one flows out of the other.

I grew up reading books. I grew up reading good books, because I had good teachers, but I also grew up reading silly romances and horror stories and all kinds of things. But I just always had my nose in a book, and I think books have formed me more than just about anything else after my faith. I think what reading all these books has done for me is to show me that I can see the world through someone else's eyes; I can experience, oh, things that they experience that I would never experience, but that doesn't make me less me; that doesn't require that I agree with their perspective or adopt their perspective. It just helps me to see their perspective, and from that I can take what is true and learn to reject what is false.

Rick Langer: I would love to have you just give us like two examples: one of a book that you read that you loved, because it kind of gave voice to things that said, yes, that's right, or that's me, or whatever. And then talk about a book that you've read that you love the book, though you disagreed with what the author was advocating for.

Karen Swallow Prior: Wow. Okay. So I'm going to start with the second one. I'm going to start with a book. I think anyone who's read this book will understand what I'm saying, but it's Nabokov's Lolita, which is a story of a pedophile who abuses a young girl. Nabokov is a brilliant writer. He is one of the masters of writing. What he does is to use words in such a way as to get you into the mind of his characters or his narrator. And he does this with Lolita.

It's not a book that I would recommend for anyone to pick up. You have to be aware. And even, I would say halfway through, three-quarters of the way through, I was so devas- I just didn't know, because he puts you in the mind of this pedophile, and it's very disconcerting. Now it does get redemptive toward the end. I'm glad that I finished and read it. But the power of that book is that it shows you just how powerful words are and how we ourselves through words can rationalize the most heinous things. That's what human beings can do. Now, Nabokov was not endorsing that, he was showing us this is what words can do.

Tim Muehlhoff: Look where this goes.

Karen Swallow Prior: Yes. So a book on a more pleasant topic.

Tim Muehlhoff: Before we do that, before we lookie...

Karen Swallow Prior: Sure.

Tim Muehlhoff: So the argument culture tells us that understanding is condoning. If that's true, then reading a book like that could be, in fact, quite dangerous. But we're rejecting that notion saying... And we are called as Christians to empathize, to understand people in different situations. Jesus' moniker was friend of sinners.

Karen Swallow Prior: Understanding is not condoning.

Tim Muehlhoff: Understanding is not condoning. So a book like that can be profound to understand everything that you just said. I just felt compelled to say that,

Karen Swallow Prior: Thank you.

Tim Muehlhoff: That we have to understand, we are called to understand this world as we speak God's love into it, and understanding can be uncomfortable, but we have to do it. Let's get on to pleasant things, pleasant books.

Karen Swallow Prior: This is my go-to favorite. I talk about it a lot. I edited my own edition. It's Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. For anyone who has not read it, it's easy to just assume this is a romantic novel about some woman named Jane Eyre who was looking for love and fails to find it, which, that's true, but it's so much more. Jane Eyre is actually a first-person narrative, again, showing the power of language to the way we tell ourselves stories, the way we interpret what's going on around us, the way we wrestle in our minds with everything that we're facing. But Jane Eyre is really the story of the modern Christian in a nominally Christian world trying to hold onto her faith in face of the hardest temptations that someone in that circumstance could.

Isn't that all of us? Jane Eyre is really the story of all of us. Virginia Woolf famously wrote about Charlotte Bronte, and she rightly pinpoints the way that it's Jane's voice, that narrative voice, that pulls us in and draws us in. It's like we're sitting right next to her hearing her story. And so it feels very much like it's our own story because the voice is so powerful, and of course that voice comes through words.

Tim Muehlhoff: As you were talking, it made me think of a study that came out of the University of Michigan, where they took the interpersonal reactivity index. It's a questionnaire that asked individuals to respond to statements to see how much they empathize. And the researchers came out and they said that the group that they were working with rated themselves 75% less empathetic than students from the previous 30 years. Now, the researchers were like, okay, why are you rating yourself so low when it comes to empathy? They linked it to reading habits. That the less these people read, the less empathetic they were. So I love the fact that the two were linked to each other, and that opens up a bunch of interesting questions, but reading broadly and exposing yourself... Now, let me get your reaction to this. I think that can be done via Netflix as well, in a different kind of way. I wouldn't want to pit the one against the other. Does that make sense?

Karen Swallow Prior: It does make sense. And I want to say yes and no.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, we'll edit out the no. [inaudible].

Rick Langer: Let's come back to some Jane Eyre [inaudible] go ahead.

Karen Swallow Prior: I'm so glad you brought this up. I love film, and I love some good Netflix series, so I'll use sort of the best film to think of an example. There is a way that film does enlarge our experience and develop our empathy I think, because all story does, but I think that film is a more viscerally aesthetic experience unmediated by words. So I do think as a good Protestant that there is something about words and narrative. Because words are a form of mediation, so we have to translate the words. We have to interpret them in a way that we don't have to interpret what comes to the eye. And so it's that interpretive act that's required of words that does something different to us. We're interpretive creatures, and interpreting words just gets at something about us being made in the image of a God who is the Word, that seeing images doesn't.

Tim Muehlhoff: We're going to get to Jane Eyre in a second, but Rick...

Karen Swallow Prior: Jane, she's been around for a long time. She'll wait.

Rick Langer: She's not going anywhere. Sure enough.

Tim Muehlhoff: What you said was so interesting, because Rick turned me on to this group that takes movies and reinterprets them based on music. Do you remember this, Rick? You mentioned The Sound of Music, the trailer, that they make it into a horror story, and they simply do it by the music they play, and they do these really quick cuts. And they also took Silence of the Lambs and made it into a romantic comedy simply based on music.

Karen Swallow Prior: I need to see these things.

Tim Muehlhoff: You have to see it. It is downright creepy.

Karen Swallow Prior: But the fact that it works.

Rick Langer: You got it. It totally works.

Tim Muehlhoff: I do agree with that point you're saying, that that's not there when you're reading a book, but music... Rick, I laughed out loud watching The Sound of Music as a horror story. And it absolutely works based on the music cuing you.

Rick Langer: This was out of anxiety for a thing where I had done some filming for a thing we were doing here at Biola for a project. I had spent almost my entire day being filmed by this film crew. And in my mind, I know they are not going to use more than three minutes of what I said. And somebody asked me how did it go, and I said I have no idea. Did I make a horror film? Was it Silence of the Lambs or Sound of Music? I have no idea. And that's partly this issue of the power of sound, the visuals, and all this. I had full control over the words I said, but by the time you put them and edit them together, all bets are off.

Karen Swallow Prior: Well guys, I'm here for two days to give a series of talks and attend a conference, but my trip here just peaked. This is the stuff I came for. I am so excited to know about this.

Rick Langer: Let me pick up Jane Eyre. I teach a class called Money, Sex, and Power here as an advanced integration seminar, so thinking biblically about these sorts of notions. I spend a fair portion of time in the sex part of that, talking about marriage. And one of my concerns is that we seem to have a very, very contemporary notion of what marriage is that is tightly tied to the ultimate validating force of romantic love. And it strikes me that a novel like Jane Eyre actually pushes back against a notion of marriage and helps us realize that people in another generation simply conceived of marriage in a profoundly different way, and it isn't at all clear to me that we're right and they're wrong. So I wonder if you might, I don't want to try and misquote or miscount the plot of Jane Eyre when you're sitting here with us, you're way better at doing that. But talk to us a little bit about that kind of a notion and how a fictional [inaudible] may help you enter into understanding a thing like that.

Karen Swallow Prior: Well, I teach the English novel, and I teach it specifically in the context of the history of the novel. So this is actually something... I'll try not to teach the whole course here. This is one of the values of studying the novel during its first two centuries of existence, because we start with Samuel Richardson's Pamela, in which, spoiler alert, a young servant girl wins her reward for remaining virtuous by marrying the man who tried several times to rape her, and that's considered like a reward. He's wealthy.

And then we move to something like Jane Austin, where it's a much more pleasant world, and yet these women in her novels are very constrained by money more than anything else in their marriages. And then we move to Jane Eyre, where we're getting a little bit more of the influence of the previous romantic period, and yet it still is with a tempered view of marriage. It's all a little course in the different views of marriage, just in two centuries. I mean, human history is much longer. And the truth of the matter is, this is something else that I touch on in my classes and have written about, and I think I write about it in On Reading Well, the evangelicals really were the purveyors of what we call companionate marriage, this idea that marriage should be based on compatibility and friendship, not just property and politics.

Now, I think that's really good. I prefer that model of marriage, but it also has some pitfalls in the sense that if we think we've married our soulmate and then after a few years it kind of runs out, then we think that the marriage is a failure. I have counseled a number of my friends and peers and students who are younger, along these lines who have... because they have thought that their husband or their... Usually I'm talking to the women, that their husband should be their best friend, and he turns out to not be a person who likes to do every single thing that they want to do, they think that the marriage is a failure, and it's like, no, the idea is a failure. Marriage is for something.

And to go back to On Reading Well, which we haven't really gotten to specifically, in that book I talk about both the classical and the Christian understanding of virtue. And virtue is always determined by [inaudible] purpose. So every good question I think begins with first asking what is the purpose of it? And marriage is a good thing to ask that about, because we have a lot of different answers today, don't we?

Tim Muehlhoff: We do.

Rick Langer: Let's get back to the book. Tell us a little bit more about that, how you framed it, and what you were hoping your readers would, how it would impact your readers.

Karen Swallow Prior: So, I did. It was sort of accidental. That's how most of my books turn out. I start out with one idea, and it's a process of discovery for me. And so in the process of writing this book, my editor just suggested to me that I talk about practices and habits. I've been heavily influenced by James K. A. Smith's work. So we thought, we'll apply that to literature. And I said, okay. And where that took me was to sort of, I can be very literal, I'm Baptist. So I guess I can be very literal. I said, okay, so practices and habits, that takes me to Aristotle and virtues.

Rick Langer: That's a good place to go.

Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah. And I said, I don't know anything about virtues, so I needed to study virtues and virtue ethics. So I just began to do that and thought, wow, I want to write a book that explains what each virtue is and how we can see that in works of literature that I love. I knew I was writing a book about books, and I thought this is an interesting framework. So it ends up being a book that's sort of half about virtue ethics. And I choose like the 12, the cardinal virtues, the Christian virtues, and the heavenly virtues. There are lots of lists. There are many more virtues out there. And then I choose works of literature that I think tell us something about those virtues. I'm not saying that the purpose of the book was to teach this lesson, but rather by reading well, you can discover something about this virtue in the book. But I am by no means saying that you should read every book hunting for a virtue, it's just one way of demonstrating that reading good literature well forms us.

Rick Langer: Can you give us an example?

Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah.

Rick Langer: Pick one and what book?

Karen Swallow Prior: I chose, let's see which one is my favorite one, though they're all my favorites. I chose Huckleberry Finn to talk about the virtue of courage. As with all virtues, a virtue is a moderation between an excess and a deficiency. And part of the problem with studying virtues is that our words in English are so limited. So let's just say that the quality that constitutes courage is like chutzpah. Let's just say it's that, to use a different word. Too little of it is cowardice, but too much of it is recklessness. So it's therefore not courage. So the virtue of courage has to have just enough, not too little or too much. For example, in Huckleberry Finn, no spoiler alerts, hopefully you've all read it, we've got Huck's friend, Tom, who goes out of his... It's funny, because the story is satirical, he goes out of his way to increase the danger of their adventures, because he just wants to have adventure. That's not courage, because he's putting people unnecessarily in harm's way.

I show that Huck does in the story demonstrate courage. But I show that the person who demonstrates the most courage is the runaway slave, Jim, because he ends up risking his life in order to save Tom's life. So that's real courage. That's just an example of one of the chapters on one virtue in one work of literature.

Rick Langer: It strikes me one of the benefits of learning courage that way is kind of fostering a bigger imagination for what courage might be than what we get in just our daily lives. Because sometimes, and we may have that demanded of us, but usually that isn't our norm. And part of what enables us to perform well is having our imagination stretched a little bit about what courage might look like.

Karen Swallow Prior: Or I'd say in our everyday lives we have lots of opportunities to commit the error, to commit the vice. We think we're being courageous when we're really just being a jerk.

Tim Muehlhoff: Rick, I'm stepping into your realm, but isn't this Aristotle's golden mean?

Karen Swallow Prior: Yes.

Tim Muehlhoff: Isn't that what- ? Oh, thank you. That was awesome.

Karen Swallow Prior: That's in the book.

Tim Muehlhoff: But I think that's important is to say it can go too far. A good thing can be misapplied. We watch a movie in one of my classes. I was trying to Google the name of it and I couldn't find it, but it's on the intermittent windshield wiper, the man who actually created it. Hang on, hang on. So he does it, he shows it to... I'm not going to say a car company, but it's a very famous car company, who steals it. And they have this huge [inaudible] intellectual property, but he is defending it but spends the next 40 years of his life, destroys his marriage, he's separated from his kids, has to declare bankruptcy, but he will not let it go, because you stole my intellectual [inaudible].

By the way, in the end, as he's divorced, separated from his kids, he actually wins. Eventually, a court decides they did steal your intellectual property and you are awarded this, but in the wake was his marriage and stuff like that. So you take a good thing, which is defending justice, and then it ruined everything. I thought that was a good example of sometimes we can be as Christians committed to something, but we just go too far.

Karen Swallow Prior: Well, can I say something really trivial now? Because that sounds good. So an intermittent windshield wiper is a perfect example of virtue. Because when your windshield wiper is going too fast for the rain or too slow for the rain, it's bad, so thank God for the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper.

Rick Langer: Well, it's a reflection. Most virtues always manifest themselves and respond to some external reality that you encounter.

Karen Swallow Prior: Exactly.

Rick Langer: There it is.

Karen Swallow Prior: So what the right response is in that moment is what constitutes virtue.

Rick Langer: And on this golden mean, we talk about the golden mean, but for Aristotle, the virtues are almost never actually a mean in the sense of being halfway between the two, the excess and the deficiency, and courage is a great example where, when you think about it, courage, well-formed courage, is actually closer to the rashness than it is to the cowardice. It presses you in that way. And so because it doesn't just drop in the middle, we don't have an easy way to know exactly what it looks like. And again, that's one of the virtues of, be it a fictional or real-life worked example, we just go, oh right. Tom's just being stupid, but Huck is being less that way. And Jim, in particular, is hitting this proper place where he's risking in a sense everything, but on the other hand doing it when it's right and needed to be done.

Karen Swallow Prior: Because Aristotle also says that nothing is virtuous that's disconnected from the other virtues.

Tim Muehlhoff: [inaudible].

Karen Swallow Prior: So you can't be courageous if you're doing something unjust. That's what holds them all together is that every other virtue is also being operated. So it sounds like in your film version, he would have been lacking temperance and justice and all these other things. So it just wasn't virtuous.

Tim Muehlhoff: My wife put in a much crasser way, what he was lacking. She had a much more stark assessment. And for those of you listeners who it's just driving you crazy, the movie is called Flash of Genius. Greg Kinnear plays Robert Kearns, a professor who invented the intermittent windshield wiper and claimed that Detroit automakers stole the idea. It was a long drawn-out battle that really did take quite a toll on his mental health and things like that. But I think it's a good example.

Rick Langer: At the risk of bringing this back to the Winsome Conviction Project, is the things we talk about with civility and things like that, it strikes me that one of our challenges for actually having good constructive discourse across profound disagreement is actually exactly a lack of virtue. And part of what made me think about that again is just what you mentioned about virtues, in a sense, well, like the fruit of the Spirit, it is singular, not plural. So the idea is that somehow these travel together, and of course the reason we have seven different names is because there's meaningful-

Karen Swallow Prior: Manifestations.

Rick Langer: Different manifestations. But the idea that I get to replace gentleness with peace or something like that, it's like, no, they need to travel together. There'll be aspects of the fruit of the Spirit that are more relevant here than there. And it seems to me that this is perhaps a proving ground of our character in the presence of the fruit of the Spirit often is exactly in conversation. And most frequently, the place where the real virtue has to kick in is in the contested issues that we're talking about.

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, Karen, we literally could do this all day. And in fact, we have done this all morning.

Rick Langer: We've done pretty close to that, yes.

Tim Muehlhoff: Done all morning, but you are here visiting Biola University, and there's a president's lunch where I think you're going to address some of the topics that we have covered in this podcast. But we just want to say thank you so much. This has been a delightful and I hope really encouraging challenging conversation for our listeners. So thank you so much.

Karen Swallow Prior: Thank you for having me.

Rick Langer: I do want to thank you for popping your head up in the public sphere, because I often liken that to playing Whack-A-Mole, where you pop up and you say something, and all of a sudden there's a mallet that's coming down on your head. So I want to affirm you exactly on the issue of courage, cultivating the virtues that allow you to do that and do that well. And I don't want to take that for granted or fail to acknowledge what's demanded of you probably on a daily basis. So thank you.

Karen Swallow Prior: Thank you.

Tim Muehlhoff: If you go to our website, winsome, you will see not only of course these podcasts, but all of our podcasts are listed on our website along with blogs. And we have some videos of us speaking. We really want this to be a storehouse where you can come and get everything for free. We want to be a resource. So check out winsome You can check out our podcast anywhere you listen to podcasts. So thank you so much, and we look forward to the next time.