On My Shelf: Life and Books with Karen Swallow Prior

On My Shelf is a series that helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I corresponded with Karen Swallow Prior—professor of English at Liberty University, research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States—about what’s on her nightstand, her favorite fiction, what she’s learning about following Jesus, and more. 


What's on your nightstand right now? 

What are your favorite classic works of literature and why?

Asking this of an English professor is like asking a preacher what his favorite Bible verse is! I’ve written a great deal of my love for Jane Eyre, largely because of its formative role as I was figuring out who I was as an individual and as a Christian. I never tire of reading Charles Dickens or Jonathan Swift. Both of them, in different ways, display profound social vision and understanding of human nature. Their writing is brilliant in conception and incisive in execution, from the overarching narrative to the wittiest turn of phrase. Dickens’s Great Expectations is probably the book that gives me the most pleasure in reading, since its pages contain so much drama, comedy, and sheer humanity. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the most exquisitely written books I’ve ever read. Its subtle seams are bursting with poignant insights about human dignity and frailty. And I think Flannery O’Connor is the cat’s meow.

What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel? 

I’ve had two major movements in my adult Christian life. The first occurred in being introduced to Christian worldview more than 20 years ago. During that time, I read Francis Schaeffer, Chuck Colson, and every book, I think, that Gene Edward Veith ever wrote. But after a number of years of teaching in a Christian university and beating the drum of Christian worldview, I couldn’t figure out why worldview didn’t seem to “take” with so many of my students. Then I discovered James K. A. Smith’s work and the idea of liturgical anthropology. I see now that what we think emerges first from what we love. For those of us, like me, who love thinking, the Christian worldview approach works well. But not all of us are built that way. Now I’m approaching my teaching and ministry using Christian worldview and liturgical anthropology in tandem.

One other book that has had the sharpest and most practical influence on the way I advise and mentor students is Gary Friesen’s Decision Making and the Will of God. This gem shapes the vast majority of conversations I have with students about choices they’re facing about their future.

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?

Since my primary area of interest is the novel, I actually don’t read a lot of biographies and autobiographies. So I hope it’s not cheating to answer with the biography I wrote! Writing a biography (Fierce Convictions, the life of 18th-century abolitionist Hannah More) influenced me tremendously. Researching a life and the historical context for that life with the depth required to write a biography is an intense and intimate experience. It’s humbling, challenging, and inspiring to reach back into history and examine the lives of those who went before us, especially fellow believers part of that great cloud of witnesses. In doing so, we face our own mortality—and our immortality, too, because whether for good or ill, our works and legacies live on into future generations.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

“Community” is such a buzzword these days, and it seems like it means different things to different people in different contexts. But I’ve learned in the past year or so that I’m really thankful for—and really, really need—“my people,” the people God has placed me in community with. There’s a reason God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), and there’s a reason we’re told not to forsake fellowship with one another (Heb. 10:25). The more I try to follow Jesus where he takes me, the more I realize that I need the body, his body. I’ve also been learning to stand back and watch what God is doing and to enjoy seeing him work—even when what he’s doing involves some hard things for me. I’m just learning to enjoy God more by getting myself out of the way.


Also in the On My Shelf series: Jackie Hill PerryBruce AshfordJonathan LeemanMegan HillMarvin OlaskyDavid WellsJohn FrameRod DreherJames K. A. SmithRandy AlcornTom SchreinerTrillia NewbellJen WilkinJoe CarterTimothy GeorgeTim KellerBryan ChapellLauren ChandlerMike CosperRussell MooreJared WilsonKathy KellerJ. D. GreearKevin DeYoungKathleen NielsonThabiti AnyabwileElyse FitzpatrickCollin HansenFred SandersRosaria ButterfieldNancy Guthrie, and Matt Chandler.

Browse dozens of book recommendations from The Gospel Coalition’s leaders and sign up your church at Hubworthy.

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