As a bookmark-carrying bibliophile, I might be required to like this chapter more than usual.
We’re now on Chapter 11 of Before You Lose Your Faith. And for whatever it’s worth, this chapter isn’t bad at all. That’s not a huge surprise, given who wrote it: Karen Swallow Prior, now regarded as a heretic by the hardliners of her tribe. But even so, her chapter only reminds us of how far and how much modern American evangelicalism has fallen from its roots. In a way, it’s very sad to read, even as it serves as a potent reminder that there’s no good or loving god at the center of Christianity.
(This post originally appeared on Patreon on 12/20/2022. Patrons get a few days of early access — thank you! <3)
Everyone, meet Karen Swallow Prior, the writer of Chapter 11 of Before You Lose Your Faith
Before You Lose Your Faith was published in April 2021.
Less than one year later, Karen Swallow Prior, the contributor of Chapter 11 of the book, was well on her way to becoming a hated heretic. That had to have annoyed the people behind this book, The Gospel Coalition (TGC).
But first, let’s back up. This is a meeting, after all!
Karen Swallow Prior is an older white lady who belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). She is one of two women contributors to this book. According to her blurb in the book, she’s a research professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS), an SBC-branded school.
She’s also written a number of books. Interestingly, her books mostly reflect what she teaches at SEBTS: English and “Christianity and culture.” Her latest book, Reading Well, explores how classic literature teaches various virtues. Only one of the books on her list, Pilgrim’s Progress, looks overtly Christian.
As I mentioned, she’s in the SBC. In fact, she’s so SBC that, at least until 2019, she attended a church run by Jerry Falwell Jr’s brother and taught at Liberty University. In 2015, she became a research fellow for the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
But 2019 is also the year she began speaking out against the culture wars. Hardline evangelical sites began attacking her around then.
In late 2019, she left Liberty for her current job at SEBTS.
In 2020, one attacker sneered that she was a member of “the Southern Baptist Jezebel brigade.” I can imagine nobody who fits that description less, but forget it. It’s risky to get between hardliner evangelical men and their rabid misogyny. That same year, Pulpit & Pen, run by alleged family abuser and apparent drinking-and-driving and substance-abuse enthusiast J.D. Hall, gloated as they claimed to be the reason the ERLC dropped Prior from their list of research fellows.
Starting in 2020, Prior contributed some culture- and reading-oriented posts to TGC. Interestingly, she hasn’t written any posts for TGC since May 2022. I suspect this cessation happened because by then, hard-right evangelicals’ dislike for her had erupted into absolute dripping hatred.
How Karen Swallow Prior became a hated evangelical heretic
But Karen Swallow Prior was only getting started.
In February 2022, a New York Times editorial called her one of “The Dissenters Trying to Save Evangelicalism From Itself.” The editorial describes these dissenters as “courageously and passionately opposing the Trumpification of American Christianity.” In it, she describes how she became aware of how bad the culture wars really are. (I wrote about the editorial here.)
A couple of months later, in April 2022, a hard-right ultraconservative minister, Tom Buck, accused Prior of leaking his wife’s manuscript. His wife had written about Buck’s abuse of her as part of a future book about “restorative grace.” Somehow, a Christian news site had gotten a leaked copy of her manuscript. Buck assumed that only Prior had a copy of it. Thus, she must have leaked it!
The right-wing Christ-o-sphere took up Buck’s accusations with shocking alacrity. They were all as completely certain as Buck was that Prior had heinously violated his wife’s trust.
The manuscript leak came right as Buck was stumping for a candidate for the presidency of the SBC, super-hardliner Tom Ascol (who also hates Prior, and who lost the election). So naturally, Buck saw this leak as an attempt to prevent Ascol’s presidency.
Prior’s social media and general writings made me seriously doubt these accusations. She avoids the SBC’s degenerate political side. Further, I doubted that only she could possibly have had access to the manuscript.
At the time, I figured the culprit was someone very close to the Bucks. I still think that.
But none of that mattered to hardline evangelical men. Seriously, only a fool interferes with evangelical men when they feel this emboldened in their misogyny.
An overview of Chapter 11 of Before You Lose Your Faith
Karen Swallow Prior’s chapter is titled “Anti-Intellectualism: We Must Ask Hard Questions.” Alas, it begins with a caricature straight out of the evangelical culture-warrior playbook: A young man in one of her classes who was absolutely certain that “literature is trash.” She describes trying to sway him toward fine literature (p. 93):
When I shared with him a biblical basis for studying and enjoying literature, he responded by pontificating on the doctrines of presuppositionalism, on the failures of Paul’s approach to apologetics at Mars Hill, on the glories of the pure gospel untainted by worldly imagination. It seemed like a hopeless case.
Within a few years, he had renounced his faith.
Now he has found his place among fellow atheistic young scholars expressing hostility and disdain toward religious belief, especially Christianity. I asked him once how this deconstruction had happened. He said that encountering ideas he’d never been exposed to before led him to reconsider everything he’d been taught, particularly some claims by Christians in his area of study that he now considers fabrications.
Soon, Prior decided that anti-intellectualism in evangelicals led to them getting broadsided by contradictions to their beliefs. Steeping young evangelicals in intellectual studies, therefore, will totally help inoculate them against these future surprises.
Scientism vs anti-intellectualism in Before You Lose Your Faith
Interesting, isn’t it? Chapter 10 was all about how awful scientism is. So evangelicals needed to avoid using the tools of real science to examine their own religious claims. Now, we have someone telling us that evangelicals need to eschew ignorant anti-intellectualism. If not, the next generation won’t be able to defend their beliefs.
Scientism is, in many ways, a strawman reaction to Americans’ growing technological sophistication. Anti-intellectualism may function in much the same way as Americans grow more intellectually sophisticated. (Our attention spans may be shrinking, but every new generation gets better at spotting bullshit claims!)
Indeed, Prior spends some time exploring how anti-science attitudes in evangelical groups can collapse upon too-close examination. She goes for a more nuanced approach to compartmentalization than Chapter 10’s writer suggests. It’s something more akin to non-overlapping magisteria (NOM). This viewpoint allows her to claim that her religious claims are compatible with real science.
It’s still weak sauce, since the god she claims is real does stuff in the real world, so must, of necessity, leave traces behind. But at least she’s trying to cordon off religious claims in a nicer way than the last guy.
How to stop deconstruction in its tracks: Take #423,934
Chapter 10 of Before You Lose Your Faith utilized bad apologetics to replace the tools of science in examining Christians’ claims. And here, we have a similar substitute suggested.
She wants evangelicals to create a hierarchy of claims. Some claims get designated as primary beliefs. Some become secondary or even tertiary beliefs. In this paradigm, secondary (and lower) beliefs can shift. They reflect cultural values that obviously change over time. Primary beliefs, however, are unchangeable and unchanging. They’re the only claims that cannot possibly be rejected.
In Prior’s opinion, everything else that’s lower in priority should and must be subject to negotiation. Instead, doubters get “slick or half-baked answers to their thorny, honest questions.”
Prior thinks that if evangelicals did this instead of making all their claims make-or-break, ride-or-die, dealbreakingly important, it would allow young evangelicals the space they need to wrestle with their biggest questions.
She also thinks it’d vastly improve Christian art and stories, which she describes as having “poor quality and cheap messages.”
So let the little lambs question and wrestle with deeper concerns
In her own case, Prior offers a testimony in which the best-of-the-best literature saved her faith. She says that “an unbelieving professor at my secular university” showed her “the deep, rich tradition of Christian thinkers that is our heritage.”
One hopes that Eusebius, that 3rd-century liar-for-Jesus and awful apologist, wasn’t one of those examples! But apparently he wasn’t. Instead, she names writers like Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens as Christians whose writing she first grew to admire. Even when she names other eras’ writers, the grand liar doesn’t make the grade—though Augustine of Hippo sure does.
Now she is sure that this same literature could preserve the next generation of doubters.
She ends by claiming that Jesus simply adored tough questions. So therefore, evangelical leaders should be doing the same (p. 100):
The proper response to anti-intellectual Christianity isn’t hyper-cerebral Christianity; it’s cultivating an environment where skeptics are welcome, doubts are taken seriously, and we “have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 1:22). The right questions asked in the right way can only lead to truth—and the Truth.
Before you deconstruct your faith, know that there is no question too hard for Christianity. Of course, it’s one thing to affirm this theologically but another to embody this in daily church life. Our churches must be the places that welcome the questions—and those who ask them. You—with your questions and believing doubt—might be the one to help them be such a church.
This poor lady. Oh, this poor lady.
An evangelicalism that simply does not exist in Before You Lose Your Faith
Karen Swallow Prior looks to be in her late 50s (Google thinks she’s 57). The college education she describes receiving would have been many decades ago in the late 1980s. The evangelicalism she describes is at least that old. It made room for literature and questions and doubt.
It had room, as well, for primary and negotiable beliefs. Evangelicals could happily vote Democrat and support abortion if they felt that Jesus wanted it that way. They could worship alongside Republican forced-birthers in churches that stayed well away from cheap politics. Even the SBC contained an awful lot of progressives and liberals in the early 1980s.
But that was long, long before evangelical leaders decided to get in bed with Catholics over abortion. It was before they began to polarize sharply, skewing ever further conservative—and driving out anyone who wasn’t.
Alas for Prior, the evangelicalism of today bears no resemblance whatsoever to the evangelicalism of the 1980s.
The evangelicalism she describes as being warm, welcoming harbors for doubters simply does not exist. If more than 20 out of the 47,000-ish churches in the SBC are like that, I’ll be genuinely shocked. I bet there are more SBC churches that are gay- and bi-inclusive than there are that look like Prior’s hopeful descriptions.
Before You Lose Your Faith has made this mistake many times already, of course. So far, all of its contributors have acted like evangelicalism is something other than what it actually is.
Authoritarianism means never having to change, ever, no matter what
What is worse, though, is that Prior seriously thinks that doubters could make any changes to how evangelical churches operate.
By now, evangelicalism is fully authoritarian. And it is dysfunctionally authoritarian at that. Functional authoritarianism is something like a good military force that follows its own rules and earnestly strives to meet its own stated goals. That isn’t what evangelicals have. Their leaders and the vast majority of their flocks do not follow their own rules. They don’t care at all about meeting their own stated goals, pursuing instead a series of covert, hidden goals. The entire enterprise exists to enrich and empower group leaders at their followers’ expense.
Dysfunctional authoritarian systems are designed from the ground up to peel all power away from followers so that it can be handed to their leaders. That means that the only people who can make changes to the group are its leaders. And they will almost never want to do that, because changes would, of necessity, peel away their own power. That’s the last thing they’ll ever allow.
It’s cruel even to suggest to doubters that they should even try to make churches change how they respond to earnest doubt and serious questions. It’s an impossible ask. Any pastor who even tried to do that would be fired before the first church bulletins went out to announce the change. And the doubters themselves would be driven out if their doubts failed to resolve quickly and along tribally-approved lines.
The evangelicalism of the early 1980s might have been able to work with those doubters.
The evangelicalism of the 2020s simply can’t. It is an ossified, fully calcified, fully fused cruise ship heading straight for the mother of all icebergs.
A culture of easy answers, cheap shots, and shitty apologetics that can’t be resolved by Before You Lose Your Faith
There’s a reason why Christian art is of poor quality and bearing cheap messages. It’s the same reason why apologetics offers only slick, half-baked potshots to doubters.
Modern evangelicals have constructed a god who is completely, totally real and who does things in the real world all the time. He just never leaves a single trace behind of any of his interference. However, evangelicals also think they have tons and tons of PROOF YES PROOF of that interference. They think their apologetics bullshit routines rise to the level of compelling evidence for their claims.
That’s an impossible circle to square. It breaks the brain. The only way to resolve that cognitive dissonance is to bluster over it, to steamroll it, to trample it down. Anyone who looks too long at those contradictions will either hit the wall of reality (and bust through its paper-thin barrier to the other side of deconversion/deconstruction), or else swerve away from that wall at the last second and give themselves entirely to the shoddy, lackluster substitutes for evidence that evangelicals have amassed over the past few decades.
Karen Swallow Prior has figured out a way to remain evangelical despite the dealbreaking lack of evidence her religion contains for its claims. But her evangelicalism looks a lot like the old-school kind, not the new kind that has dominated the Christian pool for decades now.
The real surprise: I kinda liked this chapter of Before You Lose Your Faith
Knowing what I know about Karen Swallow Prior, I was already fairly disposed to like her chapter more than the others. I mean, she drove both Tom Buck and his master, Tom Ascol, completely spare. And yes, I did like her chapter, overall. It’s the best one out of the book, even considering the mild strawman at the beginning.
(I’m sure we can all name very literature-friendly evangelicals who deconverted; some of us even were like that ourselves. All it takes to start down that path is engaging meaningfully with even one serious dealbreaker, then wanting to know what else is untrue.)
In a way, I’m kinda sad that her style of evangelicalism can’t prevail. If you hadn’t noticed, I actually don’t mind what she’s suggesting here. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen an evangelical leader suggest. Exposing young evangelicals to great literature isn’t the worst idea I’ve ever heard. Usually, evangelicals go the other route and try to shrink-wrap their kids’ minds. (And that approach backfires hugely!) None of it’s evidence to support evangelicals’ claims, but at least she’s not demanding that people sabotage children’s minds.
It’s just that there is no group of evangelicals I know of who could live up to the high ideals she’s suggesting here for churches.
The only thing I fundamentally dislike about this chapter is Prior’s suggestion that doubters try to change their churches. In truth, it’s got to be the church leaders who make the changes first. And if any do, they will be attacked instantly, just as Prior herself has been attacked for years, by the rest of the evangelical tribe as being fakey-fake evangelicals.
Give it another year or two, maybe even after she retires from teaching so isn’t beholden to SEBTS to make a living, but I’m kinda expecting her to leave evangelicalism behind at some point. The tribe will drive her out, just like they did Rachel Held Evans and a bunch of others. And then they will rejoice at having further purified their ultra-polarized flock.
Really, the best reason to doubt that Christianity’s claims are true might well be the conduct of its most fervent believers. And Before You Lose Your Faith still hasn’t made an adequate case for ignoring this hypocrisy.
Either way, I’ll bet you a doughnut that if TGC ever updates this book for a second edition, Prior’s chapter won’t be included again.
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By the way: This might be the only chapter so far that does not mention C.S. Lewis at all. I love the implied diss like burning. I need it to be deliberate. Oh, I want to believe it is.