One of the most dramatic sidebars to the controversies surrounding #SBCToo and the Rev. Paige Patterson was the freakish timing of a serious accident in the life of one of his most articulate female critics within evangelicalism.
Karen Swallow Prior is one of those individuals whose existence perfectly illustrates why your GetReligionistas are not fond of sticking shallow labels on complex religious believers.
First of all, she is professor of English at Liberty University. Then again, she used to identify herself as a conservative feminist, which is a conversation starter, to say the least.
I first ran into her back in 2003 when I was writing about a Southern Baptist congregation that created a service blending Celtic liturgy and symbols with evangelical content ("Postmodern Celtic Baptists). Prior's research into liturgy and poetry was at the heart of that effort.
Now this, care of a recent story in The Tennessean:
Karen Swallow Prior helped raise the voices of thousands of women who called out a revered Southern Baptist leader for his counsel on women, abuse and divorce.
The same day a Texas seminary removed him as its president, Prior got hit by a bus.
The timing of the freak accident in Nashville felt uncanny to her. Prior and others advocating alongside her for better treatment of women in the evangelical denomination say they saw a parallel between the bus wrecking her body and the misogynistic forces of the church causing brokenness among women.
The symbolism they found in the May 23 crash that played out at the intersection of Church Street and 20th Avenue North resonated with Prior on a visceral level.
"There's no winners, and just talking about it and speaking on behalf of others was just difficult. It's an ugly situation," Prior said ... from her room at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "Then, just to be slammed by a bus literally, physically in the midst of that moment, this was just eerie."
There really isn't any need, at this point, to repeat many of the details of the Patterson controversy -- which is not over, by the way. To catch up, see my recent post: "Watching Southern Baptist dominoes: Whither the Paige Patterson files on 2003 rape report?"
However, I think there is an interesting question, or two, to consider when reading this Tennessean story about this fascinating woman.
Let me stress: I am not saying that this story needed to devote a lot of ink to Prior's many critics. However, she certainly has outspoken critics and they are easy to spot (just do a Google search for her name and attach the word "feminist"). Like I said, Prior is a complex woman and she does important work. That will often cause debates, no matter where you teach.
However, at the heart of this story is -- wait for it -- a familiar theological term that your GetReligionistas keep bringing up when looking at stories about tragedies, especially those with interesting issues linked to timing. Once again we are talking about "theodicy," the ancient question of why God allows -- in a free, broken world -- bad things to happen to good people.
At the heart of this Tennessean story is a powerful "Why?" question. Why did this happen to Prior, right in the middle of this controversy? There was no way to skip over the timing issue and the story allows her friends and supporters to discuss that angle.
To grasp the timing question, read this rather long, but essential, passage from this feature. The scene opens with that long night and early morning drama, when the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary decided to push Patterson out as president, but with a cushy package of honors and benefits:
Prior, who saw herself as a spokesperson for those women unable or uncomfortable to speak for themselves, waited up late in her Nashville hotel room for the board of trustees to make that decision. She wrapped up some morning interviews about Patterson before setting out for a book meeting at LifeWay Christian Resources.
But Prior would not make the appointment, nor the evangelical women's conference that started a few hours later. Just before 9 a.m. she stepped into a crosswalk.
"I do not remember seeing the bus until I saw it up close, very up close when it was hitting me," Prior said. "The next thing I remember is lying on the ground surrounded by people that I couldn't really see, but I could hear."
She remembers all the blood, the excruciating pain and the fear.
But she also remembers the people helping her, including the two nurses who told people not to move her. She remembers the man who held her hand as he encouraged her not to lose consciousness. And she remembers him praying for her as paramedics loaded her into the ambulance.
What did this mean? Why this moment in time?
Consider this interpretation from Kelly Rosati, one of Prior's friends, who was in Nashville to attend that same evangelical conference
"They wheeled her in and I was just immediately incredibly alarmed because it was obviously very, very serious," said Rosati, a child advocacy consultant in Colorado Springs. "I was immediately so grateful that her life had been spared."
Rosati, who was able to attend the end of the evangelical women's conference, said Prior's crash was a clear metaphor for what was happening spiritually in the church as it relates to women. Others at the conference reflected on that, too. ...
"There has been this brokenness and this shattering in the way that women have been dismissed and in the way issues like sex assault have been handled," Rosati said. "It's been a failure and there needs to be healing."
At the very end of the piece there is this commentary -- in the form of a full, direct quote from Twitter -- offering Prior's own take on this:
Now, I do have a journalism question about all of this, and let me state right up front that I do not know the answer to this one. The question: Should this story have included material from critics of Prior and, in particular, backers of Patterson who would oppose her efforts to help bring him down?
In other words, as cruel as this sounds, is there anyone out there who might have a different take on the timing of that bus and the role of "spiritual warfare" in this amazing story?
You know that there are some angry people -- male and female -- on the other side of this clash of the generations in Southern Baptist leadership. Would anyone have been candid enough to answer a question or two from The Tennessean team?