Why is apologetics, the defense of the Christian faith, important?
In one sense, Christianity needs no defense. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, does not depend for His existence on our belief. However, many people who do not know the living God are separated from Him in part by intellectual obstacles. Removing those obstacles by showing that Christianity indeed makes sense on a rational level is an act of love and care for our neighbor. Defending the faith also builds up a strong foundation for believers. A securely built house has a solid, well-built foundation, so that the vagaries of wind and weather don’t damage it or cause distress to the inhabitants. It’s natural to have questions and doubts – think of the disciples, asking Jesus “increase our faith!” or the man who cries out “Lord, I believe: help my unbelief!” Apologetics helps strengthen the foundations by providing answers to questions and doubts, so that the Christian can grow stronger in his or her faith.
What about “literary apologetics”?
Literary apologetics is that mode of apologetics that functions through the use of the Imagination in stories, poetry, drama, and song. Imagination is a mode of knowing; it is the twin sister of Reason. Imagination that is not grounded in Reason can become what JRR Tolkien called “morbid fantasy,” unhealthy and unhelpful; conversely, Reason that is not supported by Imagination can become sterile, rigid, and unfruitful. Literature is particularly well suited to bring these two often-separated sisters together, so that Reason and Imagination can illuminate the path to truth.
Stories, poetry, and drama can help us to both comprehend the truth (with our intellect) and apprehend it (imaginatively and emotionally). As with rational argument, literature cannot in itself bring a person to know Christ, but it can open doors, challenge assumptions, and most importantly provide a glimpse of experienced truth. Stories invite readers to indeed “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
Literature can best fulfill this role when the author is committed both to expressing the truth and to creating a good story. The best literary apologists – CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, GK Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and others, just to name those of the past century – did not set out to wrap a moral in a story, or explicitly to promote Christianity through their fiction writing. Rather, they believed fully and deeply, and sought to glorify God in all that they did – and so their stories show the truth, in deep and satisfying ways.
Today, we need a new generation of Christian writers who will do what those great writers did. We need well-informed, thinking Christians, who know their Scripture and theology, are committed to living out the Christian life in word and deed, and show forth that living truth in their work.
We need writers who will immerse themselves in the best writing of centuries past and learn from it, and be able to draw on that rich treasury of imagery to do new things.
We need writers who are willing and eager to view writing as a God-given calling, and to joyfully pursue the craft and art of it with dedication and hard work.
Fortunately, we do not have to start from scratch! We have the works of Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, MacDonald, and others to study and learn from. Going further back, we have an absolute treasure chest of writers: Coleridge, Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Spenser, Dante, to name just a few.
We are not limited to the great writers of the past, however. We have people who even now are taking up the challenge of writing to draw people through the imagination to know Christ. In England, the poet and scholar Malcolm Guite (www.malcolmguite.com) is doing marvelous work with poetry. In my own blog, Hieropraxis (www.hieropraxis.com), I am attempting to cultivate an appreciation for literature and literary apologetics, as well as writing my own poetry.
To be an effective literary apologist means a commitment to the craft of writing, so that the great and glorious truth of our faith is presented to the world in the most beautiful, powerful, gripping, and transformative ways possible. It also means a commitment to community. Just as Lewis and Tolkien were part of the Inklings, commenting and critiquing each others’ work, so too the writers of today need the kind of community where “iron sharpens iron.”
In the Cultural Apologetics program that I head up at Houston Baptist University (link: hbu.edu/maa), we pay close attention to literature and the arts in the service of apologetics. In addition to myself as a ‘literary apologist,’ Dr. Michael Ward (author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis) is now on our full-time faculty for the MA in Apologetics, teaching on CS Lewis and Imaginative Apologetics and also on Literature and Apologetics. In addition to helping apologists learn how to use imaginative means to present apologetics arguments, we hope also to encourage Christian writers to do new creative work. The Thesis option for our MA can be either an academic thesis or a creative one.
I think we’re at the beginning of great things for literature in the service of God. My friends, let’s go further up and further in!
Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith (2010; 2nd ed. forthcoming, 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.