Using the power of narrative in apologetics discourse allows the apologist to transform abstract truth into a story that the reader or listener can engage with. There are a number of ways to do this, far beyond the typical ‘start a sermon with an anecdote’ approach.
First, Scripture and theology can be taught in the context of the larger story of God’s involvement with human history. As one example, the doctrine of the Trinity can be embedded in the context of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, the Ascension, and Pentecost, to give some Scriptural examples.
Teaching on the attributes of God will be much more effective if it is grounded in stories from Scripture that show these attributes as God interacts with His people. (See Garret Johnson’s excellent piece on Scripture and ‘show, don’t tell.’) This means moving beyond using individual verses and passages as proof-texts and engaging with them as narrative, allowing people to experience the fullness of what Scripture has to say rather than reducing Scripture to being a reference footnote.
Second, teaching itself can draw on the nature of story. We like conflict, suspense, and resolution in our stories; a speaker or teacher can set the stage for a lecture or discussion with intellectual, theological, or moral conflicts and suspense. This approach is more engaging to the audience, who can follow the ‘story’ of the unfolding argument or lesson.
Third, we should draw much more on Church history and on the lives of the saints in general apologetics. Many of the challenges we face today have been faced by Christians in centuries past – and often the ‘distance’ provided by history allows for a fresh perspective on a subject. The history of the Church itself is extremely exciting – as someone said, the existence of the Church is itself an argument for the truth of Christianity – and, properly told, knocks out some of the typical claims against Christianity, such as it being anti-science.
The lives of the saints through the past two thousand years provide another form of apologetics. It is difficult to imagine that anything other than a genuinely true religion could inspire people from so many different cultures, times, walks of life, and personality to become Christians and to love and serve Him with all their might. Because the saints are so varied, and so interesting, their lives are a cultural apologetic against the secular assumption that heaven is a boring place where you sit on a cloud and play a harp, and that being good and moral is a dull business.
The saints also offer a point of entry, as it were: examples of conspicuous holiness and goodness (even by secular standards) that draw the attention, and may help people to wonder: what motivated that person? How could I gain some of that joy, some of that strength?
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. Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.