Apologetics is a discipline that benefits from many different approaches. Just as archaeologists, textual critics, historians, and specialists in exegesis contribute to the study of Scripture in very different, but complementary ways, so too will different modes and approaches to apologetics help us in the good work of sharing the truth of Christianity with a world in need. Philosophy, theology, biblical studies, history, cultural studies, witness, worship, liturgy, preaching — all these have a part to play in pointing people toward Christ and his Church. Literature, too, has its place — and an increasingly important one, I believe, as we seek to evangelize an increasingly post-Christian culture.
Literary apologetics is a 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 – such as CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and GK Chesterton, 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 doctrine, 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 authors like Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, MacDonald, O’Connor, Waugh, and others to study and learn from. Going further back, we have an absolute treasure chest of writers: Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Spenser, Dante, to name just a few. How many people know that St Thomas Aquinas also wrote hymns of great beauty and power, still sung today?
We are not limited to the great writers of the past, however – we have writers, scholars, and organizations today doing good and necessary work using the imagination for Christ. A few examples well worth taking a look at include Second Spring, Oxford; the G.K. Chesterton Library; the poet Malcolm Guite; the journal Saint Katherine Review; and the journal Dappled Things.
In my own blog, Hieropraxis (www.hieropraxis.com), I am attempting to cultivate an appreciation for literature and literary apologetics.
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 at Houston Baptist University, we pay close attention to literature and the arts in the service of apologetics. Dr. Michael Ward (author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis) and I are both full-time faculty for the Master of Arts in Apologetics, helping make this program a locus for the development of literary 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. These are exciting days. 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: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (revised and expanded 2nd ed. forthcoming 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.