The Importance of Excellence in Christian Art and Literature (Part 4)

In this series, I’ve been making a case for excellence in Christian art and literature (you can read parts one, two, and three here.) Now I’d like to consider the question: What does excellence look like in Christian writing?

Excellence includes the quality of the writing: elegance, beauty, effectivenss, clarity, fittingness in the way that we present things. Dana Gioia writes in his must-read essay The Catholic Writer Today that “All writers must master the craft of literature, the possiblities of language, the examples of tradition, and then match that learning with the personal drive for perfection and innovation.”

One element of excellence that is often overlooked is honesty. Too many Christians only want to tell the happy stories and focus on the joyful aspects of Christianity – to get to the Resurrection without the Cross, as it were.

A Christian author could be false, not through bad intentions, but by writing platitudes, or producing a story that does not reflect the world that we live in, oversimplifying, putting things in black and white that really are more complex than that, making stories wrap up too neatly.

To tell the truth, as writers, we have to be willing to look at darkness, and pain, and difficulty. We have to be willing to look at sin. The Gospel is a redemption story. It is a story of God sending His only-begotten Son on a rescue mission to save us. We were in rebellion, and His Son was crucified for us; died a horrible, tortured death for us, and rose again for our salvation. It’s a rescue story, but we must recognize our need to be rescued in order to appreciate the rescue.

We live in a fallen world and we see the evidence of that all around us. Indeed that is one of the most profound arguments for the truth of the Christian story, because we have an explanation of why the world is both beautiful and broken; how we can have moments of joy and experiences of tragedy. No other worldview can satisfactorily account for both of those elements. We can, in the Fall and in the Incarnation.

If we want to present the Gospel in a meaningful way, we need to acknowledge the brokenness of the world. If all we present is the happy ending, without the brokenness that needed the happy ending, we’ve got nothing of value to say to the world.

If we want to tell the story of rescue and redemption, we need to tell stories that show our need for rescue, show our need for redemption, and in a world of hurting people, we need to be able to show that redemption is for everyone. That there is no place so low, no state of weakness too profound, no state of lostness so deep that God cannot find us and rescue us. We can’t really show that if we just stand on the outside and say Happy Jesus Things. We have to be willing to go into the darkness and meet people there and say, our God is a crucified God. He is risen, and bears the marks of the nails in his hands and feet.

I think Christians are sometimes afraid to be honest about pain, because it feels like doub, and they think that doubt is a bad thing. But honest doubt is a different thing than self-seeking, self-serving skepticism that doesn’t want to believe because it’s more convenient. Doubt is part of the human condition, and I’m always deeply comforted by the fact that the disciples had been hanging around Jesus for three years and still said, Lord, increase our faith. If they already had perfect faith, they wouldn’t have needed to ask him to increase it. Or then you have the wonderful prayer of the man whose son is suffering from fits. He says, Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief. And Jesus heals his son.

These are all things that are in Scripture as positive ways to move forward in the faith. Doubt is not the problem. When we acknowledge pain and doubt, it can feel like weakness, as if we’re not strong in our faith. But God is not defined by our strength of faith. Paradoxically, we need to be able to tell God that we’re struggling, and acknowledge our weakness, doubt, and pain. Pain hurts. Knowing that God will bring good out of it doesn’t make it hurt less. It makes it hurt differently, perhaps, but it doesn’t make it hurt less.

Everyone who’s suffered knows this; the question is whether we’re going to be honest about it in our storytelling, in our witness. If a poet or a storyteller tells the truth about the experience of pain, his witness is credible when he speaks about joy. When there are Christians who can speak honestly about suffering in their art, it provides the necessary context for other Christians to speak about hope and love.

This is the paradox about speaking about pain, suffering, loss, fear, and anger, in Christian fiction. If we avoid it, we undercut our own ability to share the truth with people, and if we are honest, we increase our credibility and we increase people’s confidence when we do speak about joy and love and the peace that passes all understanding.

Let me show you two examples.

The first is a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. A devout Catholic, he suffered from illness and from depression throughout his life. He wrote some very joyful and some extraordinarily dark poems called the Terrible Sonnets. Even while he’s voicing suffering, despair, and frustration, he’s always turning to God. There’s a raw honesty in his poetry that is tremendously refreshing. Hopkins’ poetry was really instrumental in my own coming to faith, and certainly in my growth as a Christian. Hopkins tells it like it is; I could believe him.

            Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend

With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.

Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must

Disappointment all I endeavour end?

    Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,

How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost

Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust

Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,

Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes

Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again

With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes

Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,

Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.

Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

This poem is a lament. He’s not able to get any of his poems finished, and he has no problem telling the Lord that he’s frustrated. He isn’t trying to fake a contentment that he isn’t feeling.  This poem does not end with comfort. It ends with his plea: “Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.”

The second poem I want to share with you is by a contemporary writer, the Anglican poet Malcolm Guite. He has a marvelous book called Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Church Year, from which this poem comes.

O Clavis

Even in the darkness where I sit

And huddle in the midst of misery

I can remember freedom, but forget

That every lock must answer to a key,

That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,

Must find a counter-clasp and meet its guard,

Particular, exact, and intimate,

The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward,

I cry out for the key I threw away

That turned and overturned with certain touch

And with the lovely lifting of a latch

Opened my darkness to the light of day.

O come again, come quickly, set me free

Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.

 “O Clavis” means “O Key.” Here we see the experience of depression articulated in a way that fits into the Christian experience, showing us that this is not something to be afraid of, but something to lift up to God. It is a witness to the healing work of Christ.

Some writers will venture into darkness, telling stories and writing poems that can be very bleak. Now it’s not the whole story, but you can’t tell the whole story in every individual piece of writing. People read different things at different times. It’s the overall picture that really matters. So I would encourage us to think about excellence in writing as a matter of seeking to tell the truth in whatever way you as an author have been called to do. As fellow Christians, we should support and encourage writers, and validate their voices as important parts of conveying the Gospel through the arts.


Dr. Holly Ordway is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of the memoir Not God’s Type (revised and expanded second ed. forthcoming 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

The Importance of Excellence in Christian Art and Literature (Part 3)

I’ve been exploring the topic of excellence in Christian art and literature (read part one and part two). Now I want to address the subject of craftsmanship.

Good intentions are simply not good enough. I know that there are a lot of faithful Christians who want to share the Gospel and have the idea of sharing it through creative arts, but who produce art that just isn’t very good. I want to honor the intention, but also stress that it is essential to have excellence in craftsmanship when one is attempting to reach a wider audience.

Excellence in craftsmanship in writing includes clarity of expression, power of expression, and effectiveness of storytelling. All of these things make a story gripping, effective, multi-layered, and rich. C.S. Lewis is a master in this regard. Consider the apparent simplicity of the Chronicles of Narnia: there’s a reason why the rip offs of the Chronicles of Narnia are just rip offs, lacking the power of the real thing. It’s because the Chronicles of Narnia are a tremendously rich and multi-layered set of books that draw on Lewis’ deep medieval literary background and all of his artistry and skill as a writer, honed over many years and many books and talks. He’s such a good writer that he makes it look simple, but it’s not.

If you want to appreciate the profound level of literary craftsmanship in the Chronicles of Narnia, I highly recommend reading Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis by my friend and colleague Michael Ward. (Planet Narnia is in-depth literary criticism, so if you are looking for a more entry-level overview of his thesis, read The Narnia Code.) Planet Narnia will help you see what excellence and depth looks like; if you are a writer yourself, hopefully it will encourage you to step away from, “I’m going to tell my own version of the Chronicles of Narnia,” and instead ask, “what story can I tell, that will have that kind of depth, that’s coming out of what I know, and have studied and loved?” The result will be more original and more effective.

Craftsmanship in storytelling involves many things: command of the language, getting the right words, being able to tell a good story with the things that are necessary in and the things unnecessary out. All of these things take time, effort, discipline, and skill….and more time, effort, discipline, and skill… The great writers that we read did not just sit down one day and say, “I’m going to write a book,” and have that be their masterpiece. They wrote and rewrote, and often they published, and published again. Lots and lots of writing happened before they got to the point of producing the thing that you just read, the book looks like the author just sat down and wrote it.

Writing is a skill that has to be practiced to be mastered. Before I’d even started writing my memoir, Not God’s Type, I’d written several hundred thousand words in various other projects, from my dissertation to DVD reviews. Think about the number. Two or three hundred thousand words. Lots of writing. And lots of practice trying to improve, because just writing, in itself, doesn’t necessarily get you any better. You have to be striving to learn.

I’m a writer, a working writer in several genres, and I know that it’s essential to always be seeking to be better at one’s craft.  When Ignatius Press picked up Not God’s Type for a second edition (coming out in fall 2014), I leaped at the chance not just to expand it, but also to revise it. It was a tremendous opportunity, one that few authors have, to go back to an earlier work and improve it – polishing the language, clarifying unclear passages, finding better metaphors to explain my ideas. I had become a better writer in the intervening years. The discipline of working at one’s writing in the end is freeing, because it allows the greater freedom of being able to convey one’s meaning more fully and deeply and effectively.

In the Christian writing community we need more people who are committed to the discipline of writing, and people who will support those writers. We need people who will not just pat someone on the back and say, “Oh, that’s awesome that you wrote a story that has a Bible verse in it, a story that has some Christian truths in it.” Rather, we need people who are going to support but also challenge them to do better, and give people the opportunity to have their works be read, be shared and discussed. For instance, are there opportunities in your church for writers to share their work? Or groups of writers to put on dramatic plays? There’s nothing like an audience to find out whether your work is really any good.  In your parish magazine, do you publish original poetry and stories by people in your church? And do you push people to try to improve their writing? Do you have someone, maybe a more experienced writer, mentoring other writers in your church?

These are some of the things that we can do to encourage the development of good craftsmanship in pursuit of excellence in Christian writing. But most of all, we need to have the attitude that good intentions are good, but they’re not enough. Let’s encourage, let’s promote, let’s encourage and honor the fledgling work of our fellow Christians, and help people develop their skills to become truly good writers.

Do we really need to work that hard? Yes. I want us to consider instead of writing stories and poetry, making automobiles. Imagine that there’s a Christian automobile factory, and this particular factory, set up in competition to the godless, terrible, secular automobile company. The Christian auto company produces cars that are made by Christians, and they come out the factory with Jesus fishes already on the bumper, ready to go. The only problem is that they get terrible gas mileage, they break down easily, and they’re ugly. I think people would say, sure, the fact that they were made by Christians and they come out of the factory with a pre-installed Jesus fish is all very nice, but I’d really prefer not to get stuck on the freeway once a week, with my car breaking down, and all things being equal, I’d like a car that’s stylish too. Why not? Beauty is from God.

Well, that’s the same way with Christian writing. We need to be producing the BMWs of the literary world.


Dr. Holly Ordway is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of the memoir Not God’s Type (revised and expanded second ed. forthcoming 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

The Importance of Excellence in Christian Art and Literature (Part 2)

In the first post in this series, I suggested that we consider writing as a way to honor God as Creator. Now let’s consider the way in which we can use literature to present the Gospel. How can we use storytelling, poetry, drama to help people to know Christ?

These two purposes intersect with each other. Let’s consider a passage from an essay by C.S. Lewis called “Sometimes Fairy Stories Say Best What’s to Be Said.” It’s most notable because it has the passage in it about getting past watchful dragons, but I want to pick up with an earlier passage in that essay that sometimes people skip over:

The sixteenth century when everyone was saying poets (by which they meant all imaginative writers) ought ‘to please and instruct’, Tasso made a valuable distinction. He said that the poet, as poet was concerned solely with pleasing. But then every poet was also a man and a citizen; in that capacity he ought to, and would wish to, make his work edifying as well as pleasing. Now I do not want to stick very close to the renaissance ideas of ‘pleasing’ and ‘instructing’. Before I could accept either term it might need so much redefining that what was left of it at the end would not be worth retaining. All I want to use is the distinction between the author as author and the author as man, citizen, or Christian. What this comes to for me is that there are usually two reasons for writing an imaginative work, which may be called Author’s reason and the Man’s. If only one of these is present, then, so far as I am concerned, the book will not be written. If the first is lacking, it can’t; if the second is lacking, it shouldn’t.

Lewis reflects here on two different urges in the writer. The author as author, who has a story, has an impulse or an image that fills him with the desire to write. He has a story to tell. Lewis goes on to say that what he calls the Man’s point of view or the Christian’s point of view requires considering whether the Author’s story is worth doing. Is it trivial and frivolous, perhaps unedifying? Is it good, not just in the literary but in all senses good?

Now I want to go back to that key line: “If only one of these is present, either the Author’s or the Man’s perspective, then so far as I’m concerned, the book will not be written. If the first, that is, the Author’s reason, is lacking, then it can’t. But if the second is lacking, then it shouldn’t.” Lewis is arguing that if you have a great story as Author, but as Man you realize you do not have a good reason to write it, then as a Christian you should not spend your time doing it; you shouldn’t write that book. I think most Christians have no problem with that.

Lewis’s other point, though, is that the Man might have a good idea – a truth about Christianity, a good moral message – but if there’s no imaginative depth to it, no Author’s reason to write, then he says the book can’t be written. There is simply no story there.

Now, unfortunately, I think Lewis was not quite right. Those books actually can be written, and unfortunately there’re far too many of them in Christian fiction sections of bookstores and being self-published and sold on the Internet. They’re just really bad books.

These are the books that have a good Christian reason, but no good Author’s reason. They have a moral; they have Bible verses and exhortations to know Christ; and they’re just not very good stories. Unfortunately, these are possible to write. I would argue very strongly that these kinds of stories that have good intentions, but not good craftsmanship, should not see the light of day. They should be first drafts, test runs, the way that a serious writer learns his or her craft. To foist on the public a book (or poem, or story) that has only the Man’s reason and none of the Author’s reason for existing is not giving glory to God.

I know already that by saying that, I’ve probably upset a few readers. So let me unpack that a little bit.

Storytelling is more complex than many people think. Christians can get a little bit too hung up on the end result: for instance, thinking, “This is a badly written story with flat characters and a boring plot, but it does have a Gospel message in it. At least if someone reads this, they’ll be exposed to the Gospel.” First of all, how can you expect your reader to even finish your book, if it’s not a really engaging story? The ordinary reader has total liberty to put down a badly written story and never pick it up again. But let’s say this person is putting up with you.

If you shove a Bible verse or a message or a moral into a story that’s not particularly well done, you create a disconnect between content and presentation. The God whom we are trying to tell people about is the God of all Creation, who made everything, including galaxies, the phenomenal complexity of the human body, sunsets, and people falling in love. If we point to the awesomeness of God in a lackluster way, there’s a disconnect between our message and the way that we’re presenting it.

People notice this. It’s the same as if you’d know a person. Take, as an example, someone who professes to be a Christian, who has a foul temper, is very proud, is perhaps very greedy and envious and acts like a real jerk. Perhaps he acts like a self-righteous jerk, which is worse than being a garden-variety jerk. We can even give credit for good intentions. Maybe this is someone who is genuinely trying to repent, but it’s a work in progress and right now he is not doing so well. Now let’s say that this person spouts Bible verses left and right. It’s not going to be a great witness to Christianity if this person acts like a total jerk to you and then says, “Jesus loves you!” In fact, it will probably have the opposite effect. Why would anyone want to be like this person?

The way that something is presented will have an impact on the credibility of the message. If we want our presentation of the beauty and awesomeness of God to be credible, we ought to present it in a way that’s consonant with the truth that we’re trying to convey.

We can see that most powerfully if we skip back a couple hundred years and look at the cultural productions of Christian artists in the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Look at cathedrals or any church from the seventeenth century or before. Beautiful architecture, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts. Look at the carvings on pews. Listen to the music of Bach or Handel. Listen to the hymns of St Thomas Aquinas. This is true excellence, and it is a witness to God who is the source of all beauty. This is not to say that there is no good Christian art after the Renaissance (there certainly is) but after the Enlightenment and the Reformation, it becomes less and less consistently good.

We have lost the cultural expectation of a consistently good Christian body of art: beautiful, challenging, and engaging art, literature, song, drama that is accessible for all Christians, not just high-culture ones, but also the ordinary person in the pew. With that loss has come a great loss of opportunity for witness. A return to excellence in Christian art will help us regain a powerful form of witness for Christ.


Dr. Holly Ordway is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of the memoir Not God’s Type (revised and expanded second ed. forthcoming 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

The Importance of Excellence in Christian Art and Literature (Part 1)

The very fact that I could title an essay in this way sums up the problem that I intend to address here. Who would argue with the importance of excellence in engineering, or medicine? We wouldn’t want bridges and skyscrapers built by people who believed that good intentions are sufficient. We wouldn’t want our doctors and nurses to skip their lengthy training on the theory that their love for their patients combined with natural enthusiasm will bring about satisfactory results. However, the road to the hell of bad novels, bad music, bad movies, bad poetry by Christians is paved with good intentions.

It’s not good enough to love the Lord Jesus and write bad fiction in his name. Or rather, sure – write bad fiction as a beginner, but don’t consider it “good enough”; rather, write bad fiction in the effort of learning to do better, to write more effectively, more powerfully, so that in the end, your Christian vision is embued in a work of real quality.

To begin with, there are some common misconceptions for Christians when they think about writing something. I’ll start with this one: the idea that if you’re going to write something, as a Christian, it is somehow different from writing in general. (I will argue that this is not so. More troublesomely, there’s the idea that if we are to write as Christians, it doesn’t matter if our quality of writing is particularly good—that mediocre work is good, if it presents the Gospel, if it has a good moral message, if it promotes biblical values, and so on. This is a very common idea, and it’s completely wrong. This series will explain why I think these attitudes about writing are wrong and offer some ideas on what I think we ought to do about it.

We must do better than we have done in recent decades; we must strive for excellence, and encourage excellence, in the writing of fiction (and poetry, and drama, and screenplays…) by Christians.

Let me start with a fairly basic question: what is the purpose of Christian fiction? There are a couple of different purposes we could consider. One is to educate people about Jesus and encourage Christians. We might also add the purpose of warning or educating about things we ought not to do.

Another purpose, and one that I think is predominant, is that Christian fiction should draw people to Christ: literature as a way to share the Good News of God in Christ, through some presentation of the Gospel in the story. So far so good.

Another good, but I think often overlooked, purpose for writing, is to give joy and pleasure to the reader. Why not? This is the Kingdom of Heaven we’re talking about. Rejoicing in art and beauty and storytelling is, and ought to be, a purpose in itself, in Christian writing, but one that I think is underappreciated. We see here some of the effects of secular utilitarianism. Too often Christians, well, what is the story good for? Is it presenting the Gospel? Is it doing something? This is just utilitarianism. Why not enjoy something beautiful for itself? If you go outside and look at the flowers and the birds and clouds in the sky, it seems fairly evident that God as Creator has made lots of things that are simply beautiful, but not useful in any particular way. What good is a bluebird? What use is a sunflower? No use whatsoever, but beautiful and part of God’s creation.

This leads me to what I think is the most important purpose for Christian fiction, the one that subsumes all the others, and that is to give glory to God in everything that we do, and that would include writing. To give glory to God in writing is to express the image of God in ourselves. God is the ultimate Creator, of all that is, seen and unseen. He made everything. And He made us in His own image. We are made in the image of the Creator, and so we have an urge to create and a desire to create that is part of the stamp of God upon us, the part of the image of God in our very self. When we create, writing stories and poetry and do art, we are honoring God by expressing our reflection of Him and His nature in ourselves.

Thus, in order to honor God, we need to do good work. God does not do shoddy work and call it good enough. We are not God, so we are not able to create as He creates, but we can certainly honor Him with the intention of aiming towards excellence.


You can read Part 2 of the series here.


Dr. Holly Ordway is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of the memoir Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Finds Faith (revised and expanded second ed. forthcoming 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

Emily Dickinson and the Art of Doubt

Sometimes designating herself the “Queen of Calvary,” nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson is known as a poet of emotional extremes.  In one moment she is “inebriate of air” and “debauchee of the dew,” the next, she is wallowing in deep despair, acknowledging that she “likes a look of Agony” because she knows “it’s true.”

While tracing the sublime in nature, mapping the descent into romantic disappointment, and defining the psychological extremes of both gain and loss, Dickinson was also interested in the extremes of spiritual states, whether those exist as ones of clarity, or extreme doubt.

In a poem that begins “My Worthiness is all my doubt,” the poet is ostensibly speaking of a beloved person, whose “merit” is all of her “fear.”  However, the poem can easily be taken as a statement on the way doubt works in terms of the relationship between the believer and God.  She likens herself as “inefficient” for “his beloved need,” and agonizes over her unworthiness.  The beloved, who has the power to choose or reject her in terms of being a member of The Elect, is a powerful reminder of God’s power over her imagination and her moments of doubting—not doubting God, but doubting her sufficiency for Him.  She likens her bodily existence to “the undivine abode,” in contract to “his elect content,” and vows that she would “Conform my soul as ‘t were a church/ Unto her sacrament.”  Such religious language not only reminds the reader of Dickinson’s Calvinist upbringing, which was a palpable influence on her art, but also of her lifelong concern with the issue of doubt, one that was so profound that she never did participate in the public profession of faith that was required for full membership in her Amherst, Massachusetts church.

Readers are perhaps more familiar with her famous four-line poem which begins with “Faith is a fine invention/ When Gentlemen can see,” yet goes for the jugular with the wry observation that microscopes are also fine inventions—“in an emergency.”  Gesturing to the influence of empiricism in general, and Darwinism in particular, Dickinson exemplifies the religious person who has spiritual beliefs, yet channels her human doubts into her art.

The very real element of doubt in faith is not a topic that Dickinson is afraid to address.  Whether in social spheres, the classroom, of even among believers who are wavering their beliefs, Dickinson asks the questions that all modern-day Christian apologists have to consider.  She even likens humans to embodying doubt itself, and suggests the constant challenge of alleviating or confronting doubt itself:  “A doubt if it be Us” she posits, then following up with the utility of doubt:  it “Assists the staggering Mind” which must suffer in its state of doubt “In its extreme Anguish/Until it footing find.”

For Dickinson, there is the possibility of finding one’s spiritual “footing,” but one of her striking poetic enterprises is articulating how difficult that can be.  In her well known poem that begins “This World is Not Conclusion,” she is not eliminating the possibility of “conclusion,’ but positing that it cannot be found on earth, but somewhere else.  Here on earth, “Narcotics cannot still the Tooth/That nibbles at the soul.”  Dickinson, who is really at odds with a kind of spiritual propriety that would have been expected of her in her community, is unafraid to note that “Faith slips—and laughs and rallies—“ but she does not discard faith even as she considers its spiritual challenges.


Dr. Doni M. Wilson is an Associate Professor of English at Houston Baptist University and has a 6th grader named Christopher. Her interests include twentieth century literature, classical music, and creative nonfiction. She is working on a book about the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver for the University of South Carolina Press.



The Art of Surprise

Lots of beginning writers pen stories with surprise endings. Surprise! your quirky narrator was actually a bowling pin . . . Surprise! they were on Mars the whole time! . . . Surprise! This is such a ubiquitous phenomenon that books on the craft perennially warn against using such trickery. Jerome Stern gives precisely this counsel in his book Making Shapely Fiction. “Don’t do this,” he says. “Don’t write stories in which the last lines are: And then I woke up . . . And then the alarm rang . . . He realized he was alone, and slowly blinked his third eye . . . It’s not a bad place to live—warm, dry, and nice padded walls . . . He pulled the sheet of paper out of the typewriter; the story was done.” Stern goes on to say, “What’s wrong with these terrific last lines? They’re all based on the same principle—surprise the reader. But who wants to read a whole story just for a punch line?”

IMAGE - Making Shapely Fiction

These examples may induce some chuckling, but their prevalence in early storytelling efforts makes a significant, tacit acknowledgement—that surprise is actually a fundamental part of storytelling.

Even Stern doesn’t deny it—either in the aforementioned book or in his own fiction. He makes great use of it in fact. We rightly intuit the importance of surprise to good storytelling. What Stern’s getting at is that surprise can’t simply be the point of a good story. Surprise!

It can be done well. But when it is, it’s not the object of the narrative. Rather, like just the right pinch of salt, it enhances the flavor that was already there. And when it does this well, a story becomes something of an entirely different order than what you started out reading.

This is even true for stories whose endings are all but crystal clear from the start. In The Odyssey, the bard tells us early, and repeatedly, that Odysseus will get back home, that he’ll have trouble before then, and trouble when he gets there, but that his ultimate fate is secure. Indeed, the gods have “decreed” it. Yet the story has captivated listeners and readers for thousands of years. When we watch Odysseus navigate seemingly insurmountable challenges, when we see how the story unfolds—how rapacious suitors, loyal servants, and the Hero’s own longsuffering Bride don’t know the beggar in their midst is actually the long-awaited King—we’re treated to an array of unexpected twists.

Surprise wasn’t the point; surprise enhanced the impact of the point.

IMAGE - Odyssey (Fagles)

Terry Pratchett, world-famous author of fantasy, once said about JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, “When you’re in it”—despite the terror and darkness and uncertainty—“you’re aware that you’re following an adventure that’s going to turn out right.”[i] We can tell this story will end well. We feel it. And yet, we sit dumbfounded, horrified, when near the end of the story Frodo stands at the brink of the only place in the world that will unmake the source of the world’s evil—a tiny ring, and Frodo is utterly overcome by its power. He’s about to fail; in fact, he has failed. Instead of destroying it, he puts the ring on—and disappears. At the last of all chances the world will ever have, the Hero is defeated. And adding insult to injury, Gollum, a true thorn in the hero’s side, attacks him, bites the ring off his hand (taking the finger with it) but then suddenly trips, falls, clutching onto the ring, and tumbles into the fire that will now be the doom of them both. Surprise!

Extremely surprising. And yet, as Pratchett points out, deep down we already knew where things were headed.

This example illustrates a second aspect of effective surprise endings: they must be organic to the rest of the story. Gollum could have been killed countless times but was spared, first by Bilbo, then by Aragorn, Gandalf, Frodo, Sam, Faramir, etc. When Frodo wished him dead, very early in the story, wise Gandalf turned the young hero’s mind from it, saying, “My heart tells me Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end.” The creature’s ultimate role had been forecasted and prepared for from nearly the beginning, and continued to be so throughout the story.

We can see in this two-fold requirement for good surprise endings something inherent in the form of story itself.

Take the Great Hero of the Great Story. Consider the Christ—an Odysseus-like beggar in the midst of his own people, unrecognized by nearly all for who he was, and yet he’d been promised to them so long before, so many times, in so many ways. Why were they, like we, so surprised? The way it happened was so unlike what any had imagined. The manner of the Hero’s coming and conquest was entirely unexpected. And the surprise of it enhanced the inevitable outcome—in ways that transcend all examples of merely human stories we could find. But this story is so full of surprises it needs a little backtracking.

The first surprise, the one the Church—the Hero’s Bride—celebrated two months ago, is this: God Himself comes down to us. He’s the long-awaited Messiah. But he arrives by means scarcely possible to conceive of, by becoming one of us. God be praised. That was unexpected. But it was just in time. Victory’s close. “The Kingdom of God is at hand!”

Then the second surprise: this promised Messiah—who turns out to be a far better but far different Deliverer than anyone had anticipated, who is supposed to deliver us from all His and our enemies, and whom the Lord is supposed to “not let see corruption”[ii]—is defeated, is put to death. As shocking and dismaying as this is, as surprising, close observers of the story up to this point will recognize its organic part in the narrative; this was no one-off plot twist.[iii]

Then the third surprise, the one his Bride will celebrate soon, the biggest one: this dead Messiah, this Jesus, rises from the grave. And the biggest part of this surprise? Unexpected to friends and enemies both, yet echoed time and again before it came—by dying he defeated death, through weakness he secured victory.

Far from a cheap, tacked-on storytelling trick, this was profound. This was earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting. It was truly surprising. Yet it had been there all along.

Human stories that surprise us well satisfy us on multiple levels. We close the book, set it down, grin, shake our heads and say “wow.” These stories remind us of the Great Story, the story that is the incarnation of the very Form of Story, the story that in some way all good, human stories must echo, or somehow interact with. We respond so viscerally to stories that surprise us well because they follow the pattern of the story we were made in order to know, the story we were made to be part of.


Garret Johnson teaches Creative Writing and English at Houston Baptist University and has taught previously at the University of Houston-Downtown and for Writers in the Schools. Aside from being a longtime devotee of theological and philosophical study, and of the works of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, regularly writes on contemporary and classic literature, and is currently touching up his first novel. His writing has also appeared in The City, Gulf Coast, and Transpositions.

[ii] Psalm 16:10 (ESV)

[iii] Isaiah 53 (one clear example among countless others)


Evangelization, Apologetics, and Literature

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 (, 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.

How Stories Talk When They Talk About Love

In one of Raymond Carver’s classic stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” two married couples sit around a kitchen table, drinking gin, talking about what they really mean when they use the word “love.” Three of the four have been married multiple times, and they’ve got some disagreements on the subject.

By the story’s end, Carver manages to say something deeply profound, in his ever-subtle, ever-brilliant way, about both what love is and how stories, themselves, share something essential with it. The end of the story throws into sudden relief a defining element of both—Action.

IMAGE - Carver Stories

Just as stories must manifest characters, events, and ideas in action to feel real, so too love—to be real—must manifest itself in action. As these characters talk, they primarily try to explain what they think love is by telling stories. They tacitly acknowledge that love, like narrative, only works when it’s shown, demonstrated outwardly, in action. But these characters are also in a story of their own. Let’s see what Carver—through the distinct medium of story—shows us about them, about their collective understanding of love, and about love itself.

Early in the story, the narrator, Nick, tells us that the other man at the table, Mel, “thought real love was nothing less than spiritual love.” This turns out to be far more significant than it looks. When I first read it, I thought, okay, sounds good I guess. But at the same time, if you think about it, it’s also kind of weird. “Spiritual love?” What exactly is that? What would it actually look like?

Next, we hear of Mel’s newest wife, Terri, that “the man she lived with before she lived with Mel loved her so much he tried to kill her . . . ‘He beat me up one night,’” she says. “‘He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying, ‘I love you, I love you . . .’ What do you do with love like that?’”

No kidding, we think. That’s crazy. And we’re right on the same page with Mel when he shoots back, “My God, don’t be silly. That’s not love, and you know it.” They go back and forth, arguing about whether Ed really loved her, and Mel concludes, “I just wouldn’t call Ed’s behavior love. That’s all.”

And Mel has, perhaps unknowingly, just hit on the key.

Behavior. Action.

Carver goes on to develop the idea, pretty ingeniously, through the rest of the conversation, the rest of the story—ultimately, using the form of the story itself, its plot, to show us something about the nature of real love.

Meanwhile, the narrator Nick, listening to all this, thinks of his own affection for his wife, Laura. Holding her hand as they listen, Nick thinks proudly, “In addition to being in love, we like each other . . . She’s easy to be with.”

That’s a telling way to put it.

Nick’s impression of real love constitutes what seems to be the mainstream definition of it in our own contemporary world: Love is about ease, personal gratification, our own needs being served, nothing too strenuous, nothing too costly.

“Well, Nick and I know what love is,” says Laura. At the time of the story, they’ve been married about a year. “For us, I mean,” she says. Then she bumps his knee under the table. “You’re supposed to say something now,” she says. So as evidence of their love, Nick “took Laura’s hand and raised it to his lips . . . made a big production out of kissing [it]. Everyone was amused.”

While the gesture may not say much of substance about their love, it does recognize—just as all their storytelling recognizes—that there must be some kind of evidence, some outward manifestation of love, or it’s not believable, it’s not real. Like the author of the book of James says about “faith without works”—it’s “dead.”

Soon after this, Terri says, “Poor Ed,” bringing up how her abusive ex had died—by self-inflicted wounds—to which her current husband, Mel, replies, “Poor Ed nothing. He was dangerous.”

“I still feel sorry for him,” Terri says. Then Mel says, “Terri wanted to go in and sit with him when she found out about it. We had a fight over it. I didn’t think she should see him.”

“Who won the fight?” says Laura.

“I was in the room with him when he died,” Terri says. “He didn’t have anyone else.”

It seems as if Terri, among all these characters, has the truest understanding of love. Despite looking like the craziest one at the table—her husband thinks she’s an idiot and her two friends gape at her in disbelief, unable to fathom how she could speak with compassion about a man who used to abuse her—she sat at this man’s deathbed, because he didn’t have anyone else.

Her story shows us a picture, an image, an action. It puts the idea of love on display, real love: other-focused, self-sacrificing compassion, given without regard to the recipient’s merit, and literally divine.

But then Mel, seeming more and more agitated, starting to insist that no one truly knows how to define love, tells another story, one that’s still unfolding, as they sit there, back at the hospital where he works. His final story simultaneously displays deep, real love and somehow confuses everyone—Mel most of all.

A man in his seventies lies in a hospital bed. The old man and his wife are both in full body casts after an accident. And the man has become severely depressed, causing his overall health to decline. Not because of his own state. But because the cast prevents him from looking over at his wife. He can’t physically touch her, or even see her, and it’s literally “killing him,” Mel says.

Everyone at the table is silent, uncomfortable, reeling from several healthy portions of gin and this new picture of what love might be.

Mel in particular is deeply puzzled. He can sense in this unfolding story something of real, deep love. But he just can’t understand it. It doesn’t quite make sense to him.

And this seems to get at another profound truth revealed in Carver’s story. Maybe it’s impossible to grasp real love until you’ve actually experienced it, until someone loves you that way—until you see it, feel it, through actions, through story.

This kind of love, real love, actually changes people. When you see and feel a man losing his own life for the love of his bride, it transforms your heart, it enables you, it incites you to go love others in the same way. But it also, interestingly, makes you fall in love with the one you see doing it.

At the end of Carver’s story, all of a sudden, we realize that the whole tale has consisted of four people sitting around a table, drinking gin, and talking: the sun is sinking, they’ve talked about dinner, they’ve talked about snacks, they’ve talked about more drink, they’ve talked about getting up and turning on the lights, they’ve talked about love. But none of them has done a thing.

At the very end, Mel turns his glass over, spilling his drink on the table. “Gin’s gone,” he says. Terri, at his side, his second wife, says, “Now what?”

And then the story concludes with a picture. Nick describes the scene: “not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”

This was the essence of the story, of these characters’ lives, of the way they basically understand love: people talking, people drinking, no one acting, but everyone feeling drunk. And when the feel-good stuff runs out, the love is over. When the feel-good stuff runs out, the question becomes: “Now what?” It’s the perfect image. It leaves readers with a tangible experience of the idea.

Carver shows, through story, that it’s perhaps impossible to explain what love is outside of a story, outside of some narrative context, a narrative that displays action. He shows how fiction, narrative, story—among all methods of communicating ideas—is uniquely positioned to talk about love. Love itself is most clearly communicated, made real, when it’s shown, when it’s incarnated, when Word becomes Flesh.

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[i] This is an action, and the story of an action. As John the Apostle further puts it, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us . . . We love because God first loved us.”[ii]

And God said to Abraham, just before providing a substitutionary sacrifice for the son Abraham had laid on the altar before him: “Now I know you love me because you did not withhold your son, your only son whom you love, from me.”[iii]

And Christ Himself—the ultimate Son who would be given, who “for the joy set before him endured the cross”—said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”[iv]

Later, the Apostle Paul would use this same true story, this outward action of God’s toward man, to encourage true love in others, defining marriage most essentially as a picture of Christ, of God, and his love for his own bride, for us: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”[v]

These are pictures, tangible examples, of love in its real form, its divine form.

And like the ultimate example of love, found in God himself, stories that truly demonstrate love follow God’s pattern revealed in Christ. The same goes for people who truly demonstrate love. This kind of love, when experienced, when seen and felt, changes us. We go and love others the same way, not because we think they’ve earned it, not because it makes us feel nice, not because we know they’ll pay us back, or even love us back, but because it’s been done to us. And because we recognize there’s nothing more beautiful in the world.

This is how the best stories talk when they talk about love, the way God talks—through incarnation, through manifestation, through action.


Garret Johnson teaches creative writing at Houston Baptist University and for Writers in the Schools, and has taught previously at the University of Houston-Downtown. Aside from being a longtime devotee of theological and philosophical study, and of the works of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, writes regularly on contemporary literature, and is currently touching up his first novel.


[i] Romans 5:8 (NIV)

[ii] 1 John 4:10, 19 (ESV)

[iii] Tim Keller. “Gospel-Centered Ministry.” From an address at a Gospel Coalition conference. (cf. Genesis 22:12).

[iv] John 15:13 (ESV)

[v] Ephesians 5:25 (ESV)

Why Do We Love Spooky Stories?

What is it about spooky stories that gets people going? And spooky things in general? Creaky old houses, unexplained mysteries, skeletons, ghosts. Given that it’s October 31st, it seemed appropriate to devote some thought as I did last year to the driving force behind the allure of the dark and mysterious—specifically to the kinds of tales peculiar to the season. I’ve been reading some spooky stories myself lately, and I’ve been wondering why the draw to them is so enduring.

Being truly spooked is, in one sense, just another kind of being afraid. But just as there are different kinds of horror fiction—see my post on HP Lovecraft—so too there are different kinds of fear. And it’s the eerie, spooky kind of both that seems, oddly, to have a special place in our hearts.

IMAGE - Danse Macabre

In his 1981 book, Danse Macabre—essentially a treatise on Horror—Stephen King delineates what it is that makes the spookiest tales work:

[There are] three types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worst one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own has been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there.

This last kind, he says, is the “finest.” It’s the kind people wait in line to go see, the kind they can’t wait to tell stories about, the kind they wish they could actually glimpse somehow (though from a safe vantage). This is the kind of spooky story that not only sells millions of copies but also lingers in the reader’s consciousness far longer than the serial-killer kind of spook.

CS Lewis describes this phenomenon in a strikingly similar way to King. As my colleague, Dr. Lou Markos, recently reminded me, in The Problem of Pain Lewis illustrates the same distinction between different kinds of fear (and the relative power of each):

Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room’, and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread.

So why do we have a particular appetite for this special kind of fear? How is it that a certain ‘uncanny’ kind of experience, or story, can elicit both dread and fascination at once?

It occurred to me that maybe our fascination with this kind of fear is tied to our fascination with the Unknown in general—with things beyond us. But where did that come from? As Lewis and many others point out, it’s not something you’ll find anywhere else in the animal kingdom. It’s unique to mankind. So maybe our fascination with the Unknown is tied to something fundamental in us as a species: that we are creatures made in the image of a transcendent God. A God Who, Himself, is infinite, about Whom there is always something we don’t fully know, can’t fully grasp. So bearing the mark of our transcendent creator bestows on us a sense of the eternal, of the infinite, of things beyond our ken. As Ecclesiastes 3 frames it, “He has put eternity into man’s heart.” And the pull toward stories of the Unknown, toward the ‘uncanny,’ rises out of this.

One of our history’s most unique practitioners of the uncanny tale is HP Lovecraft, and his story “The Music of Erich Zann” is one of the prime examples in his corpus of it.

IMAGE - Lovecraft (Lib of America)

The story brims with plot elements, scenes, images, and characters all evoking a sense of the Unknown. Chief among them is an unread, and forever-lost, manuscript that could have offered some explanation for the terrifying events of a haunted night from the past . . . perhaps. We see some of the uncanny effects of what the message must have referred to—we see them in a mute old man’s terrified response to his surroundings, to things the young protagonist can’t see at first, but which he does, dimly, just begin to hear—and yet, by the story’s end, the young man has not only failed to see what was in the manuscript, but he’s lost all chance of ever seeing it. The content of the message, however inexplicable, was real. The student has seen its effects firsthand, but whatever the terrifying reality actually was will now remain truly unknown.

This is so much more chilling than some concrete explanation. And so much more intriguing—things beyond our grasp always intrigue us.

JJ Abrams, film writer and producer with numerous TV series and movies to his name, knows a few things about the allure of the Unknown. The power behind his TV series Lost largely springs from a plethora of unknowns, including the mysterious nature of an island with denizens referred to as “the Others” and some shadowy creature known as the “Smoke Monster.” Likewise, the engine behind both the plot and intrigue of his newer show Person of Interest derives from the mysterious nature of the “machine” that somehow coughs up social security numbers of people about to be involved in life-threatening situations. The Unknown is perhaps the principal undercurrent running through entire seasons of these dramas, giving them the unique power of stories that linger, provoke thought.

Giving a talk at a TED conference once, Abrams brought out a prop. A box. On it, the words “Tannen’s Magic Mystery Box” were scrawled inside a large black question mark. It was something he got from a doting grandfather when he was a child. He’s never opened it. It seems not only to stand for but also to present, as he puts it, “infinite possibility, hope, and potential.” No doubt it has inspired him over the years as a storyteller.

As Abrams spoke on about the power inherent in mystery, in the Unknown, he said something really profound. “Maybe,” he said, “sometimes mystery is more important than knowledge.” His words suddenly threw into relief an apparent connection between our fascination with the Unknown and our being made in God’s image.

Our simultaneous excitement and dread concerning the Unknown—the special allure it has for us—seems intimately connected to being made in the likeness of an infinite, eternal God, knowledge about Whom can perhaps never be exhausted, even when we have infinite opportunity in eternity.

An enigmatic verse in Deuteronomy 29 touches on the idea: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” This, by the way, does not mean, shut up and don’t ask questions about complicated stuff. But it does mean there are things He’s not going to reveal, at least not yet, things which, at least for now—before we are mysteriously “metamorphosed” as the Apostle Paul puts it to the Corinthians, before we become more perfectly like Him—He won’t reveal because our finite natures simply can’t grasp them.

God Himself—and our unique connection to Him—appears to be the source for the allure of the Unknown. He is the ultimate thing beyond our grasp. Although He is in some ways graspable—particularly in light of the incarnation—He remains transcendent. And so all things that transcend our complete understanding evoke Him, the very fount of beauty and truth, yet also of a hugeness and power so overwhelming it induces trembling awe—the most intriguing, terrifying, profound thing we could know.

A natural question then is: Why would God do things this way? Why remain so unseen (in human terms), so Unknown?

Could it be that God doesn’t write His name in the clouds—or appear in the sky with a booming voice for all the earth to hear at once—so that we might struggle to get to know Him? Maybe “mystery” is better than comprehensive knowledge at times. The more we struggle to learn about something, the more firmly we grasp it once we finally do.

As I mentioned in a previous post, on “Adventure” and the allure of the Quest, it seems as if Heaven might entail forever plumbing the infinite depths of God, Himself, our knowledge of Him ever growing, and yet there always being something about Him that remains beyond. Even if we eventually come to understand one aspect of His nature previously ungraspable, behold, another layer. And on and on it goes. And we keep digging, we keep learning more, even as more eludes us. We’re enticed, intrigued, compelled—to use Lewis’s language from the end of the Chronicles of Narnia—to continue, into infinite depths of the Unknown, going “further up and further in.”


Garret Johnson teaches creative writing at Houston Baptist University and for Writers in the Schools, and has taught previously at the University of Houston-Downtown. Aside from being a longtime devotee of theological and philosophical study, and of the works of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and is currently touching up his first novel.

Literary Apologetics: An Interview with Dr Holly Ordway

I was recently a guest on Nick Peters’ Deeper Waters podcast, where I spent two hours discussing literary apologetics with him – and the time flew by!

You can listen here.

The conversation included:

  • why literature is important for everyone
  • why Christian apologists specifically can benefit from reading fiction,
  • why it’s important to understand literary genre when reading Scripture, and what “literal” literally means,
  • what an allegory is and why neither the Chronicles of Narnia nor The Lord of the Rings are allegories,
  • why horror fiction can be valuable for Christians (with a shout-out to Garret Johnson who’s written an excellent series on Hieropraxis about weird fiction),
  • why Beowulf is a fantastic poem,
  • who the Inklings are… and more.

Not surprisingly, I also referenced my colleague Dr. Michael Ward on several occasions during the podcast, as he’s doing the very best work out there on C.S. Lewis and imaginative and literary apologetics. Go read his book Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis.

Oh, and I happened to mention that if you find all of this fascinating, you can come study with me and Dr. Ward at HBU in the MA in Apologetics… which is now approved for 100% online delivery starting in Fall 2014!

If you are interested in literary and imaginative apologetics, this is the place to be, and now you can do the MAA from anywhere in the world. Come join us! (more info at )

Here’s the link to the podcast:


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 (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.