Literary Apologetics

Here are a few books that I recommend for thinking through the intersections of Reason and Imagination, and the ways that literature can help us engage more fully with the truth of the Christian faith.

Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination – Malcolm Guite

Read my extended review here.

Does poetry matter? Yes indeed, very much so, and Malcolm Guite’s book goes a long way toward showing why and how. Today we live in a culture that habitually sees Reason and Imagination as separate and in conflict. Poetry can help us see that Truth is far richer and deeper than we usually think, and that reality must be both comprehended and apprehended.

Guite sets out the frame of his argument in the first chapter, and does a brilliant, careful reading of two poems to demonstrate the approach that he will take. This section, with its reading of George Herbert’s “Prayer” and Seamus Heaney’s “The Rain Stick,” is worth the price of the book by itself (and yes, I’m aware that it’s an expensive book!). Guite goes on in the rest of the book to apply the same kind of thoughtful analysis to a selection of key poets from the medieval period to the modern day.

The book’s importance for literary apologetics is twofold. First, Guite helps us see clearly and deeply how poetry allows us to know truth in a different but complementary way to propositional, rational argument. It is a compelling argument for the importance of Imagination in the pursuit of Truth, which is a great achievement in itself. The specific close readings of the works provide a model for apologists of how to interact with poetry on poetry’s terms, and thus enter into an imaginative experience of great power.

Second, the overall arc of the book, including poetry that may be overlooked in the modern day, helps us see the shift in thinking that occurred at the Enlightenment and realize that we need not (and indeed must not) buy in to the Reason-Imagination / Knowledge -Faith split that is simply assumed in most modern culture (including within the church). Guite takes us through The Dream of the Rood, that marvelous Anglo-Saxon dream-vision poem of the Crucifixion, to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, and on through Coleridge, and modern poets like Geoffrey Hill (showing that a non-believing poet who is faithful to his work can also show us a powerful glimpse of truth).

Guite is a perfect guide here because he truly understands (experientially) the power of poetry to shape, convert, and baptize the imagination. Poetry has changed his life (as it has mine!). He is a faithful Christian and a brilliant academic; a priest and a poet himself (and an extraordinary one). In other words, Faith, Hope and Poetry (and Guite’s work in general) is valuable not just for its specific insights, but also for its model of how to think, feel, and respond with both heart and mind as a Christian in the modern world.

Malcolm Guite is a poet, priest, and scholar who lives in Cambridge, England. His web site is www.malcolmguite.com.

Imaginative Apologetics

Read my extended review here.

Imagination, CS Lewis wrote, is the “organ of meaning.” Reason and Imagination, too long separated, must be reunited if we are to have any chance of sharing the hope that is within us to a world that so desperately needs it – yet does not recognize its need.  Imaginative Apologetics sets out its argument in four sections: Faith and Reason Reconsidered, Christian Apologetics and the Human Imagination, Being Imaginative About Christian Apologetics, and Situating Christian Apologetics. This is an important book – one that anyone seriously engaged in the work of apologetics needs to read carefully. Whether or not you agree with the specific points made in various essays is much less important than whether you take Davison and his fellow writers’ challenge to look seriously at the role of the imagination in the apologetic endeavor.

 

Planet Narnia – Michael Ward

Read my extended review here.

It might seem odd to put Planet Narnia on my list of recommended “literary apologetics” books, since it’s a study of CS Lewis’s use of medieval planetary imagery in the Chronicles of Narnia — not a specifically apologetic work. However, anyone who’s serious about understanding how a story can show forth the truth of the Christian faith would do well to pay very close attention to what Lewis has done in the Chronicles. Ward shows, definitively, that the Chronicles are carefully crafted at the level of words, images, and recurring theme, and that the books (diverse as they are in their plots) all have a Christological focus. If for no other reason, aspiring Christian authors should read Planet Narnia (or the version for a wider, non-scholarly audience, The Narnia Code) to understand that writing effective literary apologetics means more than retelling a Bible story in a fantasy setting. Lewis wrote marvelously complex works so well that they seem simple; fittingly, Ward unpacks the layers of meaning for readers in lovely, clear prose, helping us appreciate the depths of Lewis’s extraordinary books.

Saving Leonardo – Nancy Pearcey

Evangelical scholar Nancy Pearcey has written an important work that unpacks the Enlightenment split between reason and faith, commonly known as the fact/value split. She analyzes the philosophical underpinnings of Western culture as, divided, it moves in two different and opposed directions, shows the consequences of the split, and makes a compelling case for why it is vital that we bring together once again these two aspects of reality that should never have been split. The book is full of examples from all branches of art, the visual arts, music, and literature – including lots of actual illustrations of artwork. Pearcey makes a robust case for the value of Christian engagement in culture, as well as showing that philosophical ideas have far-reaching consequences.

“On Fairy-Stories” – JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien is best known for his classic fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings, but he was also, and foremost, a scholar. One of his most important works – and a work that is essential reading for literary apologetics – is the analytical essay “On Fairy-Stories.” Tolkien carefully defines “fairy-stories,” which we would now call fantasy, to distinguish the unique aspects of this literary genre. He then goes on to defend the value of fantasy, and to discuss how it functions, using the terms “recovery,” “escape,” and “consolation.” Of special interest to Christian apologists is Tolkien’s robust claims for creativity being a mark of the imago Dei, and his connection between the appeal of the happy ending with the truth of the Gospel.

This essay can be found in the collection The Tolkien Reader.

Mind of the Maker – Dorothy Sayers

JRR Tolkien wrote that “we make because we are made in the image of a Maker,” but it was Dorothy Sayers who wrote an entire book thinking through the way that our creative faculty helps us see what it means to be made in the image of God. Mind of the Maker doesn’t specifically address literature but rather looks at the operation of creativity more broadly applied. It’s well worth reading as a way to start thinking about the value, nature, and function of creativity.