The Art of Imaginative Apologetics

We “cannot simply present ideas and assume that people either understand them or find them meaningful—not even within the Church,” says Dr. Holly Ordway. “No, we must work hard to make our ideas meaningful, to communicate them in convincing, effective, and memorable ways, and to show why they matter and how they can be lived out.”

Dr. Holly Ordway is the author of "Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith" (Emmaus Road, 2017)

Dr. Holly Ordway (www.hollyordway.com) is Professor of English and Director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. She holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her academic work focuses on imagination in apologetics, with special attention to the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams; she teaches courses on apologetics, medieval culture and philosophy, and modern and post-modern culture.

Ordway’s first book, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014) described her journey from atheism to Christianity, and her subsequent entrance into the Catholic Church. Her new book, titled Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017), shows “how an imaginative approach—in cooperation with rational arguments—is extremely valuable in helping people come to faith in Christ. Making a case for the role of imagination in apologetics, this book proposes ways to create meaning for Christian language in a culture that no longer understands words like ‘sin’ or ‘salvation,’ suggests how to discern and address the manipulation of language, and shows how metaphor and narrative work in powerful ways to communicate the truth. It applies these concepts to specific, key apologetics issues, including suffering, doubt, and longing for meaning and beauty.”

Ordway recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, to discuss her new book, the art of apologetics, the importance of language, and how apologetics should be “incarnational”.

CWR: Why is the imagination important for apologetics? How does “imaginative apologetics” differ from other forms of apologetics?

Dr. Holly Ordway: In our modern culture, we tend to think of the imagination as if it were synonymous with daydreaming, as a fanciful ‘extra’—like icing on a cupcake, or in fact like a cupcake itself: perhaps nice to have, but not necessary. However, this is a very narrow view, that misses what the imagination really is: a fundamental human faculty, as necessary and important as our capacity to reason. The imagination is what allows us to create meaning for words and ideas—and only when we have a grasp of the meaning of an idea, can we use our reason to judge whether the idea is true or false. The better our imaginative grasp of the idea, the more our reason has to work with! So, the imagination is always operating in everyone all the time—in tandem with the reason—but all too often, it is neglected in apologetics work.

Imaginative apologetics, then, is the approach to apologetics and evangelization that brings the imagination into our work: sometimes through the use of the creative arts (literature, film, music, art), but also through attention to language and meaning: what do our words mean to the people who hear them? How can we help them appreciate the significance of our Christian words, so they aren’t just jargon?

Until people care about our ideas and arguments, they will not listen. Even if they listen, if they don’t have an imaginative grasp of the meaning of the words and ideas we use, the arguments will have little or no impact. We can end up just talking past one another—and wondering why our evangelization is so ineffective! For instance, atheists (my own former self among them) would say that “God” is a false, even absurd idea. But all too often, they are making this reasoned judgment without a proper grasp of what Christians mean by “God.” Imaginative apologetics attends to this issue: working, for instance, to find ways to communicate the meaning of the word “God” as “the Ground of All Being,” existence itself, the great I AM. If an atheist realizes that this is what we are talking about, and not some absurd sky-daddy, then he or she is a step closer to understanding our arguments for the existence of God. And if our literature, art, and architecture has been able to convey something of the grandeur and majesty of God, then that atheist may well also be interested in hearing our arguments.

Both reason and imagination are modes of communicating and encountering truth; imaginative apologetics seeks to harness the God-given faculty of Imagination to work in cooperation with Reason, to open a way for the work of the Holy Spirit and guide the will toward a commitment to Christ.

CWR: One key theme of the book is that “we must also fight against the distortion of language—whether intentional or unintentional—that so often undermines or confuses our message.” What are some examples of this distortion? How can apologists work to employ language that is more precise and helpful?

Ordway: One very common example of distortion of language has to do with the word “sin.” Consider how it is often used in advertising: something may be “sinfully good” or “sinfully delicious.” This usage is evidence that the word “sin” no longer has any negative connotation in the popular mind. It means, if anything, “something fun that those boring Christians don’t want us to do.” So to say to someone that sexual activity outside of marriage is a sin, may well communicate only “you are a meddling busybody and you don’t want me to enjoy myself.” The word has no ethical content whatsoever, and thus the related apologetics argument has no relevance for that person. Unfortunately, this loss of meaning has its effects on Christians, as well: too often, even within the Church, people may have a vague idea of ‘sin’ as ‘doing things that hurt other people’ and thus genuinely not understand, for instance, that premarital sex is a sin.

Apologists can work to address this, first of all, by listening carefully and asking questions. Asking “What do you mean by that?” can help us detect when there is a distortion of language. We should also be attentive to the words we use, and avoid rattling off Christian terms without much thought about what they mean (to us or to others!).

And we should aim for precision in our own language. For instance, let’s say someone asks you what time the youth group meets. You say “Seven pm.” Then you realize that you made a mistake—it’s actually scheduled for eight pm. I’ve noticed that far too many people will correct themselves by saying “Oops, I lied! It’s eight pm.” But this is a serious error—you didn’t lie. That is, you did not deliberately say an untruth. You were mistaken: quite a different thing. Does this matter? Absolutely yes. If we use “I lied” to mean “I made an honest mistake”, then we are helping to degrade the meaning of “lie” as a deliberate and sinful falsehood.

CWR: You also stated that “as imaginative apologists, our task is to make use of true metaphors…” Is it fair to say that metaphors and metaphorical language are widely misunderstood and misrepresented? Why are metaphors so important to the apologist?

Ordway: Most people understand metaphors and metaphorical language intuitively, and greatly appreciate the use of metaphors in communication. They might not be able to define ‘metaphor’ or explain how it works, but they will respond to it. That’s why it’s so powerful.

Ironically, it’s in the context of Christian apologetics that metaphors are often most misunderstood and misrepresented. People often challenge Scripture by saying that something is “just a metaphor”, as if that automatically meant “it’s not true.” (It doesn’t.) Many well-intentioned apologists are convinced (erroneously) that admitting to a figurative element in Scripture is the first step on a slippery slope to denying the truth of the whole Bible. Nothing could be further from the truth, and we can see that from Scripture itself. The Psalms are full of examples of figurative language about God. Speaking of God as a “rock” does not contradict “God is spirit.” It is a metaphorical expression that tells us something true about God.

Metaphors are vitally important to the apologist because they communicate truth in a way that is different from, and complementary to, propositional or rational language. In fact, metaphors create meaning. Thus, they are vitally important in our efforts to help people understand what we are saying! Indeed, that’s why I devote an entire chapter of Apologetics and the Christian Imagination to the proper understanding of metaphor.

CWR: In the chapter titled “Recovery,” you point to the fantasy literature of J.R.R. Tolkien. What does Tolkien have to say that is helpful for the apologist? And what is the “recovery” about?

Ordway: Most people know Tolkien primarily as the author of the fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings—but they may not realize that he had thought deeply about the way that fantasy works. Let me give you an excerpt, here, from Apologetics and the Christian Imagination that addresses your question:

J.R.R. Tolkien writes, in his great essay “On Fairy-stories,” that one of the functions of fantasy literature is Recovery, a “regaining of a clear view,” going on to say, “I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves.”

We live in a culture that is paradoxically both jaded by and ignorant about Christianity. People think they know who Jesus is, what the Church is, what it means to have faith… and they think it’s boring, or stupid, or irrelevant. We need to help people recover a fresh view of the truth – to see Jesus for the first time, and really see him; to actually see the reality of sin, and the beauty and brokenness of the world, not to just gloss over it.

Stories can help us to do that. For example, we can be moved by the self-sacrifice of Frodo and the kingliness of Aragorn and thus respond more immediately, more intuitively, to these ideas when we hear them in the Gospel. Good stories and poetry help us to see more clearly when we close the book and re-enter ordinary life.

As apologists in our modern culture, we are faced with the challenge of evangelizing people who not only don’t believe, but who are convinced that they already know what Christianity is all about, and are disgusted or uninterested by it. Tolkien’s concept of “Recovery” reminds us that we need to help people clear away the grime of assumptions, misunderstandings, and over-familiarity that so often clings to Christian ideas, and see the Faith with fresh eyes. Then our apologetics and evangelization will have a better opportunity to have an effect!

CWR: “The Incarnation,” you state, “has implications both for what we say in our apologetics and how we say it.” What are some examples of those implications? Can we say that good apologetics must be, in some real way, “incarnational”?

Ordway: The biggest implication of the Incarnation is that our apologetics efforts must be integrated: we are not merely walking brains, but we have intellect, imagination, emotions, and will; we are both body and soul. Any approach that targets only one facet of the human person—such as purely rational arguments by themselves, or personal narrative by itself – will be far less effective than an approach that recognizes our embodied, complex human nature.

Specific apologetics approaches will, of course, tend toward one aspect of the human person or another, and particular people will find certain approaches more congenial than others, or perhaps more helpful at different times of their life or with regard to different questions. A truly effective approach will, first of all, recognize that all of these approaches are necessary and complementary – they do not compete with one another, but rather support each other, just as in a healthy person the faculties of reason, imagination, and emotions all function in harmony.

As I write:

Ultimately, the coherence and soundness of Christian teaching (truth), the witness of the Faith lived out faithfully in individual lives, families, and communities (goodness), and the experience of the aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual riches of the liturgy and the arts (beauty) are all connected. Our faith is deeply rooted and fully nourished only if we have all three transcendentals in our lives: goodness, truth, and beauty. Likewise, our apologetics and our evangelization will be most attractive, compelling, and convincing if we draw on all three. Truth, for the intellect; goodness, for the moral sense and the will; beauty, for the aesthetic sense, the emotions, and the imagination. In this way, our apologetics can touch mind, heart, and will, not in isolation, but in harmony with each other.

Certainly, there will always be some people who are most readily helped by apologetics that are based only in philosophical arguments or Scriptural claims, or most immediately reached by evangelization that is purely emotional in its attraction. The Holy Spirit is not limited by our limitations. But this does not relieve us of the responsibility to do all that we can with what God has given us, to guide people to knowledge and love of Christ.

CWR: As you conclude the book, you note that imaginative apologetics must “be part of a larger, integrated approach to apologetics, evangelization, discipleship, and catechesis for it to bear fruit to its full potential.” How would you describe, in short form, the relationship between those four things: apologetics, evangelization, discipleship, and catechesis?

Ordway: In an early chapter, I distinguish between the (related) disciplines of apologetics and evangelization:

Proclamation of the Gospel, preaching, and calls to repentance and conversion are the primary work of the evangelist. ‘Apologetics’ is the more specific category, working in two ways: negatively to address challenges to the faith, resolve doubts, remove obstacles to belief, and dismantle false ideas; and positively to show the truth, coherence, power, and beauty of Christianity.

A similar relationship holds between discipleship and catechesis. Discipleship is, in a sense, the larger category: it is the lifelong process of helping others to conform to Christ. Within that, catechesis is instruction in the Faith: the actual content of what we believe. Too often, we focus on discipleship without the catechetical element. We want to help people love God and their neighbor, to grow in grace and develop a stronger and deeper relationship with Our Lord, but too often we try to do so without teaching people the content of our Faith: the actual doctrine! The result is people with good intentions but no depth to their faith – something that is most clearly and tragically seen in young people who abandon their faith once they leave the safe environment of their youth groups and go off to college.

We need both discipleship (as a broad category) and catechesis (as the specific teaching task within lifelong discipleship). We must not shy away from teaching the actual content of the Faith, even when it challenges people, as it inevitably will. Catechesis is not just for children in confirmation classes, or new converts preparing to enter the Church; it’s for everyone.

If there is one point that I make throughout my book, it is that we cannot simply present ideas and assume that people either understand them or find them meaningful—not even within the Church. No, we must work hard to make our ideas meaningful, to communicate them in convincing, effective, and memorable ways, and to show why they matter and how they can be lived out. That’s why we need good apologists in every parish!—and why we need apologists who are skilled at an integrated approach, one that draws on both reason and imagination.

About Carl E. Olson 1055 Articles

Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the “Catholicism” and “Priest Prophet King” Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to “Our Sunday Visitor” newspaper, “The Catholic Answer” magazine, “The Catholic Herald”, “National Catholic Register”, “Chronicles”, and other publications.

3 Comments

  1. Her ideas are excellent and much needed for application by our clergy. At this stage how do we transmit the message effectively with turmoil and confusion? I’m not confident many will read her book. Bishops can invite her to speak to their clergy. She seems to be a motivational person and perhaps a like speaker.

  2. This is an excellent article but it fails to follow its line of argument to its conclusion. We don’t just need imaginative apologists we need Catholic creative authors like Tolkien & Lewis and we need to actively support a culture of Catholic storytelling as much as a culture of Catholic apologists. We need journalists who follow and report on movements in the Catholic Writer’s Guild as often as they report on the latest apologetics paper that comes out of Stubenville.

  3. Place the imagination on a firm foundation. What other Church possesses the tombs (and remains) of St Peter and Paul? The fact that their tombs do exist leads to a further thought – what was it that inspired them? The implications seem obvious.

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