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Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Interview with Holly Ordway

June 12, 2017


Whether you were an apostle in the early church or an Inkling of the twentieth century, the practice of apologetics has always required a keen awareness of the needs and cultural dynamics of the time and place in which you aim to evangelize. Holly Ordway, a convert from atheism to Catholicism, has recently released a book that approaches apologetics that can effectively use the imagination as a strategic route of access for modern man. Today, Jared Zimmerer sits down with Holly to discuss her book, the Christian imagination, and the necessity of recognizing the cultural appropration of apologetics. 

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what piqued your interest in apologetics?

My interest in apologetics is rooted in my own story of conversion from atheism to Christian faith, as an adult (which I discuss in my memoir, Not God’s Type). As a college professor and a writer, I’m also deeply interested in exploring how to explain things so that people will understand. Furthermore, my background is in English literature, my academic work focuses on the Inklings (J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and their circle), imaginative literature had a tremendous impact on my conversion to Christianity and on my growth as a Christian (and still does!), and I’m a published poet. Take all these things together, and you can see why I’m interested in the way people come to the Faith, and how imaginative literature has a role in that process. My teaching at Houston Baptist University (an ecumenical program: I am Catholic!) in our M.A. in Apologetics (with an emphasis on cultural apologetics) has given me the opportunity, over the past few years, to work with future apologists in a whole range of vocations – writers, teachers, pastors, ministry leaders, musicians, creative artists, parents – and to see the way that the ‘integrated’ approach that I take in my classes really resonates with people. They find it tremendously helpful.

And so, I’ve found that my calling as an apologist is to be a ‘teacher of teachers’: rather than writing directly for a non-believing audience, I’m writing to the people who are themselves on the front lines of evangelization, who need to know how to reach people more effectively, who are looking for something that they know is missing in their approach, but that they can’t quite articulate what it is. It’s very exciting.

Your new book entitled Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, in which you take a different vision of how apologetics ought to be enacted. What do you mean by an apologetics that is imaginative?

In my book, I’m making an argument for the recovery of a broader, richer understanding of the imagination. Reason and imagination are paired faculties: we need both in order to think about anything. In order to make reasoned judgments, such as whether something is true or false, we first have to have something meaningful to think about, and that’s where the imagination comes in: it creates meaning.

Thus, at its heart, an apologetics approach that is imaginative is one that is focused on the creation of meaning. So much of the time, when we use Christian terms or concepts in apologetics and evangelization, we’re using words that are empty of meaning for our listener, or that have had their meaning twisted or trivialized. When we talk about ‘sin,’ people think it just means ‘fun stuff that Christians don’t want us to do.’ When we talk about ‘heaven,’ people often think it means ‘spirits floating around on clouds.’ (I say this as a former atheist who thought precisely that!) If people think sin is no big deal and heaven is boring, then they aren’t going to understand what we say about these things – if they are even interested enough to listen at all. In order for our apologetics discussions to be fruitful, we need our words and ideas to carry real meaning for our listeners – and that’s where imaginative apologetics comes into play.

Stories, films, television, music, the visual arts, even architecture all have a very important role to play in creating meaning, but even more than that, an imaginative approach to apologetics involves thinking carefully about what we say, and how our words are being received. That’s why I spend a substantial amount of time in the book talking about language and how we can use it well, and detect when it’s being mis-used.

In your new book you mention the fact that we live in a post-Christian era and that our apologetic strategy must be aware of the societal differences we face from previous generations. What do you mean be the post-Christian context of apologetics and how ought we take this to heart when evangelizing?

In a pre-Christian context, people don’t know about Christ, but they also know that they don’t know – whether they respond positively or negatively, they realize that this is a new thing. In contrast, in our post-Christian context, people think they know about Christ, but what they ‘know’ is nearly always fragmentary, superficial, distorted, or just flat-out completely wrong. Then, based on what they think they know, they aren’t interested or they react against it. The problem is that it’s vastly harder to convince people to re-consider an idea, or to change their assumptions, than it is to share something entirely new.

Thus, when we do the work of apologetics and evangelization today, we have to start before square one. It’s not enough to assume that a person knows nothing about the Faith; we have to assume that he or she ‘knows’ things that are false. We have to do the laborious work of determining what a person (or an audience) already believes, and then to address those parts of these beliefs that need correcting before we can even get started with our arguments for Christianity. Catholic apologists probably know this better than most Protestant apologists, actually. Nine times out of ten, the biggest objection that someone has to Catholicism is based on a complete misunderstanding of what Catholics actually believe. A simple, factual explanation of Catholic doctrine (such as explaining that Purgatory is the post-mortem sanctification of saved souls, and not a second chance at salvation) can often clear up some of the sticky areas where otherwise an apologist could get bogged down very unproductively.

In our post-Christian culture, though, the misunderstandings and false assumptions often run so deeply that our interlocutors don’t realize that they have these beliefs. For instance, one of the issues that I discuss in depth in my book is the question of naturalism vs. supernaturalism. Most people – including many Christians – have a deep-seated view of the world as fundamentally material. Only the things that can be observed and measured are really real. Christians will, of course, have God as an exception to that general rule, but often, in a rather shallow way, which makes them vulnerable to atheist arguments such as ‘we just believe in one fewer god than you do.’ But this is a category error. As Bishop Barron so aptly puts it, God is not just one more powerful being among many. He is Being itself; the sheer act of ‘to be’.

So, one of the most important challenges for apologists today is to recover a sense of the supernatural dimension, and to help people see that the material world is not all that there is. This includes an awareness of the reality of objective morality. That’s one reason that C.S. Lewis’s great book The Abolition of Man, which addresses this topic, is so important today; I’ve included this in my Recommended Reading section of Apologetics and the Christian Imagination.

You mention several writers, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien to name just a few, as heroes of the metaphoric route of apologetics and the sheer power of words. Why do you recommend metaphor and why is this route so effective?

I chose to focus on metaphor because it’s arguably the most fundamental mode of figurative language. If you understand how metaphor works and why it’s powerful, then you’ll be able to understand a whole range of other literary devices, from personification to allegory. 

Metaphor is a comparison, in which one thing is implicitly compared to another thing that is outwardly different, but that has some inward likeness. Metaphors communicate ideas in a way that is vivid, memorable, and compact; it may be possible to express the meaning of the metaphor in propositional language, but it will take more words, and in the process, it will lose a great deal of the impact of the metaphor.

One of the key points in my chapter on metaphor is that both figurative and literal language are modes of communication of truth (or falsehood, as the case may be). It is not the case that metaphors are somehow inherently ‘less true’ than propositional language. Scripture is packed full of metaphors, and we can only make sense of what the Bible says if we recognize that this is non-literal, truth-bearing language. Jesus is described as ‘the Lamb of God’: this is a true statement, but it does not mean that the Second Person of the Trinity was incarnate as a baby sheep (we recognize that this would be a very stupid reading of the text). Rather, we see that this powerful image tells us who Jesus is, and what his mission is: he is pure, innocent, gentle; he is also the sacrifice for our sins. We can say all these things in propositional language, but it does not convey the holistic meaning of ‘the Lamb of God,’ in which all these different meanings are simultaneously present and taken in, through the image.

Metaphors, in short, are effective because they are potent (packing a lot of meaning into a single image) and because they are interactive (the reader or hearer has to engage with the image to grasp the metaphor). They are thus highly generative of meaning.

In discussing the Incarnation of Christ you mention that, “Here is the deepest and most life-giving paradox of faith: that the One by whom all things were made condescended to enter into the messy, sinful world of ordinary men and women.” How exactly ought this paradoxical aspect of the Incarnation influence what we say and how we say it?

First of all, the Incarnation should remind us not to over-simplify the Faith. We have to be able to identify those areas of Christianity that are rightly called mystery: things that cannot be fully understood by the human mind. At some point, we have to say to the skeptic, “Yes, this is very strange; but that is what we believe is true.” These theological mysteries, like the Incarnation or the Trinity, are not irrational, and we can understand certain things about these mysteries, but they are not things that we can fully comprehend. God is infinite; our human minds are finite. As soon as we fall into the trap of making Christianity something that is fully know-able, we are misrepresenting God and indeed the nature of reality itself. Why, after all, should the spiritual aspect of reality be simple, when physical reality is incredibly complex, as any biologist could tell you?

The Incarnation also reminds us that we must live out our Faith: we must incarnate it ourselves. We are not disembodied minds that happen to have bodies and that happen to live in communities; rather, we are incarnate human beings in relationship with each other and with our Head, who is Christ. Our lives should show that truth.

If you could say one thing to motivate and challenge our readers to become better in apologetics and by necessity, better evangelists, what would that be?

I would say that every Christian should strive for integration: to have what you believe consistent with how you live, on every level of your self; to have a spirituality in which your mind, emotions, will, and body are all involved and all in harmony with each other. The sacraments, especially confession and the Eucharist, are key here; but also a consistent life of prayer and devotion to Our Lord. Our work of apologetics should reflect that – and in the final chapter, I outline what an integrated approach to apologetics will look like.

But I want to add one more thought to this: in our current day, we are bombarded with distractions and stimuli, such that it’s all too easy to have every waking moment filled up! If we are rushed, stressed, nerve-jangled, inattentive and distracted, how can we grow in our relationship with God, be a compelling witness, and lead others to Him? Seeking integration in our Christian life also means making space for more silence and reflection in everyday life. On a practical level, this could include making the Lord’s Day a genuine day of rest; reducing the number of distractions from media (turn off ‘push’ notifications on your phone, setting it aside at mealtimes); and developing devotional habits that include silence and reflection (such as praying the rosary).

We cannot offer what we do not have; and we cannot show people what we have not experienced ourselves! But if we can ourselves become more integrated as Christians – mind, emotions, body, will – then we will be better able to do what I think is essential: “Done well, apologetics places rational argument firmly in the incarnational reality of the Faith as it is lived out and experienced in the sacraments, prayer, fellowship, worship, and service, and it engages the imagination and emotions as well as the intellect.”