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Dr. Holly Ordway on Apologetics and the Christian Imagination

April 1, 2020


The Word on Fire Institute is happy to introduce its readers and students to Dr. Holly Ordway, Fellow of Faith and Culture at the Word on Fire Institute, Visiting Professor at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Apologetics and the Christian Imagination. Dr. Ordway is a former atheist who speaks and writes movingly of her journey into Catholicism and the vocation she has found there. Here she discusses her role as a Fellow of Faith and Culture with Andrew Petiprin, himself a Fellow of Popular Culture here at Word on Fire.

AP: Your new role at the Word on Fire Institute is “Fellow of Faith and Culture.” Welcome! What will your work entail, and what will Institute members and fans of Word on Fire content be getting from you in the months and years to come?

HO: Thanks! I’m delighted to be joining the team. As Fellow of Faith and Culture, I’ll be taking my work on cultural and imaginative apologetics (more on that below) to a wider audience. My particular vocation as an apologist is “teaching the teachers”: equipping fellow Christians to engage with the culture so that they can evangelize effectively. Today in the West we are operating in a functionally post-Christian and post-pagan environment. Atheists, “nones,” and fallen-away Catholics are not ignorant of the existence of the Gospel; they just find it dull, incomprehensible, or meaningless. This presents a fundamentally different problem than sharing the Gospel with people who have never heard it before.

A lot of my work has to do language: finding ways to talk about the faith that are meaningful to the listener. This also involves teaching Catholics to analyze the culture, so that they’re able to respond to the underlying issues, questions, and misunderstandings that people have. These questions may not be what the average Catholic thinks are the big issues, and they are not the ones that were common fifty or even twenty years ago. But we have to be answering the questions people actually have, not the ones that we think they should have, or that we happen to feel most confident addressing. I’m also keen to equip Catholics to do more effective catechesis and discipleship. Apologetics is as needed within the Church as outside it. We can’t share what we don’t have, and we can’t explain what we don’t understand!

That’s the big picture. In terms of specifics, first of all, you’ll be seeing a lot more writing from me! Most immediately, I’ll be contributing regularly to the Evangelization & Culture journal and the Word on Fire Blog. I’ll also writing new books to be published through Word on Fire’s expanded publishing house. I have quite a list of projects that I am looking forward to working on!

In fact, I’m very pleased to announce that Word on Fire will be publishing the book on Tolkien that I’ve been working on for the last few years. Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages is a study of what modern (post-1850) literature Tolkien read, and how it shaped his creative imagination. (He read a lot more modern literature, and was more engaged with modern culture, than has hitherto been realized.) As Tolkien is such an important figure as a Catholic writer, I think this will be of great interest to Word on Fire readers as well anyone who enjoys Tolkien’s work.

Word on Fire Institute members will be also getting video courses and webinars from me in the coming years, and I’ll be involved with the Institute’s discussion forums. I’ll be able to expand my speaking schedule, and to write for other publishers and journals. One of the things we need to do as evangelizing Catholics is to make our presence known in the wider intellectual world.

Tell us briefly about your journey from atheism into the Catholic Church. How did your love of and expertise in literature play a part?

I grew up as a “none”: raised in a nonreligious household, with no exposure to any practice of faith outside of minimal culturally Christian elements. When I went to college, I absorbed the assumption that Christianity was just a superstition, or at best a historical curiosity, and by the time I was in my twenties I was a convinced atheist. But I had loved fairy tales and stories ever since I was a little girl (C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were special favorites), and I had encountered many great Christian authors while studying for my degrees in English. These and other works of literature got past the “watchful dragons” of my ignorance and skepticism, and raised questions about good and evil, beauty and meaning, that I couldn’t account for in my atheist worldview.

Doing my PhD on fantasy literature, centered on Tolkien’s writing, further unsettled me. The beauty and transcendence evoked in The Lord of the Rings seemed real in a way I couldn’t understand. Years later, when I began teaching literature, I finally realized that I couldn’t dismiss writers like Tolkien, Lewis, George Herbert, or Gerard Manley Hopkins as ignorant and superstitious. Their beliefs might be wrong, but they couldn’t be complete nonsense. So I decided to investigate. I started looking at the apologetics arguments; I read the Gospels. To make a long story short, much to my surprise, I realized that Christianity is actually true!

When I later encountered Bishop Barron’s idea of “leading with beauty,” I knew exactly what that meant, from having experienced it. Beauty, in the form of compelling and engaging stories and poetry, brought me to the point where I was willing to take seriously ideas about morality and truth.

After a few years as a Protestant, I found myself gradually drawn (not without resistance!) toward the Church, and I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2012—the best thing I’ve ever done! (Readers can get the whole story in my memoir Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms.)

You were received as a Catholic at Our Lady of Walsingham in Houston, Texas. That’s the Cathedral of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. Can you tell us a little about how the Ordinariate has shaped your approach to evangelization?

Absolutely! Let me first briefly explain what the Ordinariate is, since most readers won’t have heard of it. It was established by Pope Benedict XVI to help former Anglicans become Catholic, and was later affirmed and extended by Pope Francis to have evangelization as its core mission, including reaching fallen-away Catholics. Its core contribution to the New Evangelization is that it brings into the Catholic Church the riches of the “Anglican patrimony”: the best elements of the liturgical and musical tradition that the Church of England had developed over the last four hundred years. There’s a strong emphasis on reverence and on beauty in the liturgy, and on drawing on the best literary resources of the Church for teaching and devotions. Fittingly, the patron of the Ordinariate in England is St. John Henry Newman: a convert, a theologian, and an author of fiction and poetry.

The Ordinariate’s approach to worship and prayer has had a gradual but deep effect on my approach to evangelization. Although there’s no Ordinariate parish near where I live now, in Wisconsin, when I visit England, as I do for two or three months out of the year, I attend Holy Rood in Oxford, which is the Ordinariate parish there, and I attend Our Lady of Walsingham when I visit Houston. I also use Ordinariate devotional books for regular daily prayer (such as the new St Gregory’s Prayer Book). Beauty in worship can be conveyed in lots of ways: through the liturgy, vestments, sacred art, music, architecture, and through the literary quality of our prayer-books and devotional texts. All these elements help make worship and prayer more integrated and incarnational: involving the physical senses and the imagination as well as the intellect. My own experiences with this have, over the past few years, helped me see a bigger picture for the role of the arts in evangelization. Beauty can help Catholics to grow in their faith, and create opportunities for nonbelievers to experience a glimpse of wonder and transcendence, which in turn creates an opportunity for evangelizing—or at least plants the seeds for it! It’s not “all or nothing”; small things can have a big effect.

Your emphasis on “imaginative apologetics” really resonates with me. Would you define it for our readers?

Imaginative apologetics, in its broadest scope, uses the imagination to help create meaning for ideas, thus making it possible to share the faith in a more effective and compelling manner. To begin with, we need to understand that ‘imagination’ is a basic human faculty: we all use it all the time, to make meaningful images out of the data that we receive from the world. To read this, your imagination converted some squiggles of black on a white background into recognizable words—only then could your intellect decide whether the words were true or false, reasonable or unreasonable. The imagination gives the intellect something to think about. Crucially, the more that the imagination has to work with, the richer, fuller, and deeper the image will be, giving the intellect more to work with.

Many people today have a weak or faulty grasp of the real meaning of most Christian concepts. For instance, if you’re having a conversation with a skeptic, bringing the word sin into the conversation is rarely productive. Why? Because to the atheist, the word sin probably means “fun things that those killjoy Catholics don’t want us to do.” If the skeptic believes that human sexual acts have no more significance than scratching an itch, or that there is no transcendent moral order, only socially useful conventions, then even if we accurately define what we mean by “sin,” it still won’t have any traction on their conscience. Discussing the topic then becomes, as my colleague Michael Ward has put it, nothing more than moving counters in an intellectual game; it won’t lead them to repentance and amendment of life. But if that skeptic encounters a story or film or work of art that in a compelling way shows the disorder and ugliness of what sin really is, embodied in particular characters and situations, then a later discussion of the concept will very probably have more real substance and bear more fruit.

It may also be the case that a concept has a very powerful meaning—but a mistaken one. For someone who has been abused as a child, the idea of God as Father may touch on intense memories of fear and pain. There might be deep woundedness behind the skeptic’s resistance. An imaginative approach to apologetics can also help form more effective and more compassionate evangelists. Stories, poetry, films, and memoirs can help us to imaginatively enter into experiences we’ve never had, and thus to be better equipped to communicate the Gospel in ways that make sense to our audience. This is a topic that I introduced in my first video course for the Institute on “Imaginative Apologetics,” and it’s one that I’m sure I’ll develop more in other courses and writing.

In your book Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, you wrote: “We live in an age of unprecedented information access, combined with widespread religious illiteracy. Never has there been more information readily available on the rational and historical grounds for Christian faith and on the actual teachings of the Catholic Church, and yet misinformation, error, and outright lies are thriving. . . . Access is not the problem.” Would you speculate for a moment about what you think the problem is? How did we get here?

As I’ve touched on above, what we face today is a meaning gap: between what people think a concept means, and what it really does. This gap is often difficult to detect at first, but it is at the heart of many of our dilemmas both in evangelization and in catechesis. If we don’t help people to engage their imagination and develop rich, correct meaning for the concepts we are presenting, then all our talk is just meaningless noise to be tuned out, or is acknowledged but simply doesn’t take root in their minds and hearts.

There are a lot of different factors that led to this situation, but I’ll mention just one. The rise of constant access to media has made it such that people are overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information available, and are also stressed and overwhelmed by the media they consume. People are overwhelmed with irrelevant or stressful information, which contributes to their skepticism of truth-claims in general. The constant deluge of distractions reduces the time (and mental energy) people have for serious self-reflection, or wrestling with uncomfortable existential questions, or dealing with the implications of the Christian claim. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Is Catholicism true? How would my life change if it were? We’re asking people to make some pretty wrenching changes in what they believe and how they live their lives, and for the most part, people don’t have the mental space to deal with it. This is one of the hidden consequences of an overstimulated, workaholic culture that is terrified of boredom, stillness, or silence.

As a college professor, you’ve taught both English and apologetics. How has that influenced your approach to evangelization?

Teaching English literature, in both secular and Christian settings, and to a range of ages, has shown me firsthand that literature is a powerful way to explore spiritual issues in a nonthreatening, engaging manner. For instance, one of my favorite texts for teaching is Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which allows for the discussion topics like temptation, repentance, and morally wrong actions—in short, the concept of sin—while avoiding the baggage that most students have for the word “sin.” One of the most formative moments of my work as an apologist was when I found a note in a stack of essays that read, “Dr. O, last night I was hanging out with friends and I almost did something I knew was wrong . . . but then I remembered our discussion of Macbeth and I didn’t do it.” Imaginative engagement with a moral issue had in fact helped a young person make a right decision.

For the last eight years, I’ve taught cultural apologetics for the online Master of Arts in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University (it’s an ecumenical, “mere Christian” program), and I’m pleased to say that I’ll continue to have a connection as a Visiting Professor. In my teaching there, I saw how important it is for Christians to develop an integrated faith that involves both intellect and imagination. It’s not just for the nones or the skeptics; it’s for all of us, if we are to be effective in our work of evangelization and catechesis. As Catholics, the reality of the sacramental life should prepare us to appreciate the need for wholeness: we are called to holiness in all aspects of ourselves: reason, intellect, emotions, the physical self, relationships. But very often, I have found, even devout Christians are more compartmentalized than they realize, and it hinders both their own spiritual growth and their ability to evangelize and teach others.

In my cultural apologetics classes, I always used literary texts (stories, poetry, novels) alongside the historical, philosophical, and theological readings. To use C.S. Lewis’ phrase, I invited my students to “look along the beam” as well as to look “at” it. Time and again I observed that after my students engaged with a text like the medieval Dream of the Rood, or the Greek myths, or Malcolm Guite’s poetry, they would understand at a visceral, meaningful level some aspect of Christian theology or apologetics argument that, till then, had been merely a fact that they knew. When that moment of integration happens for apologists, then they can convey that truth more effectively and powerfully to others.

Lastly, I’ve really enjoyed teaching creative writing as well. There are a lot of people out there with the desire to create new works of literature that convey the Christian worldview—but not much guidance for how to do it well. I’ve seen that when writers are willing to be disciplined, attend to the craft of writing, and learn how to help each other in community, they can improve by leaps and bounds. I’m hoping to be able, in some way, to continue this work of developing creative writers in the future at the Word on Fire Institute.

Tolkien said The Lord of the Rings was “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. . . . For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” I’ve always found this quote fascinating, because it almost seems as if Tolkien stumbled into writing a great Catholic work. These days “Catholic” or “Christian” are subgenres of fiction—as in “Christian YA novels,” etc. Do you think the faith is presented more authentic or appeals to more people if it is done by an artist who happens to be Catholic and creates something without necessarily trying to evangelize?

Yes, this is a fascinating quote—and one that is often taken far too simplistically! Tolkien did not set out to write an allegory; it’s flat-out wrong to read The Lord of the Rings as if it were primarily an exposition of Catholic theology. People who are enthusiastic about the Catholic element of the story often ignore the fact that he goes on to say that he has deliberately omitted specific religious references, and that, as you quoted, “the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” Yet people who resist the idea of Tolkien as a Catholic writer err in the other direction: they say (rightly) that it’s not an allegory, but don’t see that there are many other ways to imbue theological ideas into a story. The Lord of the Rings is indeed deeply Christian, and deeply Catholic, but in a complex way. That’s precisely the value of imaginative literature: stories and poetry convey meaning in a different way than philosophy or argument.

I think that in order to write effective Christian literature, a writer needs to have two fundamental characteristics. First, their faith needs to be deeply integrated into their lives—not just at the level of intellectual assent but all the way down to the core, so that the imagination is shaped by it. Then the work will reflect the author’s faith in a profound way, whether the subject of the story or poem is an explicitly Christian one, or not. The result will be that it’s better as literature and as a mode of evangelization. Second, a writer must be committed to the craft of writing, viewing literary quality as a good in itself. Mediocre writing does not become more effective just because it has a good message. A story has to be worth reading on its own terms or it’s not worth reading at all.

People sometimes ask me, “Who’s the next Tolkien or Lewis?” My answer is: we’re not going to have another writer of their caliber until we reframe the question! Imitating their work doesn’t produce anything of lasting value. However, we can and should imitate the habits that made them great writers and devout Christians: their careful attention to the craft of writing, from the big-picture scope of the narrative all the way down to the well-turned sentence and the perfect choice of word; their lifelong habit of reading widely and deeply; their devout faith, lived out in every aspect of their lives.

You and Michael Ward recently had a somewhat tongue-in-cheek public debate about whether Tolkien or Lewis was better. You took Tolkien’s side. Would you explain to our readers what your argument was? And how do you think Tolkien and Lewis strengthened each other to be even better evangelists than they might have been alone?

The “Battle of the Literary Masters” was great fun, and I hope we’ll be invited to do it elsewhere! The point, of course, was that both Michael Ward and I greatly admire both Tolkien and Lewis, so we could have fun with a “debate” format. I made the case for Tolkien as being a truly well-rounded writer, a profoundly integrated man: his relationships with his family, his academic life as a professor of philology, his sense of joy and humor, and his faith all had their part to play in his writing. (I also pointed out that Tolkien can arguably take credit for all of Lewis’ apologetics books, because if it weren’t for Tolkien, Lewis might never have become a Christian at all!)

Yes, Lewis and Tolkien certainly strengthened each other as writers and, therefore, as evangelists. Their friendship stands as a great example of how much writers need community: it’s an unhelpful myth that writers work all by themselves. Tolkien said that the “unpayable debt” he owed to Lewis was for “sheer encouragement”: without it, he said, he would never have completed The Lord of the Rings. Over many years, they and other friends met regularly, as the “Inklings,” to share their work in progress and provide feedback on each other’s writing, and they revised their work to take this feedback into account. The Inklings provided each other with an interested audience, serious and honest feedback, encouragement, and pressure to finish (which Tolkien certainly needed!). This sort of community, with a basis in mutual respect and friendship, and a commitment to helping each other do good work, is really important for writers and evangelists.

Finally, a fun one: What character in all of literature do you identify most strongly with?

Éowyn, the Shield-Maid of Rohan, from The Lord of the Rings!