The following is my contribution to the volume A New Kind of Apologist, ed. Sean McDowell. I was very pleased to be able to contribute a chapter on this subject: ‘imaginative and literary apologetics’ is a vitally important approach for apologetics today, and it’s one that’s included in the courses that my colleagues and I teach in the cultural-apologetics track of HBU’s MA in Apologetics. Enjoy! If you find this chapter interesting, do please take a look at my new book, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith, from Emmaus Road Publishing, in which I develop these ideas in much greater depth.
Come and See:
The Value of Storytelling for Apologetics
Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time there was an atheist. Then he read a fairytale and discussed myths. As a result, he stopped being an atheist and became a Christian.
That, in the very briefest of summary, is the story of C.S. Lewis’s conversion to Christ. As a young atheist, Lewis was profoundly influenced by reading the novel Phantastes by the Christian author George MacDonald. Phantastes does not mention Christ or the Church anywhere in its pages, but it is deeply imbued with the Christian worldview. Lewis later wrote that this literary encounter was pivotal: “my imagination,” he said, “was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer.”
By 1931, Lewis had come to belief in God on a rational, philosophical level, but he found himself unable to accept the claims of Christianity; he couldn’t find the doctrines meaningful. Then one day Lewis walked through the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, in conversation with his friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. They helped him to see that Christ’s sacrifice is a story, just like the stories Lewis loved, but with the difference that it also happened in history. Doctrine became more than a dry set of propositions; Lewis realized that the two hemispheres of his life, his imagination and his reason, could be united in the Christian faith. The final barrier to belief fell. He could become a Christian as a whole person—and he did. Now he is known to millions as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia; he has a memorial in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey; his books have helped countless people to know Christ.
Lewis’s conversion shows that stories matter—and not just for him, but for all of us.
We experience our own lives in terms of story. Birth announcements connect the new baby with the lives of the parents; later, graduation, wedding, retirement announcements flag important plot points; the obituary will be a final summing-up. Couples recount the story of how they met and fell in love. Travelers regale us with the tales of their adventures. A bad day can become a good story when the sting has passed.
We see the basic human need for story wherever we look. Skeptics tell just-so stories to explain every aspect of our lives in terms of biology. Celebrity culture allows us to have heroes and villains. On the personal level, one of the signals of our need for narrative is that we are dissatisfied when we feel that our lives lack purpose. Our unstated expectation is that our lives have a beginning, middle, and end that make sense; we are troubled by seemingly random events, and when tragedy strikes, we ask, “Why did this happen?”
The work of apologists must always be centered upon Christ in the most robust sense possible—and that includes using both argument and story, both reason and imagination. Unfortunately, Christian apologists have often tacitly accepted the modernist, scientistic focus on empirical evidence alone, and tried to convey truth as if story didn’t matter, delivering a set of answers without regard for how the other person arrived at his questions or objections. Yes, we work to demolish false arguments and remove obstacles to belief, but we also work constructively to help people encounter and engage with Christ. And that includes telling a good story!
When I talk about using story and imagination in apologetics, I am most emphatically not talking about taking apologetics arguments and inserting them into fiction like a bitter pill hidden in a sweet treat. No! I mean something far richer and more interesting—and more effective.
To begin with, the creative impulse itself is a reflection of the image of God in each person. The great fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien understood this. We make stories, he said, “because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
We can see the value of stories in apologetics perhaps most clearly if we look at Scripture. God is the ultimate Storyteller, both as the Author of history and as the Author of Scripture. The inspired Word of God is in large part a narrative, the story of salvation history—a drama that might be summed up in five acts: Creation, Israel, Incarnation, Church, Apocalypse. Life stories are recounted—such as those of Abraham, Moses, David. Entire books of the Bible are written in poetry. Preeminently, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
One of the ways that storytelling is valuable is that it makes our apologetics incarnational. For apologetics to be incarnational is first of all to consider the implications of the “Word made flesh” on all aspects of life. We who follow Christ do not just know about him, though we can know many true things about him through the use of our reason, such as the fact of his resurrection and the nature of his claim to be our only Lord and Savior. We also know him, directly and experientially. That kind of knowledge can’t be shared directly, but it can be shown indirectly through the working of the imagination. Art, music, architecture, film, and literature all provide opportunities for people to catch a glimpse of the world as we see it in the light of Christ, to taste the goodness of God, to get a hint of something important just around the corner—something worth following up on.
Certainly that was my experience. As an adult atheist (and a hostile one!), I would never have bothered to pick up a book of Christian apologetics or theology because I was sure it was a stupid superstition. Yet the deeply meaningful world of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and the profound depths of poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins and others, gave me a glimpse of something beautiful and mysterious about the Christian faith. I didn’t believe it was true, but I was drawn, fearfully and reluctantly, to learn more. Eventually I began to investigate the claims of Christianity, and was convinced by rational argument that God existed, and even that Jesus of Nazareth died and rose from the dead.
However, I still struggled, unable to grasp the shocking idea that God had become incarnate. It was only in rereading the Chronicles of Narnia, and encountering once again the Christ-figure of the great lion Aslan, that I was able to connect what my reason told me with what my imagination showed me—and then to lay down my arms in surrender to Christ.
Appreciating the incarnational nature of Christianity includes realizing that God made us with bodies and emotions, as well as minds and souls, and that he placed us in the physical world that he had made—and he called all of this good, even very good. The future we look forward to is not a disembodied spirit-heaven, but rather a new heaven and a new earth, where we will have glorified, resurrected bodies. Thus, any fully-orbed presentation of the truth about ourselves and God’s plan for us cannot be a disembodied, purely intellectual truth; it must truthfully reflect our nature as created beings.
Part of being incarnate means that it is good and right for us to have emotions and express them—as our Lord did, for example, by weeping at the tomb of Lazarus and by getting angry with the money changers in the temple. The fact that little children wanted to come to him suggests that he had a welcoming physicality and a warm personality that they instinctively trusted and found attractive. He wasn’t just a walking dictionary of Christian theology.
Literature and film offer a mode of doing apologetics incarnationally, putting meaningful flesh on bare-bones concepts like justice, faith, sin, or love, and showing that truth is never merely a private affair, but also shapes how we relate with others. In a good story, we relate to the characters as if they were real people, feeling sympathy or dislike for them, experiencing nervousness, sorrow, or joy at the plot twists that involve them. We reflect on whether their actions were right or wrong, wise or foolish, and wonder what we might do in their situation, whether it’s President Bartlet making a decision of state on The West Wing, or Elizabeth Bennet forming an opinion about Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Stories allow us to present truth in such a way that it impacts the whole person: emotions and intellect, relationships and self-knowledge.
To be sure, literature’s power of evoking emotion is in itself neutral; the question is, to what end is it oriented? Authors can use the power of language and storytelling to make evil things seem harmless or even appealing. (Consider pornography or the manipulation of desires by advertising.) But any good thing can be twisted; this does not remove its proper use. For the apologist, the point is that emotional response to the images we see and the language we hear and read is an innate part of being human; people are not, never will be, and indeed cannot be purely rational and unaffected by emotion. If they were, they would have ceased to be fully human. In a rightly ordered human being, rational understanding is accompanied by appropriate emotional response: St. Paul directs us to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
Furthermore, being incarnate means that we are creatures who live in the flow of time, and are thus naturally predisposed to absorb truth in the form of narrative. When our Lord tells us that we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven, perhaps he is also reminding us of the goodness of the child’s instinctive cry, “Tell me a story!” The story of Christ, for instance, involves expectation of his birth, then the actual event of his nativity (in dangerous circumstances), his childhood, his public ministry, his passion and death, his resurrection and ascension. The Church calendar enables us each year to relive this drama and in a sense to reenact it, moving through it sequentially, in time, rather than stepping outside it as if we were more than human, turning it into an abstract system of propositions that only Mr. Spock would really value. The power of story allows the apologist to transform abstract truth into something that the reader or listener can engage with.
The Gospel is the greatest story ever told—but as apologists, are we telling it for all it’s worth? We’ve all seen movie posters and book covers that give us a vivid image and a tagline for the story—hinting at the Adventure! Romance! Suspense! that awaits us. The tagline is not the story itself: it’s intended to draw us in, so that we’ll enter the movie theater or sit down with the book.
All too often, though, we allow the Gospel to remain as a movie poster or a book cover that has some adjectives and abstract nouns attached—salvation, redemption, hope—without immersing people in the flesh-and-blood drama of it. If we move beyond using individual verses and passages as proof texts and present them as part of the grand narrative of salvation history, we can better help people experience the fullness of what Scripture has to say, rather than reducing Scripture to a mere reference footnote. The Gospels don’t merely recount that Jesus rose from the dead: they dramatize it. We meet the distraught Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, and the bewildered and downcast disciples trudging along the road to Emmaus, before they—and we—encounter the risen Lord.
The stories of Christians through the past two thousand years provide another form of apologetics. Consider St. Paul and St. Peter, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi, William Wilberforce and Mother Teresa, and so many more. We could simply talk about missionary zeal and solid doctrine, loving God with mind as well as heart, and respecting the dignity of all people—but these ideas have much more meaning when they are embodied in the stories of real men and women. St. Paul’s shipwrecks and hairsbreadth escapes from death, St. Thomas’s quiet work writing millions of words of philosophy and theology (and a few wonderful hymns), Wilberforce’s decades-long antislavery campaign, or Mother Teresa’s tireless care for the poor in the slums of Calcutta, are the sorts of stories that make people sit up and take notice. Examples of conspicuous holiness and goodness (even by secular standards) may help people to wonder: What motivated that person? How could I gain some of that joy, some of that strength?
Stories remind us of the complexity of life and something of the mystery of Christian faith. Consider the parable of the prodigal son, told by the master storyteller himself. Here is the story of a young man who thinks there’s a much more exciting life ahead for him than being at home. He squanders his inheritance and finds himself in a faraway country, hungry and lonely, all too aware that he doesn’t deserve any help. Ashamed, he trudges back, hoping to get a menial job—only to find his dad running out to embrace him, even to give him a party!
Yes, the parable is “about” God’s love and mercy—but these words are embodied in the story. It is in the particulars of this sore-hearted, sore-footed young man, who can scarcely believe that his father is really taking him back into his home, that we encounter the meaning of conversion, repentance, forgiveness. Most importantly, the reader can imagine himself or herself into the story—and the more vividly realized the world of the story, the more likely it is that the reader will want to inhabit that story and experience it imaginatively… and perhaps begin to ask, “Could it possibly be true?”
Storytelling matters for apologetics because a story is, ultimately, a reflection of what it means to be a Christian. Our faith is an adventure: “The road goes ever on and on,” says Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. As Christian apologists, we do not merely show that there is a road, we invite people to join us on it, headed toward the heavenly Jerusalem to meet our Lord and King. “Come and see,” we say. “Join us in this story.”
Holly Ordway is professor of English and director of the MA in apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst; her academic work focuses on imaginative apologetics and on the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams.
Taken from A New Kind of Apologist
Copyright © 2016 Sean McDowell
Published by Harvest House Publishers
Eugene, Oregon 97402
Used by Permission