Dr. Holly Ordway is Professor of English and Director of the Master of Arts in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. She earned her PhD in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and her main research interests are in Inklings studies.
In 2014, she published her memoir, Not God's Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms, which chronicled her conversion from atheism to Christianity.
Dr. Ordway was my academic advisor as I completed my degree at Houston Baptist University, and I had the privilege of taking several classes from her. She is one of the most influential voices in cultural apologetics today, and before we begin our series on CS Lewis, I wanted to have Dr. Ordway explain a little bit more about this type of apologetics. It will help set the groundwork for looking at Narnia.
Thank you Dr. Ordway for coming on Entering the Public Square!
ZS: First of all, how would you define cultural apologetics? I think often times we automatically assume apologists only work in the realm of formal logical proofs and historical studies on the reliability of the New Testament for example.
HO: In a nutshell: cultural apologetics means that we look at the big picture when we do evangelization and apologetics. If we know why people believe what they believe, and what false ideas they hold that lead them to reject Christianity, then we can present the Gospel in a way that is more meaningful – so that people don’t just shrug off Christians as one more ‘whatever’ option. Cultural apologetics also means that we take an integrated approach to sharing the truth: not just through philosophical arguments and debates, but also through literature and the arts, and through personal witness and works of mercy.
Cultural apologetics also has a creative component. Many of the words that we use as Christians have become functionally meaningless in the wider culture. People think of God as ‘a grandfather in the sky’ and ‘sin’ as ‘fun stuff that Christians want to stop us doing’. No wonder they ignore us! Too often, apologists talk past the people we’re trying to help – we need to re-invest our words with meaning so that people will see that the Christian claim is worth bothering about. This is a major theme in the book I’ve just finished, called Imaginative Apologetics (forthcoming from Emmaus Road Press, in 2017).
ZS: How did cultural apologetics play a role in your conversion from atheism to Christianity?
HO: I discuss this in detail in my memoir Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms! I hope that if you are interested you will take a look at that book.
As an overview, let me give you a brief excerpt from my forthcoming book Imaginative Apologetics, commenting on how literature played a key role in my journey to faith:
When I was so firmly an atheist, I would not have listened to the arguments that ultimately convinced me. I found the very idea of faith to be so repellent that I would not have listened to any arguments.
However, although I was not interested in apologetic arguments, I had, without knowing it, been experiencing the work of grace through my imagination. As a child and young adult, I read fantasy, fairy tales, and myths, and I especially fell in love with the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. I didn’t know that I was encountering God’s grace through those books, but in fact I was. Later, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on fantasy novels, and had Tolkien’s great essay “On Fairy-stories,” with its powerful statement of the evangelium, the Good News, at the heart of it. Later I began to teach college literature, and in re-visiting classic poetry for my class preparation, I was deeply moved and intrigued by the writings of specifically Christian poets. I had to admit that whatever it was that these authors believed, it was not simplistic or silly. Eventually, I realized that this question of ‘faith’ was more complex, and more interesting, than I had thought – and I decided to learn more.
There were a lot of questions that I needed to ask and have answered before I came to accept Christ, but Imagination opened the door. As George MacDonald’s novel Phantastes baptized C.S. Lewis’ imagination, so Lewis, Tolkien, Donne, and Hopkins had baptized mine.
But also like Lewis, I had a two-step conversion. I came to belief in God, but then struggled with the idea of the Incarnation. All the evidence pointed toward the Crucifixion and the Resurrection as historical facts, but I found that I was unable to accept the idea of Jesus as God Incarnate. I understood the concept, but I couldn’t grasp it, even though I knew that it was part of a larger argument that was extremely convincing.
At that point, I turned very deliberately to the Chronicles of Narnia and began re-reading them, because I knew what I needed and I went looking for it: I went looking for Aslan, the lion who is the great Christ-figure of the Chronicles. I re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Horse and His Boy, both of which prominently feature Aslan. And through my experience of those stories, my Imagination was able to connect with what my Reason already knew, and I was able to grasp, as a whole person, that it could be true: that God could become Incarnate. And that imaginative experience removed the last stumbling block for my acceptance of Christ.
ZS: What are the some of the vital ingredients in creating a good cultural apologetic? Were there certain things that people like CS Lewis or JRR Tolkien did that made their communication of Truth that much more effective?
HO: I would suggest that there are three key ingredients for effective cultural apologetics, which both Lewis and Tolkien displayed:
1. A strong, deep personal faith in Christ, which they put into practice in day to day life;
2. A clear understanding of their faith (doctrine and Scripture);
3. Exceptionally strong writing skills, honed by constant diligent practice over many years, and a commitment to their writing as writing: first and foremost, they wrote good academic literary criticism, good stories, and good poetry.
ZS: How do you draw the line between doing cultural apologetics and just taking a Bible story and changing the names or setting? What differentiates cultural apologetics from that type of copy-and-paste story?
HO: Cultural apologetics has to be grounded in an awareness of the culture – what questions people have, what issues are important! We have to understand what’s going on if we are to engage with people successfully. It’s worth noting that Lewis and Tolkien were much more aware of their modern culture than most people give them credit for. Both of them fought in the first World War and lived through the second World War; both taught undergraduates for decades; Lewis traveled to speak for the Royal Air Force and did popular broadcasts for the BBC, while Tolkien paid close attention to the news – at one point he subscribed to three different newspapers.
As apologists, if we just treat the symptoms of cultural disorder, but don’t address the root causes, we won’t be very effective. We need to ask: why has atheism become so entrenched in modern culture? What are the false ideas that have taken root in this culture, that are bearing such poisoned fruit? Cultural apologetics includes that kind of analysis.
ZS: If someone was interested in starting to study cultural apologetics, what are three resources you would recommend as good first steps?
HO: I would suggest:
1. WordonFire.org – Bishop Robert Barron is one of the best cultural apologists working today, and Word on Fire is his ministry. Check out his YouTube videos as well.
2. The essay by Malcolm Guite, “Telling the Truth through Imaginative Fiction”, in C.S. Lewis at Poets’ Corner, edited by Michael Ward and Peter S. Williams, and (for more advanced reading) Guite’s book Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination.
3. My essay “Come and See: The Value of Storytelling for Apologetics,” which appears in A New Kind of Apologist, edited by Sean McDowell, and is also available here: http://www.hollyordway.com/2016/03/17/storytelling-and-apologetics/
Let me also say: keep an eye out for my forthcoming Imaginative Apologetics!
ZS: How are things going in the apologetics program at Houston Baptist University? I miss it. Are there any new courses, degree tracks or developments that are particularly exciting right now that the audience might be interested in?
HO: The MAA is going strong!
We now have a fully-developed Philosophical Apologetics track, which (as the name suggests) allows students to focus on the philosophical side of the discipline. This track overlaps with the Cultural track in the core courses, and we allow flexibility with electives, so Cultural students can take some Philosophical courses and vice versa. It’s great for our students!
We have also added several new classes to the Cultural track, including two that I teach: “Creative Writing and Apologetics” and “Advanced Apologetics Writing” (which is an elective in both tracks). This means that students have exceptional opportunities to develop their writing skills – whether for academia, for ministry, or for creative writing. We also have noted film critic Jeffrey Overstreet teaching our online film class, while in Houston Dr Phil Tallon is now offering a film and theology class. Considering that Dr Michael Ward teaches “CS Lewis and Imaginative Apologetics” and “Literature and Apologetics,” and I teach the Ancient/Medieval/Modern culture arc of courses, the MAA is unparalleled for the study of imaginative apologetics as a specialty, and for providing a fully developed, robust cultural apologetics program in general. If people are interested, they can check out hbu.edu/maa or hbu.edu/maaonline to learn more.