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The Vision of Literary Apologetics

Why is apologetics, the defense of the Christian faith, important?

In one sense, Christianity needs no defense. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, does not depend for His existence on our belief. However, many people who do not know the living God are separated from Him in part by intellectual obstacles. Removing those obstacles by showing that Christianity indeed makes sense on a rational level is an act of love and care for our neighbor. Defending the faith also builds up a strong foundation for believers. A securely built house has a solid, well-built foundation, so that the vagaries of wind and weather don’t damage it or cause distress to the inhabitants. It’s natural to have questions and doubts - think of the disciples, asking Jesus “increase our faith!” or the man who cries out “Lord, I believe: help my unbelief!” Apologetics helps strengthen the foundations by providing answers to questions and doubts, so that the Christian can grow stronger in his or her faith.

What about “literary apologetics”?

Literary apologetics is that mode of apologetics that functions through the use of the Imagination in stories, poetry, drama, and song. Imagination is a mode of knowing; it is the twin sister of Reason. Imagination that is not grounded in Reason can become what JRR Tolkien called “morbid fantasy,” unhealthy and unhelpful; conversely, Reason that is not supported by Imagination can become sterile, rigid, and unfruitful. Literature is particularly well suited to bring these two often-separated sisters together, so that Reason and Imagination can illuminate the path to truth.

Stories, poetry, and drama can help us to both comprehend the truth (with our intellect) and apprehend it (imaginatively and emotionally). As with rational argument, literature cannot in itself bring a person to know Christ, but it can open doors, challenge assumptions, and most importantly provide a glimpse of experienced truth. Stories invite readers to indeed “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). 

Literature can best fulfill this role when the author is committed both to expressing the truth and to creating a good story. The best literary apologists - CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, GK Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and others, just to name those of the past century - did not set out to wrap a moral in a story, or explicitly to promote Christianity through their fiction writing. Rather, they believed fully and deeply, and sought to glorify God in all that they did - and so their stories show the truth, in deep and satisfying ways.

Today, we need a new generation of Christian writers who will do what those great writers did. We need well-informed, thinking Christians, who know their Scripture and theology, are committed to living out the Christian life in word and deed, and show forth that living truth in their work.

We need writers who will immerse themselves in the best writing of centuries past and learn from it, and be able to draw on that rich treasury of imagery to do new things.

We need writers who are willing and eager to view writing as a God-given calling, and to joyfully pursue the craft and art of it with dedication and hard work.

Fortunately, we do not have to start from scratch! We have the works of Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, MacDonald, and others to study and learn from. Going further back, we have an absolute treasure chest of writers: Coleridge, Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Spenser, Dante, to name just a few.

We are not limited to the great writers of the past, however. We have people who even now are taking up the challenge of writing to draw people through the imagination to know Christ. In England, the poet and scholar Malcolm Guite (www.malcolmguite.com) is doing marvelous work with poetry. In my own blog, Hieropraxis (www.hieropraxis.com), I am attempting to cultivate an appreciation for literature and literary apologetics, as well as writing my own poetry.

To be an effective literary apologist means a commitment to the craft of writing, so that the great and glorious truth of our faith is presented to the world in the most beautiful, powerful, gripping, and transformative ways possible. It also means a commitment to community. Just as Lewis and Tolkien were part of the Inklings, commenting and critiquing each others’ work, so too the writers of today need the kind of community where “iron sharpens iron.”

One of the challenges of Christian writers is to find that kind of community - so part of the project of literary apologetics is to help provide the kind of context where new writers can grow. That’s why I’m delighted to be part of a new project as the Program Director of the Literary Apologetics Certificate Program from Athanatos Christian Ministry. I’ve been involved with ACM for several years as a conference speaker and sponsor of their writing contests: they are on the front lines of training writers and encouraging the reading of great works of Christian literature. This online program combines classes in theology and Scripture with specifically writing-related courses to help Christian writers share the good news of God in Christ in ways that are artistically powerful and effective, engaging readers through the work of the Imagination. (Classes start in February, and I will be teaching a class in “Wordsmithing” as well as co-teaching “Principles of Literary Apologetics.”)

I think we’re at the beginning of great things for literature in the service of God. My friends, let’s go further up and further in!

Comments

The legal nuance of apologetics was reframed in a more specific sense to refer to the study of the defense of a doctrine or belief. In this context it most commonly refers to philosophical reconciliation. -Phil Melugin

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About
Dr. Holly Ordway is a professor of composition and literature. She speaks and writes regularly on literature, especially fantasy literature and poetry, and literary apologetics.


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