Apologetics consists in defending the faith by explaining the reasons for belief in Revelation. It is summed up in Saint Peter's exhortation to “always be prepared to make a defence to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1Peter 3:15). However, recently, several apologists have been stressing the need to engage not just the minds but also our imagination. This strand of apologetics has been called imaginative apologetics.
In the first half of this two-part interview, Holly Ordway explains imaginative apologetics and recommends some of the best books on the subject. You can read part two here.
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First of all. What is imaginative apologetics as opposed to conventional apologetics? Well, that is a great question to start with because, in a sense, our idea of conventional apologetics has become unhelpfully narrow in the last fifty or hundred years. We tend to think of apologetics as being only intellectual arguments. However, imaginative apologetics is picking up on a thread or strand of the defence of the faith that is actually very old and has only recently been left in the dust: the use of the imagination and the aesthetic sense to help make those arguments. The premise behind the imaginative approach is that we are not just floating intellects. We are incarnate beings, and so we have an appreciation of emotion, of aesthetics, of the physical world. If we ignore those things when we are presenting the truth of the faith, we are only giving kind of one angle of it. It is only touching one aspect of our being, and it is going to resonate with some people, but not with everyone. It will not have the full impact that a more integrated approach will. God is truth. God is goodness. But God is also perfect beauty. Each of these leads to the others. So, the whole idea of imaginative apologetics is basically to reclaim the imagination as a human faculty, and to use that as we as we present the faith.
If apologetics must appeal to the imagination and not just to reason. Is this not just an inherent characteristic of the Word of God and so of evangelization more broadly? Scripture is full of stories. Jesus appeals to our imagination when he teaches us with his parables and analogies. Exactly, and that is one of the biggest arguments for picking up the imagination in our apologetics work. We see that our Lord himself is effectively using an imaginative approach. But that has often been dropped.
We have the parables in Scripture, but when we try to talk about who God is, we often go straight to the philosophical arguments and forget that God's own self-revelation is giving us stories to tell us who he is. That is a big part of it that we need to reclaim. These profoundly important modes of engagement that our Lord himself has demonstrated are so vital to presenting the truth. Take for example the idea of God's love and forgiveness. This is such an important concept to convey to people. Who is God? Is he an abstract idea? No! God is the loving father who wants us to come home to him. Well, how do we convey that? Certainly, we can say, “God loves you. God wants to forgive you, etc.” But that is very abstract, especially if somebody does not have a good relationship with their father, or has never experienced forgiveness, or has never experienced unconditional love. To them, these words are just abstract. They are cold and empty. They do not do a whole lot. “Yeah, whatever. Move on with your life!” But we can tell a story, just like our Lord tells the parable of the prodigal son.
The whole idea of imaginative apologetics is basically to reclaim the imagination as a human faculty, and to use that as we as we present the faith.
This parable is a miniature masterpiece of imaginative apologetics. We have this son who rebels. He runs off and wants to do his own thing. He ends up with no money, with nothing. He is looking at the pigs eating their husks and he thinks, “How I wish I had some of that!” It is not just a statement. He was destitute. It is a vivid image that we can relate to. Then we see the internal dialogue, where he says, “Oh well. At least I can come back and be part of the staff. I can be a hired labourer.” He is taking these steps. He is not expecting forgiveness. He is just thinking, “I need to put my pride aside and get something.” Then, he goes home and there is this beautiful image of the father seeing him from far off, running to meet him, leaving his dignity behind. He is the father of the family. He is dignified, but he runs out to meet the prodigal son, embraces him, brings him in, and gives him a party. We have the very realistic figure of the elder son saying, “Oh yeah.What about me?” Again, there is a very realistic family. So, what we have is something that imaginatively embodies what repentance looks like and what the acceptance of it looks like. It embodies what forgiveness looks like and it presents it in an appealing way. The son is rehearsing his speech and he never even gets a chance to say it, because the father embraces him.
Now after somebody has fully engaged with that, then the statement that God loves you and wants you to come to him is going to have real meaning, as opposed to just being abstract. In my own work as an imaginative apologist, this conveying of meaning is at the heart of what I am doing, My contention is that a lot of our apologetics and evangelism just falls flat because the words that we are using do not have any meaning for people. What does forgiveness mean? What does the word ‘God’ mean? What does the word ‘sin mean? It is abstract Christian talk. So, we need to reclaim meaning for these words. How do we do that? Not by giving dictionary definitions. We do that by telling stories, showing art, and appealing to the imagination. That lays the foundation to then have a more intellectual discussion about these concepts.
My contention is that a lot of our apologetics and evangelism just falls flat because the words that we are using do not have any meaning for people.
Was there any particular experience that ignited your own interest in imaginative apologetics? What brought it about is how I came to the faith. I am an adult convert. I was an atheist and I became a Christian in my early thirties. What brought me to the point of wanting to know, “Is this true?”, was not philosophy, or apologetics, or theology, or any of that. It was stories. It was the work of C.S. Lewis, such as the Chronicles of Narnia, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and the work of poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins.
I had written my dissertation on fantasy literature. I centred it on Tolkien. All these writers whose work I loved turned out to be Christians. The vision they were putting forward was so appealing and the imaginative worlds they presented were so compelling that I found myself wanting to know what they believed. I was not looking to become a Christian at all. I was, in fact, very much against it. But I was drawn to it by the imagination. Then, as I looked into it, I realised, “Wow! They believe these things because they are actually quite convincing. They believe these things because it is true? Oh no!” I became a Christian and a few years later, again by a similar process, became a Catholic. By the way, I have written about this at greater length. I have a memoir called, Not God's Type, but this is the short version.
So having had that journey for myself, where the imagination got me to the point where the questions were meaningful, then I asked the questions. But I would never have asked the questions before I had that imaginative engagement. Then, as a Christian, as a Catholic, I thought, “Well, if this the case for me, surely it is the case for others.” Since then, I have devoted my energies to developing this approach to apologetics.
You are a scholar of English literature and you are picking books on imaginative apologetics for an anglophone audience. In your extended list, you mention Dante's Divine Comedy. Are there modern instances of imaginative apologetics in other languages just now? That is a good question and a difficult one, because I am a scholar of English literature. Dante's Divine Comedy is so big that it cannot be missed, even in English translation. I would not be able to off the top of my head recommend non-English language works, with the slight exception that the Arthurian legends often have a deeply Christian base. There is a massive French tradition of Arthurian literature. That is one area in which that mythopoetic Christian ethos is probably being expressed, although I would not be able to name any modern titles along those lines.
The first book you have picked is J.R.R. Tolkien’s On Fairy-stories. In this essay, Tolkien identifies the marks of a fairy-tale (Märchen), yet concludes that the Christianity and the Gospel constitute the supreme fairy-tale. Why does this essay top your list? It topped my list partly because Tolkien himself is a profound exemplar for doing imaginative apologetics. The Lord of the Rings is a deeply Christian book. Tolkien himself describes it as a fundamentally religious and Catholic work. But it is not overtly so, it is subtly so. (That is its own whole discussion and I have just written a book about it.) He is presenting a beautiful vision. Everything he is writing comes out of his Christian vision and it is beautiful and compelling. So, it makes sense to ask, “Well, if he is doing this, let's look at his own understanding of what he is doing.”
On Fairy-stories ought to be required reading for everybody who is interested in imaginative apologetics. Tolkien is thinking through one genre: fantasy. He is not making claims for literature, broadly speaking, but for the genre that he is working in, fantasy literature. He sets out to explore how it works and why it matters. He comes up with three characteristics of effective fantasy literature and I think that they are applicable much more broadly. They are recovery, escape, and consolation.
Recovery means that as we enter into a fairy-story world, we get a fresh view of things, because they are they are magical and different. Then, we come back into what he calls the primary world, our everyday world. We are able to see that world afresh. We recover a kind of clarity of vision. To give an example, Lord of the Rings has the Ents, the great tree-shepherds, who are amazing figures. You come back out of the Lord of the Rings and you look at a regular tree and think, “Wow! That is kind of cool.” You see the tree as something more than just that thing with leaves outside my window. If that holds true for a tree, how much more so for an appreciation, say, of human beings and our relationships? Of good, evil, and of moral choices? That is the function of recovery.
He also talks about the desire to escape from our limitations. It is not the same as escapism, which is an attempt to hide from our problems. True escape is recognising when we are in a prison. We want to get out of it. It is important to remember that Tolkien was a veteran of the First World War; he is thinking about escaping from, say, a prison camp. When he was on the front lines, that was a real possibility: he could have ended up in a prison camp and then had to think about what to do. Tolkien points out that one of the profound limitations of our lives is death. We want to escape from death. This is a true longing.
Finally, consolation. He talks about the consolation of the happy ending. He invents a word, eucatastrophe (the good catastrophe) to convey this. This where he makes a direct connection to the Gospels. He says that the Gospels are a kind of fairy-tale, but one that happened in history. The Gospel is the true myth, the fairy-tale that actually happened. In this story, the Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation. When we have this lifting of the heart at a happy ending, it is actually an echo of the true happy ending of the universe, which is the resurrection. So, he links the delight in a happy ending with the Resurrection of Christ, but not in an overt way. It has to do with the very structure of the way we tell a story. This understanding of the deeper functions of a story gives us a conceptual framework for thinking about how we present the truth of Revelation and in ways that will connect with people. Recovery, consolation, and escape function in any genre. In fact, they function in other forms of art as well, but literature is my area.
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