Review: Apologetics and the Christian Imagination

I am a student of philosophy. My mind thinks metaphysically more naturally than it does metaphorically. But as Holly Ordway argues in her new book, Christian apologetics must be about much more than just propositional argumentation: it must be a wholistic endeavor which engages the entirety of human nature, both in individuals and in societies broadly.

That is the central idea in Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017). In it, Holly Ordway, an English professor and convert to the Faith, presents a method of practical apologetics that is not in itself new, but is nonetheless not quite so frequently recognized or implemented, at least explicitly. Contemporary apologetics has often focused almost exclusively on the purely intellectual aspects of defending the Christian faith; but Ordway argues, quite convincingly, that doing so ignores significant facets of the human experience and hence can actually be detrimental to the overall project and ultimate end of apologetics, which is bringing people to a living faith. In the present book, she focuses on the human faculty of imagination and how it can be impacted through different mediums, especially literature and the arts.

Of course, it might seem a bit unusual to think of apologetics as a project consisting of writing a fictional story or painting a landscape or even designing a building, but that is exactly what Ordway is here suggesting. We’ve come to think of apologetics as too small and narrow a thing if we do not allow it to engage more than just the intellect. Even more importantly, we’ve come to think of human beings as too small if we reduce individuals to just their capacity to reason. Seeing this, however, first requires understanding exactly what apologetics is.

Apologetics, from the Greek apologia, is on one level just a defense of any particular view or position (think of Socrates’ trial in Plato’s Apology). In this sense, almost everyone engages in “apologetics” for something; every worldview or belief system will attempt at some point to defend itself, to give justification for itself. But very early on in the history of the Church, the concept and practice of apologetics was taken up by Christians and given a distinctly Christian interpretation. Think, for instance, of St. Justin Martyr, who early in the second century wrote his two Apologies, addressed to the Roman emperor himself, as an explanation of general Christian beliefs and a call for governmental protection against persecution. Thus apologetics is an ancient tradition within the Faith, and Christians have long understood it as central to the mission of the Church. In this second sense, apologetics takes on more than just a defensive connotation and instead becomes an active undertaking aimed at explaining and establishing the truth of the Christian Faith. In its Christian context, however, the end of apologetics can never be just winning an argument or debate or even convincing someone of the propositional truth of various Christian doctrines; its end, rather, can be nothing less than the radical, salvific transformation of the entire person, and entire communities and societies. This must include, of course, the convincing of doctrinal truths; but it must also be more. Why so?

Because, as Ordway argues, the human person is more than a mere intellect. And that is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of her book: she grounds it all in a proper understanding of human nature. She writes:

“Ultimately, the coherence and soundness of Christian teaching (truth), the witness of the Faith lived out faithfully in individual lives, families, and communities (goodness), and the experience of the aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual riches of the liturgy and the arts (beauty) are all connected. Our faith is deeply rooted and fully nourished only if we have all three transcendentals in our lives: goodness, truth, and beauty. Likewise, our apologetics and our evangelization will be most attractive, compelling, and convincing if we draw on all three. Truth, for the intellect; goodness, for the moral sense and the will; beauty, for the aesthetic sense, the emotions, and the imagination. In this way, our apologetics can touch mind, heart, and will, not in isolation, but in harmony with each other” [1].

If Christian apologetics is aimed at convincing others of the truthfulness of the Faith in order ultimately to transform their whole person and being in living faith, then what role exactly does imagination play? How can imagination do any “convincing” at all? As Ordway notes, our own culture has a somewhat impoverished understanding of the human faculty of imagination. We associate imagination with “the imaginary” [2], with day dreaming or fantasies or made up things. But imagination in its classical sense has a much richer significance. Ordway explains:

“For Aristotle, and for St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and other medieval scholars and theologians, the imagination has a cognitive function: it mediates ‘between sense and intellect’ by conveying ‘data to the intellect’ . . . Imagination is the human faculty that assimilates sensory data into images, upon which the intellect can then act; it is the basis of all reasoned thought as well as all artistic, or what we would call ‘imaginative,’ exercise” [3].

In essence, the imagination provides the raw material upon which the intellect can then operate. In fact, the medievals would argue (as does Ordway), that without the imagination we could not reason at all, for we would have nothing to reason about. Ordway also provides several other vital roles that imagination plays, besides mediating between the senses and the intellect: 1) Imagination helps give meaning, and meaningful contexts, to the terms and language that we use. Without this, there can be no substantial communication whatsoever, at all. 2) Imagination is a necessary precursor and foundation to judgement. In other words, in order to judge whether a propositional statement such as “Dogs are sweet animals” is true or false, we first must grasp the meaning of the statement. The intellect/reason does the judgement, but the imagination generates the meaning [4]. 3) Imaginative mediums such as literature can embody truths and draw others into contemplation of them without forcefully or aggressively intruding upon them. 4) Imagination can work to dismantle misconceptions and distortions of meaning in order to provide a better framework in which to discuss the Faith. 5) Imagination allows us to enter into the experiences and perspectives of others to better understand them and their beliefs, enabling us to engage in better dialogue. 6) Imagination can strike at and bring to the surface natural and deeply embedded longings within us, leading us to further think about and explore the implications of such longings (such as our innate longings for meaning, purpose, beauty, etc.).

In all of this, however, Ordway is very clear that she is not in any way advocating for replacing or excluding the intellectual aspects of apologetics; indeed she recognizes these as vital. Instead, she is proposing an integrative approach, one which acknowledges the whole person of the human being with all its faculties and responds appropriately. In other words, we need both imaginative and intellectual apologetics if we want to establish the Faith as meaningful and true. And in this I entirely agree.

Overall, Ordway’s book is timely and significant, as Christians in the West continue to interact with and defend the Faith against raging secularism and increasing skeptical and non-religious sentiments. Ordway offers an approach to apologetics that I think can greatly supplement areas somewhat lacking in its contemporary project. There are several ways in which this could be done: on one level, apologists can just use imaginative material that is already there. But what I think is most significantly missing and needed, is for more people to actively be producing new imaginative material. The Church needs talented and passionate individuals to be writing literature, painting, drawing, sculpting, singing, performing, acting, writing scripts, producing movies, etc., in ways that both beautifully depict the rich depth and meaning and truth of the Christian Faith, and also engage a culture that is absolutely starving for wonder, beauty, and genuine art. In other words, we need a new C. S. Lewis. We need a new Tolkien. We need a new Dostoevsky, a new Mozart or Bach, a new Rembrandt, a new Shakespeare. And hopefully Ordway’s book can help inspire them to be such. Indeed, Ordway herself throughout the book includes some of her own imaginative material: each chapter ends with an original poem that reflects a general theme or idea from the chapter. In addition to being beautiful in themselves, these poems help demonstrate practical ways in which imaginative apologetics can be carried out.

In conclusion, Ordway’s book is extremely well written, full of depth and wisdom but presented in a concise and easily comprehensible fashion. She includes personal examples and helpful illustrations, and draws heavily from the work of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, with whom she is expertly familiar. My absolute favorite part of the book was its emphasis on the Incarnation as the center of the Faith. She includes an entire chapter entitled “The Incarnation” which is beautifully and profoundly written; and throughout the book she relates the “embodiment” of meaning in words, literature, and art to the supreme Embodiment of God Himself in the flesh in the person of Christ. All in all, it was an excellent and insightful book which I would readily recommend to anyone interested either in apologetics broadly, or in how the arts can be implemented within a Christian context.

My thanks to Steven Edwards from Emmaus Road Publishing for providing me with a review copy of this book.

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[1]. Ordway, Holly. Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith. Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017. Pages 167-168.

[2]. Ibid., 15.

[3]. Ibid., 16.

[4]. Ibid., 29.