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  • Dr. Roger D. Duke

Imaginative Apologetics: What it is and Why We Need It

Updated: May 23, 2019

Dr. Holly Ordway Speaks on Imaginative Apologetics, CS Lewis, and JRR Tolkien

A Reflection on Dr. Holly Ordway's Presentation by Dr. Roger D. Duke -

It was my recent delight to attend the “C.S. Lewis and His Friends” Lecture Series at Memphis Theological Seminary (MTS). (The Lectures Series can be viewed here). MTS is an ecumenical mission of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church whose foci is “scholarship, piety, and justice.” The school has a tender place in my heart because of the history and changing dynamics of our past relationship. Over the past twenty-five years I have attended MTS as a Master of Divinity Student. I was invited to be a colleague; with 60+ other ministers, in a three-year Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) program funded by the Eli Lilly Endowment. And subsequently, based on this SPE experience, I returned as an Adjunct Professor to teach / lead Spiritual Formations classes. So, I have a vested interest and relate to the seminary with continued interest. And that was why it added to my pleasure to have listened to this presentation by Holly Ordway.

Dr. Holly Ordway is the program coordinator for Houston Baptist University’s M.A. degree program in apologetics. Using her PhD in English and her unique background as a former atheist academic—detailed in her book, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms—she approaches apologetics from a literary angle. She prefers to defend the faith and express the Christian Worldview using a methodology in the tradition of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. That is, she engages culture through narrative for the cause of Christ.

Her presentation at MTS was on the relationship between imagination and apologetics. Specifically, Dr. Ordway explored how Tolkien defined and used the fantasy genre, how the fantasy genre has evolved to its present-day form to include films, and what role imagination can play in apologetics.

Dr. Ordway began her presentation with two “faith stories.” (This would have been called a “testimony” in old-time southern parlance.) One account centered on C. S. Lewis’s personal struggles to become an adult convert to Christ. In her second story she waxed personal in order to tease out parallels between Lewis’s journey and hers. In these two stories she described how imagination was the door that opened into other parts of our being, like rationality. Then rationality can assign meaning to the images and stories of our imagination. It was this connection, between imagination and reason, that was her major emphasis and title of the address. She outlined her presentation under four headings:

1. What is “Imaginative Apologetics and Why We Need It?”

2. What role imagination plays in apologetics that enables people to understand the Christian Faith.

3. How does imagination function in order to aid people to grasp the meaning of the truth (of the Gospel)?

4. How can one act on it?

Ordway explained her assertions drawing on Lewis’s conversion experience: His background in Medieval Literature had set the stage for his imagination to understand the Bible’s stories reasonably. He had a keen genre grasp of Biblical genres and categories. He knew how story and narrative forms are conducive to the imagination. Lewis’s journey toward Christianity brought him to knowledge of Bible concepts like Incarnation, Atonement, and such from an intellectual approach; but what did the doctrines mean? This grasp of Biblical and theological understanding served as his bases of conversion from atheism to theism. But he came up short. Short of making a rational conversion from theism to Christianity. Then his friend Tolkien helped him, as they walked together one day, Tolkien explained what the doctrines meant. Thus, giving logical and noetic meaning to what Lewis conceived in his imagination. He only could become a Christian when he realized that, as a Christian, he could allow himself to integrate his imagination to the reasonable side of himself. At once he discovered that Christianity did indeed “make sense.”

There is one takeaway from the lecture that is worth rehearsing. Apologetics is usually viewed as an evangelistic tool to aid those who are skeptical unbelievers. And evangelism is supposedly an entirely different enterprise. She notes how these are symbiotic: “Evangelization (or evangelism) is the broader category: sharing the evangelium [Greek word for “evangelization”], the good-news.” This is found where Jesus tells His disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples… (Matthew 28:18-19, New Testament). And, “Apologetics is the more specific category, working in two ways; negatively to address challenges to the Faith, resolve doubts, remove obstacles to belief, and dismantle false ideas; and positively to show the truth, coherence, power, and beauty of Christianity” (Quotes taken from Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith, Kindle e-book.

The cited monograph is her expanded version of the reviewed lecture. This is a worthy listen for anyone who desires to share the Christian faith with a doubting or skeptical friend.

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