Apologetics to People with Imagination, Narrative, Story, and Image

Holly Ordway went from being a militant atheist to a cultural Christian apologist and joins Hank to tell the tale of her journey as well as share her powerful perspective on the role of imagination in apologetics. Dr. Ordway is an accomplished author and professor in the Department of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University.

The following is adapted from Hank’s conversation with Holly during the Hank Unplugged episode From Atheist to Apologist with Holly Ordway.

Hank Hanegraaff: You are teaching the significance of imagination in Christian apologetics, and that is an often-overlooked aspect. I have a son-in-law teaching philosophy at the Airforce Academy, and he talks about emotion in apologetics. There are missing elements in much apologetics such that people approach the task like a hammer and a nail — if all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail. It becomes, therefore, all about rational argumentation at the exclusion of other significant aspects vital for transforming the person. I think I got this metaphor from your book Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith.

Holly Ordway: Right. I think people typically have a very shallow and limited understanding of what the imagination is. They tend to think imagination equals imaginary things. They’ll say, “Oh, unicorns,” things like that, “well, how is that relevant?” But really, I am drawing on the work of, for instance, my colleague, Michael Ward, who does lots with imagination in apologetics and literature, and he has pointed out that it really is the imagination that constructs meaning. It is our reason that judges whether our meaning is true or false, but before we can have that judgment, we need to have it be meaningful.

For instance, often times we will have a discussion with a skeptic about the historicity of the Resurrection. We can go around and around in circles and get nowhere, putting all these great arguments for the historicity of the Resurrection forward, and the skeptic may even say, “Yeah, that’s convincing, but you know, no whatever, I’ll just go home and still not have my mind changed.” We might think that is because the skeptic’s heart is hardened, well maybe, but actually I think more often it is because the word “resurrection” is just jargon without actually having any real meaning or resonance. So, it is just an intellectual game, and we do not get anywhere until the words we are using, the concepts we are using, have real meaning. This is where the imagination is so critical. [See, for example, chapter on “Longing” in Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, especially the discussion on pp. 140-142 regarding stories which end with a “eucatastrophe” i.e. “good catastrophe,” spoken about by J.R.R. Tolkien.]

Hank: You know this is part and parcel of the discipline of hermeneutics as well — learning to read the Bible in the sense in which it is intended. One of the things you point out in your literature is that when you approach a writing, you have to first determine the genre you are reading, which is critical for understanding the meaning of the words.

Holly: Absolutely! We do this all the time as we normally read things. If I pick up a book of short stories versus a newspaper, I will come to it with a different set of expectations. Now, I may find deep profound truth in a short story, and I may end up deciding that some stories in the newspaper are not actually very well reported and that they are untrue, but I bring to the reading an understanding of the genre, and I have certain expectations of how I am going to interpret those texts. This is just second nature. This is the point I made in my article for the Christian Research Journal, “‘Your Word Is a Lamp to My Feet’: Metaphor and the Work of the Apologist,” from 46-6.

When we read children’s books to little kids, you might have a book about the first day of school, and it has got little bears and lions dressed up in clothes going to school. However, we do not think, “Oh no! We can’t read this book to our kids, they are going to be scared to go to kindergarten, thinking they will get eaten by a bear.” No! We realize that it is an anthropomorphic technique to make the story more engaging, and we get it. What is more, the child gets it, too! The child instinctively recognizes that this is a story world, and the expectations are different than for a realistic book about this is what your first day of school is going to be like.

We do that just naturally as readers of ordinary text. But, somehow, we turn to Holy Scripture and we kind of get freaked out. We think, “Oh no! It’s different.” And it is different, but it is still a literary text. God chose to inspire the human writers of Scripture to write in particular literary genres. He did not have to do that. He could have inspired all the writers to be uniform, but He did not. We, therefore, really have to approach the different parts of Scripture according to their genre.

Hank: Is it fair to say that kids are hardwired for grammar from birth?

Holly: I think so. I do not want to go into great detail on this because I am not a linguist, and I might say something that will make all the linguists listening to this just tear their hair out, but it certainly does seem to be the case. Kids have an intuitive understanding of grammar from the beginning, and an intuitive understanding of the way stories work. This comes up so early and so naturally that I really do think it has a lot to do with the imprint of the image of God in us.

If you think about it, God makes us in His image, He is a Creator, and He is also an Author and Artist, because again, He did not have to give His revelation to us through Holy Scripture; He could have done it in different ways. Ultimately, He gives His full self-revelation in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. But, He did not have to give us a written revelation too, yet He did, and He did it through narrative, poetry, and story, as well as through history and theology. If that is how God chooses to communicate with us, it must be pretty deeply ingrained. We are creatures of narrative, story, and image.

Listen to the full Hank Unplugged episode with Holly Ordway here.

More articles from Holly Ordway:

T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ for the Apologist / What Has Poetry to do with Apologetics?

Once upon a Time: The Enduring Appeal of Fairy Tales

Confronting the Apologetics Challenges of a Secular Culture: Reflections on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Truth in Darkness: The Hunger Games as an Unexpected Resource for Apologists

Check out this bookstore resource:

Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *