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


How God Transformed Lee Strobel to Make the Case for Christianity

Lee Strobel is a former investigative journalist for the Chicago Tribune, and his best-selling books, such as The Case for Christ (now a major motion picture), have reached millions of people and have had an enormous impact on the body of Christ. He has been a longtime guest on the Bible Answer Man broadcast, and recently was on the Hank Unplugged podcast. The following snapshot of their discussion highlights the way God has used the Case for books along with The Case for Christ film to advance the gospel. Lee also shares about how God transformed his own life and used his journalistic talents to impact the lives of many everyday people.

Hank Hanegraaff: We can talk about so many things, but The Case for Christ is an incredible book — a book that started, if you will, a franchise of books that have really been revolutionary within Christianity all over the world.

Lee Strobel: Well, when you say it started that revolution, you are the one that started the revolution going, because that book actually came out in September of 1998 or 1997, but it was not doing anything. Nobody was buying it, nobody was talking about it, and it was kind of languishing. Then you got a hold of a copy, invited me to come to California to be on your radio show, the Bible Answer Man, and that is what really launched that book. Because you got behind it, let people know about it, and all of a sudden people said, “Maybe I will give it a read.” So, I really owe you a debt of gratitude for getting behind that in an early way and exposing people to a book that otherwise they may not have read.

Hank: If that is true, even in a small degree, I am very grateful to have had a small part in the launch of that book, because it has been a book that has had such an incredible impact in the kingdom. So many people have come to faith in Christ. I mean just think about that. I am sure off the top of your head you can think of people burned into your memory who came to faith in Christ, they found a copy of the book, and it became life transformational.

Lee: There are so many amazing stories. I am so grateful for how God has used that book. Just yesterday, I got a video from a guy who lost his leg in Afghanistan, somebody gave him The Case for Christ, he came to faith, and today is in ministry.

We have some funny stories, too. Right after the book came out, there was an atheist who was interested in astronomy; he went to a bookstore to buy an astronomy magazine, sat down to look at it on a bench at the bookstore, felt something underneath, pulled it out, and it was The Case for Christ. He flipped through it and thought, “Wait a minute, I’m an atheist! I do not believe this stuff.” He threw it down but then something like a voice inside told him to read the book. He said, “I picked up the book, I bought it, I read it, and I came to faith in Christ.” It’s funny because I got a letter from him again a couple of months ago. He is now living in Kentucky, part of a Baptist church, and still following Christ wholeheartedly. All kinds of stories like that.

There is one atheist from China. His son, who was a kind of a spiritual seeker, ordered the Case for Christ off of an online retailer. When the package came the next day, the father went to the door, thought it was for him, opened it, saw the book, and said, “The Case for Christ? What is this all about?” He reads it and he comes to faith.

There are so many wonderful stories. Evel Knievel, the great motorcycle daredevil rider; The Case for Christ played a key role in his conversion.

I am so thankful that God has been using this book because a book can be read in China while you are asleep in North America, and God can be using it in someone’s life all around the planet. Now it is in like thirty or forty different languages.

Now the movie of The Case for Christ has really opened a lot of people’s eyes to the story of my journey from atheism to faith but also pointed them toward the book where they can get deeper information.

Hank: You know what is funny about that film. Obviously, I love you, you are a great friend, I love the books, but I thought when that movie comes out, it is going to be another example of a cheesy Christian movie. I actually thought that. Then I saw the movie. We were in fact together in Orlando, I think it was, I saw that movie, and I was absolutely mesmerized by it. I thought, well, this how a Christian movie ought to be made.

Lee: Thanks. You know, I am so proud of the work that Pure Flicks did on that film. Brian Bird the screenwriter, Jon Gunn the director, great actors like Mike Vogel, who played me, is a strong Christian. God’s hand was on that. Leslie and I showed up on the set, we prayed every morning with the cast and crew, though many were not believers but they wanted to participate as well, and we were able to use the movie as an outreach to the movie industry to people who were participating in production who may not have been followers of Christ. The film just turned out so powerfully. I do not take credit for it, it was not something I did; it was really Pure Flicks and the team that put it together. They were very kind to us. They wanted to make sure the film was accurate, and it is. It is about 85 percent accurate, which is much more than most based-on-a-true-story movies. They have to do some time shifting and some composite characters just to fit it all in ninety minutes, but overall, it is quite an accurate depiction of what took place. It has been all around the world, South Africa, South Korea, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, which only have three movie screens, and we were on one of them, Mexico, Brazil, and Australia. A church in Australia rented a movie theater, showed it to the community, and that night at the movie twenty-two people came to faith. We are just thrilled with how God has used that film.

Hank: When you were at the Chicago Tribune, you were an atheist, and you had quite a temper. I mean it is like a person I do not know, as depicted in the movie.

Lee: Yeah. You know, it is funny. I had a friend who watched the movie and said, “I did not know you were such a jerk.” It is a testament to God’s power to change lives.

Hank: I was not going to say that.

Lee:  Yeah. [laughs] But it is true! I was a narcissistic, drunken, profane, self-absorbed jerk. What people saw was me winning awards for investigative reporting, but they did not see the other side, which was me literally drunk and stoned in an ally on Saturday night. I was a skeptic, an atheist, hostile toward Christianity, and hostile toward believers. You can imagine when Leslie came to me and said that she had come to faith in Christ, the first word that went though my mind was divorce. I was going to walk out. But it was really a lot of positive changes in her character and values that encouraged me to check out the faith and try to find out whether there is any logical basis for it.

Hank: So many people use this tired, worn-out cliché “Behind every great man there is a great woman,” but in your case, it is absolutely true. I mean, Leslie is a saint.

Lee: She really is. That movie really shows it because the whole time she is a new believer and I am an ardent atheist, there was so much conflict in our marriage, mainly coming from me. It was disruptive. It was emotional. Lots of tears. But, you know, through it all, every single day, she got on her knees, and she prayed Ezekiel 36:26: “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (NASB). She said, “God, Lee’s heart is like granite. I cannot crack it open, I do not know what to do. It is only by your Spirit that he is ever going to open his eyes to the truth of who You are.” She prayed that for me everyday for that whole two years I was on that investigative journey. If you asked me, “What was the turning point? Was it the evidence?” Well, yeah, I am sure that was very important, but I do not discount the power of a praying spouse in that whole process.

Hank: Absolutely. What I mentioned earlier about The Case for Christ that I think is true, you have created a franchise out of that, and I mean in a very positive sense, because you went on to many other Case for books: The Case for a Creator, The Case for Faith, The Case for the Real Jesus, The Case for Grace, and so on, and now The Case for Miracles. You have really used the method. The method that informs the book The Case for Christ as a way of communicating the truth claims of the historic Christian faith.

Lee: You know, I go back to this amazing God we have. In a sense, He said, “You know, you spent the first part of your life as a journalist in a secular world as an atheist, doing lots of harm in many ways with what you wrote, and hurting a lot of folks along the way. I am going to take those skills that you have as a journalist, which I have implanted in you, the skills of research, interviewing, so forth, and I am going to use them for my glory.” God’s taken those research and writing skills, and you know I do not have to be the expert in these books because my approach as a person trained in journalism is to seek out experts, to seek out scholars with PhDs from Cambridge, Brandeis, Yale, and other major universities, and ask them the tough questions that I had when I was a skeptic and see if they provide cogent answers, then let the reader decide the verdict. That technique of taking the reader along with me to investigate in going to these people, I think, is powerful because the kind of questions I asked are the kind of questions everyday people have. Interestingly, these scholars, who generally communicate with each other, you know, and they write in these scholarly journals that nobody else reads, God’s given me a ministry to take that reservoir of wisdom and communicate it to an everyday world where people like me can understand it.

I have had just some amazing interviews as a result. When I interviewed Charles Templeton (1915–2001) — the former pulpit partner of Billy Graham, for The Case for Faith, a guy who professed faith, became an evangelist with Graham, then later turned into an agnostic, if not an atheist, wrote an ugly book called Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith — in the middle of that interview, I asked him, “Who do you think Jesus is?” and he began to weep because he said, “I miss Him.” That was one of the most powerful moments of my life. I have got that on tape, and sometimes I will play it just to remind myself what it sounds like to hear someone long for Jesus the way Templeton did. By the way, I think there is evidence that he did come to faith before he died after that book was written.

In my new book, The Case for Miracles, I went to the most famous skeptic in America, a doubter, Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine, and I said, “Build a case against miracles.” And I let him spend three chapters in my book trying to build a case against the miraculous, then the rest of the book, showing that not only are there good answers to the kind of objections he raises but there is also a positive affirmative case that God is still involved divinely intervening in people’s lives today.

Listen to the full interview here.

Christian Research Journal articles by Lee Strobel:

Defending the New Testament Jesus

Experiencing Your Own Unexpected Adventures

Handling Christianity’s Toughest Challenges

Resources by Lee Strobel:

The Case for Christ film (DVD792)

The Case for Christ book movie edition (B2047)

The Case for Miracles (B2075)

Case for Christ/Case for Faith/Case for a Creator documentary film series 3 Pack (DVD953)

The Case for Faith (B583)

The Case for the Real Jesus (B973)

The Case for a Creator (B780)