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Apologetics and the Christian Imagination:

An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith

by Holly Ordway

–Review by Teri Hyrkas


While chatting with a friend recently, I mentioned the book Apologetics and the Christian Imagination by Holly Ordway. My coffee-buddy Rebecca looked at me quizzically. “Do you mean apologetics and imagination are topics in the same book?” she asked. “How odd. I wouldn’t think imagination would go well with apologetics.” Despite the apparent contradiction of terms in the title, Holly Ordway has made a compelling argument in Apologetics and the Christian Imagination for the use of apologetics, especially imaginative apologetics, to defend the Christian faith.

Although the word apologetics brings to mind such luminaries as Ravi Zacharias and John Lennox, Ordway emphasizes that apologetics is not solely the work of trained theologians but of every Christ follower, and is as much needed within the church as without. Here is Ordway’s definition of apologetics: Apologetics works 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.”

In the early pages of Apologetics, Ordway writes of her days as an atheist: “I was firmly an atheist, I found the very idea of faith to be so repellant… However, … I had, without knowing it, been experiencing the work of grace through my imagination. As a child and young adult, I read fantasy, fairy tales, and myths, and I especially fell in love with The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. I didn’t know that I was encountering God’s grace through those books, but in fact I was.

“Later, I began to teach college literature…, I was deeply moved and intrigued by the writings of specifically Christian poets…. There were a lot of questions that I needed to ask and have answered before I came to accept Christ, but imagination opened the door. As George MacDonald’s novel Phantastes baptized C.S. Lewis’ imagination, so Lewis, Tolkien, Donne, and Hopkins had baptized mine.”

But what is imaginative apologetics? Ordway says, “Both reason and imagination are modes of communicating and encountering truth. Imaginative apologetics seeks to harness the God-given faculty of imagination to work in cooperation with reason, to open a way for the work of the Holy Spirit and guide the will toward a commitment to Christ….

“Thus, imagination is related to reason, and necessarily so: not related in the way that the two sides of a coin are related to each other, but related in the way that a building’s foundation is related to the structure that is built upon it. Reason is dependent on imagination…. The senses bring the data; the reason makes the identification; the imagination mediates between the two.”

Ordway goes on to say that in our current anti-Christian culture in the West, we are “in drought conditions for the sowing of the Word.” She explains that the meaning of most traditional Christian language has been lost or is denigrated, and this is why metaphor and other imaginative, figurative language is so powerful. Ordway writes: “The beauty of figurative language (metaphor, simile, images, symbols, personification, allegory, etc.) used well, is that it can communicate truth both directly and intuitively, by its fittingness of image and meaning, even if the reader doesn’t consciously understand it….”

It has become increasingly clear over time that arguments, propositions and points have lost their ability to persuade anyone of anything, at least initially. Fake news and hostile confrontations between people on social media have created an atmosphere of distrust that makes the expression of opinions extremely difficult if not impossible. Sadly, the antagonism may at times carry over to personal encounters. In this negative and rancorous conversational climate, how can one talk about Jesus, much less practice apologetics, either online or face to face with those who raise questions about him?

Holly Ordway says in Apologetics and the Christian Imagination that there is a solution to this impasse: we can share Christ by employing patience and kindness in our exchanges with others, and by using image rich stories to give meaning to the beauty, truth and goodness of the gospel. “Imaginative literature is a particularly valuable means of creating meaning for ideas,” she says, “as well as for conveying these ideas to people who would be resistant to them if presented as arguments.”

2018, with all its potential for good, has arrived. If you are considering new ways to speak about Christ and Christianity this year, get a copy of Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith by Holly Ordway (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017). It will be a great help to you as you think through how to share and defend your faith in the days ahead.

Preaching Tip: Preacher and author Leonard Sweet and apologist Holly Ordway view the power of figurative language in a similar way. Each skillfully uses stories and metaphors to carry meaning past argumentative resistance directly into the heart of the hearer or reader. Ordway employs imaginative apologetics to accomplish this. Sweet uses what he calls the “Semiotic Sermon Style,” modeled on the stories of Jesus. Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching (Zondervan, 2014) is Sweet’s definitive book on this subject. If you would like to learn more about how to incorporate image rich stories into your sermons, pick up a copy of Giving Blood or subscribe to the website.