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The Importance of Storytelling in Apologetics

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Engaging the imagination is often the key to engaging the intellect. Dr. Holly Ordway, author of Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, explains how apologists can use story to help share the truth.

Cy: Want to be a good apologist? Try being a great storyteller. Holly Ordway, next.

Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. Many of us have grown accustomed to the apologist as a person who makes reasoned arguments in defense of the faith, and without question, this is central to apologetics. But reasoned arguments are often not enough and appeal to the imagination is also needed, and for that we need stories.

I’m Cy Kellett, your host. And today, we discuss the role of storytelling and apologetics with Dr. Holly Ordway. Dr. Ordway is a professor of English and a faculty member in the online MA in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. She specializes in cultural and imaginative apologetics. She’s also a fellow of the Word on Fire Institute. She’s the author of the forthcoming book, Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle Earth Beyond The Middle Ages, and her other books include Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith, and a memoir, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms

Cy: Dr. Holly Ordway, thank you for being with us again on Catholic Answers Focus.

Holly: It was my pleasure.

Cy: In a chapter that you wrote on this very topic, you start with a very, very short story, which I will read in its entirety to you now and ask you to tell me who this is about. “Once upon a time there was an atheist, then he read a fairytale and discussed myths. As a result, he stopped being an atheist and became a Christian.” Who’s that?

Holly: Well, that would be C.S. Lewis. And of course, that’s a very condensed version of his story. But it’s condensed to make a point.

Cy: Right. And the point about CS Lewis’s … I mean probably the most famous apologist of the last 150 years. So the point that you wanted to make about his life is what?

Holly: Well, that we associate conversion a lot of times with being convinced by arguments, and that was certainly very important for C.S. Lewis. He had to believe that these things were true before he could accept them, that’s right and good. But I think it’s important to know that he was brought alive to the possibility of it being true by stories. He wrote in his own memoir, Surprised by Joy, he wrote that his imagination had been baptized by a novel called Phantastes by a Christian basically fairytale writer called George MacDonald. And at the time he read it, it didn’t have an immediate effect in him. He read it, it was in his atheist phase, he moved on. But he said that he had tasted what he called the bright shadow of joy. And he later identified that as a holiness. That in this book, MacDonald had written a fairytale that made holiness and goodness be attractive, be desirable. And so this helped Lewis to make connections and to be ready for that moment when he could connect reason and imagination together.

Cy: And then he turned around and did the same thing for generations. You could go to the various space stories or whatnot, but really the Chronicles of Narnia are … I mean you just don’t have C.S. Lewis really in most people’s minds without the Chronicles of Narnia. So what’s the magic of the Chronicles of Narnia? Is he just trying to do the same thing there, or how do you kind of unpack the strange effect they have?

Holly: Well, I think he has such a deep understanding of how stories communicate truth because he had lived that in his own life and also because he was just absolutely steeped in literature and language. I mean he was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature. He knew literature, he knew poetry, he knew stories. He really had a powerful sense of how language worked. He was a poet himself long before he wrote any prose fiction or even any academic works. He was trying to be a poet. So he has a real sense of the way that imaginative pictures convey meaning. Now, that’s not quite the same thing as conveying facts because obviously in Narnia you have a giant lion who’s running around doing things and he’s defeating a witch. Well, obviously that’s not factually true because there are no such things. But what he gets at, what he deeply understands is the way that stories and images convey meaning. They conveyed truth really, or they can convey truth in different ways. So we see this figure of Aslan and he’s the Christ figure in Narnia. In another essay of his, Lewis writes that he had realized that the things we’re taught about Jesus, and he’s speaking now about Christians, because the things we’re taught about Jesus can give a certain expectations that these are Sunday school ideas. They can freeze our affections. We know we’re supposed to love Jesus, we’re supposed to honor him, et cetera, et cetera. But being told that, it can leave us kind of cold and we do not really relate to him. And this is such a profound insight into formation. And so his idea, and he says this in his essay, it’s called Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said. He says his idea was to get past the watchful dragons or these assumptions by telling story. So he makes his Christ figure a lion. He gives this supposal, what if Christ were a lion in this other universe of Narnia? What would that be like? And so we see in Aslan his kingliness. And this is the great genius of Lewis that he first explores sort of his kingly quality in the lion, which in the wardrobe. And we see him full of joviality, power. But then having done that, he goes on to explore in the other books different characteristics. Prince Caspian, the more marshal elements and all of these different aspects of Christ. I would commend to your readers if they’re interested in this, to look at my colleague Michael Ward’s book, Planet Narnia, where he goes through the way that Lewis presents some different aspects of Christ in each book through the imaginative aspects of the story. What Lewis is doing is he’s trying to help us see, this is who Christ is, this is what he’s like, this is what he’s done, not in terms of facts. Okay, this is the gospel story, but in terms of meaning, this is what it’s like for Christ to be the King, for him to be savior. And I think that’s his great contribution in the Narnia Chronicles. Is it a substitute for reading the gospels? No, he would not even … He would be horrified if you said so. If you just read the Narnia books, will you know the story? No, because I mean, I read them as a child, I was not a Christian child, not a Christian home, I had no idea. I got to the ending of the Dawn Treader and I thought, “Why are they having fish? What’s with the lamb serving the fish on the beach?” I was baffled.

Cy: Right, right.

Holly: Like, what the heck? It was only much later that I realized it, but Lewis’s stories actually had a lot to do, him and Tolkien, but Lewis had a lot to do with me understanding what Christ was like before I encountered him in the scriptures. So in a sense when I finally as an adult thought, maybe I should look into this. And I read the gospels for myself, I was reading about Jesus and reading what he really did, his actual historical acts, what was going on. And I was understanding the meaning better because I had read Narnia and I had read The Lord of the Rings. So in a way Aslan and figures like Aragorn helped me recognize that Jesus is actually Lord.

Cy: Right. Right. Yeah. So the child who’s hearing this story in say the CCD class, maybe resistant to that Jesus thinking that the people are trying to convince me of something. And so the, the beauty of a character like Aragorn or Aslan is kind of a way past that defense that the child has.

Holly: Exactly. And it’s not always even a conscious resistance. I think just as human nature, we resist things that are pushed on us. We need time to assimilate them and sometimes if we just given like, okay, well this is how you’re supposed to think about Jesus, this is who he is. Okay, great, have a relationship with him. It can be a little bit too much, too fast. And I think too, that’s especially for children, but for students in general or even for adults, if you have an authority figure whom you love and respect, your parents, your pastor, your CCD teacher, often we try to give the response that we feel is the right answer. It’s like that old joke, in Sunday school, when the teacher asked a question, the answer is always Jesus. Whatever the question, that’s the answer.

Cy: Right.

Holly: And I think that can short circuit our appropriation of the meaning of it if we’re just trying to produce the answer that is going to be satisfactory and it can come from a good intention, from a laudable desire to be obedient, to do the right thing. But I think that’s where we need to have these imaginative elements because interacting with a story, responding to a story is more experiential. It’s less about producing the expected right answer or it should be anyway.

Cy: It’s like meeting a person instead of hearing about a person.

Holly: Exactly.

Cy: Okay, so let me give you an objection though. I’m sure what many people will hear, well, storytelling and its role in apologetics, people don’t really like stories that teach a lesson. That’s something that we, “Oh, come on, you’re just kind of hiding this lesson in a story for me, but you’re still just trying to teach me a lesson.”

Holly: Well, exactly and I have great sympathy for that because nobody likes being given medicine in sugarcoated form.

Cy: Yeah.

Holly: We just don’t like it. And that, I think there’s two problems there. I think it’s a very legitimate objection and I share it. Because on the one hand, if a story is being used very overtly as a teaching tool, it loses its merit as a story fundamentally, or it loses a lot of its merit because it’s just a vehicle for the lesson. Why don’t say the thing that you mean, why do I have to guess at it from the story? And to present lessons in that way, read X story gets X moral. That actually is a failure on the teacher’s part or the writer’s part to understand how stories work to convey meaning. Because if you want it to be just, here’s the idea, think about it. That’s what propositional language is for. That’s what languages pure explanation is for, and we need that. But if you’re going to give a story, let a story do what it does, which is to engage the affection, to engage the imagination should be experiential without that direct one, two, three, are we at the finish line yet? So I think one of the problems that we have with contemporary Christian Catholic writing is that people don’t have enough patience. They want to just have stories that get the good moral to the kids right away, be wholesome, nourish them, eat your vegetables.

Cy: Right.

Holly: And it doesn’t work. And there’s not enough attention to making a good story. I mean this is one of the reasons why Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles are just so good for teaching because they’re just so good as stories. I mean I loved them as a kid, having zero idea that they had anything to do with Jesus. That’s a great story.

Cy: Right. I think for me, I absolutely love the Narnia stories, but the Tolkien stories, I mean these two men are contemporaries, they’re friends, they’re obviously influencing one another. Many might suggest that the influence was more Tolkien on Lewis, but I don’t know if that’s a fair representation. But I have to say, I read The Lord of the Rings as a child, if you had asked me, is that a Christian story? I just said no, not really. There’s not even really any God in it. They don’t even mention God. There’s no Jesus in it. There’s none of that. There’s not even like, if you had asked me about Narnia, I would have said, “Well, yeah, I mean Aslan is Jesus.” But nothing like that in Tolkien’s story.

Holly: Exactly. And yet we know that it is a deeply Catholic story because he said so. I mean he says in one his letters explicitly, The Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally religious and Catholic work unconsciously in the writing, but consciously in the revision. And he goes on to say, and that is why he cut out all the overt religious references, which kind of makes people head spin. Like, wait, he cut out the references to make it more Catholic, what? But he’s actually getting at a different technique. Because one technique is to make the connections recognizable. You could say, “Ah, yes, Jesus, Aslan, I’m seeing it.” That’s one way of doing. And if you do it well like Lewis does, and you don’t hit the rear of the head with it, then you actually can produce really wonderful effects.  The Narnia stories are wonderful stories and wonderful for teaching about the faith, both. But Tolkien had just a different cast of mind, neither better or worse in this respect, which is different. And he valued the subtle approach. He wanted to make it so that everything was happening at the unconscious level and that you would only discover those nuances after the fact, like if you were looking for them and seeing them. And once you recognize those connections, you can say, “Oh wow! Eric Gordon is a real Christ figure as the King and Frodo is a Christ figure as a suffering servant. And that the Lembas bread is awfully eucharistic, isn’t it?”.

Cy: Yeah.

Holly: There’s all these resonances and the theme of pity and providence is so profoundly worked with the story, and the whole novel is basically a meditation on the workings of grace in one sense.

Cy: And it’s a world-

Holly: It’s all underneath the …

Cy: It’s a world that is just in its construction, mysterious. I mean even the depiction of evil in the character Sauron is, you can very easily get to the end of the entire Lord of the Rings and really not be clear on who or what Sauron is. There’s a kind of mystery around the evil and why is he evil and the whole world is kind of suffused with a mystery that makes one alert to the mystery in the real world, I would say.

Holly: Exactly. Yes. And in that sense, this is sort of the paradox of literature that the world with Middle-earth is very realistic in that sense. Because in our world, we can know lots of things about our world, but we can’t know everything. There’s always going to be a further level of mystery. I mean the mystery of evil, we can know that there is Satan, but you know that sense of who he is and how he functions, we don’t know, and it’s just as well that we don’t know because it’s not really good subject for deep meditation, but we just were aware there’s a sense of mystery of evil and the mystery of goodness. We can know about grace, we can experience it, but who can … You can’t put grace under a microscope and say, “Ah, yes, I have chartered to components of it.” It’s not how it works. So I think that richness and mystery of Middle-earth helps us to have a sort of sacramental sense.

Cy: Yes.

Holly: Sort of sacramental vision.

Cy: Right. Right. So you also write about that it’s not just, I suppose optional that, oh, story is another tool in the toolkit, but that there’s a way in which we convey truth inadequately if story is not part of the whole panoply of ways we speak to others about the faith.

Holly: Exactly. I mean you do … And I always have to say this when I talk about storytelling and imagination, I am not saying it’s better than other modes. I’m not saying it can stand alone. I emphasize it because too often it’s been totally ignored and left out, and we can’t do that either. But I mean look our Lord’s teachings, he gives some fairly straight up explanations of things. You know, the beatitudes, these are some attitudes in mind that you should have. He’s very clear about certain moral actions, what you should and should not do, but he also teaches in parables. And so it’s that both end because how are we to understand what it means to be coming into this kingdom, what does that even mean? And that’s where story is so necessary because we have to appropriate meaning, we have to enter into truth. Otherwise, it’s … It’s like in like St. James says, even the demons believe that God is one. Yeah, sure, great, they believe in God.

Cy: Right.

Holly: Okay. And they’re still rebellious against him. So we can know things, but be unmoved by them. And the imagination functions to help us make the connection so that we can react or have greater motivation or potential to act appropriately.

Cy: One way you describe that is in your own writing is that storytelling makes our apologetics incarnational. So could you flesh that out for me?

Holly: Yes. Because when we tell a story, we are thinking about particular characters, particular figures in a certain place, a certain time doing certain actions. And so the ideas, the concepts that maybe we’re trying to learn about, they’re embodied. So I love the example of the Prodigal Son, the Parable of The Prodigal Son. Because you sum up the meaning of that parable by saying, God loves you and he will forgive you of your sins if you repent and returned to him. That’s a propositional statement. It’s 100% true. It’s extremely important for us to grasp and act on. But can we grasp it just by itself, just by saying God loves you, and if you repent, return to him, he will accept you and bring you back into relationship. Well, our Lord gives us this wonderful story that embodies these characters. So we have the Prodigal himself who runs off and spends all his money and then ends up slumming it among the pigs, all hungry and wishing that he was at home. And we have the father who’s waiting for him, who’s looking out the door to touch a glimpse of him and, we have him wanting to meet the son and that wonderful detail, the son kind of rehearsing to himself what he’s going to say, “Well, I’m going to say, father, I sinned against you.” Like he’s, he’s nervous, he’s rehearsing what he’s going to say.

Cy: Right. Yeah.

Holly: That’s just so much like being in line for the confessional, right?

Cy: Right. Yeah.

Holly: But it embodies it and we see that, and we see it drawn in, and it gives a sort of texture and heft, and we can imagine ourselves either as the Prodigal Son or if someone else hurt us, we can imagine ourselves as a father. We can imagine ourselves as the elder brother being all resentful like, well, why does he got all the attention? There’s so many places that we can enter into this story. It embodies, it incarnates the idea of love and forgiveness. So then when we hear God loves you, what a confession. It means something.

Cy: Right. Right. Okay. I guess in a certain sense, Lewis and Tolkien are obvious in this regard because they’re the giants of this. But are there other people that tell stories that are charged with the Christian imagination and do this incarnational thing of making the person of Christ and the Christian faith relatable on an imaginative level. Who else might you point to? Maybe some people who are contemporary or maybe it’s just some people who we might not be familiar with.

Holly: Well, I’ll give you a couple of examples. First of all, they’re definitely not contemporaries. I teach and write about medieval literature and interestingly enough, Beowulf is this Anglo-Saxon poem written in old English actually tells a lot about what it means to face evil. So you have this hero bear, Beowulf, who fights the monster Grendel. And the poem, it’s set in the sort of heroic atmosphere and in one level, it’s about a hero who fights a monster. Okay, great. But Grendel, the monster is very clearly depicted as being eaten up by envy and hatred and jealousy. And because of that, he is attacking and killing people. And then you have Beowulf who defeats him. Holly: And it’s very interesting. I was reading a story with my goddaughter when she was, I’m going to think about five and she had a children’s edition of Beowulf, kind of rendering the story into a simple picture book story. And we read it together and we were talking about it a little bit and like, who is Grendel? What does he like? And she looked at me and she said, “Ms. Holly, sometimes I have a little Grendel inside me and I don’t want to be like that.”

Cy: Oh, cool.

Holly: And this was completely unprompted.

Cy: Right. But the recognition though.

Holly: Yes. And to have a five-year-old understand the sin of envy and how it leads to resentment and violence. I could talk to her all day with words that would be above her understanding, and it wouldn’t have the impact of us reading the story of this monster who is lurking outside saying, “Oh, I don’t want them to have fun. They’re having a feast and I hate that.” And she recognized, I don’t want to be like that Ms. Holly, help me not be like that. So that’s an example of how even … And this is a modern picture book. So you have a picture book that took this medieval story and recast it for a modern audience. So that’s an example of how we need to look at the treasures of our own Christian heritage and see this literature because it’s Christian poem. But then in the present day, there’s authors like Flannery O’Connor is an author not to my taste personally, I don’t personally care for Southern Gothic, but she’s an author who has really helped a lot of people to kind of see grace and see sin and understand their gravity. So we do have people who are doing that kind of work. Not as many I think now as we ought to because I think Christian literature has kind of gotten into a slump. We haven’t been producing enough artists and writers to do this work. I think there’s a reason why I have to kind of stretch back to Beowulf sometimes.

Cy: That’s a little depressing actually. Yeah, the most …

Holly: It is.

Cy: Yeah, right, right. As a matter of fact, it does seem that the catechists and apologists of a kind of secular willfulness have taken over what might be called young adult literature, that kind of thing. It’s really, actually much of it seems to me spiritually dangerous.

Holly: It is, yeah. I mean young adult literature right now is a quagmire. It’s horrible. It’s really, really horrible. I mean I would say it’s demonic, but at the same time, I think we as Christians, we have a certain responsibility there because why has the secular view taken over? Well, because we haven’t been writing good books to compete, you know?

Cy: Yes.

Holly: I mean if we write good books, people buy them who are not Christians. I mean think of it this way, when you go into the bookstore and you want to buy a copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Lord of the Rings, no problem, you can buy a copy and they’re not in the Christian fiction section.

Cy: Right.

Holly: That’s the little ghetto of bad literature because they’re great books. I just finished rereading for probably a third or fourth time Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. What a great book and so deeply infused with the Christian moral ethos. Anthony Trollope, another 19th novelist, same thing, deeply moral, deeply Christian. And these books are not often from Christian ghetto, they’re on the literature shelves. We need to write great books and they have to be good stories first and they have to be good stories and they have to be Christian because they’re coming from a place of being deeply formed as Christians. How is it that C.S. Lewis is able to write these powerful Narnia stories? Because he was deeply converted as a Christian. How did Tolkien write these deeply, theologically, spiritually wholesome books in The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit? Because he was a devout Catholic, he lived his faith to his fingertips. Was he perfect? No. Was he devout and serious about his faith and recognizing that as the center of his life? Absolutely, yes. So until we have writers who are first attending to personal holiness and then writing out of that, we’re going to still have shallow stuff. So in a sense, my call to the Christian artists is the call to sanctification, be holy, and then write good books.

Cy: Well, yeah. It’s interesting that you teach English and apologetics, so maybe you’ve been formative on some young minds that can do it. It’s probably the rarity who can do it, but if you don’t train for it, then you definitely can’t do it.

Holly: Yeah. I mean and I hope so. I think too, that it’s not just a question of being creative writers because most people are not going to be writers, and that’s perfectly natural. I, for instance, I’ve tried my hand at novel writing, no, not my thing.

Cy: Okay.

Holly: Poetry, yes. Novel writing, no. But all of us can be discerning readers because authors, in order to publish, they need people to buy their books, people to read their books. We need a community of authors, we need a community of readers. So one of the things that we can do as Catholics is to say, let me support good writing. Let me buy the books that are good. Let me seek out these books. Let me read reviews and review other books and help to spread the word. We need to be better, more discerning readers so that we don’t just accept annual, mediocre thing right as being okay. And I think that’s going to help authors too, if we have a discerning readership that actually wants these things.

Cy: Dr. Holly Ordway has been our guest. You can continue this kind of dialogue with her in her book, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination. She’s also the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms. And the forthcoming book, you can look for it in 2020, Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle Earth Beyond the Middle Ages. Dr. Ordway, people can find out all about all this stuff at your website. Would you just give me the website?

Holly: Yes. It’s HollyOrdway.com.

Cy: HollyOrdway.com. Dr. Ordway, thank you so much for breaking this open with us a bit and giving … I mean head out and pick up some Beowulf or maybe get yourself some Flannery O’Connor, Pride and Prejudice and do some good reading and maybe you are one of those people who can tell these stories that so need to be told for this age. Dr. Ordway, thank you very much.

Holly: Thank you. My pleasure.

Cy: And thank you to all the listeners of Catholic Answers Focus. We appreciate you being here and maybe you could share us with other folks, let them know that Catholic Answers Focus is here, and one way you can do that is by giving us a like or a comment or a mention wherever you get your podcast. And you can join Radio Club. Just go to CatholicAnswersRadio.com, join Radio Club, and we’ll send you an update whenever we’ve got a new Focus episode available. We’ll see you next time. God willing on Catholic Answers Focus.

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