Holly Ordway is a professor at Houston Baptist University, where she is chair of the Department of Apologetics. Her background is in English.
Apologetics, the defense of the Christian faith, has a long tradition, and much serious theology of the past was explicitly apologetic. Here one can include Origen’s Contra Celsum (3rd century, defending Christianity against Greek philosophy), Augustine’s City of God (5th century, arguing that Christianity was not the downfall of Rome), and Thomas Aquinas’s Summa contra Gentiles (13th century, intended as a textbook for confronting Islam).
Yet in the 20th century, apologetics fell largely into disuse. Many seminaries stopped teaching it. And what apologetics there was often became a stilted academic discussion among Christian intellectuals not so much about actually defending the faith as about how the faith should be defended (e.g., should one take a presuppositional as opposed to evidential approach to apologetics?). There were notable exceptions, apologists such as C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton (below right), and Dorothy Sayers, whose writings have been enormously influential.
Ordway finds inspiration from such authors and wants to extend their contribution, reconceiving of apologetics along cultural, literary, and imaginative lines. At the same time, she does not eschew the more traditional argument-driven apologetics (e.g., using historical evidences that Jesus rose from the dead). In this interview, we explore Ordway’s vision of apologetics, and why she sees it as a field that continues to have life. Apologetics for Ordway is not a purely academic subject. An atheist before converting to Christianity, she sees apologetics as having played a pivotal role in her own conversion.
Ordway received her BA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst (1995), her MA from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (1997), and her PhD also from UMass-Amherst (2001), all in the field of English. After teaching English literature and composition for a number of years at MiraCosta College in California and elsewhere, Ordway went back to graduate school to study Christian apologetics, in which discipline she received her second MA from Biola University (2011). She joined the faculty of Houston Baptist University (HBU) in 2012.
Interview with Holly Ordway
Dr. Ordway, thank you for agreeing to do this interview, which may be the most thorough interview you have done to date. We have many questions for you, about your own personal journey and about the apologetics program that you head at Houston Baptist University. Would you please start by describing your life and upbringing before you entered college? What were some of the key influences and events that shaped your early life? What role did Christianity play in your life then?
Thank you for the opportunity to do this interview!
I was raised in a non-religious environment. My family wasn’t hostile to religion, but also didn’t practice it. I never went to church and never read the Bible. The result was that I knew nothing about Christian beliefs or about God before I went to college and began to absorb the anti-Christian attitude at the secular schools I attended.
On the other hand, my family did have some elements of “cultural Christianity.” For instance, at Christmas, my parents put out a nativity scene and would play traditional Christmas carols. I also read C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings at a relatively young age, and was captivated by both, even though at the time I completely missed the Christian themes in the novels. In retrospect, I can see the way that even these very small things were avenues for God’s grace to work in my life—seeds that would stay dormant for many years.
After your conversion to Christianity in 2006, you obtained an MA in apologetics from Biola. Yet before that, you had been pursuing a conventional secular academic career, and considered yourself to be an atheist. Please take us through your academic career up to the point of your conversion. In doing so, please underscore the influences that were moving you away from, as well as toward, Christian faith.
When I started college, I was “spiritual but not religious,” in the best sense of the word. I had a longing for meaning and an awareness of both the beauty of the natural world and the brokenness of human culture. I fished about for ways to express that, leaning toward a pagan sense of the spiritual in nature, but finding it unsatisfying.
In my second year of college, when I began studying English literature, I had what would turn out to be a transformative—if time-delayed—experience: I encountered the great Christian poets Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, and John Donne. I was knocked off my feet by Hopkins: the power and beauty of his poetry, the absolute emotional honesty of it, and his willingness to show the dark and painful as well as the beautiful aspects of his life and faith.
However, at this same time I’d become friends with people who were actively atheistic, and I didn’t follow up on the path that Hopkins (right) and the other poets were showing to me. I didn’t know any Christians myself, so I was unduly swayed by the portrayals in the media of Christianity as a religion for superstitious, uneducated people. Bit by bit, I became committed to atheism; it seemed both more appealing and much more rational than what I knew of Christianity.
Please summarize your conversion to Christianity. What role, if any, did apologetics play in your conversion? What other factors proved crucial in your conversion? How did your secular friends react to your conversion?
One of the insights that came to me later was that my conversion process was more gradual than I realized at the time. I would say, now, that the Spirit began to work in my life when I was a young girl, through my imaginative engagement with stories. Another critical moment in my conversion was when I wrote my dissertation on fantasy literature and chose Tolkien as the central author for my study. I had closed the door firmly on rational engagement with Christianity, but God was still working through my imagination! This is something I write a lot more about in the second edition of my memoir [discussed below—ed.].
A few years later, I took a job as a college English professor. I chose some of the great Christian poets to include in my syllabus, and on rereading the poems, discovered that they were not only artistically interesting, but also deeply meaningful. I realized then that even though I didn’t believe that their faith was true, it was shallow of me to dismiss it as superstition or ignorance. I decided that I wanted to understand what “faith” was.
All these years, I’d also been a fencer, and at this time, through God’s providence, I was fencing at a new club with a new coach, a Christian who was intelligent and well-educated with an interest in apologetics! I began to ask him questions. To make a long story short—and this is oversimplifying—I found his articulation of Christian ideas to be very compelling. I’m not sure I’d say “his arguments,” since it was more of an ongoing discussion than him trying to convince me of anything. If I’d felt like he was trying to “win me over,” I’d have felt threatened and backed off. But instead, he answered my questions and encouraged me to do my own research and reading, which I did. (Having a PhD means I know how to do research—and that was very helpful in this process!) Eventually I came to the conclusion that the Christian claims—and particularly the historical claim about the Resurrection—were true, and that as a result I ought to recognize Christ as Lord.
At the same time that I was finding the reality of Christian belief to be more intellectually robust than I expected, I was also becoming aware of what I now recognize as God’s grace, working in me and drawing me in. I wanted this to be a purely intellectual process—and it certainly had a very significant intellectual component—but I see now that I didn’t simply “choose Christ,” as if I were the one in charge. Rather, I was a rebel against God, and I had to lay down my arms.
I was baptized on the feast of St. Michael and All Angels in 2006, and I’ve felt St. Michael the Archangel (above left) to be a special patron ever since!
Biola University is one of the few schools that take apologetics seriously. What drew you, after being on a standard academic track, to go to Biola to study apologetics? Please describe your experience there and the impact it made on your faith. Is there any event that stands out in your time as a student there?
As a new Christian, I wanted to learn everything I could about the Christian faith. The conservative Episcopal church I attended provided excellent discipleship and support. I was encouraged to use my intellectual gifts and curiosity, and eventually invited to be part of the teaching ministry there. I decided on Biola because my fencing coach had gotten his MA there, because apologetics seemed like a good way to make myself useful in the church, and because they had a distance-learning program that would allow me to pursue my education while still teaching full-time.
I had a good experience at Biola. Since I already had a PhD, I knew how to write papers, do research, and read difficult primary texts, so I was able to engage with the material and go beyond it. The curriculum became somewhat of an outline that I filled in with further reading.
Since Biola is a Protestant Evangelical school, and I was attending an Episcopal church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, I was interested in the doctrinal differences between various Christian traditions. Over the course of the program, on any given topic in a course, I would read the Protestant perspective, and then go research what the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic traditions had to say about the same question.
Thus, it would be fair to say that the greatest impact that my Biola education had on my faith was that it encouraged me to explore doctrinal, Scriptural, and ethical questions from a range of Christian perspectives. This thorough exploration over the course of three and a half years undoubtedly helped move me toward Catholicism.
One of the things you would have been actively working on before coming to HBU is your book, provocatively titled Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms, soon to be published in a second edition by Ignatius Press. Tell us about that book, what led you to write it, and the reaction of readers. We understand that the first edition (2010, now out of print) was published by Moody. What led you to change publishers for the second edition?
Not God’s Type is the account of my conversion from atheism to Christianity; I wrote it relatively soon after the events it describes because I kept encountering Christians who found my story to be very encouraging. I also wanted to recount my journey to faith in an accessible way for readers who were not Christians.
I’ve been really delighted by the response to the book. It has been very well received in the apologetics community, and has indeed been very encouraging for Christians. It turns out to be the sort of book that Christians can give to their atheist friends and relatives: It’s a memoir, not itself a work of apologetics, and so it’s a non-threatening point for discussion.
I had a good experience with Moody Publishers for the first edition of NGT, but when I became Catholic, they decided not to keep me on as an author, and returned the rights to me. I was thrilled when Ignatius Press—a Catholic publisher with a great reputation and a very wide reach—picked it up for a second edition and gave me permission to do a total rewrite of the book. I was able not just to incorporate the next stage of my story (becoming Catholic), but also to include much more on the imaginative and literary dimensions of my conversion to Christianity in the first place, and of my growth as a Christian, as well.
Being able to revise and expand the book with the benefit of five years more of reflection from the time of the original draft allowed me to tell a more complete story, to revisit some of my conclusions in the light of later insight and theological understanding, and also to simply tell a better story—more polished, more effective as a book. I think that it will reach more people and, God willing, both encourage and instruct Christians, and help non-believers catch a glimpse of the beauty and truth of Christ.
When you first became a Christian, you became an Episcopalian. Would you mind telling us a little bit about the reasons for your conversion to Catholicism in 2012? Also, what are your relations like with the other faculty at HBU, most of whom we assume are Protestant? Just how ecumenical is HBU?
When I first became a Christian, I became an Episcopalian in the “high church” tradition, though I was also familiar with the Evangelical tradition through my studies at Biola. I didn’t intend or desire to become Catholic—quite the contrary—but gradually found myself increasingly convinced of the Catholic view on a number of different matters, such as the hermeneutics of Scriptural interpretation, ecclesiology, and the Eucharist. Another significant factor was the consistent Catholic witness in upholding traditional views on marriage and sexual ethics. These various issues all led me to the question of authority, and eventually I came to accept the bold and indeed arrogant-sounding claim that the Catholic Church is the Church instituted by Christ himself and guided by the Holy Spirit into all truth.
I’m delighted to be at HBU and I get along very well with my colleagues, most of whom are Protestant from a range of traditions, but many of whom are Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, as well. HBU is truly ecumenical, in the best sense of the word: The university has a firm commitment to “mere Christianity,” that is, to holding to the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith agreed on by nearly all Christians at all times. It is a conservative school with a strong commitment to traditional Christian ethics, including a robust pro-life commitment. The areas where our faculty agree are extensive and deep, which allows us to cooperate for the good of the Kingdom, even while disagreeing on other issues. I think that this kind of orthodox, ecumenical Christian environment is excellent for an apologetics program.
Please describe for us not just coming on the faculty at HBU but also coming to head its Department of Apologetics. What role did John Mark Reynolds (provost at HBU) and Robert B. Sloan, Jr. (HBU’s president, right) play in bringing you on board? There are not many departments of apologetics at institutions of higher learning in the U.S. Most academics would regard apologetics as a boutique if not quaint subject. Why then did HBU get behind it and get you to head a whole department devoted to it?
HBU’s president, Dr. Robert Sloan, has a tremendous vision for Christian higher education, articulated in the Ten Pillars. The new Department of Apologetics fits very well into that vision in a number of ways, from its global reach with the online program to its commitment to culture and the arts. When Dr. John Mark Reynolds came to HBU as the new provost, he recruited me to help design, and then to lead, the MA in Apologetics (MAA) program, since he knew my work and knew that I shared his vision for a new kind of degree, a cultural apologetics program.
Part of the “boutique” feel of other apologetics programs is that most of them are based in philosophy departments, and thus take an approach that is primarily of interest to a small segment of the population. It’s important that Christians who are studying philosophy have the opportunity to learn apologetics—indeed, the MA in Philosophy at HBU has an apologetics certificate—with classes that take the classical philosophical approach to apologetics. However, there is more to apologetics than philosophy, especially in the 21st century.
Dr. Reynolds’s vision was that we also needed something new, a program that would train up students to understand culture, engage with culture, and transform it. Thus, our Department of Apologetics is intentionally interdisciplinary: In addition to philosophy, theology, and Scripture, our courses include culture, history, literature, and the arts. We designed an entirely new curriculum, with a consistent vision across all the classes, and with a strong emphasis on cultural engagement through the arts and through writing.
At TheBestSchools.org, we had almost 3,000,000 visitors in the last 12 months, so it’s in our interest to monitor trends in higher education for our visitors. We are disturbed with two opposed—and in our view, negative—trends that we see in Christian higher education, and it is one reason why we promote HBU where we can, because we see HBU as having avoided these two trends. The one trend is accommodation to the existing culture, which is frankly unfaithful to the Christian tradition. The other trend is fundamentalism, which is so intent on rejecting culture and building fences around Christian truth that it can exist only in a subculture or ghetto. How is HBU steering clear of these twin pitfalls?
For the university as a whole, as well as for the Department of Apologetics in particular, HBU’s Ten Pillars vision, with its emphasis on engagement with community and culture, provides the map to navigate between the two extremes. The statement of belief, which all faculty must affirm, is direct and clear on the essentials, keeping the university rooted in the orthodox Christian tradition. The ecumenical nature of the Apologetics program protects against the development of a subculture—what subculture could it be, when we have Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, Eastern Orthodox . . . ? The very diversity of Christian traditions within our program keeps us from walling ourselves into a ghetto.
What is your vision of apologetics? Many Christians, such as those in the Emerging Church, see apologetics in a negative light, as trying to argue people into the faith. Do you see apologetics differently? Describe what you mean by a cultural, literary, and imaginative apologetics. How does such an apologetics differ from a more conventional “propositional” apologetics that tries to assess the truth claims of the Christian faith.
Yes, in the MAA program we have a different vision for apologetics. I say “we” and not just “I” because it’s a consistent vision among all our faculty.
Our vision of apologetics is one of both/and: reason and imagination, intellect and heart, reasoned arguments and artistic engagement, academics and witness. It is an integrated approach to apologetics that includes propositional argument, but places it in a larger context.
Apologetics has gotten a reputation—and not always undeserved—of being overly argumentative and head-focused. Yet, it’s no good to throw reason out of the window and go for emotional appeals or community engagement by itself. The approach of “let’s just love people” is as one-sided as the approach that says “let’s just present the facts.”
Too often, traditional apologists are so concerned with presenting the right answers that they fail to pay attention to people’s questions, or the reasons why people hold the beliefs that they do. I’ve been guilty of that! Furthermore, we often use Christian terminology without realizing that in the secular culture, words like God, Jesus, church, resurrection, sin, and salvation have either lost their meaning, or have taken on different meanings—so we end up talking past the people we’re trying to reach.
Our vision of cultural apologetics is that we need to understand why our culture is the way it is—to diagnose its ills—in order to address the underlying issues and share the Gospel in ways that people will hear and understand. How do we explain “sin” to people who’ve grown up in a therapeutic culture where nothing is called right or wrong? How do we argue for traditional marriage to people who have been taught that sex is nothing but a recreational activity with no deeper significance?
Cultural and imaginative apologetics also involves finding ways to transform culture at its roots, in addition to reaching people where they are. That’s one of the reasons we have such an emphasis on writing, literature, film, and the arts in this program. If we can reach people through imaginative means, and give them a glimpse of what it means to know Christ, and how beautiful and compelling the Christian life is, then we will have more opportunities to share the reasons we believe it’s objectively true.
Are you opposed to a propositional apologetics? What valid role, if any, do you see for it? What do you think of, for instance, the work of your colleague Mike Licona (interviewed at TBS, here), in which he defends the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection?
As I noted in my previous answer, I value propositional apologetics and see an important role for it. It simply can’t be taken as the be-all and end-all of apologetics. Rather, it’s part of the both/and approach that we’re developing here. As apologists, we want to make a case for Christianity that is both imaginatively compelling and rationally convincing.
Work like Dr. Licona’s is essential, because we need to be able to show that our Christian faith is grounded in objective reality, indeed in historical events that happened at a particular day and time and place. In fact, Dr. Licona teaches the “Scripture and Apologetics Implications” course for the MAA, where he’ll be able to help students make a case for the reliability of Scripture and the historical evidence for the Resurrection.
Licona is listed in the HBU Theology Department only. Similarly, William Lane Craig is listed only in the Philosophy Department. Why are they not cross-listed in your Department of Apologetics? Other prominent apologists such as Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland—would they have a place in your department? Finally, what are the relations like among the four departments: Theology, Philosophy, Apologetics, and Classical and Biblical Languages?
The Department of Apologetics is in the School of Christian Thought (SCT) at HBU, which allows us to have our own distinctive program, while also collaborating with the other departments where appropriate. Faculty members have their “home” in only one department, according to the emphasis of their teaching; each department has its own identity while also collaborating with the others in the SCT. So, since William Lane Craig intends to focus his HBU teaching on philosophy, he desired to be a member of the Department of Philosophy. The MA in Philosophy at HBU has a strong apologetics component, and indeed includes the option for an apologetics certificate, so Dr. Craig’s work in philosophical apologetics fits well with the MA Phil.
That said, we do occasionally have faculty from other departments, like Dr. Licona, teach in Apologetics if there’s a course that fits into their specialty, and vice versa. We also collaborate on events and conferences. Students who are in the MAA program are encouraged to attend events in the SCT that are apologetics-related, such as the recent lecture by N.T. Wright (right) that was part of the HBU Theology Conference.
Apologists such as J.P. Moreland and Gary Habermas could fit into the Apologetics, Theology, or Philosophy Departments, depending on their research and teaching interests. Dr. Moreland’s main body of work would fit more into Philosophy, but he has also written on the intersection of apologetics and culture, in books like Kingdom Triangle. Dr. Habermas would probably be recruited by the Theology Department, but again, with books like The Risen Jesus and Future Hope, which address the impact of the Resurrection on Christian life, he might find the Apologetics Department congenial, as well.
Two things that all the faculty in the Apologetics Department have in common are that we are interdisciplinary—with research interests and apologetics work that transcend typical academic boundaries—and we are interested in the application of our ideas in culture.
One of the most exciting things about apologetics today is that it’s no longer just one thing. The field is big enough, and there’s enough interest among Christians, for different programs to specialize. I think that’s a great sign for the future. People who want to be equipped for ministry, for further academic study, and so on, aren’t limited to asking “Where can I study apologetics?” Now they can say, “I want to study philosophical apologetics—or ethics and apologetics—or cultural and imaginative apologetics. What’s the best program to help me reach my goals?”
People can also look at their apologetics heroes and find the right program “fit” that way. Even just within HBU, an aspiring apologist has great options. Someone who admires William Lane Craig and is inspired by books like his Time and Eternity, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, or Reasonable Faith will find HBU’s MA in Philosophy to be a great choice for them. Our MA in Apologetics would be ideal for someone who admires Michael Ward—perhaps from hearing him speak on reason and imagination, or from reading Planet Narnia or his contribution to Imaginative Apologetics—or who is inspired by Nancy Pearcey and her books like Saving Leonardo.
Speaking of academic stars, your department recently landed Oxford University Senior Research Fellow Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia (Oxford UP, 2010) and one of the world’s foremost scholars of the work of C.S. Lewis. How did you induce Dr. Ward to come to HBU? What will be his role in the Apologetics Program?
We’re thrilled to have Dr. Ward as a full-time faculty member—and we were able to convince him to join us because of the nature of the work we’re doing. No other university in the world could offer him the chance to teach and do research not just on C.S. Lewis, but also on imaginative and literary apologetics. HBU’s vision of global engagement, as given in the Ten Pillars, and our new 100% online MAA, also means that Dr. Ward can continue to be based in Oxford, teaching online and traveling every spring to Houston for three weeks in order to meet with students and colleagues.
In his teaching as an Oxford don, Dr. Ward brings to our program a commitment to academic rigor, a deep understanding of the importance of critical thinking and of writing as a means of learning, and a gift for helping students learn through dialogue and discovery. In his writing and speaking, Dr. Ward—who is a gifted writer at both the academic and popular levels—helps make the argument for the value of cultural and imaginative apologetics to a broader audience, such as in his recent Christianity Today article.
Dr. Ward is also a model for our students of what cultural engagement can look like for apologists. For instance, he led the endeavor to get a Memorial for C.S. Lewis in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, where it now will be seen by a million visitors every year, and he is involved in the pro-life cause as the faculty adviser for Oxford Students for Life.
Dr. Ward teaches classes such as “C.S. Lewis and Imaginative Apologetics” and “Literature and Apologetics” in our online MAA program. He also heads the new C.S. Lewis Centre in Oxford, which has a study-abroad program in development, and serves as faculty adviser for our U.K.-based students.
HBU is a school with a big vision. We have followed the efforts of Robert Sloan (president) and John Mark Reynolds (provost) for a number of years, and applaud their efforts to reinvigorate Christian higher education. How do you see the vision of HBU for higher education and your Department of Apologetics as fitting in with it? In a sense, apologetics is about the credibility of faith, and if the faith is not credible, there is no Christian vision to be advanced. So one could argue that yours is the most central program at HBU for its mission and vision. When Robert Sloan was president at Baylor University, he set up an Institute for Faith and Learning to assist faculty in thinking through their disciplines within a Christian worldview. Does your department fulfill a similar purpose at HBU? If so, how?
I would say that the Apologetics program is one of many excellent programs that have naturally developed from HBU’s vision under the leadership of President Sloan and Provost Reynolds—one of a number of initiatives across the university that have developed over the past few years. For instance, the Honors College, the new Cinema and New Media Arts program, and the variety of conferences and lectures that are hosted on campus are all indications of HBU’s commitment to reinvigorating Christian higher education.
One of the exciting developments of the Department of Apologetics is that not only do we have faculty teaching in the MA in Apologetics program, but we also have faculty members who are involved with undergraduates and with the integration of the Christian worldview across the curriculum at HBU. Prof. Lee Strobel teaches a special evangelism class for HBU undergraduates, and Prof. Nancy Pearcey heads the Francis Schaeffer Center for Worldview and Culture.
What are your aspirations for apologetics at HBU? When one thinks of places where apologetics is taken seriously, one thinks first of Biola, then perhaps Liberty University (Gary Habermas) and Southern Evangelical Seminary (Norman Geisler), and then perhaps The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Al Mohler). How would you distinguish what you are trying to accomplish at HBU from these other places where apologetics is taken seriously? Can HBU become the premier place to study apologetics in the U.S.? What would that take?
We are distinctive in our integrated cultural/imaginative approach, the academic rigor and personal attention of our program, and our “mere Christian” ethos.
There are other strong apologetics programs that have a propositional approach, and when I get queries from students who are interested primarily in a philosophical approach to apologetics, I’m happy to direct them to programs that will meet their goals, like HBU’s own MA in Philosophy, which recently welcomed William Lane Craig (above right) to its faculty!
HBU is the first and best choice for people who want to engage in apologetics through culture. That includes people who want an integrated, interdisciplinary grounding in apologetics—the “both/and” of reason/imagination that is at the heart of our approach to apologetics—which will help them to be more effective in ministry, evangelism, pastoring, teaching, and writing. It also includes people who want to create culture, and value a program that encourages them to write novels and plays, compose music, create art, and make films and videos as means of practicing apologetics.
We aspire to be recognized as the apologetics program of choice for students who seek academic rigor. We assign extensive reading in the primary sources, and we require substantial amounts of writing—a typical course might have between five and 12 assigned books and something like 20,000 words of writing over the course of the semester. Our classes are small (15–20 students) and discussion-based, which allows for one-on-one interaction between the professor and the students. It’s worth noting that we never use teaching assistants. Every course is taught fully by the professor on record, even when it’s one of our stars like Dr Ward! He grades and comments on every paper that his students write, just as I do, and he’s there participating in the online discussions every week, just as all our faculty are.
It’s worth noting that we are a learning-focused, not a grade-focused, program. Because of that level of attention from our faculty, this program, though rigorous, is not just for “A+ students,” but for all of our students! Some of our students find the courses very challenging, and are perhaps just barely keeping a B average, but they are demonstrating excellence by showing a real heart for apologetics and ministry, engagement with the material, and a great desire to learn. We believe that any student who is accepted into the MAA is capable of successfully completing it, if they are willing to learn and grow; we don’t expect perfection, and we provide individual attention and guidance for our students.
We’re also distinctive by our “mere Christian” character, as we welcome Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox students. This provides a unique, safe environment for students to learn from each other and from their professors, discovering the strengths and weaknesses of their own tradition and learning how to dialogue graciously with Christian brothers and sisters who have different perspectives.
What would it take for HBU to become recognized as the premier place to study apologetics in the U.S.? Only time, I think! Moreover, I am convinced we will become known as the best place in the world to study cultural apologetics. Now that we have a fully online program—with no residency requirement and with the same curriculum, the same vision, and the same stellar faculty as our Houston program—it’s possible to do the MAA from anywhere in the world.
We’re also committed to keeping our curriculum rigorous and our classes small, so that students will always get the excellent education they’re getting now. For this reason, as our student numbers grow, we will bring on more faculty who are fully committed to the vision of our program.
We’ll never be the perfect program for every student—there are good reasons why a student might choose to attend Biola or Liberty in the U.S., or St. Andrews in Scotland, for instance.
But for students who are excited by cultural apologetics and interdisciplinary study, who love C.S. Lewis, who value the “mere Christian” approach, who want to become excellent writers—yes, HBU is going to be the first and best choice for them.
In a delightful lecture you gave recently titled “An Atheist’s Journey to Faith” (below), you claimed that “nobody knows anything” about Christianity in the broader culture, meaning that American atheists and American Christians both tend to be equally ignorant of the essentials of the Christian faith. One might look upon this fact as a “glass half full” rather than half empty, in the sense that when ignorant but open-minded atheists learn about Christianity, they are likely to be impressed by what they learn. In short, the sheer amount of room for improvement might be taken as grounds for optimism about Christianity’s resurgence. Care to comment?
Yes, I think that’s right. As I mentioned above, I think part of the challenge of apologetics today is that Christians and non-believers are, in a sense, not speaking the same language! Given the low level of religious literacy today, an atheist might genuinely believe that what Christians mean by “God” is “a powerful being in the sky who must be appeased by saying the right words,” or that “faith” means “belief in something that you know is false.” If that were what “God” and “faith” really meant, then it would be entirely rational to disbelieve.
I think this is indeed a cause for optimism, as there are many people who would be open to considering the truth of Christianity if they had more of a grasp of what Christians really believe.
The late Thomas Dubay, a Catholic priest, authored a book titled The Evidential Power of Beauty (Ignatius Press, 1999) in which he argued that beauty is one of the biggest draws for people coming to God. You yourself have recounted how you were drawn to the poetry of John Donne, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Talk to us about the power of beauty to draw people to faith. What do you see as its role in apologetics? Can beauty also seduce people away from faith?
Beauty is ultimately on the Christian side, because all beauty comes from God and points toward Him in some way. People can mistake the source of beauty, and be misled as to how to properly enjoy it, but the impulse toward beauty is always good.
The problem comes when people think that the beautiful can be possessed as an end in itself. Think of the difference between the celebration of marital love and beauty in the “Song of Songs,” and the distorted fixation on the body in modern secular media. People can indeed substitute aesthetic experience for authentic worship, which is not good. But, then, people can do that for any good thing, including reading the Bible or studying theology as a way to avoid developing a relationship with Christ!
Because all beauty comes from God, any genuine experience of beauty can be an opening for grace. Even the most hardened skeptic is likely to be moved by the beauty of a sunset, a song, or a glimpse of their child sleeping or playing. But beauty is ultimately useless—and therein lies the key to its importance. Like friendship, like love, like worshiping God, it is good for its own sake, not for a further end.
Furthermore, when we contemplate beauty, the natural response is to be taken out of ourselves, to feel in some way that there is something more to life than just getting and spending. That response is part of the argument from desire, which I think is perhaps the most powerful theistic argument. It’s in our response to beauty that the Darwinian explanations fall short, as well: the evolutionary Just So Stories are stretched to the limit of credibility (and beyond) in the attempt to provide an explanation for the selective benefit, say, of appreciating lyric poetry, or being moved by the appearance of a rainbow.
Dubay has been called “a sort of von Balthasar for the masses.” We would like to follow up our previous question with one about the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “theological aesthetics.” Von Balthasar claimed that the attractive power of beauty lies in its ability to illuminate the glory of Being—thus revealing the glory of God as the source of Being—and that this attractive power is universal. Even atheists feel this attraction, which is why beauty can be so powerful for apologetics. How do you see the role of an aesthetic theology à la von Balthasar for the apologetic project?
I think that aesthetic theology frees us to be more creative in our approaches to sharing the faith. We need to be able to articulate arguments and give evidence, but not every presentation of Christian ideas needs to be in argument form. Works of film, music, the visual arts, drama, and literature, and the witness of the beauty of holiness in the life of individual Christians, can invite people to the table, so to speak. Beauty, in all its forms, provides a context in which Christianity makes sense, in which the different claims we make about the faith connect, helping people have an “Aha!” moment.
I would suggest that there is also an objectivity in beauty that people intuitively recognize. Much modern art is deliberately offensive, ugly, or anti-aesthetic, and ordinary people respond to it as such. In contrast, people can recognize genuine beauty even when it comes in a range of forms. Both a medieval cathedral and a simple, graceful wooden prayer chapel are beautiful, while a concrete Brutalist building from the 1960s is not. Aesthetics may be an underused line of defense against moral relativism.
As an apologist, you seem drawn more to rapprochement than confrontation with the surrounding culture. But we believe there is a place for prophetic challenge as well as for reconciliation, so we would like to push you just a bit on the issue of the “culture wars” in America.
It is a striking fact that the meteoric rise of atheism to respectability over the past generation has been accompanied by an avalanche of banality, cynicism, and dehumanization in our public culture (we are thinking especially of television, the movies, and video games). It seems to us no accident that atheism and ugliness go hand in hand in this way. (This has been a prominent theme in the recent writings of the British philosopher Roger Scruton, as well.)
Here’s our question: Do you see the regeneration of the sense of beauty among the populace at large as a prerequisite to the re-evangelization of America? If so, how would you advise going about that very challenging project? Or must re-evangelization come first, before we can hope to stop the descent into ugliness? Or must both tasks necessarily proceed together?
I wouldn’t say I’m drawn to rapprochement. Rather, that I’m drawn to transformation. That includes both the reclamation of those elements in the culture that are good (and can be built on), and the prophetic challenge of those elements that are truly wrong.
For instance, I am very strongly pro-life, and I believe that the entire “culture of death” must be challenged, at its root and in every destructive branch of it. We need to restore respect for life from conception to natural death, and work for a “culture life.” That includes ending abortion, reversing the growing acceptance of euthanasia, protecting the dignity and rights of the disabled and elderly, defending traditional marriage, and recovering a right view of human sexuality.
We are indeed experiencing widespread “dehumanization.” Think of how children are commodified, through surrogacy and abortion. Over 90% of children with Down Syndrome are killed before they are born. Or think of how pornography and violence in films and video games encourage a distorted view of the body as something to be “used.” Here is where the Christian vision can offer true hope, not as one more option on the spiritual menu, but rather—in the words of the great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (see below)—as “the dearest freshness deep down things,” the true light and love and beauty that can burst through the crust of cynicism and selfishness and ugliness and give people a glimpse of the Risen Lord who calls them out of death into life.
The regeneration of beauty and the re-evangelization of Western culture thus go hand in hand, I think. It’s the both/and once again: truth and beauty, reason and imagination.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Final thoughts? Where do you hope to be in five years? In ten years? Where do you hope to see HBU as well as its apologetics program then? If there’s only one thought or idea that you could leave with our readers, what would that be?
In five to 10 years, I hope to see HBU’s Apologetics program as a large, thriving, dynamic program. We will be the gold standard for excellence in online apologetics education. Our first few cohorts of students will have graduated by then, and be involved in apologetics, ministry, teaching, and the arts. I hope to see many of the students I’m mentoring finding creative ways to transform the world for Christ and inspiring and teaching others. I envision a thriving connection between HBU and Oxford with our C.S. Lewis Centre, and a truly international scope for our online MAA.
Developing the MAA and leading it in these first couple of years has been good work, and I’m very proud of the program that we’ve built and the world-class faculty who are my colleagues. As for myself, as soon as I can, I will pass the baton of leadership of the Apologetics program to one of my colleagues, so that I can step out of the spotlight and focus on my teaching and my writing. I’m currently writing a book on literary apologetics, focusing on fantasy literature, and I have a number of other writing projects involving topics such as the Arthurian legends and the work of Charles Williams and the other Inklings.
One thought to leave with readers? I would say this: Our Christian faith is more than a set of ideas to be understood; it is a totally new way of looking at the world, and indeed of being in the world. It is a relationship with the living God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are called to learn and study, so that we can use reason and imagination to help point toward God, and so that we can help remove the obstacles that people have, and correct false and harmful ideas. In the end, all this can be summed up as our learning how to invite people, in different ways, to “Come and see!”
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.