As an apologist, I work in the field of cultural apologetics, and more specifically in imaginative apologetics — which can be loosely defined as developing the use of the imagination, as well as the reason, as a mode of knowledge. Imaginative apologetics includes the presentation and exploration of truth through all the different art forms – painting, music, theater, film, sculpture, dance, even architecture — and of course literature. As a poet and an English professor, I am most interested in the way that poetry and narrative can be ways to present the experience of knowing Christ. That is, I work primarily in literary apologetics.
By that term, I mean the presentation of the truth of the Christian faith in and through literature. When I speak of doing the work of literary apologetics, I am speaking as an apologist, not a writer: I am talking about exploring Christian ideas through great literature that someone else wrote. This is the work I love to do most: for instance, talking about faith via a discussion of the poetry of George Herbert, or helping people draw closer into relationship with the most holy Trinity by exploring the poetry of John Donne, or encouraging people in the journey of conversion and sanctification through the images in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Note that in this sense, literary apologetics serves believers just as much (if not more) than unbelievers; literature helps us grow in our faith as well as share it.
Literary apologetics also includes the analysis of and response to works of literature that challenge or undermine the Christian worldview. However, my focus is not to simply critique, but to understand: how does The Hunger Games, for instance, help us see the world through the perspective of an atheist who still feels a longing for justice and meaning?
Primarily, though, I am interested in literature that helps show (not just tell) the truth. My criteria for such work is twofold. First, it needs to express truth. That doesn’t mean that every single event, character, or image is a “good” one: sometimes the truth is ugly. For instance, a work that tells the truth about sin may be ugly and painful to read, yet speak the truth in a profound way. If it is really true, in that sense, we can see the light more clearly because we recognize the darkness. It is also true that in our fallen world, people make mistakes – and do deliberate evil. A story that only tells about nice events, good people, and happy endings may tell the truth about some parts of our human existence, but certainly not all.
Second, a work that is suitable for literary apologetics must be good literature on its own merits, completely apart from any ideas, themes, or doctrine that may or may not come out in the work. I emphasize this because many well-meaning Christians make the mistake of thinking that doing the work of literary apologetics means taking Christian ideas and shoving them into a story. I tell you, as a former atheist who was first drawn to the Christian faith through poetry, that forced apologetics makes bad literature. Scratch that. Forcing doctrine into story form doesn’t just make bad literature, it makes ghastly, horrible, nausea-inducing fiction that even now, with all the effort of Christian charity, causes me to cringe when I see the Christian Fiction shelf in Barnes & Noble.
C.S. Lewis expresses the balance perfectly in his essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said” (found in the collection On Stories). Lewis writes that there is a distinction “between the author as author and the author as man, citizen, or Christian. What this comes to for me is that there are usually two reasons for writing an imaginative work, which may be called the Author’s reason and the Man’s. If only one of these is present, then, so far as I am concerned, the book will not be written. If the first is lacking, it can’t; if the second is lacking, it shouldn’t.”
Impress that upon your minds. The Author’s reason for writing is the desire to tell a good story. He longs to write the story… it “nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It’s like being in love.” If this reason is missing, then, Lewis says, the story can’t be written.
In contrast, Lewis says, “While the Author is in this state, the Man will of course have to criticize the proposed book from quite a different point of view… Perhaps the whole thing is too frivolous and trivial (from the Man’s point of view, not the Author’s) to justify the time and pains it would involve. Perhaps it would be unedifying. Or else perhaps (at this point the Author cheers up) it looks like being ‘good,’ not in a merely literary sense, but ‘good’ all around.” Thus, if the Man’s reason is missing, Lewis says, the book should not be written.
Unfortunately, I must step in and qualify Lewis’ statement. It’s not that the story can’t be written without the Author’s reason to write it…it’s that it can’t be written well. Trust me, I have read enough ghastly, forced pieces – and have written enough of them myself – to know that if you are bloody-mindedly-persistent enough, you can force out a story willy-nilly, to suit the Man’s reason. But it will be a bad story – bad in the literary sense, as in being badly done, and thus also, in the deepest sense, bad in the apologetics sense. Poor prose and awkward, forced plots may point to the author’s doctrinal commitments, but they will probably not point very effectively toward the One who is Beauty and Truth himself, the Eternal Word.
But, you may say, even an badly written story may point a reader toward Christ.
Yes, and indeed such is God’s grace that He can use even bad prose as part of the way He calls a soul to recognize Him.
Better far to do good work for His glory, though.
A story or a poem doesn’t have to be an enduring classic of world literature to be valuable for literary apologetics, but it does have to be good work, work that the author did for the joy of the writing as well as for the merits of the ideas.
Imaginative and literary apologetics offers a complementary approach to philosophical and rational apologetics. It is a new field in terms of apologetics, but it has been a mode by which the Holy Spirit has worked through many generations – and it is particularly well suited for the needs of apologists today.