Job 19:23-24 (KJV)
Oh that my words were now written! Oh that they were printed in a book! That they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock for ever!
This is (loosely) adapted from a presentation I gave at Reasonable Faith Knoxville entitled “The Importance of Literary Apologetics.”
I am no expert on literary apologetics. I have no advanced degrees in creative writing or apologetics. I am, however, convinced that literary apologetics is just as important as traditional apologetic arguments in winning hearts and minds to the Faith. Since I am no expert, I will allow an expert in the field to define literary apologetics. Holly Ordway defines literary apologetics as, “presenting the truths of the Christian faith through literature.” This might be through short fiction, novels, poetry, or even drama. I will be considering two primary examples of the impact of literary apologetics: the Bible and C.S. Lewis.
First of all, let’s look at the Bible. It is not only the highest authority on Christian doctrine and worship, but is also the greatest work of literary apologetics ever produced. There is some straightforward teaching, and this is not unimportant, but the bulk of the Scriptures are historical narrative, poetry, and parable. Parables were commonly used by Jesus during His earthly ministry.
It is no accident that the most authoritative method of revelation employed by the Creator is a work of literature. Neil Postman makes a compelling observation in Amusing Ourselves to Death:
In studying the Bible as a young man, I found intimations of the idea that forms of media favor particular kinds of content and therefore are capable of taking command of the culture. I refer specifically to the Decalogue, the Second Commandment of which prohibits the Israelites from making concrete images of anything. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth.” I wondered then, as so many others have, as to why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. We may hazard a guess that a people who are being asked to embrace an abstract, universal deity would be rendered unfit to do so by the habit of drawing pictures or making statues or depicting their ideas in any concrete, iconographic forms. The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking.
If God Himself used the written word reveal Himself and His ways, and primarily used stories and poetry to speak to His people, maybe Christian apologists need to take a cue from the One we defend. I am certainly not suggesting that we abandon traditional apologetic methods and arguments. I am suggesting that story, drama, and song should also be used alongside rational arguments. The combination of literary and traditional apologetics is potent.
Simply put, literary apologetics can convey truth in a way that traditional apologetics cannot. In the battle for hearts and minds, traditional apologetics is the equivalent of a direct frontal assault. Literary apologetics is more like special forces, engaging in unconventional warfare, moving stealthily and undetected behind enemy lines. Often unrecognizable as “apologetics,” it often comes ahead of the main force and carries out covert missions which ultimately set the stage for victory. Many of the great works of literature, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings present distinctly Christian worldviews in such a way that non-Christians unknowingly imbibe Christian concepts, and enjoy it. They do not feel they are being “preached at” and the stories have a way of sticking with them that overt teaching does not. This is one reason why literary apologetics is utilized so often in Scripture. We tend to remember David and Goliath, Daniel in the lion’s den, or the Prodigal Son much more easily than Romans chapter 6.
Some of the best evidence for the power of combining literary and traditional apologetics can be found in observing the life of C.S. Lewis. Lewis was arguably the most influential Christian apologist of the 20th century, and still has a great impact today. He was not a theologian or a philosopher. He was not a biblical scholar or a scientist. He was an English professor and a prolific writer.
Lewis was greatly influenced by literary apologetics himself. As a young Atheist, the writing of G.K. Chesterton and George MacDonald had a role in leading him to become a Christian.
In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere–“Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,” as Herbert says, “fine nets and stratagems.” God is, if I may say, very unscrupulous.
– C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
Soli Deo Gloria!
C.S. Lewis went on to become a great literary apologist in his own right. He is best known for The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters. He also wrote a science fiction trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength), Till We Have Faces, The Great Divorce, and The Pilgrim’s Regress. Of course, he also wrote some great traditional apologetics books like Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Abolition of Man and The Problem of Pain.
Lewis was a key member of a writing group known as the Inklings, which was a veritable hall of fame of great Christian literary apologists. The Inklings included J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion), Charles Williams (Descent into Hell, War in Heaven, The Place of the Lion), and Dorothy Sayers (the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series), and others.
I would like to make a few suggestions for Christian apologists. Familiarize yourselves with the literary apologetic writings old and new. The old include the works I’ve mentioned so far by the Inklings, Dostoevsky, Chesterton, MacDonald, John Bunyan, and above all else the Bible. The new include the writings of Theodore Beale–aka Vox Day–(Summa Elvetica: A Casuistry of the Elvish Controversy, A Throne of Bones), and Brian Godawa (Chronicles of the Nephilim series). I have also enjoy the poetry of Tom Graffagnino. I am sure there are others, but I am more familiar with the old than the new. I would also suggest that those who have talent begin writing quality fiction and poetry within a Christian apologetic context. This does not always mean writing with explicit Christian themes. No doubt some of us will be explicit like John Bunyan and others will be implicit like J.R.R. Tolkien. There is no shortage of horrible Christian fiction–just go to any Christian bookstore and you will find all the Amish romance novels you could ever never want to read on the clearance shelf.
Works of traditional apologetics also need to be well written. Even if you do not have the knack for writing fiction or poetry, you can at least learn to write (and/or speak) well. Avoid the bad habit some apologists have of being incredibly dull, and then excusing their lackluster writing by calling it “scholarly.” The purpose of Christian apologetics is to convince skeptics that Christianity is true, not put them to sleep! Literary apologetics can help traditional apologists learn how to stir the heart as well as the intellect.
I truly believe that if we look to the Bible and C.S. Lewis as examples of literary and traditional apologetics working together, we would be more effective in defending the Faith. We need special forces as well as basic infantry and combat support. Don’t forget that the war is already won by Christ, but do your part in the war effort.
Ecclesiastes 7:19 ESV
Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.