In my previous column, I argued that engaging the imagination is essential for Christian apologetics in our contemporary society. But what does this really mean in everyday life?
When I speak to groups about this topic, I often start with a scenario based on a conversation between my wife and a coworker while we lived in Los Angeles. Her mostly non-believing coworkers knew she was a Christian, and often were curious about her faith. On one occasion, a coworker asked a well-meaning but potentially offensive question: “why are you raising your children in the Christian faith, instead of letting them choose for themselves what they want to believe?”
So here is the prompt: why raise your children with faith? Shouldn’t they get to choose? I ask people to write down some thoughts on how they might respond or to share with the person sitting next to them. I also encourage them to note what sorts of emotions they feel as they process the challenge. (Feel free to do the exercise if you so desire).
As people reflect on the question, many of them highlight feelings of defensiveness – especially if they are parents: “The question insinuates that we are harming our children in some way by teaching them our faith.” Others take issue with the assumption that young children are able to make such a consequential choice: “They can choose one day, but we want them to know what we believe.” Still others employ a more transcendental approach: “everyone has presuppositions about the way the world is. So every parent indoctrinates their children in some sense.”
All three responses make sense and would be worth of unpacking if there was time for a longer conversation. But the moment called for a more elegant approach. So here’s what Melissa said: “You know, we don’t really think about it that way. For us, faith is the most liberating thing we have ever experienced. We feel like it is this amazing gift that we get to pass on to our children.”
Her coworker was stunned. “I’ve never thought about it that way. Tell me more.”
I want to cheer for this sort of non-anxious, invitational Christian witness – both because it got through to this non-believing coworker, and because it offers an everyday example of an apologetic that takes the imagination seriously. Let us break down Melissa’s response and see what I mean.
- Engaging the imagination means identifying the way that a person already imagines the life of faith.
We don’t really think about it that way.
With this line, Melissa invites her friend to pay attention to Christianity in a new way. Maybe if you look again, you will see something different. Try looking at it this new way. Pictures can hold us captive: the way we imagine the world can narrow the possibilities we are able to consider, as her coworker acknowledged: “I’ve never thought about it that way.”
Melissa understood that her friend’s question placed too tight a frame on faith; for this secular Angelino, faith is opposed to freedom and thus should always be consciously chosen. Underneath the objection is what Charles Taylor calls the “ethic of authenticity”: people should only believe what feels right to them rather than being told what to believe.
Thus, the first way that an imaginative apologetic engages the imagination is considering the pictures, metaphors, and lenses that a person is already bringing to their understanding of faith. Often a person’s posture to faith is difficult to expressed in words, but can be captured in the stories they tell, the experiences that have marked them, or the metaphors that they use. In the case of this coworker, her picture of the life of faith was quite cramped, like living in an unnecessarily small apartment when you could have a much roomier house.
One of the reasons why many people can’t seem to get very far in considering the claims of Christianity is because a picture holds them captive. We need to know what that picture is before we can sketch an alternative picture. So we might ask:
- How is this person imagining the life of faith?
- Is there a picture that holds them captive?
- What adjectives do they employ?
- What metaphors do they use?
- What stories do they tell?
- Engaging the imagination means inviting a person to look at the world through the eyes of faith.
For us, faith is the most liberating thing we have ever experienced. We feel like it is this amazing gift that we get to pass on to our children.
After recognizing her coworker’s picture, Melissa offered an alternative vision of the life of faith. There are, after all, some things about being a Christian that can be understood from the inside, from a position of commitment. How, then, can we help outsiders to see them and feel them?
The answer: we tell them our stories, our testimonies. Just as reading a novel allows us to inhabit the inner life of fictional characters – to see what they see and feel what they feel – a testimony offers listeners a sense of the world through the eyes of faith.
So too, Melissa offered this coworker a glimpse of what faith feels like from the inside. From the outside, it may look like one way. But here’s how it feels like from the inside: like being set free. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,” (John 8:36).
By using the word liberating, Melissa both acknowledged her coworker’s longing for freedom but resituated it within the Christian faith, “What if faith can actually set you free? What if the open space that you are looking for can actually be found in living with faith?” Melissa’s short testimony prompted her friend to reconsider what it means to be authentic, expressed in words, but also embodied in Melissa’s life.
Of course, giving a full account on the nature of the freedom we find in Christ would require a longer conversation. And to be clear, outside of an encounter with Christ himself, there is no silver bullet to collapse a full-blown imaginative illusion, when it has taken years to form. But perhaps small imaginative provocations can puncture small holes in the bubble of unbelief, or expose cracks through which the light can get in.d
Melissa also chose an alternative metaphor to make freedom in Christ feel more concrete: a gift. We see faith as a gift, not a burden, one that we are privileged to pass on to those we love. All of us know the joy of giving and receiving, how it expands the heart towards gratitude and generosity. Faith is like that: it is recognizing that both my intuition that life is a gift and my impulse to say thank you to someone are a response to something real.
So we might ask:
- What is a better picture than the one this person already has?
- How might my alternative picture affirm something good in the longings they have (for freedom, for justice, for beauty)?
- How might my alternative story challenge, expand, or complete that desire?
- Can I offer them a new metaphor, new story, or new picture that captures the heart of what makes the Christian faith beautiful and believable?
You may notice that I am trying to practice what I preach, by giving pictures of what I mean: living in a cramped apartment, reading a novel, a silver bullet puncturing a bubble, light shining through cracks. I have tried to learn this way of metaphor making from masters of craft like C.S. Lewis. Michael Ward surveys the metaphors in Mere Christianity, and the passage is worth quoting at length:
… becoming a Christian (passing over from life to death) is like joining a campaign of sabotage, like falling at someone’s feet or putting yourself in someone’s hands, like taking on board fuel or food, like laying down your rebel arms and surrendering, saying sorry, laying yourself open, turning full speed astern; it is like killing part of yourself, like learning to walk or to write, like buying God a present with his own money; it is like a drowning man clutching at a rescuer’s hand, like a tin soldier or a statue coming alive, like waking after a long sleep, like getting close to someone or becoming infected, like dressing up or pretending or playing; it is like emerging from the womb or hatching from an egg; it is like a compass needle swinging to north, or a cottage being made into a palace, or a field being plowed and resown, or a horse turning into a Pegasus, or a greenhouse roof becoming bright in the sunlight; it is like coming around from anesthetic, like coming in out of the wind, like going home.[i]
Few of us have the literary brilliance of a Lewis. But we can still learn from him, and seek to offer better metaphors, better pictures, better stories to those around us whose imaginations have been impoverished by our secular age.
[i] Michael Ward, “Escape to Wallaby Wood: C.S. Lewis’s Depictions of Conversion,” 151. Cited in Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017), 56-57.
Published November 6, 2023