Review: Reimagining Apologetics

Reimagining Apologetics, Justin Ariel Bailey. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A case for an apologetics appealing to beauty and to the imagination that points toward a better picture of what life might be.

When most of us hear the term “apologetics,” we think of reasoned argument for why one should believe, indeed, reason that compels belief. Yet in this age of epistemic uncertainty, such argument often elicits suspicion and may turn people ways from faith rather than remove obstacles to it.

Justin Ariel Bailey doesn’t dismiss the value of this traditional approach to apologetics, which he calls “Uppercase apologetics.” What he proposes instead is that some may be drawn to consider Christian faith through the imaginative, the telling of a better story or the painting of a better picture of an authentic Christian life makes better sense of the human condition. He frames it this way:

“By reimagining apologetics, I mean simply an approach that takes the imaginative context of belief seriously. Such an approach prepares the way for Christian faith by provoking desire, exploring possibility, and casting an inhabitable Christian vision. When successful, it enables outsiders to inhabit the Christian faith as if from the inside, feeling their way in before attempting to criticize it by foreign standards. Whether a person ultimately embraces the vision that is being portrayed, imaginative engagement cultivates empathy. It enables a glimpse, even if just for a moment, of the possibilities that Christian faith facilitates for our life in the world.”

Justin Ariel Bailey, p. 4.

The book is broken into two parts. The first is more philosophical in elaborating the relationship of apologetics and the imagination. Bailey begins with the work of Charles Taylor, and the disenchantment of the modern world under secularity. He treats secularity as a crisis of the imagination that reasoned argument alone cannot address. He then turns to Schleiermacher as a pioneer of an imaginative apologetic that sought to “feel our way in,” albeit at the expense of a connection to truth. Bailey argues that such an approach with a thicker theological ground is possible. He then deals more properly with the nature of imagination itself and how it is shaped by creation, fall, and redemption.

The second part then considers two writers, George MacDonald of the Victorian era, and Marilynne Robinson of our own, and how their writing models imaginative approaches to Christian faith in the face of the Victorian “crisis of faith” and the contemporary “new atheism.” MacDonald wrote his works with his friend John Ruskin in mind. Using the Wingfold trilogy, he shows how MacDonald sought to awaken his readers to a vision of virtue leading to a vision of God and his world. Bailey sees Robinson revealing a capacious vision of authentic Christian life in her characters. Then he looks at the Calvinism of both writers that sees the world filled with the presence of God that makes sense of our homesickness for God.

Bailey concludes with identifying three elements of an apologetic of the imagination:

  1. Sensing. Imagination as an aesthetic sense and gives primacy to the aesthetic dimension.
  2. Seeing. Imagination as orienting vision that invites exploration of a more capacious vision of the world
  3. Shaping. Imagination as poetic vision that situates the human project within the larger redemptive project of God.

He points to Makoto Fujimura’s idea of “culture care” as a model for how this apologetic may work in commending the faith through appealing to beauty, for seeing this care for beauty in every aspect of life, and reflective of the creative and redeeming beauty of God.

I believe Bailey is onto something. I think of the power of stories like Narnia Tales, or in the case of C.S. Lewis, the fiction of George MacDonald to capture the imagination and open it up to Christ. What does this mean for the apologist? Here, Bailey’s book is only suggestive and needs a follow up. It doesn’t mean buying everyone copies of MacDonald’s and Robinson’s works. At the very end he points to the work of understanding the stories of others and relating our stories to those. I also think, when people are ready, that the narratives of the gospels are also powerful stories, where we allow people to situate their stories within the Jesus story. I hope Bailey will do further work in this area, offering believing people more help in telling their stories and the story. What this work has done is offer the grounds for that work.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Books I Wish I Had Read Sooner

Recently I wrote a post titled “Books I Read Too Soon“. Today I was wondering whether there were some books that I wish I had read sooner. So I perused through the books that I’ve reviewed over the past few years and came up with a list of some I wish I had come across or read earlier in life. It is not that I did not benefit from these books when I did read them. Rather, I just wish I had enjoyed the benefit of discovering their riches sooner. In some cases, this would just not have been possible because they were written in the last few years. What I would say is, if you agree with my reasoning about each book and you are younger than I am, don’t wait until your fifties or sixties to read them!

GoblinCurdieThe Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald. I even wrote in my review of the former of these two that I wondered why I hadn’t read this sooner. Both are stories that work on multiple levels that only get richer with each reading. Of The Princess and the Goblin, G.K. Chesterton said it “made a difference to my whole existence.”

QuietQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talkingby Susan Cain. I think both my wife and I wish this book had been written years sooner. Introverts often feel they should try to be extroverts, which it seems society prefers. Susan Cain’s book, without being whiny, suggests that introverts bring a unique gift to the world. Wish I’d read this one in high school!

CanticleA Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. This was a sci-fi book I passed up reading as a kid because I thought “Canticle” seemed too highbrow. Read it a few years ago for the first time and was struck with both the memory of living under a nuclear cloud in the sixties, and the fascinating project of this book of preserving learning in a post-nuclear holocaust world.

Critical journeyThe Critical Journey, Stages in the Life of Faithby Janet O Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich. I wish I had understood in my thirties that faith was a journey rather than a static reality. It took hitting the wall that Hagberg and Guelich talk about in this book during mid-life to wonder if there are greater depths to the life of faith than what I was taught as a young adult.

Daring GreatlyDaring Greatly by Brene’ Brown.  This is a book I wish I had read as a young leader. Brene’ Brown talks about the strength to be found in vulnerability, not something most men do well, including me. Her explorations of the way we avoid vulnerability through perfectionism and through numbing and through thinking we cannot allow ourselves joy described the strategies I’ve too often used to “maintain control” and not risk.

Exclusion & EmbraceExclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf. I think we (and I include myself here) spend too much time dividing the world into “us” and “them” and I spent too many years thinking in these terms. Yet the real question is how do we embrace the “other” who really is different in important ways from us. Volf’s “drama of embrace”  and the practice of “double vision” gave me new ways of thinking about how we love across our differences and have genuine and deep encounters with the “other”.

to change the worldTo Change the World by James Davison Hunter. I’ve used “world-changing” rhetoric in my work during most of my life but my ideas of what real culture change looked like were naive and simplistic. Hunter challenges both our superficial engagements with the culture and the naive hopes we often have put in politics to change the world and calls for the “long obedience” of “faithful presence” in society.

I think I could have profited by reading each of these books earlier in life. Nevertheless, I’m glad I read them when I did because each of these were works of worth that have served me well since. I was also struck when I perused my reviews of how many books I did not necessarily wish I had read sooner. They seemed fine for this time and this group of books was in the vast majority. I’m really not overly troubled by this. But if the books I’ve mentioned encourage someone twenty or thirty or more years younger than I to read them and that person profits from the reading–then that will be a good thing.

Are there books you wish you had read sooner?

The Month in Reviews: November 2014

November marked my first foray into the world of graphic novels, another volume in Morris’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a George MacDonald fantasy and a thought-provoking book on Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” There were a number of good theological books in this month’s list as well including an excellent book on dogmatic aesthetics from a young theologian, an extremely helpful book on spiritual direction, a concise book reflecting the latest scholarship on the life of Paul and a provocative book on death before the Fall. So here’s the list:

1. Birmingham RevolutionEdward Gilbreath. Gilbreath briefly sketches the outlines of King’s life but focuses on the events at Birmingham, including the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, that led to the writing of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

2. Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris. This is the second volume of Morris’s three volume biography covering Roosevelt’s years as President, from the assassination of McKinley, to the Panama Canal, to setting aside millions of acres of National Parks and Monuments.

KingTheodore RexAestheticsLiving Paul

 

3. Dogmatic Aesthetics, Stephen John Wright. Wright, a young scholar, proposes a framework in Christian theology for aesthetics ground in our doctrine of Christ. Throughout, he dialogues with the theology of Robert Jenson.

4. The Living Paul, Anthony C. Thiselton. This is a concise treatment of the life of Paul reflecting recent scholarship and dealing with questions of Paul in relation to Jesus as well as Paul’s view of women.

5. Spiritual Direction, Gordon T. Smith. A thoughtful yet practical introduction to spiritual director that looks at the roles of both director and directee.

Life of mindSeasons of MistSpiritual direction

6. Season of MistsNeil Gaiman. Volume 4 of his “Sandman” series and my introduction to graphic novels with this story of Lord Morpheus descending into hell to rescue a former lover he had consigned to Lucifer’s domain.

 

7. The Life of the Mind, Clifford Williams. This is another concise book that makes a good case for the intrinsic worth of thinking well, how one begins to cultivate the mind and tensions for Christians in the life of the mind.

8. Beginning with the Word, Roger Lundin. Lundin, an English professor, explores the radical doubt of modern literary theory and how a Christian framework might provide a basis for meaning and belief.

WordCurdieDeath

9. The Princess and Curdie, George MacDonald. This is the sequel to the Princess and the Goblin in which Curdie is given a special gift and employs it to attempt to rescue Princess Irene, her father the King, and his kingdom from a conspiracy of councilors and servants with malicious intent.

10. Death Before the Fall, Ronald E. Osborn. An impassioned and well-written argument dealing with both biblical literalism and a theodicy of animal predation, suffering and death, for those not accepting “young earth” creationism. The author spends the first two-thirds of the book on the issue of literalism, only the last third on the title them itself.

Looking over the list for the month, I’m reminded again of the idea that with so many good books, I just don’t have time for bad ones. I hope these reviews are helpful to you in finding something good or maybe a good gift for Christmas!

Review: The Princess and Curdie

The Princess and Curdie
The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It all begins when Curdie, on his walk home from another day at the mines, kills a pigeon. He then realizes that pigeons were associated with the mysterious and wonderful great-great grandmother of Princess Irene. So he takes the dying bird to her, but what is restored is not merely the dying bird but the dying spark in Curdie’s life, that is being slowly quenched by coarseness and beastliness. He is bid to thrust his hands into a fire of rose petals through which the beastliness is cleansed and he is given a special capacity to discern those growing in their humanity from those descending into beastliness as he grasps their hands.

This is a key theme that runs through the book, that people are on one of two roads, growing more fully human or descending to the level of beasts. Yet even for the latter there is a hint of hope as some of the beasts we encounter in this story seem to be former humans on a journey of redemption–which strikes me as an odd note, a form of reincarnationalism, or a second chance for the condemned from a Christian author. Yet this is fantasy, and the note here perhaps is one that the power of redemption is greater than that of beastly evil.

Curdie is sent by the great-great grandmother to the king’s city of Gwyntystorm along with Lina, a fierce, ugly, dog-like creature who is intensely loyal to him. He is not told his mission but that it will become apparent as he obeys and properly uses his gift. It is apparent from the moment of their arrival that all is not right in the town as they are rudely treated, then imprisoned.

They make their escape and find their way into the king’s castle, and quickly learn that all is not right at the heart of the kingdom. The castle is in disrepair, the servants are rude, lazy and corrupt. Worse yet, the king’s councilors are conspiring and the king’s doctor is slowly poisoning him as he lies ill in tormented delirium. Princess Irene is at his side, using all her powers to comfort him, while not fully grasping the evil plots surrounding her and the king.

The remainder of the story unfolds how Curdie and Lina accompanied by a host of beasts and a few who remain faithful to the king attempt to save king, princess, and kingdom from the corruption that has crept into the heart of Gwyntystorm.

The image of Curdie as one sent on a mission the nature and end of which is not disclosed rings true for any who have taken up the life of discipleship. We do not always know into what the faithful use of gifts will lead us. Similarly, success is not a matter of compromise with evil or having the assurance that all will turn out well but the faithful pursuit of the right, leaving the results and consequences in the hands of Another.

Once again, one sees why these stories have had such an abiding place in the hearts of both children and adults and how fantasy may sometimes speak more truly of reality than the most “realistic” stories.

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The Month in Reviews: October 2014

As the days shortened and the nights grew chillier, my reading this month tended toward the weightier, with wonderful respites of George MacDonald fantasy and Civil War fictional history and the first installment of Morris’s Teddy Roosevelt biography. At the same time, I explored the question of secularity as a definition of reality, freedom of conscience, a theology of the Holy Spirit and an intellectual and social history of the religious right. Here’s the list of books from the past month:

1. Is Reality Secular?, Mary Poplin. Poplin challenges the secularist assumptions that govern, as she sees it, public discourse and explores four different worldviews and their take on reality.

2. Earthquake StormsJohn Dvorak. Dvorak gives us a combination of history, biography and science in a fascinating account of the history of the San Andreas fault.

realityearthquakesrise3. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris. This is the first of a three volume biography on the life of Teddy Roosevelt, tracing his adventures from sickly childhood through young rancher, civil servant to the fateful day he learns he has become President at the death of McKinley.

4. Meditation and Communion with God, John Jefferson Davis. Davis seeks to articulate an evangelical theology of spiritual formation and relationship with God.

5. The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald. This classic fantasy explores themes of evil and courage and faith in the intersection between the goblins, Princess Irene, Curdie, her “great grandmother” and the King.

public squareGoblinmeditation

6. The Global Public Square, Os Guinness.  This book argues that a public square safe for diversity is one that protects freedom of conscience for all.

7. Spirit of Life, Jurgen Moltmann. Moltmann’s theology of the Holy Spirit. The title is important, as this book is an exploration of the Spirit’s role in our embodied existence.

8. A Blaze of Glory, Jeff Shaara. This is Shaara’s slightly fictionalized account of the Battle of Shiloh and explores what a near run thing this was to a Confederate victory.

spirit of lifeblazegendercidetheocracy

9. The Cross and Gendercide, Elizabeth Gerhardt. This book breaks new ground in giving a theological basis in the cross of Christ for Christian advocacy and resistance against violence toward women and girls.

10. Blueprint for Theocracy, James C. Sanford. A carefully researched study of the theology behind the Christian Right and actions resulting from this theology, marred, I thought, by its scare-mongering tone.

What will I be reading and reviewing in the coming weeks? I’m in the midst of the second volume of the Teddy Roosevelt biography, covering his presidential years, a book on the life of the apostle Paul, an exploration of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and a book on modern literature and the question of belief. Soon, I will be picking up the next installment in Jeff Shaara’s western battles of the Civil War series, which focuses on Vicksburg. I also am planning to read the sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, titled The Princess and Curdie.

What will you be reading in November?

 

 

Review: The Princess and the Goblin

The Princess and the Goblin
The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the book that G. K. Chesterton said “made a difference to my whole existence.” I am not sure that I can say the same but I did find myself impressed once again with George MacDonald’s writing and asking why I hadn’t read this sooner.

Princess Irene lives on the side of a beautiful mountain that harbors a dark secret in terms of a goblin kingdom, whose rulers are pursuing a nefarious purpose–nothing less than kidnapping the princess. She and her nurse are rescued from one nearly tragic venture into the wilds at night by the son of a miner, Curdie by name, who sings the goblins away with his verse and leads them to the castle.

Though chastised, the princess acquires a mysterious friend, a wise great grandmother, ageless it seems. Not all believe she exists or can see her, but Princess Irene can. Later, a strong silver thread that the grandmother has given her leads her to return the favor and rescue Curdie, when he falls captive to the goblins after repeated attempts to discover their nefarious purposes in digging under the mountain. Irene takes him to see the great grandmother, but he can see neither the thread nor the grandmother and leaves pettishly, despite his rescue.

From here events lead rapidly to the climax of a goblin invasion to seize Princess Irene. I will leave you discover what happens, particularly to the awful goblin queen with stone shoes to cover her six toed feet!

Like a good fairy tale or fantasy, the story works on multiple levels. We have the fear of things that go bump in the night and acts of courage and heroism and the thin line between these and foolhardiness. There is the question of what is belief–is it the delusion of believing something that doesn’t exist or the belief in something marvelous and yet the “substance of things not seen.” Both the Princess and Curdie are faced with this choice. Is there really a grandmother? Can I trust where the thread will lead me or that it is even there? How will I act when others don’t believe me? And there is the question of how one will conduct oneself in the absence of the king-papa as one awaits his return. How watchful will we be? Will Irene become who she is as the Princess and not simply a protected child?

This book came as a pleasant diversion from “weightier” books and yet not from “weightier” themes. And perhaps that is the value for adults of reading a story supposedly for “children”.

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On “Children’s” Books

As you’ve probably noticed, I haven’t said much about children’s books in this blog nor reviewed any children’s books. A search of my posts came up with one post where I used the phrase, “children’s books”, a post on C. S. Lewis from last fall. In my post September 2014: The Month in Reviews, I even noticed the serious tone in the books I’ve been reading of late.

At one time, this would have been a very different story! One of my treasured collection of memories are all the “read aloud” times when our son was growing up. We read lots of “children’s” stories together and found that the ones that were the most special were the ones we both liked best. We learned early on that good children’s literature is simply literature that is both age appropriate to the child and engaging for “children of all ages.”

I still remember our shared delight as we read I Am a Bunny by Ole Risom with exquisite artwork by Richard Scarry. It’s the board book we buy whenever we learn of friends who have recently had a baby. Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon was a favorite later on with its evocative story of a young boy and his dad walking in the woods on a snowy, moonlit night to go “owling”. We read all the “Little House” books (which I had never before read) and the Narnia Chronicles (which I first discovered as a college student).  We read several of Madeleine L’Engle’s science fiction/fantasy books, which probably helped awaken my son’s love of science fiction. One summer, when my son was laid up with a broken leg, we read the Lord of the Rings Trilogy aloud as a family (probably my third or fourth time through these books). A special find was Jean Lee Latham’s Carry on, Mr Bowditch which tells the story of a young boy, Nathaniel Bowditch, who is taken on as a ship’s boy and begins to study navigation, which stimulates a love of mathematics and results in him later writing one of the foremost books on navigation of his day.

Goblin

Of course, our son went on to high school, college and now marriage and with that, our “read aloud” times have gone by the wayside. And one of the losses I’ve recently noticed as well, is the loss of reading those books that are good for children of all ages. And so as I was looking for my next book to read, I picked up George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, one of those children’s fantasies probably suitable for children grades 3 to 6 or so, that I had never read.

I’m about midway through so I don’t know (nor want to know) how it ends. But one thing I’ve noticed is that while this is a much easier book to read than some of the “dense” works I’ve reviewed recently, that doesn’t mean it is by any means “light”. Already, the book has explored the line between courage and foolhardiness, the fears of the night that don’t go away with adulthood (are there goblins or other dangerous things out there?), the power of light to dispel evil, our conceptions of age (with the great-great grandmother), and the question of warranted belief. How does Princess Irene know that there actually is a great-great grandmother?

I think one of the things that makes this and other good children’s books great is that they are like life. I think there are “layers” of understanding in even the most every day events. Both children and adults fear “goblins” but the ones we fear may be different. A children and a grandparent can read the same story and the child identifies with the princess, and the grandparent with the great-great grandmother. Both children and adults wrestle between believing the trustworthy promises and listening to the voices of cynicism. As adults, however, we may be the one’s who have learned that cynicism, which is questioned in the “children’s” story. Will we be so guarded against deception that we miss out on wonder?

Perhaps it is time to revisit some of those stories I’ve loved and to discover new ones.

What are the children’s stories that have continued to speak to you into adulthood–the one’s that are good for “children of all ages?”