The Rise of Imaginative Apologetics

In the past 10 years a new approach to apologetics has emerged that is variously called imaginative, cultural, or narrative apologetics.1 (While there are differences among these, they share much in common, so for the sake of simplicity I’ll use imaginative apologetics to describe the overall approach.) Christian thinkers define imaginative apologetics differently, but Holly Ordway’s explanation captures it succinctly: “[I]maginative apologetics seeks to harness the God-given faculty of imagination to work in cooperation with reason, to open a way for the work of the Holy Spirit and guide the will toward a commitment to Christ.”2

In what follows we’ll seek to answer some key questions about this new approach, including why many apologists are embracing it, its distinctive methods, and how it might contribute to the work of God’s kingdom.

“[I]maginative apologetics seeks to harness the God-given faculty of imagination to work in cooperation with reason, to open a way for the work of the Holy Spirit and guide the will toward a commitment to Christ.”

What Does “Imagination” Mean?

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of imaginative apologetics, it will help to clarify the possibly misleading term “imagination.” In everyday usage, imagination is often associated with creativity and the ability to picture in one’s mind things that aren’t real (e.g., “George Lucas has a great imagination.”). But in the context of imaginative apologetics, imagination has a specialized meaning: Our various physical senses (sight, hearing, touch, etc.) deliver raw data to us about the world around us. But it is our imaginations that make sense of this data so that we can grasp their meaning and understand them as a coherent whole. Without imagination, we would experience the world as a disconnected series of sensations lacking any rhyme or reason.

As Ordway explains, “Imagination is the human faculty that assimilates sensory data into images, upon which the intellect can then act; it is the basis of all reasoned thought.”3 Ordway illustrates this by noting that reason and imagination are “related in the way that a building’s foundation is related to the structure that is built upon it.”4 Imagination is the foundation that reason rests upon. “Reason chooses between the meanings presented to it by the imagination, distinguishing true meanings from false.”5 This inseparable bond between imagination and reason is a foundational precept of imaginative apologetics.

Characteristics of Imaginative Apologetics

As noted earlier, different thinkers take different approaches to formulating imaginative apologetics, but there are also significant commonalities. Below, we’ll briefly explore three of these.

Engaging the Whole Person

Those who champion imaginative apologetics typically don’t pit imagination against reason, or see their approach as replacing traditional apologetics. But all affirm that an approach that takes the whole person into account is superior to one that only targets a person’s intellect. As philosopher Paul Gould writes, “The cultural apologist affirms man’s rational nature, but situates it within a more comprehensive account of what it means to be human.”6

Philosopher Melissa Cain Travis adds, “In this highly pluralistic age, there are competing truth claims everywhere. Imaginative story bypasses the seemingly endless and often frustrating argumentation by appealing to our deeper intuitions about reality. It helps us see the truth with ‘the eye of the soul,’ to use St. Augustine’s phrase.”7

Rather than appeal only to the intellect, or only to the imagination, most imaginative apologists seek to combine these approaches in order to engage people holistically. As Marybeth Baggett explains, even better than focusing on one of these to the exclusion of the other

is a blending of the imaginative and rational, which addresses us as holistic beings and shows how the head and heart are interconnected in an apprehension of the deeper truths of our existence. . . . We’re more than mere logic-chopping machines. As human persons made in God’s image we are affective, intellectual, aesthetic, relational, conative creatures, and appeals to the whole person tend to be the best approach.8

Relating through Stories

As humans, we make sense of the world through stories—narratives that seek to explain our experiences and the nature of the world around us. The gospel is the Grand Story, the True Story of the World. Thus, imaginative apologetics recognizes the power and importance of stories in the context of evangelism. As Gould points out, “We have this intuition that reality itself, and our lives, are coherent and meaningful and so we seek a story that is alive and understanding. In short, we seek to locate our lives in a good and true story.”9

Perhaps the main reason that C. S. Lewis was attracted to Christianity before his conversion was that it “told a story that made sense of things.” In this way, Christianity “allowed people to see themselves and their worlds in a new way, as if a sun had dawned on an otherwise shadowy and misty landscape.” This led Lewis to write, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen—not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”10

“We think we are listening to an argument, in fact we are presented with a vision; and it is the vision that carries conviction.”

Commenting on Lewis’s book The Problem of Pain, Austin Farrer, a theologian and close friend of Lewis, observed, “We think we are listening to an argument, in fact we are presented with a vision; and it is the vision that carries conviction.”11 Given the importance to everyone of an overall vision for life, what is needed in apologetics, writes Justin Ariel Bailey, is a “vicarious vision of what it feels like to live with Christian faith, a sense of the beauty of faith that is felt before [it is] fully embraced. For this, the imagination is essential.”12

Connecting through Culture

Every person on earth is significantly shaped by the culture(s) in which they are embedded—often without realizing it. Every human culture tells stories that sometimes align with, but also differ from and compete with, the True Story of the gospel. Consequently, Christians who wish to share the good news must think through what it means to have a “missionary encounter” with someone from a particular culture—even their own. Alluding to the missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin, who argued that a new missionary encounter was necessary for the post-Christian West, Gould explains,

Newbigin knew that we fail to have genuine missionary encounters if we fail to understand those we seek to reach with the gospel. Our words and our message must be understandable. In a post-Christian society, talk about Jesus is no different from talk about Zeus or Hermes. We sound foolish, and our beliefs appear implausible and meaningless.13

This being the case, the imaginative apologist will seek to understand culture so that he or she can find points of connection between ideas the culture finds plausible and key elements of the gospel. Proponents of imaginative apologetics find a model for this approach in Paul’s encounter with the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17. There, Paul quotes two Greek poets, Epimenides and Aratus. In both cases, the poets’ words refer to Zeus, but Paul draws on their insights to make his case that God is immanent and wants to have a relationship with the humans he created. Paul thus finds a touchpoint in Greek culture that allows him to make a compelling point to his hearers while also pointing them to the fuller truth of the gospel. Michael Ward elaborates,

Paul meets the men of Athens where they are, where they already have an inkling of meaning. He is not concerned to obliterate their traditions; he feels no need to denigrate their limited and incomplete religious knowledge. He works with it, corrects it, adds to it, sublimates it. He says, in rough paraphrase, ‘You have something here, but there’s a whole lot more, and that more is to be found in Jesus Christ.’ He takes what they already possess, imaginatively, and baptizes it.14

In the West, many imaginative apologists have found a rich source for cultural connections in popular culture. Marybeth Baggett observes that “popular culture is an ideal bridge for sharing the gospel. Because most folks are familiar with cultural artifacts such as Harry Potter, The Good Place, and Disney films, discussion of these stories provides an opportune common ground. It is usually a non-contentious place to start these conversations.”15 Philosopher David Baggett adds, “There’s something almost incarnational about this approach, meeting people where they are and helping them to the next step. It’s dialogical and conversational and engaging.”16

Pioneering a New Apologetics

I asked three practitioners of imaginative apologetics what they would like to see this new (but with deep historical roots) approach accomplish. Here’s what they said.

Paul Gould

“I hope that Christians would join with each other and God to re-enchant the world. I hope that we would begin again to see and delight in Jesus and the world the way Jesus did and then invite others to do the same. I hope that Christianity will be viewed in culture as reasonable and desirable. And I hope that Christians would reject anti-intellectualism, fragmentation, and an unbaptized imagination and firmly locate their lives in the gospel. Finally, I hope that Christian apologists will work in faithful and creative ways to show the goodness, truth, and beauty of Jesus and the gospel. This will require a lot of us: an understanding of God and all things in relation to God, and understanding of our culture, and an ability to make connections between our faith and culture.”

Marybeth Baggett

“It would be wonderful to see a resurgence of Christian culture that makes inroads beyond the church. Far too often, it seems that Christian cultural works (such as film, fiction, music, visual art) are directed toward an already believing audience, and to be honest, the quality often is lacking. I’m not talking about capitulating to secular culture or seeking wider acclaim. Rather, I would advocate for excellent stories and other art that embodies the best of their respective genres, ones that intimate the truth, goodness, and beauty of God and compel audiences to seriously entertain the possibility of belief. Recall how Lewis said that we don’t need more Christian books, but more good books on other topics where the Christianity is latent. This continues to be one powerful way for believers to be salt and light in the world.”

Melissa Cain Travis

“I see imaginative apologetics and philosophical/evidential apologetics as two essential parts of our overall project. It’s important to discern what a specific context calls for. But in terms of what I’d like to see happen in the field of imaginative apologetics in the years to come—I hope to see a renewal of Christian interest and investment in the imaginative arts. We don’t need more so-called ‘Christian art’ (we all know how terrible and thus embarrassing some of that is), we need more excellent literature and cinema produced by theologically orthodox Christians; art that reveals transcendent truths through compelling imaginative stories rather than forced didactic content.”

Christopher L. Reese (MDiv, ThM) is a writer, editor, and journalist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Worldview Bulletin and cofounder of the Christian Apologetics Alliance.  He is a general editor of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2021) and his work has appeared in Christianity Today, Bible Gateway, and other sites.