Holly Ordway: Literary Apologist
Interview by Marcia Bosscher
Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist on the faculty of Houston Baptist University, where she is Chair of the Department of Apologetics. She is the author of Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith and blogs on literature, culture, and apologetics at Hieropraxis.com. She was a competitive sabre fencer for nearly twenty years and considers a really good cup of coffee to be one of life’s simple pleasures.
Holly Ordway spoke in Madison, WI, at a conference on the ten books that most influenced C.S. Lewis; speaking on Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell. During that time, she spent a morning with the grad women’s group and talked about her conversion, mentoring, and teaching. This interview was conducted after that visit.
Holly, you came to Christianity in your 30s. You had an awareness that something was not right in your life. Did your understanding of sin or of your own sinfulness play a part in your conversion? Do you think our sense of our own goodness, particularly in the academic world, keeps us from God?
It’s a complicated question, because I wouldn’t say that my own thinking of myself as a good person kept me from God, because I didn’t think God existed. And I know that for some people, they have an awareness of God that they’re trying to avoid. But in my case, I just didn’t think that God existed. So my own failure in that respect was simply a challenge in terms of how do you live in the world, how do you live successfully, how is it possible to be happy, how is it possible to have a meaningful life, given what I thought were the parameters of existence, which is to say, you just have to do the best you can. Which actually sounds great on paper. It sounds like, oh, you know, I can just forge forward. Eventually it doesn’t work quite so well in real life, especially if you’re actually honest about what you’re doing.
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And so for me, I use the word sin now to talk about what it was I was grappling with. But that wasn’t the word that I would’ve used at the time, and it wasn’t the word that was helpful to me when I was in the process of conversion, which comes down to a lot of what I’m doing right now in my own writing. The word sin has particular meaning for a Christian. We understand what it means. We know theologically what it means. We know experientially what it means. But that meaning is not particularly accessible to the average non-Christian. So for me as a non-Christian not believing in God, my understanding of what the word sin meant was totally different. It was really a list of things that some religious people say are bad to do because a god that I don’t believe exists said so. It wasn’t a category that had any bearing on my life.
But, I did have a recognition that the world wasn’t working the way it ought to, and that “ought” is part of the whole thing that brought me to believe in God. Because why did I have a sense of “ought” in the first place? That was the nose of the camel so to speak, the thin end of the wedge. But I had an awareness — what I articulated as that the world was a broken place. It wasn’t working the way it should, and I myself was also broken in the sense that I could imagine myself being much better than I was actually capable of being. I didn’t know that that’s what Christians understand as sin, because the words weren’t connected to me.
One of the big “Aha!” moments was when I starting learning what Christians actually believe about original sin and the fall. It was like this big light bulb went on, and I said, “Oh! That’s what I’ve been experiencing all my life.” I just didn’t know that was what it was called. As a non-Christian the words “original sin” sound ridiculous. It sounds like, “I am at fault because my long-ago ancestor did something that I don’t even understand why it was wrong.” But if you actually approach it from a different understanding — we’re all cut off from God, we’re lost, the world’s broken — then it makes the most sense in the world, and actually that helped make me realize that Christianity was true.
In your apologetics work, you’re looking at it from the other side. How do you think one can approach this who cares about colleagues who live in this broken world? Are there words that can be used to help bring understanding?
I think so. And I think part of this has to do with thinking about individual word choices and trying to identify when are we using jargon. I think sin can become a jargon word. But talking about things like human flourishing and what impedes human flourishing, those are ways to talk about sin that are not jargony. Or brokenness. I like using that word. Now, granted, sin is a very useful word because it sums it all up. Any individual word, talking about flourishing, talking about brokenness, won’t get the fullness of what sin means. But it also won’t shut people off the way a jargon word will.
I work specifically in literary apologetics. I think the role of literature and the arts is really important in bringing meaning back into these words. There’s no reason why you can’t have meaning for non-Christians and for Christians alike about the word sin, and that’s where story and image really can help put content, meaning into these words again…
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