An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms

Atheist conversions stories, particularly those involving highly credentialed intellectuals (so-called “unlikely converts”) who have found the evidence for Christianity sufficiently compelling, sometimes give the impression that the project of apologetics is limited to articulating the classical arguments for Christianity’s assertions. To the contrary, there is a growing and dynamic sub-discipline known as “cultural apologetics” that capitalizes upon the truth, beauty, and goodness found in great works of literature, fine art, and film in an effort to bridge the intellect with the powerful inner longings and intuitions we experience as human beings. In other words, while evidential and logical arguments cater to our rationality, cultural apologetics appeals to the imagination. In her conversion memoir, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms, English scholar and cultural apologist, Dr. Holly Ordway, winsomely relates the critical roles both imaginative literature and classical apologetics played in her journey to faith. The result is a testimony that offers sharp insights about the importance and effectiveness of a well-rounded approach to evangelism.

From the outset of her story, Ordway leaves no room for doubting her former atheistic convictions: “I was an atheist college professor, and I delighted in thinking of myself that way…I thought ‘faith’ was a meaningless word, that so-called believers were either hypocrites or self-deluded fools…I was not looking for God. Make no mistake; I did not believe he existed. I did not even wonder.” This worldview was not explicitly instilled in her by her upbringing, which she describes as nonreligious but not antagonistic towards the faith. It wouldn’t be until her years in graduate school that her atheism would crystallize, due in part to a lack of exposure to the philosophical and historical grounds for taking Christianity seriously and negative experiences with misguided Christians.

Yet, with the clarity of illuminated hindsight, Ordway recognizes the unbroken, scarlet thread of grace woven into her life, tracing it back to an early and well-cultivated love of good literature. Mythology and fantasy were her particular favorites, and certain works sowed seeds in her soul that remained dormant for many years, but later bore abundant fruit. “[A]t some point in my childhood,” she writes, “I found J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and that changed everything. Not suddenly. Not even immediately…Like light from an invisible lamp, God’s grace was beginning to shine out from Tolkien’s works, illuminating my godless imagination with a Christian vision.” In college, it would be poetry that planted more seeds, especially the verses of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Her heart exulted in the beauty and profundity of Hopkins’ poems, “But,” Ordway laments, “I didn’t know I’d found something real; I let it slip through my fingers.” The thread held strong through the ensuing years, even as Ordway’s aversion to Christianity was intensifying. Paradoxically, she chose The Lord of the Rings as the centerpiece of her doctoral dissertation, a work that, providentially, underscored truths quite at odds with her atheism: “The Lord of the Rings was where I first encountered the evangelium, the good news. I didn’t know, then, that my imagination had been, as it were, baptized in Middle-earth.”

It was during her undergraduate college years that Ordway had taken up the sport of fencing—something that, in more ways than one, would become a monumental part of her journey. Fencing held romantic appeal for a young woman who loved stories of sword-wielding heroes (and heroines), and it served as a gleaming link between her imaginative and “real life” experience. After completing her doctoral work, she relocated to the West Coast, but continued fencing competitively while working as a professor of English. It was at her new fencing club that she came under the instruction of a well-educated, thoughtful coach—who also happened to be a gifted Christian apologist. Ordway recounts the admiration and respect she developed for him as both her teacher and her friend; a genuine trust was established that, combined with a shared fondness for Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, spawned a series of philosophical conversations about the existence of God. Over the course of several months, her coach would patiently answer her questions and lend her scholarly books to consider. Eventually, her intellectual stumbling blocks crumbled, and her rationality and imagination finally and fully coalesced. She tentatively embraced theism and soon after, full-fledged Christianity. But her journey would take another important turn years later, this time to the Roman Catholic Church, where she found her true home.

The philosophical arguments that served as a catalyst in Ordway’s assent to theism and the evidence that subsequently convinced her of the reality of the risen Christ are presented with clarity and purpose—that the reader may understand and appreciate the intellectual dimension of her journey. Ordway’s candidness about the contrast between her coach’s wise and charitable approach to communicating the Gospel and that of Christians she had previously encountered is highly instructive: “[He and his wife] offered no Bible quotes. No sharing of how God had worked in their lives. No appeal to my happiness or peace of mind. What, then? Philosophy. Ideas. Dialogue.” Something else that stands out is Ordway’s unapologetic acknowledgement that major elements of her change of heart were, by nature, subjective. Logic and the evidence were integral, but it was her human longings, her inner imaginative life, and the meaning and truth she discerned—often unconsciously—in great literature that had long been preparing her soul to receive the Source of all truth. She demonstrates that man’s existential intuitions and desires are vitally important, and this should make a difference in the project of Christian apologetics.

Ordway’s story is much more than a conversion account; it is a poignant image of Christ’s love and grace, of God’s desire to draw lost men unto himself. Even during the darkest days of her atheism God was doing a secret work in her soul through literature. Moreover, Ordway is a brilliant writer; she powerfully articulates both the bleakness of the godless condition and the magnificence of communion with Christ. The inclusion of key quotations from the works of scholars who were central to her investigation—most notably Gerard Manly Hopkins, C.S. Lewis, and N.T. Wright—lend a special richness to the reading experience. At times, Ordway’s own words spring up and nearly knock the breath from you with their simple, raw beauty. Remembering her years spent as a steadfast atheist, she says, “I had locked myself into my fortress and flung away the key. But even a fortress may have windows; and over it is the sky; and its stones rest on the good earth…” And in describing her first conscious experience of the presence of God she writes, “Everything felt sharp-edged, preternaturally clear; as if the very rocks and trees and sky were poised to reveal some meaning beyond themselves. I felt the presence of something…Someone…that was within me, yet outside or beyond myself. With a feeling something like dread, and certainly like fear, I recognized what it was: an experience of the Other.”

Not God’s Type is a true delight; it is at once spiritually edifying, thoughtful, and erudite. Proponents of classical liberal arts education should celebrate it as a modern testament of the spiritual potency of experiencing God’s truth through great literature. Christian readers will gain essential insight on being intelligent, wise, and benevolent representatives of Christ in their interpersonal interactions with antagonists of the faith. Non-believers will find that the book is never overbearing or preachy; perhaps they will come away with a more accurate understanding of the rational underpinnings of Christianity (it is not, after all, a blind faith), fewer misconceptions about believers, and heightened awareness of the ultimate ramifications of atheism.

This review appears in the Spring 2015 edition of Journal of Faith and the Academy.

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