Holly Ordway, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Dow Her Arms, San Fransico: Ignatius, 2014.
An atheist English professor, dismissive of Christianity and turned off by Christians, is prompted into thinking about Christianity more seriously. In a few intense months, a friend listens to her questions and asks gentle questions back. Slowly her perspective changes. She meets Christians who don’t fit her stereotype: patient, not pushy; thoughtful and with a peace and joy she had never met before. Her intellectual questions are answered and she realises that the big question is not if the Christian faith is true, but what she will do with the Lord Jesus. She comes to faith and is baptised. In the process she has to rethink her liberal feminism which she came to realise was “grounded … in an incomplete and distorted understanding of what it means to be human (and female)”.
Now, several years later, she has not only written her memoir, but is teaching apologetics and helping Christians think about how to engage a skeptical world.
Does the story sound familiar? This isn’t Rosaria Butterfield, but the parallels are remarkable (though the differences are also significant).
I won’t retell Holly Ordway’s story. It is fascinating and well told, and you should get the book and read it for yourself. I want to point out a few interesting features of her story.
Ordway had non-religious childhood, with only very passing contact with Christianity. Where she did have any contact — the Christmas story and classic literature, she made no connection with the real claims of Christianity. She quite happily accepted a naturalistic worldview with its relativistic implications and was “incurious” about Christianity. Except that the literature she loved suggested something else.
She devoured fantasy literature and ended up doing her PhD dissertation on Tolkien. Looking back, she reflects that “God’s grace was beginning to shine out from Tolkien’s works, illuminating my Godless imagination with a Christian vision”.
Ordway now argues for the importance of imagination in Christian apologetics (see H. Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith Emmaus Road, 2017). That reflects her own experience. Without recognising what was going on, Tolkien and other Christian writers introduced to a way of seeing the world in which there was more than material existence; in which commitment to virtue rested on a deep reality not personal preference; in which there was fellowship in a grand project. She writes “I wanted the real thing: real adventure, real meaning, real belonging. I didn’t know where to find it—or if it even existed”.
Years later, the wonderful poetry of Gerald Manly Hopkins led her closer to Christian faith.
“Hopkins offered a vision of the world that made sense even when life seemed arbitrary and confusing; his world had such things as justice and mercy even if one did not find them in one’s own experience. Hopkins’ world was integrated: it held pain, doubt, depression, and fear, but also joy and beauty and the sheer exultancy of being embodied. … Perhaps it was the integrity of his vision, his acknowledgment of both darkness and light, that made his words resonate with me”. (If you don’t know Hopkins and his work, you should! Read about him and some of his poetry here).
Not that the classical apologetic arguments were unimportant for Ordway. She worked through the classic argument for the existence of God and the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. The arguments made far more sense because she was already discovering what the world looks like when you live with the conviction that God is there and Christ is risen. The classic argument and classic literature worked together. This is exactly the model Ordway proposes in her current work literature helps to communicate to the imagination which then works with the arguments (see her explain it here).
All of this was integrated for her in moments of new insight into God, herself and the world. She tells of riding her bike along the coast of Southern California and suddenly recognising that “at a level deeper than I’d realized, I loved being alive”. Now, with an emerging theistic worldview, she soaked in the beauty of the scene and the wonder of being alive and for the first time “considered eternal life as a real possibility”. Her final step of commitment to Christ followed a dream in which her friend, like Virgil in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, led her through Jerusalem to see Jesus’ empty tomb.
That brings us to what may be the most important human factor in Ordway’s conversion — her fencing coach, friend and mentor Josh. In her account he comes across as the ideal evangelist — certainly ideal for her. He is patient, in no rush to push a conversation, let alone a conversion. He is ready for long discussions, he picks just the right books for her to read and often has disarming responses to her. He is a great fencing coach; and that approach seems to shape his witness to her. Yet, for all his giftedness, his faithful friendship which is most impressive.
Ordway is an apologist, so she has thought carefully about her own conversion. In the preface she comments that “if we are effectively to communicate the gospel … and help Christians have a robust and lasting and transformative relationship with Christ, we need to be in it for the long haul, with the ability to use both rational and imaginative approaches to questions of belief and practice”. Her account makes a powerful case for this. She was persuaded by art expressing a Christian vision and arguments for the truth of the Christian faith, and by a faithful friend whose grace reflected the gospel.
Ordway knows that the greater truth about her journey to faith is that God was pursuing her — unfailingly. At the point of her conversion she discussed the decision with Josh in terms of buying a ticket for a plane trip. There are still things to do — turn up to the gate, get on the plane; but buying the ticket is the point where she would stop looking at options and make a decision. However, after making that step she reflects that “it turned out that buying the ticket was not the main thing … The main thing would be when the engines started and the pilot guided the plane off the ground”.
After her conversion, Ordway’s story takes a turn that doesn’t fit the evangelical narrative (that’s the twist). In fact the first edition of this book was withdrawn by an evangelical publisher because of this development. Ordway tells some of that story here.
She went to church with Josh and his family, but found that she didn’t fit in a standard evangelical church. The aesthetics were all wrong: it felt like an auditorium, not a cathedral; there was no visual art and the song lyrics were “blandly sentimental”. So she was baptised in an Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian church. After a few years that was no longer satisfactory, especially since she was about to move cities. She was “too Catholic-minded to feel entirely at home in the Evangelical world… but … too theologically conservative to feel entirely at home in the Anglican world”. It is hard to analyse the process that moved her from there to becoming a Roman Catholic, and she opens the final section of the book admitting as much. In part she was impressed by the coherence of Catholic theology and practice; she also recognised that God works through the church and gave authority to it (and Peter); the historical continuity of the ‘catholic’ church as the body of Christ was also persuasive.
This part of Ordway’s story is as important for evangelicals as her initial conversion. She is one of many thoughtful, sensitive believers who have turned to Catholicism. We need to understand the appeal of Catholicism (even if Ordway largely gestures toward the attraction without a great deal of explanation). As a catholic, Ordway teaches apologetics at Houston Baptist University — so she also is part of the growing crossover between conservative Catholicism and evangelicalism. And that also makes her book interesting.
Ken Stewart’s new book In Search of Ancient Roots IVP, 2017 is a key book to put the evangelical-Catholic crossover in perspective — but that is for another review.
If you are interested in how we communicate the gospel to a jaded and skeptical age, then Holly Ordway’s short memoir is an important read. It also gives a glimpse into the evangelical-Catholic crossover from a surprising angle.