Christianity needs fiction writers: the slightly bizarre claim of Alister McGrath
I am presently in the UK for the RZIM Summer School at Oxford University. RZIM is an organisation founded by Indian born evangelist Ravi Zacharias attempting to promote intelligent Christianity. They have the tagline, ‘helping the thinker believe, helping the believer think’. The week long summer school deals with many big questions I find raised by many atheists such as ‘why trust the Bible?’, ‘Why isn’t God more obvious?’, and some of the key ‘reasons’ to believe.
It is a fantastic opportunity to explore these big questions. So I’d thought I’d blog my way through the conference. This will help me summarise and think through some of the issues raised, and I thought I’d write how these issues engage with atheism (though not everything in the conference engages atheism). This will give opportunity for some ‘live’ responses to the material and I can feedback comments from atheists to the speakers to facilitate a decent dialogue.
So tonight I heard Alister McGrath present the opening address in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. It was a slightly unexpected address.
Summary of his presentation
McGrath opened with Mark 1 – ‘Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand’. Repenting means a change in mind. Christianity means a new way of looking at things. Christianity means seeing the world in a different way.
McGrath briefly shared his testimony that he was converted from an atheist because he found the intellectual vitality of the Christian message compelling. He then posed a question: ‘what is it about Christianity that makes it to exciting?’
1. Things cohere. Christianity provides a framework of the world which makes academic sense.
2. This panorama/view is not something that we could come about by ourselves. It is the result of revelation. We are given a way of thinking/seeing that we couldn’t figure out by ourselves. And this way works well.
McGrath proposed that apologetics is a way of proposing that our vision of the world is better. Quoting CS Lewis McGrath claimed that Christianity enlightens everything else and this is an indication of its truth. We need a lens to bring things into focus. There are ‘shadow lands’, limits to what we can see. We are never going to see things with absolute clarity, but many things are resolved.
McGrath made some comments on the need for apologetics to translate the realities of the Christian message into ways that our culture is able to understand.
Then he made the stunning admission that one of the key ways of doing this was by ‘telling stories’. McGrath was heavily influenced by CS Lewis here who saw that the way of breaking free from the enchantment of a particular ‘worldview’, that Christians needed to tell another story, appealing to the imagination. He quoted Pascal who said, ‘Try to show people that Christianity is something they long to be true and then show them that it is true’.
McGrath claimed that imagination demonstrates that there is more to life than pure rationalism. Rationalism is not wrong, but it is inadequate. Hence McGrath criticised some of Richard Dawkins’ recent comments about fairy stories. In McGrath’s mind fairy stories make us think and wonder and ask deep questions that reason alone can’t deliver.
Hence McGrath’s key point was that Christianity needs stories, an alternative story to that told by rationalists. A story that humans aren’t the end result of a series of accidental random processes, instead a story where God gives values, meaning and purpose. Hence he said that Christianity needs fiction writers (much of the same ilk as CS Lewis).
McGrath also mentioned the personal stories of transformation of each Christian believer. These stories demonstrate that Christianity is also real, ‘transforming the base metals of our lives into pure gold’.
Apologetics gives a big vision, bringing us into alignment with the deepest structures of the universe made by God. It gives the opportunity to draw aside the veil.
There are good answers to questions, if the lens is in focus.
I must confess I was quite surprised by McGrath’s opening statement. I wouldn’t have expected at a Christian ‘apologetics’ conference to be told that Christianity needs more fiction writers. It must be clarified that he wasn’t claiming that these writers should make up or embellish the Christian message, instead the story was a method of trying to convince people of the truth of Christianity.
As I reflected on McGrath’s statement, it seemed to me that modern atheism has done an excellent job of providing an attractive ‘narrative’ or story, i.e. that the world will be a better place without religion. This seems to be part of the reason for the passionate criticism of Christianity (and religion in general) as dangerous, regressive, obstructionist and anti-freedom. Atheist authors are attempting to write a modern narrative of Christianity which makes it unappealing to the general public.
This appears to be how these ‘modernist’ writers such as Dawkins et al, have appealed to a more ‘postmodern’ world. Many of their arguments and criticisms of Christianity are less about truth and more about impact. Hence it seems that writers whom I’ve thought were making a comeback for ‘modernism’ and a new Enlightenment (like Dawkins, Hitchens etc), are in fact highly ‘post-modern’ in their attempt to create a new ‘story’ to appeal to the mind of the public.