I grew up in a completely non-religious home in the USA, but not a hostile one. We had a minimal amount of cultural Christianity, celebrating Christmas and chocolate for Easter, but I never went to Sunday school and never read a Bible. The universities I attended were very hostile to Christianity so I ended up drifting into a more settled unbelief which then turned into atheism.
I can’t remember a time when books weren’t in my life. I read all sorts of books as a child. CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia were among my favourites, along with The Lord of the Rings and other stories of myth and legend. I became an English major as an undergraduate, and went on to get a masters and a PhD in English literature. I loved stories, loved poetry and ended up teaching it in college. Looking back, I can see that there had been many glimmers of transcendence as a young adult, in the way that books such as The Lord of the Rings had really nourished my imagination, though I didn’t connect them with any Christian meaning. When I went into my more strongly atheist phase I simply thought ‘Christianity is all superstitious nonsense’. I had never been given any reason to think that it was true and I just dismissed it.
I was preparing to teach a class on poetry, so I decided to reread some of the classic poets. I went back to people such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne and TS Eliot who were all Christians. I was explicitly thinking, ‘I don’t believe what these guys believe, it’s all complete nonsense.’ However, I was reading very intently in order to teach it and discovering ‘this is beautiful’. I remember reading the opening of John Donne’s sonnet ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend’. I felt like I had touched a live wire. That was the point at which the imagination that had been a river below the surface in me started bubbling up and I thought, ‘There’s something happening in this poetry, and I wonder what it is.’
Reading that poetry led me to start asking more questions about Christianity. I discovered there was good evidence that thoughtful Christians exist who can explain why they believe what they believe. I had a two-step conversion, first to belief in God then to belief in Christ. When I encountered the evidence I became converted in the rational part of my mind. I wouldn’t be a Christian if I didn’t think it was actually true, regardless of what my imagination was saying. If I hadn’t become convinced that the resurrection was an event in history, I would have stayed a theist. So, I ended up becoming a Christian, as the imagination and the reason came together.
Rereading with new eyes
I had expected that my parents were going to be upset by my conversion but they were fine – it was very anti-climatic! Most of my colleagues were supportive, but there were a few hostile atheists. I would occasionally have people say things to me that were pretty vile. I came to see that I need to be a witness to the graciousness and intelligence of Christians as others had been to me (which is a lot harder than it looks!)
I felt like I had touched a live wire
I came to realise that my conversion mirrors that of CS Lewis, who is one of my literary heroes. I reread certain books and poetry with new eyes. I now see that what people like Gerard Manley Hopkins (hands down my favourite poet) gave me before I was a Christian was a little glimpse of the world that showed me that it made sense in some way that I hadn’t experienced before. I’ve now stepped into that world. To use CS Lewis’ metaphor, I’ve stepped into that ‘beam of light’ so that I can look with them, and they can show me more than they could before.
I think that we can know things imaginatively in the same way we can know things rationally. Reason by itself becomes sterile. ‘Let me tell you five facts about Jesus.’ Great, but why should I care? Or, ‘Let me tell you this wonderful story that has no connection to anything that actually happened in the real world.’ For instance, talking about something like the resurrection with a non-Christian; if it happened, then it matters. But if it remains simply abstract, it’s just moving counters in an intellectual game. We need to have that imaginative grasp of meaning, and if we do that then this thing is actually worth talking about.
Batter My Heart by John Donne
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to’another due,
Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Holly Ordway was speaking to Justin Brierley. She is the author of Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds A Rational Faith (Moody).